Is Planting a Church from Scratch Hard?
“Getting married will stretch and grow you.”
“Having a baby and becoming a parent will be challenging and difficult.”
These are all things that I had heard over the years. Perhaps they are things you have heard or said at some point in time. While they are true statements, the person hearing them often does not know the full extent of what is being said to them until they have actually crossed into marriage or parenting. Then one morning you wake up and say, “Oh. Now I know what they meant—this is hard.”
Church planting and pastoring a new and, often, fledgling congregation is very much the same.
People told us: “Church planting will be the hardest thing you ever do. Church planting will be exhausting and difficult.”
We kindly shook our heads in agreement and said, “Yeah, we get it.” But we didn’t fully understand; we didn’t get it. We thought we were the exception, that it would be different for us. Afterall, God was with us.
And He was. And He is. Very much so.
But when did God being with us and for us ever mean that things would be easy and comfortable?
The first sermon I preached on our first Sunday at Sojourn Church in Fairfax, Virginia, 4.5 years ago was out of Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” A classic text for a new church.
We were excited, zealous, passionate about seeing the gospel go forth in our city and transforming people’s lives. And we were confident that Jesus would build his church.
But in the midst of our confidence that Jesus would build His church in and through us, we overlooked the part in which He says, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” We were entering enemy occupied territory to take back land and plant a gospel flag. We were seeking to preach a message of hope and peace, of joy and gladness, of faith and repentance in a place and to a people that belonged to the god of this age, to an enemy that is very crafty at blinding the minds and hearts of our neighbors and the nations.
Jesus promised that the church would not be held back by the enemy’s attempts to prevent the good news of grace from entering new territory. But the enemy was not going to let us into this community without a fight.
God has done some absolutely amazing things in the life of Sojourn Church. We have seen:
- People come to saving faith
- Nominal Christians become true followers of Jesus
- 50-plus baptisms
- A deepening understanding of the gospel and its implications for our lives
- Participation in support of other church planters and global missionaries
- A family formed, rooted, and built on the gospel coming together to encourage, challenge, and build one another up
- Ministries of mercy to our community
- College students growing in their love, understanding, and involvement in the local church
- Our first church plant sent out in December 2016
- Our first global missionary getting ready to be sent out in Spring 2017
- Disciples being made and grown
By God’s power and grace, darkness has been pushed back through the ministry of Sojourn Church.
But we have also walked through significant trials. We have seen…
- People walk away from Jesus
- Significant life-threatening disease in the lives of several members
- Broken engagements
- Broken marriages
- Relational conflict among members
- Complacency and consumerism
- Gossip, lying, and slander
- Factions, division, and disunity
Personally, my family has experienced great excitement and exhaustion, two babies born but born early and put in the NICU. We have risen up in faith and struggled with uncertainty. We have been through two moves, and we have swung on the pendulum from zeal to weariness and from joy to despair. We have been surrounded by people while simultaneously feeling completely alone. We have been deeply encouraged by others, and we have been on the receiving end of slander and lies. We have seen many people leave the church because of me— because of my sin, my failures, my weaknesses, my insufficiencies.
After more than 4 years of this adventure, I can say that planting a church is, by far, the hardest thing I have ever done. It is the hardest thing my family has ever done. At times, we have asked ourselves, “Is it worth it?”
And you know what? It is. Absolutely. Because in the midst of all the joys and trauma, God has remained utterly faithful and extravagantly gracious.
We have learned so much about ourselves and about the gospel. We have come to realize, not in theory but in actuality, that it is okay not to have all the answers. It is okay to be imperfect. It is okay to be weak.
Because my sufficiency to do what I am called to do is supplied by the One who called me (2 Cor 3:4-6). Because God’s power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Because we follow a God who sees and hears us, and when we feel like we will die from the pain, He reminds us that He is the God who raises the dead (2 Cor 1:9).
In a very real and noble desire to build Jesus’ church, I have often forgotten one key thing: It is Jesus’ church, and He is the one building it.
A recent Sunday was an exciting day for our church for two reasons. First, we had a long-time member and elder candidate preach for the first time. It was an amazing sermon and a gift to our church. Second, we introduced and prayed over a new associate pastor who is joining our team. He shares our vision to glorify God by making disciples who know the gospel, live out the implications of the gospel, and share the message of the gospel.
The last 18 months have been full of difficulty, trial and struggle, both personally and corporately. And they have also been full of God’s faithfulness. But this past Sunday marked something new—we are beginning Chapter 2 as a church. And we are in it together.
I just received a text message from a dear brother-pastor in the area. He is also a church planter, struggling with all that church planting and pastoring entails. He said to he was excited to see what the Lord was doing at Sojourn (even via Facebook) and that he had felt the Spirit’s leading to pray for me and Sojourn as part of worship during their church service.
That’s what it’s all about. Praying. Partnering. Making much of Jesus. Through the difficult and delightful. Working together for the glory of God and good of others.
Ministry is a joy. But ministry is also difficult. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I wouldn’t have it any other way because it is abundantly clear for everyone to see that Jesus is building his church, and He is doing it through imperfect people like me.
In the days to come, I pray God will continue to mold and shape me to be more like Jesus, so that I might be able to say along with the apostle Paul: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24 ESV).
To that I say, and invite you to say, “Amen, may it be so.”
Justin Pearson is the Lead Pastor of Sojourn Church in Fairfax, Virginia (sojournfairfax.com). After graduating from Southern Seminary, he and his wife, Amy, planted Sojourn with a faithful few in September 2012. They have been blessed with three children—Owen, Isaac and Emery—and are currently in the process of adopting from Ethiopia.