(Photo: Mars Hill Church)
While some church planters struggle to get their ministries up and running, others have seen their church plants grow from nothing more than a vision to megachurches that are attended by thousands of people every weekend.
But just because a church is large doesn't mean it hasn't seen its fair share of trouble, as Mark Driscoll, founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wash., shared with The Christian Post via email this week. Mars Hill began in Driscoll's living room in 1996 when he was just 25 years old, and today is regularly attended by 19,000 people across four different states each weekend.
Driscoll has wondered at times whether or not his church could overcome the obstacles it was faced with, but when doubt begins to set in, he turns to Jesus, he shared. "My identity is not in my performance, but in Jesus ... My goal is to honor Jesus and do the best I can. If we fail, we fail. If we die, we die. I'm only a kite, He's the hurricane. If the wind don't blow there's not a thing I can do to keep our kite up," said Driscoll.
Although he has seen a massive increase in attendance and income over the years, Driscoll said his attitude toward the ministry has generally stayed the same. Much like the pastors of brand new churches, he said, the leaders of megachurch plants have to maintain a forward-thinking mindset if they hope to see their ministry continue to grow.
"If a church planter ever loses his mindset of mission, conversion, and expansion, the church plateaus and eventually goes into a decline cycle," said Driscoll. "Every pastor should think like a church planter and every fall when school is back in session treat however many people they have as a core group launching the church yet again. Ideally, a church is not planted once. It's planted every year trying to take all its resources and reach more people for Jesus Christ."
Although his attitude has not changed, Driscoll said the way he uses his time to minister to Mars Hill's members has transformed as the church has grown. Instead of working directly with each "sheep," he said he now leads and trains "shepherds" who take care of the flock's many members.
But does a church plant have to be attended by thousands before it is considered successful? Driscoll said a church plant's success isn't contingent on whether or not it becomes a megachurch, but rather on its ability to become self-supporting, self-governing and reproducing.
"If there is church health, these kinds of things will happen because healthy living things grow and reproduce," he said.
In 2009, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research and Warren Bird of Leadership Network examined a number of different studies and created a report, "The State of Church Planting in the United States." According to the report, while nearly all church plants make it through their first year in existence, only 68 percent of them survive through their fourth year. It also states that the average attendance for most church plants does not surpass 100 people during the first four years, which makes the rapid growth of some megachurch plants remarkable.
When Patrick Kelley, founding and senior pastor of River Pointe Church in Richmond, Texas, started his church in 1996, he thought it would surely fail. After convincing 30 families to commit to attending the church's "soft-opening" service, Kelley expected about 90 people to show up. So it was a big surprise to him when 210 people attended that very first service.
"We were shocked by that. We don't know where they came from. And our prayer was, 'Lord, let us fill quickly' because I had four children back then that were four and younger. We didn't have any resources, we cashed out everything we owned," said Kelley.
It was some time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when River Pointe's attendance climbed to 2,200 people, that he first realized his church plant had grown into a megachurch. Although he didn't believe at first that the church could be successful, Kelley admits that he later became proud of its rapid growth. He says that same pride hindered the church's growth at one point, however, and as a result he went without pay for a while and even had to lay off several staff members.
"I just told the church, 'I've got to grow up ... somehow I lost my way. I didn't come here to be successful, but I sure liked it,'" he confessed.
Another potential hindrance for growing church plants, Kelley said, is the tendency to hold on too tightly to what they have and stop taking risks. He said River Pointe Church, which now hosts a total of about 4,000 people at two campuses every weekend, isn't afraid to take a leap of faith.
"You start playing a prevent defense," he said. "You get successful, your church starts gaining some traction, and you play it safe. You don't take risks, because you don't want to lose what you got, and so we've always been willing to lose what we got."
Both Mars Hill and River Pointe Church broadcast their weekend sermons to video venue campuses where, instead of live preaching, the messages are watched on a large screen. Crossroads Community Church in Mansfield, Ohio, has decided to follow a different growth model by setting up a number of smaller home churches throughout the region.
"They're not glorified small groups, they're actually churches that have pastors," Tim Armstrong, founding and senior pastor of Crossroads, explained.
Currently about 600 of the church's nearly 2,000 regular attenders go to one of the seven house churches planted by Crossroads. The house church farthest from the main campus is about 30 miles away, and Armstrong said some people who attend these house churches have never been to the main campus.
He first realized he was leading a megachurch when he began to feel "burned out" because of all of the work he had been doing. A friend of his, a professor, showed him at that time that he needed to relinquish more control of the church's operations to his staff and volunteers.
"We were kind of shocked into the realization that we were this size of church ... and I found that I was the bottleneck to a lot of stuff, and I had to just let go. I had to start trusting people and I had to stop micromanaging, and that was difficult," he said.
While his church has certainly undergone many changes over the years, Armstrong said his family dynamic has changed a great deal as well. When he first started the church he had no children, and he and his wife were "poor" and "stressed out." As the church grew, his control issues also hindered his relationship with his wife and kids. But he said his life is "slower" and his family relationships are much healthier today.
Church planters know that, in order to survive, their churches have to change, and all three of the megachurch planters interviewed for this article have demonstrated the importance of changing on a personal level as well.
"As the founder and preaching pastor I am the potentially greatest inhibitor of growth and health," said Driscoll. "So, change has to start with me. I need to constantly reinvent myself, learn, grow, and change. I have to pursue humility by the grace of God and do better to the glory of God."
This is the final part of the "Inside Church Planting" series.