God Builds His Church
Lessons Learned about Church Planting in the Midst of the Corona Crisis
26 April 2020. That was the day we hoped to see our plans and prayers come to fruition. On that Sunday, River of Life Church was to hold its very first Sunday gathering. Months of planning were about to be realized…and then in an instant…everything changed. In late March Germany announced countrywide restrictions on public gatherings. With that announcement and the indefinite timeline of when and how the corona crisis would move forward, one thing was certain, River of Life Church would not proceed as we planned.
Notice I wrote our plans. It is true, that just about every plan we have made for the new church plant has not turned out as we envisioned. Yet, we know that God’s plan for growing His kingdom and building His church in Frankfurt is moving forward just as He has planned.
And it is in this space that we have been walking along the path of one of the great truths of the Christian life found in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
Read on to learn more about how we had “planned our way” and how God has graciously invited us to trust that He is “establishing our steps” by helping to reshape and refine us and our understanding of what it means to participate in His mission.
The Heart of a Man Plans His Way
A Core Team is Formed
By 2019 the plans were in motion to birth a new church out of International Christian Fellowship, our mother church. God had placed on the hearts of our elders the conviction to begin a new work in south Frankfurt. By late summer several families were invited to prayerfully consider committing themselves to join what we called the Core Team of the new church plant. Six families committed themselves to the new work. In October we began to gather. For the first few months we met in a home every other Sunday as each family sought to finish their responsibilities well at our mother church.
A Strategy is Outlined
During these Sunday gatherings, God was knitting us together in relationship. As we gathered and prayed God was helping us become a family. Our Sundays were spent going into God’s word together and reminding ourselves of the mission to which He has called His church. Focusing on the life and teachings of Jesus we developed a tool, what we call our Missional Compass, to guide us on the journey ahead.
A Location is Identified
For months we had simply called ourselves the South Frankfurt Church Plant. But where in south Frankfurt was God leading us? Broadly we had four fixed points: south of Frankfurt city center, west of Offenbach, east of the airport, and north of Darmstadt where our sister church, Converge International Fellowship had been planted by Bob Marsh. As we prayed, researched neighborhoods, walked the streets, and in one case, even rode our bikes, our research kept leading us back to one place: Sachsenhausen. The highest concentration of English-speaking internationals in our city seemed to be Sachsenhausen, just south of the Main River and just south of Frankfurt’s busy business district. Could we unequivocally prove this point? No, but conversation after conversation with other new plants in Frankfurt kept leading us to one clear conclusion — God was at work in south Frankfurt. We met several kingdom-minded planters who had just started new German-speaking plants and were in their infancy stages. Rather than seeing us as competition in south Frankfurt, they invited us to join what God was doing. Working together would multiply our efforts to make disciples in the city.
A Church Name is Chosen
The identity and name we would choose was important to us. We desired to have a name that would communicate good news to our city but would also build on the character of the city itself. God unified the Core Team around a metaphor we see over and over again in Scriptures — rivers of living water. In particular the rivers of living water that Jesus promises will flow out of the hearts of those who believe in him. In John 7 Jesus stood up at a festival in Jerusalem and invited all who thirst to come to him and drink. As we looked at our city, and specifically at the English-speaking internationals living in the Frankfurt. we see people who are filled with all of the things this world has to offer, yet desperately thirsting for more. We clearly sensed God calling us to speak lovingly and unashamedly to that need. We would name the new work River of Life Church. God was calling us to invite our city to come to Jesus, to drink, and to live.
The Final Piece: A Place to Rent is Secured
We were told that finding a place to rent in Sachsenhausen was not an easy task. Finding a place in the city, that was cost effective, had multiple rooms, and had parking nearby would not be an easy task. But one conversation with another local planter changed everything. He helped us focus in on several options he had researched and used himself. Within a relatively short time we had found and booked a temporary place to meet. We found a place in the heart of Sachsenhausen located right on the river. We could not have hoped for a better location to launch as River of Life Church than on the bank of the Main River! The first available date was immediately after the Easter holidays. We booked as many weeks in advance as they allowed us to. All that remained was to plan the details of our very first Sunday worship service on 26 April. God had led us each step of the way. It was mid-March, and we stood on the precipice of seeing our plans for the church plant become a reality.
But The LORD Establishes His Steps
The World Changes
Within a week of securing our rental facilities Angela Merkel announced the new restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus. Just as we were about to invite others to join this new work in Sachsenhausen it seems the whole world stopped in its tracks. At first no one was sure of what the coronavirus would mean for the church or our daily lives, but it was very clear that our plans would change in a significant way.
An Invitation to be Reshaped and Refined
It is now July and we have had a little over four months to process how God is leading and working in River of Life Church. Rather than an inconvenience we can clearly see the events that have transpired as an invitation to allow God to reshape and refine us and our understanding of what it means to participate in His plans for His church. While God’s work in us is far from complete, here are three lessons God has been inviting us to learn in this season:
Lesson 1 – Reflecting on God’s Plan for Church Growth
The current corona crisis has served as an invitation to reflect on God’s clearly revealed plans to grow His church. Perhaps my greatest concern when our plans to gather were thwarted was, “How will we press on and continue to grow this new church plant?” God has been chipping away at my under-developed views of church and church growth. Despite knowing differently, there is a constant fight in my human heart to trust in planning, programs, and a gathering place. In this season God has gently reminded me that I am not tasked with growing His church but rather entrusted to faithfully invest in the growth of His people. As we are faithful to make new disciples and to mature the saints God will grow His church. His plan for the growth of His church remains the same. If we invest in and build people, God will build His church.
Lesson 2 – The Priority of Relationship
Building on the lesson above God has reminded me that relationships are the foundation of life and of ministry. There is a cost to maturing the saints and engaging the lost, and that is time for intentional, meaningful relationship. If I am honest, I often work and minister desiring to see true transformation in my own life and in the lives of others without spending the necessary time in relationship. Why? Very simply, my schedule is busy with planning for a new church plant.
During this season I have sensed God asking a very specific question: “Do you want to plan to start a new church in Sachsenhausen, or do you want walk with others and be the church in Sachsenhausen?” Is the destination we desire to arrive at a Sunday worship service in the city or being and making disciples who love and live like Jesus. Without time for relationships our Core Team risks the reality of simply going through the motions of planting a Sunday service. However, if we truly engage one another, desperately longing to love others as Jesus loved us, giving of ourselves, embracing inconvenience, longing to see one another grow toward Christ-likeness then we will experience what it means to be God’s church. As Jesus’ church we must prioritize and protect the pursuit of deep meaningful relationships whose goal is the enjoyment of being and making disciples. As we move forward God is challenging us to build on the truth that the depth of our relationships directly corresponds to our depth as disciples.
Lesson 3 – The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty
Strange as it may seem the delay of our plans has been a great encouragement to me. There was a relief in seeing that God’s timing was different than ours. As I thought about why I felt this way I believe I can best express my sentiments by saying I saw a unique beauty in recognizing that our planning is ultimately filtered through God’s sovereignty. Proverbs 16:9 reminds and instructs us that while our hearts plan, it is only God alone who can establish our steps. How comforting to know that we are ultimately dependent on God to establish all that we do. Our plans may fail, falter, and change, but the Word and the purposes of God stand forever. To Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.
Sam Dyer, Church Planter, South Frankfurt