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How to start a church?
How to Start a Church from Scratch
When starting a church, you need more than a statement of belief, a set of church bylaws, and a cool website. You need key growth strategies that will help you advance the Gospel, whether you've got five people, 50 people, or 5,000 people. Of course, all those strategies will be based on Biblical principles: love others, worship God, and walk in Truth.
It takes 5 key things to start a church. Here they are:
- Start a small discussion group
- Turn your small group into a launch team
- Start your church legally
- Consider affiliation with a network or denomination
- Grow by being excellent in love
As you start out, you might be tempted to think....
I shouldn’t start a church.
It will be embarrassing if (when) I fail.
It’s hard work.
Everybody’s already got a church.
There are bigger churches out there.
There are better churches that already exist.
I couldn’t possibly create something meaningful by planting a church.
Has God called you to start a church?
Is your 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 forget about the naysayers.
Ahem, I mean ... invite them to 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.
When is the right time to start your own church?
The truth is, there will always be excuses for not starting a church. The church planting process will be challenging–maybe more challenging than you ever dreamed possible.
At the same time, you'll want to have a few things established before starting your own church.
- A set of core beliefs
- A form of worship that's sustainable
- Establishment of your legal existence as a nonprofit organization
- A decision on what type of church you're establishing. Church denominations are important indicators of what people can expect from your Sunday services, leadership team, and more.
- A decision on the ecclesiastical government and leadership structure of your church. Will your church include pastors, deacons, church elders, and so forth?
- A form of religious instruction for children. How will your church educate children?
- A way to host church online. A tool for hosting church online is essential in the 21st century.
- A few committed church leaders and a handful of like-minded people who are excited and committed to starting a church with you–your church-building team! Your actual launch team will include people who have the time and resources to help you with some of the "heavy lifting" of church planting
- Finally, a NAME. Try to avoid a commonly-used name and come up with something creative.
There will always be hurdles to cross when starting your own church. But taking these crucial steps first will help you grow a stronger, healthier church family from the get-go. Joining a church planting network can also give you critical support you need to grow your church.
Differences between starting a church and starting a ministry
There are key differences between starting a church and starting a ministry. Starting a church requires you to have a more comprehensive strategy that covers all components of a Biblical church. How will you provide service, teaching, and room for growth for all members?
A ministry may have a more specific mission–such as helping the homeless, serving single moms, or reaching a specific set of people with the Gospel (such as athletes, artists, or inner-city kids). That being said, the entire process for starting a ministry may look very different than the process for starting a church.
In both cases, however, you will need to take steps to attain non-profit status, create a donation process, and decide on leadership structure.
Handling the church finances
Handling church finances can be a sensitive topic. Poorly managed finances in a church or non-profit can result in a bad reputation–and worse (legal issues, member churn, and dissolution of the church).
Donation platforms such as Tithe.ly can help you manage finances and run your church online more efficiently and transparently. You'll also want a tool for church management that includes volunteer scheduling, group management, reporting, child check-in, and more.
What's the difference between church revitalization and church planting?
The church planting process involves starting a brand-new church "from scratch," typically as part of a church planting network. Church revitalization involves an effort to change processes and protocol–often in more traditional churches–to bring in new members and renew service and ministry.
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 or religious organization as a 501c3 nonprofit 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 new church, you must have a community of people 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 without growing, 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're even more than just future "church staff."
They are the actual launch team you'll roll with when starting a new church.
These are people who are invested in starting a church.
This is the difference between a home church and a launch team. You should understand that when starting a church. 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.
When starting a 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 belief statement or 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.
Some have a board of directors.
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 new church to reach a consensus.
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
- Oak Stream Lutheran
- Aspen Creek Episcopal
In all seriousness, you can name your new church whatever you want. Don’t follow trends or fads. Just pick something memorable and meaningful with no double entendres as you start your church.
3. Start your church legally
Forming a non-profit entity with the IRS is a way of being tax-exempt and that's important when starting a church.
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 step in how to start a church legally.
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 and tax exempt status 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. You definitely want to take this training on tax exempt status.
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. A must for tax exempt status.
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 out of that bank account.
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 when starting a church.
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
Starting a church might be the easy part. 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.
- 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
Following these steps will help you ensure that you have a healthy church and thriving leadership team.
Starting a Church FAQs
Starting a church begins with a passion for God and people, but it also necessitates administrative steps–like setting up systems for receiving donations online, and managing your leadership team.
Are all churches 501(c)(3) automatically?
Churches that meet the requirements of the 501(c)(3) tax code automatically attain exempt status. To learn more about what this involves, see the above section on starting your church legally, or go to the IRS website on "Churches, Integrated Auxiliaries, and Conventions or Associations of Churches."
How to Set Up Donations for a Church Website?
To set up donations for a church website, you'll need an online donation platform such as Tithe.ly. Tithe.ly makes it super simple to give and receive donations on a desktop or mobile phone, and even provides diverse options for giving.
How to Set Up Church Online Platform?
Setting up a church online platform doesn't have to be difficult or expensive, especially when you use a single, one-stop platform for all your needs.
Tithe.ly includes all the resources you need to run church online, receive donations, manage your staff, and build an awesome presence and brand.
How to become a pastor and increase church attendance?
Depending on your denomination, becoming a pastor may require different steps. Most denominations require that pastors are ordained by their church as someone who has been called by God to lead and pastor others. Some denominations may require specific education as well.
How to write a great sermon?
Writing a great sermon requires the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, knowledge of the Word, and a few strategies for organizing and delivering a clear message. While every pastor will have a different process for writing a sermon, most will begin with a core piece of Scripture or message. Then, they will pray through what they want to communicate, create an outline, and fill in with additional notes–such as research from their studies and personal anecdotes.