Editor's Note: David is now in his fourth year of ministry at Refuge Church in Franklin, TN. These were his reflections on his first year in church planting.
Several years ago, I wrote a piece on what church planting was teaching me. That post was written a few months before the public launch of Refuge Church in Franklin, TN. Thankfully, that post is still relevant, and what I wrote I’d still affirm. A year later, I revisisted my thoughts. Here's what I learned a year into church planting:
Ministry is Loss
I’m sorry to start with a downer, but this is the first thing that came to mind. Ministry is filled with loss. I guess it makes sense. We follow a Savior who was crucified. We’re asked to pick up our cross daily. We follow Jesus to victory, but it’s not without paying a price. We’ve experienced our share of it, too. Many of the people who started with us are no longer with us. They, thankfully, have not left Jesus, just our church, but seeing them leave us was and is difficult.
This is common in church planting (and every other start-up). Often, people are with you for a season. Not everyone is in it for the long haul. That’s okay. The Lord uses them as he wishes. All kinds of decisions go into the process of leaving a church—some good and some bad—but every time it happens, it creates doubt in the minds of leaders. Are we okay? Are we doing something wrong? Is this a sign of something else? Over the past year, as people have moved in and out, moving on from loss to life has been a necessary process. For us, no one (as far as we know) has left the faith. They just left us. That’s sad and painful, and they didn't always leave for good reasons, but the Lord is their Shepherd. We can rejoice that he gave them to us if only for a while.
People Need Solid Teaching
Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep (John 21:17). He didn’t mean take care of the grass. He meant give them solid teaching about the person and work of Jesus Christ, the bread of life. A good shepherd never phones it in on Sunday. He studies. He prepares. He crafts his sermon to the best of his ability. He preaches with enthusiasm. He teaches them the Bible—uncomplicated, biblical truth, week after week. Some people want this; everyone needs this.
In our church, we have created multiple spaces for teaching. Sunday sermons are obvious entry points, but we also offer weekly Bible studies for men and women, a discussion group using John Frame’s Systematic Theology, weekly community group gatherings, and one on one discipleship. Teaching the Bible happens in small chunks over a large period of time. That’s how all real learning happens. No one understands it all at once. So, to that end, we decided to become a church where everyone can grow, because we all need to, and when we come to Christ, we even have a desire to.
Many pastors and church leaders forsake good organization because they’re wary of becoming too “corporate.” But organizing yourself well isn’t putting corporate practices on top of biblical ones. It’s putting God’s wisdom to work in the most important institution in the world. Your church organization of people, ministries, and processes will be either give or take opportunities. If you’re organized well, you can seize more opportunities. If you fail to organize well, you’ll lose out on more. It’s not complicated, but it takes intentionality and clear boundaries.
For example, in our church, I serve as the Director of Teaching Ministries. Our Lead Pastor and Planter, Dustin Neeley, does the lion’s share of the preaching and visioning and recruiting and day-in, day-out church work. I work a full time job at a big company with a lot of responsibilities. I don’t have time to do everything, but I can do something. And in this season, the Lord has me primarily teaching inside the local church. Here’s why that matters to Dustin and me: Dustin can focus on Sunday and people while I focus on teaching throughout the week. What one man would struggle to do, two men can do adequately.
But it doesn’t stop with teaching. Refuge is blessed with incredibly gifted people in every area. We recognize we’re a bit of an odd church plant. We have, at every level, high-capacity leaders with years of ministry experience. Recently, Dustin, our Lead Pastor, was out of town for a speaking engagement. I was preaching that Sunday. We found out on Tuesday that we couldn’t use our normal location for the service on Sunday. In the span of a day, our team worked out a plan to move from the cafeteria to the gym, rent lights, recruit extra set-up volunteers, masterminded the new workflow, re-organized the entire Sunday morning and pulled it all off without a hitch. So, in the span of a few days, without our Lead Pastor there to help, our team pulled it off. And they made it look easy. That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because, over the course of many days, Dustin handed off responsibility and empowered others to make decisions and lead in their respective areas.
Organization matters. Stop thinking it doesn’t.
Humility is Vital
Speaking of organization, you can’t have an effective one without humility throughout. It starts at the top. Our pastor, Dustin, is an incredibly humble man. He knows how God has gifted him and he serves in those areas with great effectiveness. He also knows what God has gifted others for and he unleashes them to serve. As a church planter, it must be incredibly hard to hand over tasks and responsibilities, but Dustin does it with ease. He trusts the Lord and trusts his people. That kind of humility falls down through the entire church. A church where the “one anothers” of the New Testament play out is a church where humility reigns at the top.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
I know, I know. I’ve said this already, right? But it’s true. No one can do everything; a lot of people can do many things. The reason our church is working well is that we’ve learned to work together. No one can do this alone; God didn’t call us to. Remember when Jethro told Moses to get some help (Exodus 18)? Well, he was right. Teamwork does make the dream work.
Building Relationships Matters
American adults don’t stumble into friendships; we intentionally create them. A friend recently told me one day a guy came up to him at church, shook his hand, and said, “I want us to be friends.” My friend laughed and said, “Okay, sure.” The guy responded, “No, for real. I want us to be friends. And I want our wives to be friends.” There are two amazing things about that. One, who does this? Two, the guy wasn’t even married yet, just engaged. Yet here he was already leading his soon-to-be wife into friendships. Today, these two couples are great friends. They do everything together. All it took was one guy proposing friendship.
Our church is filled with people like me: young kids at home, lots of work at the office, full schedules. So, building relationships must be intentional. A year in, I’m not satisfied with the amount or depth or relationships we’ve built so far. So, I started having guys over for agenda-less hang time on the back porch. A few weeks ago, thirteen guys showed up and stayed for hours. For many, it was the first time to hang out with one another. It doesn’t take much; it just takes intentionality. The closer we get to one another, the more Jesus can do his work in us. We need more friendship proposals.
Thinking Deeply About God Together Grows Us Closer
While getting together for hang-outs is fun, it can’t be the totality of our life together. Friendships are born in casual conversations, but brotherhoods and sisterhoods are forged in thinking deeply about God together. Too many churches settle for Bible-less talk. The early church had a lot of problems, but when it came to Bible study, they did it right. They devoted themselves (Acts 2:42). We need nothing less today.
For us, small groups, which we call Community Groups, are the primary place that happens. They’re sermon-based, so we’re always in the Scriptures together. Our sermons are intentionally text-driven. We don’t preach many topical sermons so when our groups gather throughout the week, they have chapter and verse to look at, rather than a topic to consider. The word does its work as we look and talk together in community. In my view, there is no replacement for this.
Not Everything Will Work and That’s Okay
We’ve started things that didn’t work. So we scrapped them. Maybe later on, we can resurrect them, but for now, they need to die. For church planters and those who plant with him, starting things comes naturally, but letting things die doesn’t. There is wisdom in letting some things go. When it zaps energy instead of gives it, it’s time to move on. That’s okay. Failure is part of the process.
The key is recognizing when to cut the cord. It’s not always an easy assessment. Every ministry is started out of passion, and passions don’t fade quickly. But wisdom sometimes tells us to stop.
You’ll Have Bad Days
Planting a church is hard. Some days are just bad, draining, spiritually dry. At times, I wonder what we’re doing wrong. At times, it feels like pushing a boulder up a long hill that keeps getting longer. Then, at other times, it feels like the boulder slips and rolls over you. You have to go to the bottom and start all over. Thankfully, this is rare, and no matter how bad some days are, the light always shines in the darkness.
Jesus is Faithful
The best thingabout church planting, hands down, has been seeing the faithfulness of Jesus to build his church. When I start thinking it’s a sinking ship, he sends another family. When I begin wondering what’s missing, he gives us a story of healing and redemption. I can see only a part of what God is doing. As John Piper has said elsewhere, God is doing ten thousand things in our lives, and we can only see a few of them. The same principle applies to church planting.
So, a year in: it’s hard and it’s wonderful. And I don’t want to be doing anything else.