4 Church Planting Mistakes I've Made

I don’t like making mistakes. I’d rather do things well the first time, and get praised for it. Who wouldn’t?
But of course I’ve made mistakes. I’ve planted a couple missional churches where we sought to root our work in discipling people into participating in God’s mission, and then multiplying from there. All throughout this journey, up until this very moment, I’ve made mistakes. A lot of them. Some are little, some big, and when I think about them, I tend to cringe a little on the inside.
Part of God’s grace in my life, though, is helping me see and embrace my mistakes. Instead of succumbing to the temptation to hide or shift the blame for my mistakes, I am learning that my mistakes are:

  1. an opportunity to encounter the grace of God, and
  2. an opportunity to learn.

I’m trying to cultivate an attitude that welcomes mistakes as a place of grace and learning, not just for me, but for others. Because the only thing that’s better than learning from your mistakes is learning from other people’s mistakes.
So here are 4 mistakes I’ve made in planting missional churches, and what I learned.

Mistake #1: Going Public Too Soon

When I first got the church planting “bug,” my theology was in the process of being radically transformed along missional lines. Salvation was more than forgiveness, eternal life was for now, we follow a God who is already on mission, etc.
The problem was that my methodology hadn’t changed yet. I wanted to disciple people into full participation in the mission of God, but all I knew how to do was lead a certain kind of worship service.
So when we stepped out and planted, I defaulted to the methodology I knew, which was to start a worship service. And while God was certainly at work in the midst of our community, we were constantly hindered by the fact that we had gone public too soon.
How did I know? Eventually it became apparent that we had an event to invite people, but we hadn’t cultivated a core with the DNA we wanted to multiply. Implicitly, I had assumed the worship service would instill the DNA all by itself, but it didn’t. We had to retrofit our first church plant with the discipleship infrastructure that would allow us to multiply in a healthy way.
I think the lesson is Don’t go public without a discipleship core.
And how do you know if you (really) have a discipleship core? (Because having people who are “excited” about your “vision” is not the same thing.) 

  • You don’t have a core if you’ve only spent a few months together. Time doesn’t magically create community, but cultivating a real community just takes time. You can’t “shortcut” the process, no matter how much energy or vision you have.
  • You don’t have a core if you haven’t weathered conflict yet. If no one has been upset by you or someone else in the group, you haven’t really begun to form a community. Conflict isn’t a sign that something is going wrong, it’s just a sign that something is happening (which is a good thing – it opens up the possibility of transformation, which is what you want).
  • You don’t have a core if nobody has left yet. This isn’t a hard/fast rule, but it’s almost inevitable that as you encounter conflict, as you live into your values, some people will opt out. This is good (if they’re opting out because they realize they don’t share the vision/values). And people don’t really have time to know if they’re “on board” unless they journey with you for a while to find out what it “feels like” to live as this kind of community.

Mistake #2: Assuming That Going Public Will Take Care of Itself

My second mistake is basically the inverse of the first one: assuming that “going public” will just sort of “happen” if you “invest” in people.
This is the mistake of neglecting the necessary organizational/structural elements of church planting in the name of being “missional” or “organic.” It’s undervaluing the very real need to think strategically and plan ahead.
Think about it like a garden. There’s a need to balance “organic” and “organized.” You need to honor the soil and the seeds. You can’t force your cucumbers to grow more quickly by dumping twice as much water on them. There’s a process of natural growth that you need to submit to.
At the same time, you can’t just throw a bunch of seeds on the ground, walk away, and expect a big harvest a few months later. You need to do the work of cultivating the growth. There are structural elements you can put in place to help the seeds produce the greatest possible amount of fruit.
You can build a fence to keep rodents out. You can build a trellis to allow the cucumber vines to climb so they have more room to produce cucumbers. You can water the soil if it hasn’t rained in awhile. You can put down fertilizer to catalyze growth.
For me, I realized that my distaste for some of the more “organized” elements of church planting was mainly related to my desire to not be “one of those churches.” It’s an image thing. I want to set my church apart a bit from the crowd.
But I’m learning to stop thinking so much about what other people think of my church, because there’s some wisdom embedded in some of the practices I sometimes cringe at. For example, in my current church plant (http://thetableindy.org), we’ve developed a strong discipleship core and started to worship publicly in a lightweight, low-maintenance way, as a spiritually-enriching practice for our community.
So we’re beginning to practice a way of life that we want to call others into… and we know there are others out there who are hungry to be part of this kind of church, but we’re realizing that people won’t know we exist unless we find a way to “get the word out.”
So we’re looking to “get the word out,” which honestly makes me uncomfortable. But I’m learning my discomfort has more to do with my own self-consciousness than it does the Holy Spirit. So we’re learning to be intentional and strategic in our “going public.”

Mistake #3: Outsourcing Discipleship after Going Public

Many church planters (even missional ones!) have a latent assumption that once they do go public and get a regular worship service up and running, that the most important thing they can spend their time on is producing that worship service.
The tendency I’ve seen is that discipleship and leadership development start taking a backseat to the desire to deliver a great service on Sunday morning. As more and more time is spent tweaking the song selection and sermon illustrations, less and less time is spent directly making disciples and developing leaders.
Discipleship can get “outsourced” and becomes a “ministry” of the church, rather than staying central and integrated into every ministry of the church. Which means then it basically becomes an assimilation task force whose main goal is to “get people involved” and “keep people engaged.”
It’s easy to lose the whole goal of involvement and engagement—but to what end? That’s what I always want to ask leaders that do this—what’s the point? If we’re mindlessly “growing the church,” we’ve lost the plot.
So you need to start with a commitment to disciple-making and leadership development (instead of making Mistake #1 above). But even after you go public and are worshiping weekly, you need maintain the same commitment to disciple-making and leadership development. This is the core DNA that makes your growth a healthy reproduction of life rather than a sterile mass production of “butts in seats.”

Mistake #4: Thinking Chronologically Instead of Developmentally

I remember thinking at one point, “Shouldn’t we have more people by now?” There’s nothing wrong with thinking about whether or not you’re growing as a church plant, but notice the measuring stick I was using: the clock. I was using a chronological timeline to determine if we were growing appropriately.
Church planting timelines are overrated. Timelines are basically just guesses based on how things worked in the past somewhere else. They’re based on the preconceived notion how it worked there and then will be how it works here and now.
Maybe that worked when culture was more monolithic, but now that we’re fragmenting into niches and foundations are shifting under our feet, hard/fixed timelines are almost worthless.
Instead of establishing a chronological timeline, creating goals that you slavishly try to stick to, think developmentally. Learn to work toward and watch for developmental milestones instead of chronological ones.
Instead of trying to create fixed plans, learn to make observations, interpret them, and run little experiments (making more observations after you’ve run the experiment).
Learning to lead like this, in a more adaptive and agile way, is one of the keys to leading in an unpredictable, changing environment.

Places of Grace

Which of these mistakes have you made? Maybe you’re reading this and realize you launched too soon, or you don’t know how to bring organization to your church plant, or you’ve put all your eggs in the worship service basket, or you’ve been pushing your team to meet goals based on arbitrary timelines.
My temptation in moments like these is to wish for a do-over. If only I had started knowing what I know now, I’d do it right this time! But that’s just not true. I’d find other mistakes to make, and so would you.
So if you’re realizing you’ve made some of these mistakes, instead of wishing you could start over or wallowing in despair, do what I’m learning to do: seeing my mistakes as places of grace, where God meets me in love and empowers me to learn.
My identity is not rooted in my success as a church planter, but in God’s unconditional love for me, which nothing can separate me from. From this foundation, I can admit my mistakes freely and learn from them, trusting that God is still present and at work in my church plant.
It’s not too late to apply for a V3 Learning Cohort. Learn more here.

About the Author
Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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