Three Ways to Build a Church Planter Pipeline
Where do church planters come from? This morning I got off the phone with a friend who is a denominational church planting leader. We both agreed that one of the major obstacles to planting more churches is the lack of identifiable pipelines for church planters. Most church planting networks and denominations are struggling to find qualified planters. Where do we find sufficient numbers of men and women with the calling, gifts, and training to plant all the gospel-centered churches that are needed to reach our post-Christian culture?
The answer, I believe, is simple but not easy: missional leaders must prayerfully take responsibility for the development of younger leaders. As Paul famously wrote to Timothy, “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” So, to raise up many more church planters, here are three potential solutions:
1. PLANT WHILE PREGNANT.
One short-term pipeline strategy is to simply embed the next church plant within every new plant. Moses had Joshua, Paul had Timothy, Priscilla and Aquila had Apollos. Each planter can partner with an apprentice planter with the intention of giving birth to a daughter church under the apprentice. So when your network or denomination plants a church, it pairs the lead planter with an apprentice planter in whom he or she will invest so that the apprentice is equipped to plant their own church in a year or two. It is learning by doing. A crucial added benefit is that it helps the church plant recognize that the survival or even thriving of their own church is not the end goal, but rather the planting of another church. I am blessed that embedded within the church plant I’m leading is a gifted 25-year-old woman who wants to plant a church.
2. IDENTIFY AND DEVELOP YOUNGER LEADERS.
A more substantive solution to build a church planting pipeline is to go much further upstream in the leadership development process. If we want to see multiple generations of church planters raised up, we must invest in the development of younger leaders with apostolic and evangelistic gifts today so that they are equipped to plant many years from now.
Every church planter has a “gestation period”—the time from when they sense a stirring from God to church planting to the time when they are actually called to start the church. For me, that gestation period was about seven years (from age 28 to 35). This means that we encourage and train leaders in our existing congregations to (a) begin planting the idea in the hearts of promising high school students, college ministry leaders, and young adults that starting new worshipping communities is normative, (b) tapping leaders with apostolic and evangelistic gifts on the shoulder now to say that we believe in God’s call on them, (c) giving these young leaders guidance and opportunities to start new ministries in their sphere of influence, and (d) coaching them as they gain the experience and education to plant a new church.
3. CULTIVATE FARM SYSTEMS.
The third and most systematic way to build a pipeline is for church planting organizations to strategically partner with university churches, youth ministry organizations, and college ministries (such as InterVarsity, Cru, RUF, etc.) to identify emerging leaders with apostolic gifts. There tend to be a handful of churches (oftentimes located near universities or colleges) that disproportionately generate the most future pastors. These are the same churches that will ultimately generate many church planters as well. Similarly, college ministries tend to help identify and promote their best leaders—some of whom will join that ministry’s staff and others of whom will feel called to church planting.
In professional baseball, there are multiple minor league teams (called “farm teams”) that enable promising players to get experience and sharpen their skills before making the jump to the majors. These partnerships could be a long-range pipeline that God uses to provide years of mentorship and formation for future church planters. Lastly, multi-year church planting residencies and apprenticeships based in church-planting churches are an increasingly popular and effective means of training and function as effective farm systems.
The reality of building these pipelines may depend upon our willingness to pray for future generations, and to relinquish some of the territorialism that causes some of us to focus only on recruiting planters for our own tribe. Take a minute to pause right now to pray that God would raise up future planters who are not from your own tradition
If we could embrace a kingdom mentality of producing healthy pipelines that every tribe would benefit from, who knows what could happen? Maybe multiple seminaries, church planting networks, and denominations would collaboratively build pipelines and let God direct the planters to the affiliations as he sees fit. What are ways you think we can all partner to prepare planters for church plants in 2025 and beyond?
Len Tang is the director of Fuller’s Church Planting Program and is planting Missio Community Church in Pasadena, California. He is a Fuller grad and has served in churches in Washington, Oregon, and California. Len is married to Amy and they have three boys.