5 lessons from church planting for every pastor

October 20th, 2014

Our fledgling church has been worshiping weekly for a little over a year, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned over the past couple of years of church planting. Before I started planting, I had been in full-time ministry for over a decade, and served both a small, rural church as the only pastor, and a huge suburban church as an associate.

Church planting, though, has opened my eyes to some of the essential tasks of ministry that I had been able to ignore before. These are all lessons I had heard, or read in books, and I may have even been able to parrot them—but I didn’t understand them as deeply until now.

1. Advertise. I used to poo-poo marketing, thinking that the power of the gospel, word-of-mouth buzz, and personal invitation should be sufficient to draw people to Christ. Because I’m particularly interested in reaching people who are resistant to church, I felt that advertising would simply turn them off even more. I detested the theological implications of talking about what I do as “sales and marketing.”

What I’ve learned, though, is that we are all in the evangelism business, which means spreading good news. If I’m serious about reaching people who have been turned off to church, I will have to counter the kinds of advertising people already associate with church: the hateful signs, the trite marquees, the ubiquitous T-shirts promoting violent theology. I’ve chosen to focus on a bumper-sticker slogan pulled from the New Testament: “God Shows No Partiality.” People stop in traffic and roll down their windows to ask about it.

Without advertising, nobody knows you exist. With advertising, there’s a spark of recognition. I love it when I introduce myself to someone and they say, “Oh, yeah, you’re with the no partiality church.”

2. You need a preaching toolbox. If “normal” ministry means a heavy workload and fuzzy lines between work and social life, church planting throws those lines out the window and doubles the workload. I simply do not have several hours in a row in a quiet office to plan worship and to work on a sermon, so I need a method that allows me to dig into scripture, do some decent exegesis, and churn out a preachable sermon in short order. And I’m not looking to knock it out of the park when I step up to preach. I’m looking to not suck, to do no harm and offer hope. In every sermon I’m training a sales team, building community, and trying to teach subversive theology.

Standing up and rambling is not going to cut it (not that I haven’t resorted to that sometimes.) If I only get an hour with my sales team each week, I need to make it count. I use David Buttrick’s method most often (which I learned in grad school), but having a toolbox of homiletical methods in my back pocket means that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every Sunday.

3. Get out of the office. I don’t actually have an office. I mean, I have a desk at home with a computer on it, but my “office” is usually the local cafe. This is where I meet folks and build a presence in the community. I’m a regular at multiple community events, because this is where ministry happens and I get to share the lived-out gospel. I’m lucky in that I don’t have a church committee that expects me to have regular office hours, so I can be in ministry on a bike ride, at a Civitan meeting, or volunteering at a charity event.

4. Share ministry. Early in the planting process, I had to do everything: handle money, write the newsletter, maintain the website, and schedule helpers for worship. I’ve been able to hand off most of those tasks so that I can focus more on #3 above. But it’s hard to let go of some tasks, and it’s even harder to identify the tasks that I can and need to pass on to other church members. It helps to have coaches and mentors who can help me identify tasks I need to stop doing so that I can share ministry with the whole Body of Christ. My doing too much can prevent the church from growing.

5. Play. Usually when I hear someone talk about “self-care,” what I hear is “blah, blah, blah.” But ego depletion is a real thing. When I’m tired, I simply run out of creative juice. Recently on my off morning, instead of doing household projects, I played: video games, piano, and wiffle ball. The next day, my brain was so refreshed and relaxed, the inspiration came fast and furious: stuff to write, solutions to problems, and plans for the next six months. Play is essential to let the brain recharge and help me do the ministry I’ve set out to do.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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