Church Planting: Our Will and the Lord’s Will

by Sean Nolan March 21, 2022

My favorite episode of The Office is—without contest—“Scott’s Tots.” It’s a true test of whether or not you can endure awkward comedy. For the unfamiliar (and brave), the premise is set when Michael is caught unawares in the net of his own making when the time has come for him to make good on a ten-year-old promise to pay for college for an entire class of local, underprivileged students.

The most memorable line comes when he sheepishly confesses to his foolish and reckless ambition: 

“I’m not a millionaire. I thought I would be by the time I was thirty…but I wasn’t even close. And then I thought, maybe by the time I was forty…but by forty I had less money than when I was thirty.”

I laugh. I cry. I cringe…because in my more honest moments, I too, have had similarly foolish optimistic ambition about my future achievements. If you’re thinking about planting a church (or have already started the process), I bet you have too.

The Temple of Man

Psalm 132 is the longest of the Psalms of Ascent. In it’s first half we’re reminded of David’s zeal to build a dwelling place for the Lord:

…how he swore an oath to the Lord,
making a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:

“I will not enter my house
or get into my bed,

I will not allow my eyes to sleep
or my eyelids to slumber

until I find a place for the Lord,
a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Ps. 132:2-5)

You’ve been called. You’ve done your research. You’ve seen the gospel void that exists in your city and you know God has prepared you to help fill it. In your zeal, however, don’t lose track of the one who has promised to build his church.

You might spend a night or two forsaking sleep to pursue prayer. You earnestly ask God to make a dwelling amongst those in your city. Just make sure to echo Jesus’ prayer that “his will be done, and his kingdom come.” That might mean that the interior walls of that dwelling get painted a different color than the vision you started with. That’s a lesson David had to learn.

There’s a subtle danger in making vows to God that creeps in. In our sacrificing for the Lord, a holy entitlement can catch us in its snare. We would never come out and say, “Lord you owe me for the lost sleep and the time invested in this mission,” but we might let a low grade disappointment settle in when we don’t get results in our timeline. One of the earliest lessons of faith that much of the Christian life is waiting on the Lord applies to church planting as well.

It is, after all, not David writing this Psalm. Instead, his son, Solomon, reflects on the dream that was fulfilled not by David, but by his progeny. Despite all of David’s zeal he had to learn the hard, hard lesson of delayed gratification. In our zeal it’s easy to assume that our plans are the Lord’s plans, but be assured that even the best laid plans of man may not be in the timeline God has in mind (Prov. 19:21).

The Calling and the Timeline

Of the many things I’ve learned from Ed Marcelle, one that rings in my head often is that “a calling doesn’t come with a timeline.” That’s the sort of sober encouragement a church planter needs. God’s calling you to plant a church, right? In your zeal, remember that Jesus spent thirty years in obscurity before starting his ministry (and he was God). Don’t be in such a rush to fulfill your calling that you forget the life of the one who called you.

What if in God’s sovereignty the church you plant plateaus at a healthy 100 people? Maybe the Lord has ordained that you would pour out your life shaping and pouring into someone who will succeed you, and under that guy’s shepherding, a revival breaks out, transforming your city. All after, you’re dead and buried. Would you be content with that?

The timeline for David’s life was that he’d be the father of the one who would build the temple he dreamed about. Those hardships he endured wouldn’t be for naught (Ps. 132:1), but he wouldn’t reap their benefits—his son would. Don’t get tunnel vision on building something great for the Lord and miss out on what he wants to build in and through you.

The Temple of the Lord

The second half of Psalm 132 is truly remarkable. When we pour out our heart’s desires to God in prayer, he responds not necessarily with what we ask for but with what will bring him the most glory and us true good. In verse eleven God responds to David’s oath with a vow of his own:

“I will set one of your offspring
on your throne.”

As if he is saying, “I see your desire to enclose me in a home, and I raise you an enthroned son of your own.” And what follows are promises every pastor should personalize and pray for his own city: that God would desire it as his own (v. 14), eliminate hunger and poverty (v. 15), replace sadness with joy (v. 16), and save us from our sins (v. 16).

The journey of faith (and of church planting) requires endurance and a humility that brings lofty plans to the Lord. But we have to bring them to him with open hands and ask that he take them and shape them according to his will. God has promised us wonderful things, and we might think we have a vision for how we’ll get there, but he’s going to surprise us.

In many ways, we’re like impatient children on a long car ride asking, “Are we there yet?” The Father has promised paradise, the Son has purchased the ticket, and the Spirit has promised to guide us in the journey. But we are intent on taking the steering wheel and confident we know the way.  Psalm 132 reminds us, we don’t. But he does, and we can enjoy the scenic route.

May God increase your zeal, but with it, patience, endurance, humility. Above all, rejoice that even if your best laid plans for the Lord fail, Jesus saw you—once his enemy—and endured the cross to call you his own. Our plan may fail, but his plan to redeem and renew us hasn’t. He was clothed with shame ( Ps. 132:18) so that we could be clothed with righteousness (PS. 132:9). You’ll make countless sacrifices for the advancement of the Kingdom, but the most important sacrifice was already made.

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