Five years ago, our family moved to Richmond, Virginia, to plant a church. I knew the church planting would force me to change. I figured I’d have to become creative, flexible, even entrepreneurial. That was true, but I soon learned that the heart of entrepreneurial ministry is about people.
The heart of entrepreneurial ministry is about people.
Church planting is people work. Yes, it includes the laborious administrative tasks of establishing nonprofit tax status, website development, and the like. But mostly it’s people. And as a pastor, I needed to embrace the fundamentals of pastoring people.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Value the Stranger
Church planting is primarily working with people who are not currently members of your church. As the work began, the majority of my conversations every week were with outsiders. I was thrilled to make contact with someone who had never thought of visiting our church before. Names, phone numbers, email addresses of total strangers who just might be open to an awkward conversation with the new neighborhood pastor—these became pure gold for me.
2. Go to Them
I spent a lot of time in the first few years (yes, years) meeting with people one on one. The coffee shop, the brewery, the park bench, other people’s places of work, other people’s back porches—these were my office for the first few years of planting. The wood-paneled study and the overloaded bookshelves would have to wait for another season. It was the season of working on other people’s turf. Every game was an away game. The local baristas had my order memorized. The brewmasters joked about naming their next IPA after me.
Every game was an away game.
3. Work Odd Hours
In the course of my work week, I needed to set aside at least half of my hours for relationally pursuing new people. Much of that time was spent in one of three buckets: the early-morning coffee/breakfast (5 to 8 a.m.), the afternoon meeting (4 to 6 p.m.), or the evening dessert (7 to 9 p.m.).
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself that those are all non-traditional work hours, you’re correct. Are they terribly inconvenient? Yes. Did I do it anyway? Yes. Why? Because it was my only option. These were the windows of opportunity I had for being face to face with new people. Did my wife forgive me? Thankfully, yes.
4. Grow One Person at a Time
In the first few years of planting, the church needs to grow in order to survive. A church planter is a shepherd sent out into the wilderness to gather lost sheep. It matters that you actually find some sheep. A shepherd without sheep is just a poorly dressed guy in the woods.
I’m convinced that church growth mainly happens interpersonally and not through marketing campaigns, social-media ads, or mailers. The best possible way for people to learn about the church—human to human—has not changed in 2,000 years. In God’s provision, our church plant has grown substantially with $0 spent on marketing and advertising.
The best possible way for people to learn about the church—human to human—in 2,000 years.
When I sat across the table from a new person, I offered myself not only as a new neighbor, friend, fellow parent on the local school PTA, but as a potential pastor. In this sense, every interaction was an interview. Honestly, it was a bit like dating. A new person looks at you and asks questions like, Can I trust this person? Could I share my real struggles and pain? Would he care? If I allowed him a voice in my life, what would he say?
5. Learn from Feedback
In those coffee shops, breweries, and back porches I was hit with truckloads of questions, concerns, and skepticism about our new church. Sometimes it was hard not to be offended. But I wouldn’t trade this feedback for anything. It was invaluable in helping me better understand how outsiders perceived our new church.
It took a while, but I slowly became a better listener. And as I listened to what people were really saying (instead of just waiting for my turn to talk), I picked up precious insights about the particular needs of the people in our neighborhood and city. This in turn created a feedback loop in which I began to tweak and refine the vision of our new church in light of what I was learning. This doesn’t mean my original vision was bad, but that any vision must always be adaptable to the unique needs of a locale.
6. Some Things Never Change
As our “new” church enters its fifth year and transitions into a new season, I’m discovering that the habits of planting lend themselves well to pastoring a more established body. I still need to have eyes to see strangers in the room, go to them, make time for them, take their questions seriously, and adapt to their needs. I think this is what older pastors meant when they told me, “You’re never done planting the church.”