Overcoming the Dark Side of Church Planting

Part of 3 of in
by Ray Chang
Photography by Alisa Wong
Jan 01, 2015 | min read
Part of 29: Do Good
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Overcoming the Dark Side of Church Planting

My first full-time pastoral position was in a large Korean American church in Vienna, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The position was Associate Pastor of English Ministry (EM Pastor). During my time there, the ministry blossomed from a small young adult community with a few married couples, to a growing, vibrant congregation of 280 college students, young adults, young married couples, and families. As a young Asian American pastor, this was a dream come true.

I awoke from the dream when I realized something was missing in this model of a church within another church. While the model itself was not the problem, there were some inherent challenges to working in an immigrant culture. One such challenge was the limitation in outreach caused by the ethnic culture.

As our young adult ministry grew, I approached one of our young adult members who had a government position. As we talked about reaching out to our friends and co-workers, I mentioned to her that she should bring some of her friends to church. She looked as if there was something wrong with me. With eyebrows raised and eyes wide open, she said, “Pastor Ray, there is no way I can invite my friends to our church!” 

“Pastor Ray, there is no way I can invite my friends to our church!” 

I assumed, like many pastors, that we had a vibrant, growing ministry. We had an open-door approach to our ministry with a welcome mat clearly marked, “All Welcome”. We wanted to be a gospel-centered church for all people. People were growing in their faith. So I asked her, “Why can’t you invite your friends?” Her response was simple, “I’m sorry Pastor Ray, but this is a Korean American church. My friends won’t feel comfortable here ... “

At that moment, I realized the limitations of my own culture. While we were accepting of one group of people that needed to hear the gospel, we were limiting our ability to outreach by creating a cultural force field. The force field, while unintentional, was the way we spoke, what we ate, what we talked about — the way we alienated those who weren’t used to our culture. It was the “feel” of our church.

That conversation was one of the catalytic reasons I left to plant a church. I didn’t want the church to be limited to one ethnicity. So I resigned from my secure position at a large megachurch and embarked on a journey of faith with the hope of gathering people from all nationalities, trying my best to fulfill my understanding of the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28:19-20. 

We started a church in our living room with 11 people. After a few years, we began to see this group flourish into a healthy, vibrant church. After almost 20 years, this church is still growing and thriving in northern Virginia, even though we left three years into the church plant to come back to California.

 As I reflect on my years as a church planting pastor, especially when mentoring other young Asian American church planters, I often ask to hear their stories. And inevitably, as we share our stories, one of the questions that emerges is the question, “Why?”

“What is your reason or motivation for starting this church?”

“What is your reason or motivation for starting this church?”

Sometimes our reasons for starting a new church can be flawed and, unknowingly, we lay the foundation for an unhealthy ministry. While our desire to see God’s kingdom advance is a good thing, often our motivation in starting can become the source of our demise.

Two particularly unhealthy motivations have the tendency to undermine the good we are trying to do. They are also the reasons many church plants fail.

1 The Motivation of Rebellion. I have counseled many young Asian American pastors who are dealing with dysfunctions in their own family systems. They have been mistreated by their parents and want to rebel against their authorities. Often our greatest motivation as young leaders is trying to prove the older generation wrong. We often believe we know and can do better. This often comes out of a spirit of rebellion. 

But we should keep in mind that rebellion is like the “sin of divination” (1 Samuel 15:23). The sin of divination was the reliance on an alternate source of wisdom like the occult to determine our future. The Israelites were condemned for their use of divination, which was one of the reasons for their exile (2 Kings 17:17). 

A rebellious spirit comes out in unhealthy ways when we talk only disparagingly about the first generation or our culture. 

2 The Motivation of Success. I have often seen young planters who are driven by attempting to create a ministry that models a different church’s ministry they had read about, seen, or heard about. The drive to excel has been ingrained in many young Asian Americans growing up. We are given the mandate of getting an “A” or else. It comes out in other ways other than academics, such as music, sports, or business. We want to be the best. 

And often our worth is measured by how other people see our success. The sad reality of this motivation is that the success of a church is measured by numbers rather than focusing on the individuals who are being nurtured and shepherded. The harsh reality is that the wrong view of success will often lead us to discouragement when we are not meeting our own lofty expectations.

At the beginning of this article, I shared about the limitations of our culture in outreach and church planting. The greatest limitation may not be our culture, however, but the motivations that drive us. If we can guard against these, we can begin to see the power of right motivation in our calling, and lead people to Christ, resulting in the advancement of God’s kingdom in our generation.

The greatest limitation may not be our culture, however, but the motivations that drive us.
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