By Caleb Borchers
Here at The Feast Church we recently celebrated our 7th anniversary as a church. That number surprises me a little. The nebulous nature of time around the pandemic certainly has not helped things. Getting ready for the big day I sifted through old photos trying to find some that tell the story of our church well. I was surprised by the number of people who I immediately recognized with fondness, but also somehow allowed to drift far from my consciousness. “I haven’t thought about that person in forever!”
The reality of church planting is that the very best part of it, and the very worst part of it, is the coming and the going of people. I do not think that many outside observers, or even naive young planters, realize the emotional toll that comes simply from the revolving door of members that happens in a young church. It is easy to think of starting a church a bit like building a house. You lay a foundation, then frame the walls, then finish it out. While that metaphor may work in some ways, it has a very wrong assumption at its core. Once the concrete of a home’s foundation is laid, it doesn’t go anywhere. But planting a church means building a house in which, from time to time, the foundational blocks at the core of the home suddenly disappear. The builder must find a way to re-purpose another part of the house or bring in new materials all together, at the same time they try to work on a much later stage of the project. Each time this happens the house gets terribly unstable for a while.
Church plants somewhat naturally churn through people. Sometimes this is due to the nature of a plant. There are always members of a core team who are simply excited by new things. They joined because you were starting a new church and they will leave once it starts to no longer feel like a new church. It would be easy to be hurt by their departure, but you shouldn’t be. That entrepreneurial spirit is a God-given gift. You have to be thankful it will be used to help others like it helped you. Others leave for more painful reasons. They do not like something you do. They start behaving in ways that you have to engage and challenge, so they choose to leave rather than address the problem. Sometimes people just slowly drift from faith. Then there are the happier partings. Maybe some older parents want to be nearer to their grandchildren. Many church plants start with young families, and young families today make several major shifts in their career that often includes moving. Sometimes a family even feels called to do ministry elsewhere. If someone had a heart for ministry enough to join your plant, they are going to be more likely to have another call in their life.
Necessarily church planters are people who see potential. In order to build a community that does not exist, one has to have an ability to intuit things that have not happened. So the people who are part of our churches we see both as they are and who they might be. If a church planter doesn’t look at a new member and dream about how they might be a leader down the road, they likely aren’t doing enough to develop leadership. As such, when someone leaves, it is always a heartbreak. Not only is that relationship changed and lessened, at least in terms of time together and shared life, but there is also a death. The things you imagined happening in the future die. That young mom will never be able to mentor other moms a decade from now, at least not here. That young man that was ready to lead a ministry a year down the road will not do so in this church. Those people aren’t lost to the Kingdom, but there is still a pain in not seeing how their story would have joined your own.
Church planters have a somewhat unusual relationship with their church. When I talk to minister friends at established churches they share (lament?) that they are to some degree always outsiders. I hear a sentiment like, “I can not push too hard for this change, because this church has a history before me and will have a future after me.” In those settings, the preacher is often the one with the least history and future in the church, with frequent pulpit changes being relatively normal. Plants aren’t quite like that. At the very least, the planter has been around longer than anyone else! They also did not come to a church with a salary and benefits. Often they worked like crazy to fundraise enough to scrape by to pursue a dream. So in a plant there is often a feeling, accurate or not, that the planter is more invested in the church than anyone else. This also makes people leaving hard. You are so prone to take it personally. “They left because they didn’t believe in me or my vision as much as I do.” And that thought hurts because on some level it is true! It wouldn’t be fair or sensible to expect every person in the pew to have the same level of commitment as a planter who uprooted their family, moved to a strange place, and gave their lives to starting a church. But that reality still can feel lonely.
Obviously new people coming are the flip side of the equation. They are the drug that planters get hooked on. The thrill of someone showing interest in your church is amazing. It is affirming to feel like your work to create a community with a certain set of values is actually meeting the needs of real people. You can see all the ways that these new people’s skills and passions can benefit other people. Seeing two people who do not know each other create a friendship, and then seeing that friendship blossom into caring for each other in hardship, creates a sort of pride that makes the journey feel worth it. Church planters in a way are obsessed with connecting those who are disconnected. Of course they love seeing that actually happen. More personally, many people by their thirties complain about how hard it is to form new friendships. In ministry there are so many opportunities to connect with someone new through your work.
I have a bad habit I am trying to break. There are times when I daydream about what our church would look like if everyone stayed. If every family that had journeyed with us over seven years were still here today, what would this place be like? The attendance numbers alone makes me so happy! In those moments I can become a bit overcome with sadness. The work done to help people in their faith feels wasted. That’s obviously foolish. That image should actually reinforce just how many souls have been strengthened. How many hours of teaching and worship have built up the body of Christ? Who is in a much better place in their faith today because of the trajectory that started in the church we planted? How many communities of faith around the country and world are benefiting from the work we put in? That should inspire us.
“Caleb, I cannot remember many of the names of people I worked intensely with in Africa,” a missionary once told me when talking about these things. It was not that he didn’t love those people. It was more like a defense mechanism. “It is like my heart clears space out so that I have capacity for the people I’m serving now.” To some degree forgetfulness is necessary. It would be too much to bear otherwise. I still remember one of our daughters crying when a family said they were moving away. “Dad, why do my friends always leave?” The work of church planting is essentially giving your all to form relationships that are liable to end far earlier than you would like. There is a necessary revolving door of people. Our kids have also benefited from having so many people play some role in their childhood. The most thrilling and heartbreaking part of church planting is learning how to give your all to those folks when they are here and then say goodbye in as beautiful a way as possible.