Planting a church is hard work in any context. Planting in transient places, though, can make it feel like permanence and sustainability are nothing more than the stuff of myths and legends. Most large cities naturally lend themselves to a pulsing beat of people coming and going—whether due to a high concentration of university students, military personnel, government workers, or financial power.
My home—Washington, D.C.—is a tale of two cities—long-term residents combined with the ongoing swirl of people coursing in and out. To ignore one or the other is to miss out on the reality of the place. The challenges of planting and pastoring in such a transient place can be brutal. In the first several years of our church plant, we saw an average turnover of about 45 percent every year. I was not prepared for almost half of our church to change from year to year.
In the first several years of our church plant, we saw an average turnover of about 45 percent every year.
On the personal side, constantly saying goodbye is emotionally taxing. Friendships are hard to develop, since they take time. I’ve found this to be especially true for my family. Over time it can become just as hard to engage with new people out of a sense of weariness and even self-protection.
There are real challenges on the practical and organizational side of church planting as well. It’s tough to think through intentional discipleship plans, let alone identify, train, and appoint leaders in a church when anyone could pick up and leave at anytime.
Maintaining a sense of DNA for a church plant can be overwhelming with such a high ebb and flow of personnel. Even those coming in often bring with them the good and bad from previous churches. Budgeting can feel impossible. Church plants in transient places face massive financial pressure and instability, along with a cultural mindset bent toward assuming everything must happen fast.
But it’s not all bad. As another local pastor put it, doing ministry in a transient city is a little like hugging a parade. While the challenges are real, so are the opportunities.
Certain aspects of ministry in a transient city energize me. We have to keep a sharp missional edge and outward focus. Early on in our church, we had to grow at a rate of 50 percent just to maintain our numbers. I’m invigorated by a constant influx of new people who are desperate for community.
The transience means we don’t have the comfort of routine, but it also means ministry is never boring. We’re constantly working to develop leaders and reach more people who need Jesus. We have to embrace the reality that we’re a sending church who has equipped people and sent them out to cities all over the world.
We have learned many things along the way about thriving as a church plant in a transient city. Here are six.
1. Seize Every Opportunity
You don’t have time to waste. This is true for people both inside and outside the church. So get after it. Transient settings breed an urgency in people that can translate into great opportunity for the gospel to take root in their lives.
2. Stay Through Hardship
It took five years of living and working here for our neighbors to start believing we weren’t just a flash in the pan. What sealed it was when we had our house broken into twice in the span of 10 days. Neighbors couldn’t believe we stayed, and they rallied around us to help our family through it.
Longevity will give a church planter hard-won credibility with long-term residents and neighbors.
While I don’t recommend getting robbed as a ministry strategy, we praise God for opportunities to go show Christ’s love by staying through hardship. Longevity will give a church planter hard-won credibility with long-term residents and neighbors.
3. Constantly Recast Vision and Values
Unrelenting transience means any preaching we’ve done on vision, values, or doctrine tends not to be remembered. We have a bank of sermons online, and we regularly refer new folks to past sermons that are important, even though it’s not the same as walking through such topics with the church.
We also recently reworked our membership-class material to focus more heavily on our church’s values and ethos. We’ve found it’s crucial to find ways to articulate and teach the culture of the church, and not just hope that people catch on.
4. Call People to Stay
While some churches rightly emphasize that God may call their members to go, we tend to emphasize that God may call people to the costly decision to stay. We encourage members to stay as long as they can, and even to take it a year at a time.
It’s essential, though, not to begrudge people who are leaving. It can feel like personal betrayal at times. That also makes it difficult to avoid moralizing choices to leave or stay. But as you call people to stay, remind everyone of their freedom in Christ.
5. Guard Your Heart
In our city we see clear examples of church jadedness toward transience. Some churches have responded by setting up extraordinarily high walls that make it difficult to connect or commit. Others don’t bother with meaningful membership or commitment; they’ve given into a revolving-door approach to ministry. Neither approach is healthy.
Commit to love the people God entrusts to your care for as long as you have them. Throw yourself into it. Allow your heart to become tied up with them, even though you know there’ll come the pain of leaving. As Paul Miller said, “Every act of love is a means of being forgotten. The heart of love is a focus entirely on the other.”
6. Find Sustainable Rhythms
Transient places have a tendency to chew people up. Work life is intense; relationships are difficult to foster. Many are in jobs that are fast-paced and full of travel. If you get caught in the grind, it will kill you in time.
In D.C., few things are as countercultural as slowing down.
We’ve had to learn the rhythms of our city and take opportunities to rest. In D.C., few things are as countercultural as slowing down. Holidays often mean a lot of our members travel, so we intentionally slow down midweek meetings, simplify our approach to Sunday services, and tell our church we’re taking time to intentionally rest. We want to model sustainable rhythms as a whole church.
Invest For Long-Term Effect
Most of our partnerships were on a three year taper. This is a common approach for sending churches and donors when it comes to church plants, and I’m forever grateful to those who gave sacrificially to us and our church. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. But, at the same time, we were forced to accelerate some decisions and timelines because of that pressure.
We’ve sought a different approach with the churches we’ve planted and invested in. Rather than set a specific time limit, we’ve intentionally devised plans for long-term partnership—working with the planter to evaluate the church plant’s need on an annual basis. Such an approach will help to plant sustainable ministries in transient cities and other hard places.
A good friend shared a stanza of an Isaac Watts hymn that is framed on my office wall. It has helped me to refocus as a pastor and church planter in a transient city:
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
O may thy house be my abode and all my works be praise
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come
No more a stranger, nor a guest, but as a child at home.