The wild thing about being put through the ringer of church planting, or any other significant spiritual leadership, is that you’re simultaneously being called to mastery and self-forgetfulness.
Paul the church planter says that when he lays a foundation for a new church, he does it “like a skillful master builder”. And he takes great pains to make sure it’s laid just right, because the foundation in question is none other than Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor 3.10-11). But it’s not just correct gospel doctrine that Paul is employing when he lays Jesus Christ as the foundation for a new church. It’s also an appropriate gospel posture, which he is at pains to assume. He comes “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor 2.3).
Everything Paul says, and everything about the way he says it, oozes gospeliciousness. But despite all this, for some reason the people of God—still acting like the world around them—try to celebritize such gospel-speakers.
1 Corinthians 1-4 can be read as one long exhortation about how the truly gospelled people of Jesus had better take the Lord super duper seriously, and let the gospel-speaker be a simple, soon-to-be-forgotten servant. It’s an exhortation to the church.
Who gives a rip about Apollos? What’s the big whoop about Paul? Why all the fuss about Cephas? Quit trying to make these mortals your immortal possession! Quit tempting them to make your mortal approval their immortal possession. You belong to God — “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3.17)! Don’t you see that these guys are just servants (1 Cor 4.1); that they’re—compared to the Lord—nothing (1 Cor 3.7)??
But of course it’s also an exhortation to those of us who plant: Who do we think we are, anyway? Are we concerned with our legacy? Are we out to make a name for ourselves? Are we looking to show other planters how it’s done? We need to be horrified, as Paul was, when people tell us that they are finally happy now that they’ve started following us instead of their old pastor. We may even need to rebuke them on the spot–gently and un-selfrighteously, of course. As planters, we’re going to both absorb and deflect. The only question is, what are we going to absorb, and what are we going to deflect?
Paul absorbed false accusations, imprisonments, and several times the blows of the rod nearly to the brink of death. In short, he absorbed shame. On the other hand, he deflected congratulations, “merely human” esteem (3.4), and any attempt by the people he served to make him into a Savior (“Was Paul crucified for you?!?”; 1 Cor 1.13). Paul demonstrates that he gets the gospel way down deep because, like Jesus himself in his earthly sojourn, he absorbs shame and deflects glory.
Are we really going to do the opposite? Fret about everyone who doesn’t like us? Grieve over every criticism of our ministry? Jostle for attention and acclaim among our church-planting colleagues? Avoid hardship and seek high-profile successes? Let’s not.
The great Count Nicolaus Lidwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) echoes the Apostle Paul in an exhortation that I have hanging on the wall of my study and which I’m trying to post on the wall of my mixed-up heart:
Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.
Just imagine the gospeliciousness that might be fostered in your church plant when you approach your work with this kind of utter servitude. Even if the church plant ‘fails’, the gospel will still have been planted. Your work and mine is to see Jesus become people’s greatest and most treasured possession, and to see our people delight in being Jesus’ greatest and most treasured possession. Nothing more, nothing less.
Ultimately, attaining mastery in the work of gospel-planting is a matter of having been mastered by the gospel, which alone produces gospel self-forgetfulness.