The article was written by Tony Merida, Nate Akin, and Matt Sigmon from Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Thirteen Lessons from Year One of Imago Dei Church
We launched our first public worship service on September 11, 2011. Since that time, we’ve learned many important lessons. We want to share them with you in hopes that they may help future planters. Of course, we don’t have everything figured out. We aren’t experts. We often say, “We’re building the plane while we’re trying to fly it.” But we think these thirteen lessons may help you as you seek to plant a healthy church.
1. Remember It’s All About Jesus
The ultimate goal of church planting is the same goal for all of life; namely, to glorify Christ. Our ultimate aim is not to glorify ourselves or to please others. This is probably an understood principle, but we can soon abandon theology for shallow pragmatism once we get on the field.
If your aim is the glory of Christ, then it should keep you from two major problems, the one extreme of pride, and the other extreme of despair. We drift to pride when the numbers are good, and people say great things about our church; and we drift into despair when things are not going well (from a human perspective). We must keep the glory of Christ as our chief aim to stay out of both of these ditches.
If glorifying Jesus is the main goal, then we will judge success differently. “Success” to Jesus might look like failure to others (e.g., the prophets). Planting a church is not the business world, so bottom lines like budget and attendance numbers should not be our idols. They are important, but not ultimate. These idols can cause us to sacrifice convictions. Remember that if you don’t please Jesus, then it doesn’t matter who you please.
2. Plant with a Team of Pastors
Planting with a group of qualified elders/pastors was so important to us. We believe that plurality of elders is biblical (e.g., Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17; Acts 21:18; Titus 1:5-ff.; 1 Tim. 5:17, 19; 1 Pet 5:1, 5; James 5:14) and we also believe it is incredibly practical and wise. The demands of church planting are intense.
Planting with a team of pastors/elders has many benefits, including the following:
(1) It protects you from mistakes you could make as the lone pastor.
(2) It helps make up for your deficiencies as a pastor. Each pastor is gifted differently and able to contribute in a variety of ways. Some are prophets, others kings, and others priests.
(3) It makes your job more enjoyable. Ministry is hard and often lonely. Church planting is like a team sport, it’s most enjoyable when played with others.
(4) It guards against sacrificing your family (You will be able to share responsibilities with other pastors giving you time to be with family. “If you lose your family, you’ve lost.” [Larry Osborne])
(5) It provides accountability and encouragement. Many planters quit because they have no support system. Many quit because they fall into great sin. Plurality helps prevent these things.
(6) It allows you to divide the shepherding responsibilities (including praying for congregational needs).
(7) It ensures doctrinal integrity. Elders can discuss sermon prep together. One elder can’t just say whatever he wants without having to deal with the evaluation of the other elders.
(8) It should reinforce the idea that Jesus is the Head of the Church, not a single pastor.
(9) It guards against the “celebrity pastor” movement that permeates the Christian sub-culture. The church is not built around one rock star pastor, but a plurality of servant leaders, who meet the biblical qualifications of elder/pastor.
(10) It allows for a team-teaching model to flourish. While there may be one primary preacher among the elders, we think it is wise for people to see the other elders preach – and that they preach when the primary preacher is in town. This will keep the church from feeling like the other guys are “substitutes.” During the weeks when the non-primary preacher is preaching, the primary preacher can do other forms of leadership and ministry, and also be re-charged personally.
(11) A plurality of elders is the best way to prepare for the departure of a(n) elder/pastor. We will not use a “pastor search committee” to replace a pastor. We will simply identify other elders. We will not have an interim preacher, since all of our elders can preach (It’s a requirement for a pastor – 1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:9). They will just step in and preach.
What Makes a Good Team?
We often say that there are four essentials for developing a healthy leadership/elder team:
(1) Theological Unity, (2) Philosophical Unity (agreement on how to “do church”); (3) Relational Harmony (you like spending time together); and (4) Competency (each guy actually gets things done).
Side Note: This will probably necessitate that some, if not all, of your leadership team pursue bi-vocational ministry, at least in the beginning. This provides many benefits such as establishing relationships in the community and alleviating some of the financial pressures in the early stages of a plant. In our opinion, the typical “parachute” plant with one full-time pastor leading and relying on 2-3 years of financial support is not the most sustainable and reliable method of church planting. We would prefer to send out three elders, and have all of them get jobs (at least part-time), and then divide the one salary in three parts to supplement their tent-making job. In the future, as finances increase, one or more of the elders could become full-time and receive all their income through the church. This allows not only for financial stability, and shared responsibilities, but also a natural place to do evangelism and outreach.
3. Invest in the Core Team
Church planting is not only benefited by a plurality of leaders from the beginning, but it’s also a good idea to have a core team of people who will help you plant the church and serve as the backbone of the church body. In our beginnings, we invested in this core team by a weekly in-home meeting, in which we shared a meal together, and taught our theology, philosophy of ministry, vision, values, and our ecclesiological “DNA.” It is essential that you form strong relationships with these people. We did this through regular fellowship, taking trips together, and many other avenues. We believe that developing this group is priority one as it will help you build community from the beginning and set expectations for multiplication.
4. Set Clear Expectations for Potential Members (initially the Core Team)
We believe that the church is called to display the glory of God. That is why we highly recommend Covenant Membership. This involves setting clear expectations of what it looks like to join our church. We also believe that if you set the bar high early that Christians rise to the occasion. It is a shame that there is usually more expected of a frat member than a church member. Being a part of a church family should mean something, so we set clear expectations of what we think the Bible says that is to be.
We do this by:
(1) Requiring that potential members attend our membership class (includes: vision/mission/process, doctrine, our Church Covenant, and the PEACE Plan);
(2) Interviewing all potential members through an assessment process; and
(3) Requiring prospective members commit to our Church Covenant, including signing and bringing it before the church when they are commissioned as members.
We have had a few people who didn’t want to join because of these requirements, but the majority of people have commented how much they actually love this process and appreciate that membership means something at Imago Dei and is much more than just their name on a list. As elders, we know that we will give an account for the people we shepherd (Heb. 13:17). This means that we must identify who these people are! We know our members by name, and know their story. We can also hold them accountable on matters including (but not limited to) attendance and giving. Further, through covenant membership, we have the ability to exercise church discipline with integrity.
Side Note: We also require membership for a person to serve at IDC. This includes childcare, set up, greeting, small group leadership, playing in the band, etc. We believe it is a necessity to make sure that the only people leading should be covenant members who are accountable to the leaders and the church. There is a tendency, for example, to put gifted people on stage to lead musical worship, regardless of if they are members. This can be detrimental if you’re seeking to have a high view of covenant membership. There needs to be clear lines as to who is in the covenant family and who is not – in hopes that those who are not in, will join!