Gathering to Part and Parting to Gather

We’ve all heard stories like the kind yet feeble old man who proudly boasts that he’s been a part of his local church for nine months longer than he has been alive, or like the saintly, aging sister who delights in the fact that she is a third or fourth-generation member of her church.

I love stories like these. As a pastor, nothing is quite as encouraging as a person who passionately loves Jesus and demonstrates that by a passionate love for and commitment to the local church. In a transient, noncommittal culture, longevity in a local church has somewhat become a thing of the past.

However, I have seen firsthand that congregants of a church very quickly settle into a comfortable norm with fellow worshippers. Introductions are made, friendships blossom, meals are shared, work is done, mission trips are taken, losses are grieved and joys are celebrated, and before you know it weeks, months and years have gone by. Over time, deep and cherished gospel-centered relationships are formed, and people grow to love and trust the family of God.

While it is a beautiful thing to see the church become such a safe and comfortable place for believers, that very same comfort can also be an obstacle in our obedience to carry out the mission of God to reach the world around us. As human beings, we naturally want to feel comfortable with those around us. Mission requires movement, and movement does not always come naturally or easily.

In the fall of 1998, Dr. Spencer Johnson released a little business book that took the world by storm. The book Who Moved My Cheese? was published in thirty-seven languages and sold over twenty-six million copies worldwide. This motivational business parable of two mice and their love for cheese brilliantly reveals our inherent tendencies to settle into norms and expectations and subsequently loathe change. In my years of ministry, I have found that church people in particular really don’t like change.

Herein lies a problem and a pain that we need to identify and address head on if we are to be faithful in fulfilling the mission of God.

Pastors and people of a multiplying, church-planting church must be aware of the problem of people’s hard-wired resistance to change and be prepared to love, encourage, and comfort one another through the real, relational pain that occurs when those we’ve grown to love must leave to further the Kingdom.

The Problem with Change

In recent years, I served in our church as a community group leader. Our group was growing rapidly, and I knew sooner or later I would have to have “the talk” with my group about multiplying our small group. I foolishly waited to address the need for multiplication until I could not avoid it anymore. Upon talking with my group it quickly became very obvious that these devoted brothers and sisters were not the least bit interested in parting ways. They had grown to deeply love and trust one another and had established a real sense of comfort and safety. Why would we want to break up something that was going so well?

The problem with change is that not only is it burdensome & uncomfortable, but it’s often painful.

Thankfully these brothers and sisters eventually graciously received the vision for the multiplication and our group did multiply. Had I been more intentional to share and implement the missional vision for our group from the beginning, I would have saved our group from some unnecessary shock and heartache.  

We’ve seen this same pattern at Pleasant Valley pertaining to our church-planting efforts. We have had the joy of being the sending church for three church plants over the last three years. When we launch a church plant, we as pastors publicly and privately plead with our entire congregation to prayerfully consider leaving the comfortable confines of Pleasant Valley to join in the new work. We have seen some go, but most often the plea is met with a silent reaction of, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The problem with change is that not only is it burdensome and uncomfortable, but it’s often painful.

The Pain of Change

When brothers and sisters in Christ part ways, even if their parting is for His glory and for His Kingdom, it hurts. When cities or seas separate us from those we love and we no longer have the joy of experiencing their life-giving physical presence on a regular basis, we ache to be connected to the rest of the body with which we once joyfully functioned.  Mission is a double-edged sword. When we are willing to embrace change and be used by God to carry out His mission, there is going to be pain. I think Jesus warned us of the dangers of avoiding this pain in Matthew 10:37 when He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Of course, Jesus isn’t demanding that we hate our families, but He is letting us know that our tendency is going to be to prefer the comforts of family to the pain of leaving.

The mission hurts, but Jesus knows it, and He is worth it.

The Plan for Change

Knowing that change for the sake of advancing the gospel and living on mission can be downright hard and painful, I believe there are some ways we can help our people prepare and process the pain points of multiplication and growth.  

1. Cast vision for multiplication from day one.

From the very first time your church or missional community gathers, be intentional to talk about the vision for growth and multiplying for the sake of new groups or new churches. The vision for multiplication is much more than a one-time announcement; it should be part of your church’s DNA. A steady diet of vision goes a long way in getting the desired response.

2. Pray that God would drive the vision in the hearts of the people.

The idea of multiplication is not only an odd idea to the average churchgoer, it is fundamentally against our self-serving human nature. We can beat the drum of gathering with the goal of parting ways until we’re blue in the face, but until the Holy Spirit takes the vision and converts it to a conviction, it‘s all for naught. Our charisma and personal commitment to the vision can do nothing to turn the hearts of people; only God can do that. Pray that God would give the grace of open minds and hearts to love those around us with open hands, ready and willing to release whomever, whenever, wherever for the glory of God and the good of the world.

3. Create a sending culture in your church where commissioning people to Gospel ministry becomes the norm.

Wherever we go, we are called to make disciples (Matthew 20:28). We are all “sent” ones, and our people are always on the move. Think about where your people are “going” and commission them there for Gospel ministry. When students are starting a new semester, a new baby is born into a family, families move to a new city or neighborhood, celebrate it and send them with Gospel intentionality. The fields are white for harvest (John 4:35).

4. When it’s time to part, acknowledge the loss.

We are part of one body, a family purchased by the same blood and sealed with the same Spirit. When cherished members of our body are sent out on mission, we should expect pain. We can prepare our people best by preaching the Gospel with its glorious, comforting truths. Our Savior himself experienced the pain of relational loss (Matthew 26:56, 1 Peter 2:24, Hab. 1:13) and He can relate with every pain and loss that we feel. This parting pain should not be ignored or explained away, but rather it should be acknowledged that we may weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).

Parting Encouragement

We come together on the Lord’s Day and in missional communities praying for the Lord’s blessing that He would add to our number so that we might send out others among us to advance the gospel in different neighborhoods, cities, states and countries. We gather to part. 

But we not only do we gather to part, we part to gather. One day when Christ returns, there will be a glorious reunion of all the saints. No matter the miles or seas or cities that might separate us, we will gather again (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). This is how we can with rejoice with tear-filled eyes when we or ones we love are sent out for gospel ministry.We gather to part, but we part to gather.

This post was written by Jeremy Hatfield, Executive Pastor of Pleasant Valley Community Church in Owensboro, KY. You can follow him @jpaulhatfield.