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The Reality of Being Surprised by how hard this is…

From time to time Church Planters get hit in the face by how difficult it is to plant a church in the inner city, among poor people, and to work cross culturally. In their pain and distress they sometimes become angry with the people they feel should be supporting them, such as the denomination, the church planting agency, the network, or the Presbytery. It is no doubt true that sometimes we are abandoned by those who said they would help us. Sometimes people do not keep their promises about support, sometimes the people we depended on to coach and mentor us do not perform consistently or adequately for us to make the progress we should. Sometimes the disappointment is with our own team and with the folks we have gathered who say they are committed to the work. They don’t show up, they don’t give, they don’t seem to share the heaviness of the load. It is too easy to become resentful of the very people God has called us to pastor and to love. It is easy to grow cynical of our institutions and systems when we feel like we are on the cliff of failure and no one seems to be reaching out to catch us from falling into the abyss. We grow angry, and sometimes that anger is against God himself. We can lash out, bite the hands that feed us, and burn the bridges of relationships that have helped us in the past. There is mess in the stress and more stress from the mess, and sometimes that mess destroys our families, our relationships, the new church, our reputations, and our souls. Sometimes our anger is against the population we say we want to reach. We are angry that they don’t appreciate Reformed preaching, we are angry that they don’t like our worship service, angry that they don’t appreciate the facility we worship in. We are angry that they can’t take care of their own children during the service, and we are angry that people won’t volunteer for nursery. We are angry that false doctrine and heresy seem to get a bigger crowd than we do, and we are resentful that our sister churches don’t give up more of their people to come and join us so we can have the center of mass we need to survive. We become frustrated that our methods of outreach seem to bear so little fruit. When dealing with folks in the inner city we know full well that they are poor, that broken families and those affected by alcohol, drugs, illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition, despair, unstable housing situations, and the fear of violence have a difficult life. Yet as we try to reach them for Jesus, show them mercy through acts of benevolence, spend inordinate amounts of time on specific individuals, families, and situations and yet get no sustained commitment from them we act surprised. It is as if dysfunctional people stayed dysfunctional even after coming under our sphere of influence. How dare they! One church planter told me he had no intention of planting a church until the children he had led to Christ, and discipled all through high school, and then sent to college returned to the community. Then, and only then, after he had some folks who were now stable, educated, and committed (i.e., middle class) would he plant the church. I know church planters who did not want middle class people attending their church, especially if they were white. It was as if the professional urban ministry folks (those who had jobs in the community due to development ministries supported by foundations and suburban churches) were the only ones truly capable of loving on poor folks, so the church stayed small, manageable and (without the urban missionaries wanting it to), blatantly paternalistic. Let’s get real people. There is only one common denominator for success and that is the blessing of God. In our cynicism we can look at those we think are successful and try to analyze where they got their money from, and what keeps them going. We can be envious of other’s gifts, we can be envious of other demographic situations, we can even be envious of the danger, hardship, and violence of certain neighborhoods that seem to give other ministries glory. Our hearts have no shortage of potential for coveting, envy, jealousy, and cynicism. Most of that simply comes from our own fear of failure and our tendency to live our lives in a state of constant comparison. God had to catch me up short in the early days of our work when our numbers were very small. I kept thinking, “when we become a real church…” It was as if God smacked me in the face saying in my mind, “what do you mean when, why do you care so little for the people already gathered in my name? You are a church now, so be grateful and act like it!” I often felt like I was the only one working or trying, the only one unable to pay my bills, the only one catching the flack and mess of poor folks lives. Where was the denomination, where was the Presbytery, where was the church planting agency, where were the other leaders who said they believed in this work, where was the gratitude of the people whom I had helped? I was often tired, confused, frustrated, and scared. I had to learn a few things, and one of them was to control my expectations. Another was to not assume commitments from people who had not really given them. Another lesson was to learn how to communicate, and to ask for help specifically and on time. Another was how to be grateful and not spew guilt all over the place, especially when I was angry. Another was to learn how to celebrate small advances and victories and to share them with our small church, another was to learn how to let the mockery of the Devil and nay sayers roll off my back, along with my own skeptical unbelief. This was the calling God had given to me. I was not a hired gun and not simply an employee of others to do this work. If it was hard for me, someone who felt so passionate about the need to plant a church among the poor in the city, why should I be surprised if the people who knew little about the challenge were not right behind me. Things take time, and broken lives need time to be mended. At least two urban pastors had told me, even as a college student, that what the city needed was someone called to live out their lives here. That nothing but longevity would answer some of the needs. The story was told, the denomination and agencies did respond, money did come, prayer was mobilized, volunteers began to show up and stay, people were converted, both indigenous and those who had moved in began to accept leadership, and the load was shared. Some abandoned and even betrayed us, some never cared or helped, and things did not always work out according to our hopes or time schedule. Yet, let Israel now say, “If they Lord had not been on our side…” But the Lord has helped us, and we are (intensely, contentedly, and humbly) glad!

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