When It's Not What You Thought

I walked across the platform to receive my diploma in Binkley Chapel in the spring of 2014. By the fall of 2017, I found myself on staff at my second church since graduation.

What happened?

We ask ourselves questions like this over the course of our lives, often when things do not go as planned. Check your social media, or if you dare, call around among your old friends from college or seminary. Scattered in the background of the success stories, the booming church plants, the fantastic food in the far-off country, and the Instagram-worthy devotions and hand-lettered quotes, you will find a plethora of upset expectations. The guy in your church history class, the one jazzed about going to an unreached people, his missionary journey misfired when a doctor diagnosed him with melanoma. The Hebrew savant who never missed a niphal received only a few returned communications from all the résumés he sent out—all of them cutting contact after speaking with him one time. The gifted preacher you knew had to go back to secular work because his church could not afford to compensate him as a husband and father of three.

As we rehearsed ancient verb paradigms, wrestled over contextualization issues, and read cinder block-sized books into the night, we never foresaw these challenges. We did not hear these stories at the conferences or even in chapel. We did not sin ourselves out of service, discharging ourselves through disqualification, no. Things just did not go the way we expected.

After graduation, I joined a family member in Louisville, KY working to revitalize a dying church. I knew I would serve bi-vocationally, and the work would bear much in the way of difficulty. We had more than a few irons in the fire at our church. The church property stood in a populated, urban area, a fertile ground for local evangelism. A church of immigrants partnered with us, and we pursued a merger between our two congregations to establish an intercultural church. We began going through our church rolls, visiting dozens of addresses belonging to inactive members, seeking to reintroduce them to the church, perhaps seeing nominal Christians convert to disciples of Jesus. We initiated a homeless ministry, serving hot breakfast and coffee on Saturday mornings while sharing the gospel.

Yet, we baptized no new believers. We saw no returned wayward members. The intercultural church we hoped to pursue became a thing of conflict and a mind-blowing time-drain. I picked up a third job teaching at a small Christian school. I never expected to become the titular character in a superhero story, but I certainly did not see myself as Vain-Hoping Citizen #2, either. Our attending congregation of twenty elderly people dwindled to twelve within a year.

We hosted a summertime Vacation Bible School. We had decent attendance, and a small church plant helped us execute the VBS. None of our attending families would join us on Sunday mornings, and when we invited the church plant to join us for a service one morning, less than five of our normally attending members joined us for worship. We looked and felt just a little silly in front of these people who helped us so much.

Eventually, God led our church into information and through circumstances which revealed the wisest thing to maintain a continuing gospel witness in our part of the city: becoming adopted by another church. A sister church had people, but they were running out of space in their building. We had plenty of building space, and not much in the way of members to gather and worship in it. The other church adopted ours, receiving our staff into theirs and our membership into their own. By a year into the adoption, God moved my family member into a new pulpit in Indiana, and I took a position teaching and discipling teens in South Carolina.

I never pictured my first pastoral position lasting scarcely three years. They felt like ten. We suffered a miscarriage, and God blessed us with our third child. I walked through my first church discipline situation and underwent back surgery.

What happened?

God chose my family to bear faithful witness to the risen Lord Jesus to homeless people and children from beyond broken families. God sent my family to encourage others in a difficult work in a hard place. The Holy Spirit used two young families to shepherd a small, wounded, and dying congregation into the care of other shepherds who will see them to the grave.

Isaiah 55:11 reads:

So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;

It will not return to Me empty,

Without accomplishing what I desire,

And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

I am nothing more than a man guided by the Spirit of God. My job was and remains serving as an announcer of the gospel call: come, you thirsty, and drink of the living water! Cease binging on what leaves you empty! (Isaiah 55:1–2 and John 7:38). God appointed my family and I as midnight riders, blowing the trumpet of Christ’s grace. The news fell on the ears God intended. It will accomplish the purpose he put forth. Perhaps we planted seeds only, and another will water them. Perhaps our mouths operated as watering cans, nurturing the seed along until it bears fruit one day. The possibility remains of our words serving as unheeded warnings to which some will bear account before King Jesus on the Final Day.

The years directly following my time in seminary did not go according to my plan, whatever it was. Instead, they conformed to the better plan, the plan of the King. Wherever God put you, remain ready with the gospel you learned, the news you heeded, the call you obeyed. Our disappointments and slips do upend the call of faithfulness where God roots and uproots us. Perhaps you expected different. Remember, if we truly appreciated the depth of our sin, we would expect different from our own eternity. Staying, going, disappointed, or delighted, speak His name and his work that He find you faithful in His sight.