Imagine that you have tried your best to make disciples out of a handful of people, but their interest in Jesus never goes beyond curiosity. Not a single one of them have made a commitment to obedience to Jesus for as long as you have been investing into those relationships.
Or, let’s say no matter how hard and how long you have tried to be the presence of Jesus in a neighborhood and have embedded yourself into the community, there is little to no openness to the message of Jesus.
The gospel just won’t “catch” with them.
God forbid that we should ever encounter situations like this! But if we do, is it ever okay for disciple-makers and church planters to move on to a different place? Is it okay to move on to a different people group if our best efforts there seem to land on fallow ground?
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When Jesus Moved On
After all, didn’t Jesus have to move on from his hometown, because of the people’s hard-heartedness? Scripture says that he couldn’t even perform many miracles there, because of their unbelief!
The same is true of the region of the Gerasenes, where Jesus was treated as an unwelcomed guest and asked to leave. We also see Jesus denounce entire cities—Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum—that remained unrepentant throughout his ministry there. Seeing this, we are confronted with the realization that not all people or places received Jesus or his message, and he certainly didn’t seem to have a problem moving on from them.
He told his disciples to follow suit in Luke 9:4-5:
Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that city [to go to another]. And as for all those who do not welcome you, when you leave that city, shake the dust off your feet [breaking all ties with them] as a testimony against them [that they rejected My message].”
There are times in which the disciples are commanded to stay and times in which they are to move on. “Stay there… [or] shake the dust off your feet,” Jesus told them. If they found “persons of peace”—those who hearts were open to believing and obeying the gospel—the disciples were to stay in that town; but if there were no such persons of peace, the disciples were to move on from them and go on to others.
While the passage isn’t explicitly talking about church planting per se, Jesus is teaching us an important principle of evangelism and disciple-making, which are the heart of what a church exists to be and to do.
Notice that our Master doesn’t tell us just to stay and hang on for dear life in hopes that the tide will turn in our favor if we stayed around long enough. Nor does he tell us to move on at the first sign of hardship or opposition. Rather, the only way to determine whether to stay in a city or to move on from a city is the availability of “disciplable” disciples.
Now if it is abundantly clear to us in Scripture that moving on is just as much an act of obedience and faith as it is to stay in one city for a life-time, then why does the concept of moving on sound so distasteful and dishonorable to us? Why does it make us feel so pitiful and bothered just thinking about it?
A Less Romantic Story
We’ve all heard it before: the story of a church planting hero who moved to a city, bought a house, rooted himself in a neighborhood, and picked out his and his wife’s burial plots. The message for us was: no matter how long, hard, or painful it gets, retreating is not an option! Stories like these inspire us to claim a territory for God, knuckle down, and slog it through the adversity and the malaise “in the name of Jesus.”
Admittedly, there’s a certain romance and glory to the kind of faith that is immovable in the face of harshest hardship and opposition, even if it means dying there in the battlefield.
Without a doubt, there is something profoundly beautiful to be said about Christians who embed themselves deeply in a neighborhood, who are resolved to be a permanent and faithful presence of Jesus who is “with us,” even when the people whom they are trying to reach are hard-hearted and recalcitrant to the gospel. In our transient culture, a “theology of staying” needs to be revisited.
But does the conventional church planting philosophy of indiscriminate “staying” always stand up to the command of Jesus? We have already seen Jesus tell his disciples to accept that at times, moving on is the wisest, most strategic, and even most loving course of action, to ourselves and others! Except in our minds, the thought of moving on runs contrary to everything we swore that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to do.
We have come to this point, because according to modern-day church planting philosophy in the West, moving on has meant giving up.
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Shake it Off
Where does “shaking the dust off of our feet” fit in with our theology and missiology of evangelism, disciple-making, and church planting, if at all? If there is no place in our minds for moving on from persons and places to be a Spirit-led, healthy, and Godly act of obedience and faithfulness, then any moving on is tantamount to failure and a defeat for God’s Kingdom. And it always comes with a heavy price of shame that we couldn’t “make” it; that we weren’t strong enough to hold on longer; that we failed God, ultimately.
If “shaking the dust off of our feet” is not equally seen as a great act of courage and faith as it is an act of faith to stay, then any moving on we might do can only be viewed as retreating, an undignified thought which extinguishes our soul’s flame quicker than anything else.
Behind the several thousand church plants that close every year in America are church planters with noble and God-sized dreams who walk away limping and crippled with shame. Those who had risked everything to live daring lives of faith now have become spiritual war casualties with an unrecoverable PTSD. In large part, the failure to obey Christ’s command and accept his permission to move on from particular persons and places has brought this upon us.
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