God Makes it Grow

From soil preparation & seeding, to growth & maturity ... what our missionaries say about church planting (from Issue #512)

From soil preparation & seeding, to growth & maturity … what our missionaries say about church planting.

We’ve been talking more about it lately in NCEM. Not because it’s new for us, but because it’s at the core of our Mission’s action plan.

Church planting … much much more could be said about it than fits on this page. The term itself prompts questions like, “Can a missionary plant a church? … isn’t that God’s work?”

For the record, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as one who “planted” (1 Cor. 3). We, too, know we’re “only servants” (vs. 5) and that it’s God who makes it grow (vs. 6).

Soil for Sowing

An accountant works with numbers, a farmer with animals and plants. A church planter works with people. Different from pastors and teachers, though, theirs is pioneer work, often starting a ministry from scratch. But just leading individuals to the Lord doesn’t automatically build a church. How does a church planter know what to do, and who to see?

A long-term plan is important, but personal worship and prayer are also necessary preparation for each day, our missionaries say. “It’s amazing how God schedules our days,” one comments. “Many times we say, ‘That was God’s timing.’ He does direct our paths, just as He promises in Prov. 3:5,6.”

“We do have to plan our time just like any other job,” says another couple, “but it has to be a flexible plan, because God brings opportunities that we can’t always know ahead or plan for. We don’t always know how long a visit or counseling session or phone call may take.”

For those serving where the work has developed, there may be more scheduled activities, such as time set apart with church leaders and potential leaders.

However, as one of our church planters points out, when you live in the North, you’d better get used to the extra time needed for wood-hauling and machine repair (skidoo, boat, power saw) and more.

“Some winter days I can only dream of being in my warm study!” he says. On those days he may more likely find himself out dealing with frozen water lines (his or a neighbour’s). Or he may be many miles out in the bush assisting someone.

“We try to keep in tune with the Holy Spirit and listen to His prompts as to who to contact or where to go,” says a missionary. Another adds, “When I was pastoring a Native church full-time, there was no problem figuring out what to do on any given day. We were scheduled up to our ears.”

Back in church planting, he says he still has no problem finding things to do. But now it seems there’s more need to seek the Lord daily as to which task.

Gauging Growth

In church planting we’re working with people … people who make their own choices. It’s a work with many things beyond our control. One NCEMer probably speaks for the rest when he says, “Few things are tougher and more subjective to measure.”

Churches are made up of individuals, so it’s obvious that we seek change in people’s lives. One missionary has found himself gauging growth in these big and little ways:

“Someone bringing a snack for church and not wanting any credit for it … the conviction of the Holy Spirit to quit gambling … someone calling and saying, ‘That message at church was for me.’ ” Another sees growth when it’s “a marriage instead of a ‘shack-up.’ ”

Gauging growth, other missionaries comment: “You may recall accomplishments only after years passed by” … “When working with relationships and serving people, we are never finished” … “Keeping a daily diary helps to remember what has been done” … “We try to focus more on ‘faithfulness’ — keeping our commitments to meet a person, or just being available for someone who needs to talk.”

Of course we could simply measure a church plant by the size of the group and the time it takes to establish. We’ve learned, however, that the challenges and advantages are never exactly the same in two places.

One missionary tells about his own sending church. It was a church plant he was part of, and he still marvels at how long it took to become fully autonomous, “even with all the resources and supports … in a spiritually-fertile situation.”

Missionaries inevitably have to deal with expectations. One mentions being intrigued by these Biblical examples: “[With] Jeremiah’s striking lack of apparent success, we might reasonably conclude that he was one of God’s most inept missionaries ever. Yet Jonah, who had previously set the bar for evangelistic success so breathtakingly high, in retrospect seems just slightly pathetic in comparison to the more mature Jeremiah!”

“Needing to keep our eyes on the Lord, not on others’ accomplishments” is necessary, another missionary concludes.

Slow Growth Parasites

Our missionaries list the following as obstacles in church planting: “Strongholds of addictions that don’t seem to fall away very quickly” … “Traditional beliefs opposed to God’s Word” … “False teaching” … “Bodies and souls damaged deeply through years of abuse and being abused, with healing and recovery and stability taking time” … “Someone coming in after we were finished and not building on the work that had already been started” … “Welfare mentality” … “(Not) finding a neutral place for holding services at the beginning of a new work.”

“The ‘fly-by-night guys’ come in,” explains a missionary, “preach long and loud, take lots of money and leave, giving glowing reports of people saved. The church is left without necessary funds to carry on, the newly ‘saved’ just emotionally touched, and no basis to put their faith on.”

Another laments, “We’ve experienced young believers coming into the fellowship and tearing it apart with a different way of worship. We have seen an older ‘Christian’ lock the door [also making it] very difficult for … others who might want to study God’s Word.”

“Right now we are in a very critical period dealing with an issue of immorality with one of our leaders,” writes another.

Concerning hindrances, one couple sums it up this way: “Self-centeredness, whether in us or in the believers.”

Budding & Blossoming

Most gratifying of all, say our missionaries, is seeing believers committed to the Lord, taking responsibility for the church, and reaching out to others.

The most rewarding moments remembered include: “The first person we led to the Lord” … “People responding with real interest while going through Scripture chronologically.” One mentions having local believers share on Tribal Trails TV: “It was rewarding to see their faith publicly expressed and their enthusiasm of spreading their story to others.”

Another rewarding moment: “To sit back and enjoy a conference hosted by local believers, watching them take responsibility … leading, and sensing the Spirit of God working through those we have taught.”

One mentions the local fellowship, “Buying its first communion set and having communion together … that was an exciting rewarding moment!” Several mentioned seeing believers pitch in to build a place of worship.

Baptism rated at the top for rewarding moments. One missionary remembers 27 believers baptized one Sunday!

Perhaps most meaningful is the memory of a first baptism. One of our missionary couples recalls: “Our brother began audibly weeping as he exited the cold waters of Lake Athabasca. As he ascended the rocky hill with his wife, approaching the warming fire … he explained, ‘As I was beginning to stand back up in the water, suddenly all my sins from my life flew past in front of my eyes, and disappeared!'”

Limited space prevents further insights from our church planting missionaries. There’s also mentoring, training leaders, getting organized, and more.

Fruit That Remains

What do we hope to accomplish? In our missionaries’ words: “A strong and growing indigenous church, totally run by the local people” … “Individuals or groups maturing and not struggling like they seem to be doing right now” … “Believers who know what they believe and why, able to teach others, and carry on where we left off, and going beyond what we were able to do.”

And when is church planting complete? A mature church is one that reaches out even beyond its own locale and culture. Instilling those desires can be exciting, as one missionary shares how he initiates it: “Take them with you on visitation and give them a chance to share. They get excited about being a part of this! … [and] get a committee together to plan outreach programs.”

“We long to see,” concludes a missionary, “a lively organism which is actively capable of edifying itself, extending itself, leading itself, and supporting itself; but which above all is a Jesus-centred family that very much loves and cares for one another.”

Adapted from our Northern Lights magazine (Issue #512). Note: some of the locations and involvements of our missionaries may have changed since the original publishing of this article.