Church Planter Spotlight: Marcus Toussaint on Lessons Learned in Church Planting
Twelve months ago, Church Planter Marcus Toussaint moved from the heart of the Bible Belt in Dallas to the mountains of Northern Arizona to help start Flagstaff Community Church with a few friends. He serves as External Focus Pastor of the growing Flagstaff community that has moved from Lead Pastor Mike Mahon’s living room to an unused car garage to now Flagstaff High School. Recently, he blogged 20 lessons he’s learned about planting in what he calls a ‘postmodern, post-everything frontier,” including “All that stuff about ‘calling’ is true” and “A church plant is a lame idol.” Lindy Lowry
All that stuff about “calling” is true. A lot of guys smarter than me say that church planting is for those who truly feel called to it. They’re actually right. The first few months, particularly if you’re a parachute drop, can feel lonely and difficult. There are times when the only thing keeping you going is the reality that “God has called me to this thing.” If you have never had a clear sense of calling about starting a church, seriously, save yourself and others the trouble and do anything else.
Choke the church plant pride quick. There is often a not-so-subtle hubris deep in us church-planters, being the new, idealistic kids on the block. Kill that pride before, during and after every visit to another church in town or after hearing about another church in town. There really are faithful churches and ministries in your city that have been praying for it long before you even thought of being God’s gift to Gospel-contextualization. Be humbled to be a small part of the answer to their prayers and long-suffering in a tough place.
Learn how to apply the Gospel to rejection and criticism. Starting a church from scratch involves throwing yourself out there and facing a lot of rejection. It’s like high school all over again. Sometimes, you will have to preach the Gospel to yourself like 20 times a day, remembering that because you are fully accepted in Christ means that any kind of rejection you receive just isn’t that big a deal. Also, pass all criticism through the filter of your critics’ demonstrated Christian maturity.
Debunk the “superhero pastor” mindset in your people from day one. It’s true that [most of] your people can only rise to the level of your leadership—so it’s a good thing Jesus is the head pastor! Just because you’re “called” doesn’t mean you’re called to be Superman. Living in an authentic community is actually a core value at our church. Be strong, but own your (numerous) mistakes and share your daily need for Jesus with people. They’ll find you refreshingly real in an artificial culture, and you’ll foster a church culture that truly emphasizes the “priesthood of all believers.”
Failure is an option. The tried-and-true, canned church planting processes killing it in the Midwest and the Bible Belt flat out just don’t seem to work anymore in postmodern American contexts (that is, if you want to reach non-Christians and not just disgruntled church people), so just about everything is an experiment. We just try a bunch of stuff and see if anything sticks. Frankly, we fail a lot. We’re sort of learning as we go; it’s the ultimate on-the-job training. For us, failure is failure to try.
What you’re excited about is what your people really learn. I actually stole this from a D.A. Carson quote in an article at the Gospel Coalition. Genuine excitement about anything is contagious. Churches and church plants come and go, but Jesus will be the jam forever. Be excited about Him. Be excited about the Gospel.
Team dynamics are trickier than you think. I remember having a conversation with a seminary professor about how “church planting teams don’t work.” He said it was because the inevitable conflict within teams most often causes the mission to unravel. At the time, I believed he just didn’t understand how to build a solid team that could manage conflict well. The reality is that you can dive headfirst into a sea of personality inventories like StrengthsFinder or Myers-Briggs, but conflict is going to happen, period. Personalities are going to clash. Healthy, godly teams have conflict. But don’t let your commitment to biblical conflict resolution be detrimental to the mission God has you on together.
Leverage stories continuously. In my opinion, stories of life change are the key metric for success in ministry. When you’re a parachute drop church plant attempting to build momentum at ground zero, you don’t have a lot of stories yet. So you have to use the ones you’ve got, namely everyone in your launch/core team’s story of grace and stories/media from your amazing sending church or organization. At each of our worship “gatherings,” we tell the story of grace of someone in our community. Create a culture where you never shut up about God and what He’s doing.
People will bail. It’s one of those things you’ve heard about and prepare your heart for, but it still hurts when it happens. Because church planting is extremely personal; when people leave, they’re not just breaking up with the church, they’re breaking up with you, your leadership, vision and its implementation. The temptation is to harden your heart and not allow yourself to truly trust people. Don’t give in! There really are amazing people out there! The incredibly personal nature of planting a church is actually the premise of this book by Brian Bloye.
God will send you some “Barnabi.” In the midst of frequent rejections and difficulties, you’ll get a few “sons of encouragement” who truly love Jesus, buy into the vision of “our church” (love hearing that!) and who are faithfully servant-hearted for the long haul. Let yourself be pumped about it and apply 2 Tim. 2:2 to them as soon as they’re recognized.
Objective, outside coaching is essential. We get great coaching from some Yodas in Phoenix and Dallas. In addition to learning new face-melting leadership axioms, we get encouragement and wisdom from some guys who don’t suffer from the situational tunnel vision that church planters in the trenches inevitably develop.
Attractional strategies largely don’t seem to work in post-Christian contexts. At least they haven’t really for us. Why? I think it’s because they are like cultural mosquitoes to our context—they’re annoying. Everyone expects them and is inoculated against Christian evangelistic outreach. If the definition of “crazy” is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then most of us are crazy. Lots of Christian thinkers that have been saying “duh” to this for a long time.
All of us need to be explicitly taught “how to be missional.” It’s sexy to say you’re “missional.” But under the deluge of “missional” material out there, most of us Christians are better at going to Africa than across the street. People need not only to be continually invited to join what God is already doing in their communities, they also need clear, practical instructions on how. We have to recover the idea of “evangelism as a team sport,” and teach people that to be “missional” involves pursuing a big vision with small steps.
Some Christians may take your presence as an insult. Love them anyway. Prove them wrong. Before I even moved to Flagstaff, I met a Christian teacher who balked at the idea of another church in Flag. After all, “Flagstaff has sooo many churches already,” to which I arrogantly thought Yeah, too bad they’re not reaching anyone! The truth is some churches take the proliferation of new church plants in their community as an indictment on their ministry efforts instead of as a movement of God, and some church planters consider the very need for their plant as an indictment on other churches. That’s too bad. I like how one church planting friend in Flagstaff put it, “We’re here to complete, not compete.”
Commit to loving the hurting in your community and you’ll always have an audience (stolen from Jud Wilhite). It’s a good word. We live in a Christian leadership culture that still largely focuses on “influencing the influencers.” It’s explicitly one reason why church planters are flocking to the world’s city centers. That’s awesome, but I also believe that Jesus still chooses to use those of us who are foolish and weak in the world’s eyes to build His kingdom (1 Cor. 1:27). The county I live in has two times the national suicide rate and suffers from rampant alcoholism, yet has almost no Christ-centered recovery ministry! So we started one, and it has grown simply by word-of-mouth.
Define success for your church plant biblically. Whether consciously or unconsciously, what you count is what really counts in your church, and I’m convinced the church needs better metrics for success. If “making disciples” is truly the mission, then only counting butts in seats won’t cut it. What about the number of people in community groups as a percentage of your church body? Or the number of intentional relationships with non-Christians in the greater community? Just a couple of numerically oriented questions that might be more helpful (but maybe less immediately gratifying) than whether the crowd is growing. There are many more possibilities.
Ask non-Christians. To me, few things are sillier than a navel-gazing Christian culture sitting around guessing about how to “attract” non-Christians. Ask them. Get to know them, their hopes and dreams, what they think about spirituality, and why they may think Christianity sucks or is at least irrelevant.
Beware of babies in business suits. Often, churched people tend to position themselves as mature believers ready to lead. I would wait to make that call until you see it demonstrated in faithfulness. They may quote Keller and talk a big game, but when the rubber hits the road, they still want the church plant to become “First Vending Machine Fellowship Church.” You can tell a true servant by how he or she responds when they get treated like one.
The hardest person to lead in your church plant is you (stolen from Todd Wagner of Watermark). You are the biggest problem in your church plant. If you can tame the tiger within, everything else isn’t that big of a deal
A church plant is a lame idol. Seriously, even if the thing totally bombs, everyone bails, you run out of money and have to be tri-vocational, Jesus is still coming back and dropping His kingdom on this broken world. Success in the Christian life is faithful obedience to Jesus, not a list of stacked accomplishments. Some friends in Phoenix call church-planting “spanktification”; I connect with that. It’s tough, so are you consciously becoming more like Jesus? Do you love Him and people more as a result? If not, you’re missing it.
This post is the collection of a four-part series called “Lessons From My First Year of Church Planting” posted on Marcus Toussaint’s blog, Dark Sky City: Church Planting in Flagstaff, Arizona. Follow his adventures there and on Twitter @Marcustoussaint.