John Koning

Post Mortem: Lessons from a Failed Church Plant

Though we had people who attended regularly and who were positive about the ministry of the church, that’s where the commitment of many ended. We needed a few more couples or families, committed to throwing in their weight 100%—with the mindset that they would give themselves to the plant, no matter what.

A pastor friend told me that planting a church would be the hardest thing I ever attempted. Wise words. But closing a church is tougher. I guess it’s like a divorce; or perhaps like switching off the life support system of a loved one. It’s brutal. Terribly disappointing. Profoundly sad. It comes with a sense of deep loss, a sense of failure. Everything about it feels so wrong.
But we acknowledge that in all of this is the sovereignty of God. In this sense, it wasn’t a failure at all. And if we’re willing to learn, God teaches us in many ways. So here are a few lessons:
The Context of Our Church Plant
Historically, East London, South Africa, is a very well churched city. But today it’s 3rd or 4th generation stuff. Nominalism is entrenched, there seems to be very little robust, biblically faithful, vibrant faith. There are some faithful gospel teaching churches. However they are few and far between.
The spiritual landscape is strewn with superficial and shallow therapeutic, feel-good stuff. False teaching is rife. We are the home of TBN Africa, while every other health and wealth sect thrives here. Zionism and AICs are hugely influential. Syncretism abounds. There are several varsity and college campuses in the city, but no decent student ministry among them. All of these were good motivations for a church plant.
We had meetings and conversations with other local pastors and church leaders about our desires to plant a new church. They were in favour of our plans.
We started meeting as a very small house group in late 2013. This grew slowly, and in 2015 we began meeting in public space. We consider this time as the actual beginning of Grace Bible Church in East London.
The Factors That Contributed to Our Failure
1. Unresolved Ministry Baggage
I probably carried baggage with me from my previous ministry context. We did not start as a result of a church split, or anything scandalous. But I did leave a previous church as the result of an unworkable and unhappy situation.
As a starting group, we evaluated our attitudes honestly. We wanted to stay far away from being a group of disgruntled Christians, planting as a reaction. Regarding my previous troubled experience, I tried to learn the lessons, work through my attitudes, seek grace to move on, and make a clean “emotional” break with the past. But it wasn’t as clean as I’d hoped.
Lesson: Check yourself for lingering emotional and heart baggage before embarking on planting a church—or any other ministry, for that matter. Deep heart surgery is required here.
2. Isolation
Because we didn’t plant out of an existing church, or within a denomination, we were isolated. Having no local church to support, advise, and encourage us was difficult. We did join a church planting network. And that was invaluable. It gave us credibility, some excellent church planting training, and some great relationships. And we appreciated some good relationships with local pastors. But we lacked committed, consistent, local input into our church. This means we lacked sufficient prayer support, funds, and accountability. As leaders we lacked fellowship and encouragement. This was a serious drawback.
Lesson: Churches plant churches. There needs to be a committed, local support system.
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Don’t Waste Your Waiting

There is both purpose and tremendous benefits to being in God’s school of waiting. For waiting: Is a stark reminder that we are not in control of things. This is very positive. Trying to be master of your own life will prove to be exhausting. Calls for honesty. It involves facing up to, and confessing, the struggles, pain, and doubts of our own hearts.

I’m sitting at OR Tambo International Airport, waiting for my flight back home. And I’m thinking about my hatred of waiting. I think to what degree my actions are determined by my desire to do things as quickly as possible; avoiding as much fuss as possible. The airline is Safair, reputedly the least delayed airline in the world. We checked in online, to save time and bother. When queuing, I have carefully studied the four lines, figuring out which will be quickest. The lines must keep moving! Then we have booked seats right at the back of the aircraft. These are for a quick getaway after landing. And, of course, we only have hand-luggage. Who in their right mind wants to watch the stupid carousel going round and round?
I don’t want to wait. Waiting is pure agony.
I Have the Need for Speed
My issues with time seem to be typical of the Western world. Time is precious. Time is money, say the experts. Waiting is therefore a waste of time and money. “Quick and easy” are two words with enormous seductive, even magical, powers. How can we ‘do life,’ maximising it with the least fuss and bother? We have fast food, eating meals on the run or in our cars. We covet huge internet speeds. Every fix must be instant. The latest diet promises incredible results with minimal effort. The self-help bestselling book is subtitled: Discover Yourself in Less Than 30 Minutes.
‘Make life happen, don’t let it happen to you.’ The real thing is the next thing, we want to live from peak event to peak event. Eat dessert first! When life gets very tough, skip the unpleasantries and take instant gratification. Forget the potatoes, go straight for the ice cream. ‘Just do it!’ What are you waiting for? One life, live it! Carpe Diem. There is something appealing about these slogans. Yet there is also something potentially very misleading. 
As usual, the church follows the world. It simply rebrands the psychobabble: “Simple devotions for the busy Christian;” “Quick sermons for the over-worked pastor;” “Five keys to spiritual victory;” “Three Steps to Holiness.” But those titles are false. They’re dangerous! Robust faith can’t be microwaved!
Churches are filled up with people looking for rapid, painless paths to change and growth. Congregants are given formulaic answers and offered express spirituality; a trite, formulaic, and franchised faith. The world has McDonald’s. So the church offers McFaith. We want shortcuts, comfortable answers to vexing problems.
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