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Monday, January 12, 2009

Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts

Special update: I wrote a book for churches to give to first-time guests. It’s had a huge impact at bringing more people back as second-time guests and adding them into the church community. Get the Kindle version of Unforgettable: Your purpose in Christ here and the print version from Those outside the USA may need to order print copies from,, or
Over Christmas I read Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by New Church Starts by Jim Griffith and Bill Easum. If you are involved in any way in church planting you should read this book because it reveals years of learned experience through painful mistakes and the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- these guys are church planting experts! Let me qualify them ... 

In the first 22 years of ministry Jim Easum planted 5 churches and for the last 13 years has been assessing and coaching church plants. Having assessed over 1,500 candidates for church planting, trained people in over 8,000 projects and conducted over 100 autopsies on failed starts, he is an authority on the topic. Bill was a restart pastor and has consulted over 600 church plants/restarts. They have both encountered the same reasons for why church plants fail and have combined their wisdom to help future planters avoid the enormous pains of failure. I can't imagine a church planter not wanting to read this book.

The book is a short read at 118 pages and has the following 10 chapters which highlight and deal with each common failure:
  1. Neglecting the Great Commandment in Pursuit of the Great Commission.
  2. Failing to Take Opposition Seriously. 
  3. A Love Affair with One's Fantasy Statement Blinds the Planter to the Mission Field.
  4. Premature Launch. 
  5. Evangelism Ceases after the Launch. 
  6. No Plan for the Other Six Days of the Week. 
  7. Fear of Talking about Money until It Is Too Late.
  8. Failure of the Church to Act Its Age and Its Size.
  9. Formalizing Leadership Too Soon.
  10. Using the "Superstar" Model as the Paradigm for All Church Plants.
The first mistake is to neglect the great commandment in pursuit of the great commission. On page 6 they write "... the thrill of church planting and reaching people and building a new faith community takes precedence over the personal responsibility to grow spiritually." Page 7, "... [The church planters] goal is not to get people to come to church; their goal is to introduce people to the love of God." This actually seems like a common problem in leadership at large. Christian leaders often give and give and give and become so empty that they can burn out. Or, they get so focused on the business of the church and running meetings that they neglect spiritual renewal through discipleship. 

The issue here is for a planter to be purposeful about his own spiritual growth and to build genuine love for people. Church planting is not about getting people to attend a meeting but to encounter the grace of God and place their faith in Jesus. The danger is to become so focused on the tasks, the results or the numbers that the process of spiritual transformation is totally lost. The bride becomes the focus instead of the groom. Jesus has to be central to the leaders life. To avoid this they encourage planters to attend another churches worship services in order to engage and be refreshed and also to seek spiritual reflection and camaraderie from a mature Christian outside of the plant.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is that each chapter offers specific solutions targeted to resist and defeat each challenge. These "fixes" are pure gold! They are simple practical steps directed at the planter and to coaches. Most of these solutions are not obvious simply because the mistakes which necessitate them are common traps. Implementing these fixes from the start are the only way to avoid and minimize fundamental errors.

Chapter 3, titled "A Love Affair with One's Fantasy Statement", was tremendously helpful for me at this exact moment. I have elsewhere heard this referred to as "the church of your mind" or as they say on page 22 the "church in a vacuum." Right now on the CPT program (Church Planting Training) I am planning, learning, growing and preparing to launch a new church in Chicago. It is very exciting to be constantly thinking and dreaming about the name, the logo, the fancy mission statement, the location, the series we will preach, the strategic methods we will use to connect with new people and the day we will launch with hundreds of people! Ha! We WILL conquer this! But therein lies the problem. All this planning and preparation is outside the context of the mission field. This does not negate the process of church planting training, it actually increases the need to get it right -- which I'm thankful my training is doing! 

On page 23 they write "... the mission field dictates the tactics, not the fantasy statement" and "Church planting is about going out and getting more and more people. And after that it's about gathering those people and gradually forming them into a redemptive community." Articulating a set of values, a fancy mission statement and a trendy name does not mean success -- getting new converts and discipling them is the real measure of success.

Church planters are often so in love with their innovative ideas, their way of doing things or their trendy name, that they preemptively formulate, institute and therefore dictate a purely ideological and imaginary church which may or may not be effective at reaching the people around them.

Page 24 comments "Effective church planters intuitively say to themselves, 'This isn't working.' They have a come-to-Jesus meeting internally and say to themselves, 'We cannot continue down this road, we've got to adapt...NOW!'" I can tend to get dog-eared by things because I hate to quit. I will literally work at something for hours on end without a sign of quiting or rethinking my approach. I know it is a strength -- a God given ability to be steadfast and unwavering -- fighting to the end. But, it is also a huge weakness. Sometimes I will predetermine what I think will work best and then force myself to stick at it until I make it work. I need to strongly heed the advice in this book as this will not always work in church planting.

I am a planner by nature. I like to strategically think ahead and make the best preparations possible. Then, I would prefer for everything to go as planned. Yikes! I'm in for trouble if I don't adjust this way of thinking. This is another area in which God has used my wife to shape me. She is incredibly flexible and an "in the moment" type of person. This has caused conflict in our relationship which in turn has helped me mature in my understanding and appreciation for this God given characteristic. However, even with the growth I have made in being flexible and letting some things flow, rather than programming them, I still have a tendency towards control. If you have a moment please pray for me right now!

The solution for this is twofold. Firstly, I must work hard at developing a genuine love for the people in our area more than my ideological plan. Secondly, I must grow in my willingness to adapt my methods to the mission field. This is why I am currently fighting certain impulses to create a church identity before I have lived in Chicago. I want these things to be contextualized and organic to the people God is calling me to reach. Assuming something will work without really understanding or knowing the people it is supposed to "work on" is a sign of loving the church of your mind more than the people God is reaching. I have determined not to prescribe and identity from afar which I must admit is hard for me. 

Page 27 makes a painful point, if you have ever been a part of something like this then I apologise for poking the pain. They write "We often hear planters say, 'We're a multicultural church,' even though they only have a handful of people. Somehow they think they're effective because they have representatives from each mission field coming to their church, but that's a mistake. They now have a church for everyone, which means a church with very few distinctives." They also say "... planters often make the mistake of winding up with a church designed for 'everyone.' The net effect of this approach is thirty or forty people--forever!" Yikes! 

I have heard this language before. The desire to reach the nations is confused with having a small core group made up of a few individuals from other nations. From the experience of Griffith and Easum, this just never works. I'm not sure when people starting thinking that having 15-20 people from 5-6 different nations is somehow fulfilling the great commission when you consider that there are billions of people and hundreds of countries. The measure of success is not quantity of nations represented but indigenous growth. If a church plant is not growing then it is dead or close to death. A solid way to avoid this result is to constantly be in the community that one lives. Prayer walk it. Connect with the people there. Define what the local residents are like and then match the church plants methods to reach them. Don't be dog-eared -- adjust or die!

There is just too much good stuff in this book to review it all here so I will end with some worthy quotes:
  • Much of the opposition faced by planters comes from within the plant itself, p14.
  • Your team of intercessors needs to be "outside your plant" so they can pray deeply without an agenda, p18.
  • Usually the first group of people [to reach] is those people most like you, p28.
  • One of the recurring symptoms in failed church plants is premature birth, because the new church lacks sufficient infrastructure and development to survive on such limited resources, p34.
  • The gathered group [of a premature launch] is of such insufficient numerical size that it begins subtly to defend itself by citing the benefits of its size--intimacy, connectedness, and inclusiveness. Doing so unwittingly creates a barrier, making it impossible for any new people to find their way into the young church, p38.
  • You have to have a critical mass of people to add legitimacy and validity to it in the eyes of the public, p39. 
  • Evangelism in NOT a 'phase' of church life; it's the "LIFE" of the church, p47.
  • If the pastor ceases to model inviting the public and pushing the Great Commission then the congregation will become a closed system, p47. 
  • If you don't make contact after contact with the public, the likelihood of success is almost zero, p51.
  • Talk to one thousand people in the first year, p52.
  • The average church plant begins to decline the fourth or fifth year, p65.
  • Many planters mistakenly believe an increase in attendance will result in an increase in cash flow. Experience teaches just the opposite: more people actually increase the cash drain, thus accelerating the demise of the church, p78. 
  • Stewardship of money must be taught from the moment you begin to gather people, p79.
  • Someone else on the team needs to spend pastoral time with people on the fringe, p87.
  • Don't try to launch with a handful of people and try to act like a full-service church. One way or another, it will ruin you, p96.
  • The health of the church plant is in direct proportion to the health of the lead pastor and their family, p97.
  • Future leaders need time to prove themselves on the battlefield, p102.
  • People must earn the reputation of being a leader within your church plant, p103. 
  • Never become so enamored by what someone else is doing in ministry that your goal is to replicate what they are doing, p116.
  • If God has anointed you to plant a church, God will give you the vision, the wiring, and the abilities to do it God's way, p117.

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