How to Plant a Church Without Trying

Len Hjalmarson


  • start with people who have more questions than answers
  • resist setting a regular meeting time or making meetings the center
  • don’t have a preacher or set curriculum
  • focus on life and relationships, not gift and function
  • focus on the ordinary, not the “spiritual”
  • care for each other in concrete, life giving ways
  • be available to one another 24/7
  • don’t define leadership or roles
  • don't focus your life around Sunday or a building
  • do talk about Jesus, His kingdom, and transformation
  • do care for one another, pray for one another, and reach out to the lost
  • do be authentic, vulnerable, and gentle
  • do have fun together, share meals and holidays and life

    Congratulations! You have a church with no name, a church without clergy, and a church without buildings. You have no budget and no staff and no constitution (except the bible). There may not be a children's program. It may feel messy and strange, but real. The more administrative among you will often chafe at lack of defined vision or direction.

    You will also have real growth individually, if not numerically. You may struggle with bitterness against the institution where most of you lived most of your lives. You'll wonder what you were doing all those years, besides warming a pew.

    Your boundaries, so undefined, will remain permeable and you may find that the poor are among you. Your life together will probably center around meals. The Father will smile on you, while the church inside the walls shake their head and hope you see the light.

    If, by the grace of God, you happen to have a shared mission beyond your own identity, which is likely since your identity is undefined, then your shared life will gradually take on more focus and you may accomplish great things for the kingdom of God. But don't worry about it.. the Father delights to give you His kingdom!

    Yesterday morning I was thinking about our little group and how we have managed to be family to one another, though imperfectly, and lacking many of the things that would have defined us as a group. It was then that a picture came to my mind.


    I saw a group of circles, almost like the traditional cell church chart that I remember from one of Ralph Neighbors works. But the cells had holes in the walls. They allowed free flow in and out. And one of the circles overlapped another. It was tough to bring definition, because the structures were not formal, and they were based more on relationship than rationalization.

    The initiating group was off center. Since leadership was not defined, it could arise from any place within the group. Authority was very informal, and shifted around, having less to do with visibility and gifting than with what God was doing at the time.

    I realized, to my surprise and delight, that sometime over the last 18 months a real church had been birthed. It was a hidden and mysterious process. It was almost unintentional.

   How wonderful! No one could take credit for this event. It just happened. It was a work of God.

    There were no stories to tell of brilliant sermons, of amazing miracles, or of strategic planning. There were only stories of love, grace and forgiveness, questions, and stumbling about. Oh.. and a few stories of healing, deliverance, victory and provision.

   And best of all, as I considered what God had done… I saw the poor among us. Not in great numbers… but they were there. I saw people being saved, I saw the hungry fed. I saw the best worship the Father could have.. incarnated in lives of service.

But What Do You DO?

    I wondered how such informal structures could be explained to someone who had never thought such a thing was possible, or who doubted that anything so undefined could fairly be termed a "church." So let me describe a typical week for these ones.


    Slept in til 10 AM after a busy Saturday. Made pancakes, our kids favorite and a good brunch Met some friends downtown for lunch. One of them came to the Lord in our home six weeks ago, the other is recommitted after five years away from the Lord. Arnold joined us, a native street worker with a heart of gold.

    On the way home we picked up a Christmas tree and the rest of the day was spent decorating with our kids. Elise at fourteen now takes a lead role while we admire the work.


    This is my usual morning to assist in a Computers and Commerce class with Grade 9 students. This morning our devotional is on "the church" and we talk about the meaning of ekklesia and koinonia. Is the church somewhere we go? No. But it does involve gathering, right? Well, sometimes. What about buildings? Do we need them? Not really, but they are helpful sometimes. What about intimacy? Can we be anonymous in the church? It's a lively discussion, and I'm impressed at how thoughtful the kids are.

    We had a family meal together today, which doesn't always happen on Mondays! In the evening a couple whom we are getting to know stopped by at our invitation. His work is sporadic so we took a collection among the saints to give them a Christmas gift. They were really touched. They are part of a traditional fellowship that is slowing pushing them out because they are not happy with the status quo.


    Had coffee with one of the saints in the morning. We talked about transition and change, and also about a mutual friend who seems to be drifting from the Lord. We determined to encourage her and challenge her to stay connected.

    Betty had the morning off work and so is out doing errands and finishing Christmas shopping. While she was out she ran across a friend from the past with whom she had been counseling. This woman is doing very well now and her life is transformed. Praise God!

    I spent most of the day working at my computer and monitoring my email. In the evening two young friends stopped by for some Christmas baking. We hadn't seen them in a few weeks so we mostly just chatted together. Before they left we prayed for one another and asked the Lord to give him a job. Truckers aren't doing well in our area with the economic situation. Later I drop an email to a friend asking if he knows a business that might need drivers. Together we get an interview scheduled for the brother.


    One of the saints phoned me for computer advice, and then dropped in for coffee toward lunch. Betty was home this morning so we sat and chatted about events in the world and some mutual concerns locally. We all have hope to see more happen in our area with the poor. We talked about how we could facilitate more interaction with the street people locally.

    Had a phone call in the early afternoon from Arnold. He has seen ten individuals come to the Lord in the past five or six weeks. He had just spent the morning with one young man who was considered particularly resistant to the Gospel. This tough young man had challenged him and even knocked him down on one occasion, just to watch his reaction.

    This morning the street youth gave his life to the Lord. He told Arnold that he had been watching him closely, and he wanted change in his life.

    From two to four PM Betty and I visit with a senior couple who are struggling under oppression. They are heavily involved in a counseling and support ministry, but they are too much on their own. We pray with them for strength, and against the enemy's plans. The brother struggles personally with assurance of salvation and God's goodness, so we pray for the Father to reveal His love.


    A work day for me and for my wife. After her first appointment (she is an RN who does home visits) Betty stopped in to have coffee with a woman who is currently resident in an alcohol treatment center.

    Later she ran into a brother and sister who have been visiting with a native couple we know who have just come to the Lord. The woman had told them how she has terrible nightmares, so they prayed with her that the nightmares would stop. When they visited with her today she said she has been sleeping peacefully - no more nightmares! Not only that but she had had a very clear dream the night before. She saw herself with a group of people in our home. She told them, "I never have dreams like that! And there was an incredible peacefulness there. I want to come to that house!" The brother and sister shared with her that they were already planning to invite her to a home gathering at our house.

    After my morning of work I visited on the phone with a pastor friend who is fighting depression. I prayed with him and encouraged him; he has a huge heart and carries too much. Then I spent another hour working on an article for

    Betty came home shortly afterward for lunch then was off again on another visit. This time she had an opportunity to pray with a young couple who are facing unexpected change. They weren't believers but most people in crisis are open to prayer. After her work appointment she spent some time counseling a young Christian woman who is dealing with a history of severe abuse.

    On the way home she picked up a middle aged hitch hiker. Betty asked her about what she would do on Christmas. They got talking, and it turned out that she was living on the street. Betty noticed that she had no gloves or hat, so they stopped at a store and Betty bought her one and gave her some gloves.

    Later we heard from our friend downtown that the woman told her story to a group at the drop-in.

    "This Christian lady bought me a hat and gave me her gloves. Even my own son doesn't take care of me like that," and she wept.


    A pastor I know is being laid off by his employer because they aren't making their mortgage payments. As a result, he is looking at relocating to another community. This really goes against my grain - we import leaders for businesses, but how can a family import a father? Why must pastors leave when the "church" can't support them? This sounds more like a business arrangement than a community.. and it is. How can we expect to be a family of faith when we mix business and faith to this extent. When pastors are hired guns we have already lost the boundaries.

    "We have many teachers, but not many fathers." Paul is right. We need a reformation.

    I spent an hour cutting firewood and talking to the Lord about how we got so far off track. When you are this far down the line, you can't follow the thread all the way through the warp and woof. As Martin Luther wrote,

    Learn from me, how difficult a thing it is to throw off errors confirmed by the example of all the world, and which, through long habit, have become a second nature to us.

McChurch     McChurch. That's what our culture sees as "church," the church of programs, services and politics. It's the only church they know, and much of Christian culture is no better informed. We read our experience into the Scripture, and the weight of tradition and experience are crushing. We have little experience of real "church" and so our faulty experience defines "church" rather than community and love defining our experience.

    One of the brothers is telling me about his experience with church. He described his relationships as "serial rotating alliances."

    Betty is home this afternoon so we spent time finishing plans for the weekend.

    In the evening we visited with a couple from Australia who are part of a house church network there. It was good to share stories of God's faithfulness and provision for those outside the walls. I was encouraged that others were on the same journey of discovery.


    We had some of our native friends over for a meal today. I'm always struck by how much they have to give, and I find myself confronted by their humility and clarity of faith.

    This afternoon one of the saints called to share about an effort to gather some provision for a needy family nearby. He rounded up some parts for a broken down vehicle and put it back on the road for them.

    I also learned of another family that had been assisted by some brothers. A family among us was underemployed and struggling when their old car packed it in. A brother phoned some friends and together they contributed $10,000 for a new vehicle for them. You can imagine their surprise!

    God is good, and He loves to share that goodness if we are willing to participate!


    We slept in this morning and had a small gathering in the afternoon. It didn't work out exactly as planned, it rarely does… but we learned about some more needs we could help to meet. We plan to drop in on some shut-ins on Christmas eve with our children and another family and sing Christmas carols with them. True, it's an interruption in our peaceful and quiet family experience.. but it's also an example of service to our children and a chance to share the peace and joy of our experience with someone who has little idea of what real Christianity is about.

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on May 31, 2002