Christian leaders with a heart for church planting are being encouraged at the Exponential conference to move past the difficulties they will encounter when they start their houses of worship.
Church planting is not for the faint of heart, say organizers of the three-day conference, which began Tuesday at First Baptist Church Orlando. More than 4,000 new churches start each year, which means upwards of 20,000 planters are "in the trenches in years 1-5, many of whom are discouraged and have considered quitting," according to information on the conference website.
The conference theme is "Sifted," emphasizing the church planter's spiritual, physical, and emotional health as the "very foundation for reproducing."
"I had all types of resistance. My character was challenged. My motives were challenged," said Charles Jenkins, describing his early days of taking the lead pastor position at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. He was not in a typical church plant, but he was in the position to take over an established, historic church and help it grow in new ways.
"There were nights when I came home and cried because of all the opposition and all I wanted to do was serve God. I was being sifted," Jenkins explained during the first day of the conference.
"The enemy wanted to sift my joy, my peace, my focus, but I allowed the pain to drive me to prayer and God was actually using what the enemy used against me to work for me – to mature me, to develop me, to get me to the next level of leadership and service," he continued.
Jenkin's church has a rapidly growing multi-location congregation of over 8,000 members in the Chicagoland area. His highly respected ministry work also includes social activism and community development in urban areas.
"Sometimes when we think of the word 'sifting' it's all a matter of how we process it in our minds. Here I am almost 12 years later. I've been sifted over and over again, but there is so much fruit we can see. So much good we have seen come through God's church and more importantly I have grown not just as a pastor, but as a Christian. It's all a part of sifting," he said.
Exponential organizers based the conference theme on Luke 22:31-32, Jesus' reference to Peter being "sifted," which is based on the process of sifting wheat from its chaff during harvest – a form of refining and distilling the good from the bad and removing impurities.
"As believers, we have been perfectly sifted by Christ's blood and are being continually sifted to extract our chaff (sin). Life's troubles and difficulties serve in some measure like the winnowing fork," stated conference leaders.
Pastor Darrin Patrick, founder of The Journey church in St. Louis, told those in attendance and watching online Tuesday that it's important for church planters to "run with endurance" while the sifting is taking place.
"If we are going to talk about [our] calling we are going to have to talk about faith," Patrick said. "God said to Abraham you just need to go. And for Moses, God says, 'Take your shoes off. You're on Holy ground. You are going to lead my people to freedom. What you see in the book of Genesis and in the book of Exodus, right in the beginning of the Bible, is just to remind us that God uses people despite their weaknesses. God uses people mainly as they encounter trials. You see it over and over again, them basically having to remind themselves of God's call on their life."
Las Vegas pastor Jud Wilhite, leader of Central Christian Church, said it's important for leaders to stick to the calling God has given them.
"Ministry is messy because sin is messy. Get over it. Get a mop and start helping cleanup," Wilhite implored.
He shared that often, people find his desire to serve as a pastor in an area sometimes referred to as "Sin City" perplexing.
"Whether you understand what we are doing or not, Christ's love controls us and compels us," he added. "You may not understand my calling. You know what I hear more than anything from people is 'Oh, you're a pastor? Oh, you're in Vegas? I'm sorry.'
"I can leave a beautiful place like Orlando," he explained. "I get on a plane and land in Vegas and [when] I get off that plane there's showgirls all over the signs in the airport and it smells like tobacco – Vegas always smells like cigarettes.
"I want you to know that I feel at home and I am smiling ear to ear. Why? Because I am compelled by the love of Christ and I am called. When you are called by Christ there is nowhere else that I can be on this planet than right there," Wilhite said.
On the Web, http://www.exponentialconference.org/.