There is no single best way to start new churches, no guaranteed method that a new church will survive or thrive. Despite the many books and conferences that promote their own “ten steps” to starting new churches, we are dealing here with one of the central mysteries of the faith, that is, the church as the Body of Christ. It is, therefore, an enterprise before which we must stand with humility and awe. The Holy Spirit—not denominational boards and agencies—constitutes the church as Christ’s Body. That fact, however, is not to diminish the importance of human beings in the process of church planting, but to insist upon it and to accentuate the significance of church planters who are open to and gifted by the Holy Spirit. What we have learned over time is that the Christians who start new churches are more crucial than the methods they use.
What kinds of Christians start new churches? Without question, they are Christians who have a strong sense of mission, the capacity to envision the ecclesial embodiment of that mission, and the ability to communicate that vision to others in compelling ways. The purpose of starting churches is to serve God’s mission in the world. Church planters must be grasped by God’s mission and able to imagine their work as serving that mission. This means that new church development can never be an end in itself. Yet if we understand God’s mission in the world as the election, calling, and formation of a people who will worship and obey God and, through that worship and obedience, bear witness to God’s ways in the world, then there is also a sense in which the birth of churches is God’s mission in the world. The church is, as John Howard Yoder says, “the new world on the way,”1 and church planters bear the noble calling of midwife.
The characteristics of an effective church planter are almost impossible to summarize, since a range of abilities, temperaments, and gifts is needed and valuable and no one person can possess them all. As Aubrey Malphurs says, church planting requires those who are visionaries, who can implement a vision for the first time, who can develop a vision further, who can organize and maximize the implementation and development, and who can bring rescue, renewal, and hope when struggles are inevitably faced.2 This, from the outset, may warrant our thinking seriously about team approaches to new church development. It may also prompt us in thinking about leadership to ask about the particular stage of the new church start since every ministry, as Malphurs notes, has a life cycle.
Charles Ridley’s list of 13 qualities of effective church planters is frequently cited in this regard.3 Ridley’s list was the result of his research among church planters in North America, and it is a list worth consulting and one that continues to be used by a number of assessment instruments and denominational boards today. In addition to what has already been said about the leadership traits of new church planters, the following qualities (some of which are included in Ridley’s list) should be highlighted:
- Strong spiritual formation and ongoing commitment to spiritual accountability, disciplines, and practices (such as prayer, Sabbath keeping, reading, study, theological reflection). Because church planting is demanding and exhausting, it requires not only passion and commitment, but also balance and nourishment.
- Imagination and creativity. Starting new churches requires the ability to think outside the box and something of an entrepreneurial spirit of the willingness to risk something new.
- An ability to call forth the gifts of others and to create in others a sense of ownership of ministry.
- A keen ability to exegete and analyze a community along with the surrounding culture and, likewise, an ability to contextualize the gospel and the practices of the church within that community in appropriate ways.
- Flexibility, adaptability, energy, and resilience. Enough cannot be said about the importance of a new church developer’s capacity to solve problems and make decisions on the go. Obstacles arise, but a church planter must be steady and know where to locate personal resources that prevent being swallowed whole by frustration.
- Intrinsic motivation. This quality, mentioned by Ridley and others who have studied church planting, is vital. Most of the responsibilities involved in new church development require a person who can manage time well, does not need to be told what to do, and finds joy in following tasks through to completion, even when no one is around to notice, to care, or to offer reward or accountability.
- Finally, while they are not character traits, some mention should be made of the need for church planters to be trained and supported. One of the best ways to sustain excellence in new church development is to provide, from the beginning, basic skills in leadership and character formation, administration, contextualization, and interpersonal communication, and of course, an astute ability to think theologically about the nature of the church and its mission in the world.
BRYAN STONE serves as the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Boston University School of Theology
A portion of “New Church Development” by Bryan Stone is reprinted from Considering the Great Commission: Evangelism and Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, edited by W. Stephen Gunter and Elaine Robinson, published in 2005 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.
John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecumenical and Ecclesiological (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1998), 108-9.
Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 108-9.
Charles Ridley, How to Select Church Planters: A Self-study Manual for Recruiting, Screening, Interviewing and Evaluating Qualified Church Planters (Pasadena: Fuller Evangelistic Association, 1988). In brief, Ridley’s list includes (1) visioning capacity, (2) intrinsic motivation, (3) ownership of ministry, (4) reaches the unchurched (5) spousal cooperation, (6) effectively builds relationships, (7) committed to church growth, (8) responsive to the community, (9) utilizes giftedness of others, (10) flexible and adaptable, (11) builds group cohesiveness, (12) demonstrates resilience, and (13) exercises faith.