I love church planters. They really are a unique breed. Anyone who would launch out on their own to navigate the waters of societal indifference, institutional competition, and sustained discouragement in efforts to start a church deserves some respect (Or pity. Maybe both.) I get to meet a lot of church planters from across the country, and they are invariably passionate and highly motivated.
I always ask how far into the process a planter is. The brightest-eyed always answer in terms of months; the more haggard of the bunch in years. Others still will answer in depth, as in “About up to here.”
I never ask how many people participate in the church plant. I think it’s a terrible question that only perpetuates the “numbers= success” mentality. I love to ask planters about the challenges they’re experiencing. Most are struggling in some way or another, and many don’t have anyone to talk to about those struggles. You’d be surprised how many of them have no peers to talk to about behind-the-scenes ministry-related stuff. Lots of them have wives that just aren’t into the whole thing. Most are struggling financially. Assessment and accountability can help with some of these things, but you’d be surprised how much springs up only after the planter is well into the church planting process.
On the international mission field, those who work among the unengaged, unreached people groups in undeveloped places are considered the “elite forces” of the missionary world. They work under constant opposition, threat of persecution, and with daily physical hardship. Theirs is important work, but not because it’s difficult. The value in their service is their obedience, not their sacrifice.
As much as I love church planters, I don’t like the way we’ve glamorized what they do. When we treat church planting as the ultimate accomplishment in Christian ministry, we make it into something that actually competes with our obedience. People who have no business planting churches pursue it for the sake of the challenge and the status it brings. Others walk away from ministry completely when they don’t see the results they were expecting. For every Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll there are hundreds (thousands?) of, well, me.
I worked hard for several years to plant a church (actually, a movement of churches) in Western Europe. I had a great team, good accountability, a sound plan, and a passion for God’s church. Through our work, we saw lives transformed, community formed, and the gospel proclaimed among unreached people. In the end, we didn’t see God do what we thought He was going to do. I certainly couldn’t plant a church and God, for whatever reason, didn’t.
You may be surprised that I don’t feel like a failure (anymore). I learned a lot through my experience, and I know that my obedience matters more than my accomplishments. I realize that my plans and strategies don’t guarantee results. I also came to realize that I’m not a church planter. In fact, none of us are. God plants and builds His church. We’re just the means by which He doe it.