There’s no crying in church planting

A couple of things have provoked me this past week to think about church-planting and being a “missional” church, both in my particular situation here in L.A., as well as in a more general context.

There is much discussion, some good books, and a few quality blogs that tackle the question of what it means to be missional. I was intrigued by one blog post I caught this past week in particular with the heading: “A Warning List For Those Who Would Join a Missional Church Gathering.” As I read through this top-ten list, I resonated with much of the content, however, I was left with a strange impression that went something like this: the weak and needy need not apply. In other words, come and join our church-plant or “missional gathering” only if you have your act together and won’t demand too much from us. We are not here to serve “you”; we are here to reach out to those around us.

I have, on any number of occasions, felt those exact sentiments in my ministry context. Any number of people are drawn to missional, outreach-driven churches who, once there, become overwhelmed by their own needs and issues and end up resenting that the pastor, the church, the worship, or whatever is not “feeding” them in the ways that they need. The very thing that attracted them (a church that focuses on ministering to those not yet in the body) ends up being the source of deep frustration and even at times irreconcilable differences. I have seen enough people leave “missional” churches for reasons like this.

I have some mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, I completely relate to this mindset that says, “the church is not about us (those of us already ‘in’) being happy and having our needs met. It is not about simply being ‘saved.’ It is about being saved FOR something: to be a blessing to others; to participate as servants of God’s mission to the world.” Yet I speak from experience when I say that there are times when I am needy; when I am weak; when something is falling apart in my life. And my church better be the place where I am cared for, and where I share in the caring for my brothers and sisters.

I guess too I am realizing that I don’t want missional churches and missional living to become a new brand of monasticism, meaning that thing that the super-religious, self-denying folk do while the rest of us live out a lesser calling. If anything, evangelicals responding to Ted Haggard’s failures are coming to grips with the need for new thoughts about a culture of honesty about weakness right now. As humans, we will have human experiences: loss, struggles in our marriages, challenges with our children, mental health crises, disappointments and failures. What I don’t want to see is a sign hung over “missional” saying that people with lives marked by those things need not apply.

I appreciated this from a fellow blogger/pastor/church planter Bob Robinson:

It takes a special person to be the leader of missionaries as well as be the pastor of a church. Perhaps this is why church planting is a unique calling. Perhaps this is why you need more than one person at the point – a team of people to perform all the nuances of church-planting ministry. Perhaps this is why so many church plants fail – denominations do not see church plants in the same light as over-seas missions and are failing to think in innovative ways to make new ventures successful in reaching people. Funding is set up poorly, long-term viability is not pursued.

The church needs to think in missionary terms instead of pastoral terms to reach a postmodern American culture. And yet, the people in the church that is being established need to be pastored.

This is the tension of church planting.


  1. Thanks for this. My wife, Michelle, and I have often struggled with this very issue. She from having been in Lincoln Heights for 8 years in what can only be described as a draining situation, and me from experiences as a church in Altadena that wants very much to “do the right thing” when it comes to missional focus, but has a tendency to suck the life out of those who accept leadership roles within the congregation.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I feel and live this tension most certainly. There is deep temptation to swing one way or the other: church is all about my needs vs. my needs are insignificant to the “mission.” I’d like to hear others weigh in on this as well…

  3. From my experience, the best way to be missional is to nurture, care for, develop, encourage, inspire, etc. the leaders who are advancing the mission. One of the best ways to develop someone is to give them responsibility, but that becomes a context for burnout rather than growth apart from a ‘manager’ who is sensitive to the larger context of that person’s life and is intentional about encouraging sabbath, rhythm, working in response to God’s grace, teamwork, and other dynamics that facilitate long-term, high-impact mission. In other words, I don’t see an either-or here, but a both-and. ‘Missional churches’ need to care about missional lifestyles MORE, not less, because a genuine, whole-hearted investment in mission will lead us to establish the structures, environments, and relationships that are satisfying and enduring–all for the sake of the mission we’re accomplishing together.

  4. Carson,
    Thank you so much for your thoughts. I love some of the things you highlight, especially the sabbath and long-term commitment and sustainability. Yes, it simply must be a “both-and”. I think most of us find our struggle in maintaining that balance depending on our personalities, gifting, context, etc. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  5. Great thoughts, Erika. Simply being “missional” does not address the particular problems of the driven churches of the 80’s & 90’s (and today). Since it seems to be impossible for one person to embody all the necessary qualities (duh!)we have to keep lobbying for teams of leaders with diverse passions and giftings.

  6. You are so right about leadership teams. This one shift I see as utterly transformational. I would add that these changes in leadership do not preclude those spirits of “drivenness” that can rear their ugly heads from showing up, though. It is such a gentle balance (and sometimes a fierce battle) to keep perspective on our role in God’s mission, and how we as the church are to seek after Jesus.

  7. Erika,

    I agree completely. We must be flexible. I remember when we were first attending a certain church, and I was struggling somewhat, and really did come across as someone kind of needy- I suppose- that I heard the pastor say in a fellowship of men downstairs, something like: “We don’t need any more troubled people here.”

    Yet in a missional church (this church wanted to be that) as soon as you begin to get people in through ministry of the “spiritual”, you will be dealing with the broken, downtrodden and outcasts of society, quite often, if indeed it really is a Jesus work. Thanks.

  8. Ted,

    Thank you for your insights. I think you touch on exactly what was troubling me: as long as we are the strong, capable ministers reaching out to “the needy” (you know my ministry context so you understand this), then what kind of course are we on as a church? Do we wait for the needy to “get their acts together” before they can join us in our “mission’? Or is there room for them now, today, as they are, to share in the missional work we long to do here…

    I am reminded of Nouwen’s vision for life as a “wounded healer”, and I think of the testimony of his life as one who ministered powerfully through his own brokenness, not in spite of it.

    Definitely much to ponder…thanks for contributing!

  9. Erika,

    What you’ve written here adds so much to the conversation. Thanks.

    The both/and of being “Church” means loving outreach to the oppressed and downtrodden, the needy and helpless.

    And then, if you do that, what do you get in your church? Ummmm….

    People trying to deal with being oppressed and downtrodden, people who are needy and need help.

    Ted’s experience of what that pastor said is deeply sad. May we never bemoan the fact that God has given us “troubled people” to love and care for.

    I lead a college outreach ministry. Some in the ministry come from a High School outreach background that sought to reach the “Key Kids:” the head cheerleader, the captain of the football team, the class president. The thinking is that if you get these kids in your club, then the others will follow.

    I think that strategy is appalling. We should certainly reach out to those people (the ones who seem to have it all together, though we know that they most likely do not), but the gospel of Christ is for those who are “poor in spirit” too (or maybe first!). What you end up with is a bunch of people putting on airs that they also have it all together, and no real discipleship happens.

    So, the leadership team in a “missional church” must seek the full “mission” of the church – to both reach out to all in compassion with the love of Christ and to also care for people in the body with that same love.

    Thanks again for the excellent post.

  10. Erika,

    I resonate with your concerns. I wonder if in our response to an overwhelming therapeutic culture in many churches, we face the possibility losing the heart of what it means to be missional in the first place–of what God is doing in the world–including us, His people. We’re not going to be missional for long if we don’t nurture, pastor, minister to our own people in our midst.

    If we ignore the burdens in our own community, and one of those burdens maybe missional “burnout” we’re not going to draw people into the delight, love, and goodness of God’s dynamic presence the world.

    I am thinking an essential core of what it means to be missional, includes a theology and practice of ministry and koinonia. As Andrew Purves has noted, if ministry is something we do in response to the gospel, it will be a burden, not a joy for us.

    Thanks for this post.

  11. Bob,

    You perfectly nailed the tension I was feeling. I would love to hear more on how you handled this tension and what you learned from your experience in church planting (maybe a future post on this issue :)?)


    I really appreciated your perspective–very helpful. On the post from Bob Robinson that I quoted above, there was a fruitful conversation in the comments and Bob brought up this idea that “vision leaks” and that, as people lose sight of the vision, or mission, they become more and more apt to focus on themselves (he says that one warning sign that this is happening is a shift in the kinds of things people pray about–are the things that drive us to pray mostly about us or about the church’s mission to those around us…?) Anyway, your comment about the “therapeutic” culture of the church made me think about that. Our default setting will be one of self-absorption; it takes a work of God’s spirit for that to be reoriented. So once again, there is the balance–as individuals we do have valid needs that God cares deeply about. The key seems to be remembering/keeping them in balance with the profound needs of those around us.

  12. Carson,

    “One of the best ways to develop someone is to give them responsibility, but that becomes a context for burnout rather than growth apart from a ‘manager’ who is sensitive to the larger context of that person’s life and is intentional about encouraging sabbath, rhythm, working in response to God’s grace, teamwork, and other dynamics that facilitate long-term, high-impact mission.”

    Thank you! You have articulated something that I have been struggling to put words to for some time now. (Sorry this is so late in the thread!)

  13. Our church has gone from a Purpose Driven to a more missional mindset and what we have found was the PD mindset brought us a wide(raised in church), but shallow base. When we shifted (gradually) to the missional mindset, we started gaining the left-behind, broken and hurting(and largely non-churched). Alot of the people that came during the PD push didn’t want to be around “messed up folks”. We also became less about programs to make people happy and “fed”, and became more about “becoming”. They (PD types) didn’t seem to like that much either. We lost many (if not most) of our PD folks. But the people that have come since, while being more “damaged” than the PD folks, they are much more involved in ministry. During our PD phase, we had, maybe, 12-14% of our congregation actively involved in serving in some capacity or another. Now, we have less programs, but we have 58% of our folks actively involved in serving. And quite a few of these folks serve outside of church as well.
    Yes, the “damaged” are more work, and can be frankly quite exhausting. But they really want to serve and not just be “fed”. I had so many of my friends say “I’m just not being fed”…and I would ask if they were serving anywhere in the ministry, and they would tell me “no, I don’t have time”. There was such a consumeristic mindset with the people who had been xians for a long time. New xians seem to get the idea of the need to serve and give back.

  14. Jeff,
    Thank you so much for sharing your church’s story. I think a lot of us can resonate with the challenge that kind of shift brings to a congregation. May God give us all the grace to pursue him faithfully as we love the lost with his heart.

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