We’ve all seen and heard the stories: a church is planted and grows quickly. Before long, the planting pastor’s ambition takes over, with ugly results. It happens repeatedly, but we’re still enamored with flashy success stories. Sensations get celebrated and lifted up on platforms as examples. But a person’s influence can outpace their character. In ministry and church planting, it’s critical to resist the temptation to be a sensation.
There Is Godly Ambition
This gets complicated because planting a church takes ambition and vision. On this side of eternity, we’ll all fight the fine lines in our mixed motives. Ambition isn’t wrong. The problem is unsubmitted ambition. When we confuse our visions of grandeur with God’s calling, we fixate on a triumphalistic ideal of ourselves and the churches we’re planting. It’s easy to say we plant and water while God brings the growth (1 Cor. 3:8). But our reactions when things don’t go as hoped show what our hearts truly believe. When your reality is smaller and slower than you hoped, will you trust God is at work? Click To Tweet
Submitted ambition is what we see in the Apostle Paul, the greatest church planter this world has known. Toward the end of his life, Paul’s ministry didn’t look successful. He was abandoned by his friends, and the churches he planted had gone off the rails. Paul was left to “boast” in his own weakness and suffering that made him all the more aware of the overwhelming and sufficient grace of Jesus.
After Paul preached the gospel in Lystra, crowds followed from Antioch and Iconium to stone him and leave him for dead outside the city. When friends gathered around and picked him up, Paul didn’t sulk or fight for his rights. He went back into the city (Acts 14:20). And then he returned to every city he’d preached in (and been run out of) to strengthen others’ faith and help set up elders for new churches.
This is church planting. It’s not sensational but submitted to the way of the cross.
So how can we resist the temptation to be a sensation? Consider these five suggestions.
1. Don’t despise small beginnings.
Almost every church plant I’ve visited has an “off week” when I’m there. I could just have terrible timing, but I doubt it. There’s something inside each of us that wants to show that what we’re doing matters. The measurements we talk about most are nickels and noses: amount of giving and number of people. But size is not the sole indicator of God’s work in a church or in a planter’s faithfulness to his calling.
It could be your story that things grow faster and with greater impact than you ever imagined. That’s the exception to the rule. It’s good to have deep, gospel-driven longings and ambitions—to see more people following Jesus, discipled in their faith, becoming disciple-makers, and to see more churches planted. But when your reality is smaller and slower than you hoped, will you trust God is at work?
2. Stop playing the comparison game.
We all do it. We compare ourselves to other preachers, alive and dead. We compare our church’s growth to that of other churches. We think how different it could be if we were in a different place or if we’d started with a different level of resources. It’s so easy to hear stories of God’s work in other lives and churches and, rather than rejoicing with those who rejoice, become embittered that we’re walking a different path. As some have said, comparison is the thief of joy. The temptation to be a sensation will crush every one of us if we don’t kill it off first. Click To Tweet
3. Planting is good, but the calling is to pastor.
Don’t forget that God’s call is to preach the gospel and pastor his people. It’s fun to gather a core team, cast vision, see growth, and begin public worship gatherings. It’s also amazing how quickly that work shifts to pastoral ministry—the skill sets aren’t identical. Please don’t plant a church for the rush or the entrepreneurial opportunity. Plant out of a desire to see people hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and be gathered as a community on mission that you will gently lead and care for. Then, make sure to care well for the people God draws, rather than the ideal you had for what the church might look like.
4. Plant a church, not a pulpit.
I’ve assessed planters who had a podcast running and a website up before any church existed. What a confusing way to communicate—listing the values of a theoretical people, posting sermons to an imaginary congregation. At best, it’s out of order; at worst, it’s dishonest. Don’t be a disembodied mouth that talks without the body of Christ gathered.
Some level of skill in communication is an asset in church planting because the pulpit will set the direction of the church. Yet, we cannot forget that planting a church is primarily a calling to care for God’s people pastorally. That care includes faithful preaching, but can never be limited to it.
5. Plant a local church.
It’s common to hear church planters talking about transforming their city and impacting the whole world for the gospel. That’s a great vision for Christ’s church, but unrealistic for a single, local church. This mindset seeps into a church plant when it fails to contextualize a unique expression of the gospel in a particular place and through a particular people. If we’re going to see our cities changed, it will take a variety of churches with the ability to reach, encourage, and disciple a variety of people. He’s building his church, and he chose us—cracked and fragile as we are—as ambassadors of healing and light to a broken and dark world. Click To Tweet
The temptation to be a sensation will crush every one of us if we don’t kill it off first. The good news is that Jesus knows exactly who you are. Jesus is building his church, and he chose us—cracked and fragile as we are—as ambassadors of healing and light to a broken and dark world. With such a Savior, we’re free to be fully ourselves, trust our Lord’s work, and resist the lure of wanting to be a sensation.