There are churches in the United States that are hundreds of years old. Many of them have rich traditions and have seen hundreds if not thousands of people come to know Jesus Christ through their ministries. Yet there is a special crop of people – the church planters – who feel called not to preach from pulpits in front of well-established congregations, but to create churches of their own.
I serve as the campus pastor at a small church plant in Barberton, Ohio. My early Christian life was spent in an established, traditional church, leaving me unprepared for the heartaches and joys of being part of a brand new church.
People need Jesus – that's for sure – but how does a person build a congregation from the ground up? Who are these people who are brave enough – and perhaps naïve enough – to go into a town and create a church from scratch?
Charles Hill is an experienced church planter who I first met through my church's senior pastor, who receives ministry coaching from Hill. After beginning a career in law enforcement as a police officer in Columbus, Hill went on to plant and pastor churches that have seen successful growth in both Ohio and Utah.
He is now working on a new project, New City Church in Columbus, which held its first Bible study this past Sunday. I asked him why he hasn't just stayed put and built one large church.
"I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead that process," he told me Monday afternoon. "I guess if we look at it from a human side, the human vantage point is that I'm kind of wired to be...an entrepreneurial starter."
An entrepreneur? Many Christians think of pastors as being people who study the Bible and pray a lot, but entrepreneurs? Hill isn't the only one who thinks that characteristic is important in a church planter.
Ryan Jones, the director of the Liberty Church Planting Network (LCPN), who has personally helped plant churches in both Ohio and Virginia, says part of the assessment process for LCPN's members is whether or not they have that entrepreneurial spirit.
"They (church planter) [need to] have the vision for something, inspire other people to have that vision … [and] inspire everybody to take the jump to make it happen," Jones said Monday.
LCPN, which since 1980 has helped 900 churches get planted in the U.S. alone, assesses those who want to be planters based on a number of criteria, including entrepreneurial skills, church planting, ministry experience and relational evangelism. Jones says some pastors are not strong in one or more of those areas, but they can thrive in established churches because they have a large pool of people to pick from who can help them do ministry and make up for the areas they are most lacking in. Church planters, on the other hand, usually don't have that luxury.
Jones says the flock that follows a church planter is often "dirtier" than the one that follows an established church pastor, primarily because church plants target people who are un-churched and de-churched (those who were hurt by the church or decided in the past that it wasn't for them), and the flock at an established church often consists of more mature Christians.
So what does the typical church planter look like? Jones says the average age for a church planter in his network is mid-to-late 30s. Many of them are seminarians (his network was founded by Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University), although every planter is different in some way or another.
Church planting veteran Charles Hill says he meets a lot of church planters who are in their late 20s to early 30s, which he thinks is a good age to begin planting. He says church planters should be self-starters, have "tremendous" gifts of faith, the ability to communicate the truth of the Gospel and the ability to put teams together.
"There is still enough naivety [at the age of 33]...at the same time you've got enough energy to believe that you can make a difference. You're finally getting enough wisdom – with a wife, and a marriage and kids – to where you can really truly start to have the wisdom to benefit congregations of people," said Hill.
Naïve? I asked him what he was most naïve about when he first started planting.
"Everything," he laughs. "Whatever you think it takes, crank it up about 100 notches."
Outside of seeking the help of the Holy Spirit, he says one of the most vital things a new church planter can do is get a good ministry coach. It is not necessary for planters to make many mistakes when someone can help them to avoid such pitfalls.
Hill, who has been the pastor of both thriving churches and brand new church plants, spoke about a study that said church pastor is the third most stressful occupation. And among pastors, he said, church planters are probably some of the most stressed.
"Pastoring a church was simple compared to starting it. Right now we're starting something out of nothing with no people, no money...When you pastor, yeah, it's tough, but for most pastors it's stable," he said.
All of the stress and all of the work is worth it, however. Jones says he recently spoke to a planter in his network who saw eight people put their faith in Jesus during the first Sunday the church was launched. After talking it over, they agreed that it was worth all of his effort thus far to see those eight people come to Christ, with hopes that many more will follow.
"Church planting is possibly the most effective means of a method of evangelism in our churches and in our culture," said Jones. "There's nothing that reaches more people than new churches, because new churches have to reach people to survive."
Part two of the "Inside Church Planting" series will focus on what it is like in the early days of a newly-formed church plant, and will take a look at both the growing pains and joyful moments of a new church experience. Stay tuned.