Here at North Life, we are preparing to celebrate our 10th Anniversary.  Wow!  I can hardly believe we have been here in Wooster, Ohio for a decade with all its breath-taking lows and highs. With this significant milestone about to be acknowledged, here are some lessons I have learned/am still learning that may be of help to my fellow church planters:

Your finances matter big time.

While you will likely never launch with everything fully-funded, way too many church plants are aborted by underdeveloped launches that willfully ignored the financial realities that are always a part of a fledgling church.  At worst, this move kills the church and at best it produces a “preemie” that unnecessarily limps along with very little traction.  Any success that we have had in Wayne County has largely been possible due to the initial support we raised that insured that I have never had to to be bi-vocational.  (The choice to be bi-vocational may be the Lord’s will for you, but it should never be entered into out of an unhealthy impatience to launch or a reactionary panic when things get tight.) This commitment to financial prudence (“Acting your wage” according to Dave Ramsey) continues to be important as the church matures in the form of accountability, procedures, debt, and budgeting.

Invest the lion’s share of your time in developing your leadership team-no matter how small, not trying to creatively conjure up or pacify a crowd.

Your core is everything.  Your crowd will likely ebb and flow.  As we celebrate our 10th Anniversary, we will do so with only a handful of charter members.  If most of our early members have moved on, you guess what has happened to most of our spectators.  Too often the temptation is to get caught up in numbers instead of nucleus.  Don’t do it.  If it was good enough for the Originator of the local church, Jesus Christ, with His only-Twelve strategy, then we are foolish to attempt any improvements on His model that turned the world upside down in less than a decade!

Don’t major on the minors.

While you are, as several authors have put it, the “curator of the culture” in your local church, you job is not to generate uniformity in your members or attendees.  Early on, I was guilty of overemphasizing external standards (dress, music, etc.) at the expense of meaningful relationship and influence on the more substantive priorities of pastoring. While standards and policies serve a key role in shaping the direction of your local church’s formation, be careful to not crowd out the “individual priesthood of the believer” that we so claim to believe.  Preach the Word directly, but don’t forget to give room for the Holy Spirit to make the application.  At some point no matter what other pastor/churches may think or say, you must choose whether your church will be more about external-only conformity (Casual only, formal only, etc.) or inside-out transformation (Christ-like).  The earlier you choose the latter the better-it liberates your church to follow God and not man (A biblical approach that often raises the bar instead of lowering it)!

Set the tone on expectations related to your family from the jump.

When you begin a church, the tendency is to lean too heavily upon your wife and children to carry the load of everything except the pastor-only duties.  While some of these moves are initially understandable, be sure to guard against this being the long-term, default expectation imposed upon your family by the developing church.  For the long haul, your wife does not have to lead the ladies’ ministry and oversee the nursery.  Your kids don’t have to do all the cleaning and hang around to help lock up the building after every service.  To do so will burn out your family and perpetuate immaturity in those who should be increasingly servant leaders in the church.  When you balance this priority properly, it is a beautiful thing to see your family volunteering of their own free will to serve in the church at the Spirit’s prompting-just like every other faithful church member!

Focus concentrated energy on developing a cohesive philosophy and partnership with those who will directly steward your music ministry.

While the music ministry of your church doesn’t have to be perfect to be an asset to the growth of your church, it definitely should not be a liability.  By liability, I am not necessarily referring to the skill level but the philosophical disunity.  It is vital that the lead pastor and the worship leader get on the same page as too the style and substance of corporate worship.  Our experience has included attending worship conferences and workshops together, but it is much more than that.  It requires friendship, deference, and genuine interest in each other’s gifting and calling.  Just this week, I spent some time in the hospital alongside our dear worship leader as he underwent a back surgery he has been needing for many months.  In other words, your interaction must not be relegated to just the few minutes up front/in the green room before the worship service begins.  Read together.  Share songs and verses that speak to you.  Spend unstructured time together.  Grow in your appreciation of and biblical understanding of what worship should look like/not look like TOGETHER! (By the way, these same principles would apply to other key admin, lay, and pastoral leadership as well.)

Your first purchase of church building and property will likely take much longer and close much more gradually than you would hope.

I will be brief here, not because this step is not important but because it is so unique to each local context.  For us, it took almost eight years and three different temporary settings before we were able to purchase our 14,000 square foot building and campus that we are still repurposing to better suit our ministry.  The only general maxim I would share is this: patiently work to know the real estate market and possess the financial savings needed to be able to step through the open door unmistakably created by the Lord. Focus less upon the specifics options and more upon the prayerful, financial poise required to actually make the obvious move that will come.

You must be a spiritually-minded, self-starter from the beginning.

If you cannot work with conscientious initiative without someone looking over your shoulder, you have no business being a church planter or an established pastor for that matter.  Laziness and carnality have no place, not only in your public life but also your private chambers.  Church planting is a ton of work, much of which is not initially observed but will eventually be manifested.  While you can go pastor an existing work without a concrete assessment of failure or success, planting a church either happens or it doesn’t.  It is an all-or-nothing endeavor that requires your all-most importantly when nobody but the Lord is watching!

Tenaciously protect your prayer and study that culminates with careful, consistent exposition of the whole counsel of God.

While it will likely grow your church, this commitment is ultimately what honors God and validates your existence as a local church.  The early church models this priority perfectly in Acts 6, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  What distinguishes your church plant from other emerging social clubs and initiatives-the authority of Christ that exclusively comes from a faithful adherence to the doctrine of God’s Word.  That doctrine cannot just be flippantly acknowledged; it must be intentionally studied and preached every week-including the light and busy weeks!

This post’s featured image is our budget-friendly attempt to demonstratively illustrate the incremental development of our church.  The “10” is constructed of 168 concrete blocks, each of which represents just over a 3 week chunk of time in our total church history.  In total, this dry-stacked illustration weighs a total of 5,040 pounds!  An overwhelming load as a whole but one that is easily constructed in just a few hours by building it one 30-pound block at a time.  Dear church planter, just take it one 3-week block at a time and maintain the profile of a learner, the only kind of profile that can truly lead to the critical mass of fruit that will come. With just a few days left in this decade of human history, I can think of no better way to have spent it than in my little corner of the broader field of church planting for the glory of Christ.  How about you?