Where is the source of the “voice“ that is calling you to church planting?
For some, the “Macedonian call” to plant a church is seen in the same way as a call to an existing, already formed Christian community. Yet, this is not the call to the apostolic-like ministry of church planting. There are at least two vital elements of a call to church planting. These are not replacing the necessary assessment of gifts and graces. Rather the response to these two urgent issues are signposts to the place where God’s will for you (see Ephesians 2:20) leads to that glorious picture of “ha eretz” (“the Land” in Genesis) described by Dr. Luke,
“So there was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).
I teach my students, and I have guided younger Christian shepherds, to address these two fundamental matters in discerning a call to plant a church.
1 . To be called to church planting is to be called to a place.
The burden of ministry, indeed, “God’s burden for His people” must resonate with you as you consider a particular city, suburban village, or rural area. Don’t visit a core group or a group of people who are interested and “see” your congregation. Rather, see those individuals as “remnants“ (they are rarely perfect representative “specimens” of the community since they are likely already believers). These are, though, dear souls, who are being used of God to point to “the burning city.” You must be listening and looking through the core group to a more extensive community yet to be formed. The call to a place begins with a burden for the broken places in that area. The broken places of a community may be poverty, injustice, wickedness, unbelief, confusion, false teaching, or some other prevailing and presenting issue (usually involving demonic strongholds; although Satan’s minions have little work to do when these fallen angels encounter such willing captives in much of the secular Western World; yet, even this fact is a presenting evidence that brings necessary “burden”). The burden of the church plant always leads to the vision of the church plant. The vision is the “thing” that lifts the burden. The vision is never merely a clever corporate slogan. The vision for a church plant is that “Gospel wholeness” that brings about spiritual (and, then, even physical) healing to the wound that you have observed. There is a direct correlation—a sacred cord — from the burden to the vision. In terms of accepting the call to a church plant, you are looking for internal and external evidence of both “burden” and “vision,” not within a few people who might be in a core group, but within a larger area, with a greater metaphysical narrative that unfolds before you.
2. To be called to a church plant, you are called to see (“see” with the eyes of your soul) the “already and not yet.“
I borrow that familiar theological language of George Eldon Ladd’s eschatology to describe the voice of a sacred vocation that cries out, “Who will be a faithful presence of Jesus Christ in the next generation in this place?” To hear one voice in your heart is to, necessarily, hear another:
“Will there be a Christian witness, a community—a parish— of word, sacrament, and prayer, and a worshipping community enfolding others into the life of Jesus Christ according to the Great Commission?”
And will this Christian community have the vital biblical and theological foundation to endure through the centuries until Christ comes again? Are you seeing a “Golden Lampstand” being implanted into the soil of this place? Again, there will be internal and external evidence to support the vision. I have often said that a church platter is one man on fire with the gospel, burning so fervently, that others come and watch him burn. Then, they, too, get caught up in the holy conflagration. In this case, the church planter is not only the “burning man,” but also the “believing man” (the “gift” of faith in 1 Corinthians 12:9) who stands with another, peering across the vast emptiness of a vacant farm field, or walking, stepping over the junk, amidst the ruin and rubble of urban blight, or standing like a man from another world, peering across the carefully manicured suburban lawns that conceal the festering spiritual woundedness inside of the mini-mansions. The church planting pastor puts one arm around the person in that community, drawing him into a vision he sees in the vacant lot. With the other arm outstretched, Moses-like, he points to a far-away land that is coming closer.
“Do you see the church there?”
The person sees nothing. In fact, he might say,
“Pastor, are you ‘seeing things?’ There is nothing but a vacant field.”
“No, my good man. Look beyond what you see with your eyes. Look in prayer and faith to a city to come. Do you see that Christian community over there? I see your great-grandchildren worshipping! But there are things absent because of the Christian presence. I don’t see the wounds that are present today. I see the Lord Christ walking amongst His children through the presence of His Body, the Church.”
“This church? I mean the church God would plant?”
“Yes, my lad! Now, you are seeing! Yes, this church! Oh my Brother: I see blessing in the land.“
The person he is talking to, who, at first, had replied, “Pastor, I don’t see anything at all; I just see a vacant field” now squints as he sees farther than he can look. At last the man smiles. He believes. The pastor continues, prayerfully, fervently, and compellingly, to tell him what he sees. Soon, the other person says
“Pastor, I think that I may be seeing it, too.“
That is the “already and the not yet” of a call to church planting. For they cannot see if the shepherd of Jesus cannot see.
Those are only two matters to be addressed in your process of vocational discernment. There are many others that should be asked. But I raise these because they are essential matters, matters of the Holy Spirit, often not addressed. Yet, the work that we do; is it not first and always, a spiritual work?
The truth is, the response to these two questions is the response of a minister to the missionary heart of Jesus our Lord. When the prospective church planter hears both the question and the response in his own soul, he is hearing the only “voice” that truly calls: the Spirit of God who leads His “Lollards” (Wycliffe’s preachers) to follow Him and proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ to those in need.
There will be a multitude of souls safe in the arms of Jesus because there have been some intrepid and faithful Christian shepherds who have heard His call. And followed.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (Hebrews 11:1-2).