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Why Church Plants Can Fail: Part 1

Dan Steel

17 Mar 2024

Many new churches don’t thrive—we just don’t hear about them. In the book "Wise Church Planting", Dan Steel studied 80 church plants from around the globe that haven’t gone as planned. It is his hope that we will listen hard and prayerfully learn from their stories.

From these conversations, I’ve categorized the reasons why plants struggle with obstacles that come from inside and outside the church. This article explores five pitfalls that arise inside the church, and in a follow-up article, we’ll consider pitfalls from outside.


We easily admire gifting over godliness. We want the omnicompetent-visionary-pioneer-preacher-superhero, and we often overlook character. In a surprising (or perhaps unsurprising) number of cases, the key complication was the church planter’s sin—either as an initial catalyst for the collapse or in response to other issues.

Only Jesus was perfect. But under-shepherds must take the leadership qualities listed in Titus 1, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Peter 5 seriously, reflecting the beauty of the Chief Shepherd.

Root character issues produce ugly fruit, sometimes seen in massive overwork. The drive to succeed leads to an unsustainable pace and pride. We become burdened and isolated, unable to delegate because no one else would do it the way we want. Like Gollum, we grow unwilling to share “our precious” church with others. The result is exhaustion and burnout.

But Christ’s church is not about us. We’re not the Chief Shepherd; Jesus is. It’s not our glory, it’s his. It’s not our church, it’s his. For sustainability in church planting—and pastoral health—we must equip and enable others to steward their gifts as they serve.

  • How much has the gospel shaped who you are as a planter? Do you know your besetting sins? Does anyone else?

  • Church planting must be a team effort. Which friends can encourage you to keep going but also know you well enough to ask hard questions?


I was staggered by the number of conversations with struggling planters about disunity. I shouldn’t have been. From my own church-planting experience and the Scriptures, I see Satan’s well-worn tactic. He seeks to undo what Jesus has done and fragment what Jesus has united. The disunities were sometimes theological and sometimes cultural, but always ended up being relational. In a newer, smaller church—where agendas can be smuggled, voices loud, and relationships not yet formed—factions and cliques are especially damaging.

In the early days, it’s tempting to take whoever comes instead of proactively communicating the church’s stand on theology or culture. But this can lead to problems. There can also be particular problems when leaders are raised up without sufficient preparation or depth of relationship.

  • Which issues or perspectives have the potential to divide within your church plant? How can you practically encourage loving unity?


We’re all given various gifts, strengths, and weaknesses. Yet the expectation of an omnicompetent planter can make us want to give the impression that we are, in fact, omnicompetent. Many planters realized that their weaknesses led to problems as the church developed. Some struggled with the weekly Bible teaching, others with evangelism. Some found administration hard. Some struggled with pastoral care while others lacked the leadership gifts needed for a team to flourish. Often these issues were most pronounced when the focus was on an individual leader rather than a complementary core group functioning as a diverse team.

  • If you could construct an ideal launch team, what gifts would you need to supplement your own? Why?

  • How much of a team player are you? Where do you find it hard to collaborate in leadership or ministry? Why?


Marriage is hard. Ministry marriages are (possibly) harder, and planting ministry marriages are likely even harder than that! One in four planters mentioned the significant detrimental effect planting had on their marriages and families. Though exciting, planting is busy and stressful. It frequently involves changing cities, schools, or even countries, limiting outside support networks. It’s essential to include one’s spouse from an early stage in the recruitment and assessment process, and to pursue coaching, support, and care. One planter advised, “Love Jesus, your wife, and your kids more than you love planting.”

  • If you’re married, how supportive is your spouse of this church plant on a scale of 1–10? How do they view their role? What will (and won’t) she be involved in?

  • If you’re a parent, how will you prioritize your children? How will you model the joy of gospel service to your family?


In the hard ground of the increasingly secular West, we can drift into trusting things other than the gospel to bear fruit. We can begin to look longingly for the proverbial “silver bullet” as the means for growth rather than the means of grace God has provided. A number of planters noted that the way they spend their time during the week reveals this. When your to-do list is long, how much time do you give to prayer and preparing to preach? Are they squeezed in around everything else? God creates and re-creates by his Word. In our quick-fix, fast-moving culture, patience is vital. Hold your nerve. Trust God to do what he promised to do.

  • What tempts you to seek to grow the church through something other than the Word of God?

  • How does your calendar each week reflect your priorities?

Next Time: Outside Pitfalls.

Buy the book Wise Church Planting here.

Dan Steel currently works for a new venture just outside Oxford seeking to encourage both academics and those in pastoral ministry. He’s been involved in leading and sending a number of church plants and has recently published a book with Christian Focus on how to avoid Pitfalls in Planting New Churches.

Footnote: An earlier version of these articles were published here: 

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