Lessons learned from Church Planting 3 – the blessing of friendship-partnership

This is the third post in a series reflecting on the lessons learned while planting church.  The previous two were on the blessings of confident humility and the blessing of being clueless.

The benefits of a working pastor

I will always cherish the first 3½ years of planting and pastoring Shofar Pretoria – the time when I was still working as engineer in the Air Force.  It was a busy time for me – I worked during the day, studied post-graduate engineering part time, and also pursued relationship with Magriet whom I later married.  So my ministry in the church was really “part-time”:  leading prayer meetings on Monday evening, teaching in Bible School on Tuesdays, attending small group meetings on Wednesday evenings, regular outreaches or discipleship courses on Saturdays, ending with Sunday services.  The reason why I cherished this memory is for two reasons: firstly I did not get paid to do for a long time; I did it because I loved God and his church.  And secondly this “part-time” ministry inspired everyone in church to value and participate in our times together.  Since I did not “work for the church” everyone “worked in the church” – we all pulled together and shared responsibility.  There was such a joyful, selfless spirit of serving in the church!

Also, the pastor who worked – as everyone else – meant there was no elitism, no class difference between the “spiritual” and the “secular” people.  It made not just “volunteering” and “activities” in church normative – it made every type of ministry in church normative.

So the fact that the pastor worked inspired unreserved partnership in and ownership of the congregation – each pulled their weight joyfully. And this high degree of involvement and service set the tone for a growing, learning church.  There were no passive, stagnant church members – every member was minister.

A warm environment

One of the key characteristics in Shofar Pretoria right from the offset was the warm and authentic relationships.  It usually takes a while to cultivate such an accepting, loving relational environment, but this was true form the offset in the church.

Very early in the church plant I boldly approached six of my very close Air Force engineering friends (who served God and studied with me in Stellenbosch) to help us in the church plant.  One by one they agreed and came in to help with the church plant.

A photo taken during our studies.  here you can see some of the legendary Air Force friends who had such a big influence on teh church plant.  In this photo: myself, Hendrik Redelinghuys, Henno Kriel, Wim van der Merwe, and Corne Smith.   Johan Appelgrein is not on this photo. SG Ferreira, Barry Drotche, Christo Versteeg also joined later.
A photo taken during our studies. here you can see some of the legendary Air Force friends who had such a big influence on teh church plant. In this photo: myself, Hendrik Redelinghuys, Henno Kriel, Wim van der Merwe, and Corne Smith. Johan Appelgrein is not on this photo. SG Ferreira, Barry Drotche, Christo Versteeg also joined later.

Our friendship was cultivated over a period of six years by that time, having gone through Basic Military Training, Officers Course and engineering studies together.  Our friendship was robust and sincere, having been forged in good times and hard times.  By then we really knew each other well and loved each other sincerely.  That meant there was no pretense among us; we were well aware of one another’s strengths and weaknesses and we had the habit of watching out for one another.

So when these young men joined the church they did so exclusively to help build the church – they “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).  When I asked them they were already attending other congregations, but they came over to help build a church in which a friend – whom they knew well, fully aware of all his flaws and mistakes – was pastoring. Their loyalty and devotion to a friend caused them one by one to prayerfully join the church to help build the church.

Another man is worth mentioning here: my brother Conrad van Niekerk.  When we started with services in Pretoria Conrad served as Lieutenant in the Military Medical School in Pretoria.  He was frustrated with his work, not really seeing a future career there, and not in a good space.  He was on the point of leaving for greener fields in the UK when he made a vow to God to put his career and life on hold to serve and help me, his younger brother, to build the church.

I must mention that most of the initial church planting team also knew each other really well from our days in Shofar in Stellenbosch from years together in campus ministry and medium term outreaches.  But when these men joined with their tight working relationships and the sole motive to help build, it added much momentum.

The coming of this “band of brothers” early in the church plant set the tone for the culture in the church: a warm relational culture of loyalty, service, transparency and accountability was formed. From the offset these Christian values were visible and normative in the relationships of the young congregation.  And because they were a relatively large in the beginning the new members who joined the church were disciple in this warm, honest and selfless culture.

In the next post “the blessings of influence” I will reflect on my insights gained as I reflected on how the church grew, and it might challenge some people’s view of church-growth a little.

Advertisements

Lessons learned from church planting 1 – the blessings of confident humility

“Accidental” Church Planters

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them… who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” Acts 11:19-21

This account by Luke is so simple and challenging at the same time: Christians fled Jerusalem due to persecution and suffering after Stephen the first martyr died at the hands of the Jews.  As they fled, they gladly shared their new-found faith with the Jews in every city and town they went through.  But in Antioch these Christians for the first time shared the gospel of Jesus with Greeks, “pagans”, and many believed.  And thus the most influential church in the first century was birthed – the church in which Paul grew into the apostle we know, and the church from where he and Barnabas was sent as missionaries to the gentiles.

So fearful, fleeing, young Christians “accidentally” planted the most influential church in the first century.

This could have been me and you.  Better still – it can be me and you.

When I think about the first church-plant I was involved in, this Scripture comes to mind, because on all accounts we were as clueless as the young Christians mentioned above.  We were young, passionate, inexperienced and without formal theologically education. But like them, we knew Jesus and his Gospel.

The birth of Shofar Pretoria

In 2002 a hand-full of young working Christians who used to be part of Shofar Christian Church in Stellenbosch found themselves in Johannesburg and Pretoria, longing for the vibrant worship, tight-knit fellowship with honest accountability in which the Holy Spirit freely ministered.  After a few months of prayer and a purposeful visits from the leaders in Stellenbosch there was agreement that the Holy Spirit mandated a church plant in Pretoria.

Today, more than thirteen years after the first service in the small, dark Moonbox Theatre in Sunny Side, Shofar Pretoria is a vibrant, multi-generation, missional church that has been key to the salvation, healing and discipleship of hundreds of individuals, as well as the planting of several other congregations in the North of South Africa.

I intend to tell the story in another blogpost, but in the next six posts I wish to share the lessons learned as we planted Shofar Christian Church in Pretoria.

  1. The blessing of confident humility

Nothing will happen without someone taking initiative, without someone person taking the risk.  If a church is going to be planted, somebody, or some group of people, needs to do it.  This requires leadership, and leadership requires belief not just in the necessity and feasibility of the cause, but also in his/ her own ability to facilitate and coordinate the activities required for a life-giving church wherein people will forever be transformed through the powerful working of the Spirit and Word of God.  You need to believe that your mortal activities will lead to the eternal, salvivic consequences of yourself and others.  The proverb is true: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7).

For me that shift to what I call “confident humility” happened when I was a student.  I was studying for another re-write of some notoriously difficult engineering subject.  On a coffee break, walking back to the study hall contemplated the quote there is a God, and I am not him!” [see the inbedded clip below].  In that moment this truth settled in my heart and gave me such a freedom from the pressure of “making something happen” and delivered me from of the fear of failure!  God exists – so not everything depends on my effort.  Yet at the same time, this God lives in me and works through me.

In that moment a song was planted in my heart:

“I know who am I, and who I am not…

I know my Redeemer – the Almighty God

His Spirit will guide me in all of my days

Lord Jesus – it’s you that I praise!”

Confidence grounded in God – his omnipotent power, faithful and benevolent character.  Humility founded in my limited abilities, dependability on God’s providence, always with a sober awareness of my fallibility.  So liberating!

“I said you are the leader”

During my student years in Shofar Stellenbosch we had plenty of opportunities to grow into responsibility, allowing for character and skills development though ministry opportunities such as campus outreaches, small group leading, personal ministry facilitation such as emotional healing and deliverance, leading prayer meetings, and short term mission outreaches.  All with oversight and coaching – each opportunity allowing for discipleship growth in a safe environment.  In preparation of one of those summer mission trips myself and a friend Antoinette Woods (nee Bosch) were assigned to lead the 6-week GO!SA evangelism and ministry tour around the borders of South Africa.  Upon hearing the news I was struck with the paralyzing feeling of utter incompetence, much like Gideon of old (Judges 6:14-15).  While spilling my feelings to God in my room I remember the Lord clearly saying “Read Genesis 1”.  As I read aloud I came to verse three and heard the Lord say to me “I said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. Now I say to you “You are the leader!” and that you are!”  God assigns and creates capacity and provides grace with the appointment.  That day something shifted in my heart – eradicating fear and insecurity pertaining to leadership and ministry.  I was young and inexperienced, but I knew that when God sets one aside for leadership or another assignment, he provides grace to complete the task.  You are never left to you yourself – His grace is sufficient for all he calls you to.

angry-bear-standing

“The Lion and the Bear”

So when the principle pastor of Shofar Christian Church, Fred May, asked me in 2002 if I would lead the church plant in Pretoria I felt like David who said to King Saul before facing Goliath Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:36).  I had a reference for God’s grace at work in spite of my human inadequacies.  I have gained confidence in seeing what I have accomplished, and grown in humility as I have come to know “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Confidence in the face of opposition

After the commissioning in Cape Town I returned to the prayer group in Pretoria and announced that I have been commissioned to lead the church plant.  The news was met with mixed feelings, and some of the older members of the group resisted and outright rejected the decision, saying “you are too young” or “you have not been in the church long enough”.  Some left the church plant initiative during that time.  Amazingly, those conflicting moments and combative statements did not shake my heart the least, although I knew that the statements were true – I was young, I had limited experience in ministry, I studied engineering and not theology.

Yet, I knew what God had said to me previously.  I knew I was not perfect, I was not God – but I knew God, and I knew he is for me and with me.  I knew I was called to plant the church, and I knew that it did not all depend on me – I knew the “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Today, after more than thirteen years the church in Pretoria is still flourishing and growing at the hands of Phillip Boshoff and the team.  Truly I can witness that God gives grace to the humble, and that those who know their God will accomplish great things. So let your faith be in God, not your expertise, experience or effort. After all,

“Unless the Lord does not build the House, those who labor, labor in vain.”  (Psalm 127:1)

In the next post we will consider the second lesson I learned – The blessing of being clueless.

Suffering, our good tutor

Writing this article, I am sitting in front of a casket of a faithful Christian minister who passed away un-expectantly, almost pre-maturely.  I am early for the funeral, and my heart is heavy for his children whom I know well.  Death brings grief, and the added shock of unexpected passing of a loved one leaves a sense of abandonment, and greater loss since there was no opportunity to say farewell.  Even more so if there was no time to reconcile hearts.  Furthermore, my mind and prayers keep going back to friends of ours who’s four-month old baby is in ICU again after heart surgery.  Things like these wear you down.

We suffer in many ways.  My wife and I have a list of people we pray for daily: beautiful single friends who long for a suitable mate to share life with, who suffer through loneliness and also some couples who long for a baby of their own to fill their arms.  I think of people in church who have been frustrated in the area of work, purpose and finances for quite some time – they wait, work and pray for some break-through.  There is the lady who has been battling leukemia for three years.  The friend who has been involved in a custody case for his son (who is in a very bad situation) for three years, but the case keeps on dragging out.  And yesterday I received a text message from a friend who let me know that her nanny and “second mother” to her three children has passed away after a serious heart attack; there will be tears in their house today.  No one escapes suffering. No amount of faith, no degree of devotion to God exempts us from suffering.

Over the past two decades much has been written on the detrimental effects of suffering, pain and trauma on the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of a person.  Recently however, studies have been done on what is called “post-traumatic growth” or the positive growth effects of suffering, including gaining inner strength (resilience), become more appreciative of everyday things, growth in compassion and capacity for intimacy.  These findings do not surprise us since many of us can refer to some trying time in our lives as the turning point for positive personal or relational development.  Suffering is indeed a good school master.

The Bible has much to say on suffering and our approach to it.  Although God is not the author or origin of suffering the Bible teaches that God turns any situation for the good for his children (Romans 8:28-29) and that therefore one should approach suffering as an opportunity for God to complete a redemptive work in you or through it (see James 1:3-4; compare Hebrews 2:9-10).  In this article we will look at what the Bible says we benefit or learn from suffering.

(1) Allow suffering to tests your foundation

Charles H. Spurgeon wrote that “trials teach is what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.”  We have all found this to be true: in trying times our character and relationships show itself for what it is; suffering is a good test of our true selves.  This is what the author of Hebrews also write to a church undergoing mounting persecution: “Yet once more I will not only shake the earth, but also the heavens.” [This] signifies the removing of those things that are shaken… so that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.” (Hebrews 12:27-28) Trying times tend to differentiate between that which is firm and stable in us (beliefs and character traits), and that which is not, and also to show that which has lasting value and that which is of temporal nature.

Jesus taught two parables that relate to this:  In the one he used the metaphor of two men who built houses – one on solid bedrock and another on unstable sand; when the same storm hit the two homes, one collapsed and the other stood through it.  The storm simply revealed the strength of the foundations (see Matthew 7:24-25); without the storm this could not be known.  A second parable is on the Sower and his seed which fell on various terrains and some germinated and sprung up.  However, when the sun comes up the seedlings in the shallow soil perish because “they have no root… in a time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:13). The sun, representing a time of testing, simply reveals that these seedlings have no roots to sustain them; without the testing of the sun this could not be known.  It is a redemptive time of testing.

In a similar manner Moses also wrote of the suffering as a test, summarizing the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering of the Hebrews firstly as a test, “to know what is in [their] heart” whether they will obey God or not (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).  Whatever the cause of suffering, it brings with it a test of our faith, our character, and our relationships (1 Peter 4:12).  Suffering, like any good tutor, helps us see ourselves for who we are, and shows us what areas we need to work on next.

(2) Suffering reminds us we need God

Apart from suffering bringing a test, Moses also stated the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering was “to humble you.”  God kept the Hebrews in the wilderness for forty years, feeding them manna daily, to teach them that although they enter a fertile, rich land, they will always be dependent on His provision.  They ought to remember the LORD… for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18).  Their suffering was a way to teach them that they need God daily.

The apostle Paul personally experienced suffering as a tutor in humility, testifying that “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan harassing [him], to keep [him] from becoming conceited [or proud]” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).  Although Paul begged God to deliver him from this suffering, the Lord simply said to endure it with the strength he provides.  In our suffering we learn that we are always dependent on God.

Another powerful example of this lesson from suffering is the account of the mighty emperor Nebuchadnezzar, who admired his great empire and ascribed the vast advancement of his empire to his own hand.  At that moment, a voice from heaven rebuked him and his mental capacity was removed from him and he lived among the wild animals for a time, until he acknowledged the hand and provision from God in all his success; only then he was re-instated as emperor.  His suffering taught him his dependence on God.

(3) Suffering helps us grow in intimacy with God (and others)

Suffering creates opportunity to know God in a depth and sincerity that we have not known before.  In my twelve years of pastoral ministry I have heard countless times that people say during (and after) their most difficult times in their lives “I have grown closer to God.”  Suffering allows one to re-evaluate what you believe, and also creates a desperation to get answers from God as Job did. That desperation in turn helps us cast away all pretense and diplomacy so that we can approach God in all earnestness and “rawness”.  Job received a reply from God he never anticipated, and said “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).  Suffering allows us to get to know God as never before, and to grown in intimacy with him.

In addition to growing in intimacy with God, suffering allows us to grow in sincerity and vulnerability with those around us as our brokenness, weakness and needs cannot be hidden behind facades.  This creates the capacity and the reality for deeper, more honest and intimate relationships of those around us.  Even when the tough times pass, these relationships remain deep and strong because of the shared experience of suffering.

(4) Suffering helps us grow in Godly character

Like a baby who must learn to sleep alone or to soothe himself, casting aside the pacifier, growth is often associated with discomfort and suffering.  Suffering is not pleasant, but we learn from it and we are changed through it.  Suffering not only shows our weaknesses and strength (as mentioned in the first point), but it creates a good opportunity to realign our values, adjust our thinking and rethink our responses to situations – allowing for behavioral changes and ultimately character growth.  Suffering thus helps us to grow up, and therefore we should rejoice in it (Romans 5:3-4).  Do not shy away from difficulty but allow it complete its perfect work in us (James 1:2-4) by letting us grow up in the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29).

(5) Suffering teaches us resistance to temptation

Suffering teaches us resistance to temptations – that’s why we have public penal systems such as traffic fines and imprisonment, and why we have similar systems in schools and in our homes.  Suffering in its very nature helps to builds a resistance against the seduction of sin: Peter wrote to a church undergoing severe persecution that he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” and no longer lives with fleshly cravings, but submitted to the will of God (1 Peter 4:1).  That is the reason why we chastise our children, with the aim that the undesirable behavior will seem no longer desirable.

This metaphor of suffering as chastisement is common in Scripture.  About 750 BC Isaiah the prophet wrote of the oppressive Assyrian Empire as “the rod of [God’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5) – thus Israel’s suffering was God’s discipline to deliver the nation from the destructive, sinful habits, notably injustice to the poor and idolatry.  In the same manner, about 800 years later, the author of the letter to the Hebrews referred to the Roman persecution of those congregations as God’s loving chastisement (Hebrews 12:5-7) – to deliver them from the seduction of turning from Christ as the only Mediator and Savior in the light of severe suffering.

Many of us learned our own lessons through tough times brought about by our own bad decisions.

(6) Suffering gives us eternal perspective

Paul Alexander was my instructor during my theological studies.  In their book A Certain Life Paul and his wife Carol write of their darkest night when their son Jason collided with a truck and was battling death for more than a month in ICU (chapters 16-17).  They write that one of the outcomes of this ordeal for them as a family is that they have a renewed perspective – they are no longer thrown by petty things nor drawn in by temporal comforts or worldly pursuits. Their brush with death have taught them that life is short and relationships are precious, and now they make each moment count for eternity. With the apostle Paul, imprisoned and faced with death after years of suffering, they can say “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Elsewhere, Paul reflected om his suffering, comparing it with eternal rewards: “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”  (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

The English poet Samuel Johnson said “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”  A morbid thought, but it is indeed true that suffering like the threat of death, has the ability to focus the mind on what is important, on that which has value in eternity.  Because of his suffering, Paul did not fear death nor waste time; he had an eternal perspective which translated in making the most out of every opportunity (Acts 20:24).  Suffering does the same for us.

(7) Suffering creates capacity for empathy and compassion

I had an exceptional mathematics lecturer during my first two years at university. Mrs Roux classes were always full due to students preferring her lectures above other more qualified professors teaching the same modules.  What made her an exceptional teacher – in her own confession – was that she struggled to understand mathematics in her student days and had to wrestle with the abstract models and concepts.  She admitted she was not as smart as the other lecturers who seemed to intuitively grasp these abstract concepts, but she had to work hard to really understand the work.  This gave her the edge over the other teachers since she herself understood what it was to struggle in mastering the coursework, and therefore patience to help those who wrestled with the work.

Furthermore Mrs Roux had sincere compassion for her students: I recall one day receiving a phone call as I prepared for a rewrite, wondering how I was doing – she called from a hospital bed recovering from an operation.  Her own struggle with mathematics made her an exceptionally supportive lecturer.

Suffering does that for us – it creates in us a capacity for empathy and even compassion, as Paul writes to the suffering church in Corinth “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).  Even Christ himself was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10-11) and therefore can sympathize with us in our weaknesses during trials (Hebrews 4:15-16).  Therefore we can approach him confidently, knowing Jesus has compassion for our circumstance.

In conclusion, looking at the mourners around me who gather around their deceased spouse, father, grandfather, minister and friend, I am reminded yet again that none of us escape suffering.  But suffering has the potential to be our tutor towards godliness.  So allow suffering to have its perfect way in us, don’t let these opportunities go wasted on self-pity or escapism.  Rather, let it reveal our true selves, remind us of our need for God, grow us into intimacy and Christ-like character, even as Jesus himself was perfected by it.  Let it deliver us from our sinful natures and create in us a capacity to show compassion and have empathy with those suffering like us.  Let us in our direst moments pray as our Lord did “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.”  (Matthew 26:42)