What I Learned Failing to Plant a Church

(Part 1 of ?)

The King's Table

It’s been four years since my wife and I first felt the Lord calling us to plant a church. More than that, we believed God was giving us a vision for a different kind of church … something ancient and modern at the same time … focused on discipleship … oriented in the neighborhood … small … and intentionally resisting professionalism, consumerism, and a few other “isms” that have become (in my opinion) somewhat toxic in the Western Church in our day. We, like many, believe the Church needs renewal … while still being the bride of Christ, whom He deeply loves. So, we felt drawn to some ancient-modern, New-Testament-y ways of thinking about the church that are catching fire all over the world in one form or another. Everywhere I look, people are asking: What if we left some of the traditions behind and just tried to focus on Jesus, His Kingdom, and the community of people God has placed around us? Rightly so!

And we thought: what if we could bring that kind of thinking to a tiny corner of Southern Illinois, where I grew up, where my aging parents still live, where there is very little EFCA presence (our denomination), and where hopelessness seems to be in ample supply?

So it was that we started recruiting friends and family and fellow churchmen, handing out books we felt had been insightful and convicting, and asking people to pray about possibly joining us on this mission. In the end, two families signed up, and on June 22, 2020, my family moved from the NW suburbs of Chicago to Fairview Heights, IL (just east of St Louis), eager to get started on an audacious mission we felt was from the Lord. By this time, one of our partner families had already moved to the area, and the other would move several months later (and even live with us for a couple months while they found a home of their own). And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was then in full swing.

It was only 3 days after we moved into our new home that serious problems started to surface. Relational tension and trauma-induced stress from the pandemic had already been mounting for months at that point, and that unfortunate trend was only the beginning. Things went from bad to worse until, right at about the 2nd anniversary of our move to the St Louis area, we officially dissolved the legal entity of the church we had tried to plant.

To say the least, it was a wild and extremely difficult ride. To be blunt, the whole thing was heartbreaking. But God is so good and so gracious … and looking back on the whole experience, I believe He had a completely different plan all along … for all of us. I believe God’s intention was to mature us … painfully … to do work in all of us that desperately needed to be done but that He couldn’t do without humbling and humiliating us first … without exposing some needs we weren’t even aware of when we were reading Francis Chan and dreaming about an ancient-modern home church network in the neighborhood.

I’m writing this to dwell a little on some of the lessons I believe God has taught and is teaching me. I don’t know if I have any brilliant answers, and I for sure am not done learning these lessons, but lately the Lord has been compelling me to write. So, let’s take a look at a few thoughts together that feel pretty important to consider for anyone considering church planting. I’m sure this will turn out to be more than one volume, but this can at least be the first installment…

  1. Lesson 1: It’s God’s story, not mine; seek continually to be with Him
  2. Lesson 2: It’s God’s work, not mine; slow way down
  3. Lesson 3: Become the kind of person God wants to replicate
  4. Lesson 4: I didn’t know how to care for my soul or for the souls of others
  5. Lesson 5: There is a being that doesn’t involve doing
  6. Wrap Up

Lesson 1: It’s God’s story, not mine; seek continually to be with Him

Prayer -- Seek the Lord continually

God is always the point of what’s happening … not just in the “religious” sphere of the church or church planting, but always, in all things. It’s always His goals and His dreams that are going to be realized. In all things, He is sovereignly at work doing more than we can imagine, exceedingly beyond what we can understand or ask Him for (Rom 8:28; Eph 3:20-21). So, the plans, the ideas, the innovation must come from Him, or they could just as easily be against the flow of what He’s doing. That means prayer … no, really, a LOT of prayer. Not ritualistic or perfunctory prayer, but “I want to know what you’re doing so I can keep up” prayer. And “if you don’t show up, this will all fall apart” prayer. And listening. James 1:19 listening (“quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” listening). It means not charging ahead. It means holding “great ideas” and “lofty goals” and “the mission” with an open hand.

Maybe the most important thing I learned in this whole effort is that I think too highly of myself. Well, I mean, I learned it again. Sigh. We did a great job of praying for guidance up front: What kind of church? Where? How? Who? But, now I wish that we’d spent longer dwelling on even these questions … extending those early days of seeking … taking more time to sit with Father and listen to His heart. But once I felt like I had my marching orders from the King, I came charging down to Southern Illinois confident in my ability to execute the plan. Where I really failed was in not remaining in a posture of dependance, humbly asking the Lord every single moment where He wanted to go and what He wanted me to do. I thought He had told me what to do with the next 10 years, and I tried to go do it, largely on my own. In truth, God tells us where He wants to go for the next 10 minutes … in this conversation or in that meeting … or maybe over the next day or two. God doesn’t issue many long-term strategic directives. He walks with us … or at least tries to. It’s our job to depend on Him fully while we do whatever He brings us into, and then stop and ask Him what’s next.

The Takeaway: We are the beloved children of the King. BUT, we are not His competent, adult children. We’re not anything like His peers. We’re (extremely dependent) toddlers. My role in this world isn’t to perform well the tasks He’s given me, it’s to stay by His side as He walks through His world executing His plans. To strike out on my own is to act like I’m an orphan – fatherless – when the Christian life is almost entirely about dependent union with the Father … being with, waiting on, and working with Him.

Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not haughty.
I do not get involved with things
too great or too wondrous for me.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted my soul
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
both now and forever.

Psalm 131 (CSB)

Lesson 2: It’s God’s work, not mine; slow way down

Walking -- Be with God in His things

Because I thought I was bearing the responsibility of getting it all right (it’s on me!), I raced around crazy, trying to do “enough” to achieve ambitious, kingdom-oriented goals. There was so much work to do, I believed, and I was the one God had sent to do it. Why wasn’t everyone else working as hard or running on all cylinders the way I felt I was? Why weren’t they pulling their weight? Don’t they sense the urgency?! Don’t the know our neighbors are all dying in their sins?! Don’t they love God like I do?!

We only think like that when we believe we’re the ones in control … with the power to move mountains. But that’s not true. Almighty God is never out of control, and I’m never truly in it. And if any mountains are going to be moved, it’ll be because God is using me to move them. It’s God’s plan and God’s wisdom and God’s strength, so it’s His work to do. It’s His power that matters, not mine.

And here’s the deal… God moves really really REALLY! slow … at least, by my still-thinking-way-too-highly-of-myself standards. I imagine Thanksgiving dinner can be cooked in the microwave in 30 seconds, because I don’t really know anything about cooking. The God of History is the gourmet chef, and it turns out “Thanksgiving feast” isn’t the same as “microwave burrito.” Who knew?! Unlike me, the Lord God actually knows what it takes and has the skill and patience to prepare an epic meal full of hundred-year-old recipes and mouth-watering delights. And it takes days to prepare, hours to eat, hours to recover in naps and belly-rubbing, and still more hours to clean up. My life, my son’s journey of faith, the redemption story of my neighbors, the trajectory of my church … none of these are TV dinners, they’re gourmet meals of epic proportions. We’ve gotta let the One who knows what He’s doing prepare them the way He knows is best. Someday, I will stand in His presence looking back on history and declare that His ways are perfect. And on that day, I promise you’ll agree.

The Takeaway: If I really believe that God is in control and sovereignly, perfectly at work in this world, then I’ll slow down to His pace, learn to rest (which means “learning to trust Him and His ways”), and focus my energies on being with Him, rather than pouring all my energy into solving problems and executing tasks.

Come, see the works of the Lord,
who [acts miraculously and unstoppably] on the earth.
He [does the impossible in pursuit of peace].
“Stop fighting, and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.”
The Lord of Armies is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Psalm 46:8-11 (CSB)

PS – Of course, following the Lord and being on mission for Him will often involve making plans, defining tasks and executing well, but there’s a difference between God’s tasks executed by God’s power working through a human being on God’s time table and the tasks I think are God’s tasks (but that really I created as the 123rd and 124th step in a super high-level task I feel He gave me a year ago) executed by my power on my timetable as I ask God with increasing desperation to make sure it all works out. See the difference?

Another Takeaway (or maybe the same one, said another way): Seek the Lord every day. Let Him direct. Let Him bear the weight of the decisions and the plan. Ask Him what His priority and agenda are for the day, put on His yoke, and fall in step with Him … whether it makes sense or not … comfortable or scary … easy or hard … whether it costs a little or a lot …

You get the idea.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30 (CSB)

Lesson 3: Become the kind of person God wants to replicate

Discipleship -- Starts with being someone God wants to replicate

I was definitely focused on making disciples, but not focused enough on being a disciple myself … on submitting my own broken, sinful, ambitious, arrogant, overly-opinionated character to Jesus to be transformed into His likeness (Romans 12:1-2).

Jesus was (and is!) magnetic. Everyone (who had the eyes to see that trying to rule the universe themselves wasn’t going to work) wanted to be with Jesus, to know Jesus, to be loved by Jesus. Broken people flocked to Him!

I wanted broken people to flock to Jesus. Great goal. Godly goal. Kingdom goal. Well done, Jeff. But what I missed was that the most important variable in whether or not I will draw people to Jesus is whether or not I personally was drawing near to Jesus … and becoming more like Him. Our church didn’t need more clever ideas about how to reach the neighbors, it needed more renewal, restoration, regeneration and revival in the hearts of people who were already a part of it … beginning with me.

The Takeaway: If God transforms you into someone who’s increasingly, everyday a little more like Jesus, then people will want to be around you (or they’ll hate you because you threaten their idols), just like they wanted to be with (or hated) Jesus. That’s the goal!

Being a disciple, leading to transformation, necessarily precedes being a disciple-maker.

“My prayer is … that all of [my followers] may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus, about us, in John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Lesson 4: I didn’t know how to care for my soul or for the souls of others

Soul care -- Learning to nurture the deepest parts of who you are

Living in this world is hard. It wears you down. And none of the technology, relentless notifications, social media, so-called “news”, or extra-loud my-way-or-the-highway options pounding us senseless every day is making that any better. It’s getting worse. We have more comfort, more access to information, more “time-saving” gadgets of convenience than our grandparents could have even dreamed of, but life isn’t getting any better. Why?

Because all that stuff is hard on the soul. All our nonstop connectedness. All the vitriol in the media. All the expectations we place on ourselves and others. All our attempts to build paradise with our own two hands. None of that is the way it was meant to be. Said another way, your soul wasn’t made to function in that kind of environment. Neither was mine. And I didn’t understand that.

So, when setting out to plant a church, I set out to execute on that worthy, noble, Jesus-centric goal just like I set out to manage an IT project or develop a new line of business for a startup or whatever else I’d done in the past (by the strength of my right arm!)… I had received orders from the Lord, and I believed I was strong enough to just get’er’done. And I even had a team of eager beavers so spiritual that they were willing to move to a totally new place to work on the project with me. Surely, all it would take to succeed would be the favor of God and a lot of really hard, really clever work … right?

Wrong!

More than clever strategies and diligent labor – not that those things are unimportant – I needed more time with Jesus, more silence, more margin, more rest, more learning how to honor and listen to my emotions. I needed less on my calendar, and fewer demands on myself and others. And I needed to care for my soul – even at the most basic level of learning to be kind to myself (and others). I needed grace, not the pressure of performance. I needed more nights alone in the wilderness, not more speaking engagements or neighborhood events.

Then, on top of everything, COVID happened. That was traumatic. For everyone. And my already weary soul – from all the years of powering up, throwing down, long hours, busy calendars and the twin, devastating expectations of self-made success and comfort – wasn’t able to bear the load. What the people around me needed was a man who knew how to bring all the stresses and pressures of life (even COVID pandemic life) to Jesus and invite Him into them. They needed someone who knew how to just sit with them in the pain and confusion, and be filled by Jesus, not by great plans and positive energy and expectation. And I needed that from them too. And if we’d have done that… If we’d just sat together, like Job’s friends did in the early days, gazing at Jesus, the Spirit of God might have come and overflowed from me to them and from them to others … like pools that cascade into other pools that cascade into other pools. And we might have had a shot at being a church.

The Takeaway: If you think God has given you an important mission, then the primary need isn’t for activity for God, it is for time with God. If others are involved (and they always are), then their primary need is that you lead them to Jesus, not to mission or ministry.

So, again…

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

Lesson 5: There is a being that doesn’t involve doing

Human being -- Way more of who you are than human doing

Speaking of trading the soul-crushing frenetic pace of modern life for Jesus’ light burden and easy yoke… Counseling in the aftermath of our failed church plant is teaching me a whole new way to live.

A year ago, I would have said that being and doing go together, and wouldn’t have questioned the implication of having only one way of “being” … which is “doing.” But I’m learning that “doing” isn’t the only way to navigate life. There is a “being” that doesn’t involve “doing.”

Confusing? Sorry. It was for me too until recently. Let me try to explain…

Somewhere along the line, as I was growing up, I seem to have deeply committed to “achievement” as the tool I would use to attack life. Yes, that fits with my personality, but it’s more than that… I found myself a big-ole’ hammer and so, for my whole life, everything that comes at me looks like a nail. No matter what happens to me, I think, “What do I have to do to deal with this?” What action is required of me? How do I solve this problem? How do I achieve my way into / out of / through this circumstance, bending it to my will and channeling it into “success” or “accomplishment” or whatever word indicates that the ball is heading down the field toward the goal and (if I’m honest) that I’m going to get the credit?

But what if not everything is a task to be done, a goal to be accomplished, or a success to be achieved? What if something happened, and I didn’t do anything? What if I just sat with Jesus and experienced the fact that something just happened to us … with Him? If someone expresses fear, maybe I could just sit with them in it and try to empathize. If someone is angry, maybe I could just listen and not respond. If I’m sad or hurt, maybe I could just sit in those feelings … and invite Jesus to sit with me. What if the best thing to “do” isn’t to “do” anything about those things, but just “be” in them? What if that were enough for Jesus? What if I didn’t need to have a plan or a goal or a solution or a revised project plan? What if I entered that circumstance knowing I was already deeply and truly loved, and required no accomplishment to gain that acceptance? What if I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone?

I’m hoping to find out.

The Takeaway: There’s a lot of “doing” in life, but we are human beings, not human doings. Who you are is more than what you do. It is from being with Jesus that strength and resilience and “success” is derived, not from my actions. The power of God is in the presence of God. Yes, ministry involves doing things for Jesus. And that will involve solid plans and hard work. But if we want to be fully human, then they must come from and come after being with Jesus.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

John 15:5-8 (NIV)

Wrap Up

Well, friend, thanks for sticking with me through all that. That’s it for now, but I have a long-and-growing list of other lessons I’d like to share, so I’m fairly certain I’ll be back with a sequel. Until then, I’d like to close with a prayer I’m sitting in often at the feet of John Eldredge. When he reads it, it’s almost always from the New Living Translation, so that’s how I’ll share it here. This is the Apostle Paul’s prayer for us … me and you both … and it’s my prayer for us too. And the King of Heaven… it’s His prayer for us as well. And if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).

Rest with me in this, and we’ll talk again soon…

When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from His glorious, unlimited resources He will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit. Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to Him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:14ff (NLT)

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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2 Responses to What I Learned Failing to Plant a Church

  1. Carol Block says:

    Absolutely beautiful, thanks for sharing your heart, Jeff. It’s remarkable how God has refined you you and is equipping you to serve. You are loved by the Master and by dad and I.

    Like

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