I Was a Successful Church Planter and it Almost Ruined Me
Our church plant story is about as unusual as it gets. We experienced the kind of ‘success’ that every church planter dreams of. In a nutshell: My wife and I, as twenty-somethings with two small kids, got on an airplane to fly from Johannesburg to Singapore to plant Redemption Hill Church. We essentially “parachuted” into a new city.
We landed on the 3rd September 2008. I needed to find a job to qualify for a visa to stay in Singapore and to pay the bills, as our support consisted of six months of our South African salary from our sending church in Johannesburg. On the 15th September, less than 2 weeks after we landed, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world plummeted into the financial crisis. The value of our support decreased by 20% overnight, and work wasn’t easy to come by.
We didn’t have a core group, or know people in the city. One couple from our church in South Africa said they’d come to help us later on in the year. We met another couple on the airplane who said they’d join our mission. Four weeks after landing in our newly adopted country we started a bible study. Seven weeks later, on the 30th November we started our first Sunday worship service, knowing that five adults and two kids would be in attendance. Ten months later we were forced to do two morning services in our 120 seater space because we couldn’t fit everyone in.
Looking back, it’s amusing to me that what scared me most about church planting was how to gather people. I had felt called to pastoral ministry, and believed that if I had a decent core of people I could lead and grow that group into a church. But parachute planting in a new country without a core group exposed all my fears. What gave me the confidence to move ahead and plant?
One morning I was reading through Romans 1 in my devotions. As I came upon verses 16–17 I felt an overwhelming sense of confidence in God. He promised to save people through the preaching of the gospel! Therefore, whether or not we had a core team, if I was faithful to preach the gospel, he would save, and gather. That verse literally gave me the confidence to move my family overseas and plant a church without a core team. Little did I know how much that verse would mean to me as the years unfolded.
He promised to save people through the preaching of the gospel! Therefore, whether or not we had a core team, if I was faithful to preach the gospel, he would save, and gather. Little did I know how much that verse would mean to me as the years unfolded.
The experience of early success in our church plant was intoxicating. They were amazing days. People were coming to faith, many were coming alive in their faith, and people of faith were moving into our city and joining our church plant. All the challenges that I had expected were non issues. We had tons of people. We were able to pay our church bills after one month, and not rely on any external funding for the church. We had music teams and support around us with the most amazing people who came together. Everything I thought I would need faith in God for just fell into place. But, contrary to what I thought, my need for faith in God did not come to an end.
The faith that we are called to is not a once off belief in God, but rather a constant trusting in His person, work and promises. As Paul says, the righteous shall “live” by faith. This is not something that is “accomplished,” but an ongoing trust in God. And though the challenges that I feared the most didn’t materialize (lack of finances, absence of people, etc) there were many other challenges lurking below the surface that I needed robust faith for. And more times than not, my faith failed.
By failing to trust Jesus as the builder of his church, I put greater confidence in my hard work than in his promises. As our “success” grew, so did my self-reliance. My sinful heart, whilst intellectually attributing the growth of the church to God’s grace and kindness, secretly believed that I was fundamental to what was happening at RHC. That meant I had to keep performing to keep up the momentum. And so I took the full weight of and responsibility for the church onto my shoulders. I learned the skills of delegation and built an amazing team, but the heart issues of self-reliance were still there, which bore terrible fruit in my personal life.
The point here is that whilst many of the ministry challenges that church planters assume they will need to trust God for were not major challenges in our story, we still needed true faith in Christ. And through success, my faith was revealed to be weak and frail. God was gracious, but that grace involved allowing me to see how my self-reliance was ultimately destructive to myself, the church and my family. God would patiently lead me back to himself, so that I could live by faith in His good news.
“You’re not the same anymore” my mother said. “You don’t seem to be having as much fun, and I seldom see you laugh and joke around as you used to. When you lived in South Africa I would never have said you were an introvert, but you increasingly seem to be now”. These comments from my mother five years into our successful church plant were a real warning to me. What had happened? Who had I become?
My church plant success didn’t preclude me from needing to walk by faith. And when my faith faltered, I resorted to self-reliance which proved to be highly destructive. Self-reliance is a cancerous presence that eats its own host as it struggles for survival. We ‘dig deep’ to do what needs to be done. It’s a socially acceptable sin, and often encouraged in church planters because it masquerades as faithfulness, diligence, and hard work. These qualities are all commendable. But beneath these external actions could well be a denial of the Fatherly care of God, and a disbelief in Jesus’ promise that He will build His church.
In my quickly growing church (where I had virtually no personal history with anyone), my lack of faith in God led me to take ultimate responsibility for the church, rather than trusting Jesus to build it. This cancerous fruit of self-reliance grew quickly, and could be categorized roughly into three areas.
1) From a personal point of view, I comfort ate, gaining about 15 kgs over 3 years. My prayer life dried up. I was physically exhausted. I became more and more focused and task oriented, and more and more withdrawn into myself. This was part self-preservation and part selfishness. I felt I was giving so much to so many people that when I had down time I needed to be alone to recharge. But absent a vibrant faith in Christ this withdrawal didn’t recharge me, it just allowed me to temporarily escape.
2) From a family point of view, I found that it was harder to be vulnerable with people close to me. With people at church I was happy to share openly, take feedback and criticism, but with those that were closest to me (family in particular) I started to wall myself off. Instead of feeling like family was a safe place where I could open myself up and feel loved for who I was, I mistakenly saw it as another sphere where expectations were placed on me. Rather than risk disappointing them I became less vulnerable with them. In addition, because I was carrying such a big load at church I became frustrated with and critical towards my wife when I felt she wasn’t helping enough. As you can imagine, this didn’t bear good fruit in our marriage!
I became frustrated with and critical towards my wife when I felt she wasn’t helping enough. As you can imagine, this didn’t bear good fruit in our marriage!
3) From a ministry point of view, my own sense of needing to carry ultimate responsibility for the church subtly introduced elements in our church culture contrary to the message of God’s grace being preached every Sunday. The early warning signs of a culture where our own strength was more valued than the confession of our need and dependence upon God Himself began to show. My hard work put pressure on others to give as much time and care as I was giving. Just as this was not sustainable for me, it wasn’t for them. The irony of this was that the biggest value we had as a church was being gospel centered! God’s grace was being proclaimed every week in all our gatherings, services and sermons, yet elements in how we operated subtly undermined this.
The irony of this was that the biggest value we had as a church was being gospel centered! God’s grace was being proclaimed every week in all our gatherings, services and sermons, yet elements in how we operated subtly undermined this.
How would living by faith have countered this? Faith would have seen Jesus as the one who builds his church, and given rest for my soul. I would have been liberated from the delusion that the success of RHC depended upon my being on top of every detail in the church. I would have been able to take a weekly Sabbath, knowing that the true spiritual growth in my life and in church could only come from abiding in Jesus. I would have been able to offload my troubles to Jesus in prayer rather than comfort eating. My times of rest would have been refreshing for my weary soul in Christ who strengthens me with his grace rather than a temporarily escape. I would have believed that Jesus would use me through my weaknesses, rather than my strengths. This in turn would have allowed me to open up and be far more vulnerable with my family, and with the church. All of this together, would have displayed the strength and beauty of God’s grace in Christ, rather than the pseudo strength of Simon the church planter.
God, my gracious Father, wanted to save me from myself. I needed to re-receive His good news, and live by faith in Him again (Rom 1.16–17).
My “successful” church plant helped me understand that living by faith in Jesus on a day to day basis is the only way for Christians to live, whether you have just become a believer or moved across the world to plant a church in another culture. The supposed “success” of our church plant didn’t preclude me from this.
As a pastor who regularly counseled others, I was able to recognize some of the patterns that were emerging in my life, and realized I needed to entrust the church to Jesus in a greater way. There was however, one particular issue which emerged that I couldn’t solve or figure out by myself. As my wife, Tarryn, and I spoke about how we were doing in our marriage, I recognized that I wasn’t able to really open up with her and share how much I was struggling. Every time we spoke it was as though there was a wave of emotion that I wanted to allow to crash onto the shore of our conversation, but somehow, despite my desire to share how I was doing with her, I just couldn’t.
Recognizing this, along with comments my parents had made to me, helped me see that I was really struggling to be vulnerable with those closest to me. This only exacerbated the problems I was already facing, as it effectively cut me off from getting the support I needed from those in the best position to help. The strange thing was that I was often able to share my weaknesses and sins with others in the church, and so I wondered why it was particularly in the relationships closest to me that I struggled.
The previous year some of our elders had connected with the Redeemer Counseling Center in New York (a sister ministry of Redeemer City to City). One of the counselors there began training us in how to use the gospel in counseling, and I volunteered to be used as an example! The counselor then proceeded to ask me four or five questions about myself, Tarryn, our families, and then began to share what she felt some of the dynamics of our relationship could be. I just sat there gobsmacked — she read me like a book!
Our church subsequently invited her to come to Singapore to do a seminar on counseling in the life of the church, and on Tarryn’s suggestion, I asked to meet with her as well.
One afternoon during her visit, we walked over to a Starbucks to chat. I expected that our conversation would involve me sharing what I was struggling with, and her giving me one or two keys that would help me apply the gospel to my heart. As we sat down she started asking me some questions, and what felt like a tsunami of emotion crashed upon that Starbucks table. I literally sobbed my way through three hours of conversation, and realized that the problems I was struggling with went far deeper than I first thought.
That conversation became the precursor to a year of counseling, conducted over Skype about every 3–4 weeks. Over the course of a year, she helped me understand the roots of my self-reliance, as well as my desire to protect myself from rejection from those closest to me. The simple reality of God’s love for me in Christ, that initiates and loves and gives grace for the weak became life to my soul. It wasn’t that I didn’t know or believe that intellectually (I was preaching it every week), but it needed to be massaged into the strongholds of resistance in my own heart that clung to its own justification. She helped me to learn how to daily live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me.
During our counseling, another issue emerged. My strong desire for truth and justice had gotten mixed up with how I understood the gospel, and led me to distort it in my own heart without even realising it. This had very real implications in my marriage. We had gone through a period as a church where the gospel’s implications of repentance and faith had been rediscovered and emphasized. Somehow in my mind I believed there was an order to this — that we first repent of our sins, put our faith in Jesus, and then receive God’s grace. This subtle reordering confused the gospel’s essence (God’s grace to us in Christ) with its fruit (our repentance and faith). Because I thought that repentance, or recognition of wrongdoing was a precondition to receiving God’s grace, I began to expect others to recognize error before I was gracious to them. This essentially brought a legalistic streak into my marriage that I was completely oblivious to.
Somehow in my mind I believed there was an order to this — that we first repent of our sins, put our faith in Jesus, and then receive God’s grace. This subtle reordering confused the gospel’s essence (God’s grace to us in Christ) with its fruit (our repentance and faith).
This counselor helped me see how this subtle ordering in my mind was not only unhelpful, but unbiblical. God’s kindness leads us to repentance, and, as I subsequently read in Sinclair Ferguson’s magnificent book “The Whole Christ”, God’s grace is offered to us in Christ, and any repentance that comes is the fruit of the gospel, not a precondition to God’s grace. The clarity of this truth set me free in a deeper way and helped me not only to see God’s love for me afresh, but empowered me to lavish it on others.
Ultimately, as Paul said to Romans, the righteous shall live by faith. This ongoing faith in God and his good news of a righteousness given to us as a gift is what saves us from the self-destructive tendencies latent in our hearts. It’s as relevant to the new believer as it is to the church planter. And it’s as relevant to the church planter who is struggling for finances and a core group as it is to the one who gets off to an amazing start. Jesus wants to save you and I, and brings us good news of grace to our weary souls. Will we believe him? And not just today, but every day?
About the Author
Simon Murphy is the lead Pastor of Redemption Hill Church, a church of three congregations that meets in Chinatown, Singapore. Simon and his wife Tarryn moved to Singapore from South Africa in 2008 to plant RHC. They have three children, Tyra, Rory and Kate. Simon has served as network leader for CTC Singapore and is actively engaged with CTC Asia Pacific.