Practical tips from 4 church planters for your first year.
Aaron Damiani, Trevor McMaken, Scott Cunningham, and Rick Stawarz
Image: Alexander Michl/Unsplash
Aaron Damiani, sixth year of church planting, Chicago, Illinois
My first three years of preaching as a church planter were a trial by fire. From the start I had to develop a new capacity to preach on a regular basis. I also had to develop a new courage to preach. I wasn’t under a senior pastor anymore. I was stepping into the pulpit as the one defining our values, vision, and culture. Finally, for three years from 2013 to 2016 our nation and my city of Chicago faced a barrage of controversial cultural and political events that impacted my urban congregation (and thus, to one degree or another, my preaching). The crucible of the pulpit shaped my church planting and vice versa.
Be with non-Christians. This tip is from Tim Keller: Find a way to hang out with non-Christians in your area, and then preach as if they were going to show up to the church plant on Sunday. Write the sermon for them. This can help you filter out all the Christianese jargon and preach the Gospel with the concerns of the unchurched on your heart.
Find your new preaching pace. As a church planter, you have to sprint to get to Launch Sunday. But as a preacher, you’re beginning a marathon that will last all year. Mile 22 of this marathon is somewhere between Easter Sunday and summer vacation for many church planters. I recommend that you rotate in trusted preachers who can bless your people before you hit a wall of misery. While everyone is different, the preaching frequency that I like best is 65 percent. I needed time to fill the well of my soul with the true, beautiful, and good and it will show up in your preaching. In the process, you can shape a more creative culture within your launch team and congregation.
Go for singles, not home runs. Aim for consistent singles and doubles instead of homeruns. Technically speaking, homerun sermons are when people laugh, cry, and tweet about your sermon with three burning bush emojis. And they are an absolute trap for a church planter for the following reasons: 1) They set up unrealistic expectations at an early stage in the life of your church, 2) They take you on an exhausting emotional roller-coaster for you and those who love you, and 3) They tempt you towards either pride or shame rather than worship and service. Consistency in preaching is healthier than impressing people. Hit singles, hit doubles, and exalt Christ.
Trevor McMaken, fourth year of church planting, Aurora, Illinois
After nine months of gathering a launch group, reaching out in our neighborhood, building teams, holding preview services, we had launched our church plant and I had preached for 10 weeks in a row. I had nothing left. The energy it took to climb the mountain of a Sunday message had taken increasing amounts of energy. But moving into the vulnerability of weekly preaching was also becoming a crucible where I met the Lord over and over again. My attic study became a place where I felt my weakness and where the presence of Jesus was always enough. And so, with my head in my hands that Saturday night, Jesus was once again faithful to me—as he has always been—so that I could faithfully proclaim him. And now I never want to preach any other way.
Enter the crucible. Peter Scazzero wrote about the life cycle of writing a sermon as a journey with Jesus through birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Going through that journey every week is costly. To come to the Lord and ask him to speak by his Word and through his Spirit is to enlist in a spiritual battle against your own brokenness and sinfulness and against the devil. There can only be resurrection power and glory after the suffering and death of the cross. There are many temptations to circumvent that pathway, but to do so is to put our own souls and our congregations in peril. Press in and let that weekly time in the presence of Jesus through his Word break you and remake you.
Know your sheep. The ministry of preaching is intertwined with the ministry of shepherding, especially as a new church is being born. We have to know our sheep to feed our sheep. And that includes, as Jesus says in John 10, sheep that are not yet of this fold. Part of our weekly exegesis is of our city, our neighbors, and our people. Just as we come to Scripture as teachers and ask the Spirit, “What are you speaking to us today?” so we come to the people in our neighborhoods and our church as shepherds and ask the Spirit, “What are you speaking to us today?” In this way, the preaching and pastoring ministries build up the church together.
Plan ahead. After the weeks of pre-launch where schedules are constantly changing and morphing, once weekly services launch there is an unbending regularity. During your pre-launch stage, plan ahead while you can and then set aside seasonal planning days or retreats for playfully outlining your preaching. If it’s part of your tradition, lean into the church year and the lectionary. Practicing Lent was the most impactful discipleship and gathering process for us year one and Holy Week was a major turning point in the Lord's work in us. Plan not only what you are preaching, but when you will be writing your messages (especially on weeks with holidays or extra ministry commitments) and when you will be resting.
Scott Cunningham, second year of church planting, Madison, Wisconsin
Preaching through my first year of church-planting has been exhilarating, exhausting, magical, and brutal. Nothing has brought greater consistent pressure on my work week and my soul than having to preach—week after week—in what can sometimes feel like a do or die context. And yet I can’t count how many times I have stumbled into a coffee shop or library in weakness, and in my sermon preparation have encountered the living God in such a way that made me want to take my shoes off. My first year forced me to ask questions, like, “What am I doing? Is the goal of this to encourage or to challenge? Am I preaching towards a decision for Christ, or towards joining our church? What does it mean, as a church planter, to be a faithful steward of the Kerygma? What is happening when I preach?” I’m still answering those questions.
Make preaching your first priority. The most important thing you will do as a first-year planter is preach. This is chiefly how the Gospel will be proclaimed, it’s how your culture will be built, it’s how you will draw people to your congregation, and it’s what will begin to define the values of your church. It is the authority moment in a Gospel movement. Preaching is more important than your website, what you say in small group vision meetings, and how you plan your worship services or the Lord’s Supper. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. Work at it. Throw yourself into it.
Worry more about being faithful than contextual. Planters lose themselves in contextualization and new ideas of church and how cities don’t have a word and sacrament presence, etc. etc. None of that saves people. What saves people is what is true everywhere, and that is that Jesus has died for our sins, rose again, and has been handed the authority to judge the living and the dead. In the first year, you will be tempted to preach new ways of doing things—church, liturgy, sacrament, rhythms of sacramental life—but aside from the Gospel, they do not save. What has the power to grow the kingdom and transform your city is not your ideas of church, or the fact that you’ve been reading N.T. Wright or James K.A. Smith. It is the Gospel, which is already in front of you in Scripture. Be faithful to it. Proclaim it.
Don’t ignore the hard truths. From the beginning you will be constantly be tempted to speak sweet and nice Christian truths—justice, love, the renewal of the city, ancient pathways, how Jesus loves the other—at the expense of hard sayings, like submission to Jesus, the Authority of Scripture, judgment, and the radical counter culture of the Gospel. You omit the hard thing to your peril. Yes, you will lose people, but if you leave it out from the beginning, it will get harder and harder to bring it in. Make the hard thing a part of your preaching from the very beginning. Work on teaching your people to love the hard thing, because it is the hard that saves.
Rick Stawarz, second year of church planting, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Of all the various components that go into launching a church, preaching weekly was the hardest transition I had to make. That’s not really advice. Just a fact. It hit me like a freight train. I went from preaching every couple months to every seven days! And now as we enter our third year, I still feel like I’m figuring out my weekly rhythm and honing my voice. But let me be clear: This is so much fun! Who else gets to do what we do? On a weekly basis, we open up God’s Word to God’s People. There are few greater joys than this.
Develop your first-year preaching rhythm. Preach straight for the first few months so that newcomers can always hear you and you solidify the tone of the pulpit. After that, try to get other preachers in about once every four to six weeks so that you get a break. During those “weeks off,” take the time to plan your next sermons series or look ahead in the lectionary and determine the overarching themes you want to draw out. When you invite guest preachers, get people better than you. It shows your flock that you love them, and they don’t mind it then when you’re away.
Have an emergency sermon ready. When your homiletics professor said you should have a spare sermon ready at any moment, he meant it. You really should. There will be that week where three pastoral emergencies pop up and rob your prep time, and so on Saturday when you finally sit down to get cracking on the sermon, you get a phone call from your wife saying that your daughter whomped her head on the pavement and needs to be taken to the ER, thereby evaporating that last chance you had to prepare a respectable message. It’ll be nice to have one in your back pocket.
Preach your life in Christ theme. Someone once said that every preacher actually only has four or five sermons that get re-hashed in various ways. That’s not a bad thing. Figure out what yours are and embrace them as gifts that God has instilled in you, and then continue to preach them. One time, my sound guy was checking my microphone and jokingly said into it, “Hi. I’m Pastor Rick. Jesus did Jesus things, and now he wants us to do Jesus things.” It made my day to know that he’s paying attention.