When my husband first told me he felt called to church planting, I had no idea what that meant. Does it mean we move every few years, helping new churches get started like Paul did as an apostle? (I was fond of reminding him that Paul wasn’t married with toddlers in tow.) Or could it mean that we simply coach new church plants from our home church, keeping our family in one spot? Are we the ones sending … or being sent? The past decade or so has answered “yes” to all of those questions. We have physically moved twice to help new church plants get started. My husband loves this part of his calling: building something from the ground up. For the most part, I have enjoyed it, too. Even with the hassle of relocating the family, it’s exciting to be a part of a new adventure, something new you sense God wants to do.
Recently, however, the church plant we have served for six years is readying itself to plant another church. Having been sent, we are now discovering what it feels like to be on the “sending” end. It’s certainly exciting as the scent of a new adventure swirls in the air again, but it’s a little sobering, too. This time we are not the ones packing our bags. We’re the ones standing in the driveway, waving goodbye.
Jesus sent them out
In Mark chapter 3, we find Jesus in the thick of his early ministry. The religious leaders plot to destroy him. The local crowds follow him, harassing him, in their desperation to receive healing. One night he couldn't even get into his own house to have supper because of the people surrounding him and demanding his attention.
Of course, Jesus would want to choose some friends to be close to him. Of course, he would want a small group of people around him who understood his mission and could help him accomplish it. These same friends could help him fend off the pressing crowds and protect him from being crushed by them. They could help him find food and lodging and assist with day-to-day life. Later, they are the ones he would turn to when his life is in danger.
So he called these friends by name and invited them to live life closely with him. We see the names of the twelve disciples in Mark 3: 16-19. Though Jesus did interact with the crowds, he poured himself more intentionally into a few. A handful of guys who were committed to following him and helping him. Companions. Friends. "And he appointed the twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him ..." (Mark 3:14).
But wait. Jesus didn't call his disciples to be with him just so he could have some buddies for support and companionship. Surely that was part of it, but it was much, much more. I cut off the remainder of the verse earlier. Here's the whole thing: "And he appointed the twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons" (3:14-15, italics added).
Jesus knew his mission depended on the sending. He didn’t gather the twelve for the comfort of having friends he could do life with. He gathered the twelve in order to send them out to preach with authority. To change the world. To push back evil. To transform hearts so that the kingdom could expand.
My struggle to send
I like the gathering part of discipleship. Invite people in, focus on a few, fill their mugs again and again with freshly brewed tea as we talk about life and what we're learning. I like the "so that they might be with him" part.
Honestly, the "sending" is the part of discipleship I don't particularly like. Gather them in and then "send them out." Focus on a few so they can go and do likewise. Fill all those mugs so that the people sitting around the table can go and pour themselves out for other people who do not yet know Jesus. I know this is what it's all about. Reproduction. Multiplication. Growing the kingdom. Making disciples.
But I’m learning that sending well is hard to do. It’s hard to let people go -- to send them on new adventures while we regroup and start over. This is what we do as people committed to discipleship. We do what Jesus did. We gather disciples in, invest in them deeply, and then send them out to make more disciples. We wave goodbye.
Any parent of a teenager knows that this is difficult to do well. My oldest is beginning to look at colleges. The "sending out" is coming soon. My husband and I have spent nearly seventeen years investing in him and discipling him, but soon it will be time to let go. To send him on to whatever adventure God has next for him. Sending involves loss. We suffer personal loss, but we trust in great kingdom gain.
Mary’s struggle to send
Maybe that's a little of what Mary was feeling when she gathered up her family and went down to Capernaum to see what in the world her oldest son was up to (see Mark 3:21, 31-35). I'm sure she wanted to grab Jesus by the collar and drag him back home just like any self-respecting mom would want to do. Even Mary apparently hadn't grasped the fullness of the big truth: she had raised Jesus in order to send him out. Maybe she sensed that sending him out would result in his death. In her loss.
I'm sure that in the following years she began to grasp that hard truth. And since we don't have evidence of her continuing to follow Jesus around begging him to come home, she probably did the hard work of letting him go. She knew it was the right thing to do. The kingdom of God depended, in part, upon Mary sending Jesus out well. Though she grieved deeply at the foot of his cross a few years later, I hope she had the sense of the great gain that had been purchased by her son’s sacrifice. Mary's sacrifice as a mother is a part of that redemptive story.
Striving to send well
A handful of women I have invested in on a weekly basis over the last few years is planning to join the new church plant. During the next few months, they will begin to break away from our community and begin the adventure of starting something new. Realistically, we will not meet weekly anymore. It’s time for me to send them out. We will still be connected in Christ, of course, but inevitably our relationships must change. Though I feel privileged to be a part of a church that is committed to planning new churches, I’m feeling the loss involved with the sending.
Hopefully, our discipleship times together have been saturated by the gospel. Hopefully, I have modeled something worth replicating. Hopefully, these women will carry the truth of the gospel with them to people who do not yet know Jesus. Though the loss of relationship hurts, these hopes breathe life. There might even be joy mixed with the pain of sending.
Let the Gospel Prepare You
The very gospel we have been fighting to believe together will help us through this next phase of discipleship. We remember that because God had so much love for the world, he sent Jesus into that world (John 3:16). God the Father suffered loss as he sent his son to save a people who would brutally kill him. But that loss led to great gain. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have made a way for many, many lost souls to find their way home. As I remind myself of this gospel every day, I find the strength to release and send well.
Now as I fill the kettle and brew the tea, I remind myself -- the reason I invite people to sit around my table for discipleship is not so that I can gather a group of like-minded people together to live life with. It’s so I can invest the gospel in them, and send them out to do the same with others. It's hard, yes. But it's not about my comfort or my aversion to loss. It's about more and more people being gathered into the kingdom. So let’s enjoy the time around the table together. But let’s also remind ourselves why we’re sitting there: so that many, many more might join us at that heavenly table. Enjoy being together, but don't forget to prepare your heart to enjoy the sending.
Lindsay Powell Fooshee is married to John, a pastor at Redeemer Community Church and church planter with Acts 29. They are raising 3 great kids in East Tennessee. Lindsay holds an M.A. in Christian Thought from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and blogs regularly at Kitchen Stool.
To read more about sending out disciples, check out Proclaiming Jesus by Tony Merida.