How (Not) to Lose Your Soul as a Church Planter: 3 Shifts

I came to know the love of Jesus for the first time at a church plant.

I then had the privilege of being a part of one of the most impactful church-planting churches in the Midwest for over ten years, having a hand in the start-up of various campuses and plants.

Later I moved my family to New York City, which I now call home, to plant the first evangelical church in the history of our neighborhood with an amazing team of people. The church is now home to people from 35 different countries of origin, and has become a brilliant mess of a church!

I read the book of Acts and Paul’s missionary letters, and the Scripture comes alive for me, speaking to something deep in my soul. I’m currently forming a core team to start a new church in Queens.

Church planting is in me. I really love it!

The problem with loving church planting

But one of the prevalent problems that I and many other church planters face is how to truly love Jesus more than his mission.

Too often in my life, church planting has felt like nothing more than an entrepreneurial start-up game with a weird religious twist to it.

Because of this, I’ve had to focus on a few key paradigm shifts each and every day. These key shifts help keep church planting a sacred work, and help keep the soul of the planter spiritually thriving. Embrace these shifts and you won’t lose your soul in the work of church planting.

1. It’s about waking up (not starting up)

Church planting is the practice of seeing. Too often church planting assessment centers look for the most effective entrepreneurial leader, and if that leader can mix in the name of Jesus and some sound doctrine, they are good to go, and often funded with thousands of dollars.

But church planting is not a Silicon Valley start up! If God is always present and at work, our role as church planters is not to build something from the ground up, but to see where the Holy Spirit is already at work, and to gather our emotional energy, gifting, and resources around it.

We believe that apart from God we can do nothing (John 15:5), and our problem as church planters isn’t that we don’t do anything; it’s that we’ve figured out how to do a “whole lotta nothing” apart from Jesus!

Church planters are rather those wake up to God’s presence and see where the Holy Spirit is already at work. They are those who see people of peace, and “places of peace.” They are people who plant churches marked by a joy that only the Holy Spirit can birth.

Once this seeing becomes central for a church planter, then fasting, intercessory prayer, and cultural analysis become our primary planting practices as we attempt to wake up to God’s activity instead of simply starting and sustaining our own.

2. It’s about apostolic grit (not workaholism)

Missiologists have begun using the phrase “apostolic grit.” I’m not sure who coined the term, but it’s often equated with the capacity to keep working, keep moving, to keep re-inventing until “it” comes to fruition.

But that just sounds like workaholism to me. I think a better way to understand apostolic grit is through the apostle Paul. In the New Testament, we see him struggle again and again in his mission, and through his struggles we see his tenacious spirit turn inward, fleshing out how his beliefs are forming who he is within his missional context.

It wasn’t Paul’s ability to keep hustling that set his ministry apart from others. It was his ability to reflect on his failures, diving amazingly deep into what Jesus was doing within him while he moved outward toward others.

Where many feel the need to exhaust their efforts externally toward others, I say apostolic grit speaks more about the discipline to keep going deep internally into self-awareness.

Apostolic grit is the ability to make the main thing the main thing, becoming more mature both spiritually and emotionally in the love of Jesus as the activity of ministry ebbs and flows between failure and success, fruitfulness and barrenness.

The most healthy, effective, and impactful planters are also the most reflective, contemplative, and self-aware.

3. Be catalytic (not charismatic)

One of the things assessment centers most emphasize when considering whether or not to support a church planter is their “charisma.” Do they project a “larger than life” charisma that can gather the crowds?

However, I’ve found there are a few big flaws in this type of thinking. The first is obvious: the call of the church is to make disciples who make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20). This is a work of reproduction, but when people file into a church building where all the ministry activity centers around a charismatic leader, most normal people think “I can’t do what that person is doing up on that stage”… and they are right.

Only a few people will have the charisma of the superstar pastor that packs out arenas. When we expect church planters to be charismatic, we are often diminishing the reproductive nature of the church.

Second, when our focus is on charismatic leaders, we often eliminate women from important leadership roles. Here’s what I mean: it’s telling that I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it said of a woman leader that “she comes off too strong,” or “She’s too overbearing.”

There is something still alive in our culture that allows a male pastor to thrive off of their larger than life charisma, while at the same time it stifles their female counterpart.

Instead of charismatic leaders, I think we need catalytic leaders. Those who can see where God is already working and then mobilize the right people and the right resources around God’s activity at the right time.

This was the difference between Saul and David. Saul stood high above the rest, he was strong, eloquent, and charismatic (1 Samuel 9) and yet it was David who rallied together a bunch of rejected and marginalized men in a cave (1 Samuel 22).

Saul was potentially the superstar pastor of his day, but David was planting churches in caves, and my gut says that the way of Jesus will take hold much more powerfully in caves than in cathedrals in this next generation.

Church planters, we need you. We need your sacred work, and we need your soul to stay rooted in the life of Christ. So may the peace and power of Christ be at work in you today, so that the peace and power of Christ may work through you for years to come.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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