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Maintaining Church Plant Health: A Case for Assessing Plants After Planting

Maintaining Church Plant Health:  A Case for Assessing Plants After Planting

Jason Phillips

Although church planting has been around since biblical times, a renewed focus on church planting as one of the primary means of evangelizing has brought great strides and positive results over the last few years. Church planting organizations have become very adept at assessing potential church planters before they plant to help prepare them for the journey of planting a church. Planter assessments identify present skills as well as areas for development to provide an accurate view of the challenges that may lie ahead for the planter and the leadership team. On-going assessments help identify growth areas to continually prepare the planter for future challenges. Church planting networks and organizations also provide much-needed coaches and mentors for these planters to lean on and learn from as they journey through church planting. The new planter tools and resources have produced healthier planters who are better equipped and more thoroughly prepared for the hard (and sometimes lonely) work of planting a new church.

The Gap

The focus on providing resources for planters has provided good results in seeing more church plants survive and thrive compared to recent history. While planter assessments and coaching have been fruitful, effective assessments of the planted churches have been mainly overlooked. I am not talking about quantitative measures and reports on numbers (i.e. baptisms, bodies and budgets), but thorough assessments that aim to help the church attain and maintain good health – taking the paradigm of the planter assessment and applying a detailed assessment for the planted church as a whole. There is a gap between assessing the head (i.e. planter) and assessing the body (i.e. church as a whole) – a gap we need to address!

What is Success?

Successful endeavors require planning, effective implementation, constant monitoring and making improvements as needed. Although church-plant success may be measured in different ways, I am defining “success” as a continuous, active and effective ministry that grows over the first three years following launch. The ultimate goal is a healthy, thriving, growing and multiplying community of believers focused on the same mission of making disciples in their community and in all nations. This overarching goal must be in the DNA of the church. The first three to five years of the church establish the foundational DNA of the church, so assessments are most critical during these formative years.
Survival does not equate to success, but a church must survive to have a continual ministry. Recent studies provide wide ranges for church-plant failure rates of between 30 and 70 percent, depending upon the study. Even accepting the low end of this accepted range puts the failure rate at 30 percent, which means no less than three out of every ten newly planted churches will fail to survive. Although church-plants that do not survive for at least three years can produce positive results (such as new followers of Christ and seeds of the gospel properly sown in the community), the failures are never the goal when the church initially launches. Church-plant closures result in a loss of resources and time – resources meant for Kingdom advancement. Additionally, church closures usually mean a dejected church planter and leadership team that can also have a negative impact on the community. Therefore, we should do everything we can to minimize premature closures and maximize the health of these newly formed bodies of believers for kingdom impact.

Newly planted churches are living organisms – newly born organisms – that need care, much like newborn babies. Similar to how parents actively, and continuously, perform routine health check-ups for newborn babies, our newborn churches need to be assessed to ensure proper health.

The goal of the assessment is not a grade or some comparative ulterior motive, but a view into areas that need to be monitored or addressed. The assessment benefits the one being assessed. I recently had an annual physical to evaluate my current state of health, which is not fun but necessary for those (like me) who have amassed a large number of birthdays. I was not looking for a grade from my annual checkup; I was looking for a realistic view of any current issues while also proactively identifying any signs of future problems with instruction on how to address them to minimize any negative impact on my health. My doctor was not attempting to grade me or make me feel good or bad about myself, he was looking for things to help me remain healthy. We need the same type of assessment focus for our churches, which are living bodies that require constant care to ensure healthy maturation.

A Church Plant Health Assessment

Assessing churches is not a new concept. For the best example of church assessments, refer to Jesus’ assessment of seven prominent churches in Revelation chapters two and three. While Jesus’ assessment is divine, more detailed and provides greater insight than any assessment we could ever perform, we can learn from His model of identifying the good, the bad, and areas requiring focus for the church to grow in health and impact for God’s glory. Again, the goal of the assessment is not to grade a church but to help the church identify current issues and risk factors for future issues to formulate and implement solutions as early as possible. The earlier an issue gets addressed, the less the negative impact on the body. The overarching objective is proactive identification of potential future issues to mitigate the risk of negative impact by implementing solutions today.
Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” type of assessment because each church is unique. Churches have a unique DNA, made up of unique people, existing in a unique location, engaging in a unique culture with unique issues, which means each assessment must be uniquely framed to apply to the specific church. However, an assessment framework can provide a foundation and guidelines which can be contextualized to account for the distinctiveness of each church. While true assessments are not easy, they provide great value.

Proper church assessments will require time, energy, commitment, participation, objectivity, and a real desire to know the truth – but the investment will provide fruitful results for the church, the sponsoring organization, and most importantly, the Kingdom!

Church planting has grown in its effect and impact, and new resources and tools offered by planting networks and organizations have provided great value to church planters. The focus on the planter has resulted in more effective leaders, better church beginnings and ultimately healthier churches. We have focused on the head and had great results, but it is time we gave attention to the rest of the body. Let’s give the same level of emphasis and effort that has resulted in great planter resources, and expand our focus to the church as a whole to maximize the number of healthy, multiplying churches for positive impact for the Kingdom.