Preparing to plant a church – groundwork

(adapted and expanded from original notes written by Tim Keller)

It is God who plants churches and he does it his way. The process therefore always brings surprises. As a result the plans we make (and we do need to plan and prepare) are always contingent upon God and his sovereignty. The things that count, the things that actually plant the church, are always things only he can do. There is always therefore a ‘given-ness’ about a successful church plant. It is a work of sovereign grace.

In fact it is often the process of planning rather than the final plan itself that is the key thing. A thoughtful planning process will help us to make the right choices when the unexpected comes!

So here are some suggested steps to help us get the groundwork done . . .

1. Seeking God

Church planting is a work of the Holy Spirit and requires a fresh consecration on the part of those seeking to be his instruments. A prayerful reading of A. W. Tozer’s book ‘The pursuit of God’ (to cite a significant example) along with special times of personal and corporate prayer are foundational. Our repentance must deepen and our faith must grow. God is going to change us through this work as much as anyone else.

Building a wide network of prayer support is also important. Keep them informed and try to make them feel the essential part that they are.

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2. Know the Gospel

It is the Gospel that creates the church. Nothing else is needed. Do you know the Gospel? Can you distinguish it from ‘legalism’ and ‘license’. Are you clear about the person and work of Christ, justification by faith, regeneration, the difference between knowing God and knowing about God, the purpose of the law? How does someone become a Christian? What are the priorities for discipleship? The early parts of Tim Keller’s book ‘Center Church’ would be a help here as would a ‘classic’ such a J. I. Packer’s ‘Knowing God’.

3. Think about ‘infrastructure’

Key things here are sustainability, teamwork and partnership. Who will lead? Who will preach? Who will handle logistics? Who will handle money? Where will the money come from? Will you need a bank account? You will need to form a charity at some point and so you will need a constitution and trustees.

4. Identify an area

Where will you plant? Why there? Think about the need, the strategic significance, is there an open door, a particular sense of calling.You need to be fully convinced yourself and you need to be able to make the case for your church plant convincingly to others. This is essential to building support.

5. Learn about the area

You need to know these people as well as you know the gospel. This can be done through statistics, interviews, surveys, and especially personal contacts. The idea is to develop a profile of where people are at and what they think of the Gospel already and what points of contact there might be.

5.1 General

What ‘people groups’ live in your community? This might be defined by ethnic, social, economic or age markers. Which ones are declining and which ones are growing? Try to discern material/economic groupings; social structures and power-relations between groupings; educational/psychological groupings.

5.2 Specific

What are their greatest hopes? Aspiration? Pleasures? What are their greatest fears? Problems? What are their greatest strengths? What are their weaknesses, prejudices? What injustices do they suffer?

5.3 Gospel/worldview

What is the people’s ‘story’? Who do they see themselves to be – where are they from? Where are they going? What aspects of truth do they have some grasp of (through common grace)? What aspects do they deny or miss? What symbols/myths/institutions do they live by? Where are there tensions and pressure points? What are the ‘defeater beliefs’ that make Christianity implausible to them?

6. Connecting

6.1 How will you link the gospel to the community as a whole?

How will you work for the ‘common good’ of the community? What will make people say: ‘I’m glad they are here!’? What will serve the felt needs of the community. Find a way to show the people what they would look like as Christians. Ensure the ‘feel’ and ‘ethos’ of all you do is tuned in to their world not yours.

6.2 How will you link the gospel to the heart of these people?

How will you incorporate Christ’s story into the people’s story? Consider the best communication ‘modes’ for their culture (rational, intuitive, concrete relational). Read Acts 16 and the way the Gospel is communicated to the different characters there – Lydia, the slave girl and the Jailer. Consider how you will make your points as you present the gospel: begin with affirming the culture’s strengths; challenge and de-stabilize its points of weakness; comfort with and offer the gospel. How will you get the word out?

7. Launching

Develop an outline of action steps and achievable goals that can be used as benchmarks. Here are some possible approaches to actually getting something going:

a) “Top down” – Begins with a formal worship service (congregational singing, teaching). This especially works well for ‘daughter’ plant where you have a substantial group from a mother church. This works best with a church planter with good ‘up front’ speaking gifts.

Problems with this model: There is a great temptation to skip ‘Learning’ and ‘Linking’. There is a tendency to simply reproduce the mother church.

b) “Bottom up” – The church planter lives in community and does evangelism and ministry, sees some conversions, organizes them into small groups. After growing into several small groups a more formal Sunday worship service is begun. Works best with church planters with good ‘one on one’ and evangelistic gifts.

Problems with this model: Can be hard to attract people who want to see ‘something happening.’ Often the church planter feels money pressure because the congregation is not producing much income.

c) A new Congregation in your own building reaching a different language group/or people group

d) Congregations in two locations with the same pastor/leader – until one calls its own pastor.


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