I am writing about church planting…still. It is one of my favorite subjects. But I need to tell you something: though there is great pleasure and satisfaction in starting something new, it does not happen without sacrifices and challenges.
Even the most enthusiastic and optimistic church planter will have to, at some point, recognize and deal with the problems that arise in church planting.
So what would some of those problems be? Well, let’s start by looking back at the early church—the church plant of all church plants! With both physical growth and increasing diversity, the first apostles certainly experienced some start-up-like growth issues. For example:
- Tensions between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 6:1-7)
- Disagreement about circumcision (Acts 15:1-2)
- Disputes about responding to political leaders (Romans 13:1-7)
- Controversy about dietary choices (Romans 14:1-4)
- Lawsuits between believers (1 Corinthians 6:1-7)
- Twisting the Gospel (Galatians 1:6-10)
- Disunity between believers (Philippians 2:1-4)
These alone don’t paint the full picture of what a church planter might have to face, but the personal experience of the apostles as the original church planters (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10), might cause some to rethink before agreeing to the job and embracing the call!
Putting aside the topic of modern-day apostleship for now, what we can say is this: the nature of church planting is apostolic. Without a clear sense of calling, both the sacrifices and challenges required of the task might end up overwhelming any would-be church planter.
And so, we can see from the early church planter’s experiences there are inevitable problems and challenges in church planting. Some will be the same as those others faced, some will be unique to your particular situation and circumstances.
However, here’s what you need to remember: there are going to be good problems and there are going to be bad problems. Good problems are about growing. Bad problems are about growing, too. Often, the only difference is how you see them, and ultimately how you handle them.
Inspiring an Army of Volunteers
There is one challenge in particular that I want to focus on: building a church planting team with volunteers. Unlike the world of business, where making money is the goal (therefore people can be hired as well as fired), the majority of the church is made up of volunteers.
In business, employees are paid for their work, enticed with benefits packages and often rewarded for exceptional performance. Of course, there are rewards in the church—usually through opportunities to serve and lead. But, generally, church workers are expected to serve faithfully regardless of rewards.
This notion comes out of a shared understanding and expectation that each volunteer is ultimately serving Christ, not man or mammon, because of their deep sense of thankfulness for God’s forgiveness through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross.
A Noble Cause
A volunteer workforce that continues to offer itself willingly needs to believe that they are giving themselves to a noble cause—that is, something that is greater than themselves, expressing both moral and spiritual excellence.
I might put it this way: a noble cause is a stirring call to do something selfless with your life, resulting in something good for others. Without this belief—without this conviction—then sustained work from a bunch of volunteers is unlikely.
While they might remain as members in “the club”, they may pull back from their commitment and willingness to serve. Remember, disengagement happens long before people leave altogether. Some people stay for years while disengaged. Other motivators keep them showing up: fellowship with their friends, loyalty to the brand, or perhaps having nowhere else to go.
When a noble cause seems no longer attainable, or is something they cannot be part of, then uncertainty undermines the conviction that once motivated the giver to give, the server to serve, and the worker to do the work that is so badly needed.
Proverbs 29:18 (KJV) says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This idea is a simple one: people must be inspired. Vision inspires, both motivating the heart and stimulating the mind. Without it, people literally lose heart and begin to look for other things to give their lives for.
To be able to see—and to see clearly—is a gift. Combine that with another gift—leadership—and people will be ready to be led. When the vision is well articulated and participation is invited (not just needed nor demanded), the volunteer army engages willingly in the mission. Not just a noble cause to give one’s life for, but believing that the sacrifice will make a difference.
Powerful vision and strong leadership give reason and purpose to those who want to serve.
Fear, Guilt, and Shame
There are, however, other motivators—powerful forces—that cause people to serve: fear, guilt, and shame. Tragically, these are the very things that we, in the Church, should be free from.
Unfortunately, because these three—fear, guilt, and shame—evoke such powerful feelings, they can be used to try to motivate people. The Bible teaches that fear, ultimately, has to do with death and damnation. In Hebrews 2:14-15, however, it says of Jesus,
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
With regard to guilt, the Bible teaches that this is the feeling we experience when convicted of sin, that is, separated from God because of our fallen state. This speaks not only of our actions but of the state of our hearts and minds, too.
Oddly, although feeling guilty is not pleasant, when the feeling is absent it can lead us to believe that everything is OK when perhaps it is not. The condition of leprosy is an illustration of what happens when we have no sense of guilt. The ghoulish loss of limbs characteristic of a leper results because they have lost the feeling in their extremities and can no longer detect or heed the pain warnings.
Guilt is a strong feeling and, although it can be both true and false, true guilt functions as a warning to tell us that something is wrong that God wants to make right! This is what the scriptures say about this:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” – 1 John 1:9
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 8:1
Simply said, guilt is about sin. When it leads us to repentance, then God not only forgives us but also cleanses us, that is, makes us holy again. Condemnation is no longer ours to bear. Not because it was unfounded or unfair, but because God’s son, Jesus, died for our sin, thereby fulfilling God’s demand for a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.
And, finally, there is shame. Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation and embarrassment. It comes from knowing that you have done something wrong or foolish.
Adam and Eve were perfect in all ways while they were in the garden in relationship with God. When they did the one thing that God warned them not to do, their sin caused them immediately to feel shame, and so they went away and hid themselves from God (Genesis 3:8-10).
Biblical shame is a consequence of sin; but as with guilt, God promises to remove our shame when we turn to Him in repentance and faith.
“As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.’” -Romans 10:11
If intrinsic motivators are not powerful enough, then volunteers will cease to work. And if the things that motivate are not found within individuals, then they must come from without.
It is a fact of life that leaders lead and those who don’t lead tend to follow. It is also true that there are more followers than there are leaders. Therefore, great things can and will be accomplished when leaders continue to motivate those who follow, as well as when those who freely choose to follow have the conviction and determination to do so.
So what does this all have to do with church planting? Well, a church plant is not unlike a start-up in business really. In the beginning, there must be someone, usually entrepreneurial in profile, who has both vision (an idea) and conviction (determination) to make something happen.
This person not only believes that it can be done but, more importantly, they believe in themselves to do it. Mix in a good dose of ambition and what you have is a highly motivated individual who is likely to need others (employees) to see his or her dreams come true!
This is not much different from the church planter/pastor who has a vision from God to plant a church and believes they have been chosen by God to do it. They are usually highly motivated, enthusiastic, ambitious individuals who want to inspire others to join them in the new church they are starting.
Some do it through selling a fresh exciting vision, while others are able to recruit volunteers just through having a charismatic personality. When the two come together—that is, an exciting vision communicated by a capable, convincing, magnetic leader—it results in people wanting to be part of it.
That’s a good start, but usually the real test of a volunteer’s commitment comes after the works begin…when days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months, and months turn into years, and things may not be going as planned.
More is required from the same people who have been doing all the work, as well as faithfully giving, with the promise that when the work grows a little bit more then there will be others to share the work. (Just an aside: having a larger team does not change the 80/20 principle, that is, most of the time 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people, no matter how many people you have!)
This brings us back to motivation. When volunteers are tired and perhaps feeling a little disillusioned, they tend to need a little more motivation from the leader they have been following. In the business world, the promise of added reward for extra effort is not as common as you might think.
More often than not, it is the “performance evaluation” that subtly intimidates employees by highlighting “areas of needed improvement”. The ultimate fear is failure to perform resulting in dismissal, that is, “You’re fired!” This doesn’t happen in the Church, not with volunteers anyway.
Oh, yes, there are times when people are asked to leave and, in extreme cases, excommunicated; but rarely is there a performance evaluation, let alone the setting of clearly articulated measurable goals.
The temptation, at this point, is for church planters/leaders to play the “servant card”. The argument goes like this: “If we don’t hire people to work, then we can’t fire them if they don’t. And so, we have to find some other way—some compelling way—to motivate the volunteer staff.”
So, they play the servant card! What’s the servant card? Simply, they tell people that God has called us to serve (which He has). But this reminder is not usually used to inspire, but to make individuals feel obligated. It plays on fear, guilt, and shame rather than God’s love, mercy, and grace.
Again, the idea is that because of what God has done for you, you must now serve him. Rarely articulated but clearly understood: it is payback time! The motivation to serve, which must be understood in leading a volunteer army, should come from a heart that’s so overwhelmed by gratitude that serving is a delight and a joy.
For any thank-offering to God to be holy, it must be freely given. When we are made to feel obligated to serve then our offering is payment. We remain as servants rather than become the children of God. We find that God’s “unconditional love” has conditions. We haven’t received a free gift from God, after all, but one with strings attached.
This is a real problem in the church. There wouldn’t be as many books written on the subject of planting and growing healthy churches if it wasn’t. But this is what I want to leave you to think about, especially if you are about to plant a church:
When it comes to motivating God’s people to serve, the focus must always be that we’ve received a gift that none of us deserved: God’s love, mercy, and grace. The key is thankfulness, not a sense of obligation.
The Privilege of Leadership
But when it comes to leadership, we must always understand it as a privilege. The privilege? To lead God’s people into their destiny and purpose as the Body of Christ, believing that God, as He has promised, will build His church as you serve in rest and faith.
Believers must never be seen as a resource to get the job done, but as sheep that have been entrusted into your care to shepherd. After all, together with them, you are the Church, the Children of God, the Body of Christ, a Kingdom and Priests of the Most High God!
For more on the process of church planting, check out my introductory article “Planting a New Church”.