While every Christian is called to mission, not everyone is called to fulfill the mission in the same role. Not all of Christ’s apostles wrote books of Scripture, for example. And only some of them are said to have pastored churches. Yet each had received the same mandate (Matt. 28:18–20).
This variation within the very foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) makes room for specific callings in the shared mission that Christ has given to his people. So, as long as we keep certain truths in mind, it is good use the language of “calling” for specific vocational ministries.
In fact, in view of the difficulties of church planting (see here, here, here, and here), I think it is vital for prospective planters to distinguish a sense of a particular calling to plant a church from God’s general call to the mission.
Start in the Tabernacle
In 1 Samuel 3, we find the record of Samuel’s calling to be God’s prophet. Being a prophet wasn’t the same as being a church planter, of course. But there is a helpful precedent in Samuel’s reception of his first prophecy in the tabernacle of God.
As young Samuel was lying down on his way to sleep, he heard a voice calling him by name. He thought it was Eli and ran to his side. Eli denied calling him and sent him back to bed. This happened three times until Eli realized what was going on: the Lord was calling Samuel. Eli wisely didn’t try to mediate the conversation. Instead, he encouraged Samuel to remain where he was to answer the voice if he hears it again. On that advice Samuel received his first prophecy and entered into the life of a prophet.
Samuel could have looked to many things to confirm his calling as a prophet: his miraculous birth, his godly parents, his mother’s prophetic prayer, his exposure to ministry from childhood, or even Eli’s mentoring. These were all good things, but they were not the basis of Samuel’s call. The foundation of Samuel’s calling to be a prophet was the reality of God’s summons, which emerged from Samuel’s relationship with God.
Jesus Is Calling: How God Speaks Today
Sitting on this side of the New Covenant, we have the culmination of God’s speaking in Jesus (Heb. 1:1). He is the Word incarnate described in the Word written (John 1:14). That means as a potential church planter, you don’t need to wait around for the audible voice of God as you fall asleep in a sanctuary somewhere. Rather, your calling will be based on God’s words to you as you read his Word.
“No degree of giftedness, no amount of knowledge, and no coaching or training can replace the need for a Word-shaped, world-sensitive, Christ-centered conscience.”
Ask yourself, “As I spend time in the means of grace—Word and prayer—am I convinced that God is calling me to plant a church?” You may have godly parents. You may have been exposed to ministry from an early age. And you may have the best church planting coach in all of evangelicalism. But these are not enough to sustain you in dark days ahead.
The only thing that can get you out of bed every day to continue the hard task of starting a church where one did not exist is this: you must believe, deep in your soul, that God has called you to this work. And that calling can only emerge from the depth of your personal relationship with Christ.
Get Thee to a Walmart
I was an assistant pastor in a small town in Mississippi when God called me to plant a church. Ours was a church over a hundred years old in the parts of the country where no one talked about planting churches. There was a town square but not a city center. We didn’t have a coffee shop.
So, when I read about church planting in major cities, it seemed like foreign mission work. Those contexts were radically different from where I was. Church planting wasn’t even on my radar.
Then I went to Walmart.
Walmart was where we went to get whatever we needed. If Walmart didn’t have it, then we had to go to another, bigger town (with another, bigger Walmart). So I went to Walmart often. Everyone did.
But one day I noticed—really saw—all the people at Walmart sitting outside on the benches lining the concrete walls. I also saw the people sitting just inside the sliding doors taking advantage of free air-conditioning on summer days in Mississippi.
Many of these people were older. Some of them were poor. Others just didn’t have anywhere else to be. But all of them had the eyes of people who needed hope. My heart broke for them. In that moment, God’s general call to love the lost became a specific calling for me. The abstract became concrete. The mission took on flesh.
God used these people to plant in me a growing desire to start a church for the hopeless, for the spiritually impoverished, for those who had nowhere to go and nowhere to be. He gave me a greater love for the people he died to save, and he called me to show that love specifically through church planting.
Confirming the Call
Of course, much more is necessary for discerning a call to church planting. Your character, your gifts, your biblical knowledge, the confirmation of qualified elders, the timing of God—all these are needed (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–10; 1 Pet. 5:1–4; Acts 16:6–7). Indeed, if others can’t see these qualities in your life, then it’s time to hit the brakes. Any pastoral calling, including the call to plant churches, can only be considered in the context of spiritual maturity.
Yet I still think those objective qualities are not enough. If you can’t say beyond doubt, “I know God has called me to this particular work because of my time with him in his Word and in prayer,” then you can’t be sure you’re called to plant. If you can’t say with conviction, “I know God has called me to reach the hopeless, the spiritually homeless, and those lost in sin through church planting,” then you can’t be sure you’re called to plant.
Because, at the end of the matter, no degree of giftedness, no amount of knowledge, and no coaching or training can replace the need for a Word-shaped, world-sensitive, Christ-centered conscience. To discern a call to church planting, you need the tabernacle and the Walmart.
Joe Holland is pastor at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church in Culpeper, Virginia, a member of the Acts 29 Network, and assistant editor for Tabletalk.