In 1696, the first church plant in New York City, Marble Collegiate Church, was established. In 1932, after the Great Depression decimated church attendance, Norman Vincent Peale became the senior minister and served Marble for 52 years.
Originally planted in the Dutch Calvinist tradition, Marble now proclaims, “The Bible is not to be interpreted literally, but is a guide for faith that yields insights and new life each day.” While Marble has mastered church longevity, are they leaving a gospel legacy?
Church planters invest significantly in a church’s launch. We prepare, plan, pray, and pour out our creative energy and pastoral heart on this seedling of a church. But are we starting churches that last? Are we planning and pastoring today for what our churches will become tomorrow?
Longevity and Faithfulness
At a recent gathering of church-planting pastors in my city, the speaker told us something he heard Ray Ortlund say to a group of church planters: “Plant your church for 200 years.” I’ve been thinking of that concept for years.
Do we plan and pastor today, for what our churches will become tomorrow?
A church in my city has been around for 130 years. It was the first church planted in what is now America’s 13th-largest city, once having 1,500 members. Today, the church has less than 100. And while attendance doesn’t equal faithfulness, a coffee meeting with their pastor helped me understand why this historic church can barely keep its doors open. The pastor told me he doesn’t believe Jesus is God.
Soon after, I met with the pastor of a flourishing church in my city. They’ve been around for 50 years. I asked about the changes he’s witnessed in our church climate. He replied, “Churches that remain faithful to the gospel are healthy and growing, and churches that don’t continue in steadfastness, aren’t.”
While that’s certainly not always true—sometimes orthodox churches have to close their doors, too—is there anything we can do to strengthen the roots of our fledgling church plants that they might grow as 200-year-old Redwoods?
Letters from Jesus
If the letters to the seven churches in Revelation are any indication, Jesus is deeply concerned for a local church’s lasting faithfulness, as evidenced by his talk of lampstands and doctrinal drifting. He encourages a gospel sticktoitiveness—otherwise he’s turning off the lamp. The church doors might be open, but the light is out.
The most commended churches in Revelation (like Smyrna the Poor or Philadelphia the Weak) were faithful and steadfast, with gospel output that Jesus celebrated. Enduring gospel faithfulness is good—no surprise there. But does the church I pastor, The Paradox Church in Fort Worth, Texas, have to last 200 years?
God doesn’t need my church to accomplish his vision for Fort Worth—his glory will cover the city with or without us (Hab. 2:14). And yet, in my city, almost all churches older than 100 years have walked away from biblical faithfulness and fruitfulness. Perhaps a gospel legacy is something church planters should strive for.
In my city, almost all churches older than 100 years have walked away from biblical faithfulness and fruitfulness.
These letters to the seven churches are incredibly relevant for modern churches. We need to be challenged to keep our lamps burning long and hot as he uses weak saints to accomplish his mighty mission (1 Cor. 1:26–29).
So, where do we start? Here are four suggestions for planting churches with a lasting gospel legacy.
1. Start institutionalizing your church.
Whether you’re part of a denomination, network, or both, a healthy church needs durable institutional elements.
Tim Keller, as usual, is helpful:
It is natural for new churches and ministries to try very hard to stay informal, non-codified, and non-centralized. But part of what makes a movement dynamic is a unified vision, and that always requires some codification and control. . . . A movement that refuses to take on some organizational characteristics—authority, tradition, unity of belief, and quality control—will fragment and dissipate.
2. Start writing things down.
The developing story of your church matters. Jesus doesn’t just talk about doctrine in his letters to the seven churches. He talks about people and what those people are doing. Doctrine is vital, but without gospel-formed people forming a gospel culture, there’s no story.
I’ve started writing a history of The Paradox Church—an ongoing document of the story Jesus is writing in us, intertwined with the doctrine that forms and fuels us. What you believe, and how those beliefs practically take shape in people, will be lost without the oral and written history of your church.
3. Start (keep) planting churches.
Nothing leaves a more influential legacy than planting faithful churches. A church-planting vision includes developing leaders, making disciples, and staying on mission—all that good, healthy-church stuff that breathes life and stokes spiritual embers in the hearts of your people and leaders.
4. Keep praying.
A large part of church planting is done on our knees. We are people of prayer. Jonathan Edwards famously prayed for the salvation of his children to the fourth generation. What if we prayed for the faithfulness of our people that way?
Church planter, consider your church’s longevity. But don’t just ponder if it will last, but whether it will last with enduring faithfulness to the gospel. May we plant churches with a legacy of loyalty to Christ until he returns.