I’ll never forget the day my wife and I pulled up to the Canadian border from Austin, TX, everything we owned in tow, ready to finish the drive to Oshawa, Ontario, a city just east of Toronto, where we would plant our first church with the North American Mission Board. After saying “yes” to God’s call to leave our home and plant churches in an unchurched area, we had experienced miraculous provision and confirmation of calling.
Our fundraising had come together much quicker than we ever expected (with several miracles that I’ll have to share another time), God had connected us with the perfect network, and we knew that we knew that the south side of Oshawa, Ontario was where we were supposed to be.
Because Oshawa was so unchurched and many people here have never even heard the Gospel before, I figured it would be a breath of fresh air. In Texas, when you share the Gospel with someone, you are likely to hear something along the lines of, “Oh yes, I’m a Christian. Of course I believe in Jesus”. To be frank, I was frustrated with the apathy.
“Oshawa will be different”, I thought. “I mean, after all, this is GOOD NEWS! As soon as people who’ve never heard it before start hearing it, surely we’ll see people begin to respond to Jesus and revival will break out!”
Disappointment Is The Result Of Unfulfilled Expectations
When we pulled up to the border to enter the country, we were met with a rude awakening: “Permission To Leave Canada”
That’s the slip they give you when you are denied entry at the border. We couldn’t believe it. We had checked and rechecked our paperwork and application. We had everything. And they wouldn’t let us in.
I’ll spare you the drama and go ahead and tell you now that we did eventually get in the country. We spent 6 agonizing days at a Comfort Inn enjoying the sights and sounds of beautiful Buffalo, NY (Yes, that’s sarcasm. No offense, Buffalo) while enduring a whirlwind of phone calls with lawyers, fax machines, more forms & applications.
What I learned from that initial experience entering Canada was that church planting was going to be harder than I thought.
If you are thinking about church planting, preparing to plant a church, or if you’ve recently planted a church, then here’s what I want you to do:
Write down your expectations of how you think things are going to be and then burn that piece of paper in a hot, hot fire. No, I’m not talking about your goals or your dreams or your vision. You need those. In fact, if you don’t dream big and you don’t have a huge, God-sized vision for your city, you probably shouldn’t be planting a church anyways.
I’m talking about expectations.
My dad has lots of pithy, wise sayings, and one of his favorites that I probably heard him say a hundred times growing up was, “All disappointment is the result of unfulfilled expectations”.
I think it’s only natural for church planters to truly believe that things are going to go well when they plant a church. And they may! But I’ve never heard a single church planter tell me things went according to plan. Or that it was easy. There will be unforeseen challenges, major disappointments, and numerous times where everything in you will want to quit.
Starting With A Thud
We saw some measure of success as we began to hit the streets and share Jesus. God graciously brought some people across our path who were open to the Gospel. He brought together a core team of people who, for reasons that can only be explained by God, decided to follow a green, 30 year old church planter on an ambitious endeavor.
But we quickly realised that people weren’t lining up to follow Jesus in our city. Many of the new disciples we baptized began to struggle and in some cases completely fall away. That was heartbreaking. For the first time in my life, I began to empathize with the Apostle Paul when he said told the Galatians he felt as if he were “again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19).
The week after a successful launch service where 100 people showed up to celebrate a new church plant in the heart of South Oshawa, I walked up to the pulpit to see 18 – EIGHTEEN – faces looking back at me in the seats. Talk about a “Welcome to church planting” moment!
Several months after that, two couples from our core team left our church. Both of these couples served a lot and also happened to be good friends. They are both doing great things now, but it still wasn’t easy on our fledgling little church plant when they left!
On top of all of that, my wife and I endured infertility and faced frustrating financial problems.
None of those things were in my plan. I didn’t expect any of it to happen. And when those things happened – especially when they began to accumulate – disappointment, and eventually depression, set in.
What Will You Do When Disappointment Sets In?
You need to decide what your answer to this question is now, before disappointment sets in. Because it will! That’s not me being a Debbie-downer, that’s just a church planter levelling with another church planter. Ask the Apostle Paul if things always turned out like he expected them to!
When the disappointment sets in – low Sunday turnouts, struggling new disciples, no new disciples, grumbling core team members – you’ve got two choices. You can either accept the circumstances for what they are, God’s plan, or you can try to fight against the circumstances by manipulating them.
About nine months into our church plant, we hit a low point. We had faced a ton of rejection with little fruit to show for it. It seemed like nothing we were doing was working and we were frustrated.
The easy decision for us would have been to throw more money at marketing, or pull back and try a re-launch, or even quit and move on to a new field. You know, manipulate our circumstances. Take things into our own hands.
But instead, I decided to do the only thing I knew to do. I hit my knees and began to pray.
The Grace of God In Our Disappointments
Everything had been so easy up to that day we first pulled up to the Canadian border. I was beginning to think I was going to waltz into that city like Billy Graham and start a church that would change the world.
Looking back, I am so glad that our church planting journey hasn’t gone according to my plan.
I know that if things had gone exactly how I wanted them to go, we wouldn’t have so many of the incredible stories we get to share today. I wouldn’t know Jesus like I do today, because I never would have been brought to my knees as God humbled me and reminded me I’m not the Lord of the Harvest, He is.
God actually used the struggles of our church plant to reveal some deep-seeded sin in my heart that needed to be dealt with. He tore off the manhole covering and revealed a sewer of pride that had gone unchecked in my heart, and boy did He ever wallop that pride!
And you know what? I’m so, so thankful He did. God softened my jaded edges and opened my heart to comprehend His love for me on a grander scale.
Now, I didn’t understand this at the time. And God took His time showing all of that to me. There’s a good chance He will take His time showing you, too. But just because I didn’t know what God was doing at the time doesn’t mean God didn’t know what He was doing at the time.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” – Isaiah 55:8-9
It’s easy enough for us as pastors to share that passage with a church member struggling to comprehend God’s will, but are you willing to apply it to your church plant? Your life?
In my short time in the church planting world, I’ve already seen a lot of guys give up when disappointment sets in. “All disappointment is the result of unfulfilled expectations”. Don’t give up when things don’t go according to your plan.
Instead, ask, “God, what are you trying to teach me here? What is Your plan?”. And be ready to accept His answer, no matter what the answer is. Hit your knees and pray. A lot. Spend some time fasting with your wife and your core team. Go on a retreat and spend time reading through Acts and Paul’s epistles.
I’m not sure what will end up happening at our little church plant. Fellowship Oshawa may yet change our city and reach the nations. But no matter where this thing goes, because things didn’t go according to my plan but according to God’s plan, God will get all the glory.