Church Planting is Like Birthing and Raising Kids

There are a lot of metaphors and images used to help us articulate what church planting is like. Childbirth and child-rearing are unexplored images for church planting and pastoring, and yet both can teach church planters much about planting healthy congregations.

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Imagine with me for a moment that you and your spouse find out you are pregnant. You spend months preparing, picking a name, imagining what life will be like with this new addition to your family.

When the child is born, you love her. There are the sleepless nights, figuring out how to get her to nurse well and all the first-time experiences that give you low-grade anxiety because you had no clue how inadequate you’d be at the experience. There is also deep joy as you learn to surrender to some of those inadequacies.

But if you were to hold your eight-month-old child and spend most of your energy imagining her as a twenty-four-year-old Harvard Law Student or a thirty-four-year-old Nobel Prize Winner, you would be missing out on something pretty special that comes with the gift of holding an eight month old.

As she grew into a toddler, if all you noticed was that she tantrums when she is hungry, but didn’t appreciate how she looks at the world with wide-eyed joy and wonder, you would miss out greatly. Imagine that at every tantrum you feared she would grow up to be a delinquent adult. Those parenting years would pass by quickly and joyless.

Imagine that at every tantrum you feared she would grow up to be a delinquent adult. Those parenting years would pass by quickly and joyless.

Or imagine, perhaps, that as she entered her teenage years and went through massive growth-spurts, she began to excel at athletics or drama, but due to changing hormones needed an extra three hours of sleep and couldn’t keep her room clean. What if instead of enjoying the newfound courage and independence you were too distracted by the awkward smells and low-energy and consumed with frustration that she didn’t function as a thirty-two-year-old woman settled into her vocation and life calling?

Often in church planting and leading congregations, we do the very things that would be absurd to do as parents. We can spend so much energy concerned about the people we would prefer to shepherd instead of caring for those currently in our congregation. We can miss so much of the present joy mixed into the burdens of church planting, because our eyes are always to the next stage and next place we need to go. We experience fear and angst disproportionate to the actual challenges we face, because our expectations do not match the age of the community we have been gifted to serve.

This is not to say we never experience stressful moments or challenges as planters and pastors. It is only a reminder to consider whether our concerns match the age of the congregation. Angst that an eight month old seems to have colic and might be nutritionally deficient is different from angst that our eight month old isn’t running a few laps around the track. Many planters and pastors spend a lot of energy on the latter.

As we talk in church planting circles about “birthing churches,” perhaps we should talk think more literally about birth and child-rearing. Childbirth is painful, but it produces life. Child-rearing is painful, but transforming.

Another related analogy I have found helpful when talking about church planting is “midwifery.” When a midwife enters the scene, there is no doubt that someone else is birthing the baby. The midwife is an integral part of what is about to happen. They have vision. They understand the rhythms and cycles of pain. They know when to comfort and when to push. But they are not the ones giving birth.

Unfortunately, pastors and church planters always face the great temptation to believe that they are responsible to birth a church, that it is their efforts, strategies, and skills that can mature a congregation and help her be on mission. Great frustration, insecurity, doubt, and fear surfaces when pastors press in a little more, do the daily grind a little harder, and work tirelessly to see a church birthed and sustained. Yet the most skilled, equipped, strategic pastor still does not give birth to a church.

Caleb Mitchell, a therapist in Phoenix, described his role in walking alongside those who are in pain as that of a midwife and emphasized that part of the healing journey is surrendering to the work of the Spirit as something new is birthed. This imagery has stuck with me and also paints a great pictures of what it means to plant churches and pastor congregations. It is vital to the health of a congregation, as well as to the soul of a church planter, for the pastor or planter to know deeply that they are not the ones birthing a church. The Holy Spirit brings new congregations to life. The church planter is the midwife.

Pastors learn to discern the rhythms and cycles of pain. They know when members need to be comforted and when it’s time to encourage as the Spirit is pushing them. They take comfort in the mystery of how God works through broken people to birth new congregations. But ultimately, they treasure the intimate gift of being able to walk alongside people through the birth and child-rearing process. The congregation may last a few years. It may mature and reach her ninetieth birthday. Either way, the Spirit offers us a beautiful invitation to embrace and surrender to his work as he guides a people into union and intimacy with and dependency on Jesus and transforms them into his hands and feet to the world around them.

Dennae Pierre is the Executive Director of the Surge Network in Phoenix, Arizona, where she was born and raised. Dennae loves church planting and helped plant Roosevelt Community Church alongside her husband, Vermon Pierre, who is the lead pastor. She has worked extensively throughout Phoenix among homeless, victims of domestic violence, and with low-income families. Dennae is the founder of Foster Care Initiatives and has started multiple community development works in under-resourced areas. Dennae desires to see churches across Phoenix cross cultures and boundaries to deepen their love for one another, unite in love for Jesus, and partner together to serve and walk with the poor and marginalized.