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

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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.

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  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.

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  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!

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  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.

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  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)

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