As a college student I was driven and ambitious, determined to make a name for myself. This led to a relentless pursuit of academic and extracurricular success. But, at the end of the day, I was restless and dissatisfied.
During this season, a fellow student handed me a book called Desiring God. The author, a man I’d never heard of, boldly stated his thesis: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Little did I know, but this idea eventually led me to drastically change my life plans. I deferred law school to spend a year in seminary. I needed to see, for myself, if this audacious claim could be true.
In that first year of seminary, everything changed. I’d found fresh joy and satisfaction in Jesus, which spilled over in a desire to share this same message that was transforming me. Such joy propelled me through seminary, on into student ministry, and eventually into church planting.
So there I was, an idealistic young pastor with a passion to plant joy-filled churches. What could possibly go wrong?
Little did I know that church planting would test this conviction—that God’s glory could be my deepest joy—in ways I never would’ve expected. As the grind of church planting began, it didn’t take long for me to notice how utterly circumstantial my joy was. Whether it was my fundraising abilities, the size of our new church, the effect we were having in our city, or how well I’d preached on Sunday, I was up and down like a roller coaster.
As the grind of church planting began, it didn’t take long for me to notice how utterly circumstantial my joy was.
In light of my own story, I probably should’ve seen this coming, but I was caught off guard by the seduction of church planting “success.” This was driven home for me in a fresh way when This American Life ran a fascinating series on church planting called “If You Build It, Will They Come?”
The podcast drew striking parallels between the world of tech start-ups and church planting. They pointed to the church-planting prospectus, fundraising models, target audience, and origin stories; they cited the conferences, boot camps, and incubators, noting how both look to metrics and benchmarks for the sweet assurances of success. Viewed through this lens, the big question truly was: “If you build it, will they come?”
This reminded me that while I got into church planting to help people find their joy in Jesus, it was all too easy for my own happiness to be hijacked by these commonly used church-planting metrics. All of which has forced me to ask: How do I know if my joy really is anchored in Christ?
I’ve been involved in church planting long enough to recognize that even in seasons of “success,” there’s still a nagging sense of discontent. It’s never enough. Church-planting success is a bad god. Not only doesn’t it deliver on its promises, it also steals my joy.
And even more importantly, if God grows my church, it’s for his glory. He has zero interest in glory sharing (Ezek. 36:22). Rather, humility, gratitude, and a kingdom vision bigger than one’s own church characterizes planters who find their joy in Jesus.
Second, I’ve had to ask myself: When suffering comes, what’s my first response? At the worst of times, suffering has caused me to doubt my gifts, my team, our church, and even God.
But recently I’ve been freshly aware of how suffering strips away counterfeit joys. In suffering, we are confronted with the question: Is Jesus enough? It’s one thing to talk about delighting in God when your bank account is flush, when your core team is flourishing, and when new folks are flocking to your church.
In suffering, we are confronted with the question: Is Jesus enough?
But what about when the inevitable budget crunch comes? When there’s dissension in your leadership team? When people you’ve loved and served decide to leave? When you struggle with health or family issues? When you experience opposition from people in your community? Only then does the rubber of delighting in God meet the proverbial road of the trials of life.
Simple (Not Easy) Solution
These different forms of suffering strip away our comfort, security, and illusions of control. Suffering showcases our insecurities. In all these situations, will our joy remain constant? Can we say with David, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26)? If we’re going to plant joy-filled churches, we’re going to need the kind of joy in Jesus that transcends the highs and lows of church planting.
So, church planter, how do we fight for joy? This may seem overly simplistic, but joy is a byproduct of an intimate relationship with Jesus. This is why Jesus prays that we would know him (John 17:3)—and why we learn that true, lasting joy doesn’t exist apart from him (John 17:13). So we don’t pursue joy for its own sake.
To get this backward is to dishonor God and rob ourselves of the joy we so desperately need. And amid all the demands of church planting, we risk settling for this kind of cheap joy. We know we need to cultivate a life of joy, but as the pressures of planting creep in, it can become all too easy to squeeze the pursuit of Jesus out. Thus we end up replacing the deep pursuit of Jesus with the shallow pursuit of joy.
Church planters, fight this urge by abiding in Christ. The goal of our lives and ministries is to know him, trusting that in our union with him, our joy will be full (John 15:11). And when we are there—abiding in Christ—no accumulation of success will get to our heads, and no amount of suffering will get to our hearts.