I have a confession to make. I’ve made the same mistake twice. OK, probably more than that even. My error? Well, it goes something like this. Someone tells me something will be hard and I hear what they are saying, even nod and smile in agreement, and then, (this is the foolish part) I think that it probably won’t be as hard for me.
My first folly was in the arena of marriage. Yes, yes, I had heard ad nauseum that marriage was “hard.” But, I wasn’t worried. I had gone to lots of marriage conferences as a single gal (it was a requirement for the job I held) and I had all the answers.
For example: fighting over how you squeeze the toothpaste? Not going to happen in my soon-to-be perfect relationship. We’ll use separate tubes. (I have sensitive teeth anyway.) Insurmountable problem? I think not. *Sigh* If only every soon-to-be married person was as gifted at problem-solving as I am.
And yet … challenges in our marriage were unlike any I could have ever imagined. I had no idea how deeply I could feel pain until I merged my life with another’s.
So it went also with church planting. The grief, hurts and problems that I expected were not the ones that were the most difficult. My biggest challenges were most often driven by internal struggles with God, not by any other external force.
We are getting ready to complete year three in the life of our small suburban plant. I am amazed at how much different I am now than I was just 24 months ago. God has taken us on a journey that I, candidly, never expected to be on. Because I thought it was going to be much, much easier …
I thought we’d learn how to better communicate about our faith. Or, that we’d become experts at asking people to come to our church (and getting them there!). I thought church planting was going to be a lot like building a business. If we had the right advertising, the right product and the right methods—the people would show up in droves and we would find success—or at least success as the world defines it.
Instead, we’ve learned how, even with all the right elements in place, God is still in charge of bringing the people. He has taken us near the breaking point as we still wait for that to happen. We’ve been humbled as our human attempts have failed. At the same time, we’ve been astounded as needs are met in crazy and unexpected ways.
We aren’t learning how to build a church. Instead, God has us on a journey where we are learning how to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to our lives. Daily, we are forced to ask ourselves questions like: How do we truly comprehend the fact that God loves us even when things aren’t going as we thought they would? Or, how do we feel that He is near (and even happy with our efforts) when, some Sundays, it doesn’t look like all the effort is worth it?
God has begun a major work in my life in the area of (*gulp*) pride. I think being one of only six people in the “crowd” for a Sunday morning service can jump start that process for just about anyone.
There was one Sunday that will live in my mind forever. I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood at the door waiting, hoping and praying for more people to show up and they just didn’t. When it was finally time to surrender and join the five other people worshipping, I just broke down. I headed for the bathroom to cry out to God that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. It just felt too hard.
We had put so much effort in—my husband spent days on that sermon and hours that morning setting up chairs, equipment and a children’s area at the school. I wrangled four uncooperative babies and preschoolers to get out the door to make it on time for service. Why hadn’t God “rewarded” us for our extraordinary effort?
But He is faithful to restore us. He reminded me that we were called to be obedient, not successful. He never promised us a megachurch by month nine or 19 or ever …
Yes, the waiting, the wondering, the physical, break-a-sweat work of planting is more grueling than I ever imagined it would be. Yet, what He is doing in my life—teaching me about grace and showing me how to truly love people—is even harder than our physical labor some days, especially as He breaks down all of my held-over religious notions of what “working for the Lord” means.
Ultimately, we are coming to grips with the fact that we are just his vessels. It is His church, and whether or not our church “makes it” or fails is ultimately His decision. I am reminded of His sovereignty and embraced by His grace that always proves to be enough.