In 1990, I was called to be a mission developer on the staff of the Ohio District of the LCMS. I was paid district scale, which was generous considering my level of education and that it had been 23 years since ordination. The days of that kind of church planting are gone.
Through a providential set of events, while teaching my D.Min course on Church Management, at 3:00 pm on Monday, January 15, 1990, I felt convicted that God was calling me to plant a new church in the southern suburbs of Cleveland. That call is very comforting when you go through all the ups and downs of church planting.
Since that start in 1990, I know of only one other successful district church plant. This is out of probably 12 attempts. Nobody has ever counted because, I suspect, they don’t want to see the number. From Royal Redeemer, where my work is based, we have had three successful church plants out of four attempts.
My definition of church-planting success is surviving five years and being financially self-sufficient. I have heard lots of young leaders brag about all the churches they planted. By far, most turn out to be small group Bible studies that soon disappear.
Here is what we have learned from our three Royal Redeemer efforts out of four attempts. It was ostensibly sponsored by a local group of nine congregations. I think all the other eight churches didn’t say no, and that was taken for a yes. We had only two of our core group come from those sponsoring churches. The original supportive churches gave me the names of their members living in the target suburbs. That was the old style of church planting. I don’t recall getting any of those to become members of Community of Hope. The ones going to church were happy where they were.
I preached and pastored there for six years, the last three half-time while I was at Royal Redeemer half-time. I don’t think church planting is a full-time job for an energetic ordained pastor. My successor was a young man newly recruited by Royal Redeemer to lead their new contemporary service. He and I basically traded positions when I went there as Administrative Pastor.
This new planter was able to dip into the Lutheran High School alumni network to get attendance up to about 100. That seems to be the minimum to take on real growth dynamics. Twenty years later, with average attendance at about 200, Community of Hope built and dedicated their new building in the center of a still-growing second-ring suburb. Helping them survive those twenty years was that they occupied a formerly deserted dormitory that the church remodeled. Six months after occupying the new building, attendance went up to 250.
The second successful plant (surviving at least five years and financially self-sufficient) started about 12 years ago and had two previous planters before the present one. They are now in a rented strip mall remodeled by a previous community church plant that did well. Their attendance has been about 60, including many with motorcycle leathers on. Their current pastor was president of the Christian Motorcycle Association in Cleveland.
The third successful plant was back toward the city. They just celebrated the fourth anniversary of their start. I had gotten to know their planter as I led a group from the church I planted on a Haiti mission. Brought up at Royal Redeemer, he had a life-changing experience in a different Lutheran church. As he discovered the impact of God’s grace, he wondered why no one had ever told him this before. I recognized in him a young man with a passion for outreach. We purchased a former deserted Denny’s restaurant that they refurbished into a meeting room that seats 100.
Here are three lessons about church planting: 1. Don’t decide to plant and then find a planter. Find the passionate planter first. 2. For all the correct theological reasons, a church is not a building but people. Nevertheless, people in the neighborhood won’t recognize a new church until they see a physical presence. 3. Help the plant get that presence. Royal Redeemer did so by buying this third church plant ministry a shuttered-up Denny’s restaurant they remodeled into a very comfortable meeting room, a nursery and a worship center.