How to Start a Church (From a Guy Who has Never Done It)

The laments are familiar: congregations in decline, churches refusing to adapt to today’s culture, the growth of the unchurched or the “nones” who need to hear a Gospel that is both compelling and relevant. Starting congregations that break traditional molds and seek to reach individuals and communities too often ignored by “traditional” churches is a hopeful response to these contemporary challenges. This is why new church planters are my heroes. Those called to develop and nurture a community of believers ex nihilo are engaged in a form of ministry that is urgently needed, not to mention apostolic. Within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) our commitment to this task and the resulting success we’ve experienced is nothing short of amazing. The discernment and faithfulness of our leaders is to be applauded. The movement of the Holy Spirit in this effort should be celebrated. Yet I wonder how much potential has been left unrealized. Does a better, more sustainable model exist?

Many new church starts that I’ve experienced, or new church planters I’ve engaged in conversation, reveal a model built around the vision, persistence, and endurance of a single individual, aided by God’s guidance and perhaps a few dedicated lay leaders. The limited financial support available from general and regional structures often requires the new church planter to be bi-vocational, working full-time in another position to meet his or her economic needs and then part-time as a new church planter. Given the amount of time and energy needed to birth a new congregation, this approach seems rife with the potential for dashed hopes and clergy burnout.

Few would describe this model as ideal but some might contend it is necessary given the limited resources available within the denomination for this endeavor and the value of having a new church planter engaged with the local community. There is not a better alternative within the existing constraints. One could imagine more ideal models but none of them are realistic.

I disagree.

Christians affirm that the Holy Spirit imparts to each of us a different set of gifts to be used in glorifying God and testifying to the hope of new life found in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 12:4-6). Larger, established congregations have professionalized this principle with staffs full of professional clergy performing different roles within the church. The senior pastor supervises the staff, provides spiritual leadership to the congregation, and preaches most weeks. Associate pastors focus primarily on youth, families, pastoral care, new members, mission, etc. The music minister handles the music (duh).

Why can’t new church starts enjoy the same diversity of talents? Arguably these congregations need these specialized gifts even more since they are just getting started and don’t enjoy the same degree of lay leadership, sense of community, and public identity.

Lack of money is the obvious answer. New church starts church starts cannot afford large, specialized staffs.

Before discarding such an idea as ridiculous, perhaps it is worth considering whether the thinking that wants to dismiss this idea is part and parcel of the outdated mindsets that contributed to the laments listed above.

Clearly, the economic resources allowing for new church starts to have a team of full-time paid clergy do not exist. That is just a fact. However, could there be a model of ministry that embraces, encourages, and pursues teams of planters with diverse gifts working together on a single new church start?

There could be. Perhaps it would look something like this....

Having discerned the call to new church ministry and identified an appropriate and viable setting for a church plant, a team of ministers (maybe 3-5 in total? maybe more?) covenant to help bring life to a new community. Each clergyperson relocates to the area of the church start and seeks full-time employment outside of the nascent congregation. Perhaps one becomes chaplain at a local hospital, while another begins works at a local non-profit. Another has teaching credentials and continues a career in education and a fourth turns a carpentry hobby into a construction job. As part of their covenant with one another, each also commits 10, 15, or 20 hours a week to the new church start.

The covenanting process involves several other crucial conversations. Among the new church planters, duties and responsibilities must be assigned based on the spiritual gifts each person offers. One pastor will lead pastoral care ministries. Another will focus on preaching duties. A third commits to developing and leading vibrant worship services. The fourth focuses on outreach and engagement with the local community. All promise themselves to support the work of the entire congregation, providing spiritual support to the whole pastoral team, and building up strong lay leadership to help sustain the long-term development of the congregation. The general and regional church must be brought in as partners to the project, offering nurture and encouragement, sharing of best practices, and whatever financial support is available.

As the new church plant grows through these combined efforts, the needs of the congregation will also increase. Members of the pastoral team transition to full-time roles as finances allow. The end result is a healthy, vibrant, relevant congregation served by a team of skilled pastors and devoted lay leaders.

There are obvious objections. Such a plan takes time and requires significant commitment from the planters. Bringing together a team of compatible pastors equipped for such a challenge would require the regional and general church to work together in offering a vision and identifying the right people for this task.

I’ve never started a church. Maybe this idea won’t work. Perhaps it is ridiculous.

But the potential here could be huge. Just think of the gifts these congregations could be to their members, communities, and the denomination that planted them. Imagine the witness they could offer to the God that creates, sustains, and saves this broken world and the creatures within it. Perhaps fewer pastors would suffer from shattered dreams and clergy burnout.

Just think. It could be really beautiful. Maybe it is time to let God do a new thing?