What do a lawyer, a football player, and a youth pastor have in common? It might sound like the setup to a bad joke, but it isn’t. All three are examples of professionals who recently left their jobs to plant independent Christian churches in the United States.
Many of today’s church leaders are asking where tomorrow’s church leaders will come from. That’s a critical concern among church planters as well. In fact, Stadia president Greg Nettle says, “The number one challenge we face right now is our leadership pipeline of church planters.” Nettle and other church-planting leaders estimate it will require 8,000 new churches per year in the United States alone to keep pace with church closures and population growth. All evangelical denominations together currently plant about 3,500 churches per year.
Christian Standard spoke to Restoration Movement church planters and church-planting leaders about the state of the church-planting pipeline.
Church Planters Come from Healthy, Reproducing Churches
“Church planters are coming from all over the place,” says Tim Cole, executive director of Waypoint Church Partners.
But one vital common factor is often involved. Church planters are often produced by “healthy churches with a healthy reproduction mindset,” according to Brett Andrews, founding pastor of New Life Christian Church in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Since launching in 1993, New Life has grown into a multisite church and has directly planted 294 churches with more than 31,000 people reached.
“The best planters come from the harvest,” says Andrews. Churches that produce fruit—reproducing disciples, reproducing churches—help people catch the vision.
Cole says many new church planters are coming from the staffs of churches with church-planting cultures. These can be churches of 200 or 2,000—the size doesn’t matter, he says. It’s the culture that is important and needs to be replicated. But, sadly, most churches today don’t have that culture and DNA.
Similarly, Greg Marksberry, former executive director of Florida Church Partners (FCP), says new-church staffs are an especially great source of planters. Individuals who have served in new churches have already experienced church planting firsthand. A lot of churches are “born pregnant,” he says. Those kinds of churches and staffs have the vision to find and train planters.
Andrews agrees. “At New Life, we tell churches to ‘plant pregnant,’” with an intent to give birth to another new church. A planter should be part of your launch team, he says.
As Phil Claycomb, executive director of Nexus Church Planting, puts it, future planters—whether they are from “traditional” ministry backgrounds or are leaders from the marketplace—are in the pews of our churches!
Church Planters Come from ‘Traditional’ Ministry Backgrounds
Nick Parsons, who works in recruitment with Orchard Group, says many planters come from megachurch staffs. It’s a good pathway from large churches to church planting. In fact, says Marksberry, when FCP looks for potential planters, they often look at church staffs.
“Conferences like Exponential have been really influential in raising up planters from among church leaders,” says Andrews. Marksberry agrees. He has seen staff people catch a vision for planting at the conference. (The Exponential National Conference is March 7-10, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. See exponential.org for more details.)
Parsons says planters come from a variety of church staff positions—executive pastors, teaching pastors, youth pastors, and others. Nettle adds another group, campus pastors, who move into church planting because they feel called to preach or to take a more active role in church leadership.
Several church-planting organizations singled out youth pastors as good church-planting candidates.
“A lot of our church planters come out of the ranks of leading youth ministers,” says Cole. As a youth minister, “you can become a lead minister sooner as a church planter.” Most established churches want a senior pastor in his 40s or 50s, Cole explains, but church-planting organizations are willing to hire younger candidates. This is significant because young adults tend to be attracted to plants that are led by youth ministers because they find the preaching style more familiar and relatable.
Church Planters Come from Discontentment
Discontent often leads current church staff members to seek out church planting. Sometimes it’s godly discontent and sometimes it’s not, says Andrews. Ideally, of course, the desire to plant comes from a godly discontent to reach lost people—especially in a specific locale. Claycomb refers to this godly discontent as “positive processing.” Less ideally, the staff members are frustrated with their current church or ministry. Claycomb calls this a “negative processing” perspective—they simply want to move on from their old church.
Therefore, it’s important, says Marksberry, to ask several questions when evaluating a potential planter: Is this person having a bad experience at their church or are they being called to plant? Do they have a heart for the lost? For a certain geographic area?
Church Planters Come Back to Plant Again
Another category of church planters are former planters who decide to plant again. At Waypoint, says Tim Cole, five or six of the last 40 church planters have planted churches previously; some are what we might call “serial planters” who have planted several times.
“Typically, we think church planting is a young man’s game,” says Cole. But that’s changing. Several of Waypoint’s last 40 planters were over age 40. Cole himself planted at age 30 and again at age 40. (Marksberry is also a repeat church planter.) Waypoint has recently seen an increase in the number of planters who start churches as soon as they become empty nesters.
Church Planters Come from the Marketplace
While most current church planters have a background in vocational ministry, most new church planters do not, says Brett Andrews. Today many new church planters are Christian leaders who have worked in the business world.
Most church planters who come straight out of the business world do so because they want to reach unreached people and they have an entrepreneurial spirit, says Greg Marksberry. These types of planters may not be Bible college graduates, however.
Andrews thinks the most effective method for finding planters in the future will be saving lost people who then go on to start churches. Many staff members at New Life “came out of the harvest,” he points out. One former New Life attendee who became a believer after living most of his life as an atheist just moved to St. Augustine, Florida, to plant a church.
At Orchard Group, the top three categories of church planters are megachurch staff, pro athletes, and lawyers. They’re all high achievers, Nick Parsons says. “I think personality [and an] in-built tendency toward entrepreneurship might be more important than the path” they take to become church planters.
Only about one-third of Orchard Group’s planters in the last five years did their undergraduate studies at a Christian college, says Parsons. However, “Orchard Group might be a little atypical.”
Often, those who come to church planting from the business world sense “a second calling,” says Nettle, but they create a “theology vacuum.” (See other articles in this issue that address this concern.)
Church Planters Come from the Marketplace—and Stay There
Phil Claycomb posed a question that sometimes arises with respect to church planters coming from the business world: Why would we ask people to quit their jobs and live in relative poverty in order to start a church? Many capable, quality leaders can plant churches without quitting their jobs, he says. After all, he adds, bivocational and covocational leaders are part of the history of the Restoration Movement.
Covocational planting—by planters who never intend to leave their other job—is growing, says Greg Nettle, especially among people of color. Fewer and fewer planters are relying on their new church for all of their income. “Almost every church planter also has a side hustle,” says Parsons.
DeWayne Reeves is a covocational church planter in Farmington, Arkansas. He became a believer in 2010, and then, in 2013, he felt God moving. He had no seminary training and had experienced multiple divorces and bankruptcy. He describes his past, pre-Christian life, as “a train wreck,” saying, “I wanted to disqualify myself from anything God wanted me to do because of that.” Yet he felt God calling him to ministry.
In 2014, Reeves enrolled in a one-year program at Johnson University to get a certificate in Christian ministry. A few years later, he decided to plant a church—which he did in September 2018—but not as a full-time, paid minister. Reeves takes no salary. The church has no paid staff at all. That’s intentional. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart,” Reeves says, “a serial entrepreneur.”
The church that Reeves planted, Casting Christian Church, is not large. Their pre-COVID attendance was 80 to 100, with around 200 for Easter. In September 2021, Casting Christian was averaging 42 people. And yet, in 2020, the church gave $50,000 to community needs—in large part because it has no payroll.
“Unless God tells me, ‘Go full-time,’” Reeves says he will continue to be covocational because “it allows me to be relatable. People say, ‘He’s just like me’ because I have another job.”
Claycomb suggests that church planters reconsider bivocational and self-funding strategies by using Priscilla and Aquila as their guides. He recently wrote in a blog post, “I ought to be biased in favor of self-funding strategies. When I was young, my father launched and grew a healthy church as its bivocational pastor. My wife and I have self-funded our ministries on several occasions. Some of my mentors have been bivocational.”
This kind of bivocational, self-funding, highly mobile, entrepreneurial church-planting team—in the style of Priscilla and Aquila—may be one opportunity to enable people who feel called to plant a church but don’t have traditional ministry training or experience.
Common Qualities of All Church Planters
A variety of opportunities abound for church planters today, and they are, indeed, coming “from all over the place.” Whether church planters come from traditional ministry backgrounds or from the marketplace, they all have several things in common.
“Church planting attracts high-capacity people, risk takers,” says Parsons. They have an entrepreneurial orientation and a heart for evangelism.
“If you’re wired to be a church planter, you always see yourself as a church planter,” says Marksberry. Many, many more of these people who see themselves as church planters are needed. They are the “workers” Jesus told us to be asking God to send into his harvest fields.
So . . . what else do a lawyer, a football player, and a youth pastor have in common? Each one, and many more, are answers to the prayers of many for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.