I’ve watched many church planters with all the right ingredients – the right strategy, good financial resources, the best teachers, obvious demographics – fail. They followed all the conference notes from professionals, and they failed! The had everything but the main thing, a calling from God. This is the first and most important ingredient for the foundation of a successful church start. You must start by confirming God’s calling on your life.
Confirm God’s Calling
Has God really called you to start a church? The truth is, many church starters talk themselves into starting a church. Some are disgruntled staff members who think they can lead better than their senior pastor. Others see the church dying and think a new style of worship is the answer. Still others have watched new churches around the country explode with growth and think, I can do that! The first question to ask yourself is, “Has God called me to start a church?” Is this God’s idea or your idea? Is this a good idea or a God idea? Do not just duplicate a new church-starting methodology, follow your calling.
Calling is a fuzzy word that has been watered down and mystified in ministry. How can you define it to someone? A calling is personal; it’s the voice of God in your life. Henry Blackaby writes in Experiencing God, “If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience.” A calling comes from a relationship – not with vocational training, nor simply a career path. Many church starters have misunderstood God’s call on their life. God loves them, and may have called them to ministry, but not to start a church.
Starting a church and pastoring an established church require very different gifts and abilities. Just as there are specialized positions for professional athletes on a team, an established pastor and a church starter are specialized positions in ministry. A church starter has a different skill set and calling than an established pastor. A church starter is a risk taker and an entrepreneur. He must be a generalist and wear many hats to get a church off the ground. Most pastors of established churches are specialists who function well in a structure. In new churches there is no structure, it must be created. Change is the only constant in a new church and a church starter must be able to make decisions quickly.
If you are wrestling with starting a church, first and foremost, get alone with God. Shut out the noise and distractions around you, and take a personal retreat to confirm God’s calling on your life. After God called us to begin The Springs, I went to a cabin in the mountains where I locked myself away for nearly a week. It was me, my Bible, and the Father. I was scared to death about the future, and I needed to hear my Father’s voice and get his direction. I turned to Psalm 37, the Scripture God had given me to confirm my calling:
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. (Psalm 37:3–6 NIV)
I was to begin a church in Ocala, Florida with no money and no formal training. What I did have was a calling from my heavenly Father.
In the process of determining your calling, make the investment and get an assessment. Many denominations offer and even require church planter assessments prior to supporting a church planter. This investment of time and finances will be invaluable to your journey. If you are not connected with an association, you can search church planter assessments or click here for suggested assessments.
In addition, church starters are called to specific locations, to a certain place. God prepares a place for you and you for a place. Rick Warren talks about God calling him to Orange County, California to begin Saddleback Church. Ed Young talks about God calling him to Dallas, Texas to begin Fellowship Church. Honestly, I begged God to allow me to leave Ocala. I had grown up in a large city, but Ocala is not a very large city. Presently it’s a city of 50,000 people in a county of 300,000— a smaller population than any other place we had lived before.
When God called us to start a church, we really thought maybe we were going back home to Orlando. Maybe God would even lead us to Atlanta or Birmingham. I will never forget the day that God gave us the location. I was on the back porch having my quiet time when God impressed on my heart that we were going to start the church in Ocala. I remember walking off the back porch into the house, looking at Teddi and saying, “He’s going to make us stay in Ocala.” Teddi looked at me and said, “Go back and ask him again!” She felt the same way I did about the where of our calling. We wanted to leave. Why wouldn’t God let us leave?
Do you know why God wanted us to stay in Ocala? After living here for five years, I had learned the demographics and I fit in with the culture of the city. I had become an Ocalan. I was not from Ocala, but I knew Ocala. And God said, “This is home. You can reach these people. They are your people.” God needed an Ocalan to reach Ocala.
Fit the Culture
I have met many church starters who want to reach upper class executives and their families. My first question is: Are you one of them? Whether we like it or not, we will reach those like us, not those we want to reach. It’s a law of demographics. Studies show the number one reason people initially choose a church is because they identify with the pastor. Many church starters experience failure because they don’t honestly know who they are, and target people who are not like them. It is an extremely rare person who is able to successfully minister to people who are vastly different socially and economically.
Whether we like it or not, there is a class system in the United States. We all fit somewhere. Reach who you are. Look at your relational world. Your closest friends can easily identify who you are best suited to reach with a new church. After you have identified those people, God will confirm the where of the church start.
One church starter insisted he was called to reach upper class people in a large city, even though his previous successful pastorates were in rural country locations in the Midwest. Years later, he is still trying to convince himself he can reach these people. His family is in financial ruin and he regularly questions his own faith in this journey. My heart breaks for him and his family. He is a gifted pastor serving in the wrong location. God has wired you to reach a specific group of people. So be honest about who you really are. And, if you can’t get honest with yourself, then ask somebody else who you trust. Once you align your calling with a culture that fits you, you are on your way to stepping into an explosive church plant.
Are You Wired to Be a Church Starter?
Are you really wired to start a church? Since you are reading this book, you probably are at least considering a new church. Ralph Moore writes in Starting a New Church, “If you can live without this project, you probably should.”2 A church start has to be an all-consuming fire in your life. If you cannot get the thoughts of this new church out of your head, read on.
Are you a proven leader? Starting a church is all about strong leadership. If you do not have the gift of leadership, you are going to struggle. The leadership gift is the ability to cast vision, motivate, and direct people to harmoniously accomplish the purposes of God.
Vision casting is a huge piece of this leadership gift. If you cannot cast a vision big enough for people to get excited about, they will never follow you. Rick Warren recites an old Chinese proverb in the Purpose Driven Church Conference, “If you want to know if you are a leader, look over your shoulder. If no one is following you, you are simply taking a walk.” With no leadership gifting, there are many church starters taking walks. But if you have the leadership gift, lead boldly! Romans 12:8 (NLT) says, If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.
A leader has the ability to engineer change in an organization. A new church will constantly be changing. Without constant change, it will die. Leaders know how to change to keep the church alive and growing, gaining momentum week by week.
Secondly, can you teach and capture people’s attention? The gift of teaching is the ability to understand, clearly explain, and apply the word of God. This gift is evidenced by a widespread unsolicited affirmation of your preaching and teaching. Not the usual, “Nice sermon, Pastor!” If you do not have the gift of teaching, do not attempt to start a church. Many people in ministry believe they have both of these gifts. The sad truth is many pastors can’t teach! They do not enjoy the process of message preparation, and their people do not enjoy the process of receiving their messages.
What do you have a heart for? What do you have a passion for? If you are going to start a church from scratch, you have to have a passion for the unchurched, for people that are far from God. Seeing someone bend their knee to Christ must energize your heart. There is nothing like watching a wayward person discover they matter so much to a God who loves them. You have to long to see the light go on in peoples’ hearts.
Jesus had a reputation—he was known as a friend of sinners. If we are going to begin churches we have to become friends of sinners. I was recently in an attorney’s office for a mortgage closing. The attorney’s assistant recognized me from the church because her children are members of The Springs. She introduced me to the attorney, and he asked what church I pastored. When I told him The Springs, he lit up and said, “I have been invited to that church so many times. But I’ll tell you who is on me the hardest about coming to church there . . . my bartender! She said you have a great church.”
That conversation might not seem complimentary; some pastors would not tell people that bartenders are inviting people to their church. But I wear that one like a badge of honor! We’re penetrating the dark places. The name of our church is conversation in smoke-filled rooms flowing with liquor and foul language. We are friends of sinners. I love it!
Finally, if you are starting a new church, you must have a passion for the local church. You have to believe that the church is the hope of the world. That burning belief will just become larger in your heart, as it has mine at The Springs. There is nothing like the church when it’s working right, when it’s firing on all cylinders, when people are coming to Christ, growing in Christ, and living for Christ. And there is no greater calling than to bring a church into existence.
It is evaluation time. Can you confirm God’s calling for you to plant a church? Do you fit the culture? Are you wired for starting a church? Ask yourself honestly if that is who you are. If it is not, read the next sentence very carefully. DO NOT DO THIS, GET OUT NOW, FIND SOMETHING ELSE TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE! Put this book down and run out of the room. God loves you, and has a plan for your life. Consider yourself warned about the dangers of starting a new church. And hopefully I have helped some avoid the heartache of a failed church start.
If after reading this, you are convinced church starting is for you, you are in for the greatest adventure of your life. It is not for the faint-hearted. Church starters are the Navy Seals of the church. You must be highly-trained and disciplined. You are the Marines, the elite fighting force storming enemy territory. You must establish a beachhead where one does not exist, for this is an extreme ministry.
1 Blackaby, Henry T. and Claude V. King, Experiencing God: How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God. (Nashville,Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 36.
2 Moore, Ralph, Starting a New Church: The Church Planter’s Guide to Success (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 2002), 35.