Inherent in all church plants, and church planters, are certain liabilities that will actively work against their vision and ultimate success. Perhaps it's personality issues, a lack of gifting in certain areas, organizational ineptness or more seriously, chronic sin issues. Whatever the case may be, wherever the church plant may be, and whoever the church planter may be, you can be certain of one thing - under the weight and burden of church planting, the latent liabilities within you and your system will quickly be exposed.
As opposed to assets, which are traits, resources, giftings or qualities you or your organization have that help advance and progress your vision, liabilities do just the opposite. They interrupt, hold back, corrupt and interfere with the overall health and momentum of what you are trying to accomplish.
While many church planters know what they don't want to be and do and are continually formulating a vision and strategy for what they do want to be and do, very few are taking the time to identify and address the inherent liabilities they will face along the way. Caught by surprise, they are often blindsided by things they should have seen coming but didn't, mostly because they never took the time to proactively address them early on.
When we planted Woodlands Point Community Church a few years ago, we did so in a highly affluent North Houston suburb. The culture of our town is rooted in high performance and beautiful appearances. The community is built around an appeal to the successful middle-aged businessmen, beautiful homes, good families and high-end luxury. The evangelical rhythm here very much mirrors that pulse. Big production, beautiful buildings, lots of ministries.
The scope of this post is not to speak to the positives or negatives of this type of church environment. It's simply to highlight that you must know the context into which you are planting, especially the evangelical one. What's the pulse of the church in your city? What's the non-churched perception of the church there? When you plant your church, where on the spectrum of the evangelical grid will you fall? Will you blend right in? Will you stick too far out? Will you toe the line of both fitting in and standing out?
Understanding your context helps you develop appropriate language your audience will understand, set reasonable, attainable, measurable goals for your church given the resources available to you, and identify inherent liabilities you will face from day one. What's appropriate, reasonable and potentially liable in one context might not be so in another. What works in Portland might not work in Kansas, and what works in the inner city might not work in suburban America. Know your context well.
For example, the first inherent liability we recognized is our facility. We started holding weekly services in a local intermediate school. The space was great and was just what we needed at the time. Since then we have moved into the main high school in town. We enthusiastically remain a portable church for a number of reasons (see this POST), but understand that in doing so we willingly accept the liabilities that come with it. Quite frankly, we don't have a nice church building. As church planters we like that though...we're renegades, rebels, non-conformist trailblazers, right?? Right. But it's a bit strange to the people in our community, and that presents a problem. Not an insurmountable one, but one that stands as a liability unless we proactively address it and make it a non-issue.
So we decided to follow the "8 Second Rule". This rule is the culmination of much sociological research that shows people make long-standing decisions about their commitment to something within the first 8 seconds of experiencing it. The idea of "love at first sight" falls under the rule, as well as the psychology of home buying that realtors use as part of their sales approach - within the first 8 seconds of seeing a home, buyers have generally determined whether or not they can see themselves living there. That's why curb appeal is so important. They better have a good first impression.
We set a goal: Within the first 8 seconds of someone walking into our school, we want them to forget they have walked into a school. Identifying this inherent liability on the front end drove us to develop systems, processes and standards that address it long term. It meant forming strong set-up and tear-down teams, creating safe, clean and fully resourced children's classrooms, and making sure directional signs, banners, kiosks, information tables and any other visual and environmental components of our portable church were clean, efficient, professional and appealing.
We're not catering to the performance and appearance appeal of our community, we're simply transforming an otherwise uninviting, cold, harsh space into a place that people feel welcomed and comfortable. It helps us earn their trust, and ultimately their ear for the Gospel, and removes what otherwise could stand as an obstacle to them easily connecting into our church body.
Second, we realized we had to address the age issue. For the most part we planted in a middle-aged context. Commodities, entertainment opportunities and master-planned communities are built around the family. As late-twenty year olds we recognized that in order to be taken seriously in a community like this, we had to grow up. Our age was an inherent liability that we needed to overcome in order to gain the respect, and again the ear, of our community.
As a former student pastor I was well aware of the youth ministry residue that still lingered in some of my behavior and speech. It was time to abandon all of that, stop throwing noodles and mustard in a baby pool expecting people to roll around in it, buy some more collared shirts and get my act together. For the most part we understand that a church's primary demographic is generally within a 10-year window of the age of the leadership. As late 20 years olds we knew then that older teenagers up to late 30 years olds would not be hard to connect with. Our most difficult demographic to engage would be the proverbial 55 year old businessman in our town.
A hypothetical profile of this guy goes like this: He's a vice president at his company, negotiates multi-million dollar business deals for a living, has a good marriage, three kids, a beautiful home on the golf course in a nice gated community and a couple of luxury cars in the garage. Our objective was not to target this hypothetical guy for his money or influence, but to present ourselves in responsible, mature, well thought out ways so that a guy like this in our city would take us seriously, respect us and ultimately follow us.
Our goal from the very beginning, just like the 8 second rule with our building, was this: Within the first few minutes of a conversation with a 55 year old businessman about the vision and mission of our church plant, we want them to forget they are talking to guys half their age.
In the church planting circles I run in I am finding that most new church planters are mid to late 20's and are coming out of some type of student ministry experience. Given the context these guys are planting in, it is highly likely that an inherent liability they must address is the issue of age, maturity, respectability and professionalism. If they can't sit down with a 55 year old man and have an intelligible conversation about church, structure, leadership, vision and especially the Gospel, they won't be taken seriously by that demographic and will ultimately lose the ear of that group. In the end they will plant a church that in many ways resembles the student ministry they left just 6 months prior.
Church planting is hard, and every church planter would attest to that. People are difficult, leadership decisions are heavy, and the burden to steward and shepherd the Church well is at times overwhelming. So let's not make it any more difficult than it already is. Don't be blindsided by things you should have seen coming all along.
What are your inherent liabilities? Are they organizational, spiritual, geographical, personal? Be diligent about identifying them within you and your organization so you can proactively address them in such a way that in the end they become non-issues. Surround yourself with confidants and wise counsel who can graciously call out, confirm and correct the liabilities within you. Know your context, recognize the assets God has given you and be humble enough to identify the liabilities that threaten your full potential.