Some days, church planting (like most ministry) is an absolute joy. Other days, I want to go and sell beds. When we recently bought a new bed, I envied the sales assistant: in her profession, there are no disputes, no battles, no people leaving and no difficult decisions requiring the sort of wisdom I didn’t feel I had. She just has to show a customer a bed that suits. Church life isn’t like that, and my church has only been going for three and a half years.
When I was in my last year of Bible college, I brainstormed with a few friends places in Australia we could go and plant churches. We started by looking at different areas that were growing—places that didn’t have as many expository Bible teaching churches. During the next couple of years, I continued to think about this as I served as a minister in a Sydney church.
I discovered that the Central Coast was growing—particularly the Northern Region—but there weren’t many churches in that area. However, there was a small group from The Lakes Evangelical Church who were willing to be part of a core team. I started meeting this group monthly, opening the Bible with them to see what church is and working out the practical details of planting a church. This particular period was tiring, both physically and emotionally. Each month, I, my wife Belinda, Ben (a ministry trainee), Robyn (his wife) and another guy named Mick would drive two hours north and two hours home. In November 2005, we started doing this weekly, dropping our kids off for babysitting, then picking them up on the way back. The exhaustion also came from trying to keep two worlds in my head—the world of my job in the Sydney church and the world of the plant.
But even though it was tiring, it was still exciting. I had the opportunity to implement and shape things according to the gospel from the beginning. People were excited. We dreamed and planned.
Just before we moved north, we bought our first house, which led to a few sleepless nights as we didn’t have a guaranteed income. But we wanted to say to the core group (and to ourselves) that we were there to stay. Belinda and I decided that one of us would work part-time if we didn’t have enough income. In February 2006, church went ‘public’, and since then, it has been a source of great joy.
From the start, the core group worked hard. It was wonderful being involved with people who were willing to lead, but who were also partners in the gospel. Everyone put in huge numbers of hours to make church happen. For the first three months, apart from some help with kids’ church from The Lakes and Central Coast Evangelical Church, only the core group was involved in formal ministry. They did everything—from the mundane to prominent ministries—week in and week out, and they did it with servant heartedness. We thanked our Father frequently for the people he gathered to serve with us.
But at the end of three months, the core group was really tired. This showed me that it’s not difficult to be excited initially about a church plant, but keeping it going for the long haul can be very draining—especially if there isn’t much growth.
However, we did grow. We ran Simply Christianity courses from the start. We wanted the course to run as a regular group, so we advertised it once a term, every term. A group was formed, but we also ran the course with others who couldn’t make that time. Eventually it gained momentum and a regular stream of newcomers. I think this was because people at church knew it was always on, so they kept inviting their friends along. In addition, we started showing video interviews with people who had been saved in church.1 The result was that new people were encouraged to do the course, existing members saw its value, and God brought more people to himself, which spurred those people on to invite their friends and family.
It has been so encouraging to see God saving people through this. Ben, my ministry trainee, was helping me lead the follow-up session we do with all course attendees. One time, a couple openly declared that they wanted to trust Jesus as their king, and on the way home in the car, Ben was practically bouncing in his seat with excitement.
Along with conversions, many people have joined us who were not in churches that had expository preaching and Bible study groups. It’s been a pleasure seeing these people grow in their ability to read the Bible for themselves, instead of relying on the pastor. I have seen many make real changes in the way they follow Jesus—putting off greed, getting serious about leading their families, starting ministries that aren’t already happening, giving up drugs and other addictions, asking for and giving forgiveness when arguments occur, urgently sharing the gospel with the lost, and serving endlessly.
In addition, the number of people involved in serving has benefited from our system of formal membership. When someone comes to church, after the initial follow-up (which involves a letter and a visit from someone in the church), they come to one of the monthly newcomers’ suppers. After three months, they attend a membership lunch where we discuss the vision and structure of the church, its finances and serving. If someone chooses to become a formal member, they sign a piece of paper and fill out a ‘ministry expression of interest’ form. The latter becomes the basis for discussions about how they can serve. Only members can formally serve at church. This means everyone serves in some way. Some have baulked at becoming members, but membership has been a really good way of getting people to commit to us, instead of just drifting in and out.
One of the joys of being an independent church is having the freedom to make changes. We have also experienced much goodwill since we started, which has enabled us to try new things. Our church now expects change because the idea has been there from the very beginning.
However, although we are independent, we are also part of a group of Australian churches called the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. The fellowship is still in its early stages, but primarily it consists of a bunch of churches that have been planted in the last 15 years and that are keen to keep planting. The fellowship is flexible, laidback and doesn’t have much administrative clutter. We’ve been able to seek advice, ideas, money and aid from each other in order to get new church plants off the ground. It’s also a real privilege (and has brought real camaraderie) uniting with others who want to advance the gospel!
However, the last three years also haven’t been easy. Some of our struggles are not unique to church plants, but some are. In the first year, everything was new. We had no traditions, and so had to decide everything—from what to preach to what Bible studies groups should do, how many events and what sort we should run, what to call ourselves, the design of our logo, where we would meet, and so on. Starting some things felt like starting traditions, so we were keen to get it right.
In addition, I constantly had to ask myself whether I was just importing cultural methods I was used to or whether what I wanted was helpful (e.g. sermon length). This was particularly tricky when certain decisions were not black and white. For example, I wanted to provide boxes for the offertory rather than passing around a bag. I thought it would be easier for the outsider, and it would encourage electronic giving. But there was some flak—especially from those who worked in finance who said that it would decrease the amount of money we’d receive, which was not an insignificant problem when we first started.
On a related note, we also faced pressure from people joining us later who found that we did things differently to what they had been used to. This was particularly in regards to things like the Lord’s Supper and music. Some said our music was too loud; others said it was too soft. Some said we shouldn’t have drums. Some said we should sing hymns. It was hard to know who to listen to, what to change and what to retain.
Furthermore, I had to work out how to do stuff I’d never done before—like run an annual general meeting and work out, and continue to grow, a budget. Looking back, we made at least one good decision: we made the budget from internal giving in the first year, and earmarked the money we received from our ministry partners for a second staff worker we hoped to put on in the future. We were grateful we had done this when, in 2009, we appointed a second pastor and our budget increased by 89 per cent.
Other struggles included Christians and non-Christians coming to check us out; the feeling that I was ‘preaching for my life’ each Sunday; trying not to compromise preaching in those early months when lots of stuff needed to be done; and so on. Church just felt fragile. There really wasn’t anything holding people there except the word of God read, preached and taught. The relationships we had with people weren’t very deep because of the lack of time. Because we met in a school hall, it wasn’t the sort of place where someone’s mother or grandfather had been married. I felt like people could leave at the drop of a hat. Some core members did, which was devastating.
There have been some ongoing struggles that have occurred because we don’t have a building. Our relationship with the school is good, but I always feel vulnerable. We are constantly bending over backwards to make sure we stay on good terms (e.g. we accept flak when the cleaners say wrongly that we’ve left a mess). Sometimes we have hundreds of desks and chairs to pack up and put back when it’s exam time. That just gets tiring. In addition, I feel like the school could ask us to leave at any time, but we don’t have somewhere to go because of the lack of auditoriums in our area. We have started planning for a building somewhere down the track, and this has created the tension of whether we funnel money into a shelter or into staff who will help grow the church.
Not having a building has also meant that groups meet at our house. That was okay until the last week of the second year, when the mother’s Bible study group had 18 children running around downstairs. We also received complaints from neighbours about the cars constantly parked around our house.
Finally, not being part of a denomination has some drawbacks. When we were looking for a second pastor, it was hard to find someone to join us. In the end, it took 18 months: I spoke to many, many people about the position, and ended up going to Brisbane to get someone.
Over the last three years, I’ve learned a few things. Firstly, I need to keep reminding myself that my worth is not tied up with how well the plant is doing. I face the constant battle of trying to be humble when things go well, recognizing that Jesus is building his church, and persevering when people leave or when I get negative feedback. Also, if church didn’t quickly grow to be financial viable, did this mean I shouldn’t do church planting, or was it caused by factors outside of me?
Secondly, I’ve had to keep trusting God. Six months in, I got a prolapsed disc, which means I could not sleep, sitting was painful, and standing and lying down were only marginally better. I didn’t see how this would advance God’s church or his kingdom, but I did learn new ways of leading meetings while lying on my stomach and looking up at everyone. I had to keep on trusting God and persevering.
Thirdly, I’ve learned to be more patient. Some people have taken a long time to come on board, but have eventually become regular attendees. Others have taken years to become formal members. I learned I can’t rush people. In addition, you need time to gather momentum in different areas. We had to work out what to say ‘no’ to, and then be patient with the ministries we thought were important. The youth ministry has only just gotten going, and last year was the first time we had significant numbers at our mission.
Fourthly, my role has changed. Initially I was more of a jack-of-all-trades. But eventually when we formed groups and appointed leaders, I stepped back a bit and worked on some ministries instead of in them. Recently I’ve learned a lot about employing someone, asking myself “What type of person do we need? How do I find the right one? How do I lead him and hand over stuff well so that he can be both a leader and a subordinate?”
Finally, I’ve realized we need to maintain the push. I can never relax because, for the rest of our time here, we need to keep urging evangelism and looking outward, growing more like Jesus, growing Jesus’ church and increasing the budget. That’s never going to stop, and we will never arrive at our goal until Jesus returns.
But until then, we need to keep planting churches. We won’t be able to reach everyone, but certainly in Australia, there are many places where it’s impossible to drive for 30 minutes to be part of a Bible-teaching church. For me, it was an absolute blessing seeing people leaving the security of their lives to join us in the plant and give so much of their time, money, skills and energy to the work. For both staff and congregation, there was struggle and sacrifice, but also much joy in partnership.