Getting Stuck - When You Are Going Nowhere
One of my favourite Biblical illustrations of the adventurous nature of faith is the story of Jonathan and his armour bearer that is found in 1 Samuel 13 and 14.
At this point in history, God's people were stuck. They were under the cosh from the Philistines and so were hiding in holes, in caves and in cisterns. Their king had been rejected by God for disobeying God's command and making an unlawful sacrifice. They were outnumbered and unarmed. Only two men in the kingdom (King Saul and his son Jonathan) had possession of swords and the rest of the people had the humiliation of having to go cap in hand to the Philistines to even get their farm equipment sharpened.
Few (if any) of us will have experienced a situation as extreme as the one faced by the Israelites, but the idea of getting stuck is one that many can relate to. It can happen in established churches when growth plateaus. Fewer new people are joining the church and fewer still are becoming Christians. The enthusiasm of members dials back a little. New initiatives struggle to pick up momentum and it feels like you are in a rut. It can also happen in church plants when you are finding it difficult to recruit new members, when the buy-in from the core team is not what you would hope and when the route ahead to becoming an established church feels unclear.
When Jonathan saw the people of God hidden and stuck, he realised how much of a faith-killer this is. There are few things that drain the faith of the people quicker than inertia, particularly when it seems like even the leaders have no compelling faith or narrative of what God may be doing. When you are stuck, the number one priority must be to somehow get unstuck.
For Jonathan, this meant going on a little adventure. When nothing is happening, sometimes what is needed to break the block is to just do something. Especially when that something is full of faith.
Getting Unstuck - Time for an Adventure
In his book, 'Holy Discontent', Bill Hybels talks about the idea of a 'Popeye moment', where you say "that's all I can stands and I can't stands no more." Jonathan's Popeye moment was seeing the oppression and inertia of God's people, and so he had to do something.
Jonathan turned to the young man who carried his armour and said, "Come, let us go over to the Philistine garrison on the other side."
What he suggested was a lean and easily actionable step. He didn't even tell Saul, he just got on with it. Had he pitched for something on a larger scale, it would have needed to go through Saul and the other people and would have been very likely to be caught up in the inertia that was present in the people at the time.
Momentum is a funny thing. When we are stuck, we can often feel like we need to do something big to turn things around. A building project. Sending out fifty people to start a new church plant. Opening a cafe. These are all good things, but they tend to work better when you already have the winds of momentum at your back than as a way to try to get something happening. Much better to start small. Pioneer a new group with just one or two faith-filled people and grow it out. Find some low hanging fruit and go for whatever easy wins you can see. If there are things that you can do that have very little downside but the potential for a decent win, these are great things to go for at this stage.
Getting Unstuck - A Great Team-Mate
When Jonathan went on his adventure, he took his armour bearer with him, and what a companion that armour bearer was.
His response to Jonathan's invitation was, "Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold I am with you heart and soul."
When you step out on an adventure of faith, finding this kind of person to go with you makes all the difference. They are probably already there in your church or in your circle of friends, but they may not be obvious. This armour bearer was not in a position of leadership amongst the people, but when the moment came he was able to step up and reveal himself as a person of faith.
You are looking for people whose hearts seem to come alive at the idea of going on an adventure for God. When you see this in somebody, you have found a person of faith and should invest heavily in them. When you have found this, most other things can be worked through in time.
More than the faith he had for the adventure, this armour bearer had loyalty to Jonathan. He was with him heart and soul (the same kind of loyalty that Jonathan himself later pledges to David), and proved it by going to attack the Philistines when he didn't even have a sword!
This armour bearer was a great team mate for Jonathan, and it is often the case that the success of our faith adventures depends less on the exact strategy that we use and more on the people of faith that we have with us.
Getting Unstuck - Looking For God In It...
When Jonathan and the armour bearer set out on their adventure, they didn't know if God was going to do something through it or not. This is reflected in the pitch that Jonathan made to the armour bearer - "It may be that the Lord will work for us." He didn't know for sure, but there was a chance that God might work through their efforts.
Part of the reason that our churches can get stuck is our tendency to wait for too much certainty before we are willing to act. We often look for multiple prophetic words, from distinct reliable sources, coupled with a strategic plan and set of resources (money, people, etc.) that can handle any eventuality.
Prophetic words and strategic plans are good, but there is also a place for sometimes just stepping out in faith with one or two others, having a go at something and seeing if God is in it as you go.
When you do step out on an adventure, you may not know what God is doing when you start, but you do want to discern as early as possible if this particular venture is God's will or not. If so, you can then ramp up the resources that you are throwing at it, and if not, then there is no harm in calling stumps on it and investing your efforts elsewhere.
To do this, Jonathan proposed a test. As they showed themselves to the Philistines, if they were invited up then they would take this as a sign that God would come through for them. God gave them that sign and so they knew that they were not in it alone and their faith was significantly strengthened by this knowledge.
Asking for this kind of sign isn't always the best way to discern God's will (though I have known God speak through it, both in my own life and the lives of others), but looking for God to speak in the early days of a new adventure is crucial, particularly if you are stepping out in the 'Have a Go' spirit without receiving a direct word.
Getting Unstuck - The Battle For First Fruits
If we think that stepping out on a faith adventure with God is somehow easy or glamorous, then Jonathan's experience brings us crashing right back down to earth.
In 1 Samuel 14:13, we are told that, "Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armour bearer after him...". It was messy work. The so-called adventure with God at this stage amounted to little more than scrambling up a hill on all fours. It isn't easy or glamorous at all. If it was then everybody would be doing it.
As they scrambled up the hill, Jonathan and the armour bearer were fighting with the enemy combatants that they encountered and they were able to kill around twenty men. The first twenty were hard work and each one took the particular effort of Jonathan and the armour bearer to defeat.
Whilst the task the Jonathan was doing is very different to what a church planter is doing, it is usually the case that getting the first twenty is the most difficult bit. When there are just three or four of you pioneering a new church, recruiting the next few people to join you is not easy at all. You need to spend a lot of time investing in each person or family, and it is likely that even after you do a lot of them will end up declining you. This is a common experience in church planting, but as you keep at it, in time some people will stick and slowly but surely you will gather those first twenty people.
Getting Unstuck - Momentum Shifts
Once Jonathan and the armour had managed to defeat the first twenty of their enemy, everything changed. There was a panic amongst the Philistines and their large army started to scatter. The Israelite army noticed what was happening and got involved in the battle, and they won a great victory that day.
The enemy was defeated. The whole people were mobilised. God was glorified. All because of the spirit of adventure of two young men who decided to step out and have a go and see what God wanted to do with it.
The same can be true for our church plants. As we step out in faith and attempt some adventures of the sake of the gospel, with the attitude of 'who knows, maybe God will do something', then there will be victories to be won, and these victories will mean that people get saved, communities get transformed, and the church that had previously been stuck gets re-energised and has some fresh momentum and develops fresh faith for the adventure ahead.