By Amy Rainey
COLUMBIA, Md.—“God’s calling us to do what?” That was my response the evening that my husband shared his desire to plant a church in our hometown. We had been living in Kentucky for four years,serving a sweet little church for three of those years, and becoming quite comfortable in that role. And yet, he was telling me that it was time to move on. It wasn’t so much the call to plant a church that threw me for a loop; it was the location.
“Really? Back home? Do you know how many churches there are in South Carolina? Why on earth would God call us to start a church where so many already exist?”
For the rest of the evening we discussed the most recent demographic data from our home state. Joel had discovered that more than half of the residents were classified as unchurched, right in the buckle of the Bible belt. Many there had become so familiar with the Gospel that they had become immune to its message. Everyone was a “Baptist,” but there was a minority of believers. We knew that church planting was the most effective mode of evangelism that God has provided. And, whether it sounded crazy or not, God had called us to go.
We uprooted our small family and set out for our hometown. Our first Bible study took place in our living room and consisted of my husband, me and three other people. Our home was the church office, our meeting space, a counseling center, a mailroom, and a fellowship center for the next year. The following months consisted of one long roller-coaster ride of joys and disappointments.
Satan attacked us, and the people who came alongside us, relentlessly. He attacked our marriages, our finances, our peace, our contentment and our faith. He did all that he could to derail us and cause us to lose our focus. But, this was nothing new; he has always been active where the church was working together to push back darkness. Those battles were hard-fought, but as I consider how far many of those who fought Satan with us have come, I can see that the battles have been won.
There was the stripper who came to us with her boyfriend, carrying another man’s baby. Today, she is a mother of two, faithfully serving God alongside that boyfriend who is now her husband. There was the shiftless 19-year old boy, living in his Mom’s basement and playing video games rather than working and being the man that God was calling him to be. Men in our church stepped up to teach him the things that his absent father should have taught him. He’s now a college graduate with a job, a home of his own and a wife. There were the young couples exploring God’s purpose for their futures, who now serve him faithfully as husband and wife in different parts of the country. We saw families healed, ungodly relationships ended, individuals freed from self-destructive lifestyles and people gloriously saved.
We learned that the birth of a church is like the birth of a child in many ways. There was labor, difficult and at times even painful; similarly church planting was, without a doubt, the hardest thing that God has ever called us to do. However, being a participant in events that affected the gathering of a new covenant community and seeing people on their knees worshipping Jesus for the first time made all of the struggles fade in significance.
We made so many mistakes. And, I am so very thankful for the way that God used those mistakes for His greater glory. It was clear that those changed lives were a result of His power, and had nothing to do with our efforts. God used our weaknesses and failures as an opportunity to “show off.” We could have asked for no greater result.
He taught us so much during those years, some things that I’m just now beginning to understand. He taught us that it was His church, not ours. He taught us that ministry in the trenches is messy, people’s lives are messy, and that He is the only solution. He also taught us to:
1. Expect the Unexpected. Every time we thought we knew what God was up to, He would surprise us. We were told that we could only reach families with young children, because that was “who we were.” God, though, brought us an eclectic mix of people, more than half of whom were college students. We had gothic teens, grandmas, and almost everyone in between. Guess whom we did not have? Families with young children!
2. Wait and See What God Will Do. More than once we were tempted to go into debt personally for the plant. At one point we were using a borrowed sound system that could best be described as an antique. We literally prayed each week that it would turn on when we flipped the switch. We needed $2,500 to replace it with a modest system. My husband finally gave the go ahead to put it on a credit card. While we were away on vacation the next Sunday, a one-time visitor dropped a check in the offering plate for exactly $2,500. We learned to wait and see how God would choose to provide for our needs.
3. Measure Ministry by Lives Changed. The church that we started eventually merged with another and adjusted its focus and core values accordingly. Most of the people that served alongside us in the beginning scattered to all points of the compass. Little of what we began years ago can still be seen in the church today. This once bothered me because I defined it as a failure. Then God began giving us glimpses into the changed lives of those scattered people. God is using them all over the eastern half of the United States. Many of them met Jesus or found their calling while we were laboring together in the birth of that church. What if He had never scattered them? The church we planted might look very different now, but how many lives would have remained unchanged by the Gospel?
On paper, what was accomplished during that time may not look too impressive. Fortunately, God does not call us to be responsible for the results; those are His department. Our calling is to be faithful in what He’s asked us to do. There is freedom in resting the results firmly in His hands. Isaiah 55:9 says it best, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” He knows what He’s doing. The amazing part is that He allows us to participate if we are willing.
Amy Rainey is the wife of the Associational Director of Missions/Church Starter Strategist for Mid-Maryland Baptist Association and part of a former church planting family. She can be reached by email at Preacherswife76@juno.com or by phone at (410) 489-7018.