Church Plants Aren’t Churches

In a zillion ways, church plants certainly are churches. Obviously. But in a very, very important way, a church plant is the furthest thing from an grown-up church.


In what way?

Like Bono, a church plant is a church plant and not a church because, well, it still hasn’t found what it’s looking for.

Startups are not companies. A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. – Steve Blank

A church plant is on the hunt for a repeatable and scaleable disciple-making model. The reason you’re planting a church in the first place is because Jesus has said to go and make disciples who will trust and obey him. And you’ve sensed that there is a vacuum of disciple-making in a pocket of your community—a pocket among whom you have found “persons of peace” who know, like, and trust you.

The Things We Carried

We come to our neighbors with a gospel-shaped life. We come with hypotheses about what facets of the gospel gem will first catch their eye. We come with a set of generic discipleship tools and methodologies that we’ve picked up along the way. We come with a new-to-us paradigm for community.

But the moment we arrive on our neighbor’s doorstep, we’re contradicted. We realize that this assumption was way off. It’s now clear that that paradigm doesn’t compute here. There’s no denying that these tools aren’t compatible with the job in front of us.

My Abandoned Tools

All of this certainly happened to me.

The non-Christians I thought would never come to a service of worship showed up for church. The neighbors I figured would resonate with our Sabbath experience have balked.

I abandoned the strategy of doing a group DVD evangelism course called Christianity Explored when I got some surprisingly chilly early feedback from my otherwise very open non-Christian friends. I then later wrongly assumed that low-barrier-to-entry Bible discussions in Community Groups would be swell environments for non-Christians to dip their toes in the spiritual water.

On the discipleship front, the tools, regimens, and rhythms I deployed initially fell flat—not because they were inherently wrong, but because they were ill-fitting and clumsily executed by yours truly. And even now it feels like my new approach is pure gold in content, but awfully awkward in my not-so-able hands.

We still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

What is the Grown-Up Church Threshold?

To go from a church plant to a “real church” in my denomination, you technically must achieve financial self-sustainability and identify a plurality of ordainable indigenous elders.

But, of course, you can meet these requirements without ever really making a single disciple. Church plants that become “churches” in this way have bypassed the search that should define a church plant. They’ve skipped the search for a repeatable and scaleable disciple-making model.

Be honest with yourself. Have you identified such a disciple-making model that fits your context? Will the disciple-making continue without missing a beat if you dropped dead tomorrow?

Embrace the search, and search relentlessly. If the search turns up nothing, have the dignity to call off the search and quit. Don’t float on a cash reserve into “real church” status if you haven’t figured out how to make disciples that make disciples among your neighbors.

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