So you have decided to faithfully plod with a church plant. What do you do now? What does it look like to be a faithful member of a church plant? While the first post in this series mentions reasons to go with a church planter to plant a church, this post sets out to describe what you should do once you join said church.
Three themes mark the individuals and families who last as part of a church plant. They invest in serving the body, sharing life with the body, and growing with the body.
Invest in service
Individuals and families who thrive in church planting settings invest service in the body itself. While this is a good principle for members of a church of any age or stage of establishment, it is especially important for the church plant. While other churches often have established structures in place, staff members tasked with handling those structures, and programmatic consistency, church plants often do not have the resources or have not had the years it takes to achieve those structures and programs. Thus, church plants rely, more than established churches, on the investment of individuals, couples, and families.
Of course this type of investment looks different in different contexts, but serving the body in some capacity is part of being a faithful member in that church plant. When my wife and I began attending Mercy Hill, the church was meeting in a gymnastics gym and had to set up and take down everything used for our Lord’s Day worship services every Lord’s Day. As a result, after only a few weeks of visiting I was invited to help set up. Every Sunday at 7:30am the trailer arrived at the back of the gym and men gathered to unload, set up, and prepare for the morning of worship. I credit that time of setting up on Sunday mornings with solidifying our decision to stay at Mercy Hill and not visit any other churches. As I served together with several men of the body I was able to see their manner of life, discuss the things of God with them, and grow in my relationships with them. And this is not unique to me. Service binds believers together because it reminds us of our partnership in the gospel. I’m sure Paul wasn’t speaking of unloading a trailer, setting up pipe and drape backdrop, hooking together sound equipment and putting out chairs when he wrote to the church at Philippi, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5), but the principle still applies.
Thankfully we don’t have to set up the worship space every Sunday anymore, but every Sunday is a glimpse of people who believe that investment in the body means service. Every Sunday when I arrive at the church building I am greeted by a group of individuals who have arrived almost two hours early to use their musical gifts to serve the church through the worship team. There are the men who serve the body’s audio/visual needs. There is an array of women and teenagers who take care of children in the nursery. Some make the coffee; others provide the supplies for taking the Lord’s Table. And this service on Sunday morning is just a small portion of the investment through service that people have made throughout the week. There are women dropping off care packages for moms with sick kids, families signing up to take meals to members in times of need, and others helping with yard work and house moves. When my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our first child, the body served us through a shower. After he was born, several members visited us in the hospital. When we brought our son home we had two weeks worth of meals delivered to our doorstep. This type of service is vital to the health of a church plant.
You may think, after reading this section, that these are not specifically tied to church plants, but are just good, godly practices within any healthy church, and you would be correct. The distinction, in my mind at least, is that church plants struggle to survive without these things being normative in their members. They often do not have systems or paid staff to fall back on. Much of the ministry is carried out by the organic service of members in the body. Therefore, if you have joined a church plant, commit to invest your life in service. Use your gifts to serve the body.
Invest in sharing life
Being a faithful member of a church plant also includes investing your very life with the local body you join. Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). What does it mean to share our lives? And why is that vital to a church plant? Sharing life is a term that has become cliche in recent years because many who are purportedly sharing life are only sharing the best versions of themselves, not their actual lives. But sharing our actual lives, the sin, the inconsistencies, the cluttered dining rooms, our fears, our pain, serves to build the church. Some call this hospitality. Others may refer to it simply as fellowship within the church. At Mercy Hill we speak of it as Loving Community. A brief description of Loving Community from our church website reads, “The Christian life was never intended to be lived alone. God has created community and fellowship to be innate within the church. We value loving community because through it believers are encouraged and our neighbors are reached with the Gospel of Christ.”
So why is this kind of community vital to a church plant? Because the only way to forge new relationships is by sharing life, and the best way to grow a church spiritually and numerically is through relationships. Therefore, when a church is just starting out, relationships must be valued. This plays itself out in a myriad ways throughout the week. There are families hosting others for dinner, women dropping off gifts for other women in the congregation, members meeting for coffee or lunch to discuss life and the Scriptures. There are small groups meeting in homes to discuss the Scriptures, pray for one another, and grow deeper in relationship with one another. This isn’t groundbreaking. It’s not extravagant dinner parties. It’s not themed nights. It’s not expensive. It’s not showy. It’s just life lived among one another. At a church plant, you should expect to make some of your best friends within the body because you are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). What other activity can forge deep friendships like that?
This kind of community, sadly, was foreign to my wife and I when we joined Mercy Hill. We had been given faulty ministry advice that pastors and church leaders should not make friends with members of the church in order to preclude jealousy and division within the church, so we had always been guarded around members of the local bodies we joined. When we joined Mercy Hill, it took several months to let our collective guard down and allow ourselves to be truly known by our brothers and sisters. But when we did, we noticed almost immediate growth in grace. The fellowship of the body served to help us grow in sanctification. When we did not feel like we had to hide who we actually were, we opened ourselves up to be pointed to Christ, to be lovingly corrected, to be encouraged in our fears, to be understood, to have the Scriptures shared with us. As bonds formed with our brothers and sisters, we truly understood what it meant to miss brothers and sisters who were away for a week or two, or to miss the fellowship when we were away. We developed friendships deeper than many of the friendships we have had for years outside the local church. The normative sharing of life within the body has served us in numerous ways, many we probably will not even begin to understand this side of eternity.
There are several misconceptions when it comes to sharing life that would be helpful to dispel. First, many believe the activities mentioned above are simply for the pastors and paid staff in the church to do. This is not the case, especially in a church plant. This kind of investment in sharing life is necessary for all members. The pastors and paid staff cannot do this on their own, especially in a church plant where pastors and staff are often unpaid or part-time. Second, many believe that one’s house or wallet must be a certain size or quality to be hospitable. This is also incorrect. Hospitality is not found in the amenities provided, but in the connection in the hearts of believers whose love for Christ is shared from across dinner tables, in living rooms, on walks in the park, during car rides, and even in serving together. Finally, and maybe most importantly, sharing life is not designed to close off the body from the outside world. One indictment of church plants can be that they feel “cult-y” because the relationships are likely to form so deeply, but close relationships among the body ought to affect the way the body approaches those outside the body. Sharing life actually serves to welcome the outsider. Think of how much less pressure it would involve to invite a non believing friend to hang out with your group of believing friends rather than just you alone. Sharing life in public also leads others to ask questions about the close relationships you have, inviting questions about the gospel. I know for certain that I have neighbors who have heard the gospel distinctly because they have noticed how often people from our church are at our house, and that is a testament to the gospel fruit of simply sharing life.
Invest in growing
Finally, part of being a faithful member of a church plant is investing in growing with the church plant. This is probably the least obvious of the marks of a faithful member, but it is vital in the church plant. Church plants start with a few people, a vision, and a plan, and often, five years in, while the pillars of the vision (Great Commission, expository preaching, etc.) are the same, the intricacies have evolved and formed through practice. The plan laid out to the mother church’s leadership has probably been heavily revised or scrapped. Even some of the people who launched the church have moved on to other places in the world or have gone back to the mother church. None of these things is inherently bad or good, but joining a church plant involves owning the fact that they will happen.
Many people would walk into Mercy Hill’s meeting space presently and say, “Your nursery is kind of small,” but it’s a far cry from the pipe and drape backdrop that separated the “nursery” from the “sanctuary” at our first meeting space. Those same people may say, “Your church office is small,” but the original church office was a table at Starbucks. Similarly, church plants grow and change in a myriad ways as the years progress, and members must be willing to change and grow with them.
At Mercy Hill we have changed our procedure for taking the Lord’s Table at least 10 times. We have attempted student ministry in several different ways. We have had people leave and have had people join. We have expanded our liturgy, started some small groups and stopped others, changed small group material, rewritten bylaws, moved meeting spaces, renovated meeting spaces, renovated meeting spaces again, and shuffled responsibilities, among other things. It’s part of being a church plant. We are firm on doctrine and the importance of ordinary means of grace ministry, but the intricacies of that ministry have played themselves out differently over the years. We have made mistakes; we have overwhelmed members at times; we have failed miserably at some things. And it’s all part of being a church plant. Growing comes with growing pains. But members of church plants must be willing to roll with those punches, be forgiving of their leadership, and be flexible with new endeavors or tweaked systems.
Invest in eternal joy
Joining any church is a commitment to invest in that church, but there are specific investments the members of church plants make that may be different from those of established churches. I use the word invest purposefully, for an investor expects a return. What is the return on the investment into a church plant? By God’s providence it returns dividends we cannot even comprehend. Paul closes Ephesians three with these words: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21). The work God is doing through churches being planted will result in the glory of Christ throughout all generations. We will be on eternity’s shore before we see the full return on an investment in a church plant, but praise be to God we know that Jesus Christ will be glorified, and that is the only promise we need to invest our lives in one.