The Wait, the Work, and the Reward

I've been thinking lately about two passages that are shaping my expectations as a church planter. The first one, surprisingly, is from Leviticus. The second one is from 2 Timothy. Both are teaching me about God's timing in life and ministry, and the promise of reward if we work hard and wait.

The Five-Year Wait for Fruit

Leviticus 19:23-25 says:

When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:23-25)

In Israel, planting a tree was a five-year investment. Trees don't produce fruit right away. Even when the tree produced fruit, the first year's fruit was offered to God. If you planted, cultivated, and waited, eventually you would taste of the fruit, but only after the hard work and the long wait.

Maybe I'm reading too much into things, but I'm reflecting on how I would have struggled to wait that long. But waiting time isn't wasted time when you're planting trees or planting churches. If we're patient, we'll eventually get to eat of that fruit.

The Hardworking Farmer

Paul says a similar thing in 2 Timothy 2:6: “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”

I don’t know a lot about farming, but Kent Hughes says this:

Farming is hard work today, and it was especially hard in the first century. The farmer’s life involved:

  1. early and long hours because he could not afford to lose time;
  2. constant toil (plowing, sowing, tending, weeding, reaping, storing);
  3. regular disappointments—frosts, pests, and disease;
  4. much patience—everything happened at less than slow motion; and
  5. boredom.

Sign me up! This, Paul says, is a good picture of what ministry looks like.

The Reward

In both passages, after the hard work and the wait, the reward is promised. "But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you..." "“It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”

Why would I be less patient than an arborist or a farmer? Why wouldn't I work as hard? Why wouldn't I set hard work, unpredictable results, and patience as part of the package? And why wouldn't I expect the reward that comes at the end?

I promise you the reward at the end will be worth it.

How Every Church Can Get Involved with Church Planting

For pastors and other leaders truly committed to the church growth imperative of the Great Commission, church planting is not an option. (Thom S. Rainer)

I'm a firm believer that every church should be involved in church planting. To be sure, there are different levels of involvement. No involvement, however, should not be an option.

The Gospel Coalition has a great post on how to become a church planting church. I love the plan that Brian Howard outlines in that article; it is doable, and churches can begin right where they are and adapt the plan within their context.

In his excellent book Discovering Church Planting, J.D. Payne outlines some different levels of involvement. "The first thing that churches should understand is that there is a multitude of ways to be involved in church planting," he writes. They include:

  • calling out missionaries who will consider church planting as a ministry option;
  • providing ongoing prayer support for church plants and church planters;
  • encouragement and association with the church planting team;
  • pastoral mentoring and accountabliity;
  • training, such as paying for planters to attend conferences and training events;
  • resources and financial help;
  • constant recognition of the church planters.

Chapter 14 of Discovering Church Planting is a valuable resource on how to get involved with church planting, even at a very introductory level.

I'm convinced that this would make a huge difference. If every church did its part — even a small part — then we would continually be raising up new church planters, understanding the importance of planting, praying for church plants, and providing resources for the work.

What a great opportunity! Begin where you are, and see where God begins to take you as you take small steps to increasing involvement in the planting of churches that are reaching people with the gospel. Just as every church should be involved in missions, every church should be involved in church planting.

Ministry Idols

I've been attending some training by Scott Thomas, author of the excellent book Gospel Coach. Thomas does a good job talking about ministry idols. An idol is a rival god: something we look to other than God for meaning and identity.

Thomas identifies four root idols. They're not unique to pastors and those in ministry, but they're rampant in ministry. They are:

  • Power Idol — control, positon, influence, success, strength
  • Approval Idol — relationships, achievement, ethnicity, social circles, appearance
  • Security Idol — family, finances, protection, religion, safety, future
  • Comfort Idol — pleasure, health, freedom, excesses, home and vehicles, recreation

Thomas provides a helpful grid that helps you diagnose your idols. He also uses the gospel as the source of truth that helps us turn from our idols to God:

  • Power Idol — God is glorious, so I don't have to produce results.
  • Approval Idol — God is gracious, so I don't have to prove myself.
  • Security Idol — God is great, so I don't have to be in control.
  • Comfort Idol — God is good, so I don't have to look elsewhere for comfort, peace, and fulfillment.

It's worth reading Gospel Coach just for this section of the book. It's an issue that those in ministry can't afford to ignore.

Thomas says, "Ministry will expose your weaknesses; church planting will expose your idols." This certainly lines up with my experience.

It's not really a question of whether pastors struggle with these idols or not. We all do. Effective ministry goes far beyond techniques; it surely must begin with identifying and repenting of the idols that have captured our hearts, so that the ministry is offered as an act of worship to the one true God rather than to the idols that would both enslave us and destroy our ministries.

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). Good advice for pastors and those in ministry too.

Church Planting Takes Time

It rained at an art show last year. We set up our canopy and a table, but we spent most of the day shivering and waiting for the crowds that never came. We spent some time talking to the artists next to us, who came and sat under our canopy and shivered along with us.

We talked about a lot of things, but the one subject that I remember is surprising. “Do you know what you should do?” one of them asked. “You should take your wife to a burlesque show. It would be good for your sex life.”

We are two pastors sitting under a church canopy. I hadn’t expected this conversation! As we talked, it became clear that she didn’t understand that this might be a strange idea to suggest to pastors.

I’m not sure this story is completely typical, but I know one thing: Many haven’t rejected a Christian worldview or the gospel; they’ve never even had the opportunity. I remember reading a quote from a church plant in Seattle a couple of years ago that went something like this:

Tragically, many do not know thIs God, this story or this Gospel. In fact, many avoid Him, ignore Him, neuter Him, distort Him, domesticate Him, misunderstand Him, add to or subtract from Him, or simply hate Him. Many, however, have simply never heard of Him. So we must go to them.

“Biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches,” according to J.D. Payne. And that takes time, especially in places where the gospel has not been heard. Payne cautions:

The irony is that much church planting today, especially throughout North America, substitutes other matters for evangelism. With many church-planting teams, evangelism is the weakest link in their church-planting strategies. Many default to gathering believers together to the neglect of evangelism. This transfer-growth form of church planting must stop if we are ever going to be able to make disciples of the over four billion people on planet Earth. (Discovering Church Planting)

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When you plant a church through evangelism, I’m guessing that it’s common to see some early results. But as a friend told me last week, it’s not uncommon for it to take three years for someone to move from initial contact to new believer in Jesus Christ.

If you read this and you get excited, then you may want to consider church planting. I personally find this more exciting and rewarding than the transfer-growth model. But at the same time, let’s recognize that the old model of quickly setting up a new church that is mature and self-sustaining in 3 years or less may not continue to be the norm, especially in our post-Christendom context. Let’s dig in deep and have great expectations — but let’s also expect that church planting through evangelism takes time.

It's Supposed to Be Messy and Hard

I confuse myself, and I don’t think I’m alone.

When we began planting a church in Liberty Village, I was pretty sure that our goal was to plant ourselves and the gospel in a community where the gospel isn’t known. It would be messy; progress would be slow; but we would pray for people to come to know Christ and persevere even when it was hard. Out of that would come a church, if God so blessed. Failure would be a very real possibility as we live on the frontier. This is not a safe option.

Just a few months in, I’ve noticed a few things. One: I’m busy, and the busyness is keeping me from living on mission. Two: Our community isn’t as far along as we would like; some of us are living in the same community, but are lives aren’t as intertwined as I’d hoped. Three: I get discouraged when not enough (notice how slippery that term is? what’s enough?) people show up to one of our services.

If I’m not careful, I completely miss the point of what we are trying to do.

Here are a few things that come to mind as I think about this.

First, consider the possibility that this confusion may be pretty widespread. Will Mancini frequently asks pastors, “How do you want your church to be different in two years?” The most common response he receives is, “More people." (See Innovating Discipleship for more.) More people is good, but it’s only part of the picture. He lists some other possible responses he rarely hears: more desparate for Jesus, or more friendships with people far from God. It may be that “more people” is part of what we should be aiming for in two years; it may be that there are more important things that have escaped our attention. For myself: I’d love more people living in community and on mission in Liberty Village over simply more people sitting in rows anytime. I just need to remember this.

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Second, please help me celebrate the right things. When people ask how church planting is going, it’s easy to give a sanitized answer. The reality is that it is often hard. The results are not always evident. Success is not always guaranteed. The process is messy. And this isn’t when things are going poorly; this is church planting at its best. When you are planting a church that aims to be built out of new kingdom citizens, this is exactly how it should look.

That’s why I love what J.D. Payne says: expect new churches to be immature. That’s how they’re supposed to look. Or, as Tim Challies puts it, expect bad singing. Expect it to be hard. Expect setbacks and disappointments. In the middle of the risk and the messiness and sometimes apparent defeat, God does some pretty amazing things.

I spent most of yesterday reminding myself that these things are true. Pray that I’ll remember tomorrow. I have a tendency to confuse myself with the wrong metrics more quickly than I’d like.