Friday, September 16, 2022

Counting the Cost of Planting

The FIEC have put out an episode of their podcast entitled When Church Plants Don't Work, with Dan Steel.  Dan has done a lot of work on church planting, and the ups and downs thereof, and I think has some really useful insights as a result.  For the sake of fair disclosure, it's worth pointing out that I was the pastor of the church plant from Dan's church that didn't work out - so I also have some thoughts on the subject.

One of the most useful things in the chat on the podcast is the recognition that church plants 'fail' for a variety of reasons, and whilst there are many mistakes that we can learn from and try to do better in the future, there are also situations in which - it just didn't work.  That has to be okay as an outcome.  If it isn't, we will become highly risk averse, and ultimately we won't plant churches in the places that need them most.  It would help a great deal, as the boys on the podcast point out, if we were prepared to tell the stories of 'failure' as well as those of 'success' - and let me just take a little swipe at the cheery triumphalism of much evangelicalism that makes that impossible.

There is just one supplementary point I'd add to that, which is that recognising that 'failure' is a possible outcome needs much more serious counting of the cost for all involved in church planting.

I hope we know that there is a cost involved.  If a church is remotely functioning, then it is a family, and it is the community around which life is structured.  To leave a church, then, even to go and do something potentially exciting like planting is really costly.  Relationships don't need to be completely left behind, but realistically they will be attenuated when we're no longer worshipping together on a weekly basis.  Valued programmes will be left behind - perhaps youth groups or other things that the plant is not of a size to run.  It is, and should be, a wrench to leave a church.

But then if we're going to throw ourselves into planting, we need to be all in.  We need to build relationships in the plant on the assumption that we're going to be together for the rest of our lives.  We need to build rhythms of liturgy and discipleship that are intended to bed in over decades.  We need to build outward looking relationships with people in the local area which we hope will bear fruit, perhaps in many years.  What we can't do is keep our lines of retreat open.  If you allow awareness of the fact that the plant might not make it to cause you to keep one foot in the sending church, I think you probably make the 'failure' of the plant a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You have to be all in.

But that means that if it doesn't work out, it will be hugely painful.  It will be like the wrench of leaving the sending church, but worse, because instead of being the pain of being sent out into an exciting horizon, it will be the pain of dissolving a community you loved, a return tinged with disappointment and perhaps bitterness.  There will be wounds.  We need to count the cost of those wounds before sending people out - the cost of sending, but also the potential double cost of receiving back.


  1. Phil Kerry10:28 am

    Hi Daniel, thanks for this. One of the additional experiences we have seen having been part of a church plant for the last ~5 years is the challenge for families, especially with slightly older children. Ours are now 10 and 13 and for much of that time they have had v few peers (all the other kids were 3+ years younger) and in a small setting resourcing children's work is much harder. This creates an additional 'cost' to them and burden for us. It can be particularly isolating, especially as parenting meets the inevitable challenges. Planting is rewarding, and as a layperson it has given me opportunities to serve that i would not have experienced elsewhere, but I don't think we fully appreciated this aspect when we joined.

    1. Yes, we found that - one of our kids was the oldest in the church, and the other almost the only girl for much of the time. It is a cost, and it feels particularly taxing because it is one you are 'imposing' on your kids rather than wholly bearing yourself.