How to Know When It's Time to Quit Your Church Plant

I recently talked with a church planting couple I used to coach, and they’re planning to shut down their church plant and move on to something new. This might seem like the worst ending to a church planting story, but I actually encouraged them in their decision.

Sometimes the best thing to do in church planting is “brush the dust off your feet” and move on. But there are other times when it’s better to keep going.

How can you tell the difference? When is it time to persevere, and when it is time to quit your church plant?

One of the most fascinating things to me about Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts is that whenever the going gets tough, they don’t do the things I would expect. They don’t always “stick it out” and persevere. Instead, they often just try something else.
Consider these situations:

  • In Pisidian Antioch, they begin by preaching in the synagogue, but after the leaders “heaped abuse on them,” they give up and turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).
  • “They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (Acts 16:7), and then Paul gets a dream that seems to be calling them to Macedonia, so they go to Macedonia.
  • After he is run out of Thessalonica and Berea, Paul comes to Athens and is waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him. He is “greatly distressed” because of all the idols and starts preaching. He wasn’t planning to do mission here, but does so because he’s all upset about the idols!
  • In Corinth, when the Jews become abusive, “he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’” Then he goes next door to a Gentile’s house to set up a new base of operations! Cheeky!

Watching for what’s working

At every step along the way, he doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time doing something that isn’t bearing much fruit. He just doesn’t get that stubborn about strategy. His initial thoughts and plans aren’t precious to him. He’s very pragmatic about mission. He seems to be look for what’s “working.”

It’s more than that, though. He’s not really looking for what is working as much as he’s watching for Who is working. He’s looking for evidence of the Spirit’s work as he preaches the gospel. When he sees it, he stays and continues to work. When he doesn’t see it, he moves on to a new city (or next door!).

Forget about strategy (sort of)

Sometimes I get paralyzed by a strategy question. I’m not sure which is the right strategy. I’m not sure I’ve calculated all the variables. I feel like I’m locked in for five years if I start (so I’d better get it right). So… I just sit there and cogitate and stew. Anyone else get stuck like this?

But I don’t think this is a good way to think about mission, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. Like Paul on his missionary journeys, I have no idea who will respond, or if I’ll be run out of town within a week, or if I’ll need to get a “normal job” for awhile (Paul made tents during one of the most fruitful periods of his ministry!).

Instead of worrying about picking the perfect strategy, I have to remember to adopt Paul’s strategy: just watch for evidence of the Spirit’s work and follow it.
Watch for the wake of God’s grace moving out in front of you, and just stay in it.

How to stay in the wake of God’s grace

“Staying in the wake of God’s grace” sounds nice, but how do you do it?
God’s grace is God’s empowering presence, accomplishing what I could never hope to accomplish myself.

So watch for these kinds of things happening in your life. I’ll be honest: most people don’t even start to see these kinds of things happen until they get to the end of their rope. The end of their natural ability to “handle” things. People who can’t cope anymore.

People who get to the end of their rope have to either quit or start relying on God to do things they can’t do.

So “staying in the wake of God’s grace” means we watch for results and outcomes that cannot be attributed to our human abilities. Things that happen that are clearly God working alongside you to bring about results you cannot bring about through your own brilliant ideas or articulate speech or meticulous control.

When the going gets tough, watch for the Spirit

This is what Paul seemed to always be looking for: results that indicated the Spirit of God was clearly at work.

When the going gets tough, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Spirit is not at work. Sometimes there are seasons to persevere and stick with it.

But when the going gets tough, when the fruit is not forthcoming, it probably is time to take stock and test your ministry with this question: what is the Spirit doing right now? If there is little response, little fruit, little faith… well, then maybe it’s time to shake the dust off your feet and try something new.

It worked for Paul, after all. Maybe it will work for you?


About the Author

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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