Seven Church-Planting Pitfalls

Carl Laferton | March 21st 2013

Having started up and pastored a new “plant service”, aiming to reach an unreached demographic; and now being a “punter” in a young church plant, I’ve fallen into all these traps, one way or another… (by the way, I'm assuming that the plant is Christ-centred, and Bible-preaching. Obviously, the biggest pitfall is not to preach Christ from His word, relying on His Spirit!)

1. Forgetting what you're doing

A church plant is a kingdom-building project; a new structure of bricks in the only building that will last forever (1 Peter 2 v 4-6). Every week a new church meets is a miracle of God’s grace. Every new believer or growing believer is a result of God’s mercy. Church planting is hard, can be lonely, is often slow work. It’s easy to forget what it is that is happening when a new church begins in an area, or reaching a section of society, that hasn’t heard the gospel for years, decades, centuries, or ever. In 200 years, what you do for, with and in that church (whether a pastor or a pew-sitter) will still matter. What else do you want to do with your life?

2. Trying to do it all

Almost every church plant is smaller than the church which planted it; usually, it’s much smaller. You aren’t going to be able to do all the sending church did. That’s OK. The work is Jesus’, not ours. We need Him; He doesn’t need us. As John Hindley puts it in his new book, Serving Without Sinking: “Jesus doesn’t need you to work hard. He managed without you on the coffee or stewarding teams of your church from the creation of the cosmos till a few years ago.”

God calls us to work hard and sacrificially. But He doesn’t call us to burn out. When He prepared good works for us to do for Him (Ephesians 2 v 10), presumably He didn’t prepare a number that He knew would break us.

Jesus will save His people in your area (Acts 18 v 9-11). He may even do it through you. Do what you can, as well as you can, and have the confidence in Christ to allow you to say: This is a good thing to do, but we're not doing it.

3. Looking forward to comfort

Church planting isn’t easy or comfortable. There’s nowhere to hide, you don’t get a break, no one can sit quietly and not get stuck in. It demands real commitment, and real sacrifice. It’s easy to pine for the old days, in the bigger church, when things were probably easier. It’s easy to look forward to next Sunday/next term/next year, when your church will be more established, and things will be easier. It’s easy to worship the God of comfort, the one who lets you put down your cross or never even asks you to pick it up. But He’s not our God. Our God calls us to die to worldly comfort, deny ourselves, and follow Him (Luke 9 v 23-25). Thank Him for the uncomfortableness, and the uncertainty, of planting, and ask Him to use it to throw you into greater dependence on Him.

4. Dividing between the sent and the new

Many of the epistles were written to young churches struggling to maintain unity between two groups. One group had a history of being part of God’s people, had the past and the pedigree and the contacts (the Jews). The other were new (the Gentiles). The only person they new was Christ. How easy for the former to make the latter feel left out, without meaning to!

Church plants are not totally dissimilar. As you grow, you can easily get two groups: the core team, who talk about the days when they first planted, talk about friends from the sending church, greet visiting preachers like the old buddies they are; and the newer members, who are accidentally being told: “You’re not quite part of the in-crowd here. You don’t share our history or know our people.”

Beware starting a sentence with: “At our old church…” or “When we first planted”. Ask visiting preachers from your wider network not to name-check people they know from “the old days” or say “I know some of you from…” Present unity matters much more than old contacts.

5. Seeing church growth as kingdom growth

There’s nothing wrong with “transfer growth”—existing Christians joining an existing church. They’re always gratefully welcomed by a small plant church! But transfer growth isn’t kingdom growth. Kingdom growth is non-Christians becoming Christians, or closet Christians (Christians who, for whatever reason, haven’t been going to a Bible-teaching church) joining a gospel community. Transfer growth means that a plant church can grow rapidly, look successful, feel good about itself… without the kingdom growing at all. The danger of transfer growth is that we don’t reach out, don’t think missionally, don’t challenge ourselves about how to reach our area.

6. Allowing practicalities to stifle imagination

There’s a lot to do: set up, music words, service sheets, children’s groups, coffee, etc. Just keeping the show on the road is hard work. So it’s easy for church plants to default to copying the mother church, because there isn’t time to think about the culture of the area, to consider what church that builds up believers and welcomes non-believers would look like. A new church is a great moment to be imaginative and innovative as well as biblical and faithful; to hold a Bible in one hand and a blank sheet of paper in the other. But that doesn’t happen unless time is given over to it, and keeps being given over to it. We won’t think about what the show should look like if we are spending all our effort keeping that show (whatever it is) on the road.

7. Forgetting what Jesus is doing

Which is (deliberately) very much like the first point! What is little in the eyes of the world (and even the eyes of the church) is not so in the eyes of the only One who matters. If your prayer meeting, midweek Bible study or even Sunday gathering draws just two or three people, Jesus still turns up (Matthew 18 v 20). The spiritual world still notices (Ephesians 10-11). As the faithful gather, Jesus still builds His church (Matthew 18 v 17-18), and uses it to proclaim the kingdom and invite people into the kingdom (v 19); and nothing—Satan, the world, or our own sin or smallness, our own flaws and failings—can stop that.

So, that's my "top seven". But it's not exhaustive, and I'm sure there are other pitfalls that should knock some of these out. Would you like to see something else there? What have I missed, that you think is fundamental?

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Carl Laferton

Carl Laferton is EVP Publishing/Editorial Director at TGBC. He is the bestselling author of the kids' books The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross and The God Contest, and also serves as series editor of the God's Word For You series. Before joining TGBC, he worked as a journalist, a teacher, and pastored a congregation in Hull. Carl is married to Lizzie and they have two children, Benjamin and Abigail. He studied history at Oxford University.