What Every Church Planter Needs to Know About Pain

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Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

“When I am in the cellar of affliction, I look for the Lord’s choicest wines.” (Samuel Rutherford, 1600–1661)

Planting a church might well land you in the “cellar of affliction.” Pain comes with the territory.

It could be the pain of circumstantial uncertainties, personal sin, unfulfilled hopes, unreasonable demands, spiritual warfare in your home, or core-group members who were “with you to the end” one month, then gone without notice the next.

Not me! Not my core group! Ours will be different! said I, the idiot.

Not me! Not my core group! Ours will be different! said I, the idiot.

For the past 22 years, I’ve lived in the church-planting world. First, as a teenager in a church-planting family; next, as a team member in a church-planting failure; now, as the lead pastor of a church-planting church.

Each of these seasons have been marked, in varying measures, by both sweetness and suffering, triumphs and trials. Here are three lessons I’m learning about pain that I wish I’d known up front as a church planter.

1. If pain is inevitable, self-pity is not an option.

If you want a pain-free life, don’t plant a church. Actually, don’t leave your room. Forget it—there’s no such thing this side of heaven.

Knowing pain is coming reduces the shock when it happens. Knowing pain is normal is a pre-emptive strike against self-pity.

And self-pity should have no place in a church planter’s arsenal of emotions. Frustration, yes. Sadness, definitely. Disappointment, for sure. But we must say a firm no to self-pity. Make no mistake: to become a church planter is to willingly embrace pain.

Eventually, each of us will be let down, betrayed, slandered, discouraged, misunderstood, misquoted, opposed, depressed, lonely, or spiritually exhausted.

Pain in ministry is one of the unexpected tools that God will use to shape you, gradually but increasingly, into the likeness of his Son.

Even if you’re the spiritual equivalent of Floyd Mayweather, with the ability to sidestep almost everything thrown at you so far, there will come a day when the circumstances of your life will press you against the ropes and land a right hook that will put you on your back.

And yet, it is in this place—where ministry just plain hurts—that God does some of his best work in us. As the Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “When God lays men upon their backs, then they look up to heaven.”

Why is any of this important? Because pain in ministry is one of the unexpected tools God will use to shape you, gradually but increasingly, into the likeness of his Son.

2. If Jesus is my King, pain can be my servant.

The various difficulties inevitable to church planting become servants to our sanctification, since they reveal where we are still trusting in ourselves. Pain is merely the sharp edge of the Great Physician’s scalpel; it opens us to reveal what’s still out of place within us.

Think about it: hardship exposes the idols camouflaged in the background of our successes. Difficulty has a way of shining light on the nocturnal narcissism still hunting for glory from the dark corners of our heart. Disappointment works for our good by surfacing secret entitlements. Opposition keeps us prayerfully grounded in the realities of our mission. Ultimately, pain reveals pride.

Don’t miss the fact that Paul’s visit into the unspeakable glories of heaven concludes with a painful thorn in the flesh that God refused to remove. Why, Paul asks? “To keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:1–7).

Pain teaches us to exchange self-reliance for prayerful dependence.

Pain teaches us to exchange self-reliance for prayerful dependence. This is why he could confidently exclaim:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Cor. 4:16–17)

Did you catch that? Our affliction is preparing us for something. Disappointment, opposition, and failure need not master us when we remember that God has made these servants of present growth and future glory.

I can remember sitting under the teaching of Thabiti Anyabwile at an Acts 29 event. He walked us through the role of suffering in revival and encouraged us with these words:

God is as sufficient with our suffering as he is with his Son’s blood. Your suffering, Christian, is your slave. Your suffering is working for you to produce “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” The next time suffering comes into your room, say, “Welcome, my slave. Produce for me the glory that God has designed.”

Under God’s sovereign foot, every ministry beating we experience will be treaded into the fine wine of a Christlike life.

3. If Jesus is with me, I can face anything.

Imagine being across the table from Paul as he nears the end of his life. Here sits a servant of Christ who has been faithful through seemingly insurmountable difficulties (2 Cor. 11:23–28). And through it all he has been faithful, has fought the good fight, and is about to finish the race set before him.

“Paul, what’s your secret?” you ask. “How do you keep taking beatings, getting back up, and pouring yourself out in the work of the gospel?”

The aging apostle leans in close, the smile on his face betraying an almost inappropriate joy in light of the scars on his body. He looks you straight in the eye and whispers, “You want to know my secret? Christ is enough. In his grace, I have sufficiency for every thorn [2 Cor. 12:9]. In his love, I have security for every uncertainty [Rom. 8:38–39]. In his strength, I have power for every circumstance [Phil. 4:12–13].”

Paul was no stranger to the pain of relational betrayal, violent opposition, ruined plans, or unfulfilled desires. Yet both the wonders and worries of ministry had lost their defining power over him. He had learned the secret of contentment. He had learned that Christ is enough.

Do not fear the valleys that lie ahead. The Lord Jesus will be with you there.

Church planter, don’t fear the valleys that lie ahead. Don’t be surprised when the path slopes downward for a time. Don’t shrink back in self-pity when it seems the shadow of darkness is getting the upper hand. Take heart! The Lord Jesus will be with you there (Ps. 23:4). You will be opposed, but you will never be forsaken. You will be struck down, but you will never be destroyed (2 Cor. 4:9).

When the presence of our risen King becomes more real and precious than the pain and disappointments of church planting, it is then that we will be able to say, with Paul, “I have learned the secret; I can face anything.”

Editors’ note: 

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.

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