11 Ways to Sense God’s Call to Church Planting

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The Person’s Call to Church Planting

To paraphrase Nelson Searcy, ‘’Successful church starts begin with a personal calling, rather than a personal choice.”[i] While Searcy may be slightly overstating his case, the thrust of his statement is entirely accurate – church planters need to be convinced God has called them to church planting ministry. Perhaps no other factor will determine the likelihood of the church planter persevering through the tough times than the abiding thought, “God has called me to this community and these people, at this time, to plant this type of church.”

For a few moments, let’s look at the issue of God’s call on a person’s life to be a church planter.

There is no end of well-known, questionable reasons for beginning a new church, such as a person just looking for employment opportunities; anger/resentment toward your present ministry location; grabbing for ego/personal kingdom building opportunities; and following the latest fad or denominational emphasis. Even the ‘open door of opportunity’ spoken of frequently by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 16:9) is not always meant to be walked through by a church planter (Acts 16:26). The need and opportunity for a church to be planting in a community is not sufficient, in my mind, to warrant uprooting a person to head off into a church planting adventure. Every year I receive dozens and dozens of inquiries from denominational officials, looking for church planters to come to great communities that are desperate for new churches. The need and opportunity is not the same as the call to church planting. God does not expect us to respond to every need or to walk through every door.

While some would disagree, I do not believe even the ‘call of the church’ is sufficient reason to church plant. If I listened to and followed every piece of advice given to me by denominational officials, I would have had to cut myself into multiple pieces in order to provide pastoral leadership in different churches, in different states and provinces, all at the same time. More than one denominational official has said to me, “I believe God’s will for your life is to come/go to ______ to pastor there,” while at the same time a different denominational leader was giving me very different direction/advice! The denomination’s verification of God’s call on a person’s life is very necessary, but trying to fulfil every denominational church planting request can lead to massive confusion.

The bottom line: the church planter needs to be convinced personally of where God is leading them to plant and serve in addition to any other confirmation. The abiding burden and sense of divine responsibility for a specific community must be felt by the individual church planter or they will likely not survive in a location.

Call to Church Plant and the Call to Ministry

God’s call to church plant, while similar, is still somewhat distinct from God’s call to vocational ministry or His call to pastor, evangelize, disciple, or proactively respond to the hurts and needs in a community. The call to church plant is different than the call to be a youth pastor, children’s pastor, worship leader, small groups pastor, executive pastor or ministry opportunities with para-church organizations. Rather, in Scripture we see God specifically identifying and sending individuals to specific communities to share God’s good news and help establish new congregations (Acts 13:2; 16:10).

So, how might a person discern a call to church planting? Here are 11 common ways God calls people to church plant. It is unlikely a person will experience all 11 ways, but some combination of the following insights is usually experienced.

  1. Burden: an unshakable sense/awareness of the lostness of people apart from Christ. As the potential church planter gazes at people in a specific community, they are overwhelmed with a sense of sadness of the impending lost eternity many will face.
  2. Responsibility: an internal sense of “I will be held responsible before God if I don’t do something about the spiritual condition of the people in this community.” (For example, see Ezek. 3:17-19)
  3. Restlessness: a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo (how churches are typically offering ministry in a local setting). Please note that this is neither a mean-spirited nor overly critical dissatisfaction. It is simply a sense of “We can and must do better.”
  4. Target Community or People group: the future church planter can’t seem to shake the name/thoughts about a specific community, and they keep frequently hearing/seeing the name of the community even before they arrive in that town/city.
  5. Casual Inquiries: Other people are saying to the future church planter, “Have you ever considered planting a church or serving as a pastor in that community?”
  6. Self-talk: the person finds themselves thinking and saying to themselves, “Someone ought to plant a church in that area … someone needs to reach those people.”
  7. Vision/Dream: God may speak to the person in a dream or vision, providing them a picture of where He wants them to go, and what He expects them to achieve in that community. The church planter often finds themselves deep in thought about culturally relevant strategies and methodologies to reach and retain people for Christ.
  8. Lack of Fit: a person’s graces and gifts just don’t seem to fit in an established church setting. They seem better suited to starting and creating something new, rather than maintaining what already exists in another location/church. The lead church planter often has strong gifts of leadership, team building, and an entrepreneurial disposition.
  9. Leadership inquiry or affirmation: Those in positions of authority over a person affirm they have the gifts and graces to be an effective church planter.
  10. Riveting Scripture: periodically God uses a specific Bible verse/story to reinforce or impress on the church planter’s consciousness God’s direction and expectations for their life. It comes as no surprise the verses often fit perfectly with the spiritual condition and opportunities in the target community.
  11. Cultural Fit: it becomes apparent there is a fit between the church planter and the people/needs/culture of a particular community. The church planter gets the local community and feels comfortable in that setting (or can easily adapt to the new setting).

[i] Searcy, Nelson. Launch: Staring a new church from Scratch. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2006, p. 34.

Rev. Dr. Stephen Elliott is Director and Professor of Pastoral Ministry & Church Planting Degree Programs and Campus Pastor at Kingswood University in Sussex, New Brunswick. He began his full-time ministry in 1983 when he and his wife Helen began a church plant in Ottawa, Ontario with just 2 people. When he left Ottawa 22 years later to pursue doctoral studies, the church was the 4th largest evangelical church in the Ottawa area and the second largest Wesleyan church in Canada with a staff of eleven and a church constituency of over 1300. He is known for his creative and dynamic pulpit ministry, his emphasis on visionary leadership, his passion for healthy/vibrant local church ministries, and his tender and compassionate pastoral heart.