Church planters tend to eat, sleep, and breathe ministry strategy. We attend conferences, go to lunches, and read books on building vibrant, healthy, and desirable ministries. Pastors can get overwhelmed with the task of forming a ministry people want to follow.
Conversely, the apostle Paul’s church-planting strategy focused more on who he was following: “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). But somewhere between the first century and the 21st, this invitation has often evolved from “Follow me as I follow Christ” to “Follow my ministry as it helps you follow Christ.”
This subtle shift has negative implications for the local church and the gospel. If we’re not careful, we’ll draw people to something instead of someone. We’re not here to promote our brands; we’re preaching his kingdom. Successful church-planting strategies, then, must be rooted in our identity as Christ-followers. We lead others to become fellow followers of him.
Inspiring Others to Follow
A pastor’s job isn’t to cultivate a ministry worth following; it’s to live as a disciple of Jesus with such authenticity that people can’t help but join the adventure. Our hearts are rightly stirred when we watch William Wallace in Braveheart deliver his inspirational call to arms before charging his enemy onto the battlefield. The guys behind him see what he’s done—what he’s doing—and immediately go with him. They know they may not survive, but live or die, they will do it following their brave leader.
We cannot expect people to go where we, as church-planting pastors, are unwilling to venture first.
Contrast this with the general in an air-conditioned war room giving orders by phone to soldiers in the trenches. The strategic moves he communicates to the men and women on a faraway field may help win the war, but it won’t captivate their hearts.
So why do church planters often develop strategies that are more like the general’s phone calls than William Wallace’s passionate charge into the fray ahead of his men? We cannot expect people to go where we, as church-planting pastors, are unwilling to venture first.
Leading Others by Example
My wife and I have eight children: four biological and four siblings adopted from Ethiopia. In the decade since we began our adoption journey, about 300 other children in our church have joined their forever homes. Adoption has become part of our church culture.
We didn’t adopt our children because I wanted people in our church to adopt. We did it because the Bible teaches we’re not only recipients of God’s grace and redemption, but also participants in it. And in participating, we get to partner with God in redeeming unredeemed spaces.
It was my privilege to accept God’s invitation to join him on mission, and I shared our journey candidly with our church from the beginning. Not because I wanted to coerce them into adoption, but because I wanted them to know I was wrestling with the beauty and brutality of life on this planet right alongside them.
The first five years after we brought our Ethiopian children to Florida nearly killed us. I brought before the church both the trauma our family was walking through and the triumphs with God during it. I told them if they followed me, it would be messy, but we’d pursue Christ together in the midst of it. I warned that it might not always be pretty or comfortable, but we’d have some cool stories to tell around the campfire in heaven.
Leading by Following Jesus
I counsel parents that in the short term, kids will do what you say, but in the long haul, they’ll do what you do. I believe it’s the same for vocational ministry. In the short term, people will follow the ministry you lead; but in the long haul, they’ll follow the life you live. Pastors, it’s critical that our lives are lived in pursuit of Christ.
We can’t preach the gospel from a stage and forget to live it from the sidelines.
Most of the terrible pastoral falls happened because men got so busy running a ministry that they stopped running after Jesus—pursuing worldly affirmation and accolades instead. Daily, we must fight the temptation to take our eyes off Christ and turn them toward our ministry.
When we’re captivated with following Jesus, not building a ministry for him, that struggle is unlikely to become part of our story. And as a bonus, people will join us on mission with passion and conviction because they watch us charge headfirst into unredeemed spaces.
We can’t preach the gospel from a stage and forget to live it from the sidelines. We can’t become so enamored with leading for Jesus that we forget about living for him. Church planter, don’t build a ministry worth following; live a life worth imitating because it’s spent in worthy pursuit of Christ.