Jesus was the ultimate Church planter. He gathered a core group of followers, navigated the nuances of leadership and effectively started a movement of the Gospel that continues to thrive today. While He didn't plant a "church" per say, He did plant THE Church by planting the Kingdom into the hearts and lives of people.
Given the strategies, techniques, resources and models we've grown accustomed to in today's church planting world, how would Jesus go about it? What aspects of His past planting ministry very specifically inform our present leadership posture? Here's 7 things I believe Jesus would do if He were planting a church today:
He would hold an unshakeable
commitment to the Gospel, even when some are attracted by it and some leave
because of it. Immediately following the famous episode where He miraculously feeds thousands of people on a hillside with fish and bread, Jesus makes an audacious claim - He is the true Bread of Life and to follow Him one must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood. With that, hundreds and possibly thousands who chased Him down now turned their backs on Him and walk away. The message was too strong, too offensive and too much to bear (John 6:53-68). If Jesus was more concerned with the size of His following than the substance of those who were following, He would have never said things like that.
Church planters today often operate under the assumption that if we preach the Gospel, people will come. The truth is some will, but some will also leave. There is in inherent offensive to the Gospel, in particular its implications for life, mission, ministry, values and sacrifice. Many will be attracted by the freshness and purity of the message of Jesus, and many will be detracted by the implications of what it means to truly follow Him. You know you are preaching the Gospel when some are drawn to it and some are repelled by it. Don't numb it down but don't add to its offensive. Present it purely and faithfully. Strike the match, put kindling around the fire but trust God will ignite the flame in the hearts of people through the power of His Holy Spirit, not you.
In the early days of church planting most things revolve around one guy - Who's printing bulletins, sending church-wide emails, running set-up teams, training community group leaders, preaching, counseling, graphic designing, printing materials, etc, etc, etc? Typically, one guy - you. However, as ministry compounds on itself and responsibilities grow, the best thing you can do for the mission at hand is get your hands off most of it. Assign authority slowly, but quickly reproduce the vision into others and give them wings to fly. You'll be glad you did, your wife will be glad you did, your kids will be glad you did and your church will be glad you did. Everyone wins. It's a subtle form a arrogance to believe you have to have ownership of everything. It limits the growth of your ministry, incapacitates potentially top-notch leaders around you and eventually burns you out. Jesus was humble enough to step out but confident that He had prepped His guys well enough to carry on...and thrive.
We reproduce who we are. It's a fact of nature. A cow reproduces a cow, a sunflower a sunflower and an unhealthy church planter an unhealthy church. If you are unhealthy it will reflect in your church. You may not see it now but symptoms will eventually surface and the disease will soon be exposed. The temptation for church planters is to sacrifice their own physical, emotional, spiritual and marital health for the sake of the church. It sounds noble but is in fact dishonoring to God. It inevitably creates a culture of unhealth around you and a spirit of martyrdom and entitlement within you - "But God, look at what I've sacrificed for this, how could you not bless it?" Or, "Why aren't you people leading more, giving more, praying more and serving more? Don't you see how much I've given up for this church?" Dangerously unhealthy. Learn to say no to some of the incessant demands of ministry and yes to things that feed you, nourish you and bring you life. At the end of the day your wife and kids will care less about how great of a pastor you are for other people and more about how great of a dad and husband you were for them. Stay connected to Jesus.
You will come across people who bring a lot to the table. Their influence, energy, money and reputation of being "a good guy" could do much in terms of taking your church to the next level. Some will come with an open-handed agenda to bless the church and submit what they have and who they are to its vision. Others will come with terms - "I will come to your church if you promote my ministry" or "I will give lots of money if you start this program". While their presence, or their presents, for the church might help you get where you need to go, your obliging their demands will ultimately lead you to a place you never intended to be. If you pacify those we deem "high capacity" and shift vision and ministry focus in order to gain their allegiance, you effectively compromise the integrity of your leadership, the vision of the church and ultimately the Gospel. Jesus preached a Gospel that had nothing to do with what we bring to the table in terms of our entrance into the Kingdom and everything to do with what He has done for us. If we use people who bring a lot the table simply because they bring a lot to the table we reinforce the notion that their value is tied up in who they are, what they have, what they've done and what they can do. A very different message than Jesus'. Far too many planters and pastors would chase that guy down as he walked away disappointed. Jesus just let him walk away.
He did not harbor bitterness, resentment or anger towards even His most brutal betrayers. Rather, He always extended a hand of grace and opportunity for redemption. He washed the feet of a man who would ultimately turn Him over to His murderers (John 13:1-20), restored back into relationship one of His closest disciples who denied even knowing Him in His greatest hour of need (John 21:15-19) and cried out "Father, forgive them" as He hung in agony at the brutal hands of injustice (Luke 23:34). Jesus endured the weight of rejection and the sting of betrayal, yet responded with grace.
You will give time, energy and emotion to people. You will pour your heart out over the Scriptures for them. You will meet with them and walk with them and commit to supporting them with everything you have to offer. And in the end, some may trample it, betray you, turn their backs on you and walk away. Resentment, bitterness and emotional insecurity will harden your heart more quickly than you realize leaving you untrusting of others and incapable of fully loving. Your soul will be stung with piercing betrayal; only grace can heal that wound. Grace to your attackers, forgiveness towards your accusers and a willingness to let go of the need to cast the burden they've placed on you back on them in increasing measure. People will hurt you but you don't have to let them destroy you. They will question you but you don't have to let them deter you. They will walk away from you but you don't have to let them walk all over you. Your message of grace for the hurting is only as strong as your capacity to extend that same grace to the ones who have hurt you the most.
When the attackers came, Jesus stepped in the gap to take the blows and protect His team. When they were falsely accused of breaking the modern religious protocol of honoring the Sabbath day (Matthew 12:1-8) or adhering to strict cleanliness rituals (Matthew 15:1-9), Jesus was quick to run to their defense. As He is being arrested by the Roman soldiers He is less concerned about what His fate holds and more concerned that His disciples are not harmed (John 18:7-9). Their new way of the Kingdom was highly misunderstood and highly controversial. The followers of Jesus were not immune to the scrutiny of others but were not left to fend for themselves. Their leader always stepped in.
By nature of being a church plant you will be wildly misunderstood and highly scrutinized over philosophies and practices of why you do what you do and why you don't do what you don't. You will be questioned even by some other religious leaders as to why your new work is even necessary in their communities. Your team, by default will receive their fair amount of skepticism or critique from those on the outside. Your job as leader is to defend your team at all costs, even at the cost of saving your own face. Yes, they need to know their leader is strong, confident, theologically competent and purposeful; but sometimes all they really need to know is that their leader is with them, for them and will always have their backs no matter what. Give your team room to be creative, experiment and fail with no fear of facing the firing squad. Build a culture where they know that even in their failures they are protected. Their respect for you and admiration of you will grow, but more importantly their trust in you will abound.
With the many tasks associated with planting, pastoring, leading, managing and shepherding, church planters can unknowingly become all head (let's "figure it out") and all hands (let's "get it done") to the neglect of their hearts. We can bury our heads so deep in the work that we lose sight of who we are, what we feel, how we feel and what makes us feel alive. Many planters can go months or years figuring a lot of things out and getting a lot of things done all without ever really feeling anything. We are rewarded, respected and known for what we can figure out and get done, but who we are silently dissipates into task-based acceptance and approval not heart based passion and love and joy in Jesus. The duties of ministry often kill the joy of knowing and being known by Him. The result is burn-out, isolation, depression and an inability to truly feel a brokenness for the lost, an intimate and passionate relationship with Jesus, an affection for our wives or a motivation to get down on the floor with our kids and wrestle with them at the end of the day. We become robots, a shell of a man who gets a lot done but doesn't feel a thing anymore. Stay deeply connected to those things that make you feel alive. Don't distance yourself from the mission so you are unaffected by it but differentiate yourself to the point that the ups and downs of ministry have little bearing on the ups and downs of who you are in your soul. Even if your head can't figure it out and your hands can't get it done your heart can still be ok.
This list is clearly not exhaustive but does highlight a few very real, very practical ground-level issues every church planter will have to consider at some point throughout their planting experience. Jesus didn't come to plant a church, but to plant the Kingdom in the hearts of people who would ultimately become THE Church. We have much to learn from His heart, humility, leadership, patience, grace and laser-focused mission to seek and save the lost.