What I Want to Tell Large Churches

By Steve Wyatt

Church planters are quirky and extremely headstrong, loner types who plow into most every “church” conversation with a Mighty Mouse mind-set (“Here I come to save the day!”) They tend to have an overdeveloped sense for “the way things ought to be” and confidence they can make it happen. At least that’s the case before launch day.

10_Wyatt_JNI can make such seemingly harsh statements because I am a church planter.

Church planters, as a tribe, are seriously impaired. Consider Exhibit A: we viciously trash the current church “model”—especially megachurches—but then build our “new and improved” model by cloning the very churches we harshly critique!

So, on behalf of church planters everywhere, allow me to say we’re sorry.

The fact we clone you is our way of complimenting you. We only trash you because we love you!

Actually, we trash you because we are sniveling, envious wannabes. Not exactly a newsflash, but we are hyper-jealous of your huge budgets, large staff, and massive buildings—primarily because we’ve got none of those things.

There. I said it.

Take marketing, for instance. You’ve got a team of gifted marketers, but our team is all volunteer (read that as singular, not plural). My team, for example, is my wife. Chris invests 60-plus hours a week because she wants to produce quality branding, good screen content, and published pieces that wouldn’t embarrass an eight-year-old.

But sometimes we get frustrated because much larger churches in our area (whose campuses are miles away) have a far more visible marketing presence around our community—even though we’re anchored in and giving our all to our community.

And sometimes we covet that. We’re not proud to be so shallow—and occasionally we feel guilty for thinking these thoughts, but we still think them.

For church planters, the conversation turns, invariably, to capital (as in, “We don’t have the capital to do that right now”).

We wish we did.

If we did, we would.

And when we do, we will.

But we’re not there yet, so we lash out in frustration.

“Can you imagine what our ‘legitimate, God-honoring, and thoroughly selfless’ church plant could do if WE had resources like those godless, idol-worshipping, gospel-compromising big churches have?”

I suppose this is as good a place as any to say this: Please forgive us for being so hyper-piously petty.

Have I told you about my former life? Before I was a planter, I was a builder. I was blessed to lead a sleepy church of 200 to more than 3,500! So I’ve worn both of these hats. That means I’m uniquely qualified to offend everybody. So let’s proceed.

 

When it comes to builder versus planter, planting is harder.

Even though I am wiser now (insert OLD joke here), and though I know most every ministry pothole to avoid (having stumbled into most of them), I’ve discovered some truths about planting you don’t hear about in boot camp. For example:

• I’ve learned how to create momentum when the only bullet in the chamber is a vision statement downloaded off the Internet.

• I’ve learned how to lead from priorities when every dawn brings a new crisis—but no one to whom I can delegate these problems!

• I’ve learned how to train staff to lead with distinction—but not so much distinction that a valuable staff member is lost to a better gig over at Humongo Church.

• And I’ve learned I must not whine when the big church in town decides to launch a new campus—right across the street from my church!

Planting is hard primarily because it requires so much labor.

Every Sunday when I drive to church, I see another planter posting sandwich signs. Having been in that planter’s place, I know that he will next go set up chairs and arrange a children’s space, then change shirts so he can preach, counsel, and pray, and then reload those sandwich boards so he can head on his way to meet a new family over tacos at Ocho Locos.

By now you’re probably thinking, he needs to delegate! Maybe. Then again, since the average church plant needs 10,000 man-hours of volunteer labor in its first year alone, and since the average church plant has fewer than 100 people after four years, it’s easy to see why planters spend so much time juggling and choosing.

For instance, do I do set-up with the team or spend extra time preparing my message?

Our church carried in and set up thousands of items every week for eight years! (We tore them down and stowed them every week too.) And during the process, we burned through dozens of key volunteers. Sadly, many of our most faithful servants simply wore out and moved on. It wasn’t because our ministries were lacking, but because the need for help was so incredibly high.

Meanwhile, the omnipresent question was: do we expend our energy on logistics or loving people? It seems an odd choice—unless half your set-up team just bailed on you. And when that happens, it means you once again invest precious time getting ready to “do” church instead of leading your people to “be” the church.

I know—big churches juggle, too. And big church pastors also have to steal a sermon now and again just to get through their own hectic mess.

I’m just saying—planting is different.

 

The great numbers you’re posting aren’t only a result of you doing the right stuff.

There’s no denying, the “consumer mind-set” among churchgoers is pervasive, and nowhere more keenly felt than in a church plant. We can’t offer the same fully formed ministry menu more mature churches can provide.

That’s why I occasionally stumble home devastated because we just lost another key family, or a convert who had just recently transitioned from seeker into a servant.

Did they leave because of the incredible, God-anointed preaching at your place?

I’m talking, besides that.

Is it your commitment to “target” and that whole “reaching nonbelievers” vibe?

Maybe. But that’s not what they tell us. It’s because you’ve got a Saturday service. Or, worse—a building!

What really hurts is this: you barely notice when they arrive, even though we feel momentarily crippled because they’re gone.

Planters rarely share such feelings (because they don’t want you to think they’re soft)—but they feel them.

So next time you take a planter to lunch (you do that, right?), assure him that consumer Christians don’t validate your brand nearly as much as they reflect a cultural flaw.

 

We wish you’d take the time to embrace the part we can play in our city’s kingdom story.

I believe in most every community, God is using a church plant to tell his story. And though it’s true that 70 percent of church plants won’t even be here 24 months from now, it’s also true we still don’t know whether multisite is a trend or just a fad.

So shouldn’t we at least listen to (and maybe embrace) the story church plants are telling?

When church planters listen to large-church ministers at conferences, we struggle to scale back your wisdom. Far too often, the same exploits that help enlarge our vision also overwhelm us. Your achievements inspire us, but they also discourage (and sometimes defeat) us.

 

So please! Include stories about your screw-ups.

The most memorable quote I heard at a recent conference was from a pastor widely known for his discipleship passion. Someone asked him, “What is your church doing to disciple believers who can disciple other believers?”

How did our “expert” respond? “We suck at it.”

Now that’s what church planters long to hear! Not so we can gloat . . . but because we don’t want to quit.

One last comment:

 

Is it a pipe dream to think maybe we could cooperate instead of compete?

Church planters want to play a part in taking our cities. Multisite is one way to get there; church planting is another. So large church, even if you don’t like sending good money after bad by funding a full-on plant, why not find an existing one and come alongside and help them? With no strings!

Hire an intern—then set them loose. Not as a “mole,” but as “missionary.”

Commission a consultant to review our effort and offer guidance.

Feature us during a weekend service, and then invite some pioneer types to join us.

I realize these suggestions demand that we “get crazy” and put only Jesus’ face on our flag—that we rinse our motives of ego, and instead exalt Christ and advance his cause. And I’m not suggesting it’s any easier for planters than it is for you. But isn’t it worth the effort?

This competition deal is really weird, especially when most church plants are planting an abridged version of you. I could throw a rock and hit five church plants in our town—each practically indistinguishable from the other.

The formula is proven:

• thirteen minutes of praise music by a smokin’ hot band

• cool lighting, thumping bass, and HD

• a 40-minute message delivered by a dude who’s trying hard to look 10 years younger than he is

• offering, Communion, and a powerful closing tune

• all done in just over an hour

Sound familiar? Toss in the occasional video clip and the grid is nearly identical across the spectrum.

And given the syncretism that’s driving today’s theological wasteland, Evangelical church “A” is teaching pretty much the same stuff as Restoration church “B.”

The only key positioning difference is size. Like it or not—and neither the plant nor the large church does—our “brands” are nearly identical to casual observers. The real difference is whose face gets to be on the flag.

Maybe that’s why multisite is increasingly popular. It’s made “mirroring the mother ship” more simple . . . by cutting out the middleman!

But here’s what’s sad: as we keep competing with each other to recreate nearly identical versions of each other, we fight, sometimes vigorously, to retain a shrinking market share. In Phoenix, the number of people who attend church is 11 percent and falling. In other places, it’s a whopping 17 percent—big whoop.

Seems to me that’s a lot of wrestling just to reach an already reached crowd. So maybe it would do us well to resource some Steve Jobs-types who want to do creative thinking and leadership stretching and ministry exploring.

Clearly, we need to do something. And maybe, if we parked our opinions and pooled our resources—or just collaborated in a more harmonious manner—we could find a solution to the “stuck-ness” most churches feel (but rarely admit).

Even better, we’d speak with one voice again, instead of the cacophony of noise we currently emit. And, best of all, there would be just one face on our flag.

 

Steve Wyatt serves as lead pastor with Christ’s Church at the Crossroads in Anthem, Arizona.

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