Don’t Try Too Hard to Start a Church. Do This Instead.

dont_try_too_hard_start_a_church

So You Want to Start a Church?

First the hard part:

90% of start-ups fail.

According to one survey, only 68% the church plants make it to four years.*

I’ve planted a church that failed.

Ouch.

Even though it’s been years it still hurts to write that down.

I immediately want to explain to you all the good that happened, the stories of God at work amongst us. I want you to understand how intricate and complex the series of events that lead to the failure actually were. I especially don’t want to be known as a failure.

No one does.

What No One Talks About

Because no one wants to be known as a failure, it can be hard to talk about. But we need to.

We also desperately need to pioneer new ways of planting churches in North America. Of course there is going to be risk, that’s the nature of any new venture. But right now the carnage is just too horrendous. The public shame to church planters compounded by the private bewilderment with God is just too crushing. We need to find some fresh new ways of starting churches.

What I Wish I’d Known

About a year ago I read the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and found myself choking up, especially at the beginning. This book is not written for church planters, it’s actually written for entrepreneurs, especially for those in the technology space. But I found myself wiping away tears during the first chapter. I also found myself shaking my head, wishing I had the opportunity to read this book before venturing out to start a church.

Why you might ask?

Well, the full explanation will require more than just this post, but here’s the big idea: Most start-ups begin with a bold new idea, the entrepreneur or small team begins working towards their product, the product they think will sell, will be something entirely new, something that could change the game in whatever sector they are in.

Then, they finally launch the product, they ship it out the door, they unveil their proud creation to the world and…the customer is not all that impressed. It’s not that no one cares, but it didn’t make the splash they thought it would.

They do their very best to make some changes based on their early customer feedback, but tragically it’s too late. They spent all their capital, they quit their day jobs, they were all in, and it didn’t work. It might work if they made big changes, but frankly they don’t have the time or money.

The game is over, failure is imminent.

Sound familiar?

MVP

Even if as a church planter you don’t put most of your eggs in the highly valued “launch Sunday” (which I didn’t), even if you are not trying to be a huge attractional church (which we weren’t), the pressure to quickly move from a small team to a growing worshiping community that’s financially sustainable within 2-3 years mirrors many of the same challenges that tech startups face.

What Eric Ries says is that startups must fundamentally shift their posture from a big launch that quickly tries to scale to releasing what he calls a “minimum viable product” from which to learn. I’ll dive into how I think this relates to church planting in another post, but, as you might imagine, clarifying that the first task is to learn and prove a concept charts an entirely different path than launching big and hoping for the best.

In the meantime, if you think you might want to start a church, and especially if you are in the early stages of doing so right now, get this book and talk about it with your leadership team. I think it may radically reorient how you think about church planting, I know it did for me.

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*Correction. This article initially stated that 70% of church plants fail. For a better understanding of survival rates, check out the entire study here.

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Tim Soerens
Tim Soerens is the co-founding director of the Parish Collective and the Inhabit Conference, as well as the co-author of The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community. He lives in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle with his wife Maria-Jose and their son.
Tim Soerens

12 Comments

  1. donald May 11, 2015 Reply

    seems the same could apply to revitalization of anemic or “near-death” churches… slow and steady evolution with total “buy-in” rather than the a “now for something completely new” launch that bewilders many… imho.

  2. Erich Schindler May 11, 2015 Reply

    As a missinoary church planter, I recently finished the Lean Startup book, and had a very similar reaction. Thanks for this article, and I look forward to your thoughts on crafting a church planting MVP.

  3. Maurice Hagar May 12, 2015 Reply

    I do Agile and Lean training and coaching for a living. And I’m planning to plant a church soon using these techniques. Good book. Another good resource is Dwight Zscheile’s New Book Agile Church.

    Donald, you would think, right? But it doesn’t work because it’s such a radically different culture that established churches, dying or vibrant, can’t make the change.

  4. Richard Faulkner Jul 29, 2015 Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and failures in this space. Doing so testifies that you are not beaten, rather victorious in Christ and blessed with a voice of wisdom and encouragement. I just placed an order for “The Lean Startup” and look forward to learning more about starting lean and its application toward sewing innovative ministries. I am in the early stages of planning and development for a missions plant to kick off in Q3 2016 and am all ears on learning from the experience of others.

    Thank you!

  5. Billie Lawrence Jul 30, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful blessings of your experiences to share with others. That way we can take the slow approach with wisdom and meaning. Have a blessed day.

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