Knowing When to Say When: Reflections from a Failed Church Plant
When I set out with my family to plant a church in Providence, Rhode Island writing on this topic of church planting failures never once crossed my mind. Instead, we’d envisioned reseeding Rhode Island and southern New England with gospel-driven churches—a line that still rings in my heart from some of our early material—and we’d prayed for our church to be first of many.
Planting a church in New England, and Providence in particular, wasn’t something we did on a whim. I began discussing possibilities with Wes Pastor of The NETS Center for Church Planting & Revitalization while an unmarried doctoral student at Southern Seminary. The conversations continued as I married Elizabeth, continued my studies, and we had our first child. In July 2007, we moved from Louisville, Kentucky to Essex Junction, Vermont to enter into the 2-year residency program with NETS, which we extended another 2 years when I took a staff position at the church.
THE CHURCH PLANTING PROCESS
The process of planting a church from scratch was difficult and slow. We knew it would be tough, but I was perhaps more optimistic than realistic, thinking that it’d go a little faster for us.
We began by hosting Bible studies in our home. In the early days, just getting a few people around the living room was a smashing success; some weeks it was just Elizabeth, myself, and one or two neighbors. After two years of home Bible studies, marriage seminars, and numerous community outreach initiatives (Easter Egg hunts, a movie night in a local park, Bowling Night, a block party) we’d grown from our family of six to around 25 adults and children.
In September of 2013, we began monthly preview services in view of launching in January 2014. The services and the following months were both encouraging and discouraging. A husband and wife that Elizabeth and I had been investing in came to saving faith, but two other couples decided to depart the core team—the former in December and the latter in January. As long as it was taking to add people, these losses were devastating.
WHEN TO PULL THE PLUG
Answering the question, “How do you know when it’s time to pull the plug on the plant?” is to me a bit like shepherding people through suffering. The moment of suffering isn’t the time to introduce the reality of God’s sovereignty. Rather, we should be preparing our people to suffer through consistent and thorough gospel-centered exposition from the whole Bible, building a gospel-centered worldview from which they’ll rightly process life in a sin-filled world.
Similarly, church planting is hard work, and you need to set out with a support system. Because when it gets tough, you need to have brothers and sisters you can be real with. By God’s grace, when we set out from Burlington, Vermont to Providence, Rhode Island, we had a strong support system in place: 1) a sending church under whose authority we’d placed ourselves (and its leadership), 2) a mentor who’d been investing in us for four years, and 3) a network of church planters I could be honest with and call on in a time of need.
HOW WE KNEW
So, how did we know it was time?
First, I’d been struggling with whether pioneer church planting was my thing for over a year. In the previous two years I’d received two separate inquiries from schools wanting me to teach in their Old Testament department, one I quickly declined and the other I declined after a brief period of prayerful consideration. But by February 2014, I was beginning to wonder if I’d be more effective for the kingdom teaching or pastoring an existing church, rather than planting.
Second, I began to talk honestly with my wife concerning some of my own doubts.
Third, I was in frequent contact with my mentor, my older brother, who was a church planter in the Boston area, as well as a local pastor of another like-minded church (a re-plant) where we’d been worshipping until our church would launch. When a second couple left the plant in January, I was reaching out to these brothers for support and expressing my doubts. All were supportive, listened, asked questions, and offered encouragement. No one immediately recommended pulling the plug.
As I processed with these brothers, my wife, and a few others, some things stood out to me:
- The state of the church in Providence in 2014 was much better than in 2007, when we first considered moving and planting a church there.
- We were seeking to plant a church exactly one mile from a very like-minded church, which meant that when people moved to town looking for a church like ours, they’d typically end up there because it was already up and running. This was a big one for me.
- We didn’t have any weight-bearing couples in our core team, so Elizabeth and I bore the majority of the weight.
- Whereas a year before, when offered a teaching position, I had no desire, now I felt free and at peace to move on from the plant with no job offer on the horizon. I was experiencing a change of desire.
This final point is clearly subjective, but it’s directly related to the first two points; the freedom to move on from the plant was directly related to the changing state of things in Providence, and in particular my confidence in the leadership of certain churches. Without their faithful and fruitful efforts, I doubt I would have had such a peace.
Nevertheless, the decision to pull the plug on our plant was extremely difficult, gut-wrenching, and tearful. It left me wrestling through my identity in Christ. It felt like we’d experienced a death in the family.
And yet, as we moved forward, God, our good shepherd, kept his gracious hand upon us, led us into the green pastures of other pastoral ministries, and then opened the door for me to teach in Amsterdam at a missions seminary with over 20 nations represented in our student body. We’re now missionaries in secular western Europe, helping to plant a church in Amsterdam and equipping students at Tyndale how to preach Christ rightly from the whole Bible by teaching them Hebrew Exegesis and Old Testament Theology. In this work, I’m regularly drawing on my difficulties and past church planting experience as I equip brothers to plant and pastor in some of the most strategic areas of the world.
Our God wastes absolutely nothing.