When a church plant closes down. . .

Johan Phlippa Pernryd
While in Sweden recently I had the good fortune to meet Johan Pernryd. We discovered that we shared a common experience of starting a church that we eventually had to close down. Here's Johan and Philippa's story. . .

How did you get involved in church planting?

We were students in Uppsala, Sweden (Johan studied to be pastor and Philippa to be psychologist). Halfway thorugh our studies we were asked by our church to lead a church plant in the city.

We had already been thinking and dreaming of church planting so after almost a year of prayer. We had prophetic words from different people. We felt sure of what God wanted and we decided to go for it.

We began to meet with a group for prayer, dreaming and talking about what a church in that area should and could be like.

In August 2001 a team of 10 adults started the work with the blessing and support of the motherchurch.

How did it go?

After a year we had about 20 involved in our housechurches, we were connecting with people and involved in different ways in the area.

We decided to start Alpha in the spring 2003 there was a lot of positive energy in the team.

But then we also faced some challenges.

Already after six months we were struggling with a conflict within the team on issues of sexual morality and leadership. When you're not so many a conflict like that is hard to handle and it took a lot of our energy for almost a year.

We survived and the work continued but it is hard to say how much damage it did to the group and the work.

How did you connect with people?

We worked very strategically to get in touch with as many people as possible in the area. We took part in local events, we did service evangelism in different ways, we shared the Jesus film, we doorknocked, we threw parties and seeker friendly evenings around interesting subjects with food and entertainment and we gathered for services.

We prayed in pairs once a week, we prayed in the house churches, we held prayer nights, prayer days, prayer walks… you name it.

What led to closing the church plant down?

After four and a half years we made an evaluation together with the motherchurch and our denominational leader of church planting, Manfred Rusner.

Everyone in the team answered three questions:

1. How do you feel about our work, where is your heart?

The answers were overall positive. Many wrote how it helped them in their relationship with God and this was the way they wanted to do church.

2. How many do you share your faith with or have invited to our events?

We got a list with 43 persons that we thought was a really great and satisfying number.

3. How long are you going to stay?

Here we realized that half of the team were going to move when they finished studies or of other reasons.

We started to pray and discuss alternative ways to continue because we felt it was impossible to go on like before.

After three months walking like in a fog we started to se our path forward. It was a hard decision but we agreed on ending the work and to bring all our experiences in to other ways of serving the Lord.

At a big celebration everyone shared their best memories and experiences from the years and we laughed and we cried together. We laid down symbols that represented those memories at a cross as an offering of gratitude for being a part of the adventure. It almost looked like a over-decorated Christmas tree after a while.

Philippa led a ceremony were we actually buried a church model--a symbol for our church planting dreams--to acknowledge all our feelings of sorrow and grief. But also for saying to God: “our dreams are in your hands and therefore our hopes of a changed community lives on.”

We never dreamed that it would end like that but after all we felt that it was best that way. Maybe it even was God's way.

What was most difficult?

The conflict in the team with people we loved was extremely hard to handle. We tried to be gentle and wise but nothing helped. When they left the team it felt like a big defeat.

Another thing was that it was so hard to reach people. Uppsala is known as the most secular area in the world together with Denmark and the southern part of Sweden.

We connected with a lot of people but it was hard to get past that first connection. You were toiled between hope and despair all the time and that was hard learning to live with.

But maybe the most difficult after all was coming to the decision of closing down. I struggled with guilt for not being persistent.

There were a lot of “should haves”. A real church planter shouldn't give up that easy.

It was also difficult because we believed in the prophetic words we had received. How do you deal with that, and how do you continue to believe that God actually speaks in that way?

What would you do differently next time?

We would start with more people that we knew well from the start and who we already got along with, with whom we could have fun with. And with more people who from the beginning really owned the vision.

It would have been wise to begin with a bigger area with more people. The part of Uppsala we worked in was maybe to small.

We would also work more with the motherchurch so they really understood what church planting really is about. We needed more support in the beginning.

What did you learn from experience?

We learned about team building, motivating people, listening to people, reaching out to people and that it is extremely important that you walk your talk. As a leader you have to be a model.

We really lived small group life and learned that much can be done with a small group that walks in the same direction. We learned a lot about ourselves.

Maybe the most important thing we learned was that it is ok not to be successful and not to take ourselves so seriously. I mean, of course it was a “failure” from one point of view, the church didn't get started. But there are other views.

One of the team is today engaged in mission in the Middle East. Another two have become elders in their churches. Others are giving their gifts and energy in to the work of the motherchurch. Another is translating the Bible in Benin, Africa.

Three are now working as pastors in other churches (not including Johan). Two of those decided during the years to become pastors. I think that the years gave God an opportunity to mark our lives.

So even if the work didn't become what we dreamed about we will never be the same as before. God is a larger part of our lives today. And hopefully that is true for all the people we actually touched and helped closer to Jesus.

How did God use the experience in your development?

I have learnt about leadership and about myself. I know more about my weaknesses and strengths.

Somehow I have a bigger faith in that God really is in control. The results are in his hands even if Im not saying that we shouldn't care about the results. I mean, that was our reason for closing down.

I learnt God is more concerned in what He can do in me than what He can do through me. Too often we get confused here and gets afraid of missing Gods plan for our lives. But Im confident that He is leading us if we want to go His path and that it is more important how we are where we are than where we are.

That makes it easier to try new things and take steps in faith even if Im not sure it is going to work. We don't need a certain calling to do Gods will, it is in the Book. Just go ahead and start living the life of Jesus. That's the fruit of your life.

What are you doing now?

Now I am working as a small groups pastor at Immanuelskyrkan in Malmo Sweden. Philippa is working in a team of psychologists for schools and preschools.

I wanted to work with an experienced and effective leader. Daniel Norburg, the senior pastor fits that description and he's also an excellent mentor.

Do you think you will ever church plant again?

We hope so and a big part of us believes so. A big benefit from closing down so early was that we didn't get burned. We want to do it better next time and our experiences can help us do that.

What advice would you give to someone considering church planting?

Prepare yourself for hard years. Have good mentors around you. Gather a great team that you can have fun with. Don´t plan too much ahead, instead, concentrate on training leaders and connecting with people.

Let the church plant take its time, strong trees grow slowly.