Church planting is not about gathering a crowd. People gather for all kinds of reasons to rally around a cause—whether it be sports, politics, environmental activism, or something else.
In Washington, D.C. (where I live), people come from all over the nation, and even the world, to raise their voices in unity for various causes. But, by and large, these groups have no love for the city and make no lasting difference. Further, I’ve never seen a rally on the National Mall change the hearts of a group’s opponents.
The advance of God’s Word, however—as it is planted and grown in local churches across the world—shatters dividing walls of hostility between people to create new communities of love and grace. This is what Jesus died to achieve.
Of course, the early days of planting a church are filled with excitement. Planning for the good of a people and a place, calling people together, building excitement for the potential of what could be—it’s what church planters love to do.
Then people gather, covenant together, and a church is established.
As people humbly bear with, love, and forgive one another as Christ has forgiven them, a powerful apologetic for the gospel shines bright for the world to see.
As this happens—as redeemed sinners live alongside one another—friction will eventually and inevitably arise. Such friction can be scary. The unity and mission of every congregation can feel fragile, especially in the turbulent early days of a church plant.
But church planter, take heart. Conflict can provide beautiful opportunities to foster a culture of repentance and grace, which is a gift from God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones helps us see this:
Take your New Testament as it is. Look at the New Testament Christian, look at the New Testament church, and you see it vibrant with spiritual life, and, of course, it is always life that tends to lead to excesses. There is no problem of discipline in a graveyard; there is no problem very much in a formal church. The problems arise when there is life.
As people humbly bear with, love, and forgive one another as Christ has forgiven them (Col. 3:12–14), a powerful apologetic for the gospel shines bright for the world to see. When significant conflict arises, what compels people to stay? What wills people to lay down their own preferences for the good of others? Apart from the gospel, no such thing exists—at least not ultimately. But the uniqueness of the church is that we are a people marked by repentance and forgiveness.
But how do we—as church-planting pastors—foster this culture of repentance and forgiveness in our churches? Here are four ways.
1. Look for glimmers of grace in people’s lives.
Church discipline is important, and plants will be tested at the most unexpected points. Inexperienced church planters and elders can become overwhelmed by the weighty responsibility to oversee people’s souls (Heb. 13:17). I’ve seen that responsibility lead to a compulsion to hover over people and their lives, looking for things to confront. So, yes, church planter, be clear on truth. Don’t shy away from identifying sin when a church member clearly disobeys God’s Word. But realize that such confrontation is only one approach.
The privilege of pastoring gives us a front-row seat to marvel at how God is at work in people even while we work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12–13). Pastors would do well to view themselves as the “head cheerleader” for what the Lord is already doing in his people by his Spirit. When you promote a culture that celebrates God’s grace in people’s lives, you promote a spirit of openness and repentance.
2. Get your hands dirty.
In order to really practice number one, this second point is crucial. I recently stumbled on some case studies I wrote in seminary, where I articulated how I would navigate difficult theoretical scenarios to apply sound ethics and theological principle. Those papers were not altogether incorrect, but my goodness were they cold and disconnected.
The real stuff of life is always more complicated than classroom theory.
The real stuff of life is always more complicated than classroom theory. It’s important for a pastor to spend adequate time laboring in study and preparation to preach well. But it’s dangerous, especially for a younger pastor, to spend little time with the people. Real involvement in real issues—in the lives of real people—will help to both shape and sharpen perspective, and it will posture the church to see the evidence of God’s grace and forgiveness in its members’ lives.
3. Focus on love and restoration.
The tenor of church discipline must always be love, and the ultimate aim must always be redemptive and restorative. If the gospel rightly preached tells of Christ’s redemptive work and the imputation of his righteousness, then it’s never right to heavy-handedly punish an individual into greater piety.
Rather, it is the responsibility of the church to hold those in covenant relationship to account for their membership vows and, ultimately, to continually rehearse the gospel of Christ and cling more closely to him. This must be done in love and for the sake of restoration in community. And it typically means moving through discipline issues slowly and with great care.
4. It starts with the leaders.
A church’s culture will almost always follow the posture the leaders have toward each other. The elders’ table can too often be a dangerous place for openness and repentance, since admission of failure can quickly lead to suspicion about a man’s qualification for the office.
I’ve seen too many faithful pastors undergo painful investigations, which often fixate on personality or preference, leaving no room for repentance and restoration. Sure, there are times when confrontation is needed. Remember, though, that pastors are not mini-Saviors. We are fellow members of the church.
Pastors are not mini-Saviors. We are fellow members of the church.
To help cultivate grace-filled unity among our elders, we’ve separated our business meetings from meetings focused on prayer and pastoral care. This has taken the pressure off both these important times. It’s freed us to cultivate openness in pleading with one another for prayer and support as we all pursue Jesus together. We start with prayer and mutual care, and then spend time praying for the church together. It’s essential to cultivate openness and mutuality among the elders as we struggle through life, our own sin, failures in parenting and marriage, weariness at work, and everything else life throws at us. A culture of grace, repentance, and forgiveness among the elders will set the tone for how they lead and care for the church.
In all your strategies and plans for church planting, don’t neglect to cultivate a culture of grace and repentance. The Spirit’s movement in your church to showcase these evidences of the gospel will scandalize the sensibilities of some. Which means it will take intentional strategy and focused prayer.
But it’s worth the fight. A culture of Holy Spirit-wrought repentance will show the power of the gospel in the midst of a divided age.