Church Planters: Not the Competition

When my wife and I moved into the Folsom area to plant Oak Hills Church, one of the first things I did was to begin visiting the pastors in town. There weren’t too many churches in our city at that point, so it was easy to do, and I was delighted at the response. (Maybe with the exception of one pastor who told me I couldn’t use the word “community” in our name, because that was already taken.) I was invited to attend a little weekly gathering of local pastors, which I have been a part of for thirty-two years now. Most of the men and women in our current group of pastors have started churches in town after I arrived there. We have met together, some of us, for close to three decades. We love each other. We know the names of each other’s children. We have prayed for our families, our marriages, wayward children, illnesses, doubts, desires to quit, temptations, church conflicts, and our city. We go on a yearly three-day retreat together. We have cried together, and we have laughed until our stomachs ached.

During one particularly painful and anguish-filled time in my life, I sent a text to all of these pastors and asked if they would help me with what I was going through. The request I made was silly, desperate, ill-advised, and ultimately unworkable. Even so, within one or two minutes, every single pastor had responded with one very simple message, “Whatever you need, I’m there for you. Just say the word, and I’ll do it.” While my ridiculous idea was mercifully never pursued, the experiential knowledge of these pastors’ love for me changed me forever. I was carrying a burden that was overwhelming me, and these pastors came along and helped me carry it. They hoisted it up on their shoulders and walked alongside me. It moved me to tears. Life was bearable again. I was not alone.

If someone visits one of our churches in Folsom and they say something to us like, “I’ve been going to Church A in town, but I’m thinking of leaving and coming to your church,” they will immediately hear the response, “Oh, I know Pastor X at Church A really well. He’s a great pastor. I love that guy. I was just praying with him this past week. Church A is a great church. You’re fortunate to be a part of that church. You should never leave there.” We simply don’t allow competition to rear its ugly head. We’ve all confessed our ambition to each other; our jealousy; our sense of inadequacy and not measuring up; our fear of failure and rejection; our love for Christ and His church in the midst of our doubts about what we do actually mattering. This is sacred territory that we protect and nurture. We would never violate it.

In addition, we believe this sacred trust is to be shared with others. When a new church planter comes to our city, almost every pastor in our group will grab lunch or a cup of coffee with him or her and invite them to our group. We all know that there are non-churched people in our city who will be more easily reached with the good news of Jesus by a new church, rather than by older, established churches. Because we love non-churched people, because we believe that Jesus and His church is the hope of the world, we welcome, celebrate, and encourage new church plants. We love it when they come to town. We push back hard at any kind of competitive spirit. We deeply realize that we’re all on the same team.

Our cities desperately need new churches. No really, they do. When Oak Hills began, I was thirty years old, and I was the oldest guy in the room. Our leaders were all in their twenties. We didn’t have elders, we had youngers. Today, if someone is in their mid-twenties, it is much more difficult to get into a key leadership position at Oak Hills. It’s possible, and it happens, but there is so much to learn, to understand, and to accommodate to. There are hurdles to climb over. Often younger leaders simply decide it’s not worth the trouble.

That’s one of the inherent challenges of an older, established church. Its history, however rich, makes it harder to break into the leadership there. Consequently, some of the brilliant, talented energy of younger leaders is often underutilized. Not so with new church plants. A new church is the perfect place for younger leaders to flex their spiritual muscles, to risk and try new things. The spiritual health of a city depends upon new churches coming to town. A city could easily become spiritually lethargic and anemic unless something new is invited in, like a new church brimming with spiritual vitality and energy.

Therefore, with NAB’s new emphasis on church planting, it is crucial that we pastors of older, established churches welcome, celebrate, and encourage new church plants and new church planters. We need them in our cities. They are not the competition; they are the bringers of life. In many very real ways, we are lost without them. Our cities do not belong to us, and the Kingdom of God is so much bigger than what we happen to be doing.

New church plants, and new church planters, need our prayers, our wisdom, our support, and our friendship. It’s an exhilarating experience to plant a church. But it is often hard and lonely work. Church planters carry a lot on their plates, and it often feels like the deck is stacked against them. What a great gift it is when the other pastors in their town greet them with open arms and celebrate their presence as a gift to the community.

Kent Carlson
NAB Vice President of Leadership Formation