I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers' graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' graves, that I may rebuild it.” Nehemiah 2:3–5, ESV
Apart from sensing a clear call from God to plant a church, what do most church planting leaders consider to be the strongest indicator of being a fruitful planter? The answer is a demonstrated track record of starting new things either inside or outside of the church. Church planters are most often marked by an entrepreneurial spirit and the spiritual gift of apostle, and starting new things is a concrete manifestation of an apostolic gifting. It might show up in the life of a planter as starting a lemonade stand as a kid, a dorm Bible study in college, a nonprofit as a young adult, and so on. Why is starting new things such a strong predictor of fruitfulness in church planting?
In order to consistently start new things, there are at least three necessary ingredients:
Perspective: A starter has the God-given ability to see a need
Initiative: A starter takes initiative to meet the need
Leadership: A starter follows God’s lead to secure the human and material resources to create a sustained solution to the need
Perspective: Recognizing a need is an act of seeing. It is noticing something that others may not. It is paying attention to the human condition and seeing it through God’s eyes. Isaiah saw his own sinfulness and that of his fellows Israelites (Isaiah 6), Jesus saw the crowds as harassed and helpless (Matthew 9:35–38), Paul saw the Athenian idols and was greatly distressed (Acts 17), and Nehemiah saw how the lack of a wall meant that Jerusalem was totally vulnerable to invaders and intruders who had complete access to the city’s homes, buildings, and even ancestral graveyards (Neh. 2). Each of these starters saw something that triggered a godly response in them.
In church planting, having perspective may mean recognizing the spiritual lostness of people in your community apart from the gospel, or noticing the need for transformation of a blighted part of the city, or envisioning cultural renewal through the arts. It begins with seeing things as God sees them.
Initiative: Secondly, starting something new means being compelled by the Spirit to actually respond to the need. It’s having a bias towards action. It’s actually doing something about the problem instead of complaining or wishing somebody else would do something. When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem were burned down, he grieved, and then he formed a plan to rebuild the walls. Lots of other Jews in exile knew about the need, but Nehemiah was the one with the initiative to actually leave his job with the king and do something about it.
Of course, when starting new things, no one bats 1,000. If a person is a starter, chances are good that some of the new things they started were stillborn. Being a risk-taker by definition means that some ventures will fail. But nonetheless, the tendency to take initiative and therefore risks are typically signs of a church planter in the making.
Leadership: Leadership is taking initiative and then sustaining it until the need is met. Leadership is harnessing resources (people, money, materials, etc.) towards God’s purposes to bring the solution into being. Every ministry worth doing requires the participation and buy-in of others. That requires the leadership ability to cast a vision and draw others into the vision.
Take the case of the lemonade stand, for instance. It means enlisting one’s parents to buy the lemonade mix. In the case of a dorm Bible study, it’s inviting fellow college students to actually come and ensuring that it’s led well. In the case of Nehemiah, he asked for and received from the king resources such as safe passage, timber to rebuild the gates, and a leave of absence to accomplish the work. Nehemiah then went to Jerusalem and shared the vision with the Jews:
“And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’” (Neh 2:18)
In the case of church planting, it is casting a God-honoring vision and then securing the funding and people to actually launch. If a person has a track record of showing perspective, initiative, and leadership, then they will likely continue to start new things in whatever context they find themselves.
Rinse and Repeat
These three aspects of being a starter (perspective, initiative, leadership) are of course not simply aspects a planter demonstrates once to start a church, but something a planter is doing over and over again, on a weekly if not daily basis. A church plant is a perpetual series of mini-starts—starting Bible studies, starting missional communities, starting a launch team, starting a children’s ministry, starting an after-school program, and so on.
Of course, not every one of these things needs to be (or should be) started by the planter himself or herself. Instead, each of these skills then needs to be applied one level up to the task of leadership development (2 Timothy 2:2), where the planter now has the perspective to identify leaders of new ministries, the initiative to develop that person, and the leadership ability to give the person the appropriate amount of guidance and freedom. This nurturing process allows that ministry starter to then become a leader in his or her own right. This turns planters into catalysts and empowerers of other starters, some of whom may themselves go on to plant churches. That’s the apostolic gift in action. By the grace of God, may you recognize these patterns in your own life and utilize these three ingredients of starting new things again and again to the glory of God.
Which of the three aspects of being a starter would you say are most present in your life and ministry? What’s one aspect you’d like to grow in?
- Can you think of biblical leaders and contemporary leaders who exhibited these aspects?
Len Tang is the director of Fuller’s Church Planting Program and is planting Missio Community Church in Pasadena, California. He is a Fuller grad and has served in churches in Washington, Oregon, and California. Len is married to Amy and they have three boys.