As this column goes to press, I am coming up on the first Sunday of June, which marks another happy milestone for me. It was the first Sunday of June 1997 that we started the Cornerstone Baptist Church; I am about to be a veteran church planter/pastor of the same church for 26 years. In last week's column, I wrote of the sights and sounds of a healthy church. This week, my heart is musing on a different but intertwined thought, namely the long-term survival and "thrival" of both a church and a pastor, especially in a church plant.
Church plants, to put it mildly, are very difficult and far too often unsuccessful. Each day that I drive to my church, I pass multiple other buildings that have become sources of dark humor for Dana and me. Each of them started life as something else and, along the way, became a church. And then another church. And then another. One of them has been, in consecutive order, seven different churches in a row in the past 26 years. Each time the latest one closes up and removes the sign, one of us asks, "Which church do you think will be starting there by next week?" Mind you, we do not say this with an ounce of glee. It merely serves as a reminder to us of what we already know from long experience: Starting a church and seeing it become something that could outlast you cannot be done as easily as riding a bike.
The average tenure of a pastor in America is about four years. And from what personal, anecdotal research I have been able to do, it seems that the average tenure for a church planter in America is somewhere around 18 months. And yet we have been blessed to see our 26th year now. We have gone from an abandoned fish camp way down in a hole to 20,000 feet of new buildings on 15 acres on the hill overlooking the highway and are completely debt-free. To say that God has been good to us would be an understatement of wild proportions.
So, while once again I refuse to claim the mantle of expert, may I offer some humble advice to church planters and young churches, advice that may perhaps aid in you one day seeing your church stand firm and settle in for the long haul?
First, do not simply "see an opportunity and take it." There are opportunities, even desperate needs, everywhere. But it is all God's field; he is the Lord of the harvest, and he gets to decide who goes where since he sees the entire picture. Get with God and some godly men, pray, fast, research and then let the peace of God rule in your heart (Colossians 3:15) as to where to start a church. Lots of very hard times in the ministry can be overcome when a person can say, "But I know this is where God called me to."
Second, dig deep roots both personally and as a church. People have seen new churches pop up and tumble down like dandelions on the front lawn for decades. They are usually pretty skeptical, figuring that there is no need to be a part of that since either the church or the pastor or both will likely be gone shortly. If you want to overcome that stigma, every message you send needs to be of stability and longevity. Constantly be improving the grounds and facilities. Put up a permanent sign. Buy a house in the area. Get involved in the community. I have coached T-ball, run open gym basketball nights, been involved in local theater and invested in local businesses. Go to eat at local mom-and-pop places regularly as well, and get to know everyone. Become a fixture in the community.
Third, develop personal staying power. Many church planters fail and take their churches with them because they start with a set amount of resources that should last them for a year or two and count on the church growing and being able to pay them a full salary as well as its own bills by then. But doing so means you are bringing a time bomb to your own party. It is far better to have skills and abilities with which you can pay your own bills and the church's bills as well, if needed. If you do, then you do not have a deadline made up of dwindling time and dollars. You do not have a deadline at all, actually; you have the luxury of knowing that you can stay as long as needed for the church to thrive.
Four, never let your sensitive feelings be a viable target for attack (Proverbs 25:28). If you do anything for God, you will inevitably be attacked, and that will never stop. I am 26 years in, have sacrificed enormously, worked more than 70 hours a week on average the entire time, and just last week online, I was called a grifter and told that I was obviously named after a dog. I doubt the anonymous online warrior would say that to Bo Jackson, but that is irrelevant, and his snark did not bother me. I have a thriving ministry; he no doubt has a comfy couch in his mommy's basement.
Five, be honorable. The most shocking passage in the Bible to me is 1 Samuel 9:6, where a servant had to describe a preacher as "an honorable man." The ministry had been so degraded by then by Eli and others that he felt this qualifier to be necessary. Pay your bills, and on time. Hold yourself to high standards of ethics. Be accountable. Be humble. Large established churches may (sadly) get by nicely with a dishonorable man in the pulpit, but a church plant will usually not be given such a pass.
Six, obey Christ's command in Luke 14:23 to go into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in. Doctors and lawyers and CEOs are not likely to flock to your church plant just because they saw you rent out a storefront building. But there are people in every community who are hurting and searching for answers. When you knock on their doors with hope and help, people will come. And I have found that as we have invited those who needed our help, God has sent us others who had help to give. There have been many times we have visited and brought a homeless person to church one week, and God brought in a fine family that we did not visit the very next week. Fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), and God will give the increase.
Bo Wagner is pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church of Mooresboro, North Carolina, a widely traveled evangelist and the author of several books available on Amazon and at wordofhismouth.com. Email him at [email protected].