a. Suffering will come.
In Acts 17 when Paul was at Thessalonica, while there was a wonderful work of God’s grace in the hearts of many of the people, there was another reaction in others, namely opposition to the message Paul preached that resulted in suffering. The unbelieving Jews became jealous and filled with envy turned against the believers. They basically incited a riot and they ultimately had Jason and some of the others who were serving as host to Paul and Silas brought before the political officials accusing them of turning the world upside down. They alleged they were proclaiming that there is another God other than Caesar and this resulted in real suffering and Paul and Silas had to escape at night time to Berea. On arriving they began the same type of work there in the synagogue when the Jews from Thessalonica followed them to Berea and continued to stir up strife and dissention against them. There was real suffering. Every Church planter must take this into account. Opposition and suffering for the Lord’s sake is something we must be prepared to face. But what we must do when that happens is to remember the precious promise of Romans 8,
“We know that in all things God works for the good to those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”
We see this worked out in numerous places in Scripture. One example is when Paul was in prison in Rome. The Philippian Church were deeply distressed about this but Paul was able to write to them that his imprisonment had turned out to the furtherance of the gospel. Paul was in deep affliction, but God was using that for the spread of his kingdom. God can make providential use of our suffering even to advance his purposes and so it is not a question of whether or not suffering will happen, but it is a question of what form it will take. The Scriptures tell us plainly that all who live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution; it is a part of the package (2 Timothy 3:12). Particularly when we are involved in front line evangelism and church planting work and pushing back the boundaries of darkness, we can expect to have much suffering.
b. Kinds of suffering.
Typically this persecution is going to come from religious authorities. We see this happened in Thessalonica because it was the Jews who did not believe who were stirring up all of this opposition. In addition, the political authorities may cause a lot of difficulty. However, almost invariably the end result is that the progress of the gospel is enhanced. An example is found in Acts 8:1 when many of the Jerusalem believers were scattered after the stoning of Stephen, and wherever they went and shared the gospel, churches were planted that might not otherwise have been planted had there not been a measure of suffering.
On a personal level there is other suffering involved in church planting. Sometimes church planting, just because of the pioneering nature of the work, can be very lonely and sometimes people can suffer greatly as a result of this loneliness. There often are times of real financial difficulty. We want to preach the gospel freely, but sometimes if we are not able to work to support ourselves or if our level of support from our sponsoring church is not sufficient or sometimes if it does not actually reach us in a timely way and manner we can enter some real financial difficulty. What is really tough about this is that we know we need to give a very positive impression of the gospel to everyone that we have anything to do with. Having unpaid debts and not being able to sort our finances out properly harms people’s view of our integrity and that affects their receptiveness to the gospel. So we sometimes suffer not only the financial difficulty but also that spiritual burden that we carry could reflect poorly upon us and upon the gospel.
Sometimes there is the suffering that comes from misunderstanding. Sometimes people do not understand our motives and so they question our reasons or attribute to us motives that we do not actually have. Sometimes in church planting they think we are trying to build our own kingdom, but in reality we are trying to build the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is important to rest in the fact that over and above all the opposition and hatred of men and the devil, we have a sovereign heavenly Father who controls all things for his glory and our good. We cannot fully understand all of God’s ways during times of suffering, but we can rest assured he knows what he is doing with our lives. Remember even the devil cannot do to us anything except what our loving heavenly Father allows him to, so we know whatever kind of suffering we may have to face in gospel work the Lord is going to use this for our profit and his praise.
I remember one of God’s servants sharing with me once that an area where he and his family were vulnerable to opposition was attacks on his children. He said that if it had been attacks on him he could have taken it easier but the fact that his children were being singled out was really, really hard. He felt the only way he could overcome that was by just crying to the Lord for help and for protection and for strength to carry on, and the Lord in his mercy did uphold them even though their whole family suffered.
There is a real price to be paid and that is why the church planter should either be single or should have a family that is fully engaged in the work so that the family can be a source of strength and encouragement to one another when suffering comes. We remember our Lord Jesus Christ and his sufferings on our behalf on the cross and we would not for a minute say that the servant is greater than the master, so if our master suffered these things then it should not surprise us that we must suffer too. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29,
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…”
The Apostle Paul, perhaps the most prolific church planter, had these difficulties. For instance, there was John Mark who started on the first missionary journey but then turned back – how discouraging. Or consider the man Demas that he identified in Philemon 24 as one of his fellow workers. Later in 2 Timothy 4:10 he had to write that Demas had deserted him because he loved this present world. Then when he made his first defence in Rome he said no one stood with him, but everyone had left him. However he was able to say in 2 Timothy 4:17,
“But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”
Even in our darkest moments we need to remember that no true believer is ever alone, for the Lord is with us always to the very end of the age. Someone once said that God never uses a man greatly until he first hurts him deeply and there is definitely a measure of truth to that statement. We often see that God’s servants walk with a limp because they have had those experiences of suffering that the Lord has used to more fully conform them to Christ and to actually make them fit and more useful for the work that he has given them to do.
c. When to go, when to stay.
The great temptation when suffering comes is to forsake our calling and escape. Now this needs great wisdom because there were times in the New Testament when Paul and his companions had to escape, and did so, but they never forsook their calling and continued to preach the gospel. On some occasions they actually revisited the places where they had suffered most. But the call to Church planting includes in it the willingness to suffer for the cause of Christ. We should stand firm in the midst of suffering just like Epaphroditus who actually endangered his own life in order that he might faithfully carry out the charge that the Philippian church had given him to deliver support to Paul. We should be like those that the Scriptures speak of and hazard our lives for the sake of Christ. There are parts of the world where the people have to be baptised in secret in the jungle in order to escape public notice because it may be illegal to be baptised and to publically profess faith in Christ. There are pastors who have been beaten by religious leaders because they were preaching the true gospel. There are servants of God who have had to spend time in prison because of their preaching but yet they continued faithful and steadfast.
It is helpful to think of Church planting like this. You go to a place where the people do not want you to be and stay until they do not want you to leave. This is what Paul did when he went to Ephesus (Acts19). They did not want him to be there and the whole city had been set in an uproar and had this tremendous riot. It was a terrible situation and if Paul had gone into the crowd as he wanted to, they would probably have torn him apart but later, some of those same people came to repentance and faith. Some became leaders and were among the elders of the Ephesian church when Paul spoke with them at Miletus and told them he would not see their faces again. They wept and embraced him because they had come to love him so much. He had gone to a place where people did not want him to be and he had stayed until people did not want him to leave.
Sometimes, especially when there has been the Lord’s blessing on the work and a church has been established and is growing with new converts regularly being added to the membership, the Church planter may think he could stay in that place and take things easy for a while. Or he may have similar blessing and think that there is no one else in the new church who could handle leadership responsibility so he thinks he will stay on as the pastor and give up his call to Church planting. Very often success is harder to handle than adversity. What should the Church planter do? Barry King suggests this should be our approach. First and foremost a church planter is a servant of Jesus Christ. He should then seek to develop the local membership of the new Church so that out of it will come a local leadership that will instruct these believers in the principles of biblical stewardship and he should stay until that is done, regardless of the difficulty that he might face. But when that is done and there is a local membership and they do have local leaders and they understand the principles of biblical stewardship, the church planter should move on to the next place and begin that work again and leave that work there in the hands of local leadership. There is also the danger of leaving a work too soon where someone goes into an area and does not see the new
Church established properly then they leave before they have completed their task properly. Sometimes these hit and run tactics are because of the pride of the church planter who wants to be able to tell to his supporters he has planted so many churches. However, when they do this the new believers are left there like sheep without a shepherd with no one to help them and guide them into the precious truths of our salvation in Christ which is so gloriously detailed in Scripture. It appears sometimes that that approach is more to bolster the church planter’s ego than it is to actually strengthen and foster spiritual growth and development in the lives of the people. These are not our people but the Lord’s. They are the sheep of his pasture and we are to lovingly feed them the Word of God. We are to lovingly lead them to live their lives in accordance with the teachings of God’s Word. And we are, if necessary, to bleed for them. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep, and we have to be prepared to stay as long as the work requires.
One of the dangers linked with the need to raise up a local leadership from the church, is that for the Church planter to think others cannot do the preaching and pastoring as well as he can and so he convinces himself he cannot leave them in the care of such leaders. The truth of the matter is they probably cannot do it like the Church planter, but they can do it as well as the Church planter can do it. If they have been properly taught and if the Church planter has walked with them and modelled for them, not just through word but also deed, then it will be amazing how they are going to blossom and flourish. The Church planter’s continued presence might actually stifle their growth and their development and if he is absent it will give them the opportunity to grow and develop. By leaving at the right time the Church planter is not forgetting them, nor forsaking them, nor walking off never to return again. Often we see Paul and his co-labourers returning to the places where they had been.
Acts 14:21-23 is such an example,
“They (that is Paul and Barnabas)preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”
They made sure that what they had seen had been a real work of God’s Spirit and they saw it really stood the test of time, and we should do similarly. A lot of the time we cannot know that unless we do leave. Sometimes it can be inverted pride that makes us stay too long. Other times it can mask our own personal insecurities and our own feelings of inadequacy, especially if we know deep in our heart we have not done a good job of training up those who will follow us in leadership. Maybe we have done too much ourselves and taken more on ourselves than was wise. And deep down we know that and we say if we leave, it will show that too much of it has been built around us and not enough of it around the Lord Jesus Christ and the principles and teachings of his Word. We need to search our hearts to see if there is any wrong motive within us, and then by God’s grace to put that right. We have the great encouragement of Scripture that the Lord will honour us as we seek to honour him, and we are so dependent on him for that work.
Posted in: Principles of Church Planting