7 Top Issues Church Planters Face, #6 – Evangelism and Discipleship – by Ed Stetzer

This is part of a series of posts on Church Planting. This post originally appeared on Ed Stetzer’s blog, The Exchange. You can view the first post in the series here. Ed Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

7 Top Issues Church Planters Face, #6 – Evangelism and Discipleship

I’ve spent years in the church planting world and continue to find myself benefiting from study and reflection on how people plant churches. As I have said before, this research is based on a certain kind of church planting and is not applicable in all cases. But, based on our analysis over the years, it will be applicable to many. For more details on the sample we used in this qualitative project, be sure to read the earlier entries.

This research reflects what I have seen in many planters and reflects the insight of thirty of the leading church planting practitioners in America. Trends always influence certain church planting outcomes. But there are broad challenges that influence if a church plant makes it or not.

Let me say it another way — you can do a lot of things wrong and God can still bless your new church. All of us who have planted “successfully” will confess at times that God blessed in spite of our leadership and strategies, not because of it. But, there are issues that I had to navigate and every church planter will when planting in the most common ways. Eventually resolving those on some level was mission-critical.

Thus, I blogged this project and list because I believe that the 7 Top Issues Planters Face can be invaluable to you as a planter. Take the list seriously. Discuss it with your leadership team. Develop strategies and action plans. Addressing these issues will not guarantee success but can serve as predictors for progress of your planting efforts. Addressing them strategically will put your new church in the best position to “succeed” for the cause of Christ.

Today we move to Issue #6 (one to go!).

Evangelism and discipleship does not automatically happen in a new church. That is unfortunate for some aspiring planters. All of us struggle with our view of lostness no matter how long we have been in the faith. Too many planters think that the reason lost people have not come to Christ is because they have not found the right church yet. Thus, a mythological equation is formed: lost culture + relevant church plant service = instant harvest.

So, they sincerely set out with a new formula that will fill the local middle school gymnasium or movie theater with lost people. They have a vision of lost people streaming en masse through the doors on launch Sunday shouting, “I found it!” No wonder that planter will spend the majority of the week getting the production ready. The band, slides, movie clips, coffee and donuts, are all a part of an environment that helps people feel at home. But at the end of the day, the demanding grind of an attractive church can potentially take away from the pursuit of those far from God. Simply put, when you have an attractive plant it can end up solely with an attractional strategy. The end result will be that you “sell” a new and better church (product) to consumers of religious goods and services.

It is possible (and even common) to spend too much energy focused on only one aspect of the church plant: the Sunday morning crowds. There are many solutions, including opening up new lanes to all kinds of church planting, something Warren Bird and I discuss in Viral Churches.

One solution is to personally invest significant time in relationships with lost people and new believers. The sermons may need to be simpler with less “special effects.” The band may need less programmatic direction and more relational investment with you. At the end of the day, the core team and lead planter must personally invest heavily in the harvest. Not only is that great for the moment (for those lost people, etc.) but it creates the culture for the future of every person who connects with your church. The long term future of the new church is in the harvest, not a Disneyfied Sunday morning experience.

Most planters I know start new churches to reach lost people and grow disciples. Planters we talked to highlighted five challenges to evangelism and discipleship:

(1) Multiple time demands detracted from time needed for evangelism and discipleship.

(2) Discerning how to practice faith (James 1:27) in a way that represents all God is doing in world not limited to direct evangelism only. Examples include hunger relief, assistance and adoption efforts.

(3) Living incarnationally and engaging in today’s culture.

(4) Implementing a deliberate evangelistic and disciple-making strategy.

(5) Making small groups work.

Here are two observations that will help you work through these challenges to evangelism and discipleship:

Distracted by the Planting Process – The paradox for the planter is that what drives to plant — a heart to reach lost people — is often hindered by planting the church. Challenges cited by planters in this area appear connected to the first five issues in this report. Specifically developing leaders, mobilizing volunteers, building teams, financial resources, and building healthy systems all divert a planter’s focus to things other than evangelism and discipleship.

They are a part of making disciples but can be programs executed with a focus on process rather than on people.

The desire to engage people incarnationally and build relationships is met with the reality of the challenges that tug on the planter’s time, energy and focus. Yet as previously mentioned, these values must be lived out. Difficult decisions need to be made about what will really be important. It is essential to keep the unchurched before you and your team. Keep the issue on the table for everyone in your core team — make yourself accountable to them as well as making them accountable to you.

The Internal Scorecard – A nagging sense of falling short of the dream in the area of evangelism and discipleship can significantly contribute to a planter’s discouragement. The planter’s tolerance level for the pressures and disappointments of planting is higher when lives are being changed.

In some ways, it’s like parenting. When our kids respond by grace and through faith to Jesus and live for Him, it’s easier to deal with disappointment over less important areas of their lives. Evangelism and discipleship are core values for most planters and should bias the internal scorecard more than many other factors.

Church planter networks that value reaching people provide great environments to help. The tension planters feel to get it all done and invest in lost people is common (thus Top 7 material). The great news is that in every region, somewhere there is a planter being used by God to get it done. Time with someone like that will give you insight on how to stay focused and work toward gospel impact.

Thanks to my partner Todd Wilson (Director of Exponential) on this project.

My next blog will focus on Issue #7: Spiritual, Physical and Mental Health of Planter and Family.

By Ed Stetzer


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