Embracing Disillusionment in Church Planting

If you’ve been planting a church for more than a couple weeks, you’ve probably already encountered a good deal of disillusionment. And if you haven’t felt disillusioned yet… well, just wait.

Sorry if that sounds ominous. Disillusionment isn’t fun. You thought one thing and it turned out to be another. You had hoped that family would join the church and they went to the megachurch with the youth group instead. You had hoped to get that worship space but they rented it to someone else.
You hoped… but your hopes were dashed against the cold, hard rocks of reality. Disillusionment doesn’t feel good. At all.

The gift of disillusionment

Nevertheless, ultimately disillusionment is a gift from God. Disillusionment means that illusions are being removed, and this is a good thing, because illusions are unhelpful.

Illusions are unhelpful because they don’t reflect reality. That’s why they’re called illusions!

Disillusionment means that illusions are being removed, and this is a good thing, because illusions are unhelpful. - Ben Sternke Click To Tweet

Illusions are normally alluring and attractive, so it’s no wonder we have difficulty giving them up when reality sets in. Illusions try to tell us that life is a bit rosier, a bit smoother, a bit less messy, and so we hold on to them tightly.

Illusions don’t help anyone

But as good as illusions can make us feel temporarily, they’re ultimately unhelpful because they are untrue. If we are embracing illusions (knowingly or unknowingly), we are walking in darkness, at least partly.
When we begin to walk with God, he begins working to remove our illusions, because the illusions we have are essentially lies we are embracing. God is light; there’s no darkness in him at all, and his desire is that we learn to walk in the light, as he is in the light.

This simply means that we learn to live according to the truth. The truth about who God is. The truth about who we are. And the truth about the world. The truth about our church plant in all its glory and ugliness.

As soon as God begins to reveal the truth to us, it manifests as disillusionment, because he is removing our illusions so we can walk in the truth!

So yes, it’s uncomfortable and painful. Yes, it can be deeply disappointing and frustrating to find out that you aren’t as good a leader as you thought you were.

To find out your church plant isn’t as healthy as you thought it was.

To find out you and your spouse don’t have as good a marriage as you thought you did.

To find yourself after two years of church planting with only a handful of people instead of the hundred you hoped for.

The necessity of disillusionment

This is one of the main themes of one of my favorite books of all time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The insights in this little book about community life are some of the most profound and helpful you’ll ever find.
In one section, he talks about the need for disillusionment in Christian community, so that we can discard our “ideal vision” and embrace truth in all its messiness and inconvenience.

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

Bonhoeffer concludes that disillusionment is a wonderful gift from God, because until it happens, we cannot even begin the journey of becoming a real community.

The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both.

(The entire passage is worth meditating on, and can be found at the end of this post from Scot McKnight.)

The cost of disillusionment

As difficult as it is to be disillusioned, in the long run it’s far more costly to stay “illusioned”. 

Walking in darkness means we stumble and wander away from the life God gives. But God’s promise to us is that “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

Don’t fall in love with your thoughts about how things “should be.” It leaves you susceptible to embracing the illusions that leave us in darkness.

And the cost of keeping your illusions is far higher than the cost of disillusionment.

It feels scary because the illusion is what we thought reality was! But we can trust God that the real truth doesn’t need to be defended or clung to, it just needs to be revealed.

Don’t resist the process; let God disillusion you so you can walk in the light today.

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About the Author
Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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