I recently preached the last sermon in a series on Luke at our church. If you haven't read it in a while, Luke 24 ends with three accounts of the disciples encounter with a risen Jesus. First, the 12 disciples hear the account of the women who have recently found the tomb empty (Luke 24:1-12). Bafflingly, they dismiss the women's report as an "idle tale" (v. 11). Next, two of Jesus' disciples don't recognize Jesus as they travel to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). As Jesus breaks the bread and gives thanks, their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus (v. 30-31). Finally, Jesus Himself appears amidst the disciples in v. 36-43. He shows them his hands and feet, and even eats a piece of broiled fish. But their response is still characterized as "disbelief" (v. 41).
Amidst all of the evidence shown to these disciples, it would seem that belief is beyond the realm of capability. If anyone had the motive and opportunity to believe in a newly-raised Messiah, it was these men. Yet, their interactions are filled with doubt, confusion, and a general slowness toward belief.
But a funny thing happens in Luke 24:45, Jesus "opened their minds to understand the scriptures."
Spiritual understanding is supernaturally wrought (see 1 Corinthians 2). It is not the product of well-planned sermons, loving investigation from friends, or any other ministry schema. It is the product of God's divine calling on his people.
That is not to say you can't fill a church through those methods. You can borrow disciples from other congregations — attracting them by your pulpit service or small groups. But filling a church with ready-made disciples and planting a church, in my mind, are two different things. Pastoral professionals fill churches, God plants them.
I was refreshed by Eugene Peterson's perspective recently;
"The person ... who looks for quick results in the seed planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to go out and plant potatoes in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and reaping. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds." (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor)
Paul refers to the work of starting churches as "planting" (1 Corinthians 3:6). Herein lies the beauty of church-planting. With man, faith is impossible, but with God it isn't (Matthew 19:23-30). As Sandra McCracken writes, "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open". It’s here that we get a front row seat to God's miraculous work, turning his people from sin and selfishness and toward a Christ-like humility.
Yes, planting a church has been harder than we ever thought possible. There are difficulties that we could have never foreseen, hardships we knew were coming but weren't prepared for, and heartaches that continually press on us. But it’s in the midst of these hardships that I have found the contours of Jesus face to become even clearer. I can't grow a church... but I know a guy.