Not Forever, Yet Still Meaningful

“Make sure they know their commitment doesn’t have to be forever to be meaningful.”

I recently shared this tip with a friend who was struggling to build a core team for a new church plant in eastern Kentucky. He had another informational meeting coming up, and since I wouldn’t be able to make it, I was eager for those at the meeting to be free from the false choice of a never-or-forever commitment to living and serving in the mountain town chosen for the church plant.

Many tend to view a commitment to missions or church planting as a life calling to a certain place or people group. And for some, it is. Church history says that Timothy eventually settled in Ephesus, ministering there until he was martyred as an old man. Patrick gave his life to Ireland. But for Paul and others who were part of his apostolic band, several months or years here and there seemed to be the norm.

For lead church planters, there is an important distinction to understand between the planter-pastor calling and what can be called an apostolic planter calling. Planter-pastors aim to plant a church and then to pastor it for the long-term. For those who are called to an apostolic planter ministry, their leadership over the church plant is meant to be temporary from the beginning, and they aim to go on planting other churches. These planters have a gifting that echoes that of Paul, where churches are started and then handed over to long-term elders, and it’s in this sense that I’m using the term apostolic, without here getting into the debates about whether there is an actual apostolic gifting or office for the church today.

Having been involved with both North American and cross-cultural church planting, it’s curious to note that the planter-pastor approach is the dominant model and assumption for North American church plants, while the apostolic planter model is the dominant model and assumption for planting churches cross-culturally. The conversations tend to be very different in these two spheres of church planting regarding what is necessary for a church plant to be successful. Preaching is a great example of this. For North American church plants, a strong gift of preaching is held up to be absolutely necessary. But for cross-cultural church-planting, preaching is often downplayed or even jettisoned altogether. Given these drastic differences, there needs to be more cross-pollination between missionary planters overseas and church planters in North America who are planting in their own language and in near-culture contexts. This is necessary so that neither are stuck in their own echo chambers. But that is a separate post.

What I want to focus on today is that just as some lead church planters are called to a life commitment and others to give a much shorter time, so the members of a church planting team can also be called to either kind of commitment. But perhaps because the planter-pastor model is the dominant one in North America, those considering joining a core team of this kind of church plant tend to assume they are being asked to commit decades to the church plant and focus city. This is, understandably, a very big ask. So it’s no wonder that many church planters heading to hard places in North America have a difficult time recruiting a team.

Yes, some will be called and gifted with a life-long commitment to a new church plant and new city. But this kind of long-term calling will not be the case for everyone, and is not necessary in order for team members to make a meaningful contribution to the church plant. The mid-term category for missionaries serves as a helpful example here. Many will go overseas for one to three years and then return to their home countries. Not only is this a very formative time for them, it can also be a crucial support for the long-termers on the ground. And eternally-significant ministry can take place in that kind of time frame as well. Gospel seeds can be sown and friends can come to faith and discipled. Churches can even be established.

If this is the case overseas, why would it not be the case when church planting team members will be ministering in their own language and in a near culture? While studying the local culture will still be important, this kind of church planting has the massive advantage of the team, from day one, already being fluent in the local language – with the exception of some local slang and idioms, of course. This is still just enough ignorance to be dangerous, but you can’t get away from every possibility of risk and embarrassment in this kind of service. Nor would you want to, since everybody ends up more humble and happy when they can laugh at themselves. 

Calling for mid-term length commitments, say one to five years, might not only free up more people to commit, but could also keep them from unnecessary shame and disorientation when they are a number of years in and are burnt out, or simply need to transition to a setting that’s healthier for their family. Being in a season ourselves where our family’s health raises a lot of questions about our future in Central Asia, it can be profoundly disorienting to rethink the next several decades when we had thought the path before us was more or less clear. Whether overseas or in city church plants in North America, many families end up needing to make significant moves somewhere in the five to ten year range. This often has to do with kids getting older, the costs of serving in a hard place piling up, and some kind of natural human cycle where we get restless and tend to lose hope of real change actually happening in this particular range of years (check out the most common years for divorces to take place). Rather than recruiting all teammates with a decades-long vision, there may be some wisdom in anticipating these dynamics and calling for shorter commitments as well. That way, even if someone decides it’s time to transition after their five years are up, this is a chance for celebrating their faithfulness, rather than an unexpected blow to the team that yet another member of the core team is leaving.

There are downsides to calling for midterm commitments. Investing in midterm teammates can take a long time, so it’s a blow when all that investment feels like it’s leaving after only a few short years – and then you have to do it all over again with someone new. That kind of turnover on a team can be discouraging and heavy. Wisdom is needed to make sure this is actually paying off. But when we remember that we are not just investing in these teammates for what they can do for the work, but we are investing in them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, those who will go on to serve elsewhere, then we can better bear these costs. We might not see as much return on the investment as we had hoped for in our local work, but we can trust that all faithful sowing will eventually bear fruit, both in the person themself as well as in the future churches they are a part of.

Starting something new is a tricky thing. This is just as true of churches as it is of anything else. There is a very subjective sense of momentum and growing stability that can make all the difference in others buying into the vision and taking the risk to join a church plant. Given this fragile dynamic, the simple presence of a few more faithful people can make all the difference in the early years. For those unsure about long-term callings or doubtful that they could in good conscience commit to decades, hearing that they can make a real difference by giving a specific year or three might turn a “No” into a “Yeah, by God’s grace, I think I can do that.”

It may not be forever. But that doesn’t mean means it’s not meaningful. After all, Paul only spent three years in Ephesus, and even less time elsewhere. The choice need not be never-or-forever. A few good years sown in faith as part of a church plant in a hard place may yield more of a harvest than we could ever anticipate. We may not be able to give decades, but could we give a year or two or five? It’s a worthy thing to wrestle with.

Photo by Lukas Allspach on Unsplash

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