Planting is Tough, but Jesus is Enough

By Clint Clifton

Suffering is part of the church planting package, but we can agree with the Psalmist that God is the strength of our heart and our portion forever (Ps. 73:26).

Much of the work we do in ministry is impossible to measure. We work hard every day to provoke spiritual progress but rarely have the satisfaction of seeing any evidence of success. The result of most ministry work is hidden behind the veil that divides our experiences from the spiritual realities we are told exist beyond what we can see (Eph. 6:12).

Our inability to see immediate results from our work can be the sources of terrible, even terminal discouragement in ministry. Many church planters and pastors, particularly those in hard places, face a sort of post-partum depression that I’ve written about here. They labor, sometimes for years, without seeing any spiritual fruit.

The great Puritan pastor and author Charles Bridges reminds us of the sobering truth that “Ministerial success must be viewed as extending beyond present appearances.” He continues to say, “The seed may lie under the clods till we lie there, and then spring up.” [1] Don’t miss that, Bridges is saying that it is possible that the seeds you plant will lay dormant in the ground until after your death, then spring up into spiritual fruit.

I think we should be talking about this a lot more in church planting. Just as Paul warned a new church in Corinth not to be “outwitted by Satan,” we need to be reminded that our situations – no matter how unique they feel to us – are not all that different from the trials faced by the missionaries, church planters and pastors that lived and worked before us, nor are they different from the many gospel workers enduring trials around the world today.

The idea that our situation is especially hard or ultra-unique, is a devilish scheme that can be combatted by simply looking over the fence of history and paying attention to the sufferings of other saints. As ministers of the Gospel, we have an incredible ancestry steeped in a rich history of faithfulness and resilience motivating us to endure difficulty with Joy. Many longsuffering leaders have preceded us in the faith. They have modeled extraordinary endurance for the sake of Jesus and His church. They remind us that, though ministry is tough, Jesus is quite enough.

Examples to Live By

Perhaps you’ve heard of Adoniram Judson, whose ministry in Burma was marked by great suffering. During his 38-year ministry, Judson spent 17 months in prison, then lost two of his wives and seven of his 13 children to death. As if that weren’t enough, he did six years of very hard ministry before seeing his first convert, then labored for an additional 12 years before seeing any significant spiritual fruit. Judson’s conclusion and advice to others after all this suffering; “There is no success without sacrifice. If you succeed without sacrifice, it is because someone has sacrificed before you. If you sacrifice without success, it is because someone will succeed after.”

Then of course we can’t forget the Church Planter “OG”, the apostle Paul, who looked at the sufferings he faced as “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) or Jesus’ church planter/brother, James, who suggests that we consider our trials as “pure joy” because of the perseverance they produce in us. Generations of church planters, missionaries and pastors before us have paved the way of suffering – and you get the honor of suffering right alongside them.

Even in our own time, church planters face nearly unbearable difficulty. Two weeks before his first worship service, Richard Pope was diagnosed with terminal cancer. No one would have faulted Richard for abandoning his missionary pursuits, but Richard concluded that his cancer diagnosis had little to do with a calling to plant Canvas Church in Salisbury, Maryland. Richard pressed on with the church plant. His diagnosis hasn’t changed and, unless something miraculous happens, Richard only has a short time to live, yet as his temporal body weakens, Richard has decided to use his remaining energy to build Jesus’ eternal kingdom.

Fresh Endurance is Needed

The past few years have been difficult on everyone, especially those who work in gospel ministry. The cultural convulsion and the church’s credibility crisis have stopped us in our tracks and caused some to question all we previously thought to be true. Trevin Wax addresses this in a recent episode of the Reconstructing Faith podcast and issues an important reminder for the modern church: “The rot is strong,” he says, “but thankfully so is the foundation.” We have sturdy promises from Scripture that not only is God still using the church to reveal himself to the world (Eph. 3:10), but the church ultimately will succeed in her mission (Matt. 16:18).

In my experience, church planters are quick to depict their communities as “hard” when we are gathering support yet surprised when called on to endure hard things for the sake of the gospel. Peter reminds us that we’ve been called to suffer; “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” And Jesus himself reinforces the idea by saying “A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:30)

Most of us are not facing the death of a child or a terminal cancer diagnosis, but we are facing difficult things. I’m here to tell you that it goes with the territory. Suffering is part of the church planting package. Church planting is hard, but we can say with Richard Pope, Adoniram Judson and the apostle Paul that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” and when our flesh and my heart may fail us, we can agree with the Psalmist that God is the strength of our heart and our portion forever (Ps. 73:26).

[1] Bridges, Charles, The Christian Ministry, pp. 75

Published November 7, 2022

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Clint Clifton

Clint Clifton is the founding pastor of Pillar, a multiplying church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the senior director of resource and research strategy at the North American Mission Board. He is the author of several books and periodicals on the subject of church planting, including Church Planting Thresholds: A Gospel Centered Church Planting Guide and Church Planting Primer and is the host of the Church Planting podcast.