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  • Writer's pictureStephen Percy

Lessons from Planting

Some are seasoned church planters. Others have sensed a calling to plant for many years. Me, I’m more of an accidental church planter. Long story short, we saw the need and did what we thought was needed to make it happen.

Two years ago, as we emerged from the national lockdown, we took the opportunity to establish a site in a different part of Tameside. Our choice of location was as unspiritual as identifying which area had the biggest cluster of residents and calling that the plan (the equivalent of drawing lots, maybe?) On Sunday 4th July 2021 we met in a last-minute Plan J location (plans A through I had fallen through for various reasons) and 22 people met, worshipped Jesus, prayed and gathered around the Word (socially distanced, of course!)

2 years down the line, I wanted to capture a few learnings – maybe more for my own sake than anyone else’s, but you’re welcome to learn from my journey (if nothing else, some of what not to do!)

1. Make God laugh!

You’ve likely heard the saying ‘the best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good – and right! – to plan, to prepare and to dream, but don’t be so wedded to it that you miss what God is doing outside of your plan.

Sat here on the date of our 2nd birthday, I can honestly say that things do not look even remotely like I envisaged. Done my way, things would have been better sequenced, a bit neater and tidier. We’d have had more notice on some things, and maybe a little less chaos in other things. But you know what? It wouldn’t be a fraction as good as God’s things God’s way.

His ways and purposes don’t align with what our senses can compute or what sits neatly with our finite rational minds. His ways and his will are often found in the mess, the unforeseen and the surprising. His ways are invariably different, infinitely better and eternally worthwhile.

2. I’m not in control (and that’s no bad thing!)

Following on from above, involvement in church planting is a healthily humbling reminder that I’m not sovereign, and Jesus didn’t promise that I would build his church.

Sports psychologists suggest elite athletes learn to ‘control the controllable’ and minimise the influence of what’s outside of their control. A similar outlook in church planting would kill the plant before it was born. The reality is that I’m in control of only a miniscule amount, and even that only by God’s sovereign grace. Humbly recognising I’m not in control forces me to lean in to the One who is. It confronts me with my limitations and invites me to take my hands off and entrust Christ’s church back to him.

It's one thing to reflect on it in the cool of the day, but in the heat of the battle, the fleshly temptation to take responsibility for what is G

od’s to do is a strong one. An inner voice whispers ‘Go on, your idea is probably best, anyway’. We all know it isn’t, but in the confusion of the mystery of God’s ways, taking charge and cracking on is a real temptation. Mercifully, God has spoken to mankind’s need to be reminded of his control of all things and his perfect timing (see Hab 2:3). Things being outside of your control isn’t comfortable, but it is normal.

3. Habits take root quickly

Setting up a new site or plant is new and exciting. There’s a sense of adventure and exploration about the while thing but it’s amazing how quickly patterns and habits form. It’s amazing how strong the sense of disappointment was after only 12 months that the place we called ‘home’ was no longer going to be available to us. It’s amazing how, with a blank canvas, we formed our own liturgy so quickly. We really are creatures of habit.

Forgive me a reference to Darwin, but remaining adaptive to our environment is crucial. Unhealthy habits would cause us to mope when things changed. We could pout that things weren’t like they were the week before or 6 months previous, but staying and agile is important. Paul’s attitude in Phil 4:11-13 is a helpful one to resist the urge of settling.

4. Old wineskins and new wine

Remember Jesus’ words to the crowds in Mark 2? He told them how the old was inadequate to contain the new. Inherited church models (‘this is how we do things’) have limited amounts to offer to a specific plant situation. The expression of church needs to be responsive to the people in the locality (which in our case was vastly different, despite only being 3 miles from the other site).

A word of warning, though… Beware not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Style is one thing, but substance is another. The values we held dear when we planted, we sill hold dear. No change there at all. What has changed is how those values are expressed. It’s right to prize the preaching of the Word, but consideration needs to be given to, for instance, the literacy levels of the congregation, the languages spoken by those attending, for example.

Be considerate, but don’t compromise. I remember the awkwardness of preaching Romans 1:21-27 in a very public place. Every ease-seeking, comfort-craving part of me wanted to skip it to avoid all of the risks, but our value of faithfully preaching the Word meant I couldn’t.

5. Attractional church is alright

Alright, the headline a moment of sensationalism. I hate much of what the attractional church model offers – no-one was ever saved because a church served donuts! (Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with serving donuts!) Avoid mention of sin, putting on a show-like performance and encouraging a comfortable consumer mentality is not helpful. However, the church is surely at her attractional best when the people of God turn up to passionately worship tehri Saviour and grapple with the demands of the Scriptures on their lives. We should strive to be attractional in that sense.

6. Prayer is crucial

If my spiritual disciplines were a school report card, the ‘prayer’ section would perennially read ‘Room for improvement’. Maybe yours would be the same. Bottom line is, though, without prayer, the best you can hope for is the best you can do… and that won’t save anyone or help anyone grow in faith.

The earliest I’ve seen the quote attributed was Augustine, so let’s go with him… As Augustine said: “Pray like everything depends upon God, then work like everything depends on you.” We easily resort to the latter and forsake the former, but the gracious reminder to me very regularly is that the people I lead and serve don’t need me and my best, they need God and His best.

7. People will be disappointed

Some people will come along to suss you out. They’ll see something new and potentially something they can shape. Deep conviction on values will mean you say yes to some things and no to others. People will import their own set of expectations about what the church should be and how it should look. When you don’t do thigs that way, you’ll disappoint them. That’s okay.

Probably best to not wake up thinking ‘who canI disappoint today?’, but simply by being faithful to what God requires of you, some will be upset or disappointed at some point. People will come and stay; others will come and leave. Trust God with them all.

8. Big isn’t necessarily better, but too small can be too small.

Brighter people than me write lots about church growth, church planting, church numbers, etc. Different researches have found the ‘optimum’ size for a church where knowing and loving one another is viable but there are enough people to have ‘critical mass’. I don’t know if there’s a magical number, but I do know that there are drawbacks to being too big and drawbacks to being too small (goodness, there are also drawbacks to being ‘just right’ (to really milk the Goldilocks language) because of the presence in any church of …people!) but a core of around 30 gives you a sweet spot of having enough people to make things happen whilst holding on to an intimacy in relationships. 30 – 50 who are invested and bought in has incredible potential for changing the community. Too many and it’s easy to leave things to someone else; too few and you burn people out in serving or can’t do some of the things you’d like to do.

9. It’s not for everyone… but it’s for more than you might think

Your mind can easily go to the young, activist types when you’re asked to envisage a church plant, but we found that people of all ages and stages, different personality types and with different stories were able to find home with us. Work equally hard (harder, even) on welcoming and making space for those who don’t fit the stereotyped view. Love each other in a way that showcases the difference Jesus makes, and you’ll be surprised who finds a home with you.

It's been a real adventure. We’ve got a lot wrong and I’ve made no shortage of mistakes, but God has been incredibly gracious to us as He has used us to advance the Kingdom.

Here’s to another….2 (at least, God willing).

Be blessed,

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