starting a church without losing your soul

a blog by ED STETZER

I’ve written an article for the Exponential 09 website on how to plant a church without losing your soul. I’ve seen many leaders, including those who would be considered successful, and those who’s work failed to produce lasting fruit, crash and burn while doing the very thing God called them to do. If you’re planting, or thinking of planting, these words are for you.

headinhands.jpgAlan (not his real name) started a successful church in a large Northern California community. He worked hard, built up his core group and drew over 300 people to his launch service. By the end of his first year, Alan’s church averaged over 200 in worship. By the end of his second year, his church averaged nearly 400. Alan became a hero to his local denominational leaders. Northern California is difficult soil and Alan’s new church was their most successful start in over 20 years. His ministerial star was rising. Then Alan resigned at the end of his third year. He was not leaving to lead another church. In fact, he was completely leaving professional ministry to enter the management trainee program with Taco Bell Corporation. People were shocked.

His friends, colleagues, and even a few fans tried convincing Alan into giving ministry another chance. Their reasons were admirably motivated: God equips gifted people like him to advance the kingdom. Alan understood and appreciated their concerns. But he was not budging. The reasons he cited are all too familiar. The pressures to succeed made him miserable, the church increasingly demanded more time away from his family, and he felt spiritually barren. Furthermore, Alan did not like what he or the church had become. The church was like a spoiled child demanding their needs be met and giving nothing back. Alan drew a large crowd, but felt like he was doing it alone. He was seeing very little life change in an outwardly growing crowd on Sundays. Physically, emotionally and spiritually disillusioned, he had enough. He wanted out, so he quit.

Most, if not all, church planters wrestle with at least some of the issues Alan faced. Admittedly, most don’t quit. But many limp along nearly broken under the pressures to succeed. Some church planters so singularly focus on the task of creating a congregation that they forget to build a church and guard their own spiritual lives. When this happens, both the planter and his church suffer. Let’s look at two practices that can help planters avoid a spiritually dry and disillusioned ministry.

Spiritual Renewal
I know this sounds basic, but many church planters neglect fundamental spiritual disciplines. An informal survey of Nehemiah Project church planters (North American Mission Board) revealed their greatest challenge was spending time with God. I talk to church planters all over the country from many denominations and I am amazed at how many find it difficult to maintain a quality relationship with God. They love God and trust him for the future of the church plant but for most it has become a long-distance relationship.

Church planting is a rigorous task that leaves planters physically, emotionally and spiritually drained. Church planters are busy and stressed. The inherent instability of church planting places constant pressure on these Alpha-leaders to excel. They feel that every sermon, every service, every advertisement, every contact, and every event must be exactly right for them to succeed. Performance pressure overwhelms their theological moorings as to who they are in Christ creating an incessant anxiety which drives them even further into the work that drains them. It’s a vicious cycle.

Finding rest in the presence of God is the only answer. But rest rarely comes when the planter’s mind is a vortex of what must be done next. “Next” becomes the enemy of God’s work in their lives “now.” Consequently, the planter’s relationship with God gradually erodes over time leaving him spiritually dry and empty.

If you find yourself enslaved in the vicious cycle, there is only one answer-stop! Now, I don’t mean push the “Pause” button on the church plant. But you need to put some of the responsibilities into the hands of others (even if they will not do it as good as you think you will) and give yourself more time for with God. Guarding your life with regular times of prayer, solitude, and Sabbath where you sit unhurried before God will ensure a rich and abundant reservoir of spiritual life and power. Planters who fail to keep their time with God a priority will invariably suffer in their personal walk and the church plant will feel the profound effects as well.

Theological Reflection
Eugene Peterson makes an interesting observation in his introduction to “Working the Angels.” “The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns-how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” 1

Many pastors are feeling the pressure to attract spiritual customers, but at what price? Megachurch pastor Walt Kallestad reveals similar feelings in a recent Christianity Today article, “Showtime No More.”

On the surface, all was well. I was a megachurch pastor with invitations to speak at conferences, write books, and mingle with dignitaries. Our church had state of the art facilities next to a major freeway. But that was on the surface. Deep down inside, I was mortified at what we’d become. We had to change. We just couldn’t keep going like this. Not anymore. 2

Obviously, church leaders feel a tension between numerically increasing their congregation and increasing biblical maturity among the members. The conflict has always existed-just read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Planters in particular feel the pressure because new churches must grow to survive!

By overemphasizing aggressive outreach, risk taking and innovative methods, planters can easily become preoccupied with numerical growth and fail to exegete everything from methods to culture. Having prepared for years to plant a church, their livelihood, personhood, reputation, hopes and dreams all ride on the success of the plant. Some church planters like Alan focus so much on outward success that they never personally reflect on God’s work in the details of people’s lives. Ultimately, they live in disappointment about themselves for not attaining every goal.

Planters must practice theological reflection to maintain biblical integrity in their perspective of ministry. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”3 I wonder if the unexamined church is not worth starting. Integrating theological reflection into the vision and methods of a church plant will help both the leader and the people.

Ask questions like: What is the purpose and mission of the local church? What does it mean to be a Christian? What does a genuine disciple look like? What is authentic worship? What does Christ require of us, and what does faithfulness to Christ look like? How do we implement these biblical mandates successfully in our cultural context?

These and other like questions form a biblical baseline for planters. Then the baseline becomes the goal rather than building up one’s personal sense of fulfillment. Plus the baseline keeps the pressure off of the planter and on the vision to keep the church on course.

e of the planter’s most important roles is leadership. Wise leaders understand their role in shaping the vision and culture of the church. They also understand the need to remove oneself from the pressures of ministry and experience renewal and reflection. Planters who do this are personally and professionally healthier than planters who do not. And, they lead healthier, more biblical and more sustainable churches.

Being tired is just part of planting a church. Burnout and disillusionment don’t have to be. Put your spiritual life in order first and a fresh wind of leadership will follow.

1. Eugene Peterson, “Working the Angels” Eardmans Publishing Company, 1987, P2.
2. Walt Kallestad, “Showtime No More”
3. Scorates – in Plato’s “Dialogues”