Two church planters and the owner of a spiritually intentional CrossFit gym sat down for coffee and talked about the challenges of their ministries. The conversation quickly moved to this:
“I gave God three options: (1) make me better at this, (2) bring me some help, or (3) tell me to shut it down.”
“What did God say?”
“He said, ‘None of the above. You’re going to stay in it, but you’re kind of going to suck.’”
We all laughed and nodded. It’s a story I think most church planters can identify with.
Sometimes, it seems, God calls us to persist in a given ministry, even though we feel ill-equipped, seem to take two steps back for every one step forward, and generally (in our own estimation, at least), kind of suck. We struggle, don’t see the fruit we hope for, and wonder aloud why God didn’t call someone with better skills to take on this challenge
Yet if we and those around us are convinced we are doing what God has called us to do, how do we live in that space? How do we persist in a calling when it feels like we don’t have what is required to pull it off?
Here is a bit of what Jesus is teaching me:
1. God is more interested in the work he is doing in me than in the work I am doing for him.
While I much prefer the seasons of fruit to the seasons of struggle, I have to admit that I grow more in the seasons of struggle. I pray more fervently, have better ears to hear the counsel of others, and am forced to take faith risks I might not otherwise take. In short, I learn how to better trust my Father in heaven.
And it isn’t just me. What God is doing in me he is doing in the church as well. All of us who persist and remain engaged in the struggle of ministry are growing into disciples who look more and more like their Rabbi. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what God wants? That we be conformed to the likeness of his son?
I’m learning (again) that God is more interested in growing me and the people in my church than he is in growing my church.
2. Take the long view.
My wife, whose hobby is gardening, got a peach tree for our back yard. I, who would like to make a hobby of eating peach pie, waited anxiously for the heavenly pieces of fruit to appear. They didn’t.
Is this tree a dud, we wondered? Did we do something wrong when planting it? Should we return it and try another?
No, our more seasoned gardening friends told us. You need to give this kind of tree two to three years before you see much fruit.
In my experience, most churches are the same way. While a few thrive from day one, most bear fruit like my peach tree—as the result of faithful, persistent care over time. Yet as pastors we wonder if our church is a dud, if we erred in the way we planted it, if it’s time to try another pastorate where we might see better results.
Sometimes, of course, God is calling us to other ministries, and we need to be open to that. But there are other times when God calls us to remain in place, patiently persisting in the daily work of prayer, reaching out, loving people, teaching them to walk with Jesus.
Will the fruit that comes be much or little? We never know. As Paul says, it’s God who brings the growth. Our task is to persist in doing the right things, and to do so, we do well to take the long view.
3. Recognize that skill development takes time.
It’s rumored that Tim Keller flunked out of his denomination’s assessment center because he wasn’t a very good preacher. Tim Keller!!! Apparently when he was younger, Keller too was a mere mortal.
Along those same lines, Keller tells his preaching students they shouldn’t be overly hard on themselves until they have preached at least 300 sermons. It takes that long, he says, to really find your voice.
If that rule of thumb holds true, that means most of us can anticipate a good five to seven years of weekly mediocrity. (It also means we would be wise to teach our churches patience, because they are going to need it!) And for my money, developing the necessary skills to lead well is far more difficult than developing the skills to preach well.
Frustrating though it is, don’t we see this pattern in Scripture too? Who in the Bible actually seems equipped for the ministry to which God calls them? Most famously, Jesus entrusted his church to a bunch of misfit disciples who were clearly ill-equipped for the work at hand. This, of course, was not new, as throughout the Old Testament as well God called a steady stream of half-baked individuals to lead his mission.
When I read their stories I’m reminded that God isn’t limited by the fact that I am still being developed, nor is he surprised that I wasn’t more skilled when he called me.
And moreover, I’m reminded that the One who called me is faithful, and he will graciously accomplish his purposes in me and through me.
Tim Morey is the founding pastor of Life Covenant Church, a messy, missional, church-planting church in Torrance, California; an assistant adjunct professor of church planting at Fuller Seminary; and the author of Embodying Our Faith: Becoming a Living, Sharing, Practicing Church (IVP).