I’ve been going at this church planting thing for a few years now. I must say that it’s taken more years off my life than my previous decade in ministry. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is a plethora of expectations pummeling a church plant. Many nights I’ve experienced myself tossing and turning over the projected wants lobbed in my general direction. At those moments, I make my best attempt at getting still with God and releasing those burdens to the Trinity.
I’ve experienced great spiritual direction over the years in how to root myself in the love of God instead of the affirmation of others. All of this has been helpful, but I still find myself susceptible to hearing, feeling, and owning the expectations. I’ve spent the last five years dwelling with and coaching other planters, and I’ve discovered I’m not alone.
The sheer battering ram of what a successful church plant should look like is felt in the chest of a church planter. Unless you have skin like Teflon, the cultural and interpersonal demands will seep in and stir together a stew of guilt about how your church is not enough, not doing enough, not far enough along, not dynamic enough, etc.
Many of the expectations put upon a church planter and her church are soaked thoroughly in the cultural waters of Idealism. Idealism is the epistemological doctrine that mental ideas are the most fundamental reality. Essentially, it is any philosophy that argues that the only thing that is actually valuable is the thing brewing in our cerebral cortex.
René Descartes was one of the first to claim that all one really knows is that which is in one’s own consciousness. He believed that his claim “I think, therefore I am” was the only assertion worth pursuing. Idealism in its culturally appropriated forms infects our ability to accept reality, work within reality, and find real contentment within reality. Idealism has infiltrated most of our society and cajoles us to exalt our preferred dreams over the raw, complicated, messy, relational material before us.
Idealism perpetuates love for our own ideas and creates a naive delusion that we can actually live up to them. Idealism doesn’t humble our opinions, it exalts them. Idealism perches us on a ledge where we wait to criticize and measure everything against our perceived perfect scenario of how things should be. Idealism warns us to avoid the anvil of messy practice.
Years ago, idealism caused me to believe I could plant a church that mashed together all my ideals, theological idiosyncrasies, and social convictions with a twist of attractive flair. I never considered the most important factor: my church would not be constructed of people who would think like me, feel like me, read like me, see like me, and have a personality just like mine.
My entire church planting journey has been generously peppered with compromise and negotiation. Oversimplifying the numbers, about 25% to 50% of every ideal I have for my church gets implemented. This can feel unsatisfying if the fullness of an idea was what captivated the mind in the first place.
Here’s an unrelated metaphor that helps illustrate how this tension plays out. Almost every time my wife and I take a long road trip, I begin craving coffee about a few hours in; a drip-filtered, fair-trade, freshly roasted, good cup of coffee. I know I’m picky, but my palette longs for this. Every time without fail, the only thing we can find is Dunkin Donuts: a watered-down, sugar-saturated, two-hours-burnt coffee imposter. I’m miserable, and my wife says, “At least you got a cup of coffee.” Church planting can feel this way in the world of Idealism. There are numerous areas in my church in which I have to say, “At least I got a cup of coffee.”
Not only is idealism a torment within, it is also an annoyance from without. Over the years, I’ve journaled all the statements of expectations and ideals made about my church plant.
- Your worship’s not Spirit filled enough.
- Your church doesn’t have enough for kids.
- Your church is not liturgical enough.
- Your church has too much liturgy.
- Your church is not diverse enough.
- Your church is not multigenerational enough.
- Your church is too small.
- Your church is too liberal.
- Your church is too conservative.
- Your church is too hierarchical.
- Your church has no strong, leadership structure.
- Your church is not missional enough.
- Your church is not relational enough.
- Your church is not intellectual enough.
- Your church is not blue-collar enough.
- Your church doesn’t use the Bible enough.
- Your church doesn’t talk about relevant issues.
- Your church has a weak website.
- Your church isn’t into justice enough.
- Your church seems like it’s all about justice.
- Your church has too much space for conversation.
- Your church doesn’t have enough conversation.
- Your church is too institutional.
- Your church is not organic enough.
- Your church is too organic and feels chaotic.
- Your church encourages doubt.
- Your church gives no space for doubt.
I get exhausted reading through that list again. Reading it, the yoke doesn’t feel lighter; it feels like a cinder block has just been placed on my shoulders. Consumerism tempts me to find a way to purchase the ideal or find a way to manufacture a shortcut to the perfect church so that people are happy. Part of my soul wants to please people so they walk away saying, “That’s the church I’ve always been looking for,” yet I’m realizing that’s not possible in the here and now.
My theology of the Kingdom is situated in a frustrating tension. The Kingdom has broken into the world through Jesus. Parts of the Kingdom can be realized, yet there are parts that cannot be realized. An under-realized eschatology lulls me into apathy about the ideal, but an over-realized eschatology tricks me into hubris, leading me to believe that my ideals can be fully experienced.
Understanding this truth gives me both a sense of ongoing hope and cold realism as I cultivate a church community. The work of church planting is the work of the Kingdom, and if the Kingdom is caught in a push-and-pull, then the church is caught in a push-and-pull. Just as the Kingdom is already here but not yet here, so we should also consider the church as already beautiful but still kind of ugly.
Honestly, grace is becoming my soothing balm under the demands of idealism, over-realized eschatology, and my people-pleasing tendencies. Grace is not an excuse for not changing, but it is a consolation amidst the difficulty to change.
I need grace because I’m humbled by how short of the ideal my church falls. We’re addicted to stories of dramatically “ideal” churches, ones that have cracked the code on the list above. There is not enough information I can consume that will change the pain of working with real humans who have real differences and really complicated lives, humans with strong passions and weak follow-through.
I’m encouraged by reading the stories of the churches the Apostle Paul planted. These oikoi (Greek for households) were a hot mess. They had minimal resources and left a lot to be desired in the way of impressiveness. Nothing but the grace of Christ Jesus bonded them together in the midst of imperfection. The first-century church was no utopia; it was filled with strife and disappointment.
The Apostle Paul embraced this imperfection and carried it in his own body by suffering as a “faithful intermediary, filling up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of laboring for his church” (Col. 1:24, my paraphrase). I feel the ache of imperfection, but I must persevere and seek shade under God’s tree of grace.
To pursue the ideal church is idolatry. In the book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer slayed this kind of pursuit when he said
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. . . . Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly.
Idealism can wreak havoc on church planters’ hearts, baiting them to be whatever the world needs them to be. I’m trying to let go of church planter guilt. I’m trying to take the counsel Paul offered Timothy in the midst of a tsunami of church demands: “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).
Just the other day someone asked me what my church was like, and a response of “My church is what it is” just slipped out of my mouth. We are a beautiful mess in progress learning to be faithful to the unique mission God has given us and learning not be crushed under the weight of idealism.
An earlier form of this article first appeared on my blog.