When my wife Beth was pregnant with our first child, Micah (who is now 14), we had a lot of people who loved, cared for, and supported us as we were preparing to be parents. Everybody had opinions on how to take care of oneself during pregnancy as well as how to raise a child.
I think we received 3 different copies of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” This book was very popular at the time and can be very helpful for first time parents to know what are and are not “normal” experiences during pregnancy.
Though we didn’t always know “what to expect”, one of the things that we have very intentionally desired from the beginning in ECO has been for us to become a church planting denomination. We didn’t want to simply transfer churches into our tribe, but we knew if we were going to be a vibrant, gospel movement, we had to have new expressions of church to reach a greater quantity and diversity of people for Jesus.
Since ECO’s inception, I have had engagement with dozens of church planters and would-be planters about the practicalities of church planting. But I have also had a number of conversations with congregations who have the desire to plant churches but have never done so before. They want to know “what to expect when they’re expecting” to birth a new congregation.
Just as every human has different DNA, so every church plant is going to be different. However, there will be some common threads that you can prepare for if you are going to engage in planting a new church. Many of these practicalities are outlined in our church planting policies and I would highly encourage every church that is going to participate in church planting, whether it is contributing financially or taking the primary lead in planting the church, to read the document. In the meantime, here are a few key strategies that churches who are investing in a potential plant can expect.
First, expect that there will be questions and perhaps some misunderstanding around the identity and strategy of the new church plant. This new church being planted is likely reaching a different community and culture than your established congregation. Therefore the ethos and the strategy is going to have a different feel. Sometimes mother churches want to recreate their church in the new church plant. If that is truly the desire, the mother church should communicate this plan clearly to the daughter church and the planter. Otherwise, the mother church should allow the church plant to have freedom and flexibility in the way ministry is conducted. Freedom and flexibility does not mean, however, that the church plant is just shooting in the dark. The church plant should be seeking planting council from outside experts, and all new plants must have their plan approved by the ECO office before presbytery approval to maximize the chance of viability. There should be well thought through plans, but the new church plant will likely look quite a bit different than the mother church, and the mother church should allow for that freedom.
Second, expect that there will be conversations about finances and that the initial financial plan may need to be adjusted. When the denomination reviews the plant plan, input will be given as to feasibility of the financial structure and model, but there will still need to be adjustments along the way. The church plant should have very clearly articulated benchmarks that include participation from people and finances from inside the plant. Congregations should be willing to fund the plant, usually on a decreasing scale, for 3-4 years, assuming that the plant is meeting its benchmarks. If the plant is missing or barely missing the benchmarks, then participating congregations may be able to offset the difference if there is other fruit being shown. However, if a plant is nowhere near the benchmarks, then sponsoring congregations should not be obligated to continue funding in the remaining years.
Third, planting congregations should expect to have discussions about the oversight and governance of the new congregation. As church plants begin, it is normal for the plant to have the oversight committee made up primarily of members of the sponsoring churches. As the plant grows however, those who are involved in the actual church plant should make up the steering team. Keep in mind that just as it is challenging when children grow and need more independence, sometimes it is hard for steering team members from outside congregations to give up oversight and allow the plant to begin to govern itself!
Fourth, the planting congregations should be in continual contact with the plant to celebrate, encourage and monitor growth, just like how new babies go to the doctor with greater frequency than older children. It is important if you are a sponsoring congregation that you ask the church plant for quarterly updates. These can be both quantitative and qualitative in nature. What good things is God doing and in through the church plant that can be celebrated by the sponsoring congregations? Is the church plant on the trajectory that it set out to be on? If not, should the planter become bi-vocational to give more time for the plant to grow appropriately?
I am thankful for the many church planters who have stepped out in faith on the church planting journey and for the congregations who have supported those church plants as they seek to fulfill their vision for church planting. It can be a messy and sometimes painful process, yet we celebrate the gift and privilege of furthering God’s kingdom through planting new congregations.
We are grateful for our church plants, established churches, each of you, and the gift of being on the journey of ministry with you this advent season. May you continue to seek new and creative ways to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ into our messy and broken world in the year to come!