Planting a church is a big deal. Jesus ordained the Spirit-empowered Church to be His vehicle through whom to reveal Himself to the world. The Church with a big C is the universal gathering of believers of all generations, cultures and styles, redeemed by Jesus. But the Church with a big C has always gathered in local expressions. Each of these local expressions should be deeply biblical and highly contextualized for their location, generation and mission.
If you are reading this article at all, you are interested in planting a local church in the 21st century. Since you are reading this on CalvaryChapel.com, you are probably interested in either planting a Calvary-styled church or at least learning from one of the largest, organic church planting movements of the last half-century. So I am going to write from that perspective. My hope is to be really practical in how to plan your first public gathering.
However, before I begin, you have to remember that while most of us want to pastor and teach the Bible, church planting is about pioneering. Before you can pastor and teach the congregation, you need to gather people together. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that all you need to do is hang out a sign and everyone from the community will flock to hear your erudite biblical exposition. That rarely happens! So you have to think like a pioneer. You need to meet people, lots of people. You need to share the gospel and about the church you are launching. Too many church plants are just designed to reach already churched people. That isn’t really a church plant—it’s a church move. With the numbers of Christians in America going down and the number of church plants going up, we need to make sure our pioneering is of the lost multitudes and not of the already saved. I always say that you can tell the success of a church plant, not by the numbers in attendance but by the number of baptisms. A true church plant does not recycle Christians. It makes new Christians.
Before you “go public,” you have to know who you are going public with. Your first gathering is your introduction to your community. As the old advertisement goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” So when you go live, you need to have things together. Much of this is taken care of by a solid launch team. I always tell people that you need “the big three” on your launch team. And no, not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! Absolutely you need the Triune God. And Lord willing, God is on your launch team! It is God’s church! The big three is someone to teach the Bible, someone to lead worship, and someone to teach the children. At the very least in our generation, that is what people expect from a Sunday church gathering: Bible teaching, worship, and age-appropriate children’s ministry. Don’t get me wrong—you can go live without those, but you don’t want to. Trust me! Been there, done that! Sure, you can have someone double up on those roles (where two people can fulfill the three roles). But the big three are important to going live. Also you will need a few more support people to greet, run the sound and lyrics presentation, and set up and tear down.
Let’s talk about space. If you are having a public meeting, you will need to be meeting in public. As our culture has become more skeptical, people are stereotypically less likely, unless they are believers, to join a home study that will launch into a church. So a public space is needed! This can often be the hardest part of a church plant. To rent public space takes money, which is often severely limited. Renting public space is always a step of faith. But here are some space considerations:
Are you called to the area in which you have found space? Location will be a major factor in the type of ministry you do. So don’t neglect where you plant your congregation.
Is it sufficient space for what you are trying to do? Are there at least a few rooms—one for the gathering and one for the children/nursery? Is it too big? Is it too small? Will anyone be able to find you? Can you place way-finding signs to help people find you? Remember, it is hard for people to attend a church that they can’t find! It is also hard for people to stick with a mini-church in a huge space or a church crunched into a room like sardines. Carnal, you may say? But it’s a reality nonetheless.
Finally, is your space consistent? One of the biggest issues young churches have is the lack of consistency. It’s hard to reach, nurture and build a congregation when you are always moving around. Whether we like it or not, people want stability. Finding consistent space is essential.
I realize that the term “advertising” or “marketing” might seem like a dirty word to some people. But here’s the deal. No one will ever come or join a church that they have never heard about! So if you are planting a church, I assume that you want to actually have church, which means people. And if you want to reach people, that means at some point, in some way, they need to hear about the church. And friends, people hear about the church through advertising! Now, without a doubt, the best advertisement for the church is word-of-mouth invites from people who love the church. But if it is your first public gathering, then you probably don’t have that yet. So you advertise.
For me, I will use whatever means necessary (excluding sin) to let people know about the church. So use little handouts, social media, print media, bulk mailings, radio, t-shirts, signs, billboards, give-aways, etc. Really, whatever you can think of and can afford. Do it! For your first launch, use anything and everything that you can to let people know about the church!
There is much more I could talk to you about, things like planning a good order of service, making sure you have lyric presentation for worship, making the space nice by using tablecloths and fresh flowers, going the extra mile to make a brand-new church feel like home, and doing amazing follow-up after the first meeting. But I am out of space and time. In conclusion, go all out for your first gathering. Do all of it as unto the Lord, and trust Him to build His church. But as Keith Green was known to have said, “Do your best, commit the rest, and then pray that it is blessed!”