This blog of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is all about Church planting. TGC is a coalition of Christ followers from around the world, banding together to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel.
Like a flashlight to the eyes, present circumstances can often blind us to future reality. And if we church-planting pastors are honest, it’s far too easy to lose sight of eternity.
From the early days of a new church, to the stabilizing phase of a healthy church, along with the multiplying phase of a mature church, our vision of the “unseen things” that last forever (2 Cor. 4:18) can quickly become clouded by the “seen things” that are passing away.
We’ve all felt it. The ministry tensions around resources and strategy that pull us in a hundred competing directions. The tyranny of the urgent, though not necessarily important. The fatigue that comes from paddling through the online sea of unending information, opinions, and rage.
I’ve looked into the eyes of too many pastors (including the one in the mirror) who’ve developed a “ministry flinch” every time an ominous text or email hits their screen. Here we go again, we sigh. And the future eternal reality that is ours in Christ, which God is moving us toward with absolute certainty, seems to become a little less believable, and a little too far off in the distance to make any meaningful difference in how we respond in such situations.
Remembering our grace-initiated trajectory toward a glorious eternity does something in us. It fuels the fires of hope.
No wonder Jonathan Edwards prayed, “Lord, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!”
We too need to lay hold of such a prayer. Remembering our grace-initiated trajectory toward a glorious eternity does something in us. It fuels the fires of hope. And our hope is not one of nervous optimism, but confident anticipation.
Like the moments before being reunited with a loved one.
Like a song right before the beat drops.
Like the sun’s rising.
We know exactly what’s coming. We’ve been given a peek into the final page of God’s great story. No wonder Paul links “not losing heart” with “looking toward the eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
Whether we’re in the early stages of planting a church or nearing the finish line after decades of running the marathon, we need the eternal to “break in” on us. Whatever metrics we’re using to measure our ministry, we need to calibrate them to the trajectory of renewal that God has the entire universe on. For those of us who’ve pledged our lives to advancing the gospel through planting church-planting churches, here are a few things we need to remember.
Tired to Renewed
In service to Jesus, we can expect the daily breakdown of our bodies along with the daily renewal of our spirits (2 Cor. 4:16). And in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we eagerly and willingly pour ourselves out for the sake of others (1 Pet. 5:1–4). In other words, if we’re living on God’s mission (not ours) according to God’s will (not ours), then there is no alternative: we are going to get tired.
Responding to those in need of pastoral tenderness tires us.
Discipling the little people who bear our last name tests us.
The inevitable breakdown of our bodies over time takes its toll.
The weekly grind of preparing another sermon haunts us in a strangely wonderful—yet wearying—way.
According to Paul, a sense of weariness in service to Jesus is, well, normal. Tiredness in ministry does not signal the absence of the Spirit. There’s a reason God has given us the weekly gift of a sabbath along with moment-by-moment access to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).
Tiredness is completely compatible with faithful, Spirit-empowered gospel ministry. Self-reliance, however, is not.
We can take heart is because our hope not in our dying and decaying selves, but in a God who specializes in resurrection.
We can take heart, because our hope is not in our dying and decaying selves, but in a God who specializes in resurrection. And he wants us to remember that the resurrection of Jesus not only has cosmic implications for the glorified future his people will share with all of creation (Rom. 8:19–22), but also personal and continuous implications that energize us in the midst of daily struggles.
In other words, God is as committed to shepherding you through the difficulties of next Tuesday as he is the redemption of the universe. You have not been overlooked.
Hurt to Healed
Knowing our afflictions are preparing us for incomparable glory (2 Cor. 4:17) means we can be honest about our struggles without being morbid about them. Paul is not minimizing the difficulty of ministry; he is maximizing our hope. In God’s sovereign hand, every single thing that rallies against us will one day serve us.
Every betrayal, every word of slander, every disappointment, every cheap shot, every failure, and every late-night anxiety—all of it will serve our joy in glory. Not one dark day will be wasted. These lose power to bully us when we see what they really are through the lens of eternity: God-ordained servants of our sanctification.
When we measure our present moments of difficulty by our guaranteed future, our anxieties turn into prayer; our weariness into courage. We don’t shrink back from whatever struggles Jesus may lead us into for the sake of his name. When the day of gospel pain turns up on our calendar, we stand firm; in Christ’s presence, on God’s Word, with and for God’s people.
In the end, every one of our afflictions will prove no different from a cloud that briefly blocked our view of the sun. Then, we will say of our darkest circumstances: Oh, Those? Those struggles? That pain? Nothing but light and momentary. Or in the words of Teresa of Avila, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
So like Paul, we’re learning to look not to the seen things that are transient, but the unseen things that are eternal (2 Cor. 4:18). Or, we’re learning to see our present difficulties through the lens of eternity. A Day is coming where our gospel will no longer be news we announce, but a deep glory we enjoy, the fruits of which will only get sweeter throughout the ages.
So think with me about a definite moment in your distant future. Think of your ten billionth anniversary in glory. There you are, standing with Jesus, looking squarely into his eyes, “no longer in a mirror dimly, but face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). In that moment, you will experience an affection from him and a glory in him so dazzling—so overwhelmingly captivating—that as you try to recall the worst moment of your short earthly existence or the most difficult situation you faced in his service, you will say, “I don’t even know how to compare the two!”
No one in the new creation will ever wonder, Was it really worth it?
No one in the new creation will ever wonder, Was it really worth it? We can face the days ahead with confident anticipation. While we may not know the exact path forward, we do know our guide, along with the promises of what he’s prepared for us. And it’s more glorious than we could ever imagine.
So onward we stumble. Knowing his promises, let’s gladly embrace the cost now. Sooner than we think, we will be embraced by Christ in glory.
Church plants have needs. Lots of needs. It’s tempting, then, for planters to size up those who come through the door for their potential to meet those needs.
Families are meant to meet each others needs, and service in the body of Christ brings blessings. But pastors need to guard against the temptation to evaluate their members according to worldly standards of usefulness. People can sense when they are being valued more for their gifts than their souls.
Church planters John Onwuchekwa, Joe Rigney, and Kempton Turner sat down to talk about how they fight against the temptation to see people according to their usefulness. Onwuchekwa constantly reminds himself that he is a shepherd first, and seeks to communicate that to his church members by doing things like asking them how he can pray for them. Rigney points out that we need to take 1 Corinthians 12 to heart, recognizing that we should not privilege some parts of the body that seem more essential to us. And Turner recommends building a relationship before asking someone to serve.
I once heard someone say discouragement is the “occupational hazard” of ministry. They’re right. Especially on a Monday.
In a park aptly named “Trinity,” I had my head down—literally and figuratively—as I journaled my discouragements and prayers, crying out in Davidic fashion: How long, O Lord?
We were three years into planting a church in downtown Fort Worth. Some core-team members—close friends—had just left, and the largely unseen fruit of our ministry didn’t seem worth the exhaustion.
Little did I know that I was about to get a kidney stone, then shingles, and then have to shepherd people through some difficult church-discipline cases. So I wondered if I should just bounce and go pastor an established church where things would be “easier.”
Godly patience requires God’s power.
But then God met me in my discouragement. My journal entry from that day reads: “God didn’t bring me to this church plant to be awesome, succeed, and never suffer. He did it because I would get more of him. Stop asking all the suffering and discouragement to go away, and rejoice in his grace to press me more and more into him.”
From that day I committed myself to patient, long-suffering, long-term ministry in one place.
Power for Patience
In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul prays a strange prayer: that God’s people would have power to be patient: “According to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy . . .” (Col. 1:11). Really? Do we seriously need God’s power just to be patient? According to Paul, the answer is yes. Godly patience requires God’s power. This is especially true in church planting.
It’s been said that younger leaders tend to overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term. I think this is one of the most important—yet most difficult—things to learn in ministry.
Younger leaders tend to overestimate what they can do in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term.
Every Christian is developing the Holy Spirit–infused fruit of patience (Gal. 5:22). So as church planters, we can be confident that the Spirit will produce patience in us, even if it needs to be the fruit of repeated repentance over a lack of it.
I remember the strong conviction God gave me to plant a church. But I also remember the just-as-clear warning from my wife that our marriage (that is, I) wasn’t ready. Patience. I remember waiting for that key staff member; for that attendance breakthrough; for planting our first church as a church. “Wait for the LORD,” David says (Ps. 27:14). Patience is a powerful virtue.
The knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover your city like the waters cover the seas (Hab. 2:14), with or without you. God doesn’t need your church to accomplish his purposes. So he’s most concerned—if we can attribute concern to the sovereign God of the universe—with you becoming more like Jesus. Which, thankfully, is a divine certainty (Rom. 8:29). And patience is one of the things that needs to grow.
Either way, if Paul plants and Apollos waters, but only God can give the growth, then you have to wait on him to do so. So church-planting pastors will need to be patient with (at least) three things.
1. Your People
People take a long time to grow—out of habitual sins; out of consumeristic tendencies; toward greater affection for Christ. How do I know? Because I take a long time to grow. It can be easy to get frustrated with people, forgetting that they are your ministry (1 Pet. 5:2). But your patience will serve them and show them how patient Jesus is with them.
But you also need to be patient in appointing leaders. It’s tempting to place people in leadership positions too soon, because you’re under water and need any help you can get. Be patient. It’s way worse—and far more work—to deal with the aftermath of a leader who was put in place too soon.
Thankfully, I was taught this early on, and thus moved slowly with a church member named Ryan. He went from volunteer, to volunteer leader, to staff, to fellow elder, and then—eventually—to church planter. This process took six years, and now we have a healthy church plant 10 miles away, and I have a great friend in ministry.
You probably can’t move too slowly with leaders, and you will almost always want to move too quickly. Be patient.
2. Your Vision
I’ve seen church planters try to plant a vision and not a church. Don’t do that. I thought my church would have a bunch of ex-jock meatheads (of whom I am the foremost), but God saw fit to send lots of college students and artists. The Holy Spirit plants people, empowered with gifts, on fire with gospel passions, shaped by certain experiences, and they shape the church more than you may think or expect or want them to.
And because we pastors deal with people, all of our hopes and plans for our churches must be marked by patience.
If Paul plants and Apollos waters, but only God can give the growth, then you have to wait on him to do so.
I remember being frustrated that—three years into our church plant—we hadn’t yet planted another church. Ed Stetzer said we should plant pregnant, but I couldn’t seem to find a mate. We kept praying and casting vision, and eventually God enabled us to plant a church several miles away. It took six years of God growing the fruit of patience in me.
Whenever I go golfing, I have to remind myself: You’re not good at this. Why are you getting frustrated? In the same way, you may not yet be good at this church-planting stuff. But don’t be discouraged. Jesus isn’t done with you. Through the fire and through the blessings, he is molding you like a potter with his clay. He is patient with you, pastor (1 Tim. 1:16).
Be patient with your preaching, and work hard. Be patient with your leadership, and don’t stop learning. Be patient with your character, and don’t stop fighting sin. The gospel frees us to be both patient and hard-working. Gospel grace compelled Paul to “work harder than any of them” (1 Cor. 15:10).
If you asked a hundred people to describe me, “patient” probably wouldn’t be high on their lists. But I know this: The sweetest and best part of your patient pursuit will be coram Deo—before the face of God. Wait on the Lord in all these things, pastor. Be strong and take courage, for he will not put you to shame (Ps. 25:3).
Church planters care about the gospel going to new and difficult-to-reach places. They long to see the light of Christ penetrate the darkest parts of the world—whether that be just down the road or far away in some remote place among the unreached.
In order to see this happen, church planters need to consider something we call “entrepreneurial aptitude.” Here’s what we mean: Entrepreneurial aptitude is the ability to imagine new ways of engaging cultures so that the unchanging truths of the gospel can be brought to bear on the lives of unbelievers.
People who have entrepreneurial skills will often be great at starting new endeavors and highly innovative; they tend to be strategic visionaries and self-starters. Further, people who are entrepreneurial are able to enlist others to invest in new ventures they start.
But what does this look like? It’s a less straightforward topic than some of the recent things we’ve discussed on the podcast, so it’s worth us unpacking what we mean (and don’t mean) when talk about entrepreneurial aptitude in church planting.
To help us think about this, I’m excited to have Brian Howard with me on the podcast today.
Have you ever wondered what it would’ve been like to plant a church in 16th-century Geneva? Imagine starting a new church at the center of what’s come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. At the very least, it would’ve been nice to talk with John Calvin (and others) about life and pastoral ministry.
Even 500 years later, there’s still much we can learn from Calvin and his compatriots that’s applicable to our ministry today. This is why I’m thankful that a friend encouraged me to read Calvin’s Company of Pastors at the end of 2018.
Calvin’s legacy is due—in large part—not simply to his writings, but also his gathering a “company” of other ministers around him. As he did this, he established institutions, practices, and structures that would positively affect people for centuries.
Calvin’s Company of Pastors gives church planters a fascinating and insightful window into the practices of 16th-century Genevan church ministry. And as I’ve discovered, there’s surprising contemporary relevance for us as we seek to faithfully plant healthy churches.
Church-planting pastors will find Calvin’s work relevant in any ministry season. Here are four.
1. When we feel isolated
In modern-day Western culture, the self rules. And this reality no doubt shapes our understanding and experience of the Christian life and, therefore, pastoral ministry. This—among other things—can cause church planters to feel isolated, frustrated, and burned out. In the worst cases, it can lead to leaving the ministry altogether.
As I read about Calvin’s ministry, one thing that struck me is how he sought to actively foster a city-wide ministry mentality in Geneva. He consistently invested in the lives of other local pastors, often at great cost to himself and his ministry.
Calvin consistently invested in the lives of other local pastors, often at great cost to himself and his ministry.
For example, Calvin organized a weekly Friday-morning gathering where local pastors would listen to and critique an exegetical talk. They would then spend the remainder of the morning praying together and encouraging one another to press on in their respective ministries. It’s evident Calvin understood the deep need for mutual encouragement and support in pastoral ministry.
So I’ve had to ask myself: Am I more concerned with building my own ministry than I am about God being glorified through all the local churches in my city? Are there ways I could help to foster a generous city-wide vision in my context? I’ve tried to intentionally schedule time with other local pastors, get to know them, their churches, and actively look for ways to bless and encourage them.
2. When we’re distracted by the latest ministerial ‘silver-bullet’
Central to all that took place in the Protestant Reformation was an unwavering commitment to the Word of God. This was evident in the expositional preaching, public prayers, and numerous writings. Additionally, Genevan pastors—under Calvin’s influence—sought to visit every household under their care each year—with the aim of knowing their sheep well and privately opening up the Word with each of them.
So again, I’ve had to ask: Is there a danger—especially for those of us involved in church planting—that we’ve lost our confidence in the power of God’s Word? Do we too heavily rely on other (good) things such as leadership, personality, organizational skills, or even flashy websites and flyers?
3. When we’re feeling entitled and struggling with ministry hardship
Church planting, like any other Christian ministry, is not easy. But even a cursory read of Calvin’s work reveals that pastoral life in Geneva was certainly no walk in the park. And in Calvin’s Company of Pastors, readers will discover the messy truths of ministry life among a band of pastors who were fully integrated into the life of the city and countryside.
The reformers weren’t ivory-tower theologians who simply wrote from a place of theory. They were battle-weary pastors and church planters who knew what it was to suffer as they followed Jesus.
Personal struggles included substandard housing, a lack of finances, family and marital struggles, unpleasant and unkind church members, complicated church discipline issues, the reality of death and mortality (especially in childbirth), political strife, as well as persecution from unbelievers. In short, we can see that these brothers weren’t ivory-tower theologians who simply wrote from a place of theory. They were battle-weary pastors and church planters who knew what it was to suffer as they followed Jesus.
This has forced me to ask: In an entitled world that increasingly expects comfort, how can we better prepare ourselves for the reality of suffering as we follow in the footsteps of Christ? How can we grow in long-term personal resilience? How can we support and encourage each other to keep going past the initial three-year stint?
4. When we’re only putting out fires and not planning for the long-term
Our culture is increasingly frenetic and fast-paced. Of course, we know in theory that planting a church is more like a marathon than a sprint (though many of us are still sprinting!).
One of the helpful challenges from Calvin’s example is the importance of strategic forward-thinking. It’s clear that Calvin sought to establish firm foundations that would enable and catalyze long-term gospel progress. For example, Calvin and his team set up a seminary and employed modern technology (in the form of publishing) that enabled pastors to be trained long after Calvin was gone.
So I’ve had to consider: Do we have a long-term vision? Or are we too short-sighted and focused on the treadmill of week-by-week ministry that we can’t take a step back and plan projects or structures to help enable growth and long-term fruit? Partly as a result, I’ve reinstated a much needed retreat day—wherein, once every six weeks, I get away to pray and consider longer-term plans and priorities.
When it comes to facing the challenges of today, may we listen to and learn from the saints who have gone before us.
Neighborhoods around the world are changing. Rising immigration, financial instability, and social mobility are bringing together new people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups. Some Christians are tempted to respond to these shifts with fear and defensiveness. But God commands us to love and embrace the people he’s sovereignly put around us.
In short, he’s calling your church to look more like your neighborhood.
That’s what our church realized when God moved us to a new area. We’d planted the church four years earlier in one of the whitest and richest parts of our city (Honolulu, Hawaii), and our church was primarily white and upper-middle class. But when we lost our meeting space, God sent us to a neighborhood that was primarily Asian and Pacific-Islander. Many of our new neighbors lived in low-income and government-assisted housing.
And even this neighborhood was changing. In Hawaii, 15 percent of the population changes homes every year; 18 percent were born outside the United States; and 25 percent speak a language other than English at home.
We didn’t plant our church just to reach people who look like us.
We didn’t plant our church just to reach people who look like us, but to reflect the unity in diversity of our triune God, in whose image we were created. As a result of the lost meeting space, we quickly realized we were going to have to pray and work hard to see our church look more like our new neighborhood. While in this process, we were preaching through Mark’s Gospel. In God’s sovereign timing, he taught us many lessons through Mark, who deliberately wrote his Gospel as a bridge between the Jewish people in his church and the Roman people in his neighborhood.
With that in mind, here are four things we’ve done that I’d highly recommend for every church-planting team.
Mark’s writing style suggests he’d studied the people in his neighborhood, as he crafted an action-packed Gospel for the arena-loving Romans.
As we got to know our neighbors, we quickly realized that one of the major differences between our members and the people in our neighborhood was education level.
We had many highly educated people in our church. Most of our sermons resembled seminary lectures. But in our new neighborhood, we were meeting recent immigrants who didn’t speak much English, along with folks in government housing who never graduated high school.
We knew they weren’t going to come listen to seminary-lecture style sermons, so we began to manuscript each sermon and run it through an online grade-level analyzer. I discovered that my sermons were averaging a 10th-grade level, so I started using simpler phrases and words to get them down around a 5th-grade level. My aim hasn’t been to patronize, but to communicate God’s Word effectively to our hearers.
We’ve also chosen simpler songs. God was saving folks coming out of serious drug addiction, and some of them would say: “When we sing these hymns, my brain just can’t keep up with all the words.” We loved our hymns, but we decided to sing fewer in favor of simpler sung worship.
Mark challenged the Jewish people in the church to welcome the Romans; this is evident in the feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8:1–9). At first glance, it seems there’s little difference from the feeding of the 5,000 just two chapters earlier (Mark 6:30–44). Both stories feature hungry crowds and a miraculous feast. Why do we need two nearly identical stories?
Well, there’s one detail that makes them radically different: the location. The first story took place in Galilee—with thousands of hungry Jews. On that occasion, it was the disciples who were worried about the people.
The second story took place in the Decapolis: a Roman colony. Now they were dealing with thousands of starving Romans, and the disciples didn’t seem to care. It was Jesus who took the initiative: “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have nothing to eat.” Mark was challenging the Jews in Rome to be just as welcoming to the Romans as Jesus was.
We challenged the upper-middle-class folks in our church to go out of their way to welcome people who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like they do.
Our church had to do the same thing. We challenged the upper-middle-class folks in our church to go out of their way to welcome people who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like they do.
Because food is a big cultural signpost, we told our members, “We’re going to start having food at church that might not be to your liking. You won’t even recognize some of it. But food is one of the best ways to make people feel welcome, and we want to go out of our way to be hospitable to our neighbors.”
An easily missed high point in Mark’s Gospel concerns the Roman centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus. While everyone else simply saw a dying man, the centurion saw the humility, strength, and compassion of the dying Son of God. Hence his exclamation, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
He was the only man in Mark’s Gospel to declare that truth. Mark was deliberately celebrating the work of God among Roman people.
In our neighborhood, we wanted to do the same thing. As folks from different cultures have come to faith in Christ, we’ve intentionally highlighted their testimonies. In our sermons, we’ve sought to tell more stories about Christians in Japan, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
We’ve also translated some of our songs into the native languages of people in our neighborhood. As God has given us musically gifted people from different cultures, we’ve done choruses in Mandarin, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Tagalog, all with the aim of celebrating God’s work around the world.
In his Gospel, Mark wanted to bridge the Jewishness of Jesus to the Romanness of his neighbors. So he took the time to translate Aramaic for the Romans, like when Jesus raised the little girl: “Taking her by the hand Jesus said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 5:41).
When Jesus walked on water, Mark said it happened at the “fourth watch of the night” (Mark 6:48), which is how Romans—not Jews—divided time. Mark knew the importance of explaining things.
We came to realize the same. Before our move, most of the people we were reaching had some kind of Christian background. But this wasn’t the case for the majority of people in our new neighborhood.
In my sermons, I’ve sought to define every biblical or theological word that wasn’t part of the everyday vernacular of our neighbors.
In our church services, we’ve sought to communicate both the what and also the why behind each component: “We love to sing praises to God, so join us if you’d like.” “We take time every week to study a portion of God’s Word, and we work through it section by section.” “Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who took away our sins and gave us new life. We do that by taking communion, which is for people who’ve put their trust in Jesus.”
In my sermons, I’ve sought to define every biblical or theological word that isn’t part of the everyday vernacular of our neighbors. We’ve encouraged our small-group leaders to discuss the same biblical texts covered on Sunday. That way, people of varying levels of spiritual maturity would have the same basic understanding of the passage, allowing them to focus more on how the passage applied to their everyday lives.
As a result of these kinds of initiatives, God began to bring many people to our church who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like we did. We now have a beautifully chaotic community full of people who’d never choose to hang out together if they weren’t brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are still plenty of misunderstandings, unintentional offenses, and ignorant mistakes. But our diverse family is learning and pressing on together in Christ.
I’ll never forget the agonized look on my mother-in-law’s face when we said goodbye. Her years and life experience told her what we didn’t yet know: Our move across the ocean would bring pain. Lots of it. We were heading overseas with her first newborn grandbaby, feeling like we were mere babies ourselves.
She knew there would be trials and hardships—and that we would endure them all 5,000 miles from home, family, and all things familiar. But we were propelled by optimism, God’s calling, and an eager willingness to preach Christ among the unreached. Thus began our journey as cross-cultural church planters, first in Asia, later in Europe.
On the eve of that baby’s sixteenth birthday, I’m looking back and can testify to two seemingly opposing truths: they were our best years, but they were hard years.
The church—both those who go and those who send—must acknowledge the hardships that cross-cultural workers face.
I’ve written before about the joys of raising children as cross-cultural church planters. It’s true, if presented with a buffet of options for how to raise my kids again, I’d pick just that. In fact, I spend much of my days encouraging families to consider taking that plunge, and counseling and encouraging from afar those who already have. But the reality is, as numerous as the blessings are, so too are the causes for questioning and heartache.
The church—both those who go and those who send—must acknowledge the hardships that cross-cultural workers face. And we must stand ready to help those who go as they walk through various valleys.
Difficulties for Families Serving Cross-Culturally
Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) sampling of some of the afflictions:
Traversing two or more cultures can prevent children from having a strong sense of identity and belonging. Also, the endless goodbyes with other expat families or with locals when the church planting family relocates can lead to loneliness and unprocessed grief.
Being immersed in a highly secular setting can have a greater influence on a child than their parents’ Christian influence. Kids might be exposed too early—and too often—to the realities of violence, poverty, sex trafficking, corruption, drugs and alcohol, and other dark, worldly trappings.
Physical health may suffer, as access to good healthcare may be nonexistent or far away. Everything from a middle-of-the-night fever to scoliosis can morph into a major, life-altering crisis.
Kids raised outside of their home countries don’t get to know their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or the neighborhoods their parents grew up in. They face significant gaps in knowing about their home culture’s norms (going “home” sure doesn’t feel like it) and everyone misses out on the support of extended family in the formative years.
Education is a constant concern. Learning in two languages is tough, not to mention dealing with special needs, keeping up with home country requirements, and navigating classmates’ and teachers’ expectations in a foreign country.
While everyone says, “Kids are so resilient,” the truth is they probably just don’t have the words to express the grief they feel in living through upheaval and uncertainty. Chances are their emotions are stuffed and saved for later. Many cross-cultural kids experience a season of processing trauma as young adults.
Parents who are cross-cultural church planters must regularly ask if their situation inflicts undue physical, spiritual, or emotional harm on their children. How much is too much? What’s simply part of the cost (Luke 14:28)? And how heavy must the burden be for a parent to determine that it’s time to return home?
Cross-cultural workers weigh the answers to these questions constantly—they wonder if God is calling them to persist in trusting him by staying, or trust in him by going. Simply put, there’s no easy way to measure the burdens and determine when the scale is tipped. Every family has a different capacity and calling. Every context has a different set of circumstances. Every local church, every church-planting team—and even every child—has a different threshold.
How in the world can cross-cultural church-planting parents know when it’s time to go (or stay)? How can we discern God’s calling on us as parents when our children face hard things overseas?
So how in the world can cross-cultural church-planting parents know when it’s time to go (or stay)? How can we discern God’s calling on us as parents when our children face hard things overseas? In short, we need wisdom from above. Thankfully, God promises to give us just that when we ask (James 1:5). And it comes primarily through his Word, his Spirit, and his people.
It’s a mystery—and certainly a unique process for everyone—but our heavenly Father communicates to us through the synthesis of his Word, his Spirit, and his people. These three means of grace complement one another and confirm God’s calling on our lives and his leadership in our decisions.
Though often weary and overburdened, church planters must stay nourished by the words breathed out by God—they are there so that we might not be lacking anything (2 Tim. 3:16). Answers and wisdom for specific families and children may be sought out in the pages of the Bible. The Word is alive and active and can help us discern our motives in going or staying (Heb. 4:12).
Answers will likely come as the Spirit moves in our own consciences. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be our helper, teacher, and peace giver (John 14:26, 27). The Holy Spirit will lead us as we lead our children.
And the message delivered through God’s Word and pressed upon us by God’s Spirit will be confirmed by God’s people. It’s imperative that we gather with our siblings in Christ so that we might be strengthened by accountability (Gal. 6:1–5) as we build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11). Often other Christians can see things in us and our families that we cannot see in ourselves. Input from teammates, team leaders, and other Christians is invaluable for the family living and serving cross-culturally.
All Things for Good
Cross-cultural church-planting parents can lean on wisdom received through these three supernatural resources as they discern God’s leading for their children. And we can lean confidently, knowing that God is sovereign. We need not be paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. We may boldly go—or stay—knowing that God is on his throne and he works all things (even perceived mistakes or misunderstandings) for our good (Rom. 8:28). God’s plans, even for church plants in unreached places—and for families serving therein—cannot be thwarted (Isa. 14:27).
The years of cross-cultural church planting can be trying. But God promises to be our ever-present help in times of trouble.
Yes, the burdens of the family serving cross-culturally can be many. The pain that my mother-in-law expressed was ultimately realized ten years later when she languished and died from ALS. Due to immigration laws preventing our adopted daughter from entering the United States, we could only watch and weep from across the world. God’s Word, Spirit, and people upheld us in our grief.
As we’ve experienced ourselves and with so many others, in addition to the joy, the years of cross-cultural church planting can be challenging. But God promises to be our ever-present help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1). The Lord will help you and me and every church planter in every nation, as we seek to serve him, grow his church, and minister to our children.
He is near. He is there in his Word, his Spirit, and his people. Church planter, pursue these three humble means of grace as if your life and the life of your children depend on it. Because they do.
Healthy relationships are vital to healthy ministry. Church-planting pastors who don’t cultivate healthy relationships won’t build healthy churches.
As Paul wrote to churches in the New Testament, he constantly emphasized how the gospel ought to shape the relationships among God’s people.
In Ephesians 4, he instructs people to be humble, gentle, and bear with one another in love.
In Colossians 3, he exhorts believers to forgive one another as the Lord has forgiven us.
In Romans 13, we’re told to love one another with brotherly affection, and to outdo one another in showing honor.
In Philippians 2, we’re told to count others more significant than ourselves as we follow Jesus together.
So Paul is clear: The church is to be marked by healthy relationships. If this is what the New Testament calls churches to, then pastors need to be exemplary in this area. And that’s why we believe church planters need to be men who cultivate healthy relationships.
But what does this actually look like? To help us think about healthy relationships in church planting, I’m excited to have my friend Lucas Parks with me today.
Not long ago, relativism defined the cultural conversation. Truth was “unknowable.” Perhaps it was somewhere “out there,” but anyone’s guess as to where was as good as the next.
This is no longer the case.
Today, we’re in a new cultural moment—one marked not by relativism, but by a new phenomenon known as expressive individualism. While relativism may label an assertion of external and objective truth as arrogant, expressive individualism calls it oppressive. The relativist asks, “Who’s to say what’s true?” The expressive individualist replies, “Me.”
Look across the landscape of cultural artifacts, and you’ll find the same motif time and again: Power and freedom are found in self-discovery. As Tim Keller notes, “The only heroic narrative we’ve got left in our culture is the individual looking inside, seeing who they want to be, and asserting that over and against everyone else in society.”
So we really have moved on from relativism: Truth is now not only knowable, it’s been found. All you have to do is look inside yourself.
Individualism and the Church
Many in the church can sniff out—even refute—relativism. We’ve been handed enough apologetic tools and basic reasoning skills to dismantle the notion that truth is subjective. Expressive individualism, however, is more insidious. It allows us to appear as if we’re worshiping God, when in reality we’re bowing to the god of self. It acknowledges the power of Jesus, but convinces us that he intends to use his power to further our own self-centered goals and aspirations. It agrees we can be certain about truth, but points to our own hearts as the source.
When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship.
It’s sobering to think about the church’s collusion with this framework. Rather than pushing back against individualism, congregations often subtly encourage it. When we center everything, from Sundays to small groups, on the individual experience, we stoke the fire of self-worship. If we’re not careful, we can betray the message that “Christ is king” with a method that says, “Actually, you are.”
Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than self and church. And it’s not as though we must wade through cloaked language to discover this antithesis. When Jesus calls us into his church, his charge is not that we discover but deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24–25). Further, when Jesus enumerates the things that spring from our hearts, truth doesn’t make the list. Only false testimony and evil thoughts do.
Or pull on any thread in Paul’s epistles, and you’ll find it connected to a call to pursue humble unity and consider others more significant than yourself. Simply put, a biblical understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus and belong to his church is incompatible with expressive individualism.
Biblically speaking, it’s difficult to find two terms more antithetical than ‘self’ and ‘church.’
Truth is neither relative nor self-generated; it is knowable. In fact, it’s touchable. Ultimate truth exists in the form of a man, the God-man—the one who died for our sinful hearts so that we could die to them.
The fruit-desiring, lie-believing, wilderness-wandering self is the very thing we bury as we are buried with Christ. His death for us becomes our death to self, and his new life becomes our new life—a life in which we deny ourselves instead of listening to ourselves, in which we take up our cross instead of taking up our dreams, and in which we follow him instead of following our hearts.
Church Planting’s Counter-Culture
Church planting has always been central to Jesus’s mission. But it’s particularly helpful and corrective in today’s cultural climate. As embodied creatures, we are formed by what we do. Our rhythms of life shape us from the outside in. What we do with our time, our hands, our lips, our money—all of it shapes our hearts. Just like the liturgy of a worship gathering, the method becomes part of the message. And both the method and also the message of church planting regularly remind us that we are not the point.
Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism, since it simply won’t allow us to place ourselves—our beliefs, our preferences, our desires—at the center of the church’s reason for existence.
Planting a church requires a radical commitment to a unified, corporate identity. This commitment naturally undermines expressive individualism.
When we plant churches and press into the challenges, we invite our brothers and sisters into rhythms of life and ministry that will, slowly but surely, force the primacy of self to erode. And that will, time and again, yield the blessed—albeit painful—reminder that we are not, in fact, the arbiters of truth and goodness.
In a church plant, you have to strip away the superfluous for the sake of the essential. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with programs and production, the simplicity of a church plant offers a repeated invitation to forsake self-centeredness for self-denial.
Musical preferences begin to pale in comparison to the beautiful sound of a school cafeteria filling with gospel-proclaiming voices. Preaching “style” matters little when a living room is filled with those listening to their pastor faithfully mine the depths of God’s Word week in and week out. Life as a part of a church plant has a way of forcing us to not only keep the truth of the gospel central, but also primary. And it teaches us, in both message and method, that we must daily trust our faithful King rather than our fickle selves.
At a time when the church is, lamentably, one of the first places to capitulate to individualism, church planting gives Christ’s followers a chance to regularly exercise the much-needed practice of leading our hearts rather than following them. It takes whatever “truth” we think we’ve found within and subverts it with the pre-eminence of Christ and the truth of the gospel. And the more we keep that truth—the truth—at the forefront, the quicker the so-called truth we find “within” gets exposed for the counterfeit that it is.
The Muslim world has seen its share of missionaries throughout history. Many faithful men and women have left hearth and home and given their lives to see the Middle East evangelized. We praise God for these brothers and sisters.
And while that’s true, there remains immense gospel need in this part of the world. I believe there is something lacking in our efforts to reach the Muslim world—and that thing is often faithful, gospel-preaching churches. At one level, this is understandable given the historical realities of the region. But this part of the world is changing such that this need no longer be the case.
I’ve yet to meet a missionary here who doesn’t share my desire to see churches planted among the unreached—specifically Muslims. But for most, this seems to be a distant dream—a prize yet to be obtained, maybe only just visible on the horizon of the future.
In most cases today, churches are being planted only after years, if not decades, of evangelism and discipleship. In the current state of affairs, the church tends to follow as a consequence of the gospel instead of an attractive and compelling argument for it.
We have a God ordained missional instrument to make the gospel of Christ known in the Muslim world. Her name is the bride of Christ.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon the traditional missions strategies: doing the hard work of learning language, connecting with local people, and sharing the gospel in the context of relationship. We must continue doing this (often slow) work in difficult places. But I am suggesting that we add something to that strategy.
We have a God-ordained missional instrument to make the gospel of Christ known in the Muslim world. Her name is the bride of Christ. I’m not speaking simply from theological conviction, though I’m convinced the concept is biblical. I’ve also witnessed such things.
A few years ago, a church-planting team was sent out from an existing church here on the Arabian Peninsula. I had the privilege of leading this team. We were sent by an English-speaking church in this region to plant another English-speaking church here. Most of us didn’t learn Arabic, nor any trendy new evangelism strategies. We simply went with the ambition to be the church.
To this day, we gather together weekly around the Word of God—we preach, sing, and pray it. We strive to love another by the Spirit’s power. We bear one another’s burdens, mourn one another’s losses, and rejoice in one another’s victories. We don’t divide ourselves by ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic differences, but unite around our great commonality: Jesus Christ.
This is nothing radical or new. But guess what? People notice.
I’ve sat with many seekers and not-yet-believers during my time in Arabia, a number of them Muslims. The consistent thing that drew them into gospel conversation has been the church—a community comprising dozens of nationalities from every economic level loving one another and pursuing Jesus together. It’s simple, yet beautiful. This is exactly what the gospel does. It creates unity in diversity.
But I fear it’s a missional instrument we too often neglect.
Global World, Global Church
Many assume that Muslim nations are closed to an overt Christian witness. And yes, there are predominately Muslim countries largely closed to Christians. I’m not ignoring that problem. But there are also many nations where Christians are largely free to gather and worship Christ. This is true in places like Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
In an increasingly global and urban world, the local church—meeting primarily in a trade language like English—offers real benefits to our mission strategy among Muslims. A strategy we hope will ultimately lead to the planting of healthy, sustainable Arabic-speaking churches.
Here are a few things the local church does.
1. Models the inclusivity of the gospel.
I’ve heard people liken the cities of the Arabian Peninsula to a (poorly) tossed salad. Unlike a mixing pot, people stay in their clumps. Tomatoes stay with tomatoes, carrots with carrots, cucumbers with cucumbers, and so on. This is generally true.
Although this oil-rich peninsula has gathered people from every corner of the earth, most have remained neatly divided along ethnic and economic lines. Racism, classism, and inequality are largely accepted as part of life here—diversity and integration don’t just “happen.” But in the local church, the gospel’s power shines as these divides are abolished in Christ.
One of the first Muslim-background men we saw turn to Christ had come to the peninsula assuming he’d find solidarity with his Muslim brothers. The opposite proved true. He wasn’t from the “right” country or class, and this deficiency was clearly communicated to him, even in the mosque. He was devalued and excluded.
But then he met the church. He saw a community where men and women, black and white, rich and poor, were all treated with dignity. All were equally loved—not on the basis of their identity or heritage, but on the basis of Christ’s finished work on their behalf. It wasn’t that our brother was just told that all were welcome; he saw and experienced that welcome, and it changed his life.
2. Demonstrates Sprit-filled community.
Whether in corporate worship or personal relationships, Christian community depends on the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit—which results in our singing to one another, our giving thanks to God, and our mutual submission (Eph. 5:18–21). How will we display these things to the nations unless we are gathered together in the church?
An Arab friend looked at me after we read Acts 4 together and said, ‘Next time we get together, tell me about your church.’
An Arab friend looked at me after we read Acts 4 together and said, “Next time we get together, tell me about your church.” A little confused, I asked what he meant. He answered, “You Christians have something different. I go to the mosque. We have a community. But when I visited your church, I saw something altogether different. The way you relate to and love one another is unique. I sense you have something we don’t, and I want you to tell me about it.” Friend, his name is the Holy Spirit.
3. Mobilizes Christians for mission.
I love missionaries. I love that many men and women have left the comforts of their homeland and crossed cultures to share the gospel with the least reached. Their stories encourage our souls. But there are still so few. In reality, those willing to go are limited, as are the financial resources to send them. What if we could equip the Christians already living among the least-reached to do the work of mission through the local church?
One African brother came to the peninsula to find work. He was a young Christian when we met him, with little concern for God’s mission. But God began to grow him. Over time, he came to see the connection between his faith and his vocation: He was working in a place where very few people knew Jesus. Shortly thereafter, this brother began bringing a Muslim co-worker to church. Hardly a week goes by without both of them sitting there as the gospel is preached.
Now, this brother didn’t have to go through formal training or raise funds. He doesn’t have a list of partner churches. But he is active in the work of missions among the unreached. Even better, there are thousands like him who, if they were connected to a healthy church and discipled well, could be mobilized for the spread of the gospel on the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.
Let’s not wait to introduce the world—and yes, the Muslim world—to the church. Let’s plant churches that plant churches to this end.