Why “Making Things Happen” is a Bad Idea For Church Planters

ben stern making things happen

I’m still not sure how I became a church planter.

Seriously, my gifts and talents don’t seem to make me a likely candidate. I wasn’t picked early as having “church planting potential.” I don’t have that serial entrepreneur thing that a lot of planters do (although I did start a punk rock band in high school and we were actually kind of good!).

Because of this, church planting forces me to operate in my weakness a lot. But maybe that’s why God called me to do this. Maybe God called me to plant because I’m not a “born planter.” Maybe operating in my weakness is a gift.

No Hype, Please

My wife and I never really had any appetite to plant a church by cranking up the hype machine. It felt like death to gather a crowd, give ‘em a good show, try to get them to come back next week (“You won’t want to miss it!”), and maybe make some disciples somehow, magically.

So we planted differently, on purpose. We were definitely naïve in lots of ways, and we really didn’t know what we were doing, but we started with a small group of people and began discipling them and seeking to live on mission together.

We learned as we went. We trained leaders and eventually multiplied our initial core team by reproducing ourselves into others. It sounds kind of romantic, but it wasn’t. It was hard to learn what we needed to learn.

And it was really hard not to try and hurry the process along. It was hard to resist the temptation to make things happen.

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Resisting the Urge to Make Things Happen

I’m finding the same temptation in our current church plant. We’ve been “on the ground” for a little more than a year, and we didn’t have a huge relational network here to start with. So we’re starting from scratch, living bi-vocationally, and getting to know neighbors, friends, and friends of friends.

We’ve got a core team that we’ve started discipling and training, but because there isn’t a lot of institutional inertia yet (stuff that just happens because it’s always happened for a long time), I feel a big temptation to “make things happen,” kick things into gear.

But here’s why that’s a bad idea: When we submit to our desire to “make” things happen, we stop cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We stop noticing what God is already doing. We close down our discernment in the interest of seeing something, anything, visibly happen.

And then we are stuck planting a church in our own strength, asking God to bless our efforts. The exact thing we were trying to avoid!

What About Being Intentional?

Just like it’s easy to ignore what God is doing in the name of “making things happen,” it’s just as easy to fail to respond to what God is doing in the name of “discernment.”

It’s just as important to respond to what God is doing as it is to notice what God is doing (Matthew 7:24-27, James 1:22).

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This is where we’ve had to lean in and be intentional in our church planting. Because we’re more comfortable listening and noticing what God is doing, it’s a discipline for us to take movemental action in response to what God is doing.

Others who are more comfortable moving need to embrace the discipline of discernment, noticing what God is already doing so that actions can be a participation and partnership with God rather than “good” stuff we do for God, hoping he’ll bless it.

How to Tell the Difference

So how do we tell the difference between “making things happen” in our own strength and being intentional about responding to what we see God doing? How would we know what space we’re operating in?

Here are 3 ideas, along with 3 practices that will help:

1. Notice Peace (and Its Absence)

Whenever I feel the temptation to “make things happen,” I realize that I’m operating in anxiety. I fear that we’re not growing fast enough or that we “should” be “further along” or something. Other times I feel anxious about taking action, even when it’s in response to something God is doing!

Of course these thoughts don’t come from God—I’m not discerning anything here, just afraid of what others might think of me.

Nothing good comes from actions taken from anxiety and fear. Seek to operate from a place of peace. If you notice you’ve lost your peace, stop everything and figure out why. Fight to stay in a place of peace.

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A practice that will help with this: contemplative prayer.

2. Notice Grace

Grace is not just what God gives us because of sin. Grace is God’s generous presence and activity in our lives. It’s his empowering presence that is with us. So if we’re on mission with God, noticing where God’s grace is at work is always the first step.

So I have learned to ask, often, where I am currently seeing God at work. Where is there evidence of good fruit that I can’t produce in my own awesomeness? When I notice something, I thank God for it, then seek to mobilize resources and energy toward it.

It’s kind of like gardening. I watch for shoots to come up out of the soil, and then I bring fertilizer and water to those plants. It’s the same in church planting. You don’t cause the growth, but you can notice it and bring resource toward it to continue to help it flourish.

A practice that will help with this: discernment.

3. Eliminate Distractions

Once you are operating from a place of peace and consistently noticing and responding to God’s grace, focus your energy on those areas by eliminating stuff that doesn’t line up with what God is doing.

It might be stuff you think you’re supposed to do, like post to Twitter, or have an awesome website, or spend money on sound equipment, or meticulously design awesome graphics for every sermon, but if it’s really not what God is doing, just stop.

Maybe just ditch the slides completely for a few weeks and see if it even matters? Trim a few hours of sermon prep so you can spend more time with people and see what happens.

There are lots of ways to eliminate distractions so you can focus on what God is doing now, here.

Neither Make Things Happen nor Wait for Things to Happen

Missional church planting is not about “making things happen,” but it’s also not about aimlessly “hanging out,” hoping that good stuff will just happen. 

Missional church planting is about responding to what we see God doing, and I’m hopeful this post will help with that!

How about you? What have you found helpful as you’ve navigated this tension? Leave a comment below to start a discussion.

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Ben Sternke
Ben is an Anglican priest, church planter, leadership coach, writer, web designer, and content marketer living in the Indianapolis area with his wife and four kids. He is planting a church called The Table, and co-founded a leadership coaching organization called Gravity Leadership. He also helps church planters design and write content for their websites.
Ben Sternke

2 Comments

  1. Rachel Oct 17, 2016 Reply

    This is a timely article as I have had many gospel conversations with friends and family recently surrounding my daughter’s baptism. I hate formulas and mega church approaches. But as one with a desire to see people I care deeply about come to the Lord, I need to remember that it is the work of the Lord in calling these people to himself. I know the lack of peace I feel when operating in my strength. I am all too eager to help the Lord! But He reminds me of his peace and grace as I come to Him knowing I have no power of my own.

  2. Ben Sternke Author
    Ben Sternke Oct 20, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for commenting Rachel!

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