by Robert J. Vajko
To help new church planters avoid potential pitfalls, Vajko addresses ten major errors which can occur when planting churches.
For over forty years I have been involved in church planting, observed church planting, and consulted with church planters. During that time, I have seen a number of common mistakes, some of which have been my own. In order to help new church planters avoid potential pitfalls, here are ten major errors which can occur when planting churches.
Wrongly developing dependency in the church we are planting. This can be done in a two major ways. First, we err in helping too much in the beginning of a church plant. This makes those in the church think that we are the only ones capable of doing ministry. Leaders who have had a lot of formal training are most likely to make this mistake.
Second, we err when we help the church too much either from our own funds or by gifts given from elsewhere. We can help a caterpillar out of its cocoon, but it will then die. Likewise, we can help new believers so much so that dependency develops and cripples the work. If we help too much in the area of finances, we hinder the growth of the church and its power of multiplication. People start to believe that they can only plant new churches if they have trained and ordained pastors and money. The Apostle Paul would have laughed at such an idea. One of the ways we can determine whether we have made the mistake of making the church plant too dependent is looking at what happens when we leave.
Planting a “mule church” instead of a “horse church.” This is a metaphor I learned from Mike Barnett at Columbia International University. A mule is sterile; a horse is not. We err when we put all our effort into planting one church so that the church is turned inwards and never reproduces itself. Some people seek to plant a church that becomes “large enough” to start new churches. Many pastors say that they will one day give birth to a new church when they are “large enough” or “strong enough.” The question, however, is “What is large enough?” (Vajko 2005, 294-299).
Not adequately empowering leadership from within the church plant from the start. This was a mistake we made when planting a church in the New City of St. Quentin, France. I was waiting passively for leadership to emerge. Instead, I should have been actively looking for, and developing, potential leaders.
However, when we were involved in a new church plant in Australia, I sought to make this a priority from the start. Thus, potential leaders were encouraged and developed, resulting in more leadership coming to the foreground. Today, one of those involved in the church plant is leading a church that is planting daughter churches. We forget that the fruit of a leader is another leader and the fruit of a church planter is another church planter.
Not understanding the importance of starting small groups at the beginning. This was another mistake we made in the above church plant in France. Here, once again, after the church had grown, we moved from one main prayer meeting and Bible study to several small groups. The result was that more leaders developed and the ministry was shared as new groups started up.
Mistake # 5
Not balancing the quantitative, qualitative, and organic elements in starting a new church. We need to grasp the importance of these three types of growth. It is a question of keeping evangelism, edification, and church structure together as we plant new churches. If we major in evangelism without proper teaching, people will come in the front door and go out the back door. If we major in teaching, we will find ourselves building up the believers who stagnate. If we do not build organically, we will find the church growing, but not developing as an organism should.
Not understanding how to handle the transition period from church planter to new leadership. This applies primarily to those whose job it is to “plant and go” and not “plant and stay.” Even those who are not missionaries need to understand the importance of care during the transition period. Here are some basic principles.
Principle #1: Seek to build relationships between believers in the church in such a way that you are not the center. A healthy church is a church where believers find and use their spiritual gifts. Your job is to encourage this and to see gifts helping gifts.
Principle #2: Work on the transition long before the transition takes place. Pray and plan right from the beginning. This is one of the values of working with an association of churches. In two of the transitions we worked in, we were glad that we had a network so that the new leadership had approval from both the church and from godly leaders.
Principle #3: Find leaders who have proven themselves effective already. I rarely recommend placing an inexperienced person into a new church plant who has not proven himself. It is important to have someone in the new role who has shown a capacity to lead.
Principle #4: Take time to pray and work through the transition with the leadership of the church. When passing responsibility to a pastor who replaced us in a church in France, we first prayed, then began the search.
The candidate was interviewed by the local leadership, who subsequently asked the national church association for their advice.
After a potential pastor was chosen, he spoke on a Sunday; this was followed by a church meeting during which he and his wife were asked questions. The church had a dedicated time of fasting and prayer after which there was a church meeting that resulted in an overwhelming decision to call the pastor. (Warning: Never consider a person without full and complete harmony of the leadership.) When the pastor began, the transition was harmonious.
Principle #5. Celebrate the transition and show how God was at work in it. This makes a big difference as leadership shifts. People more readily follow someone whom current leadership backs with all their heart.
Mistake # 7
Not having an adequate approach to discipleship in the new church. In new churches, there is a tendency to have what has been called a “convoy” mentality. This approach wants all Christians moving together, no matter what the present state of their discipleship. For example, a convoy mentality would state as a goal, “We want everyone in this new church to read through the Bible this next year.” Another approach was presented to me in a module on discipleship given by Bill Hull and Bob Gilliam (1995). Their approach was similar to that explained by A. B. Bruce (1971), where he speaks of three stages.
Hull and Gilliam suggest the following four stages:
Stage #1: “Come and see”: The evangelistic and beginning discipleship phase in which contacts are exposed to who Christ is and what he has done, leading to faith in him.
Stage #2: “Come and follow”: The stage where discipleship is advanced as those who have come to faith in Christ are taught to pray, give, and read the word with a greater commitment than phase one.
Stage #3: “Come and be with me”: The phase where leaders are developed.
Stage #4: “Remain in me and go”: The phase of sending out. (For church planters, this is the phase where they train church planters who reach out to plant new churches.)
Not understanding the importance of where a new church should be planted. Veteran church planter Bob Logan explains that church plants often fail because of “wrong person, wrong plan, and wrong place” (Logan 2005). It is unfortunate to have a qualified person in the wrong place and see a church plant fail. What are some wrong places?
1. Very difficult, resistant, older areas with aging populations. I have seen church planters seek to plant churches in regions like this and finally give up in discouragement.
2. Rural areas where everyone knows everyone else. In this area, it is very difficult for a person to step out and trust Christ openly.
3. Areas where people are leaving. When we sought out an area for a church plant in Australia, we went to the Australian Bureau of Statistics to discover where the growing areas were in Adelaide. We aimed to plant a church in a growing area and stayed away from areas that were emptying out for various reasons. The result was a much more solid church plant.
It is not a mistake to seek to plant churches in very difficult areas, but it is a mistake to not count the cost.
Not having help in planting and developing a new church. Looking back, this is one of my biggest mistakes. I did have counsel and help from time to time, but if I were to do it again, I would seek out a veteran church planter who has successfully planted churches and ask him to mentor and meet with me regularly. I do remember times when I avoided mistakes by asking national pastors for help in situations where I was culturally unsure. I also watched other missionaries who were planting churches effectively and learned from them. However, I would have benefited by being mentored regularly by someone who had successfully planted a church.
Planting a church without a network of other churches. If you plant an independent church without networking with other churches, you are emphasizing independence at the cost of interdependence. Is Christ divided? Is your church the only church faithful to the word of God—or are there others? Can a truly biblical church live and work without a relationship to other biblical churches?
Whether this means being part of a fellowship of churches or a network of churches is not as important as having a relationship of some kind. Research shows that church plants do much better when they network with others churches (Tuggy and Oliver 1972, 115).
Are these the only mistakes church planters make? No. However, a church planter who wants to plant a church that survives and thrives would do well to begin by looking at these ten before and while starting a new church. May we bathe the church plant in prayer and ask God to teach us to evaluate what we do in order to have a more effective ministry for his glory.
Bruce, A. B. 1971. The Training of the Twelve. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel.
Hull, Bill and Bob Gilliam. 1995. Biblical Foundations of Disciple-Making. Lecture notes, DMin seminar, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. July 17-21.
Logan, Bob. 2005. C2M2: Cultivating Church Multiplication Movements Seminar. Charleston, S.C.: May 10-11.
Tuggy, Arthur L. and Ralph Toliver. 1972. Seeing the Church in the Philippines. Manila: O.M.F. Publishers.
Vajko, Robert. 2005. “Why Do Some Churches Reproduce?” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41(3): 294-299.
Robert J. Vajko served in church planting, church development, and leadership training for twenty-nine years in France, then seven years at the Adelaide College of Ministries in Australia. He holds a DMiss from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a degree in theology from the Evangelical Faculty of Theology, Vaux-sur-Seine, France.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 108-112. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.