Trends and Changes in Church Planting Post-COVID | Marc Cleary

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Marc Cleary and I had a great conversation about the Trends and Changes he is seeing, in Church Planting, Post-COVID

Podcast Notes

Arc Churches

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Podcast Transcription


Bart Blair: [00:00:00] Let’s see. Let me get my notes here so I have all the details that I need. All right, you ready?

Jason Hamrock: [00:00:15] Yep.

Bart Blair: [00:00:18] Welcome to the Church Growth Interviews podcast. My name is Bart Blair and I am joined with my friend and Missional Marketing partner, Jason Hamrock. Jason, I’m so glad to see.

Jason Hamrock: [00:00:29] It’s good to see you too, Bart. It’s been a, kind of a busy summer, here in 2021. And I’ve taken some time off to to be with my family and so I’m kind of back in the saddle and it’s so good to see your face.

Bart Blair: [00:00:43] Yeah, it’s been, actually, it’s been a few weeks since we have been on a Zoom call together for the purpose of podcasting. We’ve had some Zoom calls together for other things. But, you had family vacation. You had a wedding anniversary. You went away for your wedding anniversary?

Jason Hamrock: [00:00:59] 25th. 25 years she’s put up with me.

Bart Blair: [00:01:03] 25 years. Yup. She’s a good woman. Where did you go with your family on your trip?

Jason Hamrock: [00:01:10] We went up to Utah. If you haven’t spent time in Utah, it’s beautiful country. So, we live in Arizona. We drove up to Moab, which is a really cool area. One of the coolest things we got to do. There’s this scene at Forrest Gump, you know where he’s running and he stops and he says, “OK, I think I’m tired. I’m ready to go home now.” There’s that scene that’s on that stretch of highway. We went there. We were driving through. We stopped. We all got out of the car and we took pictures of us where Forrest Gump was standing with all that mountain behind him. That’s just kind of a cool thing that we did. But, on our way to Moab, did a lot of fun things and you should check it out if you’re in that area.

Bart Blair: [00:01:49] Yeah, that’s cool. My mother and stepfather lived in the Salt Lake City area for a number of years. And so, most of the time when we went, we went in the winter for the purpose of skiing because the skiing in Utah is pretty phenomenal. You went in the summer. Not really skiing season, but outdoorsy stuff. There’s tons of outdoorsy stuff to do, in Utah, all year round. And then, you went away with Sarah for your wedding anniversary. You went to California? Is that where you went?

Jason Hamrock: [00:02:13] Yeah. Went to Southern California and had a great time. And just on the beach. We were kind of beach bums for a few days and just spent time together and enjoying good food, enjoying our company. And, it was good to just kind of unplug and get away. So, I encourage everybody to do that, every now and then. But, it was a fantastic, fantastic trip.

Bart Blair: [00:02:35] That’s great. I’m glad you guys got the chance to do it. Now you’re back in the rhythm of work. And we’ve got a lot going on. We’ve got a lot of stuff with a lot of churches going on. At the time that we’re recording this, it’s the end of July. We’re already having lots of conversations with churches about what they have coming up in August and September and October, with the fall. It’s been really exciting and it’s been encouraging because, in most parts of the country, things are starting to feel more like normal in terms of church activity and church engagement. I know that a lot of churches are still looking at their weekend attendance numbers and scratching their heads and they’re saying, what do we do? How do we get people back? I would say the average church I’m talking to is seeing 65 to 70% of where they were pre-COVID. And knowing that there’s room for improvement there. But, some of these churches that I’m talking to, my church included, the church that I’m part of here, even though our numbers are not back to where they were pre-COVID, we see that we’re actually connecting with new people. We still have new people coming out on a regular basis. So, that’s pretty cool. So, as a listener or viewer of this podcast, wherever you are in this journey, hope and pray that your COVID-19 season of ministry is changing for the better. That things are finally starting to be good and to be normal for you. And Jason, I’m glad that you got a chance to get away. That’s good.

Jason Hamrock: [00:04:02] It was refreshing.

Bart Blair: [00:04:03] Everybody needs to do that. Well, hey, today we’re doing this a little different because while you were on your break, having your vacation, I recorded a podcast interview without you. First time we’ve done that. You’ve done quite a few without me. This is the first one that I’ve ever done without you. And, I had the opportunity to interview Marc Cleary, who is the Director of Church Planting for ARC churches. And Marc, in the interview, gives a bit of a background on ARC. How it got started, how he got involved with church planting and with the ARC organization, which is really – it’s probably not the largest church planting organization in our country, but is very effective. And, you’d be hard-pressed to find many major cities across the country that don’t have an ARC-planted church in them. And so, I’m not going to give a whole lot of detail away about the interview because I want our listeners to listen. But, Marc and I had a great conversation about some things related to how COVID-19 has impacted church planters, specifically, as it relates to things like fundraising, facility use. You know, a lot of church plants use rented spaces like schools or community centers, YMCAs, movie theaters. He talked a bit about what kind of changes and things he’s seen come out of COVID, as a result of that whole season. We have churches that we partner with at Missional Marketing that are church plants that launched right before COVID or within a year or two and they’re still not back into the facilities that they were using prior to COVID. One of the things I thought was interesting about our conversation is that Marc talks about and differentiates the difference between trends and fads in church planting. As a result of COVID, we’re seeing some things change. And so it’s important, I think, as church planters and pastors to look at changes that are happening in the landscape and kind of figure out: are these things going to be long term changes in the church, a trend that will actually impact the church in a positive way long term, or is it a fad? Something that’s kind of happening seasonally now and so, Marc shares some insight into some of those ideas which I thought was very insightful. So, Jason, I’m sorry that you didn’t get to be a part of this great conversation with Marc, but you get to listen to my conversation with Marc. Are you ready? Are you ready to listen to my conversation with Mark Cleary?

Jason Hamrock: [00:06:35] Let’s do it.

Bart Blair: [00:06:36] All right. Here’s my interview with Marc Cleary from ARC churches.


Bart Blair: [00:00:08] Hey, Marc Cleary. Thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today. I am excited to have this conversation with you about ARC and church planting, and, you’re just going to download everything that you know so that our listeners, our viewers are well informed about the landscape of church planting in COVID, post-COVID and whatever that’s going to look like, whatever kind of stuff we unravel today.

Marc Cleary: [00:00:34] Yes, indeed. Thanks Bart. I really appreciate the opportunity and honored to be a part and share a little bit about ARC and my role in it and hopefully we can help someone out there that’s listening.

Bart Blair: [00:00:45] Ok. So we’re going to clarify the accent that we’re hearing is, kind of a combination of southern Louisiana and….Alabama?

Marc Cleary: [00:00:54] Alabama twang now.

Bart Blair: [00:00:56] Alabama twang. So you are in Birmingham?

Marc Cleary: [00:00:59] Yep. Live in Birmingham, Alabama now, the last 7 plus years. Most of my childhood and early adult years, in Louisiana, central, north and south Louisiana, kind of, all over the state. So, a little southern mix there on the accent.

Bart Blair: [00:01:13] Nice. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background, your ministry background, and just kind of lead us into what you’re doing with ARC.

Marc Cleary: [00:01:19] Yeah, I’ll tell a little bit about ARC and then kind of go into my role there, because really, my role in ministry is ARC’s journey as well in so many ways. You know, ARC is a church planting organization. We’re celebrating 20 years right now. Founded by a group of friends that said, hey, instead of tackling one individual request from a church planter after another, why don’t we do something together here, kind of pool our resources of, how we do church and then also our financial resources to invest in those church planters and see what God does. And, 20 years later, it’s 961 church plants and God has done an amazing work. Average launch size on those church plants is a little over 300, in the history of ARC. So, we just thank God for that. And, launching a large type model church like that just helps reach that community even quicker and increase that influence. And, been very thankful to see, right around 92 – 93% of those churches still open and growing in baptisms and salvations and in growth in other areas too. 5 plus years, kind of, after we helped launch them. But, we exist to identify, not a “call of God” on a church planter’s life, but identify if they’re fit for the model that we teach and if they like us and we like them, then we help coach them, invest in them with our training and our curriculum and then also financially if they choose as well. And, it’s been a fun mix. We’re not a denomination so we’re able to serve denominations and church planting networks. So, we’ve planted a variety of churches, denominationally, non-denominationally, and try to just serve the body in Christ as a whole and we’re excited to celebrate all that God has done and excited to see what God is doing moving forward 20 plus years now.

Bart Blair: [00:03:14] Marc. What does ARC stand for? Explain that.

Marc Cleary: [00:03:18] Association of Related Churches.

Bart Blair: [00:03:20] Association of Related Churches. So, when an ARC church is planted, do those churches stay in relationship with each other or with the overarching organization? What does that look like?

Marc Cleary: [00:03:33] Yes. So we describe ourselves as a family. Now, you know, some people say, well, you can’t really say you’re family and this and that. And I say, look, we got our issues. We’re not perfect but I’ve never met a family that is. So, a family consists of a mom and a dad, a grandparent, aunt and uncle, cousin. So, that’s kind of what ARC is. So, to answer your question, we can end up carrying on that friendship and that relationship forever and ever past that actual launch day of that church. Or, it could be that we just serve them in the short term and we’re just a distant cousin that we only see every 10 years at the family reunion. So, it’s kind of, both/and.

Bart Blair: [00:04:09] Ok. So, tell us a little bit about your ministry background and how you ended up in the role at ARC that you are filling right now.

Marc Cleary: [00:04:18] So, after I graduated, got my undergrad degree, I moved down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and followed my soon to be wife and her family that relocated down there as well. We started attending a church called Healing Place Church pastored by Dino and Delynn Rizzo. Pastor Dino – I sold him a Nextel phone, back in the day, Nextel phone and got to know him through that. And, he ended up offering me a position on staff with the church working in youth ministry there. A couple of years later, he asked me to serve as, kind of a dual role between an executive assistant and a executive pastor with him and part of that included the initial conversations about starting a church planting organization with a group of friends in order to try to impact the kingdom through that. So, he was one of the founders of ARC and one of the only founders that actually had a growing church at the time. So he lent my time, early on, to some of the administrative needs of ARC and then eventually that grew into, me helping with the annual conference that we do. And then I started developing, kind of a, a donor care-type partner-care strategy for churches after they launched through ARC. And currently I oversee, I guess, for the last 3 years now – oversee all of our church planting activities as well as some other stuff. So, I’ve done youth ministry, executive pastor and then now been full-time with ARC for the past 7 plus years.

Bart Blair: [00:05:47] Ok. So you have, I guess, a front row seat to a lot of churches that have been planted over the last number of years and obviously last year was kind of a – it was a wonky one. And, I’m connected with a couple of guys that, you know, my neighbor being one of them. I have a neighbor across the street that planted a church, you know, 6 months before COVID hit. I’ve got another church planter that I work with that planted like, 2 or 3 months before COVID hit and, you know, they’re coming out of it OK. It’s been a lot of work. It was, in some cases, kind of like relaunching. What are some of the things that you saw over the course of the last year, the last 15 months or so? And, what kind of impact do you think that’s going to have on church planting going forward, in terms of strategies, new things we’re learning, shifts in some of our approach? What kind of things are you seeing or anticipating?

Marc Cleary: [00:06:41] Yeah, you know. I was at a church plant that first weekend in March, in 2020. They had their second Sunday and then they haven’t met again yet, except for on-line, right? So, church planters have really dealt with the pandemic unbelievably well in my opinion. Obviously, there’s been challenge after challenge, but the flexibility that I’ve seen, the shift in how church planters adapted in the area of leadership development and fundraising and outreach and just digital church and how that was always a thing but then it became a way more important thing that you put a lot more effort into, engagement, all those things. I really believe that God has used the last 18 months or so to prepare those church planters and the church in general for the revival and the harvest that’s coming next, out of the pandemic as well. It’s going to look different. We know that. I think there’s always going to be a percentage of people now that may not return to a large gathering for whatever reasons that they choose. But I also believe that there is a core group of leaders within these churches that these church planters and existing churches are developing that are going to really reap the harvest of the need for people to be together and seek the one that created them and has a purpose for their life. So, there’s obviously been a shift. We’ve seen it in the church planting side of things. How we engage with our church planters was way different over the last 18 plus months than before. It was different. It was different where you lived on and what the restrictions were and how bad the pandemic was. And, did you have a venue already? Did you not have a venue already? What equipment did you have on hand to do digital church? What were you able to secure? What tips and tricks did you learn along the way as well? It all was different. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all, which are, we have a track that we teach, prior to the pandemic. Pretty much you contextualize some things to where you live, but it was a one-size-fits-all type curriculum. What we were able to see is, and learn so much was, during the pandemic was that, it shifted and changed differently for our church planters where they were. But it was amazing how they quickly learned and adapted from each other or from their local community on how to continue to reach people for Christ during this time.

Bart Blair: [00:09:19] Yeah, I think some of the things that I saw, venues were definitely a challenging thing for churches. And even in some areas where, some of those restrictions have been lifted and churches can meet again, some churches were meeting in movie theaters, were meeting in schools, or YMCAs. Some of these other venues are no longer, or at least have not yet allowed renters or tenants back into those spaces. And I see that across the board. I see a lot of churches borrowing other churches, church plants borrowing other established church’s buildings for Saturday night services or Sunday night gatherings or something of that nature. Even have a church locally, here in the Dallas area, that opened its recording studio to let a couple of church planters record their sermons in their studio just because they knew that these church planters had no other place to do it other than their living room. Which, isn’t necessarily always bad but some of these church planters have small children running around their houses and so, preaching a sermon in the living room is a little bit complicated sometimes. Yeah, definitely a very, very challenging year. It sounds like, though, you’ve seen a lot of creativity in some of the things that some of these church planters do. I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you a question. If you can’t answer it, that’s OK, but, what are some of the most creative things that you saw church planters do during COVID to kind of keep their core group connected or their launch team or, if they were a relatively young church and all of a sudden they’re no longer able to meet together. What are some of the creative things that you saw churches do?

Marc Cleary: [00:10:57] Some of the coolest things that we saw creative was the virtual dinner dates or virtual meetings that they did. So, we had, one of our church planters came up with an idea that, on a couple of days of the week, they would order pizza, have it delivered to the door, “touchless” right on the door to where that they knocked and then they would they would get the phone call from that pastor or that church planter and they would eat together and talk together over dinner virtually. I thought that was one of the most unique ones. That was kind of multiplied throughout, not just pizza but other kind of food items or whatever, you know, through all the food delivery. Grocery delivery as well. Really, what I saw was people, church planters utilizing what was out there in order to do it. One very unique fundraising idea that I saw was, we had a church planter of ours, take the game Monopoly and customize it. And he put different church leader’s names on the board, with their cities and their church names as their addresses. So, Boardwalk and Park Place were replaced by Greg Serat, Chris Hodges, kind of of thing, and TD Jakes, you know, kind of deal. Mailed these out to all of these churches wo when they opened it up, it’s called Churchopoly. And when they opened it up, they saw their faces and their fellow friends and constituents and peers and whatnot on there as well. And, he had his vision pack in there and whatever and raised quite a bit during that time. We were fundraising – was a very, very hard challenge to overcome for church planters.

Bart Blair: [00:12:40] Yeah, that’s very creative. I have to get my hands on a copy of Churchopoly. That’s pretty cool. One of the things I saw a church re-planter do was, I thought it didn’t take anything technical but he realized that, he had these people that he wasn’t going to be able to see other than a zoom call. We are all a little burned out on Zoom calls very quickly. He and his wife literally just put lawn chairs in the back of their car and they drove around to the homes of the people that were in their church and they pulled out their lawn chairs, sat in the driveway or the front yard while the family or the couple that they were meeting with, would sit on the front porch and they would sit 15 or 20 feet away from each other and just engage and have a conversation because they just – they weren’t able to get that. And I thought, you know, so simple. I mean, in a small church context, or a church plant context, when you’ve only got a few dozen people or your numbers are relatively small, you’re able to do that. But those personal contacts, those personal connections, I think were pretty, pretty critical for a lot of those people. Just getting that reminder that their pastor is still thinking about them. The phone calls, the emails, the texts, they do a certain thing but there’s nothing like that incarnational connection that you have with people.

Marc Cleary: [00:14:02] No. It’s relationships. We stole a saying from Paul Scanlon, Pastor Paul, a couple of years ago that says “your relationships are your resources and your resources are your relationships”. So, you build – that’s our middle word right? “Association of Relational Churches” So, “Related” churches, so, we’re big on relationships. So, it was very cool to see ideas like you just said happen where relationship was taken away in one context, but it was added in another creative way.

Bart Blair: [00:14:32] Did you see anything in any church plant creativity that you think, aha, this guy or this team is on to something that actually will live on past COVID? Any creative things that you said, you know, that’s something that this church discovered as a result of COVID out of necessity and that’s actually something that should probably be a part of that church going forward or something that other churches should probably try?

Marc Cleary: [00:15:00] You know, I don’t know if I can point to one specific thing. We mentioned a couple of the examples of – to me, it’s a lot of the “intangible things” that our church planters learned. Like, there isn’t just one way to do it. There are many different ways to build a relationship and sometimes that creativity is required more than before COVID. So, I think some of the biggest things that church planters are going to take forward with them and churches in general, take forward with them, are those intangible values of being creative, being flexible and building those relationships and not just in the way that was set before them on the shoulders that they’re standing on, but in those in those new ways. Oddly enough, we had last fall, in early 2020 we launched almost 25 to 28 churches, somewhere right in there. We had a big fall, in the fall of 2020 set for 45, 50 church plants to start. The pandemic really hit that class of church planters as they – most of them pushed forward but, we ended up launching 9 and had probably, I think our third highest launch ever during the pandemic came and, a great church planter in Colorado Springs and I was curious on asking, trying to figure out what he did to do it and it was all those intangible things. It’s examples like you mentioned, like I mentioned before, he found different ways to go face-to-face, socially distanced of course, in order to make an impact in that community, months leading up to the actual launch. And I think they would have had way over a 1,000 people if the building restrictions would have allowed it. So, I think it’s a lot of those intangible lessons that have been learned that the church planters will carry forward with them.

Bart Blair: [00:16:57] Let me ask you a question about the use of the church online. So, I know where you guys have been the last few years as it relates to preparing and coaching a church planter for an online worship experience of some sort. My experience has been, and most churches are sort of like, well, we’re going to launch in-person and then we know we’re going to at the very least, be posting our sermons online, but not really processing that they’re going to need a church online experience of some sort out of the gate. In my experience, it’s just not where church planters are thinking. We’re trying to get people in a room, in a building, in a space. Do you think that the pandemic is going to change that in any way going forward, that as church planters are looking at launching a new church in 2021 or 2022, what role will church online play as they plant out of the gate?

Marc Cleary: [00:17:56] Yeah, I think it’ll continue to play a major role. I think that role has lessened some for the majority of churches, not for maybe your bigger personalities and bigger churches that are really capitalized on the digital church side of it. But, I know with us, we quickly added – we learned really quick because like you said, it used to be you just flipped on the camera and it streamed online. Now it’s its own separate production. And I do think church planters and church leaders need to treat it as its own separate church campus, so to speak, in how you staff it and how you produce it. Whether you just use the Sunday message live or record that particular message earlier in the week because I believe that the audience group is going to be there moving forward but, we added financial investment into it. We came up and learned from our church planters what equipment to buy. So we have an equipment list. We added curriculum on how to do digital and online church. We’re not taking that away. So, we increased the overall financial investment in order to help them and then developed a whole curriculum. So, I definitely see that audience growing steadily over the next several years because you can reach other people that don’t live in your community as well as reaching those people in your community, as well as reaching people in your community that don’t feel comfortable coming back to an actual venue just yet. So, I definitely see it continuing to have a lot of influence.

Bart Blair: [00:19:29] Yeah, obviously Missional Marketing, our primary work with churches is in the digital space and helping them increase their digital footprint. And, you know, we’ve been saying for years that your church website is – it’s the front door of your church, right? It’s just so unlikely that anyone’s going to walk through the front doors of your venue before having walked through the front door of your website. And maybe even before that, they’ve looked at your reviews on Google, right? They’re checking out what other people have said about you. My family, we moved back to Texas a few years ago and we did the vast majority of our church shopping before we even relocated to the city. Now, we’re church people and there were very specific things that that we were looking for to align with from a ministry standpoint. But, as far as those “unchurched” people – the people that we’re really trying to reach, people who are far from God, I think they’re going to spend a lot more time checking you out online than you think they are, right? It’s a big step to get someone from their living room into your venue. And, the more – I like what you said about tailoring the online experience for the online audience because I think what most churches have done traditionally and still a lot are doing is they’re just kind of creating this fly on the wall experience for people at home. That’s kind of like, hey, if you show up on a Sunday, this is what it’s going to look like rather than actually using the tool in that moment to do ministry and to actually engage with that person based on where they are in that moment. Giving them “next steps” that are appropriate for where they are: on the couch in the living room, or sitting on the back patio watching the service or the livestream or whatever it is on their phone. They need a next step and that next step will hopefully lead to a next step that will lead to a next step that will eventually lead them to actually coming to your campus. But I think that there’s going to be a few steps that are necessary. And that, just like my group, my my group’s ministry was always the church that I was pastoring. Our group’s ministry, small group’s ministry was just: key core to the body life of our church. We wanted people connected in small groups, but we recognized that for a new person coming in on a Sunday morning, it was a big leap for them to automatically go sit in a stranger’s living room. Like that was a big leap. And so, we had to kind of create some steps along the way that helped them see the value of connecting relationally. The value of kind of making relationships and having dialogue and doing discipleship together and then reduce the scary factor of going from – we were meeting in a movie theater. To get people from the movie theater into some stranger’s living room. Movie theater was – I love church planting in movie theaters because it’s such a familiar and easy place for people to come to. Most people in your community, especially, we were in a community that only had one movie theater. So, everybody in town had been there before. So coming into our space wasn’t something new. But, going and sitting in a perfect strangers living room for a small group was a completely different concept. And I think it’s true when you’re connecting with people who don’t have a church background to get them from their living room into your venue is also a big step. I don’t know how I rabbit trailed on that, but, something you said.

Marc Cleary: [00:22:45] Well, it is. And it’s funny that you said that because, especially like the Google reviews. We literally – members of our launch team, we were just telling our fall class of church planters that are launching this fall: hey, make sure you go on and actually check to see, do you have any reviews. If you do, or if you don’t, get your launch team, your leaders that you trust to go on and write reviews now. Every single one of them need to write reviews, right now. So, that’s important then to too. The social media as well. A lot of times social media is the step before the website step.

Bart Blair: [00:23:20] Yeah.

Marc Cleary: [00:23:20] So, they want to check out a story. They want to check out a post on Instagram, or what you tweeted or what you’re doing in the community as well. So, I think that is – the social media platforms are so important too because it’s a step before the step of checking you out on the website.

Bart Blair: [00:23:39] Yeah, I appreciate you saying that. And for you and any of our listeners, if you haven’t checked out our YouTube channel, we have a number of videos that we posted on there that are like tips and best practices for church plants as it relates to websites and SEO. How to make sure that your church is able to be found online. One of the common mistakes that many of us make as we think, I launched a website and people will find it. And there’s work that has to be done to make sure that people can actually find your website. That’s one of the things that Missional Marketing that we are really intent on doing is helping churches be more visible for church plants. It’s really critical because you literally don’t exist anywhere online and it can take a long time to generate the online presence unless you’re super intentional about doing the things that Google sort of says, you need to do these things. If you do these things, then Google will reward you with better visibility online. If you don’t do these things, it’s going to be hard for people to find you. So anyway, we’ve been creating some videos and have a few of them on the YouTube channel that are specifically related for church plants. It’s something, as a church planter myself, I’m passionate about and making sure that guys that are getting started have all the information they need to leverage Google and their online platform as best as they they can. Let me ask you another question. This is completely unrelated to what we’ve been talking about but it’s something that, because I was going to get you on this call, I wanted to ask you. I’m a person who has been involved in church planting for almost a couple of decades now. I attend the church planting conferences, the big ones. I have sort of my finger on the pulse of things that are going on in different church planting spaces. You guys have developed a model that has worked very well for you and it’s repeatable and it’s scalable. And I think that’s one of the things that you guys have realized is that you have this system, this process – it doesn’t work for everybody and it doesn’t work for every context. And I think, you said to me earlier before we started recording that, when you all assess church planters, you’re not assessing “the call for ministry” for that church planter, but you’re assessing more so, can that church planter work within the model and the framework that ARC is helping these church planters launch with? So what I respect about ARC is that you found a system, you found a model, you’ve found coaching that works and you’ve stuck with it. But, every time I go to a church planting conference, there are all kinds of new and different creative ideas for church planting. And, those things tend to percolate to the top and people write books about them and there’s blog posts and all this stuff. And then 3 years later, we’re on to, kind of, the next thing. I’m not going to name those different types of things. But, I want to ask you this question. How do you differentiate between trends in church planting or fads in church planting? Trends are things that really I think they kind of help us continue to move along with the culture, adapt to the culture, and actually help us make progress in the church planting space. Whereas fads tend to be something that gets really popular for a time because someone made it popular and it kind of looks cool and it sounds cool. And let’s just face it, all church planters want to be cool. I did say that out loud. I’m going to edit that part out if I need to. But, I’ve been there. I’m a church planter myself. Church planters like to be cool. How do you, when you’re looking at the landscape, how would you differentiate between “trends” and “fads” in church planting?

Marc Cleary: [00:27:24] The way we kind of look at it as, say you compare it to building a house. You have a foundation and you have a structure. Once you get that sheetrock on the wall, you can change out the paint color. You can put different wallpaper on it. You can put different shades up or curtains on your window. I can redo the countertops in the kitchen or whatnot. So, we look at the trends as the practices that were the same back in the first days of the church, to back in the early 1900s to back in 2000 to right now. Those trends continue to evolve but they’re the same foundational truths of building a church and what it takes to build those churches. So we build out our curriculum around those trends because to us they last through a pandemic. They last through cultural wars. They last through persecution. They last through all sorts of challenges that come the churches way. The fads. We embrace them but we put them in their proper perspective of – take advantage of it while you can but don’t put your whole boat – a whole house is not built on just that fad that is happening. There is nothing new under the sun. So, church planters that come to us and think that – I’ve got something different than what was done before. That’s not necessarily the case. You’re building on top of trends that have been going on for a long, long time and you’re just continuing to evolve those trends while taking advantage of certain fads that are out there. It could be: outreach became really popular for a while. That’s a trend. And then there’s fads within that trend. As well, worship has been a trend for a long time, but skinny jeans with a trucker hat and a tattoo. We’ll see if that’s a fad or not moving forward, you know, but there’s different flavors within even worship styles that we’re seeing taking place right now as well. But worship is a trend that’s not going to go anywhere. There’s just different ways to express through a fad as well. So our curriculum, we build out trends and then we use webinars like what we’re doing or podcasts like what we’re doing to address fads and take advantage of those to reach people for Christ.

Bart Blair: [00:29:37] That is very well said. That is very well said. I really appreciate your perspective on that and I’m glad that you identified the skinny jeans and trucker hats as a fad, not a trend.

Marc Cleary: [00:29:49] Which, I can pull off. So…

Bart Blair: [00:29:51] No. I mean, I have jeans that look like skinny jeans because of my COVID-19 experience. They’re not supposed to be skinny jeans, but I don’t do trucker hat very well. I’m bald, right? So, I wear a trucker hat and if I’m out in the sun, I still get burned on the back of my head where the…you know the… okay not important.

Marc Cleary: [00:30:12] Ok, I got you man. I’m tracking with you.

Bart Blair: [00:30:15] Not important. So, let me ask you another question. In the roles that I get to play in the ministry and here at Missional Marketing that I work with, I have the privilege of working with some of the largest churches in our country. Some amazing leaders and amazing teams. I also have the opportunity to work with some very small churches, some of which have been small for a long time and are probably going to stay small. Some of which – and when I say small, I mean some of them are like 20 people. I call anything between like 50 people and probably 500. I call that like a normal-sized church – that’s like normal. But one of the things that I think all of us as church planters do, we really want to see church growth. We want to see our churches grow. We want to continue to reach more people. I don’t know any church planter who ever said, well, you know, I’ve got my core team of 35 adults and I’m just content with that. We want to launch, we want to launch big and we want to continue to grow and reach more people and be more effective. Every megachurch that we can identify, maybe not everyone, but most of them started as a church plant at some time. Somebody started that church. Whether you’re talking about Moody in Chicago, Saddleback, you name it. All the big churches. They all started as a church plant at some time in history. Not every church plant is going to grow to be a megachurch. The vast majority of them will be normal-sized churches. A few hundred people. Maybe up to a 1,000 but, a lot of them will remain in kind of in that few hundred space. How do you help church planters or how does ARC help church planters keep a healthy perspective on how they define success in ministry? We know success is lost people getting saved and getting baptized and we can easily define success as numeric growth and meeting budget and being able to do the things that we believe that God has called us to do. But how do you help a church planter go into a church plant with the right mindset and a healthy perspective on what success is going to look like?

Marc Cleary: [00:32:33] Yeah, well it’s definitely a big challenge. I think more so than maybe ever, ever before because back when Moody was starting, there was no way to compare themselves versus other churches unless they read a newspaper article whenever it made it to them or whatever. But, to me, it’s all about contentment and it’s how we define success. Our role is to put it out there. The church planter’s role is to actually embrace it and believe it for themselves. One of our founders, Chris Hodges, was our first church planter. 60,000 plus member churches right now. Rick Bezet at New Life in Arkansas was also our first church plant. They launched on the same day together. They’re 15 – 20,000 people now. That’s not the case every time. So like, when we assess a church planter, we actually look at it: can they, in the coming years of ministry, so from the time they launch to hopefully 30 plus years down the road, can they build and sustain a church of 3 – 500 people? That is kind of our model’s goal. Again, not the only way to do it. We acknowledge that, but that’s our model’s goal. So, we talk about the dangers of comparison. We try to put it in proper perspective and then it really comes down to contentment. And one of the scriptures that I typically share is found in Psalms 16, verse I think 5 and 6. It says, the Lord is my chosen portion in my cup and God, you hold my lot, is what it says. So your lot is your defined area in which you live in. And it says, the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. So my lot, man, what God has given me is exactly what I’m supposed to have and I can find all my contentment and it’s pleasant. Indeed, the scripture says, I have a beautiful inheritance. And inheritance, we know is heavenly, not earthly as well. So, you know, you have to realize that this is yours. It’s not anyone else’s. But the same is true that what is somebody else’s is not yours as well. So, you have to keep that proper perspective when it comes to comparing this person, because everything’s perfect on social media. We all know, behind that post, and that story, it’s not perfect. But everything is perfect on social media and if you start wandering over into somebody else’s inheritance, somebody else’s lot, your lot and your inheritance is going to be neglected and not taken care of. So, I always tell our church planters man, you have to have the perspective that you build the church that God owns and allows you to operate in. You build that one person or one family at a time. You can’t even really look beyond that. It’s one wedding at a time. One funeral service at a time. One addiction that God uses you to help break at a time. One parent/child relationship restored. A marriage restored at a time. You really can’t look beyond that. If you just solely focus on building your structure, your message, your leadership system, your empowerment of the people in the pews, so to speak, your growth track at one person and one family at a time, you’re going to realize that that contentment, it’s there. And you’re going to celebrate and be happy for other people, but you’re going to operate within the lot that God has given and the inheritance that God has given you and you’re going to see amazing peace and you’re going to see some amazing things be done in your community and then God will take care of the rest. All the outside stuff that you can be a part of – get asked to go speak here and there and teach and influence and mentor and play golf with John Maxwell, whatever the case may be, all those things will come in due time. But you build that church one person, one family at a time and you’ll realize that contentment is satisfying.

Bart Blair: [00:36:37] That’s great. Have you played golf with John Maxwell?

Marc Cleary: [00:36:40] I have.

Bart Blair: [00:36:41] Ah, look at you. OK, all right.

Marc Cleary: [00:36:45] I have a funny story with it that we’ll save for another time,

Bart Blair: [00:36:48] OK?

Marc Cleary: [00:36:49] Yes, that was fun.

Bart Blair: [00:36:51] I was wondering. That didn’t come out of the blue. I was like, why did he say “golf with John Maxwell”? It’s because you’ve had that experience.

Marc Cleary: [00:36:58] I know a lot of pastors, they appreciate getting that snapshot on that 17th, 18th hole. You know John Maxwell, I mean, he’s incredible, so why not?

Bart Blair: [00:37:06] Yeah. Yeah. You know, one of the things – I thought of this while you were talking about taking one wedding at a time, one funeral at a time, one marriage restored at a time. We look at the landscape of pastors, you know, and a lot of the pastors that historically we’ve looked at and this is – it’s really, it’s not something to make light about is that, there have been large church pastors over the last 5 or 6 years that have had really hard falls. And while, on one level, as church planters and as pastors, we aspire to some degree to have the kind of influence that they have, to have the kind of ministry effectiveness that they have. And it’s hard not to compare yourself to that. And it’s hard not to look at that. My counsel to any church planter, especially young church planters who are still in the early stages of their ministry career is, in addition to taking that one marriage at a time, one restored, one funeral at a time, one wedding at a time is to say: don’t let your “giftedness” outgrow your character. So, we have a tendency to focus a lot on: I want to be a better preacher. I need to be a better communicator. I’m going to write a book. I’m going to have a podcast. I’m going to do things because I’m gifted in those areas. Every church planter that I know has really solid gifts in something that’s really easy to see. It’s a very visible thing. And you go, man, he’s just a visionary leader or he’s an incredible communicator. But, we also need to make sure that we’re focused on growing our character as a Jesus follower. It’s those times where we see the giftedness outweighs the character that we see pastors and church leaders in trouble. I just sort of trust that if, we as pastors, as church planters, focus as much on our character development, that that’s what will enable God to use us for more and entrust us with more because we’re focused on growing the right thing. If I’m focused on growing my own relationship with God and my character as a Jesus follower, it gives God more to work with, in me, and in my life and in my ministry. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be a megachurch pastor. It doesn’t necessarily mean that my church is going to be as big or as influential or as well known as somebody else’s church. But, my capacity is always going to be limited based on me and who God has made me to be and that might be intentional on God’s part. He may have decided he was only going to give me a little bit of capacity because he only wants to entrust me with something little. But I want to do the most that I can with that and it’s going to start with my own character development and making sure I’m focusing on the right things there.

Marc Cleary: [00:39:57] Now, that’s so good. To me it’s all about intimacy with Christ. You know, just as intimate as you are when you’re a desperate church planter trying to build your launch team and raise money, in year five, if you’re 5,000 people all of a sudden, I hope you’re just as intimate or more because that’ll create the health that just flows down in your marriage, your family, your church, your community and whatnot. And unfortunately, when great leaders do make unwise choices and bad choices and whatnot, a lot of times it can be traced back to a season where they weren’t as intimate as they wished they would have been.

Bart Blair: [00:40:36] We could do an entire podcast episode on that so I’m not going to go too far down that rabbit hole. But, it’s hard as a pastor at any stage in ministry to make that the priority that it needs to be.

Marc Cleary: [00:40:51] Correct.

Bart Blair: [00:40:51] When you’re planting a church and you’re in the original throes of it, everything demands. Everything is demanding your time. Your time, your attention, your energy. You’re pouring into everything. As the church grows, those demands on your time and your energy just continue to expand. Great leaders find ways to scale their leadership structure and their team structure so that they’re not carrying the burden of every minute detail of all the ministry. But there’s still that weight of leadership. There’s still a heavy load to carry as a pastor and as the leader of an organization. Whether it’s a church of 30 people or 3,000 people. There’s a heavy weight to carry there. And so, you’re right, making sure that you prioritize your personal relational time with God and focusing on actually reading scripture because you need to feed on it, not because you’re preparing a really awesome sermon to deliver on Sunday, right? And prayer time that’s about cultivating your own character and your own heart rather than just praying that God will bless the ministry that you lead, right?

Marc Cleary: [00:41:59] You’re so right and you know, as many church planters as you talk to, you probably do the same thing that I do. Whenever I talk to our church planters, right after they launch, whatever. My first 10 minutes of conversation is about them and about their family because that really – church growth and this tip and that tip, I can give it, you can give it, they can Google it, find it, ask a friend. There’s resources galore everywhere. But I want to know how they are doing and how they’re marriage is doing. How is their relationship with their kids? Have they been on a family vacation since they launched? Had they gone on a date night? What can I do to help you do that if it’s not been taking place? I’m sure you have very similar conversations. You know, knowing what you know and what you just expressed.

Bart Blair: [00:42:44] Ok. Marc. That was awesome and I could do this all day but we really shouldn’t. We’re actually over our time. So, I appreciate you spending the time with me. I’m going to fire 3 quick questions to you, just kind of the last 3. These are sort of fun and out of left field, but, just a little more thought-provoking. The first one is: what’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given as an adult?

Marc Cleary: [00:43:05] My spiritual father, Pastor Dino Rizzo, best friend, mentor and boss still. So, he said this a long time ago and I’ve never forgotten it when I was young, young, young man. It’s about the towel and not the title. In other words, as you mature and get older in life, it really becomes more and more about others, in your personal life and in ministry as well and you just love to see other people succeed. So, just reaching and serving people. It’s more about the towel than the title.

Bart Blair: [00:43:34] OK. I’m just going to clarify in this really confused Louisiana Alabama accent: that word was “towel”. T – O – W – E – L. Towel.

Marc Cleary: [00:43:43] I use a towel to wipe off the sweat from humidity.

Bart Blair: [00:43:47] There you go. It’s all about the towel, not the title. OK, that’s good. I just want to make sure that that was clear. OK. Notwithstanding the fact that: one of the things that we would both say to church planters and any pastor is, don’t spend too much time on social media, especially comparing yourself to others. Who do you follow on social media personally that you find either interesting or fascinating or informative?

Marc Cleary: [00:44:12] Yeah, I can’t necessarily spout off a bunch of different names, but what I actually really enjoy, who I enjoy following are people that I probably disagree with on some things. I love seeing their points, how they’re making their points, having an open heart and mind to say, OK, why do I think opposite and learn. Either reaffirm what I believe or possibly evolve it as well. It also helps me, if I ever get a chance to meet him, to have a talking point as well. So I actually enjoy and follow a lot of people I probably disagree with on a lot of different topics or opinions or whatnot, from sports to politics to being a believer or whatnot. So…

Bart Blair: [00:44:52] And I’m trusting on your general demeanor as a human being that you’re not a troll to those people, right? You’re just spying on them quietly to see what they have to say.

Marc Cleary: [00:45:03] You know, believe it or not, I just believe that we’re all supposed to respect and honor one another as children of God. So, no, I don’t try to troll unless it’s sports. Sports, I may troll. Like Matthew Barnett. He and I go way back on trolling each other on our college football fandom, so…

Bart Blair: [00:45:20] Well, speaking of which, and I know what the answer to this next question is going to be. If you weren’t doing your current job today, at ARC, what would you be doing?

Marc Cleary: [00:45:29] I’d be the athletic director at University of Notre Dame making sure the football team continues to dominate Matthew Barnett’s USC Trojans.

Bart Blair: [00:45:37] OK. Well, we’ll make sure that Matthew gets a copy of this podcast. We can edit out that little clip and send it to him especially if he needs it. Hey, Marc. I really appreciate you taking the time with me today. This has been really cool to just kind of pick your brain on some of these matters. You have a front row seat to a lot of stuff that’s going on in the church planting world. If anyone that’s listening to our podcast or watching online here would like to connect with you, maybe they have more questions about ARC, about church planting stuff that you guys are working on, how can they reach you?

Marc Cleary: [00:46:06] It’s simple. My email address is

Bart Blair: [00:46:17] Ok. I’ll make sure that I include that in the show notes for this podcast as well as a link to the ARC website and I hope that some of our listeners will reach out to you with big dreams, big ideas, big goals to expand God’s kingdom through church planting. Thanks again Marc.

Marc Cleary: [00:46:33] Oh, thank you. I’m really honored to be here. Thank you.

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