Five keys to church planting success

By Clint Clifton

John Maxwell famously said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is certainly true in church planting.


When I began church planting, I was so zealous to see new churches started and so confident in God’s power to use anyone He chooses that I regularly sent church planters into their mission field with only a pat on the back, even when I questioned their readiness. I was the proverbial “church planting hammer” and everyone I met was a “church planting nail”!

My philosophy was: “Encourage everyone to plant churches and the Lord will sustain those truly called.” I thought, “When I started, I didn’t have it all together either and the Lord still used me to plant a church!”

That logic seemed solid for a long time. Until it didn’t anymore.

My intentions were good but my perspective naïve. Now I’ve been doing this for a while (more than 20 years) and I realize that church plants don’t always make it and that behind every failure story there stands a family that is emotionally, spiritually, relationally and often financially traumatized.

Watching a church plant fail is like watching a car crash in slow motion. If you are close enough, you see every painful blow. I’ve watched wrecks up close and personal – and I don’t ever want to see one again.

John Maxwell famously said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is certainly true in church planting. In the beginning of a new church the readiness of the primary leader is the single most important factor in the success or failure of a new church. No other factor (budget, team size or location) will affect the endeavor’s success quite like leader readiness.

In my observation, failed church plants always are led by someone who lacks one of five critical leadership qualities. Here are five keys to church planting success:

1. Zeal

Church planting is hard, and a church planter must have zeal like the Psalmist expressed when he said, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10). This is the kind of zeal Peter and John felt when they said to their captors, “We cannot stop speaking of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Without this God-given passion, it is impossible to adequately inspire, unify and motivate people to plant a church.

2. Character

1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 cite more than 25 unique qualifications for church leaders. Scripture is clear that these are essential qualities for pastoral ministry. Because character is so tied to respect and respect so essential for effective leadership, the church planter who fails to live above reproach regarding these scriptural qualifications will lose the credibility and respect required to lead.

3. Resolve

For years I’ve asked church planters if they want to know the secret to success in church planting. Inevitably they say, “Yes, please!” I tell them: “Don’t quit.” You can’t fail if you won’t quit. I’m joking, of course, but there is some truth to my advice. Church planting is going to be harder than you think it will be. It will take longer than you think it will take. And it will cost you much more than you anticipated. A church planter must be resolutely resolved to face every challenge and difficulty. Somewhere along our church planting journey, my wife picked up a sign that sits in our kitchen to this day: “Everything is figureoutable.” That well-summarizes the attitude of a successful church planter.

4. Innovation

Every ministry field is different and reaching people with the gospel is never easy. Church planters must be innovators. They must notice opportunities and design unique ways to capitalize on them for kingdom advance. The song of the failing church plant is “We’ve Tried Everything” – and too often the church planter is the lead vocalist. Jesus’ mission requires more than that.

5. WOO

“WOO” is an acronym was popularized by the Gallup Strengthsfinder survey. It stands for “Winning Others Over.” Fruitful church planters are virtually always strong in WOO. When a church planter shows up in a community in need of a new church and goes out to begin talking with people about Christ and the church, he quickly finds the secular masses demonstrate little interest in the things of God. The Lord has endowed some of us with a special gift – an energy for winning others over.

These qualities will not guarantee your success as church planter, but the absence of them is virtually always a factor in a new church’s failure. An aspiring church planter must gain a clear picture of his aptitude in these five areas.

Self-assessment is good, but let me recommend you go beyond simple self-assessment and include others in the process. The Send Network offers church planter assessment retreats designed to help measure your readiness for church planting. A structured assessment process that involves others plays a crucial role in exploring and affirming your call to church planting.

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Clint Clifton

Clint Clifton is the founding pastor of Pillar, a multiplying church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the senior director of resource and research strategy at the North American Mission Board. He is the author of several books and periodicals on the subject of church planting, including "Church Planting Thresholds: A Gospel Centered Church Planting Guide" and "Church Planting Primer" and is the host of the "Church Planting" podcast.

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