Church planting is a roller coaster.
Ask anyone who was ever mad enough to jump on and strap in for the ride, and they’ll tell you the same. Some days, the joyous thrill will make you want to scream ecstatically from the top of your lungs. Other days, you’ll be so low that you’d rather just stagger off and puke.
As I reflect on almost two decades of being involved in church planting, my memories and emotions are vast and varied. I can recall the buzz of knowing God had called us to plant a church, but also the darker moments when I wished—even prayed—that he would “un-call” us.
Ups and Downs
I remember the first believer we baptized, but also the first one who committed suicide. We’ve wept as rebels who became disciples went on to become prodigals; then celebrated as the prodigals came home.
We’ve witnessed glorious conversions and grievous desertions. Beautiful weddings and bitter separations. We’ve raised leaders and lost leaders. We’ve been patted on the back and stabbed in the back—sometimes by the same people.
There have been times when I’ve been so energized by God’s work that I couldn’t sleep, but also moments when I’ve been so depressed—so fearful and bereft of hope—that I could barely crawl out of bed.
We’ve wept as rebels who became disciples went on to become prodigals; then celebrated as the prodigals came home.
There’s a proverb that sums it up: “Even in laughter the heart may ache” (Prov. 14:13). This proverb captures the bliss-pain of church planting.
One day we were preparing to baptize a precious mother and son, whose salvation had meant so much to our church family. Sadly, I had to forfeit the joy of being involved because I was dealing with a guy (whom we were also planning to baptize) who’d showed up drunk.
While the other baptisms were happening, I remained in the lobby attempting to reason with this man, while trying to not get punched by his intoxicated and aggravated relatives. By the time I hit the sack at the end of that day, my head was all over the place—I honestly didn’t know what to feel.
I understand that much of this turmoil is not unique to church planting; this is standard fare for all involved in ministry. Yet there’s something about the fragility and vulnerability of those early days in a church plant that make the ups and downs feel a little more extreme. Surely, saplings feel the fury of the storm more keenly than the mature trees with deeper roots and thicker trunks.
I was plagued by the fear that we’d started with nothing, had grown into something, but were always just one crisis away from losing everything.
Throughout the nine years that I led our first church, alongside seasons of crazy faith, wide-eyed wonder, and a heart bursting with joy at what God was doing, I was still plagued by the fear that we’d started with nothing, had grown into something, but were always just one crisis away from losing everything.
Like I said: a roller coaster. However, a quick walk through the book of Acts makes me wonder if we should expect anything different.
Learn From the (Crazy) Early Church
Early on in Acts, we see a fledgling church explode to life as the promised Holy Spirit invades the prayer meeting, causing the church to grow exponentially in a single day. A community of radical grace is formed, miracles are unleashed, and the Word is preached with supernatural power.
Yet by chapter four, Peter and John are dragged before a council of religious leaders who want them to shut up about Jesus (Acts 4:18). They don’t. They pray for boldness (Acts 4:29), God answers, and they continue with the mission.
Shortly after, we see Stephen stoned, with the approval of a young man determined to stomp out the church (Acts 7:58–8:1). But this young man, the one responsible for Stephen’s brutal death, is conquered by Christ (Acts 9:4–6). So Paul, too, climbs aboard the roller coaster, and God uses him to plant churches across the ancient world.
We’re not called to carry a cushion, but a cross.
Does any of this sound like an easy ride? Why did the early church keep doing it? Why do we keep doing it? Why would anyone want to ride this roller coaster?
Answer: not because it’s easy, but because we have a King who is worthy.
Jesus is the God-man who took on flesh, navigating every human emotion—from triumphs to tears, adoration to betrayal—knowing all the while the reason he’d come down was to be lifted up, in order that he might draw all people to himself.
And after being lifted up for our sins, his body was laid down in the grave. After conquering death, he laid out his gospel manifesto for the nations. Then he ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he rules now and forever.
This is our model for Christian life and ministry. We’re not called to carry a cushion, but a cross (Matt. 16:24–25).
As we seek to reach the lost, the lowest, and the least with the gospel—and to plant communities of gospel light amid deep demonic darkness—we’re guaranteed to encounter sickness, sorrow, opposition, persecution, and acute pain. At times, we’ll be tempted to pack up, to tap out, to just stagger off the roller coaster and puke.
One day, you will exchange the cross of death for the crown of life.
In those moments, we mustn’t despair. Rather, we behold the One who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross (Heb 12:1–2). So, wherever you are right now, can I remind you how the story ends?
One day, you will exchange the cross of death for the crown of life (James 1:12). You will leave behind the days of pain and be taken up into the courtroom of your King. There, along with countless others—some of whom you had the privilege of sharing Christ with—is where you will spend eternity. The Christ who saved and sustained you—even through all the ups and downs (Phil. 1:6), will be the King you enjoy forever.
So, about that roller coaster, do you want to get off? Neither do I. For the glory of Christ, then, let’s ride.