This month, the church I planted in New York City will turn five years old. We’ll have a party, reflect on what God has done, and dream of what he wants to do in the future. As I prepared for this special service, I reflected on what God has taught me in five years of church planting here.
1. Embrace the Team
When my wife and I, along with our 9-month-old daughter, moved to Brooklyn, we did not have a church, a team, or hardly any friends in our neighborhood. It was easy to feel alone. In fact, loneliness has been one of the ever-present struggles for our family while on mission. One of the best things that happened to us was when God put together a team—one that was made up of New Yorkers, as well as people who moved from other parts of the country. They’ve come from the Midwest and Malaysia, from Trinidad and Thailand. Over the years our team has fluctuated as people have moved in and out of the city. We’ve developed leaders and sent out some of the finest to lead churches elsewhere. But through it all, our team has been a source of encouragement and support. Church planting is lonely, and we could not do this without a team. They are our family.
2. Cultivate Spirituality
It’s easy to think you can plant a church using a cultivated skillset. You learn how to preach, host evangelistic events, advertise on social media, and you think you’ll have an instant church. However, many planters in NYC get burned out by the difficult grind of city life and ministry. I’ve learned that there is no substitute for my own personal walk with the Lord. Church planting is hard. Spiritual warfare should be expected. If I don’t practice spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading and sabbath, then I won’t survive the journey of church planting. If I’m not spiritually healthy, the church plant won’t be healthy.
3. Redefine Success
In ministry, we tend to define success in relation to our Sunday church attendance or the amount of money we collect in the offering. I am certainly guilty of falling into that trap. In fact, I arrived in Brooklyn with big dreams and big expectations, and I expected to succeed according to those standards. However, when reality smacks you in the face, you have to adjust and you have to adapt. I’ve learned to manage my expectations, recognize that we are not going to reach everyone, and realize that our church might never become the hottest “success story” that makes the headlines at a conference. And that’s okay—I’m learning that success is about bearing faithful witness to the lordship of Christ (Acts 1:8). When we are faithful to this calling, God is pleased. That is success.
4. Be Yourself
Let me explain what I mean… When I first started out in church planting, I tried to be someone else. I saw the planters that were viewed as “successful” on the blogs, in the conference circuits, and in the books that were all the rage. So, I tried to be them. The problem was, I wasn’t them. I never would be. But it was liberating to discover that I didn’t need to be. God called me and my wife to plant a church, but he didn’t call us to plant a church by becoming someone else. He made us unique, and the church plant is at its best when we are true to who God has made us to be.
5. Put Down Roots
We love New York City, especially our Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. God may call us on to another ministry one day, but for now, we are focused on the place and the people right in front of us. We’ve learned to fall in love with our home, to care about our neighbors and to invest in our community. We’ve planted trees on the sidewalk and flowers in the park. We’ve joined the boards of local non-profits and sought to work with our neighbors so that our community might flourish. In a week, we’ll take another step along that path, as our daughter begins attending the public school only two blocks from our house. My wife is joining the PTA, and we’ve already developed important relationships with the school administrators. When we care about our neighbors, they are not projects; they are just our neighbors—fellow sinners in need of Jesus. When we care about this place, it’s not a project—it’s our home. Like Jeremiah, we are learning to seek the peace of our city (Jeremiah 29:4-7). When church planters put down roots, they signal that they are here for the long run.
These are five of the lessons I’ve learned in five years of church planting in New York. I’m sure God will use the next five years to teach me at least five more lessons, because mission is not just about what God does through us, but what he does in us. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn.