Planting the Gospel vs. planting a church

By Lee Kemp 

It’s the old, worn out elephant wearing the fresh, sparkly tutu. She’s sitting in the room, and we can’t help but notice the mismatched pair. We silently observe that the glittering tutu does nothing to mask the giant, sagging wrinkles of the tired figure wearing it. It doesn’t seem to work.

Church plant launching is sparkly. It’s fresh. It’s attractive. It’s a brand new tutu. The issue at hand though is not the fact that there’s another new church plant, but rather the issue is the body that gathers under the newly sewn hems. 

Instead of reaching unchurched people groups with the gospel, new church plants often just “gather” Christians looking for some new, fresh “fabric.”  Perhaps this is what truly disheartens some pastors and other leaders when they are asked to consider being involved in church planting.

It’s the difference between planting the gospel versus planting a church.

One thing we have sought to do in starting Forefront Church is to “plant the Gospel” and not just “plant the Church.” This is the truest calling for church planters.  

{ Instead of reaching un-churched people groups with the gospel, new church plants often just gather Christians looking for some new, fresh fabric. }

Sustaining 

Let’s be honest and transparent for but a moment. This is hard, dirt busting work and this work requires us to be continually spirit-filled. The unchurched are not amused with religious showmanship (which is quite easier for us, requiring less of the spirit and more of our “churchiness”). They care not for the things that will draw existing believers by the masses. 

This work is hard for established churches as well, hence, the majority of churches gaining new members by transferring from a sister church in our area. It’s not that there’s not enough money or resources to do the work, it really doesn’t take all that. It’s that there’s not enough satisfaction for us to carry the work on. Unchurched people take much, much longer to develop into the churched folks we feel good about and want to fill our pews. 

I think if we were all deeply honest with each other, we would catch ourselves talking about how we need more magnetic leaders to grow our churches instead of being overwhelmed by reaching the lost in our community. 

With such a focus, we develop strategies and programs that are highly internal rather than external in focus.  All the creative brainstorming and focus is directed on things that really only would excite and encourage response from existing believers rather than generate response from the unchurched community in which we exist.

Plant DNA 

One thing I am realizing is that the concept of keeping focus on the Gospel and lost-ness in our faith community will run through a process of an “ebb and flow.”  Andy Stanley once said it best when he stated, “Vision leaks” (read what I mean in “The Struggle is Real…”).  

When we started Forefront Church, my wife and I moved into an inner city apartment complex and had all the church functions on site at the complex while focusing only on people who lived with us there.  In my thought process this gave us two large benefits… 

One is that anything the church would do in the future; we would have done since the beginning.  Even though we have a Sunday morning gathering now at another location, we still have a couple from our church living at those apartments and hosting weekly worship gatherings on-site.  And because of this strategy, apartment ministry is in our DNA. 

Second, since Fort Smith was my hometown where I was a youth pastor, it kept my Christian friends from joining us. Most of the Christians I know in my hometown would never join a church in an apartment complex. This may sound harsh, but it really kept our focus on the Gospel.

 

fort smith
Fort Smith, Ark.

 

“Elephantish” 

However, fast forward the tape.  Although we have started this church in what some may call radical ways, it still amazes me how I can catch my vision and heart leaning away from the Gospel. New tutus can be itchy and my elephant is pretty untrained and doesn’t act like one. Although the fresh fabric fits the fresh body, the rawness of teaching an elephant to be one can be tiresome and takes time. I am prone to wander at times and leave the vision I have from God. 

We now have a Sunday morning gathering at one of the Boys and Girls Clubs in our town, located in the inner city of Fort Smith.  The thing I continue to find challenging for me is to guard my heart from coveting or envying the leaders in some of the established churches in my town.

{ I am prone to wander at times and leave the vision I have from God. }

Their “elephant” is big, experienced, able to balance a ball on its trunk, performs well at the circus…just more “elephantish.”  “Churchiness” and churched people feel good to be around, they are excited by what excites me, they perform with ease, and I know how to get them to gather. 

We have one of the best worship bands I would argue in my area and for sure who I have ever worked with in ministry thus far.  This many times causes me to start thinking about how we should just start a huge marketing campaign and do some of the strategies I know we can do to get a crowd of people to show up.  However, the thing I also know is that most of the time, the people who you hook through these ideas tend to be already saved.

Just an old, tired elephant in a new fluffy skirt. 

They are either upset or playing the Christian church circuit (which I can’t understand why we Baptist pastors allow this game to be played…another post though.)   

Caught! Thank God! 

Before I sound like a church cynic, let me acknowledge that there are many churches reaching people with the Gospel.  Many of these churches are great Arkansas Baptist church plants too.  Forefront has seen 30 people trust in Christ this year for salvation and had 9 people last year.  Currently we average around 60 adults, which if you do the math, you know that we have not abandoned the heart of planting the Gospel.  However, I would say for a portion of this year in planting Forefront, we have gotten caught up in the details of church a little too much. 

Our leadership and people have wandered from the passion of seeing the Gospel planted and we got caught ourselves planting a church instead.  Already, we have had to repent and recalibrate our focus towards advancing and planting the Gospel. 

People sometimes ask, “Pastor, what is truly the focus of your church today?”  What is even more convicting for me is, what is truly the focus of my life currently?  And what fruit do I have to show that to be true? 

May we all plant the Gospel in our ministries!

Pray for us as we plant Forefront that our focus will stay on reaching the lost and not gathering the saved.

No more old elephants in new fluffy, skirts. It is all too easy to abandon the Gospel and start gathering the saved.  We know the kingdom of God demands us to surrender our spiritual envies and push forward with a God-sized vision.

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