Church planting is not for the faint of heart. Like any other ministry, it will involve trials of various kinds. Therefore, church planters must not only anticipate hardship—they must prepare themselves and their people for it.
Given popular church-planting models, however, this is instantly problematic. At times, the invitation to join a church-planting team can be somewhat disingenuous. It’s tempting to tactfully downplay the inevitable suffering that will be involved. After all, we tell ourselves, if we really want to win people to our “vision,” surely we need to paint an appealing picture.
But if we sell church planting as little more than a nice walk through the park, we’re setting up ourselves—and our people—for failure.
Why am I certain planting a church will involve suffering? Consider Abraham. Though he was not a church planter, reflecting on his life has helped me as a church-planting pastor. In Genesis 12:1, Abraham (then Abram) receives a directive from the Lord: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” As he receives this command, Abraham is faced with the inevitable suffering that follows it.
Church planters must not only anticipate hardship—they must prepare themselves and their people for it.
For Abraham, obeying God entailed a departure from his country, home, and family. From that moment on, nothing was left for him in Ur of the Chaldeans. God’s promise lay ahead.
In a similar way, church planting invites us to follow God’s leading through various hardships. For some, this will involve an Abraham-like departure from one’s culture, home, and community. For others—those who plant “closer to home”—there’s still the reality of starting afresh as we relocate our hearts and reallocate our lives.
We experienced this tension as the Spirit began to stir within us a desire to plant a church here in Calgary. Even when it was time to go, we wanted to linger. Perhaps, we thought, we could keep one foot planted in our “Ur” while stretching the other toward God’s promise.
But we were wrong, and suffering ensued. In this time of lingering, we became increasingly disengaged with the community around us. Even the comforts we’d hoped to maintain wore thin. Fighting God’s leading proved more discomforting than choosing to trust him. Our community was shifting, too, as long-established friendships were being replaced by new ones in the place God was calling us.
It was—for us and those who came alongside us—a season of acute suffering. And though it felt counterintuitive, the act of leaving was crucial for shaping our hearts and deepening our grasp of gospel grace.
So church planter, don’t be surprised when the hardships you and your people face are exactly what God intends to use to refine you (Rom. 5:3–5).
What Did We Expect?
Again, the life of Abraham is instructive. His spiritual fortitude wasn’t developed overnight. In fact, the majority of his life story is a cyclical reaffirmation of God’s promise, and Abraham’s growing trust to receive it. As pastors, we must do the same thing—consistently reiterate God’s promises—both for ourselves and those we’re summoned to shepherd.
Church planter, don’t be surprised when the hardships you and your people face are exactly what God intends to use to refine you.
But how do we do this amid suffering? The opening verses of 1 Peter are instructive here. Peter addresses his recipients—non-Jewish people who have placed their faith in Jesus—as “exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1–2). Later, he calls them “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11). This is noteworthy because Peter isn’t writing to people who have been physically dispersed or relocated as we would understand being exiled; rather, through faith in Christ, they are no longer at home in their places of their birth. They are citizens of a new kingdom under Jesus.
And the same is true of us today. All followers of Jesus are a displaced people living in a once-familiar-but-now-foreign home.
A fellow pastor once told me, “We really have nothing to offer followers of Jesus other than the invitation to ‘come and die.’” In other words, a life following Jesus involves being poured out for others. We must remind ourselves, and our people, that we do not plant churches for ourselves and our own comfort.
In fact, we say precisely that at our church all the time: “We did not plant this church for ourselves.” It’s intended to clearly depict the mission: we’re here for the lost in this community. But it also serves as a rebuke to the default mechanism inside ourselves to simply do what feels comfortable.
And in our church-planting journey, almost nothing has been comfortable. I often feel displaced in my own city. But the goal of the lost coming to know and be established in Christ makes it worth it. Like Abraham, who looked at the stars and imagined descendants beyond number, I look at my city and dream of a time when churches work together toward the common goal of seeing people transformed by Christ’s grace.
The gospel is both the medicine for our weary hearts and also the motivation to sustain us as we press on for God’s glory.
The gospel is both the medicine for our weary hearts and also the motivation to sustain us as we press on for God’s glory. It’s medicine because we’re healed and refreshed by the work of Christ; and it’s motivation for mission because lives truly transformed by this gospel are compelled to proclaim it to those around them.
So church planter, mend and move your heart—and the hearts of your people—with this message. For nothing else has the power to sustain you until the end.