Click here for General Assembly coverage

Going after the one: Leadership lessons for church planters


I am a little suspicious of people who like church.

I grew up in the church, I’m an ordained pastor and my job is to teach people to make even more church in the world. I am a church planter, but I also go to a fairly traditional Presbyterian church that I really love. And honestly, 50 percent of the time, I have a hard time convincing myself to go there.

For me, church is the carrot, upon which the ranch dressing — the gospel, the fellowship, the liberation, the forgiveness, the holy space, the meaning, the God-with-us — that I actually want, is heaped. There are those for whom the carrot itself encompasses the main event. And I am suspicious of them. God bless them, they have a natural taste for wholesomeness that I do not understand.

A colleague of mine recently called me on her way home from an installation service. She remarked that the whole experience felt like playing house. They sang every verse to every song and really luxuriated in every piece of liturgy. She did not say this, but I assume it was because they could. Who goes to a Sunday afternoon installation worship service (after weekly morning worship) but the churchiest of church lovers? These are the pastors who have to be there and the rest of those who always want to sing that sixth verse at the bottom of the page below the music, those who live for a wordy prayer full of Thees and Thous and the late afternoon sun through the stained glass windows. No one desperate and unsavory is walking in off the street at an installation service at 2 p.m. on a Sunday because they are frantic for a word of good news in a world of despair. It’s all insiders, so you are safe to subject them to a hymnic tour de force of every subtle variation of the doxology. They are there for the churchiness.

Gifts of the church planter

There are a variety of leadership gifts that can set up a church planter well as she works to convene a community that embarks on life together formed by spiritual practices. Indeed, church planting really allows the planter to lead from her strengths. The leader convenes the people who respond to her particular leadership style, and a community of people who are open to being led by a pastor with her gifts will naturally form if a community forms at all. There is no one gift that is essential to the church planter. However, I have found that there is a key leadership posture for starting new worshipping communities. The church planter cannot be there for the churchiness.

The planter must like and love those outside the church more than she likes and loves the churchiness of church. This is not only what makes the task of church planting possible, it is what makes the task worth doing. If this church we have is enough, then the people already in church are enough, and we (Presbyterian pastors at least) are all called to an associate pastor gig doing older adult ministry that comes complete with an annual cost of living raise. If the 99 are good enough, there is no reason imperil your sanity to seek out the one (and church planting very well might imperil your sanity). If the church planter is convening worship focused on a standard of churchiness that is anything other than conveying clearly the good news to those who are perishing — those who are outside and other than the church — she is missing the direction of her calling. We have enough churches to serve those who love and gather for the churchiness of worship. The work of the church planter is to convene a community on broader, deeper grounds.

Sacred, beautiful, churchy

I want to be clear — there is nothing wrong with churchiness. Much of it is quite beautiful, tasteful and meaningful — indeed it has become churchy because it has been a vehicle through which people have encountered God. That has made the various manifestations of churchiness as sacred as any material thing can be. Churchiness is the context that we have known and seen the Holy Spirit inhabit. In fact, even (perhaps especially) those of us who fancy ourselves the most freethinking and ecclesiastically creative can’t forget that we hold deep in us the faith muscle memory that raised us, the churchy assumptions we default to when we consider where and how the Holy Spirit might come to us. But if the church planter is to convene community around something other than the churchiness she knows, she must remember two important principles: God is not limited to one mode by which God may encounter us, and we are not the only ones God plans to encounter.

If we were raised in the church and Christendom is our home context, there are likely things that feel uniquely and specifically holy, or even divinely “right” to us: stained glass windows, organ music or perhaps contemporary praise and worship songs with projector screens and wireless mics, Sunday school wings, big parking lots, social respectability, blue laws, silence during worship, sitting in our favorite pew, seeing the pageant at Christmas. Perhaps we have felt God move in these places or practices before and feel it most likely for God to move in those things again. And perhaps God will move again in those practices (or at least some of them), but the Holy Spirit blows where it will, and the resurrected Christ, no longer bound by locks or graves, can and will come to us via other modes in other places, too.

Expectant observation

The church planter, then, is challenged to practice a posture of expectant observation. The church planter must practice remembering that Jesus is not entombed and waiting for us to find him in any particular vestige of Christendom, but is just as likely to show up on the same secular streets of empire that he walked on in his earthly life. The key questions are: How does the church planter convene people for worship beyond the old signifiers of the holy, but still create space for the quality of attention needed to receive and recognize the risen Christ in a new mode? How does she tell the story of the gospel so those convened might recognize the Christ of Scripture as the same Holy Spirit in their midst? Indeed, how might she do that amidst those who are new to Scripture, new to creeds and quite unaccustomed to the meaning behind our sacraments and common worship practices?

These questions lead us to the second principle: We are not the only ones that God plans to encounter. Indeed the disciples are commanded to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We see, as early as Acts, that the ways the secular world experiences the Triune God are sometimes different than the ways the first Jewish disciples encountered God. This is at least as true now, when Christendom has been entwined with empire, such that those without status in the empire have often been made to feel that they do not have status in the church. The trappings of the holy to those within the community read quite differently to those who feel pushed outside of the community. The modes by which we have experienced God previously have not been experienced the same way by others. What has been holy for us has, for some, been hurtful, while for others it has been incoherent, confusing, isolating, oppressive or even uninteresting.

We could, implicitly or explicitly, blame them for just not getting it. But somehow, I don’t think that Jesus was referring to those who were bored by classic hymnody when he offered harsh words to those who did not know the day of their visitation. I might even have the audacity to declare that God might come to God’s people just as much or even more so in the Motown that used to play over the loud speaker at the church where I used to work, where folks were welcomed in from the streets for meals, mailing addresses, social services and human connection. We found that Motown was the music that brought both peace and joy, resting and dancing to the guests we welcomed — it was the music that seemed to bring the most good news to the room.

The church planter, as she convenes community around awaiting, practicing and welcoming God’s presence in its midst, is both challenged and rewarded by making space for those who have been outside the church of Christendom. If she practices listening to those the church has not heard before — their joys and their critiques, their hopes and their worries — she hears in them testimony of the movement of God in the world, movement that had previously been beyond her notice. Her listening for God is broadened, her awareness heightened, so that she expects the Holy Spirit to break through with a blessing through all manner of sensory experiences at any given time. The modes by which the Holy Spirit might breeze through the worship space are wide open — just as likely to be a crying baby, a radio playing outside, or the off-key singing of one whose voice isn’t welcomed in many other spaces, as it is to be the sermon or the songs we chose so carefully to fit with this week’s Scripture. In my experience, the voice of the Holy Spirit in a church plant can be downright chatty, stubbornly alive and ungoverned, bubbling up where She will in the midst of the tenuous order and space the planter tries to fashion.

Seeing the Good News

Indeed, the church planter must not be here for the churchiness. If she is to plant a church with and among those who have been outside the church, the holiness their stories will bring and the rhythm of God’s work in their day-to-day lives will crowd out the clear lines and boundaries of traditional churchiness values. Swear words will echo in prayer requests and children will run barefoot up to the communion feast before the time is “right.” People will come to the office (if she has an office) drunk for pastoral care and at least one person will call the resurrection “creepy.” But this is the point: There are things in this broken world that warrant swearing, the communion feast should elicit the kind of delight that would make you run up without taking time to put on your shoes, the drunk need care and the resurrection is, if not creepy, at minimum very, very weird. The truth of the gospel cannot be contained in the churchy — and thank God for that. Just as so little of the Scriptures read out loud can qualify as churchy, so little of our life qualifies as churchy and so much of it is in need of good news.

If the rest of this has not yet been hard news for the church planter, here is the hard news. If you are to be a church planter, you may be the pastor, but you will not be the expert and you will not be the one who brings God into the room for everyone else to see. You will do your best to pursue community spaces where you can listen and to create community experiences where others can speak. You will vision worship that feels generative and flexible beyond anything you have seen before and it may still feel too churchy. You will struggle to teach the stories of the faith to those who know Jesus already, but have not heard the stories of Scripture. And if you place a spot for preaching in your worship, you may find yourself standing up to preach, thinking, “I read the Scripture, it has been fulfilled in our hearing, and now I have to talk for 15 minutes when we all know the Word has already come and dwelt among us — and there is not one thing that can be added.” And, for a Presbyterian churchy person like myself, that is a new and sometimes scary place to be.

Karen Rohrer is the director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She is a church planter and PC(USA) pastor, dog parent to the charming and three-legged Melody, and wife to Andy, who is a Presbyterian pastor, project manager at the seminary, and life-sized cartoon.