Is suffering proof that you didn't hear God correctly?
Is the American church willing to accept the path of the cross?
That's what I have wondered after having an article recently published in the May issue of Leadership Journal on discernment. The article is an unvarnished account of the joyful and painful journey Sanctuary underwent in moving our small church from a suburb of Sacramento to the heart of the city. We went through an extensive discernment process and believed we heard God say "go." So we went. The year that followed had sparks of new life, but it almost led to the church's death. Within the first year we lost about 40% of the people we moved with. Half of the ones who departed moved out of Sacramento to other parts of the world. The other half simply decided they didn't want to do this new mission with Sanctuary. 2013 was an ordeal for those of us who are deeply committed.
Is suffering an ordeal proof that you didn't hear from God? That's the feeling I have gotten from a few people who have commented on the article. The implication is, "If you had really followed God, you would have enjoyed God's blessing... like this growing church over here."
Contrast that response with a conversation I enjoyed yesterday with a dozen pastors of churches in the downtown area of Sacramento. All the churches are less than 250 people. All the pastors know hardship. Many of them are church planters -- and rare (maybe nonexistent) is the church planter who hasn't been through at least one ordeal.
They talked about what success is. They bristled at the American tendency to measure success by numbers. Instead, they talked about being faithful to God and doing whatever he leads them to do. Having God say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant" -- that's how they define success.
One of the pastors pointed out that when Paul was finishing his first missionary journey, he said to the believers, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). That was the gist of his parting sermon to people he knew he wouldn't see for a long time.
I believe the American Christian machine would say, "Many hardships? Geez, Paul. If that's the way you go about growing a church, I have a few seminars for you to attend." It reminds me of Peter saying to Jesus, "You, die on a cross? That can never happen!" (Matthew 16:22)
In the room yesterday with my fellow downtown pastors, I sensed the fellowship of Christ's sufferings. I felt close to them -- like we share a deep conversation that we don't even need to verbalize.
Is suffering an ordeal proof that you didn't hear from God? Maybe the better question is: Is there any path God leads you on that doesn't pass through an ordeal?