Whew, it feels good—like Bruno-Mars-dancing-at-the-Superbowl good—to have two feet safely into year four of church planting today. But before the year three swamp water dries on my pant legs and I forget about how mucky it was, I want to share a few things we learned in the marshland.
In no way is this a complete list (I’ve gotta save some things for the book I keep threatening to write), but if I could only say three things (oh, and all of this, too) to church planters and their launch teams about year three, it would go something like this:
1) Just because you work your face off from a place of self-sufficiency doesn’t mean things will get easier or that your church will instantly grow bigger.
It’s honorable—necessary, even—to work hard and do everything you can to grow your church with excellence, but not at the expense of getting ahead of God, or leaving him out of it completely. We relied far too much on our own strength, our own work ethic, and our own self-sufficiency in year three, and very little of it amounted to what we thought it would. It wasn’t until we prayerfully surrendered our striving and our notions of how we thought things should look that God began taking us—by his power and strength—in the direction he wanted us to be moving all along. So don’t try to walk alone by abandoning the fierce dependence you moved and breathed with in years one and two. Instead, pray and be marked by it in year three.
2) You can’t care more about other people’s sanctification (that’s fancy for “growing in grace”) than they do.
People you loved and pursued and celebrated change in during years one and two are going to drop out of your church in year three. They will show up every now and then, but their commitment to pursuing Jesus in community will be inconsistent. They may seek anonymity in bigger churches, retreat to isolation at familiar wells of sin, or simply start organizing their schedules around things they honestly believe matter more than Jesus, and that’s just the way it goes. It’s sad and frustrating, but it’s totally normal. You can’t blame yourself or dwell on it or try to fix it (especially if you have already done everything you can to love and lead them well); you can only make sure that these people know your door is always open to them when they are ready to return. Their relationship with Jesus is their relationship with Jesus. It’s not yours. It’s theirs to abandon or grow into so, more often than not, you just have to let it be. Pray they find their way back into community—regardless of whether or not it’s yours—but, if they do walk back through your doors, see to it that grace and affection meet them inside.
3) Spy (with your little eye) the forest, not the trees.
Some weekends are going to flat-out suck from an attendance perspective and you will want to throw yourself in front of oncoming traffic after measuring the totality of your ministry by one bad day (but I’ve just heard this). Don’t make a sweeping generalization about how everything is going by assessing just one Sunday. Go home and take a nap (a long one, the more drool the better) instead. When you wake up, remind yourself that this isn’t about you. People won’t show up on a weekend for a smattering of reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with you (coughNFL), and next week will be better just like last week was better. Don’t beat yourself up for too long or mope around all afternoon like an entitled child. Instead, remind yourself of His faithfulness and resolve to keep showing up.
To learning stuff along the way,