By Craig Cottongim

The direction this article is taking: Address why church planting is more relevant now than ever in recent history, why many plants fail, clarify what a church plant is, and discuss the nitty-gritty of church plants.

Why planting matters now

With the Covid-19 crisis, many churches will run low on funds, fold their tents and shut down, but there will still be many believers and ministers with a fire in their bones who want to see the kingdom of God continue to expand.  The traditional format of a church owning property and having a fulltime, fully loaded staff is waning and has been at risk for decades.  

The future of how churches are structured and operate is fluid, and it will look different in 10 years than it does today.  Many churches, even those with 200 members or more will see an increase in having a bivocational staff.  Giving is down,  based along generational lines, and many churches face shrinking budgets.  Therefore church plants which can streamline, simplify, and operate with a minimalist structured format will become, more and more, a better option over time.  Church plants can operate on a smaller scale, with less financial resources, and they can generate more enthusiasm than an established congregation.  

Also, many people in and out of church are disillusioned with how established churches have handled their resources and people.  They long for something that feels more authentic and real.  They aren’t looking to their churches for where to have funerals and weddings, or where their kids can find alternatives to sports.  People want to make a difference and be a part of something that gives them a sense of belonging and purpose, and they aren’t finding that in declining churches who argue “over the color of the carpet.”  

We are entering, or have entered, a day and age when planting churches is necessary to replace congregations whose doors have closed, and to open doors to people who wouldn’t necessarily visit an established church.  I see this transition in how the church will look sort of like when we moved from horse & buggy to the automobile, but now somewhat in reverse.  Imagine a world where we no longer had paved roads, and cars pretty much became obsolete, you would return to horseback rather quickly.  That is what our landscape reflects in the realm of church and ministry, we have plenty of automobiles, but the roads are washed out and unnavigable.   

Nothing compares with starting off with a clean slate and pursuing a God-given dream to reach lost people.  But, after the dust settles and the new wears off, nothing can prepare you the cycle of the highs & lows either…. 

Why plants fail (and the overwhelming majority do in the first few years)

There has been a lot of ink split over how to launch a church plant, but the reality is there is no “one-size” fits all church planting formula.  There are many books & seminars on church planting, but don’t depend on those resources too much, if you do you won’t last long.  Many plants fail because having consulted their resources and 3-ring binders, they only see the need to raise money, find a location, aim for the attractive bells and whistles, and generate the initial excitement of a launch… without a vision for the future or comprehending what church plants should eventually become.  

Your church isn’t a carnival, it isn’t a slip & slide park, it’s not an outdoor concert venue or an inflatable castle in the park.  The old axion, “What you win people with is what you win them to” is extremely applicable in planting a church.  Fads, gimmicks & tricks are not synonymous with evangelism and they will not sustain your church plant for long.  You are doomed from the start if you think your plant will grow when you base it on anything less than a Christcentered community.  

Find your niche and reason for planting a church that goes beyond what you are against or what you don’t like about other churches in your region.  Plants fail because their vision of ministry was limited only to how everyone else was doing it all wrong…

Also, planting a church is a lot of hard work and seemingly unrewarding work.  It gets lonely for the leadership team and there are plenty of feelings of being unappreciated to go around for everyone.  For example, talk about boring, think about filling out the paperwork for your 501 c3 exemptions/status, drafting your articles of incorporation, and building your website…

Church plants also fail when conflict goes unresolved, just like in an established church.  The difference is, in a church plant you experience magical-thinking that deceives you into thinking you’ll never disagree with your “dream-team.”  Sometimes, core members work overtime and never rest, and they experience compassion-fatigue which wears thin on patience, which is a tinderbox for conflict.  Share the load and keep an open line of communication.  Your leadership team needs to spend time relaxing together, playing games, going out to eat, and talking about other things in life other than just the plant.  

The independence of a church plant comes at a cost, and people forget to count the cost until it’s too late.  For example, your relationships with former churches and members will be strained, especially when members or extended families are separated by “loyalties” to one congregation or the other.  Your reputation will be on the line too, people will question your motives and methods.  None of the planting process is ever easy.  

What usually kills a church plant though, is contentment.  When the dust settles and the hard work seems over, people slow down, they invite less friends, they back off in participating.  Planting a church is hard work, the hardest perhaps.  

What is a church plant?

When a church of 500-1000 peels off 100-150 members and relocates their “team” to the other side of town, that’s not a plant.  That’s a transplant.  By the way, some of the largest and most successful multi-campus churches are paring down their multiple locations and restructuring to accommodate members at their central campus.  When you get angry and leave your “home” church with the rest of the correct members to start a church, that’s not a plant, that’s a spant (split-plant).  

“It’s easier to birth a new body than revive a dead corpse” – Anonymous

A church plant is when a group of believers establish a new congregation.  They might own a building, rent a school gym, or meet in someone’s basement.  They might have paid-preachers, they might have a crew of volunteers.  It’s doubtful your community “needs” another church, but they probably do need a better/contextual church that can reach your community more effectively.  

The nitty gritty, down and dirty…

Most of church planting isn’t glamorous and it doesn’t reflect what you’ve read in a seminary textbook.  It doesn’t take long to discover there’s nothing beneath you, from setting up chairs in a rented space to picking up donuts for worship.  Soon, you’ll be delivering groceries to people who hear about you, you’’ll be serving in your local foodbank, running errands for people who can’t afford a car, and you’ll help out in a soup kitchen run by people with polar opposite theological views.  

You’ll be a cheerleader to the troopers who helped you launch, a promoter of your church in your town, a vocal recruiter, and chaplain to any local group who needs you, what you won’t be for long is super excited.  Planting churches is exhausting and it’s mostly uphill work, one step forward and two back.  Yes there’s forward movement, but it’s not all peaches and cream.  And eventually, your church needs a new identity beyond being a “plant.”  When the dust settles and you pass a certain threshold of so many years, you’re no longer a plant, you’re just a plain old simple church.

Also, you’ll find more ministry will take place in your small groups and informal settings than in your temporary space where you gather.   One of the biggest drains on your energy and time will be “Sunday morning,” which is fine, but the return on your efforts will more than likely be from what happens during the rest of the week.  

Even though in a church plant you can do whatever you want, there are no traditions you have to worry about violating or established ways of “how we’ve always done it”, you don’t do whatever you want.  Church planting teaches you to respect people in ways established church ministry can’t.  Suddenly (picture in your mind those Forest Gump memes “just like that…) contemporary and traditional struggles evaporate.  You see the need to blend music genres and topics, for the benefit of the whole body, not just those you “want to” reach.

A church plant doesn’t need anyone’s approval or acceptance to be authentic, quit looking for permission to begin a very biblical practice.  A lot of church members think planting a church is exciting, but it’s not for them.  Hogwash.  I think everyone should participate at least once in a plant.  It will stretch your faith and hone your skills.  It requires a deep trust in God, an ability to hear the whispers of the Holy Spirit, and a desire to see people experience Jesus in new and fresh ways.  

PS: One piece of advice I want to pass on as far as preaching is concerned to a church plant.  I know most of us feel Exegetical/Expository preaching is the only authorized style of preaching, i.e., Book by book, chapter by chapter — that’s fine and has its place, but not in a plant.  Topical preaching becomes the best form of preaching in a church plant because your audience is shuffled from week to week.  Even your team will be in and out of the worship service, and expository preaching will increase the difficulty of people following your trajectory.   Topical preaching is more flexible, adaptable, interesting,  and it can be relevant to whatever the current situation is with an audience that is shifting from week to week.  

Craig Cottongim, Minister at New Song Church, Kingsport TN

craigcottongim@gmail.com