David Watson refers to five critical transition points that must be managed properly if a successful church plant is to take place.
I have changed some of the language David uses to reflect our own terminology, methodology, and experience. However, the idea of five critical transition points in church planting is all David's. I hope he doesn't mind my borrowing his ideas to share some of what we are learning about church planting transition points.
1. Getting started. This is possibly the biggest hurdle of all. Taking that first step of faith and believing that God can use me to plant a church. While it sounds obvious, if we don't start something, somewhere, there will never be a church plant. In our training we have discovered that if an outreach group is not started within the first 4-7 weeks, there is little likelihood that anything will ever develop. It is better to get out there and put into practice the basics of disciple-making, than to sit around endlessly attending CP seminars and buying the latest books. Books and seminars do not plant churches. People do. Churches are started by people who get out there and put into practice the little they know. The NIKE slogan, "Just do it" is some of the best church planting advise we can give people. There are really only a few basic principles that need to be understood before getting started. The Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus to be our teacher and guide. He will guide you into all the truth for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak, and He will disclose to you what is to come...
2. Identifying the person of peace (POP). The POP is that key individual that will open up doors to his/her family, community, friends, neighbors, etc. It is out of the oikos of the person of peace that the nucleus of the new church plant will arise. In our experience one might have to make many contacts with different people before "discovering" who the person of peace is. One of the things we ask our trainees to begin praying from day one, is that the Holy Spirit will reveal clearly who the POP is. If a POP is not identified in this second crucial transition period, it will be difficult to proceed further. In our context, more than often, the POP will end up being one of the newly won disciples we are working with. Once we have a solid, influential person who is open to us and welcomes us, making the transition to the third step will usually not be too difficult.
3. Moving from the POP to facilitating an outreach group. For us, an outreach group is a group consisting of not-yet-believers who are open and interested in discovering in a group setting what it means to become a follower of Christ. We have found that there is an incredible openness to spiritual matters in most people. What is rejected is the way this truth is often presented. In other words they are rejecting our methods, but not necessarily rejecting Christ or His message. The way we teach church planter trainees to make this transition from their POP disciple(s) to gathering together a group, is to simply encourage the new disciple to invite his family, friends, neighbors to join us for what we call an open group time of discovery. It is an informal gathering, usually held in the home of the POP, where we discover together what the Bible says about certain issues that relate to real life issues people deal with daily. Subjects such as forgiveness, anger, worry, fear, family, honesty, etc. are examined according to what the Bible teaches about these matters. We begin to interact and dialog with one another about these heart felt issues. It usually isn't long before one of two things takes place: 1) they lose interest and stop coming to the gatherings, 2) they give their heart to the Lord.
4. Facilitating a group of new believers to becoming a New Testament church. Each progressive step is a little easier than the one preceding it. If #1-3 have been successfully transitioned, this fourth step is not usually complicated at all. Since the new believers know one another, are continuing to be discipled, are growing in their faith, knowledge, and obedience of Jesus, have grown to love and appreciate the one who came bringing them the Good News of Jesus, this fourth transition is usually--and should be--the smoothest of all. However, in our own ministry we have "dropped the ball" countless times at this transition point and ended up with the group disbanding. Why? Wolves dressed in sheep's clothing step in and steal away the sheep from the innocent church planting shepherd. One of the most common scenarios we face is that after a group starts meeting regularly, a well meaning brother/sister in Christ from an existing established church will come in and begin to sow doubt, discord, fear, and division amongst the new believers. They will often question the credentials of the novice church planter. They will ridicule the idea that a church can meet in a house. They will share with the new believers how much better their "real" church is than the home grown "improvised" version of church they are getting with the "lay person" who led them to the Lord. What normally should be a smooth transition of new believers meeting and functioning as a NT church, is quickly nipped in the bud by wolves in lamb's clothing. The simple, natural church life of believers gathering under the Lordship of Christ and learning together to obey what Jesus says, is substituted for an institutional, programmed, professional clergy-led version of church. While this may sound harsh, it is nevertheless what happens more often than not.
5. Leaving to start another church elsewhere. The natural way of planting an organic NT church is that the church leadership will arise out of the harvest itself. The church planter should be a transitional figure. We do not plant a church to stay there and pastor; we plant a church so that out of the group new leaders will emerge, freeing the church planter to move on to another needy area. We do not import pastors, leaders, workers from the outside to take over once the church planter moves on. Leadership must arise out of the existing group. This is the normal, natural way of organic church life. So, when does the church planter leave? If he/she stays too long they create a dependency upon themselves. If they stay too short a time, local leadership may not yet be ready to assume leadership of the flock, and the risk of disbanding increases dramatically. We have found that "church planter" and "pastor/shepherd/elder" are often used as synonymous terms. The reality is that they are different giftings and functions. Both are needed, but the church planters have to learn when it is time to move on. I confess this is one area we are still trying to get a handle upon. We need a lot of guidance on this fifth transition point. It is indeed a hard thing to know when to leave.
So, what are your thoughts, ideas, experiences about these crucial church planting transition points? We would welcome your input. We still have a lot to learn.