As honest and experienced church planters will tell you, there are mountains of work that go into planting a church.
“Three steps” in any title barely scratches the surface of the prayer, planning, people-gathering, fund-gathering, and other preparation that goes into the months—or years—leading up to the start of your new church. But as it relates to your church’s vision, there are three distinct and vital steps to go through, before you declare your church’s birthday and throw a big launch party (or a simple first-Sunday gathering) for it. Skipping or moving too quickly through any of the steps can be dangerous.
Step One: Craft The Vision
“There’s a good chance that your church will gather on Sundays, right?” I asked a planter recently. He scoffed, “Of course.” “Well, why?” I asked. He stared back blankly. “Well, uh… ‘cuz that’s what churches do, isn’t it?” he finally stammered. This interchange brings up an often-missed element of church planting: we must take time to craft the vision for our church, and the elements of mission and ministry in it.
What’s the purpose of our Sunday gatherings—and what’s the week-in, week-out content of those gatherings—that helps us accomplish that purpose? Why will we engage children and teens in the specific ways we propose? How do things like this affect our mission fields, our people, and our overall vision for our churches? Thinking through these types of questions, for every element of our churches, mission, and ministry, helps us create the culture to support the visions we dream of.
DANGER: If you skip the step of crafting your vision, you will miss a vital piece of what God has for you and the church he’s building through you. On one hand, if you do things just because they’re familiar, or “because that’s what churches do, isn’t it?” you miss the function behind the form. On the other hand, if the idea of your church remains merely a vague and nebulous concept in your mind, you’ll have a hard time when you move into step two—you won’t have a clear, compelling vision to call people to join.
Step Two: Cast The Vision
Church planters are an excited bunch. And rightly so; our church would have a hard time sending out a planter who wasn’t excited about the calling God had for him, and the church he was planting! But two of the best words I heard as we planted The City Church were “slow down.” Those words have proved fruitful in too many situations to count—but as they relate to vision, they meant, “take a few months to cast your vision—before you start a core team—to help as many people as you can see what God is doing.”
Vision-casting is the step where we toss nets widely, and pray that God provides a huge catch. Our nets are websites with 30,000-foot info on our church’s vision and goals; they’re prayer nights and vision dinners, where we describe our dream to others. They’re asking friends to bring their friends, and we get to know anyone who might show interest in being part of the journey we’re on. We pull in those nets as we follow up individually with anyone who’s even a little interested; we answer questions, describe things that will be different than they might expect—even difficult—if they join you, and to clarify that vision. But we do NOT ask people to sign on dotted lines, that they’re in. That comes next; vision-casting is the low-pressure, “wide-not-deep” net-casting step in your plant’s vision.
DANGER: One of two things often happens if you skip the step of vision-casting; both involve stripping potential partners of the ability to pray and process with you. First, if you pass around commitment cards after meeting people for the first time, you’ll see a high percentage of “firecracker folks,” those who spark brightly and immediately, but soon fizzle out. They’re excited, and become the first to “go all in.” But after processing or experiencing it, are also often the first to pull out. Second, folks may feel pressure to sign up that night, and if they’re not ready and don’t want to let you down, then unnecessary guilt may set in. Instead following-up with questions, attending future vision-casting events, etc. some of your best potential partners instead simply fade away, simply because they didn’t have time to pray and process. No one knows the church that exists in your mind, as well as you do. No one has thought as long, hard, or deeply about it, as you have. Low-commitment vision-casting gives others the chance to catch up, before you ask them for more.
Step Three: Model The Vision
Fort Worth is in the middle of a massive downtown revitalization effort. An early step of that process involved a scale model of the new vision and construction that would occur in the radius of our city’s core. Thousands of dollars were spent, and some people involved became frustrated at the “wasted” expense and time. But when a water-routing miscalculation was discovered in the model, it was able to be resolved before actual construction began, thus saving many more thousands of dollars, as well as destruction and embarrassment. The model not only allowed engineers to work out kinks; now prominently displayed in a downtown picture window, it also helps show people exactly what we can expect when the revitalization is complete.
The same applies to the “core team” or “launch team” of our churches: between casting vision and starting a church, step three allows us to show the vision we’ve already cast, as we call people to consider committing to it. “A picture,” as we’ve all heard, “is worth a thousand words.” Step three gives people a picture of the church in our minds. If we envision high-church, liturgical Sunday gatherings and big kids’ ministries with classes over lunch most weeks, model that before we start. If it will be centered around missional communities, model that before we start. If we value shared leadership, don’t lead everything before we start; let those considering planting with us get to know other leaders. If mission will be part of the church’s regular diet, don’t make all our “preview events” worship gatherings; go serve on mission together. This third step—a “core/ launch team” phase in planting—helps people to see our vision in action. It moves them from hearing about something to actually experiencing it.
Yes, there will be kinks during step three. No, we’re not locked into 100% of what we model, for the rest of our church’s life. This step involves trial and error, explaining (again!) why we’re doing the things we do, acknowledging the messiness of church planting (which in itself displays a forthcoming reality!), and hearing both positive and negative feedback. But it’s my personal opinion that only once we’ve modeled as much of our church’s life for people, can we ask them for a commitment to that church. Otherwise, how do they know what they’re signing up for? Only then, after a number of months of immersing people into a coming reality, and as we approach your “launch date,” can we draw a line in the sand and ask others to decide—“by this date”—if they’ll be part of our church plant or not.
DANGER: Skipping step three, or executing it poorly, is dangerous on at least three levels. First, it can feel like a “bait and switch” for the people considering joining you. If, before you plant, you show potential partners something completely unlike what your church will actually be, you’ve duped them. Further, if you don’t model the life of your church, you miss an opportunity to see passions and gifting come alive, in potential leaders who could come alongside you in leading areas of your church’s ministry. Finally, many who leave church plants in the early days, do so because they never got this chance. Without seeing a model beforehand, they never had the chance to opt out before your church started. Only after the church starts did they understand how the church lives, so now they’re saddled with the label of “leaving your church.” For the sake of your young, fragile church’s early days, it’s wiser to give folks an “out” before you start, than lose them in your church’s first days. You can only do this if you put your vision into practice before you launch.
3… 2… 1… Blast-Off
With a thoughtfully-crafted, compellingly-cast, and carefully-modeled vision, you’ve given those who would consider planting with you ample opportunity to hear, know, and (especially) experience the vision for the church they’re considering joining.
Can God work without these steps? Absolutely. Is all hope lost if something goes awry? Likely not. But conventional wisdom compels us to consider how many peoples’ minds work. Your church plant needs to feel momentum, but in some ways, should likely “slow down.”
Communicating three distinct steps, and executing each well, gives people the best chance possible, to not only hear and know your vision, but better, to grab hold of it, go all into it, participate in living it, and cast it to others. Because after all, if your church plant is to “work,” the vision that starts in your mind must transfer to many others: you can’t be the only one who understands what you’re trying to do.