The Grace in Not Yet: A Defense for Staying When Others Say So
So, I live in a seminary town—people like to debate theology, and everybody wants to drop the mic. One day, as egg-headed banter was sailing across a classroom, an unimpressed professor took the metaphorical mic from mid-air, and what he said, I will never forget: “I don’t trust any of you. You’re too young to have a balanced opinion.”
Hear that thud? That was the mic.
A few months back I wrote an article titled, "The Good in Goodbyes". While acknowledging the pain of goodbyes in church planting, my aim was to find the good that makes them worthy sacrifices. You might say it was “an argument for going when others say ‘no.’” In an effort to prove my ability to have a balanced opinion, today I want to consider the grace in “not yet”—that is, an argument for staying when others say so. For as many who should press on to plant despite tearful appeals to stay, there are perhaps just as many who should heed the counsel to wait. Here are some of the reasons why.
Desiring to be a church planter doesn’t automatically make a person a Christ follower.
Yes, I just said that, and I’m not trying to be a Puritan. I have had a lot of conversations with people who want to be church planters and missionaries. When I ask why, an alarming number respond with their sense of calling to ministry—not their calling to Christ. At first, I simply assumed their trusting and abiding in Christ. Yet, therein lies the danger.
Although the desire to be a church planter is indeed a noble and commendable thing (1 Tim. 3:1), it does not prove the state of a person’s heart. In fact, it actually should lead us to further inquiry before affirmation. Jesus’ dicey words to the zealous of his day show why:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matt. 23:15)
So, when a person expresses the desire to be a church planter, it’s a gracious thing to tenderly find out what is behind such zeal.
Desiring to be a church planter doesn’t automatically guarantee a godly motive.
I have served among people in global non-profits, NGOs, and human rights organizations. Their sense of sacrificial mission is contagious. It is also sometimes quite godless. Such good-willed passion is easily motivated by a subconscious need to fulfill oneself by appeasing God. After all, we were created for good works, and there is a measure of satisfaction that comes with performing them, whether through Christ or not.
Yet, Paul reminds us of the futility of our good works: “Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11). He goes on to describe not only their futility, but their merciless cycle: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Gal. 3:10). Those who are uselessly trying to keep the law are only churned into harder work because “the law does not restrain sin but stimulates and provokes it” (Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfilment, 73).
The only rest from this corpse chute is Christ, who kept the law perfectly and thus “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). In Him alone is God appeased. Therefore, it is good and right to plumb the motives of church planting candidates. Are they driven more by pleasing or appeasing God? There is a big difference.
Desiring to be a church planting church doesn’t automatically produce a church planter.
For many churches it is rare to have a person come forward and say, “I want to be a church planter.” Thus, when someone does, he stands a good chance of being celebrated. In these contexts, scarcity can lead to quick affirmation. In other contexts where church planting is a regular objective, the person who says, “I want to be a church planter,” stands a good chance of being noticed. In these churches, urgency can lead to quick affirmation.
Paul, however, warned Timothy not to appoint an elder who was “a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). He went on to demand that deacons “first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve” (1 Tim. 3:10).
As missiologist Paul Beals writes in A People for His Name, “The most that an individual can do is express his willingness. Others must determine his worthiness. The individual may be free to go, but only his church knows if he is really fitted to go” (86-87). It is a tremendous grace, then, for a church to first prove its church planting candidates.
Desiring to be a church planting church doesn’t automatically require a benevolent yes.
The Bible is bursting at the seams with instances of God saying “no.” For a general wide swath, consider every Old Testament believer who longed to see what we see, but did not see it (Matt. 13:17). For specific instances, think about Moses dying on the precipice of the Promised Land (Deut. 34:4), David begging to build the temple to no avail (1 Chr. 28:3), Paul pleading for relief from the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor. 12:8-9), and most importantly, Jesus crying out for a way out (Matt. 26:39). God is known for his “no.”
But this is good news! The affliction of “no” often brings things to the surface we didn’t know were there. Saying “no,” “not so fast,” or “not yet,” to church planting candidates may expose the pursuit of things like identity formation, adventure, freedom from the nine to five, resolution to unresolved pain, a fresh start, and recognition. And it’s not that all these urges should be purged before candidates go plant—then they would never go! It’s just that a loving “not yet” can give space for God’s work of sanctification.
In even better news, God is also known for his “yes.” He delights to cultivate and fulfill the desires of his children when his timing is right. As 2 Corinthians 1:20 teaches us, “For all the promises of God find their yes”—not in church planting—but “in [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” He is faithful to help us want him more than we want his “yes.”
Hear that thud? That was the mic.
This article was originally featured at Great Commission Collective.