After the Dust Settles

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 

Who ministers to the ministers?

Chances are, your minster won’t tell you what I’m about to.  In no particular order, eventually, I want to share some insights with you into the inner world of being in ministry.  

Before I get started, let me say, I’ve been preaching for over 25 years and I love the church and I enjoy the role I have in ministering.  I can’t think of anything more rewarding than ministry. The road I’m on has been bumpy at times, smooth and extremely blessed at other times.  I have no axe to grind here, but I do want raise your awareness on some areas we usually remain silent on.

Why do I want to articulate this?  Congregations all across the nation are faltering, but one key component to a healthy church is stable leadership.  The longer most preachers remain in a congregation, the greater their influence in the community can be. I simply want to help out here, and help you know what goes on in the mind of the minister so that maybe you can understand us a little better, and maybe something good can come from these points.  

This is not a rant, I’m not angry, and I do not think negatively of the church. I simply hope to help you minister to your minster more effectively than perhaps you have in the past.

“But, aren’t we all ministers, aren’t we a priesthood of believers?”  If this is really your first question, I hope you’ll keep reading. When I write “minister” I’m referring to someone who has dedicated their time and energy to full-time church work and occupationally they earn their bread from ministering in a local congregation.

Here are some insights into the mind of the minister for your consideration:

We are more introverted than you assume.  It’s hard to imagine how a life of study and hours of reading wouldn’t attract introverted individuals.  Yet, many members are surprised when we confess our introverted leanings — but since there’s a stigma attached to being introverted, we mainly keep quiet about it.  We aren’t shy. It’s not that we don’t love people, and we aren’t hermits, it’s just that an overexposure to people leaves us sapped and drains our emotions and our ability to be creative.  We are recharged and energized when experience the blessings of solitude. We relish the time we have to study quietly. I wish I could’ve been like Marvin Phillips, but that’s not how I’m built and more than likely, neither is your minister.  

Often, we feel alienated and misunderstood.  When we went to Bible college and Seminary, we were surrounded with “like minded” people who deeply shared our passion and our goals.  Serving in a congregation, we are surrounded by people who have full time obligations like raising kids, working jobs, and commitments that stretch beyond the church.  We don’t always make the transition into the local church without carrying this tension of being between two worlds as well as we should, and sometimes this keeps us from forming deeper personal relationships with you.  

We frequently worry about how ministry impacts our family.  There’s a memorable song from another generation that goes something like, “The only one who could ever reach me, was the son of a preacher man…” Worry about the stresses and strains of vocational ministry and its impact on your home go far beyond being concerned “will our children rebel?”  The “fish bowl” analogy is real but it pales to the notion that the church expects far more from the minister’s family than it does most of the rest of her families. What we’d like to say is, “You ‘hired’ me, not my family,” but we don’t want to rock the boat too much. We need help guarding our family at home more than we let on.  

We aren’t experts, but we have special skills you should utilize.  It can be awkward having a room full of volunteers deciding your next pay raise, but it’s extremely frustrating when your ideas are neglected on a whim because someone doesn’t like to change.  Forget that you’ve had a few courses on the subject and the time to study it out, and the good fortune to meet with other church leaders who’ve implemented the idea. Hear us out, we only want what’s best for the Kingdom.

We have real financial needs.  Sadly, the average preacher spends more time in school than in the pulpit.  The last statistic I read concerning this said preachers quit ministry before their fourth year.  Yet, many of us rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to get the training we need to serve.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the saying, “We keep’m poor to keep’m humble,” but still many ministers languish with lower than usual salaries.  Ministers would like to be ample providers for their families too. No, we don’t go into ministry to get rich, but we don’t pursue the ministry to struggle either.

We are workaholics.  Unfortunately, we suffer from burnout long before anyone notices.  We need, not want, but need sabbaticals. When the average person goes home from work, they leave their responsibilities at the office.  Not us. We are on call 24/7, we “work” most holidays, and even when we are not in person-present serving, our minds never shut down. Every four or five years, beyond our vacation time, bless us with a month or two off to recuperate, the dividends that would pay are immeasurable.  

There’s probably more I could add, but please think on this: Your minister needs to be ministered as much as anyone else in the congregation.  We are constantly trying to feed the flock, and sometimes we end up malnutritioned ourselves. No one wins when that happens. For the sake of the Kingdom, if you haven’t already I hope you’ll consider meeting the needs of those who minister to you and mutually blessing each other.  

Love: You never really know until…

I really thought we belonged to a loving church, the kind that accepts broken and wounded people.  Lately I’ve learned it’s easy to pay lip service to being a loving and welcoming church, the type that doesn’t judge people. It’s easy to claim this when it’s in the abstract. It’s another story when you have a concrete opportunity to test out just how loving a church is.  

You never really know how healthy a church is until it’s faced with the chance to manifest its true colors.  We had just that type of opportunity recently where I preach, when one of our sons returned home after a month in rehab.

Our son wrapped up 2018 wrecking two vehicles and he kicked off 2019 racking up two DUI’s in the first month.  That’s when he decided he was ready for rehab. He spent a month there. Two days ago I drove over 100 miles to pick him up from rehab, and when he came to church today, no one shunned him or treated him differently.  

Our church has been loving and supportive, and this is a breath of fresh air for me.  There are enough people trashing “the church” these days, which is why I’d like to share our family’s experience — to let you know there are good churches out there who do love people even when they make major mistakes, even in a minister’s family.  

I realize in some churches, I would’ve been taken into the boardroom and the elders would’ve “quietly” asked me to relocate when our son’s recent problems became public.  For us, that wasn’t the case at all. Our church has been praying for our son weekly during the worship service and we’ve received a lot of encouragement.

I’m not now, nor through this whole process have I been ashamed of our son.  He’s the preacher’s kid with the tattoos and the child out of wedlock. He’s also the one with a heart of gold, and a sense of compassion that reaches beyond my understanding.  My love for him hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Am I sad and disappointed? Have I cried, have I grieved, have I been frustrated? Sure. But not once did it ever enter my mind to be embarrassed of him.  In fact, as troubling as this situation has been, we’re proud of our son for admitting he has a problem and for taking steps to recover.

How did we get here?  I’m sure there’s a multifaceted answer as to how our son fell into this abyss, but I know of at least one contributing factor.  Sadly, ministry can be tough on its families. Our son was at the wrong age when we went through the fallout from a catastrophic church conflict.  Our older two sons were more stable emotionally being college-age at that time and our youngest son was too young to know what was going on then. But our son who just finished rehab was in his mid-teens back then and he was hit the hardest.  Coincidentally, he shared with my wife and me, he wasn’t the only preacher’s kid in the rehab.

It’s one thing to wait for the prodigal to return, it’s another to have them home and try to navigate through the emotional minefields.  None of our ministry classes at Harding prepared me for this, none of my professors ever admitted to dealing with this type of struggle.  There have been many sleepless night, many tears, and a lot of stress. I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy. Drug addiction is like cancer or layoffs, you always think, “That happens to other people, not us.”  

While our son was in rehab we’ve had a lot, I mean tons of folks encouraging us.  At first I was surprised, but it really only makes sense. For starters, we aren’t alone in this problem; lots of people are going or have gone through this (many, sadly silent out of shame).  And secondly, authentic christians rally around those who are hurting and they minster to each other. I’m thankful for the love we’ve received in the midst of this turmoil — especially from our church family.  

There are awesome congregations out there, yes even in our Restoration Movement!  And while sometimes “church” takes its toll on us, not all churches are backwards and legalistic.  If you haven’t already, may you find a church family that “practices what they preach” and may your church family grow in grace and mercy.    

When you have a Love-Hate relationship with “The” church

It’s been nearly seven years since I’ve preached in a church of Christ.  And on certain nights I lose sleep, suffering through the nightmares that occasionally haunt me as scenes play out from old elder’s meetings, and the negativity cranky members spewed out.  So, I’m really not sure why I still engage in conversations surrounding the churches of Christ, in person or on social media.

While I was saved worshiping in a mainline church of Christ, and I preached for about 15 years in churches of Christ, presently I’m preaching in a “non denominational” congregation.  It seems weird, nearly sacrilegious, saying I have a love-hate relationship with the C of C, but that sums it up for me.  

I love many of the people and the core ideals that are foundational to the acappella branch of the Restoration Movement, but I’m emotionally exhausted and repulsed by the latent legalism and judgmentalism that is corroding her.  It seems like I can’t shake off my past completely, since apparently I still care.  

Someone recently asked me in a Facebook thread after I pointed out Paul’s practices, why the “brethren” in the C of C ignore Paul’s continued ties to his judaistic roots as Luke records in the book of Acts, and it struck me, if you pull one thread too much, the whole fabric unravels.  In other words, if we accept that Paul worshiped with instruments (thus offering an “example or inference” of New Testament believers worshiping with instrumental music), then maybe we are wrong about our acappella stance, and if we are wrong about that, what else might we have been mistaken about?  It’s too scary to even contemplate for some.  

No matter how firm the foundation is, a house of cards is doomed to failure.  The fragile-faith of many of the well-intending but ever so fearful members of the C of C is the crux of the issue.  If one gray area can hold complete sway over us, then we are in trouble.  There I go, using “we” when most of the folks I know wouldn’t consider me as part of the fold, based on my understanding of the non-essentials.  

It’s unhealthy to claim “who’s in and who’s out” because of doctrines that are argued mainly through the silence of the Bible on those topics.  To come back from the brink, it’s time to reassess how “we” will deal with gray issues.  Simply quoting, “In the essentials unity, the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love” isn’t enough and it has to become more than a platitude, if people are going to grow and mature.   

Jesus didn’t say all men would know we were His disciples, if only we would understood every doctrine correctly.  He said love was the ultimate testimony.  Therefore a good starting point in interpreting and applying the Bible would be to focus on developing love, instead of attempting to prove we are the only ones who are right.  Love is the only way to build on the firm foundation.  

“The term “Pastor” isn’t just for October…”

Shortly after the discovery of fire and just before the end of the last ice age, I was a student at Harding. In one of our ministry classes, we were supposed to write a book review on a certain preaching textbook. I remember in my paper, critiquing the fact that the author used the term “pastor” when referring to the “minister.” Ugh, I had so much yet to learn.

October is “Pastor Appreciation month.”

Just visit any Christian bookstore or turn on your local Christian radio station, everyone, everyone else that is, is talking about it. If you are one of the folks who never gets to sit with your spouse during Sunday morning’s worship service, never gets a three-day weekend, has “elders’” meetings before Sunday School, often neglects your children from working 60-70 hours a week while being on call 24 hours a day, and you have about 200 volunteers deciding too much of your future, this month’s special recognition of “pastors” holds some significance.

Our “non-denominational denomination” needs to realize that “Pastor” isn’t a denominational term. It isn’t copyrighted, no one owns the word “Pastor.”

After over 20 years in ministry, I can tell you, it gets old when the mayor introduces you during a prayer breakfast, or when you read a book to an elementary classroom and you are introduced, or when you perform a funeral and you are introduced, it gets old saying, “Technically, I’m not the pastor…” Not only does it get old, it’s kind of silly and pointless.

Why do so many of our congregations struggle to identify our pulpit-filling, teaching, counseling, leader, and “face of our congregation” as a “pastor?” It seems to be more about power and control than it does Biblical interpretation. We seem to like to keep our “preachers” under the authority of the elders more than we want to empower our preachers to unleash all of their God-given gifts. We’d rather emasculate our preachers than risk having them, potentially, become too powerful to control.

Why is that we have to have at least two men to have an “eldership,” but we can have a congregation with a “preacher” without any elders if there are none “qualified” to serve as elders? How have we overlooked the fact that Paul gives instructions to the “evangelist” for the evangelist to select the elders in 1st Timothy? Because we are inconsistent. We split hairs, and in doing so, we split heads and break hearts.

There’s nothing in the Scriptures forbidding us from identifying the “minister” as the pastor or “a” pastor. Do the passages in the Bible regarding this topic require a plurality of elders, pastors, or shepherds? I actually prefer the term Shepherd to elder, and words do have meaning in our minds. I’m not interested in arguing over the “number” of those who serves, as much as I am for standing up for the folks whom God says are a “gift” to the body in Ephesians 4:11 ff..

May we all come to a better understanding of the role of those who preach, teach, guide, protect, counsel and pastor our flocks, and may we express our appreciation for those who serve our congregations as they follow God’s calling. May we do so with honor and integrity, and may we do so with sincere hearts. May we empower our servant-leaders to dream big dreams for God’s Kingdom, and to lead us to love God and our neighbors wholeheartedly.