Introduction to the Disillusioned Church Planter

The Disillusioned Planter:

A Guide on What to Do When The Church Doesn’t Take Off After You Launch

cathedral under clouds near leafless tree
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Church planting is the best worst thing I have ever done. 

I frequently hate church planting. But, at the core, I truly, madly, and deeply love it. I am a dreamer and a goal chaser. I believe in my own abilities, and I believe in God’s ability even more. That is why I am completely disillusioned by the fact that we only average 75 in attendance after 2 years and three months of existence. 

We are feeling burnt out but not released from this call. We love our church, but we are tired of feeling like failures. Every Facebook and Instagram post, every church planting network video, and every story that gets talked about in public is that of the planter who has hundreds of church members right away. No one tells you how to handle it when you follow every step laid out, with the exception of the unspoken expectation that you wear skinny jeans and maybe some thick rimmed glasses, and you still don’t see masses of people streaming into the building to volunteer to be baptized.

Obviously, my amazing husband and I should be hugely successful in church planting. We are two highly educated individuals who have spent their entire lives in the church. (Seriously, both our moms came to church with us the Sundays after we were born.) We are both pastors’ kids. So the ins and outs of ministry have never been a mystery to us. We have always known the good, the bad, and the ugly that exist within church leadership.

When we went into this endeavor, we had a great blend of ministry and marketplace experience since I had been teaching in the public school system for ten years and Jon had been bivocational many times. We were lovable, authentic, and driven; old enough to be experienced and young enough to be relevant; and, on top of that, we were attractive enough to be pleasant to look at but not so attractive that we would cause people to stumble. We were the perfect combination for the take this city model.

I don’t understand why we aren’t a mega church already. According to everything we see in the church planting leaders’ culture, we should be averaging at least 500 people by now. Our low attendance is a great mystery.

I have been editing a blog for a church planting network for the past two years, and I try hard to get people to write honest posts. Some do, and some are afraid to admit the struggle. I asked one individual whose plant closed its doors to write a post about it. Instead, she sent an upbeat and encouraging post about following God’s great adventure. There was not a single word in it about her plant struggling or closing. I get it. I really do. No one wants to be seen as a public failure, myself included. However, I’m not so sure we are failing when our churches don’t get big overnight or even close after years of struggle.

If a missionary goes to another country and starts a church of 15, we celebrate and happily write checks to support them. If a planter in America does the same, we assume they are doing something wrong. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. Do we think we know better than God? I’m pretty sure he calls the right people to the right places. Perhaps the tiny church is a success because it is exactly what God has planned. But that doesn’t fit our paradigms. Every pastor should have a mega church. It says so in the Bible. Oh, wait… it doesn’t. But I still want a big church.

For a hundred good reasons and one really ugly one, I want a big church. The good reasons are obvious. I want people to find Jesus and experience hope, freedom, and love. I want God’s best for people. I want to change the culture of our city. I want people to love each other and quit being racists, classists, bigots, and all around jerks. I want people to find healing from the wounds we inflict on one another. I want so many good things that only God can do. But I want to do them, and I want to be seen as a success while I do them. Yes, I know. I’m a terrible person who wants good things for others. I’m sure there is no one else with selfish goals and ambitions in church leadership. I’m definitely the only one.

So where does that leave meIt leaves me completely and utterly disillusioned with church planting. I have followed every step, but the steps didn’t work. In every other area of my life, I have found great success by following directions, passionately pursuing a goal, and working really hard. I have seen time and again that if I put my mind to it, I can, and will, be successful. I have trophies, ribbons, plaques, medals, diplomas, cords, and certificates that are proof my philosophy works. But it doesn’t work in the church.

God is always flipping the script, which is something our buck the system and forge your own path culture should love. However, I’m old school, and I don’t love that success can look like failure. I want it to look like success. I want to look like a success. Forget the whole last will be first and be a servant junk. Give me, give me, give me. I want, I want, I want…..until I get in God’s presence. Then, all of a sudden, his way makes sense.

I want nothing more than to just be his. I want to be what he says to be. I want to do what he says to do. I am overwhelmed, full, lost, and found. I am captivated and free. There are no words, just him.

When I am in that place, I am at peace with our church as it is. But I’m also motivated and ready to hear from God on what he wants to do next with it. That is why I love planting. I love being right where God tells me to be. I love doing what he has told me to do.

Am I tired? Frequently. Am I discouraged? Bi-weekly. Do I worry about finances? Weekly. Do I worry about the needs that have been shared with me? Daily. Is that God’s fault? No. It’s mine.

I was up late stressing the other night, and I decided to read the Bible to help me sleep (since all good Christians know a little Bible reading can put you right to sleep), and God used the opportunity to remind me that I’m an idiot. Matthew 6 slapped me across the face, woke me from my selfish stupor, and then, as it should, allowed me to sleep.

The Rebecca Burtram abridged version of Matthew 6 says, “Quit trying to get attention when you follow me. Just follow me. I’m the reward. Also, stop worrying so much. I’ve got this.” So that is where I am today.

I am weirdly at peace with my tiny church in a world that only celebrates the skinny jeaned booming success stories.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still going to hustle my butt off and do all I can to do my part for this church, but I’m going to be at peace with knowing that I am exactly where God wants me, and I am going to find joy in letting God do whatever he is going to do with our church… as long as it gets big eventually.

Oh, wait… I guess I still have some work to do with the whole being at peace with whatever God wants from my labors. I might have to give it to God again….every day.

This is the introduction to my new church planting book. I am posting as I go, so please feel free to follow along.

2 thoughts on “Introduction to the Disillusioned Church Planter

  1. Rebecca, I have been in your shoes many years ago, I planted, watered the soil and expected a large harvest, I searched. My heart thinking I had missed something things just because we’re not growing, then God reminded me what’s done in obedient faith will grow in His timeline. Soils do not explode with great harvest until soil is enriched with compost(suffering, prayer and tears, and care.). Holy Spirit is the regenerating source, he calls, redeems, increases adding to the church. Sometime in next generation. Walk on in faith, God is multiplier.

  2. “Dwell in the land and be faithful.” As a veteran church planter, church planting professor and church planting mentor my encouragement to you both is keep being faithful. Cru has a slogan that works for church planters and just about everything else in the Christian life. Dr. Bright coined it. “Success in witnessing is simply sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” Same thing for church planting. Success is simply being faithful and leaving the results to God. And if your husband or you need an ear to pour out your frustrations to or a mentor to bounce some ideas off of, give my wife and I a call. We would be happy to help in any way we can.

    Here’s a book recommendation: Freeing Ministry from the Success Syndrome, by Kent and Barbara Hughes.

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