How to Launch A Church

Disclaimer: The above title sets the bar WAY too high for this short blog, but I was asked to share an outline of the kinds of things we did to pull off a successful launch for our most recent church plant. Note: I believe our first church plant (18 years ago) had similar success for similar reasons. In other words, I’ve seen these principles work first hand, twice.

In order to successfully launch a church, the goal MUST be understood. The goal of a launch is to gather a CROWD. Why? So they can hear and experience the Gospel! And so they can potentially be led to become a part of your new church (some by salvation, others to become harvest laborers). Secondarily, you need a crowd because people in our Western context are just gullible enough to think a crowd means it is worth their time. In other words, critical mass is a thing, like it or not. And while any planter worth his salt will hope and try for a crowd filled with at least a few (hopefully many) unbelievers, I do not agree that they are all that matters nor that you should try to avoid drawing anyone else. (See the first blog in this series for more on that.)

The goal of a launch is simply to gather a crowd of people who might wind up becoming a part of your church. I believe the planter and his team must have a “whatever it takes” (within ethical/biblical boundaries) attitude if they are going to pull this off, particularly in cultures where most people simply do not go to church (i.e. the PNW). If you are squeamish about the idea of building a crowd, the first thing you need to do is figure out a way to get over it… because I can tell you this doesn’t just happen. I’ve heard people say, “Anyone can get a crowd together.” This makes me laugh. If you think it is so easy to get a crowd to come to church, please don’t bother trying. Instead, if you want to succeed at getting people to actually get in their cars and show up, you’ll need to be ready to work your rear end off. (Or you can limp in like so many others, try to add incrementally to a small group Bible Study and see where that takes you over the next three years.)

A second philosophical consideration before I get to the actual “what we did,” is that we are not talking about padding the “pews” for the first service. In other words, having a mission team of twenty college students there who will be gone the next week does little good in terms of what we are discussing here. Having a bunch of folks from your Sending Church there that day or even for a few weeks, is possibly worse than worthless (although they could help in the kids area or something like that). We are talking about building a crowd of actual prospects. When we launched last year with 166 in attendance, no one was there from our Sending Church (other than the 10 adults who had come into our core group a year earlier). This was by design. There were maybe three or four denominational leaders in attendance. Perhaps a few well-wishers had come from other churches in the community, but not many. At most, I would say twenty people were what we would call “fluff,” meaning they were not true prospects for the church. This is one of the reasons we have continued to average over a hundred since then. This is important. A launch of 150 doesn’t mean much if half of those were short term fluff. You’ve just got to get a crowd of true prospects from your community to show up on launch day to call it a successful launch. This is NOT easy, but it CAN be done.

A third consideration is being READY for them when they show up. If you do not have something great, SPIRITUALLY and in every other way (such as excellence/power in music/worship, great preaching, safe/effective children’s ministry, adequate connections ministry etc.) and if God does not “show up” (you know what I mean), you are also wasting your time, because they will not come back. Have I ever mentioned that there are a lot of things to get right in church planting? Another blog (or book) could be written on what has to be in place at the launch if anyone is going to come back the next week.

Boy, there’s a lot to say, but I need to cut to the chase of what I was asked to do, which is to briefly outline some of the things that we believe led to a successful launch for Go Church – Ridgefield. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things one has to do in the early stages of planting a church. Ha! Not even close. [Even as I sit here thinking about all the stuff that had to happen, I am blown away that we have somehow made it to this point. Step by step.] These are simply the major things we did related to gathering a crowd for our first service. The following took place over about a four-month period. (Before that we were focused on building our core group, finding partners, raising financial support, etc.)

1. Several Prayer Walks (with T-shirts on and ready to talk if anyone asked.) In fact, there is no way to emphasize enough that prayer was the biggest key throughout this time and was the reason for our success. God DID STUFF.

2. Door Hangers to invite people to preview parties. Talking to people who were outside. We hung door hangers three times, about a month apart, covering thousands of homes. Much could be said about the “how to” of door hangers. I think one reason these were important is that it got us out on our feet in our community.

3.  Promotion: Yard signs, social media, publications and every other way we could find to promote the Preview Parties. We promoted these almost as if they were mini-launches. Again, our goal was to get people there and we succeeded.

4. Three Preview Parties. I like doing preview parties rather than preview services and this worked in both of our plants. One was catered by chik-fil-a, one was held at a local pizza place and one was catered BBQ at a coffee shop (which we rented out for the night). All were held at very recognizable public places (NOT a home). Two were very well attended (over 100). One felt like a bust and yet three of our strongest families came out of that one so God knew what He was doing. We also had follow up events at our house for people who were potentially ready to be a part of us. Note: Very few were added to the core at this stage, but our interested contacts list grew substantially. Many were saying they would see us at the launch. We followed up, carefully.

5. Building Relationships With Neighbors. Huge. As a part of this, we started a Facebook Group in our neighborhood and it just went crazy. Practically everyone joined. This continues to be an engine for making friends and finding ways to BLESS our neighbors. We do not use it to promote our church and, in fact, are very careful not to do so, but the relationship building has been awesome and several neighbors have attended Go Church because they know us.

6. Our Core Group participated in some Community Service Events where we helped with projects in our community. I am not sure how effective this was, but at the least it earned us some favor with city employees. Regardless, it was good to do. Honestly, we could have done more of this, but our core group began to run out of energy at some point.

7. As the planter/pastor, I am big on Community Involvement. I have joined various leadership groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, a leadership team that is focused on revitalizing downtown, attended meetings related to the school system, etc. I have worked to be on a first-name basis with most of our city leaders including the Superintendent of Schools, the City Manager, the council members, the mayor, the previous mayor and quite a few other VIP’s. One “person of peace” really helped me a lot with these connections. I attend any open meeting I can find. I encourage. I thank our leaders. I try to be a blessing. I’ve even given thank-you cards stuffed with a gift card to quite a few people to thank them for their service, both in the schools and in the city. I shake hands. I give out my business card. I know their names and share mine however many times it takes. I wear my Go Church shirts a lot so they remember who I am and what I do. Much of this relationship building stuff is difficult to explain in a paragraph, but this right here is a huge part of what led to our church being known and people giving us a try. A planter should understand he is the face of his church plant, at least for some time. Be a good face.

8. Setting up a booth at our Community July 4th Event, meeting hundreds of people. We were able to be approved to set up an information booth (I had to say the right things to pull this off) where we gave out prizes, took people’s information down and followed up, talked about the vision of the church (including hard questions) and handed out professional looking brochures to promote the launch. We did not just say, “Hope you attend our church some time.” No, we promoted the LAUNCH, specifically. The location. The date. The reasons they didn’t want to miss it. This is key. You don’t build a crowd with generalities. The what, where and why has to CONNECT in their heads and still only a small percentage of those genuinely interested will actually show up.

9. Three different Mass Mailers focused solely on promoting the launch date and location. Understand that just any post card would not have done the trick. We did not send out generic, non-impactful mailers, but we worked to find something that communicated… something catchy or maybe even funny that caught eyes and developed interest. Our best draw was probably our meeting location so we used a picture of it, but that’s another story. We sent full color postcards to the same 5,000 homes three times over about two months. The focus of these postcards was on the launch event. Why? Because we remembered our goal… to gather a crowd. Again, the reasons for that goal are found in the previous blog. (In short, if people show up for an authentic service of worship where the Gospel is proclaimed and God is present, we believe amazing things can happen.)

10. Social Media. This was also huge. I personally spent a ton of time promoting and answering questions through social media. Boost stuff on Facebook. Spend the money. Follow up with people who are interested. It works.

I will stop at ten, but this is by no means all that we did to build up to our launch. Much of this is also nuanced. It is not just what we did, but how we did it. It’s about who we were. We also learned who our community is and we connected with them. You don’t just show up with a team from Kentucky or Florida and start doing this stuff on day one. There is so much more to say about what needs to be done before you even think about trying to launch a church. You need to exegete your community to know what is going to work. You need to develop a strong core group or launch team. This blog makes it look like a simple little checklist, but that is not the case. You can do all of the above in the wrong way and fail miserably. More importantly, if God isn’t behind it, you’re dead before you start. So take this blog for what it is worth. This is some of “what” we did, but the real story is that God called and God blessed and God gave the increase. Soli Deo Gloria!

To Launch Or Not To Launch

If you are a church planter or associated with church planting you probably already know what is meant by the term, launch. You may even know about Nelson Searcy’s book titled, “Launch,” and the strategies associated with this particular model of church planting. You understand that to launch is to spend nine months to a year or more preparing for the first service, pulling out all the stops to gather a “critical mass” or as many people as possible to kick off your church with a crowd.

You may also know that over the last few years some have become what we might call, “launch averse.” Books have been written and I guess seminary classes have been taught and I don’t know where it all comes from, but the younger crop of church planters mostly seem to think the idea of “launching” is practically heresy. They think it is something of the past at best or something akin to false teaching at worst. In my opinion, this  new aversion to launching most often leads to the obvious… a failure to launch. Hmm. And while it seems obvious to me that a failure to launch would not be a good thing, many seem to disagree.

We were attending a church planter retreat when my wife innocently said to one of the other wives something about being thankful to God for the success of our recent “launch.” The other gal said, “Oh my husband is very against the idea of launching.” I had failed to inform my wife that many young planters don’t much like the way I do things. It seems like most church planters, particularly under the age of thirty, have a bad taste in their mouth about anything associated with launching. They are mostly all about planting in a much more gradual kind of way.

The worst thing I’ve seen and heard on this subject, though, is when someone tries to say that the idea of “launching” is not a biblical way to plant a church. This is baseless. Check Pentecost. Check the first church plant. They started with quite a crowd… a crowd of unsaved people who showed up to a worship service and were surprised by God. There was prayer and preaching and a movement of God that happened in the context of what could only be called a service of worship. If Pentecost was not a launch (and a great model for church planting) I’m not sure what you would call it. Pentecost certainly wasn’t a small group Bible Study that just kind of grew over time. No, the first church plant team/core group itself was comprised of 120 adults and their first service ran in the thousands. Come on, guys.  Don’t try to tell me a big launch is not biblical. God has proven at least once that He can plant a church from a crowd.

And how can we ignore what has actually worked before our very eyes? Unless an observer is so jealous that they tend to discount the most impactful church plants of the last three decades, they are going to find that virtually every one of them began with a  successful launch. There is no doubt in my mind that if we did a study of all the churches planted in the last thirty years, and narrowed it to those that survived past five years, and especially to those that thrived, we would find that almost all of them launched with a reasonable crowd.

My first plant launched with 118 in our first service (from a core group of about 20 before that day). Seventeen years later, and six years after I left, the plant is thriving, making disciples and changing the world. While I was there, we saw hundreds of professions of faith in Christ and well over two hundred baptisms. More recently, my second plant launched with 166 (from a core of about 25). We are thriving. Lives are being changed. People are coming to Christ and being baptized and discipleship is happening. We are nine months old and are baptizing nine this Sunday. What makes you think launching with a crowd is such a bad thing?

How did we get 166 people to show up to our first service? We worked our tails off. We spent tons of money to get the word out (so worth it!). We walked up to doors and we formed relationships with neighbors and leaders in the community. We used social media. We held fun preview parties to introduce ourselves and bless folks we didn’t know with good things like Chik-fil-a and BBQ and even gifts (why not?). We served the community. We prayed our guts out that people would show up and God would move. In short, we got a crowd in the doors on launch day, because THAT WAS OUR GOAL. And not unlike Pentecost, God showed up when the church assembled for the first service. He continues to show up every Sunday and thankfully there are some people there to experience it. Some of the individuals we are baptizing now were there that very first day. But listen, they would not have been there had we been averse to the idea of launching.

Back during my early days of planting our first church, eighteen years ago, pretty much everyone knew you had to launch, but lots of them just couldn’t quite pull it off, to be honest. They tried the launch model, but just never got the crowd to show up. They either didn’t try hard enough or they didn’t have what it took. (That’s called personal responsibility.) As a result of not being able to get a crowd together, they virtually all failed. Back then, a failure to launch was a failure to plant. Everyone knew this. We were motivated by it. But today, many are not launching out of principle rather than inability or weak effort. In my opinion, this just doesn’t make any sense. Do you not believe God works in hearts through the church assembled? Do you not think it would be a good thing if your community showed up at your worship service?

I am not saying that this is the only way. There are exceptions. God may lead some planters differently, and something else may work. There are certainly places (and cultures) where I don’t see a launch working at all. My goal here is to say to some of my young planter friends, “Hey, maybe the launch model, done right, is not such a bad thing after all.” I hope I at least made someone think. For the record, those who will be planting within the Go Church Family Network will be encouraged to launch rather than not launch. Why? BECAUSE IT WORKS.

Nominal Christianity and Church Planting

Disclaimer: Personally, I am more excited about new believers coming to Christ through my church plant than I am about anything else. When this is not happening, I develop a burden and if I am not careful go into a sort of depression, wherein I begin to struggle with feelings of futility. Do not mistake my last blog or this one for a lack of burden for the lost. I regularly shed tears over those who need Jesus. Having said that, I believe a false rubric is being reinforced in church planting circles, one which dictates that success has not been achieved unless large numbers of radical, first-generation converts have been reached through the plant. Guess what, folks… sometimes that is just not what God is doing. Sometimes that is not even who lives in the place where we are planting. And now to the topic at hand.

A lot is  being written about so-called “nominal” or “cultural” Christians. We are told they are exiting the church in droves, because Christianity is less popular. Some seem almost giddy about their departure, and I get it. Even as these hypocrites (aren’t we all) finally jump off the fence and declare themselves, honestly, a “none,” the rest of us find solace in the hope that our identity (label) will be less maligned in the future. (Whether or not the loss of nominal/cultural Christianity is a net gain or net loss for our cause could be the subject of another blog.)

I have a question, though. Do these nominal Christians matter at all to God? Are they not maybe even more like “lost sheep” or “prodigal children” than is someone who has never heard the Gospel? Is the nominal Christian who is becoming a “none” (no longer self-identifying as Christian) really less important? Don’t they also need someone to care enough to try to make them into disciples? Because let’s face it, they are not living as disciples of Jesus, right? By definition, a nominal Christian is not living as a disciple (follower) of Jesus. And I simply do not know whether any of them are actually headed to heaven or not. (Neither does John MacArthur, by the way.) Their eternal destination at any point in the history of their lives is outside the scope of this blog. The point I am making is that as nominal Christians, although they may or may not be saved, they are NOT currently DISCIPLES of Jesus. Can we agree that a nominal/cultural so-called Christian is, by definition, not following Jesus, i.e. not a disciple? [Right now all some of you can think about is whether or not a person can be saved and not a disciple. Will you please just drop that debate for a second and hear my point?]

Now, if church planting is all about making disciples, and it is, then what if we were able to make disciples out of some nominal/cultural Christians? Would that not be just as much a win for the Kingdom? Is that somehow not “mission accomplished” for the church plant? And if some of them realize they never were actually saved before, and therefore we baptize them, is that somehow less important than the out-and-out pagan who gets baptized? And what if they recognize themselves as having been saved previously and therefore don’t need to be baptized again, but yet… they were not living as a disciple and now they ARE living as a disciple? Is that somehow outside the scope of what matters in the field of church planting? I think not.

I’ve seen a LOT of this in my years as a planter. In fact, I would say probably eighty percent of the disciples we’ve made considered themselves to be already a Christian when they showed up at church. Some wound up actually getting saved. Others saw what happened in their lives as more of a rededication. Does it really matter? I mean, does it matter in terms of our worth as a church plant? Listen, if we are about MAKING DISCIPLES and there are now people actually living as disciples who were not living as disciples before, have we not succeeded in making disciples, regardless of their previous status? What if over time this happens for say two hundred people? That kind of describes my first church plant, that I left back in Missouri. Happy to see RiverOaks is still going strong. They even have a new sign. 😉

So how does this idea of making disciples out of nominal Christians apply to a church plant differently than, say, the two mega churches that we have nearby my current church plant? Well, I’ll tell you. Listen carefully: NOMINAL CHRISTIANS WHO SHOW UP AT A CHURCH PLANT FACE A CRISIS OF BELIEF.

Let me explain. When the nominal Christian comes into a church plant, they find no place to hide. Nothing exposes a person like the front lines. Nominal Christians go one of two ways after attending a church plant more than a couple of times. They either leave the nominal behind or they leave the church plant behind. They either start to become fully devoted followers ready to WORK or they go back where they came from. Do you see what this means? It means that church plants have a special ability to separate wheat from chaff.

Actually, it’s better than that. Church plants can help some of the chaff become wheat (through God’s amazing grace). In other words, through coming into contact with a church plant, a certain percentage of nominal/cultural Christians are going to either a.) get saved, or b.) get revived. Either way they leave the nominal behind and start following Jesus, i.e. living as His disciple. Either way, our church plant has MADE a disciple. You simply won’t stay in a church plant as a nominal believer. I WATCH THEM LEAVE all the time. Where do they go? Typically, they go back to the big church down the road where they can ATTEND a service and hide in the back.

Why am I writing this? I am writing this to encourage other planters who maybe aren’t seeing tons of new believers leave abject paganism behind as they cry out in faith to Jesus, but who are nonetheless seeing people with some church background become ACTUAL disciples of Jesus Christ. Guess what, that’s mission accomplishment, friend. Well done, good and faithful servant. Be encouraged! God is after the lost sheep of Israel, just as much as he is after those pagan Gentiles, if you understand the comparison. God is not concerned with the background of people or whether or not they were more lost (as if) than someone else. Jesus called us to make disciples. If you are seeing people who were not really following Jesus, start following Him, then you are a WINNER of a church planter, my friend. Keep up the good work!

Church Planting: Is It Only About Reaching New Believers?

Dare I wade into this discussion? Who am I to disagree with virtually every church planting guru that is writing or speaking today? Well, I guess I am just someone who simply has not bought into the latest wave of rhetoric. Call me old school. Call me a rebel. Call me a dissident. Call me… a church planter.

I have planted two churches successfully and have sent out, supported and facilitated several other church plants. I am a dissertation short of a doctorate with a church planting emphasis, and I have studied the topic long enough now to see the waves of thought on the topic with some perspective. I was part of the “seeker church” wave (though I started rejecting it before that was cool), the “reformed church plant” wave (never my thing), and now I am watching another (perhaps equally troublesome) wave build steam.

Everything I read today and every instructional video I watch seems to be an overreaction to previous waves. I now constantly hear that true church planting means we are “evangelizing new churches into existence.” Ed Stetzer (who I greatly respect) uses those exact words often, and it seems everyone else is basically saying the same thing. They are saying that the only church planting that matters is the kind where virtually every single addition to the church is by salvation. It is almost as if a church planter is to show up on the field knowing that only those he personally leads to the Lord will be allowed to become a part of his church plant. I am not left to wonder why so many of our new church plants never get off the ground. Typically, they last as long as their funding, but that’s another issue.

Prevailing voices are saying biblical church planting is making disciples, and of course, that’s absolutely true! We plant churches to make disciples who make disciples. HOWEVER, I would say that to make disciples we must first start with, at the very least, one disciple maker, yes? And what if one is not nearly enough? I would say that in our Western context, in particular, we need more than just the pastor/planter (and perhaps his wife) to be ready to make disciples. How many disciple makers do we need in order to hope to make enough new disciples to form an effective and enduring church? What if a tiny team of disciple makers is not enough? What if a larger team would be better than a smaller team? What if, as the church grows, we would do well to find some already mature believers to help with the harvest? Didn’t Jesus say to pray for such laborers? Must we limit ourselves to new believers to do the work of our new church plant? I think not.

The fear and the concern of prevailing voices is that if we plant a church with a good-sized core of believers or if we do things in such a way that even more believers want to come and help along the way, we will wind up with just another non-difference-making church that only attracts and keeps other believers. I understand the concern, but has this really been the issue? Have we not put a burden on our current planters that no one has ever been able to bear, particularly in this Western context?

I feel as if some secret church-planting consortium has created a false problem about which to write. They assert that tons of churches are being planted that aren’t reaching people for Jesus, but personally, I have not seen those church plants. Maybe it happens somewhere in the Bible Belt. I don’t know. What I have seen is tons of church plants failing to ever become self-sustaining, eventually closing up shop. Beyond this, the fact is that people were planting churches long before the current generation, and guess what, they always started with groups of believers. That did not stop them from evangelizing or making new disciples along the way.

In my experience, most church plants see new disciples being made at higher rate than established churches. For the most part, when a mature believer joins a church plant, it is because he or she is already somewhat missional and maybe a little bit adventurous. Church plants tend to be on mission automatically, because they are new and need to grow to survive. New churches are almost always looking to reach new people. A certain percentage of those will become new followers of Jesus. And guess what else… sometimes people who thought they were believers join in the effort of planting a church, and find out they never knew Him. Sometimes they get saved through the realness and the rawness of church planting. Some church plants will be better at the evangelism part than others, but does that make those who don’t see as many baptisms, yet endure long term, illegitimate? I don’t think so. In short, you don’t have to go to the extreme of trying to plant a church that is ONLY about reaching new believers. This is simply an overreaction.

What is the best model? Where do we get our example? Do we just follow the next wave of thought? Every wave claims to be biblical. Personally, I look no further than what Jesus did. He started by developing believers. He formed a core group. And you really cannot say that those first disciples He called out were becoming believers as they came. No. That is disingenuous. You can’t call the disciples who decided to follow Jesus new believers… not in the sense that we think of new believers today. Jesus had only just begun to reveal Himself as the Messiah. Spiritually speaking, these were the best people He could find.

Actually, the only comparison that can be made is a point in favor of starting with a few believers, rather than trying to evangelize a church into existence. Think about it. Jesus could have gone to pagan Greeks rather than God-fearing Israelites, but He did not do so. He started with the closest thing to “believers” that He could find, and He got them ready to plant the first church… and the first churches.

Take note, this group of people Jesus gathered had become quite strong in their relationship with each other and with Him before they ever launched the church to reach more people with the Gospel. He poured into them for three years. And many had fallen away, but those who were still gathering in that upper room had grown strong in their commitment to Christ. The Lord’s Church Plant Team was made up of eyewitnesses to the Resurrection! As they launched the first church on the Day of Pentecost, how many strong believers were on the team? Before they went out to do the work of evangelism and plant churches, how many did they have? The book of Acts gives us the answer: About 120. And these folks were anything but “new believers,” as we would use the term.

What about later on? What about the church plants of the Apostle Paul and his team? Where did they start? Most often they started with the synagogues. They started with people who already knew the Bible and were devout followers of God (like Aquila/Priscilla, Lydia, etc.). Do you think that if they found some followers of Jesus in those towns… maybe some of those who were saved at Pentecost, who had returned home, that they shooshed them away and said, “Sorry, we are only all about reaching unbelievers?” No, they put them to work. What about Paul’s protégé planter, Pastor Timothy? He was trained up in the Scripture by his mother and grandmother. Timothy was no atheist nor was he a biblically illiterate person through whom Paul evangelized a church into existence.

See, I believe in laying a strong foundation before building on it. That’s what Jesus did. I certainly understand that if all we ever do is play musical chairs with other churches, we are engaging in a futile exercise; however, in my two church plants, though I did NOT limit myself to unbelievers… a lot of people got saved. We have seen a mix. A healthy mix. We have been given laborers (believers) who feel called to help with the harvest and we have also seen people saved to new life in Christ. In my experience, the laborers came first. Let me say that again in a slightly different way. In my experience, the foundation came first — both times. Salvations have come as a trickle in the beginning, while the foundation was still being built. Later, we experienced times of great harvest (and we are starting to see that happen now in this plant).

So I’ll be a voice in the wilderness today and I will say to my fellow planters starting out… maybe think about what this old man has said. Think about building foundations. Think about praying for and finding experienced laborers first AND throughout the journey. I’ve seen it work. Twice. To God be the glory.