This week we’re looking at why church plants fail. These are my observations based on conversations with church planters and church plant leaders mostly in the Denver area. I don’t know if these observations are statistically accurate or applicable to your neck of the woods, but hopefully they will shed light on the challenge that is church planting.
- Planting alone
One of the enduring legends of church planting is Rick and Kay Warren driving from Texas to Orange County, California with nothing but a U-Haul, a real estate agent and a call from God. From that meager beginning Rick planted what became Saddleback Church, one of the most influential churches on the planet. Many, many church planters have followed in Rick’s footsteps, moving their family across the country to plant a church in a city where they don’t know a soul. What is often missed in the legend is that Rick grew up in California. He preached evangelistic rallies up and down the California coast while attending college at California Baptist University, 40 miles from the Saddleback Valley. Rick was not a good ole boy from the south coming to save a foreign people, he was a California boy returning home after a couple of years in seminary. While the church did begin with Rick, Kay and their real estate agent, they were able to draw on existing connections with other churches and leaders in the area.Church planting is a lonely business and every planter needs a team. A great indicator of future success is the ability to bring a team along on the mission. While there are challenges when a pre-existing tight knit group tries to start a church in a new community, it is much better than the alternative. The Lone Ranger parachute drop into a new town makes the path to a thriving church incredibly difficult.
“Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face” Mike Tyson
The one common factor in every church plant is getting punched in the face. It may be a best friend who decides to move back home, a key family who transfers to the local mega church so their kids can attend a better youth program, or discovering the worship leader is sleeping with a band member to whom they are not married. For me it was the three biggest tithing families representing over 25% of the annual budget quitting the church in a two-week period. I’ve yet to meet a church planter who hasn’t experienced a gut-wrenching, circumstantial punch to the face, often repeatedly. Some leaders get up from the canvas and stay in the match; many leaders count the cost and decide that it is just too difficult to continue to fight.Getting punched in the face again and again and again isn’t necessarily the right decision. Many times the pain is so great, the cost so enormous that the only reasonable choice is to throw in the towel. This doesn’t mean the leader is weak or wrong, it simply means the match is over and the church closes. The church plants that survive and thrive are led by leaders who are able take the punches and get up from the canvas again and again. In many cases the only reason a church plant is still alive is because the leader doesn’t have the sense to quit.One question many church plant leaders in Denver ask a potential planter is, “If the church doesn’t make it, are you going to stay in Colorado? Are you in love with our community or are you in love with church planting?” This is a really tough question, but it speaks to resiliency. Many planters are gone when the money runs out, while others get part-time jobs, change models, change locations, join with another church, do anything it takes to continue to be a part of what God is up to on the Front Range of Colorado because the burden is so deep they can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Calling: Does the leader have a clear calling from God to plant a new church in this community? Wanting to do church a new way, a desire to start something new, or a passion to lead fall short of motivation to survive and thrive in a tough environment.Tough soil: Jesus said that the Gospel is planted in all kinds of soil and yields wildly different results. There are places in Colorado (Boulder) that are as receptive as a concrete slab to the Word. There is a romanticism to “planting in the toughest place on earth”, but there is also a need for sober judgement. Jesus said there are some towns that simply won’t receive the Gospel.
Luke 10:8 –Luke 10:11 (ESV) Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’
Timing: Some successful church plants are just in the right place at the right time. A subdivision is built, a freeway off ramp opens, or a local church splits and suddenly the church planter is teaching workshops on the right way to plant a church while negotiating a book deal. Any church plant that grows from 0-400 overnight has likely hit the mother lode of timing.
Unmerited favor: God blesses who and where he chooses . There are many examples of thriving churches who missed on almost every criteria I’ve mentioned in these posts and there are churches with everything going for them that didn’t make it. At the end of the day success in the Kingdom is determined by the unmerited favor of God.