Health and Growth

How to Start a Church: A Complete, Step-by-Step Guide

A comprehensive how-to for building a meeting into a full-blown church.

How to Start a Church: A Complete, Step-by-Step Guide
by

Paul Maxwell

You shouldn’t start a church.

It will be embarrassing if (when) you fail.

It’s hard work.

Everybody’s already got a church.

There are bigger churches out there.

There are better churches that already exist.

You couldn’t possibly create something meaningful by planting a church.

But …

Has God called you to start a church?

Is a community missing something?

Are there more unbelievers you could reach?

Are there more believers you could encourage in a fresh way?

Has God called you beyond your limitations to build the most important thing in this world—the institution he founded to share Christ with the world?

If he has, then to forget  about  the naysayers.

Ahem, I mean ... them come to your church to hear you preach Christ’s saving message.

But you just have to build it first.

You need to know how to start a church.

Here, I’ve included a comprehensive protocol to take you from concept to community in the church-building journey. I will teach you how to start a church legally so that you can start your own church legitimately. Don’t cut corners. Don’t get excited about the exciting parts and neglect the logistical elements. Follow the protocol, and you will have everything in place.

Follow the steps below, and you’ll have started a legitimate church to which you can bring people.

1. Start a small discussion group

Before you can “start” a church, you have to have a community of people who buy in who are committed to growth. If you just have a few friends committed to growth, that’s not a church. If you just have a large spiritual meeting of people who are satisfied not to grow, that will never become a church.

You must first start a spiritual meeting or prayer meeting of people with a common vision for the Christian life who want to grow that vision by sharing it with other people. Once you have this meeting in place, you have to do something very important.

Before writing a doctrinal statement, before buying a building, and before organizing a leadership structure, you must hone your message.

  • What are we about?
  • What’s the story of why we exist in 500 words?
  • How can we invite people into that story in 10 words?
  • What makes us unique? Is it geography, doctrine, denomination? What is your message and why should people listen?

Answering these questions should be your first conversation about starting a church.

Don’t front-load any of the sexier list items like branding or website building before you’ve answered these basic questions about messaging.

2. Turn your small group into a launch team

It’s important for you to properly conceive of how your small group will serve to start a church.

They are more than just the “first members.”

Your small group is more than a group of “early adopters.”

They are the actual launch team.

These are people who are invested in starting a church.

This is the difference between a home church and a launch team. Your launch team functions as a kind of informal small business in starting your church. Each person has a role and responsibility.

Once you’ve honed your message and built  your small group as a launch team, you can put your launch team to work doing all the details work of starting a church.

Let’s take a look at the work involved.

a. Define the scope, membership, location, and doctrine of your church.

Your launch team needs to answer the following questions:

  • Who do we want to reach in our community?
  • Who do we want to join our church community?
  • What area are we serving?
  • What are the towns and cities in which we are willing to buy a building?
  • What are towns and cities in which we are not willing to buy a building?
  • What is our doctrinal statement?
  • Do we need to write our own doctrinal statement, or are there historic creeds and confessions that better define what we believe than our small group?
  • Is our doctrinal statement open to addition, modification, or change? If so, why? And who has the authority to make changes? If not, why not?

b. Assign corporate officers and structure (Congregational? Elder-led?)

There are a variety of ways you can structure your church’s leadership.

Some churches are governed by the church members through direct voting on issues at regular meetings

Different churches  are led by elders who are held accountable to act ethically by other churches.

And other churches are self-governed by electing officers who serve as elders of the church.

You must determine what your organizational structure is, and ultimately what small body of officers will represent your church as leaders. Don’t skip this last step.Your church board will later serve to fulfill the requirements of a non-profit entity registered with the United States federal government.

c. Name your church

This might be the most difficult stage for a church to reach a consensus.

It’s simple.

You’ve got three options for naming: Location + Doctrine, Tree + Water, or Theology + Point.

  • Church of the Redeemer in Chicago
  • Hyde Park Presbyterian Church
  • Lancaster Baptist Church
  • Grace Church in Fishers

OR:

  • Oak Stream Lutheran
  • Aspen Creek Episcopal

OR:

  • CrossPoint
  • NorthPoint
  • GracePoint

In all seriousness, you can name your church whatever you want. Don’t follow trends or fads. Just pick something memorable and meaningful with no double entendres.

3. Start your church legally

Forming a non-profit entity with the IRS is a way of being tax-exempt.

This means that:

  • None of the capital which accrues to the institution can be inure to any private shareholder or individual
  • It may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities
  • It may not participate in campaign activity for or against political candidates
  • Contributions are tax-deductible for donors

This is the most important legal portion of starting a church.

As far as the government is concerned, it’s the only action you need to take to opening your church. However, it is wise to break this action down into several sub-points to start your church legally.  

a. Consult a lawyer

Don’t try to start a church without legal counsel.

Many lawyers who specialize in a simple non-profit will charge you around $1,500-$2,500 (averaging $500 an hour) to double-check your non-profit documents.

b. Organize according to tax-exemption rules

The IRS provides online training for those submitting an application to become tax-exempt.

Again, this is the IRS’s official page explaining what you must do in order to properly become and remain a legitimate non-profit entity, which is referred to by the IRS as a 501(c)(3).

To become a non-profit, and thereby become eligible for receiving tax-deductible donations, including online giving and mobile giving, you must apply for 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.

c. Ensure your 501(c)(3) status

Once you have completed the 501(c)(3) application, you can request confirmation of its approval by filling out the IRS’s 1023 form.

d. Fill out SS4 form to get Employer Identification Number (EIN)

Once the IRS grants you 501(c)(3) status, your church will be an official tax-exempt entity.

Then, you will be eligible to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) with the IRS’s SS4 form.

e. Open a bank account with your EIN

Once you have your EIN, you can do two things.

First, you can use that EIN to open a bank account which belongs to the church.

Second, you can hire and pay employees.

Oh, and you can also start a free account with Tithe.ly once you have your EIN.

4. Consider affiliation with a network or denomination

After you’ve completed your due diligence with the IRS, you can consider joining a church planting network or denomination.

There may be other parachurch organizations (or church denominations) who have a very similar vision and mission as your church.

The benefit of joining a network or denomination is that you often receive infrastructural support in providing spiritual, health, and economic benefits to clergy. Likewise, joining a network or conference can increase your access to networking and growth resources.

The potential liability of joining a network or denomination is that you will be obligated to the theology and internal workings of that group. In other words, the benefit of being an autonomous church is that you have the ability to make decisions on your own.

Whether you choose to join a network or denomination, or choose to remain an autonomous church, it comes down to your own theology. But recognize that there are pros and cons to both.

5. Grow by being excellent in love

Once you exist, you should continue the work of the launch team and seek to grow the church into weekly services. Here’s how you grow your church into weekly services.

a. Be organized.

Write down a service structure on which the launch team can agree:

  • Does the service start with worship?
  • When is the sermon?
  • How long is the sermon?
  • Will we give communion weekly, monthly, or quarterly?
  • How will we decide what the sermon series is?
  • How will we communicate with the church corporately?

b. Get Tithe.ly’s ChMS

Before you can answer any of these questions, you need to get Tithe.ly’s ChMS church management software.

This software will help you to smoothly manage your church, empower your volunteers, and enable digital giving, and as a pastor, you will be able to manage visitor/member check-ins, organize events, and see tithing trends.

If you don’t use Tithe.ly’s ChMS, you could be left spending hundreds of dollars a month on unique, “one trick pony” services that only provide email lists, only provide web hosting, only provide sermon archives, and only manage group contact data. Tithe.ly does this all for you.

If your church plant is raising money, the first thing you should do as a responsible 501(c)(3) is consolidate all your giving to the Tiithe.ly app so that there isn’t one cent given to the church that doesn’t go directly into the church’s bank account.

c. Be friendly.  

Hold outreach events, cook-out events, and small group meetings.

When you host these events, have people register through the Tithe.ly ChMS App and check in at the mobile kiosk you can also set up with your Tithe.ly app.

Use these events to grow your church by inviting people in your community to attend the church and offering some kind of give-away — an iPad, tickets to the movies, etc.

The psychological payoff of giveaways is that they help people overcome their subtle bias against trying new things.

But the important takeaway here is: put on weekly events as a church that aren’t the service.

d. Be collaborative.

Collaborate with other local churches. Don’t compete.

If you have honed your message (Step 1), then you already know how you’re different.

You don’t need to worry about stealing people from other churches.

Work with other churches, support them, and ask if you can help out in their community service projects. It’s a great way to network your church into the culture of the town you’re in.

If you’re too competitive at the start, other churches will be hesitant to work with you in the future, and you’ll get a bad reputation. This is the exact opposite of what you want.

Over to you

My final piece of advice is a generic piece of marketing wisdom:

—Interesting people are interested in people.

If you want to grow as a church, visitors must get the sense that you care about them.

If people get the sense that all you care about are numbers, getting bigger, or your theology, they will sense it and move on to another church.

Seek to add value to people's’ lives, and the community’s word-of-mouth will work for you.

There is no better plan for long-term sustainability than excellently adding value to a community.

Be a light for Jesus Christ in your town as well as you possibly can. Shine his light in dark places. People are attracted to churches that are attracted to them.

Be attracted to the lowest of the low.

And remember:

  • Hone your message
  • Turn your small group into a launch team
  • Form a non-profit entity
  • Manage your church with Tithe.ly’s ChMS (important!)
  • Consider affiliation with a network or denomination
  • Grow by being excellent in love
Author: Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., is the Content Strategist at Tithe.ly. He lives in Fishers, IN with his beautiful wife and rowdy wheaten terrier.
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How to Start a Church: A Complete, Step-by-Step Guide