10 things I’ve learned in my first six months leading a church plant


Yesterday marked six months since we launched Pattern Church in Swindon. It is an unbelievable privilege to serve God here in this amazing town. We have incredible Bishops, I’m part of a brilliant network, my staff team is to die for, the people are beautiful, and I am astounded that I get to lead it.

In these last six months we’ve seen moments of pure joy, sometimes even crying as I read a Facebook post about the new season people have stepped in to with Jesus and His church. There have also been moments of absolute heartbreak where lives appeared to be on the road to transformation and now seem to have slowed down.

I wanted to put a few thoughts down about what I’m learning. I don’t write as an expert and I’m also aware that I’m in a specific context, leading a church in a specific way. So this is more of a snapshot as to where I am now than any sort of how-to guide. There’s nothing especially new, but here are 10 things I’ve picked up so far.

Swindon Launch-20181202-DSC04063

  1. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants

When we launched Pattern Church on December 2nd we were in a marquee outside a building which was a miracle purchase for us by our Diocese. We had a team of volunteers who rallied around us not because of my leadership, but largely because of the network I’ve come from. The band led us into God’s presence, it looked and sounded great and most of it had very little to do with me. I just got to preach the gospel and celebrate with Heaven when some people said yes to Jesus. I’m reminded again and again that I am standing on shoulders, that my floor is the ceiling of those who have gone before; church planters, pioneers, trailblazers, permission-givers and people who have faithfully served year in year out. Thank you.

  1. It doesn’t feel as grown-up as I expected

I somehow thought it would feel more grown up than this. I thought that when I was finally leading a church, having been heading this way for a number of years, there would be some magical shift in the sense of authority I had, or a new clarity, or something, But no. It’s just me, Jesus, and my team… gulp!

  1. Keep vision front and centre

We have a unique opportunity to our shape church and our church culture the way we want, so we need to talk about vision all the time. Every time someone new comes… back to the vision. “It’s great that you’re here… here’s the vision, you’re on the team now!” Our vision is to invite people into family to serve Swindon. There are 200,000 people in our town who aren’t connecting with Church, the Christian faith, or with Jesus and they are the people we’re here for. That’s what this family is about, and we cannot and must not stop talking about it.


  1. Do the basics well

Whilst vision is key, I am still a pastor. There have been moments when I’ve been so focused on the bigger vision that I didn’t pastor the one well. A quick phone call to check in with people doesn’t take much out of my week.

  1. Keep learning

I have not made it as a church leader, I never will, so I owe it to everyone I serve to keep learning. As well as trying to push in to prayer and the scriptures I listen to podcasts and read books. I also have my dream team; four church leaders based in different placed around the country who are much more experienced at what I’m doing than me. I speak to each of them once a month, so every week I have an hour of input drawing from these amazing leaders. So many great tweaks have come from those four. I figure that as long as I keep growing, our church might too.

  1. Building projects are long

This goes without saying really. We have an amazing team working on the incredible project of restoring an old railway warehouse, bringing it back to life as a home for our church and a gift to Swindon. It’s an amazing building and we’re so excited to be there one day soon. But it is lllooonnnggg!


  1. The sermon is maybe 5% of the task

I love preaching and I believe that God speaks and lives are changed when we dive into the Bible together. But, for the person who hasn’t been in church for 10 years, if ever, there are many other important things. The welcome, the quality of the coffee, whether they know what’s going on, if anything weird is explained properly, if they feel at home, if the heating’s on, if their kids are happy, if they can hear properly, if they make a friend, if they feel like they’ve experienced something of God, if they come back. Absolutely work hard on your sermons, but also look at the whole picture.

  1. There will be setbacks and heartbreak

This is par for the course when you work with people, but if you plant a church you will experience things that hurt. People will be going great guns then grind to a halt. People may be discouraged by your success and encouraged by your challenges. People will leave your church. Discouraging things will happen. That’s what we’ve signed up for. It also makes it all the more important to get your identity from God, not from success.

  1. Culture takes time

I want Pattern Church to be the friendliest place in Swindon where people are passionate about God and others, where we pray like we believe it, serve with everything, welcome people as if they were the person we’ve been praying for for 20 years (someone probably has), where it’s the most normal thing to be prayed for in church and even more normal to invite your friend or neighbour to church or Alpha. Lots and lots of people have gone with us on this, but it takes time.


  1. It is a huge privilege

These last six months have flown by, and I’ve no doubt the next will too. One amazing guy put his hand up at one of our pre-launch services as I gave the invitation I give every week for people to give their lives to Jesus. He came on Alpha, was baptised with us a few weeks ago, and we got to play a small part in his journey. Another couple haven’t been in church for 15 years. They came along one Sunday, came to Alpha, the Lord has softened their hearts again and now we couldn’t imagine church without them, In fact their daughter is back on a journey of faith with us too. Several other people talk about what God is doing in and through them, and we get to be a tiny part of that, pointing them to the one who can change everything and cheering them along on that journey. Young people have starting bringing their friends along, children are finding a home with us, one guy brought four of his colleagues to Alpha this term!

My ongoing feeling is one of immense privilege. I can’t believe that God, and many brilliant people have trusted me with this amazing, impossible, but beautiful task. It’s exhausting in every way, I never manage to do everything I’d love to do, I’m often wondering when someone will realise it’s me doing the job and give it to someone else, but what a privilege.

So those are a few thoughts at six months in. I’m believing for God to do huge things, I’m so thankful for what He’s done so far, and blown away that I get to play.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)


Rev. Joel Sales leads Pattern Church in Swindon (www.patternchurch.org), a Diocese of Bristol initiative in partnership with HTB.

The Star… a new classic Christmas movie?


This morning our little family took a trip to the cinema. I love Christmas movies but The Star was slightly different. There was no sign of Santa, Christmas trees, elves, or many of the other features we expect in Christmas movies, as it was based on the story of the birth of Jesus.

If I’m honest I wasn’t expecting much. Christian movies can sometimes fall fairly short of the quality we’re used to in secular movies. The Star also employed the usual creative licence with talking animals everywhere and King Herod’s henchman pursuing Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem with his two angry dogs (although Mary and Joseph never realise this due to the heroics of our donkey hero!). There are also more cameos than Blues Brothers 2000. But the characters are all a lot of fun, the soundtrack is great, and the heart of the story is brought to life brilliantly.


We’re reminded of some of the amazing parts of the Nativity:

  • That God took a huge risk in coming to Earth as a vulnerable child
  • He partners with fragile people to bring about His purposes on the Earth
  • He answers prayers (even donkey prayers?!) in amazing and unusual ways
  • Jesus is the saviour of both privileged kings and rough and ready shepherds
  • This child makes a difference to everyone!

I don’t know where you are at this Christmas or whether you fancy watching another Christmas movie. But, I wasn’t expecting The Star to be as fun as it is, to bring the story to life as well as it does, or to have tears rolling down my face as I was once again taken into the greatest story ever told. I think it’s worth a watch.

Happy Christmas!

What I learnt at Bethel

Last week I jumped on a plane and flew over five thousand miles to visit a church. I’ve wanted to visit Bethel Church, in California, for some time now. It is a church with significant influence, well known for pursuing miracles and the supernatural. Their music is widely used in churches across the globe, and their sermons are watched and listened to by thousands of people every week. Several of my friends have spent time at Bethel, specifically at their School of Supernatural Ministry, a one to three year full-time programme which trains people to live like Jesus and carry on His ministry.


What has impressed me about people coming from Bethel is their complete and total confidence in the goodness of God. In my experience they have great faith for miracles, therefore pray lots, and seem to see God do some amazing things. In theological terms, Bethel Church is known for having a very realised eschatology, that is the understating that in every situation, the outcome can and should be ‘as it is in Heaven.’ This especially shapes how they approach sickness and pain.

So I went to “Leaders Advance” conference at Bethel Church and had an amazing time there. I hit three services on the Sunday, visited the school on Monday, then it was the conference Wednesday to Friday.

Since returning a number of people have asked me how it was and what struck me the most. My reflection is simple… they really love Jesus.


That’s what hit me the most; they love Jesus. Their worship times are rarely under an hour, they’re never rushed, and they go for it. I’ve led worship in churches for many years, and since childhood worship has been a significant way in which I have engaged with God, but I feel like I’ve been schooled in worship again by the people at Bethel.

Bill Johnson, Pastor of Bethel Church, teaches that as Christians our primary ministry is to God, not for God, and they really seem to live this out. I heard anecdotally that if Bill feels like the congregation hasn’t fully engaged in this ministry he will lead them acapella in a few songs before speaking, because the priority is worshipping God not listening to him talk about God.

And it is special. Since having kids I have become a bit of a crier, but it was still a surprise when on more than one occasion I found myself crying during worship. There was something so beautiful about what was happening, such passion for God, but also a real sense of God’s presence every time they gathered to worship. Psalm 42 talks about deep calling to deep, a sense that my inner most being is crying out to God, and that’s what it feels like there.

In my Alpha group two week ago, someone asked a good question; why, if God is so loving, are we expected to worship Him? Surely a good father wouldn’t expect his children to worship him. A couple of people responded, then I suggested that one approach might be to think about what worship does to us… Does it make you feel closer to God, or further away? More hopeful or less hopeful? Build faith or squash faith? Increase your joy and your peace, or decrease them? Raise your expectation for what God might to or lower it? Lift your eyes to Heaven or keep them on the challenges you’re facing?

When Jesus told us that the greatest commandment was to love Him with everything we are I don’t think it was just for his benefit, it’s because living in love with Jesus is the best way to live. It’s the way that leads to life, increases intimacy with God, and makes us the people who just might change the world.

So what am I challenged to do having gone to California to visit the miracle church? I’m challenged to love Jesus more, to take time in worshipping Him, and to minster first to Him and then for Him.


Fighting lions and bears… and blogging

You’ve probably heard of the story of David and Goliath where a young boy defeated a huge great giant of a guy. It gets mentioned in reference to sports fixtures and all sorts of other contests. The story is found in the Bible, and one interesting part of the story is that before David was knocking giants over he had done some fairly heroic things. He had rescued sheep from both lions and bears, and the confidence and experience he had gained, along with a significant dose of God’s help, was enough for him to have a crack at the massive angry guy.

In a nutshell, although the giant-slaying was amazing, David was as prepared as he could be.


I not looking for more things to commit to in my life. Like most people I am generally trying to find things to cut, to stop, and to pull out of. This is so that I can focus on the things I really want to be doing, need to do, or feel like I was created to do. Blogging doesn’t really fit any of these categories. So why am I starting this?

I have this idea in that back of my mind that one day I might write a book of some sort. This may not happen, I have no idea what I would write about. But if it does happen, I want to have done the best I can at this stage to prepare myself for it. I want to have written a whole load of rubbish, as well as hopefully some helpful stuff, and by doing so I hope to find a voice and a style that work for me. Then when I have something significant to say, I might have the confidence and experience, along with a significant dose of God’s help, to have a good crack at it.

Professor Anders Ericsson claimed that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make you an expert. So here’s to the first hour!

Have a think about what you might want to do, might be called to do, or might even need to do in the future. What are you doing about that right now?

When the Goliath moment comes are you going to have done everything you could to be ready to take it on? What is the one step could you take today that would help you to be as well prepared as you could possibly be? What’s the lion or bear you need to have a go at?