When I worked as a new church developer for a United Methodist region a few years back, the one thing I said I would never do would be to try to plant a new church as a parachute drop: as a stranger and alien in a community. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I had helped establish two new faith communities in a place where I had lived and networked for several years. Dozens pitched in to help with both projects, and I lost sleep over neither. Today (a decade later) these two faith communities together gather 1200 in worship on most Sundays.
In 2007, I moved to the DC area to work to plant a different kind of congregation: focused on the needs of urban young adults. In the year prior, I had met several people in northern Virginia who were interested in being part of this project. However, they were young and quite transient. I agreed to take the assignment eight months ahead of the start date. By the week I arrived for work in June 2007, the last of my would-be launch team was preparing to move away, in this case to Geneva, Switzerland for a great job! They all got great jobs... somewhere else. And I was left starting from scratch, as a stranger, to get to know one of the most complex cities in the world: doing the one thing I said I never would do. I lost quite a bit of sleep.
In the next two years, I learned a lot about the newest generation of American adults and even wrote a book (Finding Jesus on the Metro) that shared some of this learning. We planted three small faith communities of about two dozen persons each, but discovered that our financial overhead was too high to sustain the project according to Plan A. (In the United States, we have mastered the art of expensive church.) In the spring of 2009, we moved to Plan B: I spun two of the three micro-churches off to other management (Baptist, Lutheran and Episcopal pastors), and carried a handful of folks from the third community to Foundry United Methodist Church, where we continued our efforts in partnership with a church that was well-connected in our city. We slashed our costs. I found another day job. In 2010 we launched a Sunday evening worship community - and for the last year and a half, it has steadily grown - mostly young and ethnically diverse - to a weekly attendance of about 75-80. The community is taking root. I expect it will bear more fruit in 2012 than in all the years before. This timeline is not unlike what I see happening in other cities with similar projects.
From my experiences in Washington DC and from my coaching with church planters in the northeast USA and other urban settings, I am learning the following:
- If it looks or feels anything like a Parachute Drop, you might as well add two years on the front end of the project as incubation time before you officially begin, and possibly before you start funding the project at full throttle. It just takes that long to network and gain trust in many communities.
- It is helpful to send planters into new territory with some other initial employment, so that you don't blow through a quarter of a million dollars before you reach the starting line in the formation of the new church.
- If the planter is not evangelical with a capital E, she will be disconnected from the strongest remaining remnant of would-be church attendees... and will probably reach only a fraction (between ten and thirty percent) of the numbers she would otherwise gather in the early years. Mainline denominations had best factor that into the plan up front!
- It is often the third year before we see significant momentum in such projects, but even in the first year, we should see some fruit, some glimpse of the possibilities to come. No fruit in Year One should be considered a red flag.
- People looking for quick results should be wary! Talented leaders are not enough to guarantee success in most parachute-drop situations. Finally, such planters also need a lot of prayer, a solid plan, a few good local allies, a way to eat without draining church funds, and time for the project to take root.
- Past planting experience is invaluable - if a leader has not planted before, then they should have logged time with a team that knows how to plant in social-cultural terrain as similar as possible to what they will face! It is well worth "losing a year" on the front end to get a potential planter-leader such experience. They will make up for the lost year later!
- The only thing worse than no partner is the wrong partner! A partner church can be helpful - but in many cases the partner church and its pastor have agendas that are at odds with the vision of the planter. I have learned that the thing I want to avoid at all costs is not a parachute drop, but an ill-prepared partner church! I would always ask a potential partner church to take the Readiness 360 assessment (www.readiness360.org ) before getting involved with them. We typically assess planters but fail to assess partner churches.
- The most important things that can happen in the first three years are to clearly establish the DNA of the new faith community and to grow a team. Whatever it is that the new community exists to do, they should be doing it! Leading people to faith (actual people and real stories), living out the church's mission and values in the community (hands dirty), apprenticing new leaders and practicing ministry-multiplication behaviors... if these things are happening early on, the long-term prognosis for the new church is very good.
- Once a new church surpasses 150 adults in active participation, the game changes! At this point, it becomes much easier to reach the next 150 than it was to reach the first 150. It is not uncommon for a young church to double from 150 to 300 in a year or less, even when it took several years to crawl to 150.