by Caleb Borchers
After weeks and weeks of preparation, it was finally over. Several of the people in our launch team got together on the afternoon of our launch, back in 2015, and we had a little party. We were an exhausted bunch. In the lead up to launch, not only did we have the struggle of getting our systems in place, having our worship team ready, and writing the sermon, but we also had the blessing and challenge of getting a church building space ready that would be our home. For many weeks my wife and I got up, took our oldest to school, worked like crazy, picked up the kid from school, worked until bed, and threw some food down our throats somewhere in between. We simply went nonstop for weeks.
I had this thought during the party that night years ago: “Now we just have to do it again, six days and 18 hours from now. On repeat. Forever.”
I guess all jobs have a certain relentless cycle to them. Payroll has to get done each week. Bills never stop coming in. Quarterly and annual reviews happen like clockwork. But it feels like ministry has a special hamster wheel factor to it. Every Sunday 10AM comes and the church expects to have songs to sing and a sermon to ingest. As a church planter, I have been more involved in making that happen then someone in a larger established church may be. For much of our church’s existence I have had to keep tabs on not just my lesson but many other pieces as well. While at Easter we loudly proclaim, “It’s Friday…but Sunday is coming!” the preacher more sheepishly, ominously says each week, “It may be Monday morning, but Sunday is coming!”
We just celebrated our seventh anniversary as a church. 365 Sundays! (Yes there is a 53 Sunday year in there, as weird as that sounds it is how calendars work.) That is so many weeks in a row. We had COVID and sometimes we had online church only. But there was some sort of content for our members every week 365 weeks in a row! I do not believe that a single one of those has come and gone without me having some role in preparations, somewhere along the line.
Looking at it that way can make you a little bleary eyed. How do you discern an ongoing story through all of that? Early on, church plants have a clear, distinct story. The shape is pretty obvious. After a dreaming phase a team is put together, momentum builds, and the church launches! And even past that, there are celebrations of milestones like certain attendance numbers or staying alive after so many years or getting a new facility or financial independence. But like a person, those years start to fade in significance. What’s the difference between 43 and 44, for a person? Not much. I’m suspicious an 8 year old church isn’t that different from a 7 year old church. How do we continue to have a sense of direction and purpose?
Church planters, when they are honest, will admit they have a bad little habit of patronizing established churches. It is usually subtle and not malicious. But we say things like, “We’re planting a church because we want to be mission driven. Instead of merely existing week in and week out, we are trying to inspire people to own their faith and be active in their community.” This, put more bluntly, might be something like, “Church plants are active and alive, unlike the old tired churches that just exist on life support week in and week out.” Now there is some reality to that all. It is much easier to get people excited to volunteer in Year 1 than Year 7. I’m experiencing that now. I cannot imagine year 78!
Necessarily we give a lot of energy and attention to something in its neonatal stage, but that fades. Parents are not bad parents because they check in on their 52 year-old child a little less than a newborn. Churches transition into a stage where they just function without as much constant attention. If they don’t, they usually shutter because it is simply too much stress on whoever is keeping the plates spinning.
All of this has me thinking about the “law of undulation.” This is a phrase C.S. Lewis discusses some in The Screwtape Letters. The idea, simply put, is that human beings go spiritually through natural cycles of growth and vitality, as well as natural cycles of drought and dryness. It is ingrained in the fact that we are subject to time. Lewis suggests that these phases are at least used by God, if not explicitly part of his design. After all, this is true of the seasons and weather. Undulation is a natural rhythm that helps us to find meaning. Undulation is a necessary part of our biology and psychology.
As Americans, we are allergic to undulation. I think that it is somewhat due to our economic/capitalistic values creeping into everything. Corporate America believes that everything should always be up and to the right. Growth, growth, growth. No company announces, “Our profits are exactly where they were last year, but that is plenty.” A culture that is never satiated will necessarily shudder at contraction. Instead we always want to see growth year over year. This is true of our spiritual life too. We think we should grow beyond last quarter in attendance, giving, maturity, and everything else!
Lewis suggests that there are two different ways Satan might discourage us in undulation. Both are about rejecting the reality of ups and downs. On the one hand, some are tempted to think that high moments are the totality of faith. Such people cannot tolerate moments that are less than mountain top experiences. They feel they are slipping and in a foolish surge of energy try to force such ecstatic experiences. On the other hand, some will see their current state of low spiritual intensity as not a phase but the norm. They then look back on moments of intense spiritual experience and discount it as the folly of youth or false emotionalism. Lewis suggests that neither is helpful. We instead welcome these phases as necessary parts of our spiritual journey which God will, in the least, use to his purposes if not create in the first place.
Any person or church that walks a journey of faith for some length of time will know this reality of undulation. Faithfulness over the long haul is challenging. Our faith can be a bit like a marriage where the passion of the early days can mellow into the depth of a quiet, confident connection. Allowing that season to be a maturing of our love and not negligence of it will always be an important balance to strike. Part of the work of maturing, as a believer and a community, is learning to accept and welcome the undulation God sends our way.