In just a few decades, we’ve witnessed an explosion of interest and engagement in North American church planting. What was just a sideshow that a few entrepreneurial folks did in the 80s and 90s is viewed as the main act for many church leaders today. The church planting boom has reordered the priorities of many denominations, who are now directing significant resources to see new churches established and providing training for their prospective pastors in how to plant well. We’ve also seen a host of effective church planting networks emerge onto the main stage with aggressive plans to plant their next church in a town near you.
Still, challenges remain. Like any movement, challenges exist that threaten the vitality and longevity of church planting. We must consider how to address them. This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but I’ve identified 9 challenges that could hinder the forward advance of church planting.
1. Many established churches are still resistant to planting
While many more churches emphasize planting today than when I planted my first church in the 80s, many established churches still resist planting churches. This resistance can take the form of outright hostility to a new church in town. But it can also be demonstrated in the lack of prioritizing multiplication within the established church itself.
This resistance can be attributed to several reasons, including the fear of losing key members, finding competent and called planters, and a lack of a kingdom vision that sees far beyond the local church.
I can understand the impulse to resist. If a pastor is leading a struggling established church, the last bit of news you want to receive is that a young, energetic, and entrepreneurial planter is coming to town, backed by the resources of a denomination or network.
But not only is a broader, kingdom-minded vision toward the expansion of the body of Christ biblically faithful, it also benefits the established church. As Tim Keller has said, “The continual planting of new congregations is the most crucial strategy for … the continual corporate renewal and revival of existing churches.” Studies repeatedly show that when an established church catches a vision for multiplication, it breathes new life into the existing church. (There is a free video course designed to equip churches to become sending churches available here.)
2. Church plants often delay developing a culture of multiplication
Sometimes it is not an established church that resists planting. New churches often wait until they are well established to begin involvement in planting other churches. As I wrote here, new churches need to be like the Tribbles from the original Star Trek series. Tribbles were born pregnant and spread at an incredible pace. New churches need to take root in their communities with a similar “born pregnant” culture. Planters don’t have to wait until they’re ten years in, have a multi-million dollar budget, and have hundreds of people to create a culture of multiplication.
What’s more, multiplication has everything to do with the development of leaders, not merely the gathering of resources. In other words, the only thing your church needs to multiply is a ready leader to send. A ready leader will often succeed without an abundance of resources.
Churches that lack a multiplication culture often also lack a development culture. In a development culture, leaders focus on developing future leaders to send out. Even without resources, ready leaders will succeed. We see this play out in the Book of Acts where the church was determined to multiply at any cost. Church plants that delay establishing a culture of multiplication risk setting their churches on a steady path toward stagnation.
A culture of multiplication must become imbedded in the DNA of a church at all levels for it to impact planting. As I said here, “We cannot lead what we do not live. We must be multipliers.”
3. Some would-be church planters just don’t want the sacrifice
Church planting always requires sacrifice. When someone plants a new church, they must count the cost. It requires you to sacrifice time and money. It often requires you to uproot and relocate your family to the new context. If you’re a pastor sending out a group of people to plant, it also is a sacrifice of people.
Once the church launches, the new planter often deals with a lot of relational upheaval. Often the type of people that join the effort to get a new church off the ground are not the same people who will stay rooted in that church for years to come. Church planting is a strange mix of the thrill of seeing people come to know Christ and serving your community through an outreach event that involves cleaning porta-potties after a Memorial Day celebration––all to the glory of God.
In recent years, the training and funding provided by denominations and networks has reduced the severity of some of the sacrifices involved in church planting. Many of these groups invest tens of thousands of dollars into each church plant and provide best practices that catalyze growth and avoid the mistakes of those of us who learned best practices the hard way.
And yet, in our consumer culture, we can easily forget how sacrifice is a kingdom value (Luke 9:23). This video of Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson talking about the value of “handling hard well” is a good word for church planting. Church planting is on the frontier of missional work and will necessarily require sacrifice.
4. Churches lack community with churches in other contexts
Despite a dramatic push toward mutual learning and cooperation in recent years, many churches (or their leaders) remain isolated relationally. This isolation hinders cooperative work that can be done to see new churches planted.
It’s possible to cultivate meaningful relationships across denominational boundaries without compromising your convictions or denominational distinctives. These relationships provide learning opportunities that leaders can take back to their own church traditions to improve their church planting efforts.
Additionally, it is becoming increasingly popular for multiple churches, who alone do not possess the resources to plant a church, to band together to see a new church planted in a nearby community. This is a great way to leverage relationships to make real and substantial kingdom impact.
5. Churches need a “movemental mindset”
The pandemic did a lot of things. One was to cultivate a survivalist mindset in a lot of churches. On the surface, it’s understandable. Many churches are still recovering from 2020 and early 2021 in terms of attendance, engagement, and finances. For many church leaders, trying to keep the sheep you already have in the fold was a big enough challenge. Thinking beyond that may seem like a luxury few can afford.
But recovering the idea we see in the Book of Acts of what I call movemental Christianity is vital for churches to flourish. Movemental Christianity expands beyond the instinct to protect one’s own kingdom in favor of the engaging in God’s mission to expand His kingdom. As churches begin to find some semblance of normalcy following COVID-19, it’s okay to recognize the impact. But like a boxer who has been knocked down, the question before many church leaders is whether they will stay down or get back up and resume the fight. Getting back up looks like movemental Christianity.
6. The Lone Ranger planter
American society is hyper-individualized. But God has fashioned His people for community. We are knit together as one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and held accountable to one another as His missionary force on the earth (Acts 1:8).
But there are still some entrepreneurial types who are motivated to plant a church and choose to go about it alone. Some plant alone because they could not find a church, denomination, or network to support them. Others don’t seek accountability to begin with! But every planter needs accountability. They need partners, supporters, and more to help them overcome the host of challenges they will face in the early days of planting.
What’s more, if a planter cannot get the blessing or sponsorship of any denomination, network, or church, it begs the question of whether they should be planting to begin with. While we love the maverick stories of people who overcame the closed doors and proved the nay-sayers wrong, the church has always worked in community with one another. We are accountable to one another. If that accountability is not present, a new church plant can become a breeding ground for abuse and dysfunction, as we’ve seen play out in the The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
7. Church planting movements need more than a one-size-fits-all model
Have you ever been around a child who realizes they told a funny joke? They suddenly awaken to the fact that they can make people laugh. But what they don’t recognize is that timing and context matter for a joke to be funny. So they will repeat the joke, hoping to get the same response. Or they will explain it or talk about the laughter they received. But they usually don’t understand how something that worked once didn’t work with repeated use.
We run the risk of being like a little kid and beating a joke to death in church planting, too. Only instead of a joke, many church planting networks or denominations have a few early successes and develop best practices that they then use to train future church planters.
While there’s nothing wrong with models and best practices, if we’re not careful, they can also cause us to ignore other factors that impact their effectiveness. Planting a church in the Pacific Northwest will require different considerations than planting in Texas. What worked for a rural country church in Indiana may not work for a church in densely populated Los Angeles.
Church planting movements are wise to assess best practices and develop models from them. But they must also recognize that as time passes, as culture changes, and as their church planting efforts take them into contexts that are unique, they must be adaptable and agile. We don’t need one model; we need many, many models of church planting. And we need the missiological sophistication and spiritual receptivity to notice the unique things God is up to at a given time and in a given place. This recognition enables us to come alongside prospective church planters to develop models and best practices that will meet the needs of their prospective context.
8. Some church planters plant for the wrong reasons
As I noted earlier, church planting requires tremendous sacrifice. It requires that planters count the cost and keep a clear focus on why they are planting in the first place. And while hardly anyone would consciously plant a church for the wrong reasons, many church planters do plant for the wrong reasons.
One wrong motivation is a lack of upward mobility in established churches. As with other sectors of society, many Baby Boomers are choosing to stay active in their church leadership positions well past retirement age. It’s not uncommon for churches to have pastors who lead well into their 70s. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, many younger Gen Xers and Millennials have felt held back by the lack of vacant leadership seats in established churches. So, they simply just go and start their own.
While I can empathize with this dilemma to some extent (the oldest Millennials, after all, are now into their 40s), a lack of upward mobility is an improper motive to plant a church. Church planting should fundamentally be about reaching people for Christ that aren’t being reached, not about career options for the planter.
A second wrong motivation is that many planters will plant a church when they should have just gone to therapy. As I discussed in this podcast of failed church plants, many plant and are unconsciously motivated by affirmation, praise, unresolved issues with authority or even narcissistic tendencies. Chasing the potential to carve out one’s own platform and prestige can be an intoxicating motivation, but that can also leave behind a host of hurting people and ruined families in its wake. To secure a place in the spotlight, many planters depend upon their charm and charisma and neglect the inner work the Spirit desires to do on their character.
9. Church planters are getting distracted
Related to the previous point, one final challenge I see to church planting is that planters are getting distracted. Many pastors in America feel the weight of external expectations about everything they’re supposed to be––CEO, visionary leader, counselor, financial guru, social media influencer, leadership expert, motivator, theologian, etc. There are a host of expectations we place upon pastors that are outside of the scope of what it means to shepherd a flock.
For church planters, this external pressure is a significant challenge simply because of how new and vulnerable their congregation is. But almost as fast as the church itself is planted, I see planters get distracted trying to activate the next “hustle”––growing their social media influence, becoming a leadership coach to other pastors, or otherwise establishing themselves in the landscape of Christian leadership. They might write a book, launch a podcast, or start any number of projects that are, at best, peripheral to the invested work of building an infant congregation.
Identifying these challenges, and others, is a good start to protecting the health and endurance of church planting. But when we see these challenges present themselves in our own sphere of influence, we must commit ourselves to the hard work of overcoming the challenge. Which of these challenges do you see in your circle of influence? And how might you address them with substantive solutions?
Church planting is, both historically and at present, one of the most effective ways of reaching the lost. As I quoted Tim Keller earlier, “Continual planting of new congregations is the most crucial strategy for … the numerical growth of the body of Christ.” So, until the whole world knows Christ, we need to be about the business of planting more churches.