Reflections of a Church Planter
When seminarians graduate and begin to seek pastoral calls, I suspect that many do not give prayerful consideration to being church planters. Most probably envision serving as pastors in established congregations, and this is certainly a noble and good thing. Churches need good pastors. But Christ has commanded the church to evangelize the nations, which means that if the church is faithful, then she must plant new churches. The church should seek to spread the gospel far and wide, which requires new churches where they formerly did not exist. So why don’t more seminarians give careful consideration to church planting?
I suspect the answer lies in gravitating towards what you know. Most people come from established congregations—those churches that have buildings, a good-sized membership, perhaps a small church staff, and church officers. Naturally, they envision serving in a similar context. Moreover, I think the thought of planting a church scares people—you have none of the comforts and resources of an established congregation. To be honest, I shared many of these concerns and fears. Growing up, I was never part of a church plant—I was always a member of a well-established congregation. Nevertheless, as I gave thought to becoming a church planter three scriptural truths convinced me that I need not let my fears get the best of me: the foundational nature of the word of God, the importance of evangelism, and shepherding the flock.
First, church plants must be built upon the same foundation as established congregations—upon the word of God. I can remember the presbytery’s home missions committee asking me, “What church planting principles will you employ in getting this work off the ground?” I responded, “I can’t say that I know much about church planting principles, but I do promise you that I will do my best faithfully to preach and teach the word of God.” A building is only as strong as its foundation—if you have a weak foundation, then whatever rests upon it will likely eventually collapse. If you try to build a church on marketing, demographics, advertising, and free espressos, people will quickly realize there is little substance to your church. Sure, you might attract a lot of people, but will you actually feed the sheep? Only a steady diet of the word of God can serve as a good foundation for planting a church.
Second, church plant or established congregation, all of God’s people should participate in sharing the gospel of Christ. Church plants should never be about reshuffling the membership of local churches. All too often people hear of a new church and decide to try it out—they treat it like a free trial membership to a new local gym. Instead, if we take seriously the Great Commission, then we should desire to see unbelievers come to a saving knowledge of Christ. This means that the Gospel must flow from the pulpit each and every Lord’s Day, but it also entails other practical activities. Members of the mission work should be willing to invite people to church. The prospect of evangelizing someone can be intimidating, but if you encourage people to extend a simple invitation to church, this can be a much easier entry-point to telling others about Christ. In my mission work we created double-sided business cards that had the church’s information on one side and a simple map to our meeting location on the other. This business card enabled church members to hand it to prospective visitors and invite them to church. All churches and mission works should be engaged in this type of activity—it shouldn’t be unique to church planting.
Third, regardless if you’re in an established congregation or mission work, as the pastor you need to shepherd Christ’s sheep. But the church planter has a big advantage. Church plants are usually smaller than established congregations, which means you can spend more quality time with the people in your church plant. All too often seminarians get wrapped up in studying, reading great books, and crafting their sermons. Don’t get me wrong, study and sermon preparation are vital and necessary aspects of the pastorate, but they should never be at the expense of shepherding the flock. As the pastor you have to ensure that your sheep are spiritually healthy and attending to the means of grace. Do they have spiritual problems? Are they suffering? Do they need counsel? Do they need someone to weep or rejoice with them? As the pastor of a church plant, I was able to attend funerals, weddings, births, and address the regular challenges of life for the people in the plant. And unlike a large church, I knew each and every person by name and my wife and I were able to host them all in our home for various church events and functions.
Church planting or not, the foundational nature of the word of God, the importance of evangelism, and shepherding the flock, are necessary and foundational tasks for all pastors. Perhaps when viewed from this perspective, seminarians might not look at church planting with trepidation. Yes, there are some practical challenges that come with church planting (meeting places, logistics, training church officers, etc.), but the core pastoral tasks are the same. Don’t let the fear of practical matters keep you from seeking a call as a church planter. If you’re called to preach the gospel, then do so whether you’re in an established congregation or even a church plant.
Dr. J. V. Fesko is Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology, and Academic Dean at Westminster Seminary California (WSC). He is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and served as a church planter and pastor for more than 10 years. Dr. Fesko and his wife, Anneke, have three children.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Update Magazine.
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