When you first read the title of this article, what thoughts flashed through your head? Maybe you laughed, thinking that couldn’t possibly be true. Perhaps you’re in the throes of a painful situation with your church plant and you’re like, “I feel ya, bro.” Maybe you’re thinking, “How can you compare the two? How do you know?”
Well, it just so happens that I spent four and a half years in prison, 2004-2008. And while I was there, Jesus found me and saved me, and set me on a path toward planting a church in 2014. Throughout my time as a church planter, I’ve reflected on how the difficulties faced in planting a church are, in many ways, harder than anything I faced in prison.
If you think that’s crazy, consider the words of another church planter who had spent time in prison: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
In speaking of all the hardships he faced during times of persecution and imprisonment, Paul culminates it by speaking of his anxiety for all the churches. There is something about the weight we feel as church planters that needs to be set right alongside any physical hardship we face, including prison.
With that in mind, here are three ways church planting is harder than prison.
1. More Decisions to Make
Studies have shown that when you’re in prison, you only have to make about 50 decisions a day. Clothing has been assigned to you, what you’re going to eat has been decided, and so on. But someone out in the world makes more than 500 decisions a day. And if you’re a church planter, you may be making even more. And if we’re honest, though it’s not true, we think that the weight of the entire world hangs in the balance of every decision we make. Where will we find meeting space? What are we going to preach? What about support raising? How will we handle kids ministry? The list goes on and on, and we think that the fate of the church hangs in the balance with each of these decisions. But, in reality, though the answers to these questions may be important, they are not ultimate.
Here’s the real truth: You’ve already made the biggest decision of your life. You’ve decided to follow Jesus. He is the one who will direct you by his Spirit. He is the one you can trust. And whether we like to believe it or not, he is the one who upholds your church … and the world. When you are faced with weighty decisions, lean into the decision you’ve already made and follow Jesus.
This is an interesting one. When you enter prison, you have a number of expectations. You expect you’ll face a lot of scary things. You expect you will come across people who won’t like you. You expect this might be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But when we enter into church planting, at least if you’re like me, you expect something totally different. We expect things are going to go exactly as we plan. We expect everybody is going to like us. We expect global domination. And then we get a few weeks or months into the journey, and many of our expectations have been crushed. Soon enough, we begin to wonder if God has really called us to this church planting thing or if we were sorely mistaken.
But when a fellow church planter shared all the things he expected he and his church to do in their first three years, a mentor of mine smiled and said, “I think what God is going to do is wreck you and your vision. And once he does, then he’s going to give you his vision.” It’s a helpful reminder that our unmet expectations may not be evidence that God is denying us, as much as it’s evidence that he is refining us.
3. Spiritual Warfare
If you’re anything like me – or several other church planters I talk with – it’s amazing how little regard we give to this one. Much like the notion of expectations, when I was getting ready to enter prison, I geared myself up for the mental and physical grind of it all. Yet we often walk into church planting with a blind eye toward the spiritual warfare we will consistently face. Oh, we say we’re aware of it, and we say prayer is important. But, if we’re honest, we go at this thing thinking that because of our strategy, our preaching and our personality; Satan is just gonna roll over for us.
But then we realize, as one of my friends put it, “The devil punches back.” He does not take kindly to anyone who wants to exalt Jesus anywhere. So, he comes, in whispers of friends and foes, questioning your ability to lead. He comes, finding ways to rehash old wounds, digging at insecurities. He comes, bringing health issues for you and your family, tempting you to quit. And, trust me, he comes bringing way more mental, emotional and spiritual anguish, than I ever faced in prison.
At the same time, if you listen closely enough, Jesus also comes, whispering a better word. He reminds you that in Him, you are qualified, called, worthy, more than enough, a son. And He beckons you to follow Him as he destroys Satan and establishes His Church.
Published February 14, 2022