We didn’t know what we were doing. But our plans, as we saw them, were coming together.
It was the summer of 2006. We scooped up our growing family and all our belongings into the back of a van. We’d accepted the call to return to our sending church in Birmingham, England, to help lead a church plant in the area we’d left two years before.
Church planting was happening in the UK at that point, but with nothing like the intensity that it is now. Since we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, we devoured whatever resources we could find.
By the fall of 2006, we were busy preparing: forming a core team, dreaming, developing, planning, and praying. We looked forward to Easter Sunday, when we planned to open our doors to the public.
Then came the phone call that changed my world; one of those moments you don’t forget.
It was the call that would result in numerous trips between Birmingham and Oxford and, eight weeks later, would lead to me speaking at the funeral of my father. He had always been active and healthy, so this was completely unexpected. Dad was a committed believer, but his death still ruined me.
What does this have to do with planting a church? Good question. Over the past 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of being involved—either directly or indirectly—in numerous church-planting endeavors.
And with almost every church-planting pastor I know, there’s been one common denominator: the experience of gut-wrenching hardship, coming either just before or soon after they planted a church.
God often allows church-planting pastors to undergo peculiar suffering. And he purposes this for our good.
Whether it be relational issues, health, persecution from outside the church, or division and squabbles from within, it seems to me God often allows church-planting pastors to undergo peculiar suffering.
In his infinite wisdom, he purposes this for our good.
Humanly speaking, this sounds crazy. It’s not the way we would do it.
Any good gardener will tell you that as you sow seeds, you should divide them into plugs and then put them in pots to grow.
Then, in the early days of growth, you treat them gently. If it’s winter, you store them in greenhouses, to ensure they grow in the most ideal conditions. You water and feed them, and make sure they’re growing at a healthy rate.
Only later, once the plants have reached a certain level of maturity, do you expose them to the elements and see how they do.
In God’s mysterious economy, pain and suffering are key ingredients to humble maturity.
But God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8–9). In his mysterious economy, pain and suffering are key ingredients to humble maturity.
Why? Each context and individual is different, but here are two reasons I’m convinced of.
First, problems have a way of weaning us off ourselves and onto Christ (2 Cor. 12:10). As Spurgeon once said, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”
Often, it’s only as we receive that phone call, as we exit yet another difficult meeting, as we mourn with mourners, that we realize we can’t look inward for what we need most. Similarly, the answers we want aren’t ultimately found in the next church-planting textbook.
Our most difficult moments are the waves that throw us against the Rock of Ages. Of course it’s painful. Of course we don’t like it. But does our Father not know what we need most? He kindly reveals our inabilities, that we might treasure him as the only One who is able. He reminds us that planting churches is not about us.
Second, problems and pain have a way of shaping us so that we’re better shepherds. In my experience, many planters are energetic, courageous, and bold. They lead with fervor.
And yet, when it comes to sitting beside a hospital bed with someone who is dying, or coming alongside someone struggling to make it through another day at work, many of us struggle.
Perhaps the Lord places us in the “greenhouse” of suffering with deliberate intent: that we might receive compassion from him that we can then channel to others (2 Cor. 1:4).
We often learn best through experience, and I suspect that was true for me. We had our plans, but the Lord’s prevailed.
As I reflect on the death of my father, so much of my perspective has changed. It’s almost as though I see things—life, ministry, church planting, preaching, shepherding—through a new lens.
As I reflect on the death of my father, so much of my perspective has changed. It’s almost as though I see things—life, ministry, church planting, preaching, shepherding—through a new lens. By God’s grace, I’m better able to apply the gospel, both to my life and also the lives of others.
But it really hurts. It still does.
Why greenhouse trials? Perhaps, in the sanitized West at least, we need reminders that we inhabit a world of death.
Perhaps, as the Lord exposes us to the reality of suffering, he reminds us of our own mortality, our own need of the gospel, and the sufficiency of his grace.
Perhaps, as that work happens, he steadily makes us into the pastors he wants us to be.
To read more on the topic of pain and faithful endurance in ministry, check out The Gospel Coalition’s new book, 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, featuring profiles of pastors such as Paul, John Calvin, Wang Ming-Dao, Janani Luwum, and Charles Spurgeon.