Ten years ago, we gathered in our living room with a handful of people looking forward to what God would do in and through us as a new church plant. We prayed and planned. We thought and theorized. We strategized and scheduled, …and nothing went as expected.
Every church planter I’ve met has this common and uniting experience—uncertainty. To some extent, this may be what we signed up for. It’s exhilarating and, at times, life-giving. We roll with changes as they come, even though sometimes those changes come minutes before your gathering begins. At times, it can feel like the only defined stage in the life of a church plant is the stage of uncertainty. But, at least in our experience, there is also the stage called “Will this season of difficulty, despair, and loss ever end?”
For us, this stage hit at year seven.
There is no magical formula that says year seven will be difficult for every planter, but it does seem that it is often a year of much difficulty and strife. I remember receiving encouragement from an article I read about this challenging stage; the word of encouragement was “endure.” Whether your challenges come in year seven or another year (or years!), they are not to be feared; if the planter and his wife can faithfully endure, pruning will likely occur and, Lord willing, much fruit will result.
As I think about the stages that our church plant has gone through, I would categorize years one to three as exciting. While the early years are tough in their own respect, there is a fresh vision and excitement for what God may do. There is an optimistic hopefulness that the Spirit is at work, drawing people to himself. There is a clear and compelling vision for everyone involved. Others hear of what is going on, and they are ready to jump on board; prepared to see God do amazing things.
In our experience, in years four to six of a church plant, the vision doesn’t seem quite as fresh. The call isn’t as alluring, and the excitement not as contagious. But there is comfort in a growing lack of uncertainty where it once existed. While there are many ups and downs in these years, the church is often close to self-sustaining. There is a base of faithful volunteers who help fill the needs of the church. There are usually a few elders and deacons. While the church is still in her infancy stage, it seems that she may make it and there is a quiet hopefulness among her people.
Then year seven hits. Maybe in your experience year seven wasn’t very difficult, but another year was. No matter when the challenges come, they require the planter to endure in a way he never has before. It may be a year of conflict among the staff or members. Volunteers get weary and no longer feel the excitement needed to endure the difficult commitment of church planting. Some faithful members may see other, older churches in the neighborhood as greener grass with youth programs, gatherings for moms, flourishing Bible studies, or other activities that don’t seem to require quite so much from them. In their weariness, these volunteers lose sight of commitment to the church plant because of another church offering what looks like rest.
This may not be your planting story, but it was ours, and it has been the story of so many others before us. In year seven, we saw conflict, the likes of which we would never have anticipated. We saw precious friends leave the church in hurt and anger, felt the bitter betrayal of trusted partners, lost staff, and had elders fall. I watched my wife struggle in ways that left her crushed. My children were deeply hurt as close friends left. I often wondered if we would survive that year; physically, emotionally, financially, and, to be honest, spiritually. It was a year of some of the most difficult struggle we have faced. But God, in his kindness, kept reminding me of the word endure.
I want to encourage you, faithful brother, with the same word. Endure. When the most solid people in your church come to tell you they are leaving, send them off with grace and faithfully endure. When your children’s director and volunteer coordinator quit within a few weeks of one another, endure. When your closest friends leave, endure. When your trusted elder is disciplined, endure. When you wonder if your church will be in existence next month, faithfully endure. It may be a season of pruning. It may be a work of God exposing sin in your own heart that needs to be confessed. It may be God working to increase the faith of those who unknowingly needed more. Do not let the hurt and discouragement of this stage embitter you and cause you to question your calling. Endure. While the race set before us may be challenging, faithful endurance produces character, hope, and perseverance.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2, ESV).