Today’s Top 12 Church-Planting Challenges

“What if you could identify some of the most common challenges faced by church-starters?  And further, what if you could also take measures to disarm or reduce their effect? “

If you’re truly immersing in your local setting, you’re regularly encountering people who’ve decided they’re finished with church (the DONES) or who claim no religious affiliation at all (the NONES).  The research tells us these populations are on the rise, perhaps eclipsing the 100 million mark in the US alone (see note).  These fellow humans experience shalom whether they know its Source or not.  Much like you and me, they yearn to experience love, justice, community, hope, purpose, etc.  They feel the deep angst of falling short, of not being enough or acceptable in their present state.  And they’re just as stymied as we are about the fragmentation of our culture and the false promises of consumerism, civil religion and identity politics.  

Some of these people are your friends and neighbors. Their lives rub against yours and create that ache you have to show them another way to be human – the way of Christ. You’re discerning what this could look like and what your part might be in it.  Or you might already be underway with cultivating a new expression of church that NONES and DONES could readily inhabit. To capitalize on the potential before you, you know this sacred work will take much more than good intention, courage and entrepreneurial energy.  Many obstacles dot the horizon, and you wish you could get a better bead on those that could slow or even take your initiative down.

What if you could identify some of the most common challenges faced by church-starters?  And further, what if you could also take measures to disarm or reduce their effect?

It’s to that end that I’d like offer a series of posts over the coming months. These will attempt to describe, address (on some level), and invite discussion over twelve specific challenges team leaders typically encounter on the road to missional church planting. Twelve is not a magic number, but in my experience as a practitioner as well as a coach, mentor and trainer to many hundreds of church-starters these past 25 years, I see teams repeatedly wrestling with these.  

We’ll start the process today with a tight list of the twelve top challenges. In subsequent posts, I'll address each challenge one at a time, including a description of the challenge, suggested action(s), and some key questions a leadership team may want to process with an experienced planter coach.  I welcome any input from practitioners along the way, as leaning into these is more an art than a science.  One last thing worth noting is that the work of befriending and creating participative spaces for NONES and DONES is generally much slower-going than big-splash, event-based church planting.  This reality when coupled with the challenges we’ll be covering underscores the critical need for point leaders to cultivate the interior "grit" or staying power to persevere.

Starting a sustainable church that grounds its life in Jesus is a messy, often uphill journey.  But the process doesn’t have to be soul-depleting.

And now the list.  Here’s top twelve challenges church planters commonly face:

  1. The core team has a superficial grip on missional theology and how to apply it practically.

  2. Point leaders are much better at describing what they’re against than what they’re for.

  3. The lead team is weak in A.P.E. giftedness and/or is deficient in the gift of leading.

  4. Funding limitations and on-the-side vocational pursuits restrict the point leader(s).

  5. Point leader(s) undervalue cultivating a safe, developmental team ethos.

  6. The team “over-missions” with scant attention to proclamation and discipleship.

  7. Key leaders are poor at practicing delegation and collaborative leadership.

  8. The primary leader(s) neglect their own development and maturing.

  9. The core group moves too hastily to a recurrent [usually Sunday] public worship gathering.

  10. Disgruntled transfers and “churchy” Christians taint the core group’s culture.

  11. The core team adopts vague, imposed, or poorly-discerned progress metrics.

  12. Team leaders second-rate their spouse or significant other(s) in the name of planting.

Again, we’ll expand on these one at a time in coming posts, so please feel free to leave any relevant comments or questions along the way.  

Let’s see where this conversation goes.

Written by Dan Steigerwald.

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For more about Dan or to get in touch with him, visit

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NOTE: The “Dones” according to Josh Packard in Church Refugees (Group Pub, Loveland CO: 2015) are those who have left the church (not Jesus or God) and have no intention of returning (for a tight summary of Done characteristics, see In more recent research, “Exodus of the Religious Dones,” Packard estimates that as many as 65 million Americans fit this description, with another 7 million who are “almost Done.” The “Nones,” coined in 2012 by the Pew Research Center, refers to those 46 million+ who classify themselves as having no religious affiliation (see

Beloved Everybody Church

Beloved Everybody Church started meeting in October 2017 as a community committed to welcoming the full participation and leadership of people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities, collaborating and worshiping together. It was important to us to include shared leadership across abilities as essential for our church, because too often people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are considered objects of ministry rather than co-laborers in the work of the gospel. We recognize each person as an essential member of the body of Christ who is a gift in themselves, has God-given gifts to share with others, and whose presence makes every community more complete. We all need each other.

…too often people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are considered objects of ministry rather than co-laborers in the work of the gospel.

For a number of folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities, worship gatherings that are more passive, and emphasize lots of words, listening, and abstract theological concepts can be inaccessible. For some, these kinds of practices don’t allow for real engagement, mutual sharing of gifts, or discipleship. So at Beloved Everybody Church we continue to find ways to gather and worship that create space for all of our members – both with and without disabilities – to engage God and one another in ways that are accessible to them, and to be transformed in the process. Our gatherings tend to be highly interactive, relational, participatory, multi-sensory, and embodied. For example, we’re likely to embody a scripture text either by assigning roles for characters to dramatize a narrative or to create movements that correspond to what’s happening in a non-narrative text. I don’t think any of us will soon forget Jesus blowing on us (as his disciples) after his resurrection, or the movement in Psalm 23 from fearfully huddling as we went through “the valley of the shadow of death” to sitting up tall as we declared that we would “fear no evil, for you are with me.”

We all need each other.

We are a community that intentionally welcomes people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (and other types of disabilities), because without this intentionality our practices and spaces would almost certainly not be truly accessible. But even though this is a stated focus, the space we have created has proven to be a place where others – who may have not even thought much about disability before – are finding deep welcome and encountering God. A number of people who have not been to church in years have found their way to our gatherings, and found there a nourishing space where they can belong, and have a experience of God in the midst of community. We are not perfect, but by God’s grace we continue to grow to embody our name, as we recognize that everybody is beloved and to strive to treat them that way.

Blog post by Bethany McKinney Fox, MDiv, PhD.

Check out Beloved Everybody Church on their website, or follow them on Facebook and Instagram: @belovedeverybody.

Bethany also has a book coming out in May 2019 titled, Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church.

Check it out here if you'd like more information or to pre-order

You Don’t Know Which Will Succeed (Wisdom from Ecclesiastes)

I definitely over-planted my garden this spring.

I started off with radishes in nice neat rows. But once my row was planted I still had a half packet of radish seeds. So I scattered those over the garden bed with no regard for planting distance or depth. Then I did the same with my kale. And again with lettuce and tomatoes and beans. I thought, I can always thin them out later.

After a couple of weeks, some seeds that I planted grew into sprouts. Some seeds were eaten by birds. Some just didn’t come up. At the same time, “volunteers” came up from last year, most of which were growing better than the ones I planted: tomatoes in my lettuce and squash in my potatoes. And I didn’t even plant squash last year!

As we’ve been on the journey of nurturing ecosystems for starting new churches and worshiping communities, I’ve noticed a similar progression. At the beginning, there’s a voice inside me that says, “Be careful about which ideas you invest in. Don’t invest in the ones that are too far fetched. We should focus our energy on the ones we know will work.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who hears this voice. New church development in the 20th century has largely been marked by the preference of predictability over chaos, viability over experimentation, and strategy over tactics. There are certain locations, time periods, and demographics in which a new church will work. We’ve been planting in neat rows.

But as new and unexpected leaders, ideas, and partnerships emerge and show signs of vitality and congeniality in our ministries, assessment centers, churches, discerners groups, or core group meetings, we need some wisdom. We need to know how to go forward because our context has changed and it no longer feels like a straight rows anymore. Here’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes has to say.

“Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things.” Ecclesiastes 11:4-5

The reality is, even though I think I know which ideas will work and which won’t, and even though it seems like prudence and wisdom has been driving my preferences, I’m really much more likely to waste valuable time and ignore what the Spirit is doing. Perhaps true wisdom is to not waste time under the sun trying to predict an unknown future. Wisdom is working hard to nurture it all, unlikely as it may be.

“Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” Ecclesiastes 11:6

Who would have guessed that a few Christians patronizing their local bar would encounter spiritual conversations on a regular basis?

Who would have planned a group of middle aged adults would find joy adopting a nursing home to bless them, play with them and pray with them?

Who would have anticipated that my most carefully planned strategy for transforming a Christian small group into a missional community would flop?

Who knows when our ideas will take root? Will it be this year? Will it be next year? Will we get the job we need to support ourselves or will we be able to raise funds? Will our vision be shared with others? Because we cannot predict the future, we root ourselves in the present and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.

High pneumatology means that the powerful winds of the Spirit are not only sovereign but extremely unpredictable. Wisdom says to let go of the future a little bit, to try lots of things, to be unafraid that our efforts will be wasted on an unlikely idea, and to simply start something and allow the Spirit to grow what the Spirit wants.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll have squash this year.


Blog post by Brendan McClenahan. Printed with permission.

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