lament |ləˈment|, noun: a passionate expression of grief or sorrow
When a core group member leaves suddenly, or conflict erupts between two key missional community leaders, or your worship leader quits right before your public launch, how do you deal with the feelings of loss, pain, anger, and grief? When an unbeliever that you have befriended and baptized walks away from the faith, how do you pray? How do you navigate the chasm between how our theology says we ought to respond and how we actually feel?
The ancient practice of lament may be a pathway for church planters to draw near to God even while enduring a dark night of the soul. It may be a means by which God forms spiritual and emotional resilience in a planter. Lament is a common refrain in the Bible—particularly the Psalms, as well as the Book of Lamentations—so why not in the life of a church planter? Lament is the ability to deeply grieve loss and disappointment in a godly way and to present it before God. I certainly know from experience and observation that there are lots of unhealthy and soul-sapping ways to deal with pain in ministry and in life, such as burying it and just working harder, blaming yourself or others or God, escaping into addictive behaviors, and so on.
Fuller Seminary, where I work, teaches lament as an intentional spiritual practice to form students (and staff). Fuller describes lament as a way that we “intentionally bring into God’s presence parts of our lives that are in pain or trauma or are disturbing.” Recently a spiritual formation group I’m part of here at Fuller had each person write their own lament, so I wrote one in my role as a church planter. Part of my lament was to cry out to God:
O Lord, I lie awake at night filled with anxiety and questions
Where are you when I feel alone and afraid?
Doubts engulf my mind, fear pricks my heart
I am fatigued from rejection
Why have you called me to something that is so difficult and lonely?
Great poetry it is not. But it is an honest attempt to articulate and declare the specific struggles I was experiencing with God. It is a recognition that God can handle our honesty. But let me also be clear that lament is more than just permission to fill out a divine complaint form. It is an opportunity to bring our own sorrows to the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with grief. It is turning the painful relational losses of church planting into the light where God’s presence might heal them.
Jesus famously quoted Psalm 22 from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in so doing, he gave us permission and modeling to cry out to God in hope-filled agony. This becomes a healthy avenue to process losses and rejections with God rather than apart from him. And so the Psalms—both individual laments and communal (e.g., Psalms 44, 60, 74)—give us a pattern to follow. Psalm 80 struck me because it uses the common imagery of a vine for Israel, and I found it spoke to the hopes and doubts I carry as a church planter.
The writer, Asaph, begins by giving thanks for God’s provision in the life of Israel, just as church planters can rejoice in God’s call and the provision of time and finances to begin the journey: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (verse 8). But then Asaph questions why God no longer seems to be providing for his beloved vine and pleads for its protection: “Why then have you broken down its walls so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it” (verses 12–13). He doesn’t simply ask God, but accuses God of being the one causing the destruction of the walls. If God is sovereign, why is this happening? He then pleads with God to be faithful: “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted” (verses 14–15).
I encourage you to take time to meditate on and write your own psalm of lament. You can use the basic structure of a psalm of lament to craft your own:
- The opening address
- The complaint
- The confession of trust
- The petition for help
- The vow of praise
In the roller coaster of church planting, God’s restoration comes as we offer our whole selves to him. And the practice of lament helps us remain authentic with ourselves, our church plant, and a world that yearns for spiritual authenticity.
Len Tang is the director of Fuller’s Church Planting Program in Pasadena, California, which offers an MA/MDiv emphasis in church planting, a certificate, and a year-long cohort. Len is a Fuller grad and is also planting Missio Community Church in Pasadena.