If you'd asked me where we would be ten years into planting if I'm honest it is not where we find ourselves. I'd have envisaged more people joining us, more people coming to faith, and probably us preparing now to plant again. Many of those ideas were born out of the conferences available on Church planting and having discussions and reading books written by other planters. Most of the speakers at the conferences were those whose churches had grown quickly, most were either from the US - let's be honest a whole different ball game to the UK in so many ways - or from towns or cities with university populations.
Ten years in seems good point at which to reflect on a few things because we aren't where I'd envisaged us being and I'm not disappointed with that, I am grateful to God for his undeserved grace. Maybe these reflections will help some of those thinking about, or about to, or who have just, planted.
Seek out those who have planted in situations like yours, listen to their stories, ask them honestly to share the joys and hardships not just the headlines. Planters feel a great pressure to talk about the positives and the successes, those coming along rather than those who have left the plant team after a few weeks and so on. In our experience planting has been hard, joyful, exhilarating, exhausting, heartbreaking and God glorifying, often from one day to the next, sometimes from one hour, or moment, to the next. In non-university towns planting is hard graft, it is low and slow, it is gradual and sometimes it feels as if it has stalled or gone backwards. Seek out those stories and people and learn all you can from them. Gospel Partnerships may be a good place to start looking for such people rather than big conferences or books about church planting.
Pray for your daily bread. Reflecting on ten years this is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned. Jesus doesn't teach us to pray for 6 months time, and he wisely tells us each day has enough trouble of its own. That has certainly been true in our ten years. There have been times when the church has felt secure and stable but also many times when it has felt fragile and weak, when the fear has been will we still be here in 6 months. And in such times I needed to pray for my daily bread, to deal with today not worry about tomorrow or March. That isn't saying we don't plan or dream we do, but I'm learning - too slowly - to pray for my daily bread in a church context. Planting is hard.
Reach the lost with the gospel. We don't plant churches to recycle God's sheep. We don't plant churches to give believers in Bible teaching churches another option, or we shouldn't either as individuals or denominations. There's a great temptation to welcome such people, especially because of the pressure we too often feel about numbers, about growth. But we plant churches to see the lost saved and discipled. As a church we need to keep that at the top of the agenda because it too readily slips down the priorities.
Pastor believers with the gospel. I think this has been one of the things I most frequently made a mess of during our ten years. I wanted to reach the lost and yet on day one, 2nd Sept 2007, we were a church with all the pastoral problems involved in that, and to be brutally honest I took too long to see that and so we weren't set up for robust pastoral care. We spent hours talking about how we would reach the lost; reading, dreaming, engaging with etc... but we invested little time as a launch team preparing means of and planning to provide pastoral care for believers. Naively I assumed teaching the Bible would be enough, along with some pastoral visits, and that in a small team I and the other leaders would see, know and respond to needs as they arose. It meant pastoral care was too patchy, depending on how much you would reveal, how quickly, and to whom, who you knew and how well you knew them. By God's grace it has been a thrill to see the church grow in this area over the years, to see people grow in visiting and loving and pastoring those around them in the gospel. Though often its still feels as if our needs outweigh our resources.
Buildings matter. If I could suggest three things to a church looking to plant this would now be one of them; find a building for your plant to call home. We meet and have always met in a school. There are lots of positives with that, and we are very grateful for the good relationship we enjoy with the school. It has opened doors and provided many opportunities. But if I was planting again I'd look for a building from the beginning. In the area we meet entering homes is fraught with social complexity, meeting in a school provides challenges in terms of running things mid-week among other things. And I think having a permanent premises gives you a footprint in the area and makes a statement about permanence and commitment, especially important in an area like ours where children's centres and other community outreach initiatives have proved short lived and simply left people feeling let down again.
Partner with others. Perhaps the most significant thing in our making 10 years both as a church and with me here as pastor have been gospel hearted partnerships. Bessacarr Evangelical Church has been an incredible blessing to us; generous with both the time of their staff and their money, and also being forgiving of me in a way parents often have to be. Other partnerships have provided financial support and encouragement at key times, maybe sometimes when those involved haven't realised how crucial their partnership and encouragement has been. God given partnerships are a blessing and planters and planted churches need to to do all they can to cultivate them before, during and after planting.
God is good and his grace has sustained us, his plans and purposes have been far beyond our imagining and we pray that as we move into year 11 God would bring others to taste and see his goodness through his people.