November 25, 2019

How Not to Persevere in Ministry

Since I am getting massive in size, I’ve decided it’s of the highest importance to lose weight. So I’ve been going to the gym. I won’t bore you with the details of my routine, except to tell you that I do a 25-minute run at the start of each session. For the first 30 seconds, I feel like Eliud Kipchoge. But soon after those 30 seconds of running bliss, my breathing is heavy and my limbs feel like bits of old salami. By the 15-minute mark, my head is down, and I tell myself: just power through.

This mindset, while effective when doing exercise, can be lethal when applied to planting a church. We’re about a year and a half into our church-planting journey, but we’re still not ready to launch. Most church planters know that there’s a dangerous desire to launch early. We want to have something to ‘show’ for all our work. But this is where the ‘just power through’ mindset is unhelpful. Just as my head goes down when running gets hard, so might I be tempted to ‘power through’ this early phase of planting and start a Sunday service. However, there are (at least) three massive problems to this mentality.

1. People become an obstacle rather than an opportunity.

This is the one I fear most in my own ministry: seeing people as obstacles rather than gospel opportunities. In our community here in Inverness, people battle numerous issues: from poor mental and physical health to serious addictions. In fact, our scheme is in the bottom 0.2% for overall health in the whole of Scotland. Therefore, many people in our community are needy.

And yet, I sense my tendency to view people as obstacles to the church plant instead of sinners in need of a Saviour. It’s easy to become preoccupied with myself—focusing on what I need as a new church planter. This, in turn, can lead to growing frustrated with God. I end up praying: Lord, just give me a couple of ‘normally’ needy people so that we can get this church planted.

My heart drifts to this sinful disposition far more often than I’d like to admit. Instead of preaching the gospel or seeing the joy of unbelievers reading God’s Word, I want to advance my own agenda. This reveals one subtle danger of a ‘power through’ mindset: we might just miss the gospel opportunities God puts in front of us.

The hardness of my own heart is scary, and I need to remind myself that I too am sinner in need of gospel grace every day. I also need the sobering reminder that if I—as the lead planter—model this sort of behaviour, it’s likely to permeate the rest of our team. If left unchecked, we could all end up viewing our community as an obstacle rather than the mission field it truly is.

2. The dream of launching crushes the reality.

Unrealistic ‘launch dreams’ will crush the reality of the group of people God has given you. It’s become commonplace in church-planting circles for sending churches to say things like: “we’re going to send 10 of our best” or “we’re sending out these 15 people to plant and launch within six months”. I do have objections to the language of “best people”, and I think setting a date before a foot has hit the ground is unwise, but the real danger is that the ‘dream’ of church planting can end up crushing the people you have in front of you.

This mindset can creep into a plant at any point, and I have to constantly fight it. For example, we’ve recently started getting children to our community night. Currently, numbers range between 5–11 kids. This sounds great, and we’re thankful that the Lord has brought these kids to us. We long for them to know Jesus. But at this point, we simply don’t have the capacity to put on a kid’s Bible study—or even something generally kid-focused—because we only have eight people in our church-planting team. Of course, we’d love to be able to do this right now, but I fear that if we tried, we’d likely burn out within the first few months.

This issue is the same for setting a public-launch date. If we don’t have the internal resources to start meeting publicly on Sundays, should we? Would it be wise to do so, knowing that we haven’t covered mission or have enough people to run the basic building blocks of a Sunday service? When I talk with other planters this is, by far, the main regret I hear. They launched too early—either because of internal desire or external pressure—and the results tend not to be good.

Though not explicitly talking about church planting, Bonhoeffer addresses the idealised vision many have of Christian community in his well-known book Life Together:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess, he builds. We must proclaim, he builds. We must pray to him, and he will build.”

We cannot just power through to achieve ‘our dream’. In church planting, we need to take real time to reflect and review our progress, even if that means making the hard call of delaying the public launch for another year.

3. Launching is not an end goal, but a beginning.

The ‘just power through’ mindset also sets a bad precedent for when you actually do launch. It assumes that launching the church is the end goal. But this simply isn’t the case. I get reminded of this by my brothers in 20schemes when we get together for our monthly meetings. During these meetings, I get to see the how the labour that comes post-launch is no less challenging than the pre-launch phase. Sure, there are many joys once a church has started gathering publicly on Sunday, but there are also trials of various kinds.

So just powering through to launch misses the crucial fact that church planting is not about gathering a group with the aim of having a polished Sunday gathering. Rather, church planting aims at creating a covenant community full of people who disciple one another and train each other in righteousness. Then this same community takes the precious gospel of Jesus Christ into a lost and dying world.

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