Ten lessons in three years of church planting in Central London

Back in September 2014 we began meeting as Grace London and so we’re about to hit our third birthday as a church. Here is my list of ten things I’ve learned about church planting these past few years.

(1) Planting is rewarding

The gospel works. That means that good stuff happens in peoples’ lives whenever you’re committed to making Jesus the centre of everything you do.

So, while I have moments of discouragement at all the stuff that hasn’t happened, or that isn’t right about our church, it’s also possible to look back and see things that happened because we stepped out and actually did it; we planted a church, and lives have been changed.

Two things in particular stand out to me. First, there are the guys from our church who have made very deliberate steps towards training for full-time ministry and/or church planting. That is, without a doubt, the thing that excites me most in this work because I know that whatever we do, they’re going to do more by God’s grace. Second, there are the many prodigals who have fallen in love with Jesus and with church again. That is so, so beautiful to see.

(2) It’s easy to plant without doing evangelism

I’m not saying this is a good thing; I’m just saying it’s a thing that can happen. You can easily lose focus when you have a church in front of you that needs to be pastored.

In our context, if you put your hand up and say, ‘Hey, we’re planting over here’, there are people who will join you. Mainly, those people are Christians already. That’s fine – you need to grow in order to survive (unless you have an umbilical cord of continued financial support from a generous sending church). But, theoretically, you don’t have to do any evangelism to plant. That’s something to be aware of and to avoid at all costs.

For us, that has meant being incredibly deliberate about being gospel-centred on Sundays, thinking of initiatives to share the gospel (e.g. Salt or seeker courses like Alpha), and now employing a guy who is clearly gifted and called as an evangelist.

(3) Planting is pastoring

A church planter is not a breed of special forces pastor, exempt from the dirty and difficult work of pastoring people in their mess. I think some guys are quite likely drawn to planting precisely because it seems to be in a different box to pastoring. If the pastors are maintenance guys, planters are pioneers — or so we imagine.

But the truth is, from day one you will have all kinds of stuff going on in peoples’ lives that requires pastoral skill, compassion, and wisdom. Not to mention the other massive role of pastoring — wielding a hefty staff in the direction of dangerous animals when necessary. Conclusion: If you’re not a pastor, don’t plant a church.

(4) Reconciling the dual tensions of evangelism and pastoring is only possible by making the gospel centre

There is a difference of emphasis between the call of evangelism (sharing the gospel with unbelievers) and the work of pastoring (applying biblical truth to disciple believers). I would despair of ever bringing these two emphases together if it were not for the fact that the gospel does both. So, the more gospel-centred you are, the more you end up being both evangelistic and pastoral at the same time. I credit Timothy Keller and Martyn Lloyd-Jones for teaching me this.

(5) Who you plant with is more important than your gift — and reflective of your gift

Some of the guys we started the church with were heavy lifters in terms of carrying some weighty responsibility from the very start. The reality of planting is that there is quite a lot to do, including setting the church up as a legal entity, getting bank accounts, running a budget, creating a visual identity (please don’t say ‘brand’), making a website, buying and using some sound kit, making sure whatever kids are in the room are taken care of according to legal and biblical guidelines, and so on.

If I had been the guy doing all this stuff, I don’t think I would have survived. But God, in his wisdom, so worked as to form a launch team with a wide array of abilities (and this was not by my design). We had a lawyer, an economist, a designer, a PA technician, a few home-makers (food and hospitality are essential), a software developer, as well as people gifted in more ‘spiritual’ areas like leading worship — and that was among a group of just nine adults. I honestly didn’t realise until we started how blessed we were.

I have often said that because of their skills, and their devotion, they saved our marriage and our sanity. As a result, church planting was not as hard as people often say it is, simply because it was a pleasure to pull the weight together.

Of course, forming and keeping a team is a skill in itself. But far better you work on that skill than try to accumulate all the other skills in yourself.

(6) Organic growth lasts longer

We did a very small amount of promotion in the early days of the plant, mainly by blogging about it, and I had the opportunity to share a little at a prayer meeting at a major conference. But, the rest was all word-of-mouth. We discovered that word-of-mouth growth is best because the person who brings a friend also then takes care of their friend. I’m not saying that it’s pointless doing other kinds of promotion; but I feel it’s more likely you’ll gather a crowd than form a family, and it can be hard to change the culture if it doesn’t start right.

(7) Don’t live or die by last Sunday

One of the peculiarities of our context (city centre) is that we gather people who very often want to flee the city at weekends. The result is that our Sunday attendance fluctuates significantly — not only according to seasons, but also from week to week. We can quite literally have twice as many people one Sunday as we did the previous, and then drop right back down the week after. Also, our people tend to be your typical city centre demographic — young professionals. Their families are not living in London, so Christmas and Easter are a write-off; we might have a fifth of our church around at those times.

Even though, as a pastor, I’d like to be above building my worth on the number of people in the room, that tendency (temptation?) always returns whenever things are looking dismal. So, I try not to live or die by last Sunday — as though a good attendance somehow makes me better, and a bad one makes me worse. Instead, I have to set my mind to just one thing as I prepare for the service: my job is to love whoever is in front of me.

(8) Your prayer life will grow when things are difficult (and you might not pray much in the good times)

It’s always uncomfortable to bare your soul when it comes to prayer. Most of us are aware of our inadequacies in this area. I admire people who are consistent, but honestly, I am not. I have found that when things are difficult I pray more, and when things are going well I pray less.

(9) Beware the time sucks

I constantly return to the example of the Apostles in Acts 6 who were determined not to set aside their primary calling (prayer and the word) by doing mercy ministry work. Church planting presents many, many opportunities for work that isn’t prayer and the word. For example, you need to find venues to meet in, which can be difficult and very time-consuming. While this is an incredibly important job, I think we can all agree that it’s not pastoring. You have to be relentlessly determined to do the most important things, the unseen things, both for the sake of your soul and for the long-term good of the church. I refer you to point (5)above.

(10) Making comparisons is really dumb

There are church plants not too far from us that are (on some measures) doing better than us. Maybe we do some stuff better too. But the question is, Why am I even aware of these differences?

Sin. That’s why. And I know I’m not the only one; whenever I spend time with other pastors I see insecurities surfacing and I feel sad for us all that we’re not more dependent on our identity in Christ for our sense of joy in the ministry. One of the great blessings of heaven will be that, finally, we no longer compare.

The reasons not to compare are quite obvious. First, we all have different levels of gifting sovereignly apportioned by Jesus himself, and that’s okay. Second, every context is vastly different. I know that planting one mile away from where we started would be different. So, when I compare with guys in other towns, I’m really starting to be very dumb indeed. Third, Jesus is very much sovereign and in charge of his church, and he can grow and bless it wherever he pleases. Fourth, very often our points of comparison represent fleshly and idolatrous measures of success rather than biblical measures. (The easiest way to determine biblical fruitfulness is to look at Paul’s prayers for the churches, and the letters to the churches in Revelation 2–3).

I’ve heard of church plants where the sending church has pulled the plug because the stats weren’t impressive enough. I think that’s utterly crazy. Of course, there are plants that need to come to an end sometimes, but if only we had a better appreciation for what matters in Christ’s eyes, and an appreciation for the unique challenges of every context. Too often, I believe, we can be quite carnal in all this. We’re much like the Pharisees who ‘… loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God’ (John 12.43).

God help us, and God further the work through faithful men who care not a jot how they appear in the eyes of others, and care only to return a good interest on the investment Christ made in them.