Seasoned church planter Steve Swisher shares his insight on what it really takes to attract and keep church attenders.
5 Reasons Why I Failed
I remember reading a statistic a while back somewhere that found most successful church planters had been a part of at least one failed attempt at church planting. I always wondered why that was until now. In 2005, I entered the world of church planting when I took over the reigns of a church plant that was struggling to survive. In December 2008, we held our last service. I’ll never forget my wife asking me the question, “Why did we fail?” It’s taken me a year and a successful church planting experience to work on the answer to her question. I thought you might benefit from the answer.
1. I wasn’t teachable.
I had taken a class in seminary on church planting and had attended several church plants at different times over the previous 10 years. In short, I thought I knew what I was doing. Worse yet, I wanted everyone else to think I knew what I was doing. Because of this, I wasn’t willing to learn. I would attend meetings with other church planters and never ask anyone for help. When I attended training meetings, I’d quickly dismiss whatever the speaker was saying for any number of reasons. “It didn’t apply to my situation.” “They were too old and everything they shared was outdated.” “How big is their church anyway?” And on and on the excuses went for why I didn’t need to listen to anyone else.
When I started Essential, I was fresh off my failure at New Hope. I was humbled and teachable. I talked to every church planter I could. In my opinion, they were the expert and I was the student. I didn’t care what they thought of me. I just wanted to learn. I must have interviewed 30 church planters in the short time between my failure and my new start.
One of the best questions I asked church planters was, “Who else could I talk to that you’ve learned from?” Almost every church planter I talked to had something to offer, even church planters who didn’t have a big church. One of the guys I learned the most from was a guy who, after five years, was running between 75-110. Back when I wasn’t teachable, I never would have listened to anyone who wasn’t running more than 500. The problem with the “big names” in church planting and the church planters who are running more than 500 is that it’s been so long since they planted that they typically aren’t much help to a new planter.
Over the past year, I’ve talked with several guys who are wanting to plant a church. It takes about three seconds for me to figure out whether or not they’re teachable. Either they’re trying to convince me they know what they’re doing and don’t need help, or they’re hungry for knowledge and ask questions. Essential has been up and running less than a year right now. We’re running in the mid 200s to low 300s, and I’m still talking to church planters wanting to learn more.
2. I didn’t realize church planting was way different than leading an existing church.
When I became the pastor of a church plant, I came in with five years of pastoral experience. I had successfully transitioned a primarily senior adult church that was in decline to a growing, vibrant church of young families. Because of my previous success in a different context, I thought I knew church planting. But church planting is a completely different animal.
Being portable is more than just something that requires you to set up and tear down every week. It limits your exposure since your location is only visible on the weekends. So you have to find other ways of gaining exposure in the community. Further, most ministry functions at an established church involve the building. When you don’t have a building, you have to find other ways to build community as a church. People who attend a church plant come into it asking the question, “Is this church going to make it?” They won’t ask you that question, but they’re thinking it.
Further, you can’t out-church the established church. What I mean by that is, if someone wanted to go to a typical church, they wouldn’t visit a church that meets at a school, movie theater or warehouse. In other words, most people who visit a church plant are looking for something different than what the established churches in the area have to offer. If they show up at your place and find you just doing church, chances are it’s not going to work. This is true for both churched and unchurched people who come to check you out.
3. I put the vision up for sale.
In order to keep people from leaving the church, I’d do whatever I could to make them happy. When you’re at a church plant, you’re so desperate for people that the thought of someone bailing on you keeps you up at night. Especially when you know they tithe.
My first time around, I allowed people whose only concern was having their personal ministry needs met be the ones that determined what we did as a church. They ended up determining our discipleship structure (Sunday school over small groups) our service time (9:30 instead of 10:30 when more non-church people would come) and what outreach events we did (things like VBS that never resulted in any church growth).
They were disgruntled “church people” who came to a church plant because the previous church they attended wasn’t willing to meet their demands. Church planters need people who are more interested in reaching their community for Christ than having their personal demands met. Church plants attract disgruntled “church people” like a magnet. Then when they come to your church plant, they think they are doing you a favor by attending this little startup church that’s a tenth of the size of their previous church. Soon they’ll let you know that if they aren’t valued, they’re gone. Let them go.
I danced like a monkey at their request for three years, and nothing I ever did was good enough. By the time they left the church, they had run just about everyone else off. People who are on a mission to reach their community won’t stick around if they see the pastor is more interested in meeting churchy demands than reaching the lost. Because I waited so long to let them go, the church plant couldn’t recover from the damage they had done.