Church Warning Signs: Church Planting Rock Stars
Yesterday I promised to share a concern that I have for the church planting world.
I love church planters, loved planting a church, and I think that church planting is a great way to continue the expansion of God’s Kingdom on this planet. The last decade or so has been an exciting time for church planting: conferences like Exponential, planting networks like New Thing, and church planting champions like Ed Stetzer have worked in concert to develop momentum for the church planting movement. Denominations are retooling themselves in order to place more of an emphasis on planting, causing more and more churches to be started. Exponential suggests that four thousand churches are planted each year…meaning that there are twenty thousand churches in this country that are less than five years old. This is a huge cause for celebration, and great things are being done.
And while I am excited to see all that is happening in the church planting world, I am also a little nervous about all the fanfare over the last several years. Church planting has become sexy, it has become the thing that is celebrated in the church world. We see articles written about planters and their churches, we hear stories told about them at conferences, and we celebrate their victories with them from a distance. While this is a great thing, there is a danger in it as well. Let me explain by telling a story.
The church that I helped to start was planted by a denomination as part of a strategic initiative to help revitalize the church in Baltimore. We were one of a dozen churches planted during the three year initiative: each church was well funded and the denomination arranged regular “vision trips” allowing larger churches to visit us in hopes of developing a partnership, and securing more funding. While the initiative did work with the area’s established churches, it was obvious that the church plants were the star of the show.
Towards the end of the initiative, I was part of a team of church leaders tasked with creating a vision for the denomination’s future in the area. I will never forget an early meeting where we spoke with excitement about the different pieces of the vision. As the church planting group made their presentation I could feel the air go out of the room. The presentation, while good, gave the impression that church planting is THE way to impact the world for Christ, and that the other churches represented in that room had not done an adequate job of meeting planters in their element and making a point to learn from them. To say I was disappointed in the presentation is an understatement.
Shortly afterwards I spoke about our missions engagement strategy, and as I finished up I felt as though I needed to say something. I looked at the group and I said “we church planters are an arrogant bunch. Over the last three years we have been shown off, funded very well, and had stories written about us. We have been celebrated, and cheered on, and through it all we have not done a good job of making it a priority to get to know you… the guys that have been on the ground for years serving in underfunded churches, in neighborhoods that you know and love. I am sorry that we have not approached you, and I am looking forward to learning from you in the future.”
I tell that story because I worry that we church planters can be arrogant. I worry that the attention and celebration that has been directed to us, the funding and the training, combined with our pioneering spirit can sometimes affect us in ways that might not be healthy. I worry that we are being made into rock stars, and in some cases we are beginning to act as such.
The dangers of the rock star mentality are well known: we have seen far too many scandals involving pastors of large churches who began to see themselves as deserving special dispensation because of their hard work and sacrifice. I have heard far too many stories of late involving pastors of church plants in similar situations.
I will never forget the words of Jim Sheppard as he spoke to a group of planters at this year’s Exponential Conference saying “churches do not die solely because of strategy, location, music, advertising, or any one of those things… a combination of them, perhaps. The one thing that WILL kill the church you lead is a moral failure… make sure your spiritual life is in order, and that you are constantly developing it.” So often, pride and arrogance are gateway sins for pastors that can lead to significant moral failure… beware.
A few things to think about:
- Church planting is A way to expand God’s Kingdom, not THE way. There is still plenty of room for traditional, established churches in this country to spread the gospel. Developing a relationship with the pastors of these churches in your area will go a long way towards developing a healthy respect for what they do… and give you another ally in the community.
- The celebration has a shelf life. The initial excitement of receiving start up funding, the vision tours, and the speaking opportunities at the large church two towns over will not last forever. You have a short window of opportunity (typically about three years) to build a core team, gain momentum, and get established. If you spend too much enjoying the party you will find yourself in a world of hurt when people begin to look at other, newer projects to support. Leverage the time you have, but be careful not to get sucked into the hype.
- Be accountable. The church planting world is an easy one to hide in. It is easy to go years without someone looking in your eyes and asking you the hard, honest questions about your spiritual life. If you do not have people in your life that are regularly asking those questions you can shut the doors now, before your moral failure hurts the spiritual lives of your congregation, or you can be actively seeking out people who will ask you the hard questions and hold you accountable.
What concerns do YOU have about the church in the coming years?