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Open Letter to Church Planters (Especially Sacramento)

December 26, 2007

Among other things, I have been a church planter. The current church I am a member of is an 8-year old church plant and started around the same time as dozens of other church plants in our area of Sacramento. But what I want to say is to all church planters and especially to those brothers and sisters of mine in Northern California.

It is time to stop the foolishness.

To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story. I am the oldest of the church planters in our area and I have found this truth to be genuine: God will never bless His church with all his promised blessings unless there is a sense of unity in a given area. Unity of God’s people attracts the Presence of God and his blessings. Because I believe this, I have spent time getting to know the other church planters of our area. One of the best ways of doing this is to take them out to lunch…no one turns down a free lunch – especially pastors.

One gentleman went to lunch with me and we had a very nice time sharing together. I listened keenly to the vision he had for reaching out to people and was impressed with his honesty and genuine love of teaching the Bible. At the end, I extended my heart to him and asked if we could continue to grow as colleagues and friends. His answer not only startled me, it brought great grief.

“I don’t need any more friends. Especially not other pastors. Thanks, and God bless you.” Those were his exact words. I am not exaggerating in the least. He said all of this with a straight face and I am sure there is a very good rationale for his answer that I can’t fathom at this point. Perhaps he is trying to manage his time better. Perhaps he has been hurt by other pastors and has chosen to be friends with those that he chooses. Perhaps God told him not to be friends with too many. Or perhaps he is dealing with years of thinking he needs to be everyone’s friend and now has to obey God as to whom he befriends.

All of those are valid reasons and I can accept them. But subsequent experiences with church planters has lead me to see the possibility of another darker reason. Just by way of background for those reading this not familiar with this blog, I am not just a church planter. Being a counselor, I have also counseled a good number of church planters. In addition, I have been an instructor at several church planter seminars and have spoken to hundreds of planters and received their opinions on a number of subjects, including how they feel about other pastors.

Here is what I think may be happening with this group. Planters are the Entrepreneurs of the Church Society. As we all know, entrepreneurs are creative, hard-working, innovative, “outside the box” thinkers, aggressive, type-A, personalities. They take risks and have much higher failure rates than established companies. Yet, where would American culture and business be without them. They are the growing edge of finance and ideas in our world.

Every field of endeavor has their entrepreneurs. Medicine has the Patch Adams type. Computers have Steve Jobs. Anthropologists have Dian Fossey, poets have e e cummings, songwriters claim endless inventors. Even churches need the innovative and type-A thinkers. But with the positive side comes the flip side as well.

Entrepreneurs are lone wolves. They buck the trends. Because of this, they tend to be self-absorbed, overanalytical, neurotic, fear failure, and take too many financial risks. They value success in terms of size and numbers and see others in the same field as the “competition”. As you can see, this does not lend itself to the Presence of God and the His blessings.

The community we started in has had 41 church plants in 8 years. For the most part, these pastors do not privately get along very well. Only the old guys do very much together outside of a few official gatherings. Some pastors have been known to rejoice when other church plants fail. Part of the reason they do this is because of a shift in American church culture. The fastest growing churches in America are almost all recent church plants. They are setting the trend for all who will follow. If you look at the histories of the most successful church plants in the past decade, they all have the same biography: We did it ourselves, we only work with ourselves, we are making a name for Jesus by ourselves and you will want to come and find out how we did it. What I observe in my community is a group of entrepreneureal church leaders who want to succeed and see other church plants as the competition. Granted, it makes our area a very innovate and creative place to attend church. However, when each one wants to be the next Saddleback or the next Bayside or even the next great new California “wunderkirk”, it eliminates the possibility of really working together for a common goal. I doubt that is what God wants. The people who could be the greatest asset and encouragement to one another are perceived as the enemy. This has to stop now.

There are a couple of churches in America who are notable exceptions to this church planting debacle. In a follow up article, I will focus on those who have done it differently.

So here is my battle cry. Church planters: please, listen to the Holy Spirit and seek to do and pray things that don’t benefit you in any way. The way we are acting right now is closer to the philosophy of Ayn Rand than it is the Bible. Ayn Rand taught that the highest virtue was dedicated self-interest. She taught that helping others doesn’t help you or them. Is this what the Bible teaches?

I am curious especially what other pastors want to say about this subject. I welcome your input on this entry.

UPDATE ON THIS ARTICLE: I would be wrong not to publicly mention four men who have done much to try and help unity in Sacramento. One of them had to close his church, but he had a heart for Natomas. I thank Mike Stipech of Fountainhead Church for always showing that there is one church in Sacramento…with 31 flavors. I thank Pat McDaniel of the now retired City of Grace Church…you cared enough to love even when others ignored. I thank John Stone of Crosspoint Church…John, every time you call to pray and to encourage it is a Godsend. And to Ron Vanderwell of The Gathering Church. You keep plugging away at unity when everyone else is too busy (me included). You are loved by the Father and may your tribe increase.

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36 comments

  1. What “pot shots” at the church or your preaching/teaching style are you talking about? I see some disagreements and debate; but I thought disagreements and debate were healthy because they help us avoid dangerous group-think. The arguments may have drifted a little, but they did not make drastic jumps. Rather, it looks like points were made, Aaron countered a posting, and there was a rebuttal to Aaron’s counter. The argument went down a logical path, one of many it could have taken.

    Your threat of censorship under the current circumstances makes it appear that you are not genuinely open to debate, or challenge, or any content that remotely disagrees with, or has questions about, your teachings or the postings of other participants who share your ideals. But the blogosphere is rife with spirited disagreements; and many who submit those postings use pseudonyms. Are you willing to create an atmosphere where only a few known compliant people with the right attitude can submit postings? Is this going to be a site where only accolades are welcome? I thought the standard for censorship (if it is permitted at all in America) was limited to profanity or vulgar subject matter; neither of which have I seen in these postings.

    It is your site, and I suppose you might have the ability (though you shouldn’t since this is a church website and probably not the exclusive domain of one person who appears to have no accountability) to set the parameters for censorship. Anyhow, I think your response is a trifle paranoid. The debates I have seen on this site show no indication of an attempt to destroy the church or your teachings. They are merely agreements and disagreements thrown back and forth. A thicker skin might be beneficial.


  2. Anonymous: I am speaking more of comments from earlier blog entries. I am not speaking of comments that I left on this entry. I did remove two postings from this article, which I assume that few saw since I did them fairly rapidly. One was a personal attack on me, and the other was an attack on the church. I would prefer that people make those kind of criticisms in person since that is the biblical way of doing it.

    Open forums are for ideas


  3. so can you tell where they are coming from?


  4. I hope it’s not too late to enter the fray. I am Mike Stipech, the OG of Natomas. I am the church planter and pastor of Fountainhead Christian Center which Mike mentioned in the original post. Mike, I appreciated the post. And it is quite interesting to observe the various attitudes among the anonymous comments. First, let me say that unity among believers is something that God values highly, therefore, we must also. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane for unity among those who would believe on him. To me, that says unity is very important. But what does unity look like? I agree with all the just criticism of those leaders and church members who look down on other churches or rejoice in their failures. Clearly these attitudes and actions are anti-unity and grieve the heart of God. But so much of this discussion seems to have at its foundation the idea that small churches are somehow less valuable or less successful than large churches. This thinking finds its basis on a “bigger is better” value system. I think it is wrong and unbiblical. It is like saying that a Great Dane is a more successful dog than a Chihuahua! It’s stupid. I don’t think that a big church is better. I think that churches of all sizes are great if Jesus is honored, if the Gospel is preached, if praise to God is lifted up, if the saints are equipped, and so forth. That can happen in big churches and in little ones. So many of the problems of disunity come from pastors who are disappointed with the results of their ministry and become resentful. They make comparisons to others and the grass looks greener over there. So, to make themselves feel better, they have to find reasons to discount the other pastor’s accomplishments. It’s all very unproductive. I have more to say but I’m already getting bored so I will stop! 🙂
    Oh, I do want to add that I think any Christian person who needs to hide his identity (as in anonymous) in order to be honest and frank is operating in a wrong spirit. The Bible instructs us that “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, even Christ.” (Eph. 4) But some of what I have read in the anonymous comments has not been communicated in love but in arrogance and pride. I encourage everyone to have the courage to say what you believe in a loving way and take responsibility and ownership of your comments. God bless and I love you all. God bless Natomas.


  5. I have had a critical heart through most of this. Please forgive me. I struggle with cynicism in some areas of my life; the church being a big one.


  6. Mike S., thanks for your comments, especially about the “bigger is better” paradigm. I suspect that this is one of the most misguided element of church growth.

    Anon., of course we forgive you.

    Mike



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