We all tend to idealise things; marriage, family, children, holidays, the seaside. Everything. It’s as if we have a filter on our memories and our hopes that means we only remember or imagine the best bits. Idealism isn’t bad but it can cause us to rear back when we find something isn’t ideal. It can cause us to react to reality by withdrawing rather than engaging.
Too many people approach pastoring and church planting with the same filters in place. They imagine they will be pastoring the ideal church, the congregation will love your teaching, really engage with it, and so revival will break out. People will grip your hand after a sermon and speak about how the gospel is really changing them in detail and then, the next week, bring along everyone they know to hear this great gospel of which you are a herald. Elders meetings will be a time of joy filled plotting the upbuilding of the kingdom of God and the downfall of the kingdom of darkness. And church members meetings will be times of unity and gospel focused renewal to mission. And when church discipline issues come up people will quickly recognise their sin, repent and make things right. Everyone will love everyone and be considerate and gentle.
When we plant a church that type of community will form quickly and as a natural application of the gospel taught and last enduringly. The core team will all embody the DNA not just give lip service to it. They will delight to serve long term. No-one will leave. No-one will become disillusioned. No-one will feel disappointed. No-one will grumble or just get worn down. Everyone will engage in mission, and the people in the community you’ve planted in will just come because your community embodies something different, see Jesus for the great Saviour he is and follow him and grow and serve. And in just a few years you’ll be planting again and then again and again, because you’re not just planting a church you’re starting a movement.
But all of our naive idealism gets a cold wave of water in the face not just when we actually do it but when we read the New Testament and about the early church. Yes there is great growth, such as at Pentecost and in some of the towns where Peter and Paul and others preached. But I love the gritty reality of the way God doesn’t hide their struggles from us. In Acts the ideal of Acts 2 and Acts 4 meets the reality of external persecution, potential sinful corruption in chapter 5, and nascent grumbling division in chapter 6. In Galatia we read of churches planted in Acts but soon read of those same churches with elders in place and taught by Paul drifting into legalism and in danger of losing the gospel. In Corinth we read of a church planted and growing, of people from all walks of life turning to Christ for life and it is absolutely amazing. And then in the letters to the church we see the gritty reality of discipling such a church with it’s celebrity culture, power struggles, accommodation of culture, relationship struggles and so on.
The Bible shows us the reality of the church. We need to reckon with that reality. Too many pastors and planters are idealistic not realistic and that is why so many burn themselves out trying to create this ideal, I wonder if unhelpful models and expectations fuel this even more. I also wonder if it, in part, leads towards the dangerous rocks of heavy shepherding and anger in ministry that can fuel unhealthy cultures.
The correction we need to make is not to pessimism, it is not to lower our expectations of what the gospel can do. The gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change any life at any time because it is the good news of a person who can do that: Jesus Christ. And he is the same yesterday, today and forever. His word endures, he was and is and is to come and so his word is enduringly relevant and powerful. But we do need to correct our idealism because change is slow. Just like our society we want everything done instantly, everything must be faster, better, more productive more powerful. In the church and in ministry we have bought into this worlds fakery and fallacy. The problem is not with the power of the gospel to produce change it is in the timeframe within which we expect it to happen.
The Bible constantly uses images of slow growth; plants, sheep, trees and so on. Paul uses images of dedicated long term labour to describe ministry; the soldier, the farmer and the athlete. But we seem so often to forget that. Pastoral ministry is hard. It is graft not glitz. The reality is that it is long term and change and growth are so often slow. Discipleship is a life long process of becoming more like Jesus and that is what we are called to make.
What are the implications of this? Our idealism is dangerous for pastors in leading to burn out, wanting to do too much too soon and so investing in too many programmes that are all singing and all dancing. Our churches idealism leads to the same thing with all its unspoken pressures and expectations. Instead of being realistic and investing in the slow work of discipling a few others who will in turn disciple a few others who will in turn disciple a few others. It means we settle for shallow profession not deep growth because we want to grow numerically and prove that things are working that somehow we measure up to the ideal. It also means we mistake church transfer for church/kingdom growth which it is not. It means we fail to really love because we love the ideal church we want to have not the real church we have been given. It can also lead us to be manipulative in having our target of where we want to get people to rather than listening to them and what God is doing and how he is making them like Christ and playing our part in that. And there are so many more implications of this that I’m sure you can think of.
So what? A good place to start would be to go back and read scripture and work out the time frames, to see the decades over which we see discipleship take place in the early church, to see the ups and downs, to read of those who made good progress and those for whom it was faltering and those for whom progress floundered and they turned back. And then to repent of our idealism. Our failure to see beyond the instant. And then to get down to the hard work of real ministry with the real people God has given me to love. Yes the real is more messy than the ideal, but then you and I aren’t the ideal pastors and planters we like to imagine ourselves to be, we are the messy works in progress that God has called to his service in reality.