While in seminary I had a professor who once told us that he only prepared for 75% of class time. It was his expectation that in the other 25% the Holy Spirit would do something that needed to be done in that class. Likewise, one of the most important sources of power that we have as church planters is the power of the Holy Spirit in what we are trying to do. I know that you know that you cannot accomplish this task of starting a new church on your own – that you need God to work through you for this to be done and done right. But I wonder, sometimes, if we truly understand how much God wants to do in our church plants, particularly in the area of developing internal community, through the power of the Holy Spirit—if only we will allow God to work.
When I was planting my first church, I wondered how or when I would know that we were going to make it. How many people would have to be in worship for how many weeks in a row before I felt like, “Ok, this is going to work”? How many programs would we need to have and what would their focus need to be in order for me to feel comfortable with how we were doing? Turns out, I was asking the wrong questions and looking to measure the wrong things.
One day after worship, my wife and I both noticed something – no one was leaving. (Of course they weren’t helping us tear down either, but that was ok.) We noticed that folks were hanging out and talking, inquiring about family, in order to know each other more. We had to shut off the lights that day to get people out of our rented worship space. We noticed on that day that the Holy Spirit was beginning to build community, knitting us together as a church. When I got home that day my wife asked me if I had noticed what had happened. We both knew then that this church plant was going to work. God was building community. That changed the way I thought about our program ministry and the things we would do from that point forward.
Previously I had been using lagging measures, things like numbers of people in worship and in various programs. Now I was looking more at one specific leading measure and question: What can I do to create space for community to develop? Three changes/practices emerged:
- In our small groups we always talked about three components, fellowship, study and prayer. Eventually in an effort to foster more and deeper community I removed the “study” portion and went to a Wesleyan class meeting format to get people talking and praying more about their faith life (see Kevin Watson’s book The Class Meeting on doing this).
- Every spring semester, roughly once a month I would invite the High School seniors to join me at a coffee shop just to talk. No program, no agenda, I just wanted space for them to talk about their excitement, anxiety, or questions about the next phase in life. This allowed us to develop a deeper connection with each other and they knew they could always come to me.
- During Lent we always had a “Lenten Mission Cross” with mission opportunities pinned on it. These weren’t opportunities that we programmed – they were just contacts. We wanted folks to be engaged in mission and to develop community. So we encouraged them to choose an organization or project and find someone else in the church to do it with. We were always looking for ways to create space for folks to develop deeper community.
Programs are important. Tracking worship attendance is important. But do not neglect the power of simply creating space for the Holy Spirit to do what only the Holy Spirit can do – bring people together into a family called the church. Your church plant will change over time, ministries will come and go; but the character of your community will stay with you. Make sure that the defining characteristic of your new congregation is the bond of community between your people. It went a long way for us.