Church planting demands a great deal of us, and requires a lot of energy – it appeals to the activist in us. How can we make sure that we keep God at the centre, that we rely on him, and look to him (not ourselves) for guidance?
Isaiah 49: 1-7 is one of the so called ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah. The servant is a mysterious figure, who, at times, seems to be an individual (the prophet himself) and, at others, embodies the nation. For Christians, the servant clearly looks forward to Jesus. May we use this prophecy as a ‘case study’ for the church planter.
First and foremost, the servant shows us that mission is always primarily God’s mission, and only secondarily ours. Verse 6 is quoted by Paul on mission to Pisidian Antioch. ‘This is what the Lord has commanded us’, and goes on to quote, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles’, where ‘you’ is in the singular. There is an overlap between the mission of Jesus and the mission of the apostles. Our church planting, missional community or outreach is derivative of the great calling of Jesus. It is our privilege to share in what he is already doing. Thankfully, we do not have to generate mission, or ‘make things happen’ in any ultimate sense. Jesus is already bringing his light to the ends of the earth. Our task is to find out what he is doing and join in.
Looking at Isaiah 49, we can see that there are perhaps three phases of this servant calling. They do not necessary come in order or separately, but it might be helpful to identify these distinct emphases.
The servant talks of how the LORD called him from before I was born (v. 1) and of how the LORD formed me in the womb to be his servant (v. 5). There is a wonderful sense here that the servant’s mission grows natural and almost inevitably out of who he is. Knowing who he is helps him discern what it is that the Lord is calling him to do. Being precedes doing, the creation leads naturally into the life of the new creation.
Rick Warren writes helpfully of the pneumonic S-H-A-P-E. S is for ‘spiritual gifts’ – in the broadest sense, what God-given abilities do we have. H is for ‘heart’ – what are we passionate about, what keeps us up late at night talking? A is ‘abilities’ – what do people come to us for help with? P is ‘personality’ – introvert / extrovert, artistic, engineering, connecting, adventurous, detail / big picture etc. And E is for ‘experience’ – over time, can we discern a pattern, sense one thing leading on to another.
Maybe a missional spirituality grows out of self-knowledge. Maybe a key element of reaching out to others is beginning by reaching out to ourselves, not trying to be someone else but learning to be comfortable in our own skin, to accept ourselves as beloved of God, created to be who we most truly are.
There is a second element of preparation in this servant song, a training for what lies ahead. The servant talks of how the LORD made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me (v. 2). He speaks of being hidden, concealed, and how the Lord used that time to sharpen his life so that it would cut through into the lives of others.
I love this idea of the hidden years, of the time of preparation which is just between God and us. It makes me think of Moses in the desert, of David watching the sheep, of Paul’s mysterious 3 years in Arabia, even of the first 30 years of the life of Jesus himself. Secret years are vital to the development of the church planter. It likely will not happen overnight, it will be a long process, of God preparing and developing us. And this is about character and personality, as much as it will be about skills and expertise.
This argues for a spirituality that is not in a hurry, that is prepared to wait and let God develop us, sometimes over long periods of time. Our public ministries and lives will flow from our private lives, and we cannot afford to hurry God when he is dealing with us in secret. As writer Dutch Sheets says, ‘We are into microwaving – God is into marinating’. It is often in these times of hiddenness and preparation that God speaks to our hearts about who we most truly are and what it is that we will be doing with our lives, just as he does with the servant here – ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour’ (v. 3).
Surely everything will now be plain sailing? Having been prepared, nothing stands between us and performance? But there does. In God’s economy, preparation is nearly always followed by pressure. Robert Clinton has given his life to analysing the lives of biblical leaders. In his book The making of a leader he goes as far as to say that this is the all but universal trajectory of everyone whom God uses.
It is certainly true of the servant. In verse 4 he says, ‘I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all’. In verse 7 he describes himself as someone who was despised and abhorred by the nation. This is the language of disillusionment, exhaustion, disappointment, rejection.
Our culture is a success culture. It demands results and increase and progress. It has metrics of success. It rejects failure and suffering and pressure. By contrast, missional spirituality is one which embraces failure and is unafraid of hardship. It is a vital part of how God works in the lives of the missional leader and church planter.
John Wimber was the father and founder of the Vineyard movement around the world, renowned for its emphasis on healing and supernatural power. Yet this ministry was born out of failure. John was a highly accomplished church growth consultant, much in demand and very successful in his role. He became aware though that he was not praying himself or ever reading the Bible other than for talks and presentations. It culminated in a night in a motel when he collapsed on his bed, crushed by his sense of failure and hypocrisy. He felt God say to him, ‘I have seen your ministry. Now let me show you mine’.
For the church planter, failure and pressure and disillusionment will be a necessary part of the journey, and one from which we must not flinch. Where does life’s deepest learning happen? Is it in the triumphs or in the failures? Is it on the mountain tops or in the valleys? Pressure can be our greatest teacher.
Resilience and perseverance thus become essential aids to learning and personal growth. Thomas Edison said, ‘Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to try just one more time’. Winston Churchill said, ‘If you are going through hell, keep going’.
There will not be a church leader or church planter anywhere who does not regularly feel like chucking it all in. It is the pressure. And the path from preparation to provision nearly always lies through pressure. Can we, like the servant, find a way through with God? ‘Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God’ (v. 4).
Verse 5 says And now the LORD says -. There has come a moment in the time of pressure which is a moment of revelation. Suddenly there is a breakthrough and the servant hears God’s voice and sees the way forward. It is a turning point.
It leads up to verse 6 (the verse which Paul quotes in Pisidian Antioch): ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’.
Israel and Judah were in exile, thousands of miles away from their homeland across wilderness and desert, their own culture and religion crushed and annihilated by the superpowers of the day. It must have seemed a pretty big thing to the servant to think of bringing them back. But God says it is too small a thing, too light, too easy to do that. Instead the servant was to go to the Gentiles (v. 6), to the islands and distant nations (v. 1), the kings and princes (v. 7), to the very ends of the earth (v. 6). The servant was to go to those outside the covenant, to the sea (the place of chaos and monsters and dragons and demons in Israel’s imagination), to the people of power (when they were at their most powerless), to the world. This was the calling, the revelation, the turning point.
Maybe the function of the time of pressure was to help the servant see differently. The calling had been right all along, but needed God and suffering to open it up in all its fulness.
The Swiss watchmakers of the 1970s and 1980s were blind to the implications of the rising Japanese technologies and the implications to the manufacture of watches. The American railroads of the 1950s were too focused on railroads and not on the transportation of people, and so missed out on the impact of air travel. Alvin Toffler once wrote, ‘The illiterate of the C21st will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’. The servant thought he knew, but pressure taught him to unlearn, so that now he could relearn.
Any system is perfectly set up to achieve the results it is currently achieving. In order to accomplish different ends, maybe it needs to be different? A missional spirituality will look out for fresh ways to reach the ends of the earth for God. It will not be gimmicky or unthinkingly follow the latest fads, but will come from the deepest, most authentic traditions of the church to embrace the mission of Jesus for today.
The servant had to learn that the mission of God would need the power and presence of God to accomplish it. Hudson Taylor, the great C19th missionary and founder of the Chinese Inland Mission said, ‘There are three phases of any work of God – difficult, impossible, done’. He could have been expounding Isaiah 49. If the mission is God’s, so must be the power.
The path of the servant, and the path of the church planter, is not a straight forward a, b, c. There will be ups and downs, reversals, steep climbs, wild falls, times of loss and confusion and sudden arrival. But there may well be these three elements – the preparation, the pressure and the provision.
May you be encouraged – especially if you are under pressure and feel a failure.
May you have a renewed sense that the most important thing you can bring is who you most truly are. Don’t try and be someone else (that job is taken), but find the faith and courage to be authentically yourself.
And may we all have a sense that God’s ways are bigger and more surprising than we ever thought.
Pastor Bill Scanlon memorably said, ‘Dress for the next season’. Might it help to gear ourselves for what is coming next from God?
If we think of God’s grace, love and purposes like a mighty river, one approach is to stand on the banks and fish into the river. That is a perfectly legitimate strategy. Another is to stand in the river and position ourselves to receive all that is coming down towards us, trusting that God is in it, and getting ready to join in the mission of Jesus.
Rector, St George’s, Holborn