The Painful Good in Gospel Goodbyes

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Experience has taught me that church planting is neither a recipe for unqualified success nor the source of unbridled joy. It’s the sharp end of gospel ministry, and it comes at a price.

As we die to our priorities and accept those of the risen Christ, some of our choices lead directly to situations and emotions we would not choose by ourselves. This is not an abstract calculation, but a real-life process that feels like grieving, suffering, even dying in so many different ways.

And one of the often-overlooked costs of church planting is the acute pain of gospel goodbyes.

When Goodbye Hurts

The pangs of saying goodbye are real. Perhaps you can relate—whether it be a temporary goodbye, like what you say at an airport or train station, or a more permanent one, like when the job change comes, or a child leaves home, or life’s circumstances call you elsewhere.

Whatever the case, goodbyes weren’t meant to be easy. It’s right and good that we grieve.

One of the often-overlooked costs of church planting is the acute pain of gospel goodbyes.

But how do you mourn in a goodbye when you’re the reason for it? You’re the one who took that new job. You’re the one who chose to move away. Because if you’re the cause, you can’t help but feel the pain could have been avoided.

Or in church planting, how do you respond to this sadness when you’ve championed the sending? How about when you’re the ones being sent?

Regardless of the situation, we should aim to honor God as we grieve in our goodbyes. Here are three ways to do so.

1. Acknowledge, Don’t Ignore

We’re not stoics, which means we’re not called to maintain a stiff-upper lip in all circumstances (despite that being a distinctively British trait). We can all tend toward a kind of muscular discipleship where we assume we should just “get on with it.” Perhaps we mistake sadness for sin.

But one of the mysteries of the Spirit-filled life is that sorrow and joy are not incompatible (2 Cor. 6:10), tears and thankfulness not mutually exclusive, anger and contentment not irreconcilable.

Behind every tragedy, disappointment, and heartache is a Father who knows best. His ways are inscrutable. And he works them all for our good.

When circumstances conspire against us, we realize this is no blind fate, no accident of chance. Behind every tragedy, disappointment, and heartache is a Father who knows best. His ways are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33). And he works them all for our good (Rom. 8:28; 32).

As Jonathan Edwards said so well, “Our bad things turn out for good. Our good things can never be lost. And the best things are yet to come.”

2. Feel, Don’t Suppress

Last week, we sent out a team to plant a church. This past Sunday, they weren’t with us. They won’t be in the future. And that is so very painful.

But this is part and parcel of church planting. At one and the same time, church planting is glorious and grievous. It’s hope-filled and heartbreaking. Church planting involves sending people—hopefully our best—whom we love and cherish.

People we’ve invested in, done life with, and ministered alongside. People we’ve wept, laughed, and longed with. People who’ve been there for us in the darkest moments, reminding us of the truths of the gospel and the faithfulness of God. These are people we thank God for, doing so with a deep sense of joy (Phil. 1:3–4).

The sense of loss over a good thing is truly a good thing.

So as we prepared to send this team out, I wanted to lead our church family in saying goodbye well. But this required that I understood and engaged my own sadness rightly. Rather than suppressing the sadness, I embraced it. I didn’t try to spurn or short-circuit it. Several of the folks had been with us for nearly 20 years. They were part of the small core team with whom I originally planted The Crowded House.

The sense of loss over a good thing is truly a good thing. We should never be able to shrug our shoulders and easily walk away from friendships into the next phase of life.

3. Press On, Don’t Give Up

In the final analysis, we simply kept going. We resolved to walk humbly and faithfully in continued service, thankful for the Lord’s kindness, content in his sovereign care, mindful of his myriad mercies.

With Paul, we know life is characterized by anguish of heart. With him, we acknowledge affliction, but declare we are not crushed. We confess perplexity, but make it known we are not driven to despair (2 Cor. 4:8). We are deeply thankful that we are not forsaken and never, ever destroyed (2 Cor. 4:9).

And like the apostle, we do not lose heart (2 Cor. 4:16). Why? Because we know that this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17–18).

So we really can say goodbye in a God-honoring, Spirit-filled, Christ-commending way. This is not to say there won’t be pain, sorrow, and sadness—there will and should be. But the gospel gives us real hope, purpose, and joy in this painful act of worship. Which means every gospel goodbye is ultimately good.

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