I sighed heavily on the phone as I was coaching a young church planter. I knew what was coming next. The struggle. The heartache. The bewilderment.
This wasn’t my first rodeo of coaching church planters and after 10 years, I knew what came next was the unpacking of broken dreams. Unfulfilled expectations. Confused priorities. Flawed Metrics of success that told the planter he was failing.
I was tired.
I was tired of hearing it.
To be honest listening to planters pour their hearts out can be a tough row to hoe. It’s not because I’m cold, but rather the opposite. Their pain is my pain. I’ve lived it. I’ve survived it. And because of that, I serve them.
When I spoke, it was a mournful tune much like the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, or Job. The heart cry of church planters is often the whistling in the dark down a seemingly deserted alleyway, where the planter asks, like David, if God is even listening anymore.
This is what I said on the phone that day. I believe it explains why planting can be such a lonely road.
Church planting to everybody on the outside is about starting a new church, but for the church planter it is a long, painful process of surrender. It can be the anvil upon which God hammers out the impurities of our good and wrong desires. The mixed ores of heaven, and the ores of the flesh take no beating like they do in the crucible of a church plant.
When a first-time church planter gets ready to launch, there is always a vague expectation that when the lost hear them preach, it will be the answer to all of their prayers. We imagine we will answer all their unanswered questions. We fantasize of being the channel by which God will fulfill all their secret longings for Him. Yet, when the doors open, and so few come, the church begins to do the downward spiral and every time it circles the drain, the church planters heart leaves a skid mark as it rubs itself raw on the descent.
And herein lies the rub…it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So much of our worth as planters still seems to be caught up in numbers; the most deceptive metric ever invented in connection with church work. Even Whitefield, who could draw much larger crowds than Wesley remarked at Wesley’s death that because Wesley discipled, the Methodist movement was strong, and the impact lasting. It was quality over quantity. Whitefield added that because he hadn’t built a comparable discipleship process, his “followers were a rope of sand”. Numbers are just that, and they are no support for an ego that feeds on anything but Christ.
Over the years, I’ve found that planting a church can be like taking a long walk with Jesus down the beach. Much like Peter’s post-resurrection stroll Jesus gets to the heart of our motives. “What do you want? To glorify my name, or make a name for yourself?”
Of course we say “Oh Lord, of course I want to you know, glorify your name and stuff”. Deep down, we can’t wait until they quote us like Keller. Therefore he asks again. And again. And again. For Peter, it only took three times, and the third time wounded him. But for us? Well, let’s just say that this conversation can stretch out for years, and when we finally surrender, and say “Lord, you know all things…”, we’ve stopped hiding. Like Peter, this surrendering confession only comes because we’ve been deeply hurt in the process of the questioning.
To sum up, church planting is a long breaking process.
An intense hardcore discipleship process.
A slow crucifixion.
The long defeat.
In the end, it’s all worth it. It’s worth the pain, bewilderment, and confusion. Because on the other side of our surrender, we regain clarity. Maybe for the first time, we see Christ. We see ourselves. And our motives are exposed. Perhaps, more than we realize, our church plants are not really for the lost as we like to imagine; as if they so badly needed us to go after them. God could send anybody after all. He doesn’t need you. Perhaps your church plant is more for your good than theirs. Perhaps it’s for the sanctifying of your souls, as much as theirs.