Book Review: Church Planting Thresholds, by Clint Clifton
Clint Clifton, Church Planting Thresholds: A Gospel-Centered Guide. Lulu Publishing Services, 2016. $19.99.
Clint Clifton is a godly man who loves Jesus and loves to see his church spread among the nations. We’ve worked together to plant churches over the past four years, so when I heard he was writing a book on the topic, I was excited to read it. And I wasn’t disappointed.
WHAT’S IN THE BOOK
Church Planting Thresholds is divided up into two major sections.
The first (156 pages) consists of ten chapters that present ten “thresholds” (stages) that church planters should accomplish on their way to planting a church. Clint proposes that “each stage, especially the first eight, should be accomplished before moving on to the next stage. Skipping a stage . . . will weaken the outcome and could endanger the church’s sustainability” (xxi).
Second, he sprinkles twenty appendices (68 pages) throughout the chapters and readers are encouraged to use them interactively to go deeper with the concepts in the book.
I was initially skeptical of the thresholds format because pastoring and church planting are such fluid endeavors that can’t be easily locked into a tidy little system. But as I began to read, I found myself nodding often in agreement with the process he encouraged. I still think there’s more overlap in the process than the book presents, but overall, the layout works.
WHAT WAS HELPFUL?
1. Practical Wisdom
Because Clint has planted churches and helped others plant churches, his insights on life and ministry were spot-on. I starred and underlined sections in every chapter so I could go back and review the book when I use it in the future.
On planting with a team, he rightly observes that “churches with singular leadership stand vulnerable to the schemes of the devil and are susceptible to innumerable strains of church cancer. . . . [whereas] working together multiplies our joy and divides our burdens” (xxv, 29). As someone who has known the sorrows of ministering alone, I couldn’t agree more with his call to find like-minded partners to join you in the work.
He advised preachers to not “speak to your congregation as if you are not a member of it” (24). Statements like this help dispel any misconceptions that church planters are heroes who have it all together. Rather, he reminds us pastors are sheep who need to be shepherded by Jesus. The second chapter in particular focused on the need for personal integrity and love for family. I plan to revisit this chapter not only with prospective church planters, but also in my own personal devotions.
Finally, the appendices were well-placed in the chapters; they’re worth working through. I didn’t fully agree with all the counsel in each of them, but he challenged me to at least consider his perspective and discern why I disagreed.
2. Pastoral Tone
Clint is a pastor, and his writing shepherds the reader toward wise decisions. While Thresholds is a heavily practical work, you can sense that he always has an eye on the pastor’s heart. He wants us to think well about family, teamwork, and ways to avoid potential pitfalls that will hurt Christ’s church. I felt cared for by his thoughtful writing.
3. Personal Transparency
One of the strong points of the book is Clint’s willingness to allow the reader to learn from his own mistakes. For example, in Chapter 8 he challenges planters to cultivate gradual growth rather than “launching large.”
He recalls that during his first church plant, their team spent months preparing for the “big Easter launch”—complete with a community Easter Egg hunt, a rented band, volunteer greeters, child care workers from a sister church, and a professional camera crew to capture it all. The first Sunday was great, but as he shared, the let-down during the following weeks crippled them.
He wrote, “After the dust settled, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if I had spent the same ten months of energy and money focused on leading our team to make personal connections with people in our community” (94). This kind of transparency was instructional and edifying.
4. Focus on Spiritual Health
The pastor’s spiritual health, and the heath of his family, are vital parts of a faithful church plant. As Clint pointed out, “If you are a good pastor to your wife and kids, you’ll probably be a good pastor to more people as well” (14). If a pastor’s devotion to the Lord becomes dry, he will make doing things for God a higher priority than delighting in God—and it will eventually result in a deadly train wreck.
5. Centrality of the Local Church
Clint keeps the importance of the local church in the foreground throughout the book. This is birthed from his conviction that “church planting is the responsibility of the local church much more than . . .any network, denomination, individual, para-church ministry, or educational institution” (xix).
He argues a healthy relationship with your sending church increases the likelihood of a plant’s health. Potential planters are challenged to have a posture of humility toward their sending church, especially as they look to them for affirmation, training, and accountability.
In particular, the ninth chapter (Order) gives a wonderful overview of how God intends for local churches to be structured. His discussions about doctrine, elders, membership, and the membership process were exceptional. However, this process should be considered earlier than stage nine, especially since not everyone on the team will likely be in agreement with all the principles presented.
6. Reality of Spiritual Warfare
Jesus said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his church (Matt. 16:18). But this doesn’t mean they don’t try. Anyone who seeks to obey Jesus in making his name known through planting churches will face regular onslaughts of demonic attack. Clint does an excellent job of not just mentioning this spiritual reality once or twice, but weaving it through many sections. This is a unique and welcomed inclusion, as most church planting books I’ve come across neglect this almost entirely.
7. Thorough Content
I’m not the most strategic or pragmatic pastor you’ll meet. I tend to keep things simple and focus on the basics of prayer, preaching, and making disciples. A church planter should have this same focus, but they must consiser other things as well. This resource is about as through of an introduction as I’ve seen to the vast amount of things a church planting team needs to think through. Those who are more detail-oriented may find the opposite to be true, but for someone like myself, I was stretched to think about all kinds of things I wouldn’t have without a resource like this.
WHAT WAS LACKING
I made a list of things I felt the book should address, and as I read, I kept crossing topics off the list. Clint’s thoroughness in such a small amount of space is to be commended. That said, I have one major critique.
More God Please
My main critique for this book is that it needed a bigger picture of God. I know Clint loves the Lord and believes in a big God. But as I read the book, I felt that my affections could have been pulled upward by thinking more about God and his role in the church-planting journey.
I realize every book can’t do this, but a book on church planting, in my opinion, should aim to lift readers’ eyes toward the heavens. After all, it’s a big view of God that stirs the soul to risk all for his glory.
If there’s a way for Clint to have an opening chapter that is more theological in nature (think Let the Nations Be Glad), that helps us catch a vision of the God in whose Name we plant churches, I think he would provide our hearts a clearer understanding of the “why” of church planting.
For instance, an opening chapter could replay the scene of Isaiah 6 where the angels cried “holy, holy, holy” and Isaiah responded to God by saying, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isa. 6:1–9). Or possibly recap Jesus’ declaration that “all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18-20) and show how that declaration propels us to give our lives to His commission.
This book doesn’t present God in a weak or muted way, but it also does little to stir my heart to behold his glory and lean on him for the strength to plant churches.
I just returned from lunch with two young men who are in the throes of church planting in nearby urban centers. During our conversation, I found myself drawing on things I’d just read in Clint’s book. I don’t agree with all of Clint’s advice, but on the whole, I found myself challenged to think about things I normally wouldn’t. What’s more, I became certain that this resource would be among the books our church planters will spend time reading in the future. I happily recommend it.
* * * * *
Editor’s note: If the topic of church planting and revitalization interests you, consider coming to our one-day workshop next week in Washington, DC. Or, check out our Journal on the topic: Revitalize: Why We Must Reclaim Dying Churches—and How.