7 Lessons Learned as the Son of a Church Planter

by Chad Harrington

August 19, 2015


Most church planters who have kids ask the question at some point, is church planting really the best for my kids?

I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, the answer is yes. Here’s why it matters: because answering that question with a yes could mean that you plant the church you’re thinking about. Even more, it could be the best thing for your children.

Now God could raise up a church planter from a stone if he wanted, so he doesn’t need you to do it. But he designed us to pass on our faith to the next generation through church planting, among other ways.

My father and I talk about how God redeemed our family a little bit in Dedicated: Training Your Children to Trust and Follow Jesus, but I wanted to share something here that I’ve never written on—the lessons I learned specifically as a church planter’s son.

My parents answered the question, is it best for my children? Yes. In fact, one of the major reasons my parents wanted to plant a church was because they thought it was best for us. They thought, given our circumstance, it would actually be better for us if we planted a church than if we stayed in an established church.

Now, I’m not saying that being in a church plant is better than being in an existing church—that’s simply untrue. But if you’re wondering if it’s good for your kids to be in a church plant, the answer is that it can be and for many, it is better for them and for the kingdom.

So here’s seven lessons I learned as the son of a church planter—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

1. Church is hard work.
After a decade of meeting house to house or in school buildings, we found a location in the gym of Hunter’s Bend Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee. We had a “portable church,” or a “church on wheels” as they called it. That meant that as the pastor’s son, I often showed up at 7:00 am on Sunday mornings to set up church by lying out rows of chairs and hooking up sound equipment. Then, afterwards we packed them back up and did it all again the next week. We did that for a decade.

Now I ended up going to college away from home for a few of those years (and I wouldn’t come every single week), but while I was home and when I came, I loved it. Especially the donuts from Publix after setup time was over. Lesson learned: church is hard work, but it’s fun. I bonded with those guys that showed up every Sunday morning and I learned a ton about life during those Sunday morning setups. Like Murphy’s Law.

2. Murphy’s Law applies to church planting.
My Uncle Paul, who helped set up most weeks, taught me Murphy’s Law: If anything bad can happen, it will happen. Sometimes the school would kick us out of the gymnasium last minute, and we’d have to move to the cafeteria. Uncle Paul would say that Murphy showed up. Took me a while to understand who Murphy was and what that meant.

Lesson learned: Murphy’s Law applies to church planting too. This is the kind of lesson that carries over into the rest of life. The theological lesson that I took away from that—and that I still think about on a regular basis—is that just because you’re doing what God’s called you to, it doesn’t mean that you are free from logistical problems. The flip side of that lesson is that I learned to see how God consistently works in the midst of bad things. He showed up in his power over and over again, and it was fun to watch growing up in a church planter’s home.

3. Change takes time…a lot of time.
We planted Harpeth Community Church almost 18 years ago (December 2015 is our birthday), and we’re just about to finish the last phase of our building. It’s been about eight years since we met exclusively in homes and in school buildings. I learned that growing up as a group and settling into a place takes time, and that’s okay. It comes with the territory.

Similarly, it can take an individual a long time to change, even in a fast-paced church plant, where people are coming to know the Lord left and right. Just because you’re in a church plant, doesn’t mean everything happens fast, though! For example, Larry has been coming around for over a decade—attending church more consistently than most members!—but he’s still not a Christian. Church planting doesn’t take away the slow process of change, but embracing the slow pace of change just might save your ministry and your heart. I’ve seen the patience of my father and mother with many people, and it’s made me a better man to see their example.

4. It’s difficult to make philosophical changes as a group.
Philosophical changes are very difficult to make in a large group of people. We planted Harpeth as a seeker sensitive church based on Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. It was the way to do it at the time, according to my father. The elders now see some of the blind spots of an intensely seeker sensitive church, and we’re changing (to be more relational). My father always said that the DNA of a church is hard to change, and I’ve found that to be true.

So it’s important to look away from the most current “model” of how to do church, and let your preferences (read philosophy about church) be shaped by the clear and foundational principles of in scripture like Matthew 18, Ephesians, and Revelation 2-3, among other passages.

5. The lost really do matter.
I used to have panic attacks during altar calls on Sunday mornings, and as the son of a preacher in a church plant, altar calls happened a lot. So I had panic attacks a lot. I didn’t know that’s what I was experiencing, but they were real—my heart would beat out of my chest, my mind was racing, and I panicked almost every time the altar call was issued. You can imagine that this would put a distaste in my mouth for altar calls (and it does a little bit) and what was associated with going down to the altar—conversion of the lost.

I’m okay with altar calls now and I’ve gotten over the panic.
The reason I bring up altar calls is because the altar is often associated as the place where sinners repent. Church plants are known to reach the lost. While I didn’t always like this particular means of repentance and thought there was too much emphasis on it at times (maybe I had just heard the message too many times!), I learned an important lesson over time: the lost really do matter. They’re worth it—the panic attacks of a confused child—because in the end, my temporary struggles are worth the lesson I learned about God’s heart for the lost. I eventually got over the panic and embraced the love. Still not a huge fan of altar calls, but that’s all covered by grace.

6. Flashy flyers and church signs don’t really “work,” but God still uses them.
I was “that kid” who set up church signs on Sunday mornings. My cousin, Blake, and I would ride around with the church signs in the back of Uncle Paul’s plumbing truck to set them up on the streets of Fieldstone Farms so that new believers would know about the church and be able to find the worship center. Didn’t think much about it until I was a little older.

At some point in my adult life, I decided that church signs were not my style of attracting new people. I developed my own preferences and opinions about how things should go. Perhaps I was wanting what Todd Wilson calls the “activational” approach, not the attractional approach, even if I didn’t have the words for it at the time.

Now that I’m in my late twenties, I still think that church signs and flashy flyers are cheesy and, in my opinion, don’t really “work,” but here’s what I have learned: God still uses them. I just heard the other day someone say they came to Harpeth Christian Church (the one we planted) because they literally saw a sign. God is apparently more gracious with other peoples’ methods than I am, and for that I’m thankful. I’m now on the marketing team at Relode, a software solution for finding and organizing job candidates, so I get the reasoning behind marketing solutions more than I used to. When it comes to church and marketing, though, all I know is that God’s wants to show love to people through his church, regardless of how they get into the building. He’ll use flyers or signs or whatever because he loves people, and he’s the great redeemer.

7. Starting new churches close to the center of God’s heart.
In summary, church planting is at the center of God’s heart. I don’t mean, however, that established churches are not at the center of God’s heart. I mean that every church leader, whether in an established or newly established church, should be involved in church planting on some level, because it means that the kingdom of God is growing. Whether by prayer, financial giving, or being sent, every believer can support the growth of the Church, because healthy things grow. And of all things in the world, the church ought to be healthy. This is what Todd Wilson, director of Exponential, gets at in Spark:
We must add. We must grow. We must reproduce. In doing all three, we create a powerful process in which everyone is focused on “the next one”—the next disciple, the next small group, the next church plant. Because we win people to Jesus one by one, as church leaders we need to create environments that foster everyone adding disciples. Growth is a good thing.”

The family can become a mechanism for both “addition and multiplication” growth. If we are living within God’s heart, we can expect to be involved in the ever-expanding kingdom of God through church planting. In the end, “church planting” can become a pop term, but it’s just the words we use to talk about new communities of new believers in new places, which is coming very close to the center of God’s heart.

I’m proud to tell my story, because it represents how God multiplies his church. I’m blessed to have grown up in a church plant and to receive the faith and fire that ignites a culture of multiplication in the next generation of believers.

Chad Harrington is a writer and redemption artist who shares stories of redemption at RedemptionArts.org, and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He co-authored Dedicated: Training Children to Trust and Follow Jesus, which will be the subject of a pre-conference session at Exponential West 2015 featuring speakers Bobby Harrington, Jim Putman, Sherry Surratt, Brandon Cox, Shelly Juskiewicz, and Jason Houser. Chad will also be speaking at the conference.

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