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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

The Top Reasons Why Most Church Plants Fail in Five Years

Churches are like mountains. They’re beautiful—but they can kill you in twenty different ways.

This quote has been laying the Sriracha to my soul since I heard it earlier today. I was listening to an audiobook version of A Burning in My Bones (the new biography of Eugene Peterson), and I nearly pulled over my minivan in order to put out the fire. It’s perplexingly true that such a fragile organism has the power to relegate a man to ashes. And yet it’s also baffling to consider the converse reality—that a well-intended man can just as well burn down a church.

Power and frailty are not your most logical pair. But when it comes to a church plant, they are happily married. Well, that is, until they’re not. And very often, unfortunately, they’re not. In fact, one commonly quoted statistic suggests that 80% of church plants fail (though Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird dispute it). Regardless of the accuracy (or stereotype) of that statistic, we can confidently say that “many” church plants fail, and especially within the first five years. The question here is—why?

So let’s name a few of these fire hazards. And since I’ve seen one fail myself, consider me an expert on the topic!

Lack of self-awareness in the church planter. Sometimes a called and gifted man can do everything in his power to plant well and it still doesn’t work. At other times there are a number of assumptions the planter has about himself (or others had about him) that, when tested by the fire, reveals issues of character and ability. This is why assessment processes are so important.

Not adequately sent and supported. Similar to the sending of a missionary, the church plant and planter need tremendous amounts of ongoing support. Of course, this means financial support. But it also means prayer, accountability, and personal investment. Clint Clifton is convinced that the number one cause of church plant failure is isolation. Thus it’s important for sending churches to send—and then never let go.

Planted out of conflict. It’s true that many churches have been planted as a result of church splits, and that God has been merciful to use many of those churches for good. However, when the preface of a church’s story is contentious, it likely just foreshadows more conflict. In a phrase, hurt people hurt people. Better to be running toward something instead of away from something.

Choked by conflict. While we’re on the topic, it’s important to mention the inevitable reality of conflict. When managed well, it can be used by God to showcase his grace and deepen relationships. But when it comes in large doses or isn’t sufficiently attended to, it will drain the vitality out of the planter and the team. This is why chemistry matters in the assessment process, and why experience with conflict resolution should be required.

Disparity between the vision and reality. God’s vision for the church is a significant part of what stirs people to be part of the work. Unfortunately, in American culture five years is a long time to wait for vision to start to become reality. Sometimes the planter is more of a visionary than an implementer, and things begin to feel unrealistic. Sometimes he is more of an implementer than a visionary, and things begin to feel directionless. This is why every planter needs a team who complements his gifting.

Lack of balance between inward and outward focus. I read recently that in churches who cross the 200-member threshold with a solo pastor, almost inevitably within months that pastor experiences burnout or has a moral failure. Though the average planter won’t be crossing that threshold within the first five years, the principle is similar: carrying the burden of both inward and outward growth can be crushing. Neglect one or the other, however, and holistic growth isn’t possible. Here is yet another call for the complementary team.

Desire to remain small. This may sound silly, but sometimes the novelty and intimacy of being the founders of a church community is too sweet to share. Spend any time around a young church and you’ll come across some of the OG’s who still miss the launch days. Growth requires making room, and making room requires sacrifice. Resistance to sacrifice may cause a plant to miss its moment. Thus it’s critical to pray for a spirit of humble sacrifice to characterize the founding members.

Lack of soul care and boundaries. It’s worth saying again, “Churches are like mountains. They’re beautiful—but they can kill you in twenty different ways.” When planters and their wives underestimate the demands they will face, and they have no framework for maintaining boundaries (proactive care) and getting help (reactive care), it’s only a matter of time before their “inner world unravels”. The health of the planter and the health of the plant are not mutually exclusive. It’s necessary to build in safeguards. They will be used.

God’s plans are better. This may sound fatalistic, but sometimes God simply says no. Of course, there are a million intangible variables in failed church plants:

Perhaps it was at the right time but the wrong place.

Perhaps it was at the right place but the wrong time.

Perhaps the spiritual strongholds were too deep for a short-term effort.

Perhaps it was a season of plowing instead of harvest.

Perhaps God has better plans that we cannot see.

I once heard a story from Dave Harvey about a church plant that finally decided to close down the work. They had done most everything right, but it eventually became clear that a church was not being birthed. At the final gathering, one of the phrases that lingered with Dave went like this: “Some things are so sacred that they’re worthy of our best effort even if they don’t succeed.”

Church planting is sacred stuff. If God was sought, and the gospel was preached, and the body was gathered, and a community was loved, all in the name of Jesus, then perhaps it’s not fair to call it a “fail”. No doubt, we want vision to become reality for the sake of God’s glory. But some things are so sacred that they’re worthy of our best effort—even if they don’t succeed.

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