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When Your Church Isn’t What You Dreamed

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

Planting a church can be hazardous to your soul.

Obviously, there are more physically dangerous jobs on the planet, but when it comes to sheer spiritual danger, few occupations outrank “church planter.” So before you quit your cushy job grinding asphalt, let me give you fair warning of what’s to come.

Most people get into church planting for a few common reasons:

  1. To see people far from Jesus put their faith in him.
  2. To see their town, neighborhood, or city transformed by a vibrant community of faith.
  3. To see a whole bunch of churches launch out of their new church.

These goals are Christ-exalting, thrilling, and, for most new churches, agonizingly slow to accomplish. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I recently got this one-sentence email from a church planter: “I want to quit and need someone to talk me out of it.”

This haunting sentence was penned by a passionate and godly man who had discovered the daily grind of church planting. Like countless planters before him, he learned the hard way that few people sprint through the doors of your new church, repenting of their sin and throwing themselves headlong into gospel ministry. Rather, the people you invite to church stare at you with incredulity when you tell them you meet in an elementary school gymnasium.

Few people sprint through the doors of your new church, repenting of their sin and throwing themselves headlong into gospel ministry. Rather, the people you invite to church stare at you with incredulity when you tell them you meet in an elementary school gymnasium.

When a passionate church planter discovers the slow, difficult grind of church planting, secret idols are easily exposed. Even godly ambition can reveal hidden idols.

Steadfast Savior

The gospel you preach to weary people each week is the same gospel you desperately need. Let me remind you of what you already know: Jesus will never let you down (even when it feels like he has).

By every earthly indication, Jesus had let his disciples down. He told them he was leaving, and they were grappling with the reality of going it alone without him. He told them they would lose their spiritual family and get kicked out of the synagogue.

On top of all of that, Jesus lamented that there was a bunch of stuff he wished he could tell them, but couldn’t. This was a new and terrifying reality, but he knew what they needed to hear: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20).

In hindsight, we know Jesus is talking about his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. But there are echoes of his promise that reach into the churches the apostles were to plant—and to the churches we plant 2,000 years later.

It will be tough. You will have sorrow.

Your church may not—probably will not—be all you thought it would be.

Sorrow is woven into the fabric of our world, and that includes church planting. It’s not going to be an easy ride. Plans will fail. People will disappoint you. Your church may not—probably will not—be all you thought it would be. And this makes what Jesus said next all the more glorious: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).

Your heart will rejoice. No one will take your joy from you. This is true for you, just as it was true for the disciples. You will see Jesus, and the immediate effect will be joy—true, lasting joy that cannot be taken away.

In church planting, as in life generally, you have the strange capacity to feel joy and sorrow in the same minute. One minute you rejoice at someone coming to know Christ; in the next you have to make a difficult call in a pastoral situation.

If you tie your spiritual wellbeing to your circumstances, your life will be a never-ending emotional whirlwind. Don’t do it.

Certain Hope

Jesus knows this to be true of us. He knows that life in this world—especially our efforts to make him known—will bring tribulation. We will experience hardship. But Jesus offers us a stable peace amid a troubling world: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In Christ alone, there is peace. Peace through the storms that church planting will bring.

In Christ alone, there is peace. Peace through the storms that church planting will bring.

As you seek to plant churches that put the glory of Christ on display, tribulation will come. But don’t lose heart: Christ has overcome the world. We plant churches to take this glorious message to the world. We long for more people to have joy and peace in Christ in this world full of tribulation.

So take heart, but also guard your heart. The task of church planting is glorious, but it is not ultimate. Like anything besides Christ, church planting makes for a bad savior.

If planting your church begins to mean more to you than Jesus does, the slow grind will become a slow death. When you forget that Jesus will never let you down, empty chairs on a gymnasium floor can accuse your soul and breed bitterness in your heart.

But when you lift your eyes to Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father, you can remember that you are loved. He has not abandoned you. And he will never fail you.

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