Key Challenges in Church Planting Today: Challenge Three


“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV


Challenge Three:  The Startup Team Lacks Capacities to Lead Forward and Steward the Outward Impulse

In recent years, I had the privilege of working closely with the leaders of two local planting initiatives. One was an excellent teacher and naturally facilitated his team’s involvement in community development initiatives across the neighborhood. The other had a strong relational woo strength that allowed her to easily connect with strangers and even get them to show up at parties and theme-focused groups. Though the two starters stepped out boldly and gave their best, sadly, neither initiative lasted beyond two years. In retrospect, I’d say two related issues hindered the longevity of these projects, and it may be well worth your time to consider if these might need addressing within your own situation.

The first issue relates to the ratio of outward to inward energy present within startup team. In order to see a new missional church emerge out of whatever cultural subset(s) God has us working among, we know that we must generate a persistent lean into culture and into the networks and social havens of people outside the church. This posture enables us to plant the gospel among people living life way beyond any church-culture enclaves. Teams don’t always have the ability to maintain that kind of “outstretch,” as it can feel more natural and immediately rewarding to focus on nurturing the internal ethos of our forming core group. And yet, it’s precisely that turn inward that can erode the momentum needed to make new disciples and be an incarnational presence within our given cultural setting.


outward vs. inward

Alan Hirsch and others assert that it’s the Ephesians 4:11 apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic (A.P.E.) orientations that enable a team to maintain this steady reach outward. For healthy churches to emerge for the long term, Hirsch argues, these functionalities need to be brought into an integrative balance with the nurturing, people-development strengths of shepherds and teachers (1). On the front end of church planting initiatives, however, this balance of energy, must be [at least temporarily] skewed toward outward engagement.  

The lead planters mentioned above had trouble maintaining that outstretch, even though they did move in certain A.P.E. gifts.  The first was strongly prophetic, the other highly evangelistic. Both, however, were truly shepherds at heart, and this orientation continually skewed the energy of their core groups toward encircling and nurturing people. Over time both their groups were unable to keep up the ongoing missionary engagement and witness needed to see more than a couple of house church fellowships emerge.

In all fairness to these planters, they also faced another depleting factor common to church startups. Both of them, to varying degrees, were not able to garner the influence and team decision-making needed to mobilize groups of people toward some preferred future. In short, they were not leading with enough consistency and savvy. Let me explain.

…every member of the body of Christ can from time to time engage in a “leadership act”

Like you, perhaps, I see leadership as being primarily about influence. Now, arguably, any person can influence others in some way, and hence, in a certain respect, it is accurate to say that anybody can lead. As one of the top Christian leadership guru-types, Dr. J. Robert Clinton, once put it, every member of the body of Christ can from time to time engage in a “leadership act”—a group-influencing behavior that changes the way the group acts or thinks. However, Clinton also adds that having the capacity to carry out leadership acts doesn’t mean a person has a gift or calling to lead. Only those who frequently and persistently engage in leadership acts can rightly be called “point leaders” (2). 

Church planting is more than simply rallying together and cohering a group of Christians into a house church or a Sunday gathering. In order to form and animate a local body of Christ into a visible, sustainable and accessible local expression, starters must become adept at a number of repetitive leadership behaviors. They must continually cultivate the core group’s grasp of its identity—its calling, its unique vision and values, and its theological non-negotiables. They must continually be champions of all aspects of that identity, inspiring all involved to live into it even as they themselves live into it. And they must continually be able to mobilize groups of people into activities and processes that are meaningful and that tie into a greater communal whole. Carrying out these kinds of functions requires adaptive, strategic leading, ideally within the ethos of a collaborative point team, where one leader’s deficiency is covered by another’s strength.

In order to form and animate a local body of Christ into a visible, sustainable and accessible local expression, starters must become adept at a number of repetitive leadership behaviors.

In summary, starting sustainable [hopefully reproducing] missional churches requires both an enduring outward stance and also regular acts of catalytic leading. In the early stages, the initiative may be mostly about missional discerners teaming together to get a lay of the land and hopefully establish some relational/locational beachhead. Eventually this team will need to evolve or be amended to include load-bearing leaders gifted at overseeing groups and activities that nurture missional engagement and the forming of a solid core group.  All the while, the startup must maintain a high degree of A.P.E. activation, at the least to help counter the natural inward-turning force that Christians quickly generate when they taste authentic community together.  

One parting disclaimer I feel needs to be added to all I’ve tried to pack in a brief blog post. Startup teams deficient in leader strength or A.P.E. functionality should not be dissuaded from initiating the planting process. If they are willing to learn some needed skills along the way, access good coaching and mentoring, and create a berth for additional leader(s) to eventually emerge or join them, they may well be able to establish an enduring expression of church that suits who they are and what they have to bring.  

Some questions and suggestions for team leaders:

  • How would you evaluate your team’s “outstretch”? It’s leadership savvy? What measures could you take to undergird both elements within your startup initiative?

  • If you feel daunted by the entrepreneurial and leadership behaviors needed to start a missional church, consider seriously:  a) hiring a coach-mentor familiar with the terrain of leading startups - it’s almost like having a trusted out-of-context teammate;  b) identify a local A.P.E. network in which to participate (e.g. Forge or any regular gathering of entrepreneurial types). At the least you may find a ripe field for recruiting those with stronger outward orientations, and maybe some of that A.P.E. sensibility will also rub off on you.  

  • Be on the lookout for potential load-bearing leaders—those in your forming community who often influence others to take action or adopt new perspectives. Give them ministry-related assignments and see if they can: “be faithful in the smaller things;” prioritize being available to the project; and demonstrate a humble, learning spirit.  

written by Dan Steigerwald

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  1. For more on defining and deploying these 5 Ephesians 4:11 gifts, I highly recommend Alan Hirsh’s 5Q (Columbia: 100 Movements, 2017). Whatever we may think of A.P.E.S.T. as a taxonomy for releasing balanced diversity within the body of Christ, it has to be one of the better ways to help animate local churches into a more full-orbed expression of their calling.  

  2. J. Robert Clinton, Leadership Emergence Theory (Altadena: Barnabas Resources, 1989), 34.  An important sidelight here: if you’re an American, you’ll probably agree that we’re overly enamored with “leadership” or the importance of being a “leader.”  We ought to regularly remind ourselves that the calling or gifting to lead is only one functionality among many that are needed to activate healthy communal bodies or organizations.  The Apostle Paul even puts the gift of leading toward the end of his list in Romans 12:6-8. This doesn’t mean leaders don’t play critical roles, or that we should dumb down the concept of leadership, suggesting that anyone can do it.   But as with any gift or calling we’ve been given or to which God has summoned us, we ought to intentionally work to develop and season it over time - just as Paul exhorted Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God,” a gift that appears to have involved a commissioning for apostolic leadership.

Top photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Second photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash