The biggest mistake we made in the first couple years of our church gives me 20/20 hindsight vision, as it is so clear looking back. We (more like ME) didn’t take children’s ministry seriously enough. Be not mistaken, those who served in our children’s ministry took it very seriously, they are heroes in our church’s story, but as the lead planting pastor, I didn’t push for anywhere near the support for making it flourish like it needed and deserved.
I’ll never forget the comment someone made; “It feels like we have a Ferrari in the worship service and a Pinto in kids.” Sadly, that was an accurate statement. I’m thankful for the first and original team of volunteers in City Church Kids because they did a great job while having no budget, direction, or environment. I often get asked about some of the factors that caused our church to grow in the earlier days. While there were a lot of factors, my first answer to our eventual growth was when we began to take children’s ministry seriously.
I first wanted to plant a church in order to reach my friends, and a majority of my friends have children. It became clear to me that to reach my friends meant we also needed to reach their kids. Realistically, a “Ferrari” won’t be an option at first for a church plant’s children’s ministry, but a Pinto doesn’t have to be the other option. For most churches, Sunday morning is the gateway and front door into the church life. Church plants are likely portable, so not having a Pinto is essential and thankfully there are ways to have a decent car in the parking lot.
Answer questions parents are asking.
There are four questions parents ask about a local church’s children’s ministry. The first two questions they think and don’t actually say out loud as they scan the room with their eyes are, “Is this place safe?” and “Is this place clean?” The other two questions they only ask their kids on the walk to the minivan or on the drive home, “Did you have fun?” and “What did you learn?”
Any church plant can create a ministry where those four important aspects are a reality.
The day you launch the church, budget for children’s ministry.
Take the money you’re thinking about using on business cards, pens with the church logo, paying someone to design that logo, and put the money into children’s ministry. We looked nice out of the gate when we launched. We had good design, a decent website, and a modern feel. Those things did absolutely nothing for the family who would show up to our church service and see us cram kids in a little back room behind the stage (I seriously can’t believe our first group of volunteers still speak to me).
Hire someone to lead the ministry early in the planting process.
Most church plants I know might only be able to compensate someone $50 a week, if they can even compensate anyone at all. Fine, pay that person $50 a week! It places a different level of responsibility on the individual and shows a true commitment to the ministry. Making an effort to pay someone to lead the ministry establishes that the ministry is a priority. I would recommend to first try hiring your best volunteer.
Ask for patience from your core team.
A church plant sounds really great until the people who agreed to come help with this mission actually get started and it isn’t like their old church especially if they come from a very programmed children’s ministry. “We love the church and the mission, we just need something more for our kids.” I’ll bet you a steak at Outback that you will hear that from someone as they walk out the door in the first three months. I guarantee it. Beat them to the punch. Remind the first core group of parents regularly that they are planting something that (near) future families will harvest. Don’t be afraid to challenge people about their view of church and children’s ministry from the past, and invite them to help create something dynamic. This could be a mission trip for their entire family. What an opportunity!
Choose a facility based on children’s ministry.
We left our original portable location solely because of our children’s ministry. The seating was great, parking was suitable, and the auditorium was what we needed for our worship service, but the space and environment for kids was terrible. We were willing to give up a great worship center space in a quality auditorium for a crappy warehouse with horrific acoustics because the new property we were leasing had a storefront we could transform into a kid’s space that was no Pinto.
I NEVER would have done that in the first couple years of the church because I didn’t understand. If you can find a space with a great worship and kids space, fantastic. If you have to choose one or the other, choose a space based on kids. There are always exceptions based on where your church is located, but if you are anywhere remotely suburban or with family neighborhoods, I would always choose a facility based on a sufficient space for a quality children’s ministry.
Realize children’s ministry is not childcare.
It is often a thing that church people expect childcare at every single solitary thing that the church does. Make a precedent that it is not the church’s responsibility to find childcare for people because the children’s ministry is not childcare, it is a ministry. One time I said from stage, “and childcare will be provided” when making an announcement about an event. One of our staff members got ALL OVER ME about it, and it was deserved. She said, “We have worked too hard to ever refer to it as childcare, this is a ministry.” Now we say, “City Church Kids will be open.” If you think of it as childcare, you will get childcare. Childcare won’t provide the most exciting hour of a kid’s week and even more important, childcare won’t point kids to Jesus.
Not viewing children’s ministry as childcare also makes the ministry more intentional about the gospel. We ditched a free and fun curriculum because our team didn’t feel it was gospel centered enough and was only teaching morals. The new curriculum we currently use is theologically faithful, pointing to Christ, but tends to be a little hokey. Our solution has been using the content but creating our own themes and teaching elements to make it fit the culture we’ve created at City Church.
All of this is based on intentionally which goes far beyond childcare. Some of those who serve in our ministry do have a childcare aspect to their role, such as rocking babies in the nursery. This is more missional than about childcare because it allows parents to have peace of mind about their child’s welfare in our kid’s environment while they are hearing the gospel themselves with other adults in the worship service. A quality children’s ministry thinks about every detail and sees every aspect from a missional viewpoint.
Connect families by caring about kids.
I believe that in most church planting situations, taking children’s ministry seriously is essential for connecting people to the church. The scope of reach extends beyond the children to the entire family and begins with the simple idea that the kids would love their church. We’ve been told, “This isn’t really our style, but our kids just love being here.” It doesn’t take a large church budget to make this happen, but it does take a focused effort that may require saying no to other areas of ministry in order to leverage the limited resources of a church plant into something that can connect people to the life of the local church and ultimately, the gospel. We have a joke that is kind of true and it’s that our children’s ministry staff is never told no. It is never too late to re-launch what you are doing to connect families, so do it today!
2. Rootedness and hiring from within matters.
“From the outside looking in, what has been the major factor in City Church making it to our 10 year anniversary?” I asked a Tallahassee local church pastor over some pulled pork and fries at lunch. As a church we didn’t just survive 10 years, but by the Lord’s favor and blessing, we headed into our anniversary celebration growing as a church and experiencing our greatest days.
I am too close to be able to see as clearly as I would like when evaluating our church so as I was seeking to understand factors that allowed us to experience this incredible decade long story, I sought the opinion of a another pastor in our city whose church has a different style and approach to ministry than City Church. His first thought was that we “filled a vacuum,” as our style and approach to church didn’t exist when we first started (it has become more common now in our city), but he quickly moved to a different answer that he claimed was the primary factor for our decade of ministry. “You just can’t underestimate the rootedness of yourself and the City Church staff. You guys are Tallahassee people, and that just matters a whole lot.”
I had never thought about it like that before this conversation. Some on our staff grew up in Tallahassee like I did, but most of the others were already living in our city before they came on staff. In fact, most were already members at our church long before they received a paycheck from City Church. Those who voluntarily left our staff and stayed in Tallahassee are still active members and serving in the church. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Rootedness matters.
The people leading our church day to day now were already connected in their city and loved their church before they ever attended a staff meeting. One doesn’t see that often and it has been a big deal for us. Now, when people ask about our “secret sauce,” building a staff team from within our church family is a place I immediately point to. It is nowhere near a rule for us, but it is certainly helpful and eliminates a lot of unknowns since we already know the person who comes on staff.
Personally, a love for a city and the local church is more important to me than a “call to ministry.” A passion for a people and a place and an understanding of the qualifications for local church work are sufficient for me. I’m not looking for a Greek scholar and trained theologian to run our assimilation process, lead our local compassion efforts, or train volunteers. If we’re being honest, many folks out of seminary have no experience or skills to do such things! Rethinking how a church staff is formed can allow for a stronger collaborative effort among people who already have relationships and trust with each other. There is something special about staff members who call a city home, rather than a church building “work.” They aren’t looking for positions at different churches because they have a church home whether you pay them or not.
As a church plant, this is much easier to figure out. You start with all volunteers. I remember having official staff meetings when I was the only one in the room who was compensated by the church. Some of those committed church members at the table became our first hired staff.
Here are some principles for hiring from within:
To create a culture of rootedness, lead a church where it is valued. This is more than a staffing plan, but it is certainly not less.
Recently we celebrated the 10th anniversary of City Church in Tallahassee. What started with 24 friends and family in a living room is now a multi-generational church making an impact in our city for the good news of Jesus Christ. In church planting a lot changes over ten years and there are a lot of lessons you learn along the way as a pastor, especially considering many church planters don’t have experience leading a church before they set off to plant.
There will be things you may have thought were the ‘end of the world’ that you eventually realize aren’t as big of a deal as you believed when you first started. There will also be things you didn’t think mattered but are essential for a new church in order to prevent being just another flash in the pan. It is a humbling journey as a church planter. You will definitely be stretched and grown as a Christian and leader. There are ten main lessons I’ve learned over the past ten years that I hope will be helpful for other church planters.
The first one doesn’t line up very well with popular church planter lingo…
“I’m just not very good at this whole ‘vision’ thing,” a discouraged pastor shared with me over lunch at Chick-fil-A. He asked, “How do I even cast vision?”
As a church planter getting ready to celebrate my church’s 10-year anniversary, I must have been associated with ‘vision casting’ in this pastor’s mind. But as I took a breath and prepared to impart all of my apparent wisdom, I froze. “What is our vision?” I thought immediately. “Do we even have one?”
I fumbled over my words as my mind went back to a weekend ‘boot camp’ for aspiring church planters. Those of us in attendance spent the majority of our time talking about vision. We had to craft a vision for our future churches that would correspond with our mission statement by writing clever and catchy sentiments with purple markers on large tear-off sheets hanging on the wall. I had a hard time coming up with something then, and here now at Chick-fil-A, sitting across from a pastor who sought me out to discuss this very topic, I had nothing.
People in our city speak of the ‘vision’ of our church often, and I claim to be the unofficial guardian of that vision as the lead pastor. Yet there I was, unable to cast vision about casting vision. I couldn’t even articulate the vision of our church when asked directly.
So I circled back to the reason I knew I wanted to start a church in the first place. When I was a twenty-something trying to become an actual church planter, all I knew was that I had a passion for a place and for people. I wasn’t sure how one went about starting a church, but I knew my hometown of Tallahassee needed more gospel-preaching churches and I wanted to reach my friends for Christ. I wasn’t sure if that counted as a vision and I had no idea how to make that into a catchy statement, but I had a mission, I knew that for sure.
I remember holding that purple marker in my hand with the ‘Church Planting Catalyst’ looking over my shoulder as he asked, “So, what’s your vision?” and “Do you have a mission statement?” I glanced at the words being written by the guys on my right and left and started to wonder if I was cut out for this. These guys had each written statements I would need a hired creative wordsmith to craft. I was just standing there with a purple marker, trying to come up with something that would sound okay and not completely lame.
Coming back to the table at Chick-fil-A, I finally formed my thoughts and knew how to encourage this pastor. “What is the Bible’s job description for us as the Church?” I asked. He immediately answered as I’d hoped and pointed to the Great Commission. In that moment, I began to realize that I actually was cut out to coach someone on vision, and that every Christian is equally qualified to do the same thing. We remind and point people back to the vision Jesus gave His Church. “Don’t worry about vision,” I said. “Your church doesn’t need to be preoccupied with vision; it needs to be serious about the Bible.”
Years ago, with that purple marker in my hand, I wound up with the least cool statement on the big white sheet of paper: “I want to reach Tallahassee and all my friends for Jesus through the local church, and I hope anyone who will ever call our church their home will want to do the same.” The instructor thought I was being sarcastic with such a non-vision-statement-esque vision statement, but I looked at him and simply said, “This is what I’m trying to do, man.” Since then, we’ve summarized this vision as being “For the Gospel, For the City,” but the goal hasn’t changed.
The vision for all local churches should sound pretty similar if we are going to be faithful to the mission mandate given to us by our Lord. I am all for creative expressions, ideas, approaches, and manifestations of the mission, but that should spring from a gospel-centrality in our congregations (led by the pastor) more than a super hip marketing campaign (led by a creative team). Branding is great, but the vision should be simple. And the vision-caster is Jesus Himself speaking to us through Scripture.
In my opinion, the aspects of application to get hung up on are ones of strategy, not vision. The vision is laid out already, but how you’re going to carry it out is the conversation you should be having. Every biblical, local church has the same message, but working out the calling to make disciples in your specific environment might include:
Pastor, you can rest knowing the creative vision for your church is laid out. Our job is to lead churches, by the Lord’s help, who are faithful to what Jesus has called us to do for His glory, kingdom, and church.
“So, I can be a vision guy simply by keeping the church focused on the Great Commission,” the pastor said back to me at Chick-fil-A. The light bulb went off for my pastor friend. He already had all he needed for vision since Jesus provided it in Scripture. My friend merely needed the courage and resolve to keep his church focused on reaching people and making disciples.
I truly feel bad for a pastor who believes that if his church simply changes the style of its worship service, unbelievers are going to start coming on Sunday morning. For many, this has and continues to be a type of strategy to get non-Christians to church. While I am all for seeing unbelievers come to hear the gospel and just the thought of it excites me, I have never understood the logic behind efforts to attract those who are non-Christians to come to a church service.
I fear that the church is setting herself up for disappointment when this is the vision that is cast. Personally, I don’t know an unbeliever who is likely to attend a church service, with very occasional exceptions. These would be after a tragedy – when many claimed Christian faith after the events of 9/11/01 –- or on Mother’s Day, because it would “mean so much to Nana.” Unbelievers aren’t coming for any of the reasons churches think they might.
Why would an unbeliever come to church because there is free coffee? He can drive through the Starbucks line, pay $3.00, and be home within 15 minutes.
What about great branding and social media? I have some difficult news to break to you: unbelievers in your community probably aren’t following your church on social media.
The pastor is really funny? So is YouTube.
All these efforts and creative ideas are perfectly designed, unintentionally, to attract people who hop around from church to church, looking for the flavor of the month. The efforts, resources of time and money, and overall planning of the church’s outreach is often well-suited to reach the disgruntled or bored Christian next door, which is not the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. If we are going to faithfully reach the lost in our communities through the local church, we need to start by reminding ourselves the basic truth that church people go to churches, and unbelievers generally do not. Taking that into account, where I serve, we really want unbelievers to come. So we have an entire strategy built around reaching our own members. If people love their church, they will want their non-Christian friends to join them.
People come to church on the arm of a trusted friend because of a relationship and an invitation. Rather than trying to attract unbelievers with elements and efforts they will never even know exist, we try to reach our own members by creating a church they actually want to be part of themselves. I’m not going to invite a non-Christian friend I’ve been investing in for months or years to a church service I secretly wish I didn’t have to attend.
“Isn’t the Great Commission reason enough?” one might ask. Actually, the Great Commission is the very reason why I would not bring a friend to a church service that lacks gospel-centered preaching, devalues excellence, has a mediocre children’s ministry, bad coffee, and unfriendly people. My friend is going to give church one shot, and I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure the overall experience is positive, praying the Holy Spirit convicts and the conversations we’ve had will deepen because he’s come to church with me.
At my church, our strategy to reach our own people consists of two elements that are not spoken or advertised, but rather practiced and valued. We call it the “double promise.”
Promise 1: No disclaimer on the drive to church.
I don’t want our church members to have to give a string of “Oh, by the way,” disclaimers on their way to church with a friend. Maybe you’ve heard, or given, some of these:
Oh by the way, the pastor is very political, but he means well.
Oh by the way, I know you are introverted, but they ask new people to stand up and be recognized.
Oh by the way, there is this lady who sings, and she is awful, but her husband is the guy in charge of the music.
By valuing excellence and being intentional in how we do church, we eliminate the need to give disclaimers, and also uphold the second part of the double-promise.
Promise 2: No apologies on the drive home.
In the same way, we never want church members to feel the need to apologize because of something unnecessarily offensive that happened during the service.
“I’m so sorry, he has never made a joke about gay people.”
“I’m so sorry, the children’s ministry security has never been this lax.”
“I’m so sorry, our pastor has never shown so little compassion on that issue.”
When you bring someone to church, it is a big deal. The invitation was not random. The person’s agreement to come was not random. Most likely, there have been months of conversations and time spent together to earn your friend’s trust and invite him or her. And when he or she comes, you are entrusting your church with that person. The double promise is not showy or attractional; it is a culture created to ensure church members that we aren’t going to ruin all the missional effort they have put into relationships.
The church where I serve as lead pastor is made up of people who are passionate about getting unbelievers to come to our Sunday gatherings. We do not believe it is the end goal, but we absolutely and unapologetically push our church members to bring their friends to church, and we value it when they come. If we stopped making this a priority, our church members would wonder if we had lost our way. By the Lord’s kindness to us, we have seen tremendous results from the efforts to bring unbelievers to church and allow them to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The double promise is essential for us, because if an unbeliever is going to join us on a Sunday morning, it isn’t because he or she heard our band is awesome or the pastor is relatable. It is because a friend who loves the church and cannot wait for the opportunity to bring others invited that person. This is the true way in which we leverage a Sunday service for the unbeliever.