The Reality of the Warfare
When I began the process of applying with the SBC to plant a church in Syracuse, NY the topic of spiritual warfare came up. I was told that spiritual warfare in church planting is intense and that our greatest need is a network of prayer warriors. Other church planters told me of the intensity of the battle and the need for much prayer. Darrin Patrick, pastor and author, spoke at a conference I attended and mentioned the spiritual warfare that they have seen in the Acts 29 movement. Some of that warfare included the suicides of church planters and moral failures. In spite of this good advice, I don't think I was ready for the scale of the battle. Having been involved in full time street evangelism since 2005 and pastoral ministry since 1992, I thought I had seen it all. We had been through some serious spiritual warfare as a family and I did not think it could be much worse. I was a fool.
In June of this year we were finishing up a busy season of outreach and equipping ministry in the church plant. We had held back to back to back seminars on witnessing to Roman Catholics, atheists and a seminar on open-air preaching. We even hosted a successful debate between an atheist and an apologist from Canada. The church was growing numerically and spiritually and the gospel was going out in many formats. We were doing evangelism at least three to four times per week at venues throughout the city.
At that time several things all happened at once. My wisdom teeth became impacted and needed to be removed quickly. During the seminar on open-air preaching I took Advil like it was candy and finally had two wisdom teeth and a molar pulled. At the same time, my mother, who was diagnosed manic depressive 35 years ago, began a spell that ended with her being hospitalized in August. The day she was hospitalized, we took my mother-in-law to her doctor in New York City to get an update on her stage three melanoma and discovered that she only has a few months to live. (Praise God, as I am writing this my mother is being released from the hospital after five weeks of treatment. However, my mother-in-law is getting much worse and will probably pass away within the next week or two.) The same time we found these things out, a dear friend announced publicly that he was renouncing the faith and converting to Catholicism.
Our son who has a severe wheat allergy has been reacting to something else; probably an earlier allergy that has been hiding and is now coming back. He is awake at night covered in sores much like Job must have been; our son would probably gladly scrape his sores with broken pottery. Before we moved here he had shown great improvement. He's six years old and this trial in his life has matured him greatly. But at times it is nearly intolerable. The doctor says that it is like having a giant mosquito bite on your body and you can do nothing else but itch it. He's come close to having several infections because of this. It's getting under control as of today, but it has been a trial.
What is the Cause?
Why is church planting so intense? I believe that satan comes
against church planting more than other forms of ministry because the
local church is the only organization that has Jesus Christ at the Head
of it. Jesus promised the church that the gates of Hell would not
prevail against it! Those words represent a distinct threat to the
kingdom of darkness.
It's more intense than parachurch
ministry because the effort to plant a church results in more long term
evangelism and Kingdom (of God) building than the individual efforts of
believers who are not working to build the local church. The church is
built to duplicate itself whereas parachurch ministries usually die out
after the first couple of generations of leadership pass away. satan will come against godly parachurch ministries, but in my experience, the battle is not as intense.
Keep in mind that the devil is God's devil, as Martin Luther once said. As Job graphically illustrates, God has him on a short leash. If God allows his fiery darts to pass through our armor, it is for a reason. It is for our growth. Part of the battle is learning how to accept the warfare as a gift from God for our maturity. I am still learning how to do this.
The difficulties we have faced have combined at times to drive me to the edge of despair. I feel the need for fellow elders who can help shoulder the load but we are not ready for that yet. As a result, I have teetered on the precipice of depression. By God's grace I have not fallen into it. Several things have helped greatly and I share them here:
1. The Word of God. Expository preaching through the Book of Mark has renewed my confidence in: a) our gracious Lord who heals people with a word, with a touch, and in love. b) The supremacy of Jesus over the storms (Mark 4). He is God and He is reliable. c) The importance of truth. As I study the Word each week it is food for my soul. The Word has been a source of comfort and I am reminded daily of absolute truth that does not change even though my circumstances change daily.
2. The Church. The one highlight this summer has been the local church. People have prayed for us in our trials. The church is growing numerically and spiritually and it is this growth that has been the one bright spot in our lives. We are preparing for our first baptism and we should have five or six who are being baptized, Lord willing. Watching the people of God grow in deeper knowledge and application of His Word is such a joy.
3. Prayer. We met one night last month for an all night prayer meeting. This will become a monthly practice. We already meet frequently with those in the church who are stirred to pray, in addition to our weekly prayer meeting. I find my times of prayer to be meaningful, but I have to make time for it to happen. I am too willing to withdraw from God when I am wounded.
4. Family. In July and August I did something it seems few pastors are willing to do: take a vacation. I get two weeks of vacation and this year I took both. I usually take all of the vacation I can get because I am not the head of the church. Jesus is. He can do a better job than I with His church. The time with my family--climbing mountains, paddling canoes, fishing, eating ice cream, and swimming in the pool--is therapeutic. Praying together and reading the Word and good books together have helped immensely. My kids need it too. They need to know that their dad loves them in the midst of the turmoil they are in.
5. Repentance. Whenever trials come it is a time to look inward and see where I have fallen short. I have to at least consider whether or not the trials are intended as discipline from my loving Heavenly Father. The Word, prayer and local church involvement all force me to look inward and see where I need to repent. A couple of weeks ago I made the decision to quit Facebook because it was more of a tool for vain self promotion than it was a ministry. It was also a time waster. This and other issues have been repented of and I am beginning to feel fresh power in preaching and living life. We always need to repent.
6. Accountability. I am blessed to have a mentor that I speak with once a week on the phone. Other close friends have called to check on me. I am accountable to the North American Mission Board and my supervisor there has been a wonderful support. We all need people to challenge us directly and indirectly. I have gotten both from these sources in recent months.
7. Exercise. Being active helps so much. This has been well documented in the field of psychology. Physical exercise helps battle depression. It also helps me spiritually because I do some of my best praying when I am walking or hiking. The physical exertion helps work out stress. When I skimp on exercise, I can feel the difference physically. There is a physical aspect to depression.
8. The Lord Himself. All of these things are tools that God uses to carry us through. However, if they become ends in themselves and not tools underneath the over-arching, all encompassing Person of Jesus we miss the point. Eternal life is to know Him! Anything the Lord can do to draw us closer to Himself He will do. Whether you want to call it spiritual warfare or circumstances in life or some combination thereof, call it what you want. He will orchestrate our lives to draw us to Him. It is a sign that we are truly His.
I hope my experience can be a blessing to someone else. Please pray for me as I struggle to learn these lessons well.