August 7, 2012

Don't Do What I Did: Mistake #2 I Made in Church Planting

My first mistake in church planting was my attitude. The second mistake happened in my heart, and it was ugly. I write about it in an excerpt from my forthcoming book:

My heart has been tested countless times throughout our church planting experience, starting from the moment I unpacked the last moving box. In the months leading up to our move, we had been asked countless times, “Just how do you start a church?” We had read every church planting book in existence, received counsel from seasoned church planters, and developed a clear vision of what we hoped our church would become. But when I hung the last frame on the wall, Kyle and I looked at each other and said, “Now what?” We didn’t know a single person in our city besides our realtor and a neighbor who had welcomed us with a plate of cookies. The challenge ahead of us seemed completely overwhelming, and I questioned our choices and our sanity. Could God really make something out of nothing?

Over the course of the first year, nothing came easy.
We started a Sunday evening Bible study in our home a month after moving to Charlottesville. On the first night, ten people attended, four of whom were considered church leaders and were therefore required to be there, and three of whom were our children. The kids sat still for worship but then roamed in and out of the living room during Bible study, causing such a distraction that I took them upstairs and missed half of our first church gathering.

Later, after cleaning the kitchen and putting away all of the leftover cookies I had made for our guests, I retreated to our bedroom and cried. In fact, for most of the fall, my Sunday evenings looked similar to that first one: I cleaned the house, made food, greeted people, wrangled children all throughout church, mingled and said goodbye, cleaned the house again—then cried. Even into the spring, when we moved our meeting time to Sunday mornings and started to outgrow our living room, I struggled to conjure up the faith and excitement I had come to Charlottesville with. I longed for families to join us—most of our growth was young, single people—and especially for God to make things easier and more comfortable for us. I wondered why we weren’t the church planters that experienced explosive growth in a short period of time. How I envied those people.

I began putting undue pressure on Kyle because I was emotionally fragile, uncertain of my role, and lonely. Church planting was proving harder than I had orginially expected. “Why did you bring me here?” I’d say to Kyle, my words dripping with resentment. He’d gently remind me that God called me here too, that we were a team, and that I’d felt so certain when we were preparing to leave Texas. I mourned the change and what it required of me: more sacrifice, less of my husband, more uncertainty, less of the familiar routines we had once enjoyed. In my emotional need, I wanted my husband’s full attention, but, tasked with a great responsibility, he had so little to give me. I grew disillusioned—with ministry, with church planting, and with marriage. I dwelled there, feeding my sinful thoughts. What if we had never moved here? What if Kyle hadn’t gone into ministry? What if we had ignored God’s call to church plant? What if I hadn’t married someone in the ministry? What would it hurt just to give up?

I also pointed my bitter arrows at God. Why can’t You make this easier? I have been obedient and faithful in coming here and this is what I get?

I had entered church planting with a firm faith, but because I didn’t closely guard my heart, because I listened to those little poisonous whispers, I forgot that God loved me and doubted His provision. Resentful, my heart hardened toward my husband and toward God. My unwillingness to submit to the Lord and accept His good purposes for me made it all the more difficult to hear His voice or receive His comfort.

We finished our first year of church planting under a tent in a muddy pit with 31 water-logged people. When we got home that afternoon, Kyle said, “It feels like we’re starting over.” We had been asked to leave our meeting place the previous Friday, we didn’t have a new one lined up (hence the tent), we barely had a core group, and we were physically exhausted and emotionally beaten down. We—the fearless leaders—were full of fear and doubt.

Privately, I questioned God and His ways. Lord, we put in the hard work during that difficult first year. Where is the explosive growth? I wanted to coast into the second year after the sprint of the first. I was too tired and unprepared to run the distance marathon that church planting requires.

I found myself at a crossroads.

God allowed the difficulty of church planting to sift me, to bring the issues of my heart to the surface. I realized that if I didn’t address my hardened heart, my marriage, my family, and my own heart were in danger. God was refining me, cleaning me out, and teaching me dependence rather than self-reliance. I could continue my attempts at controlling and relying on my self, or I could submit myself in dependence on Him.

I chose to submit. I found myself agreeing with Peter when spoke to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life.” I chose to trust Him with my heart and let Him do–through church planting–the work He needed to do in me.

Perhaps you can relate to my struggle.

As church planting wives, we love the Lord and long to be obedient to His calling on our lives, but feelings of loneliness, resentment, discouragement, or exhaustion tempt our hearts to wander from Him. The temptations are subtle, but real: to turn to others, to turn away from the calling because it’s difficult and demanding, to distance ourselves from our husbands out of resentment, to feed our children a faint distaste for the church and for God, to believe that our successes in church planting belong to us, to live off of our previous sacrifices and refuse to sacrifice more of ourselves to God. The temptation is to self—seeking our own agenda, clamoring to have our needs met, self-promotion, and selfish ambition. As we seek these things, we become a statistic: burnt out, isolated, depressed, and, sometimes, resigned.

It’s no wonder that the Bible entreats us to guard our hearts. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” The literal interpretation reads, “Above all guarding, guard your heart.” We are to guard our hearts more than our children, more than our marriage, more than our reputation, more than our home, more than our schedule, and more than our church. As Matthew Henry says, “We must keep a watchful eye and a strict hand upon all the motions of the inward man…We must maintain a holy jealousy of ourselves, and set a strict guard, accordingly, upon all the avenues of the soul; keep our hearts from doing hurt and getting hurt, from being defiled by sin and disturbed by trouble; keep them as our jewel, as our vineyard; keep a conscience void of offence; keep out bad thoughts; keep up good thoughts; keep the affections upon right objects and in due bounds.” In other words, we are to diligently maintain a tender soil for God’s love and purposes to grow, to continually pull out weeds of self-focus, and to allow God to produce fruit in and through us. This is, in essence, the job description of a church planting wife.