David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.1 Samuel 22:1-2
Too often what we see here with David is also what we see with church planting. As someone who has planted a church, I am big believer in the need for more new churches. Yet too often, an unhealthy gathering of unhealthy people is how a new church begins.
First, too often the leader is running away from an oppressive situation. They were an associate pastor or youth pastor who felt too controlled by their senior pastor or elder board. They may not be running for their lives like David was, but they are running from authority. Rather than facing the problem or facing their own issues with authority, they run away and call it church planting.
Then, notice who is compelled to join David. First, his family comes to support him, and this is pretty common among church plants. Nothing wrong with that. But also notice that those next to arrive are “in distress or in debt or discontented.” People in distress come because they’ve exhausted other church environments. People who are financially unstable come because a church plant feels more chaotic, and they are quite at home in chaos. And people who are discontented with other churches come because they believe their discontentment is always the other church’s fault. They think what they really need is just a new church that they can influence to do things the “right” way.
You can probably already see the difficulty of this situation. A church plant has little resources because it is just trying to get off the ground and many people are not financially stable enough to tithe regularly. What resources a church plant does have–financial, emotional, and leadership resources–can get drained quickly because of those who are in a constant state of distress or in a perpetual state of discontentment. This is part of what makes planting a church, especially in the northeast, so difficult.
Eventually, the ones who came discontented and were initially really excited about the new church plant find new reasons to be discontent. They carry the discontentment with them wherever they go, so they will end up hopping from church to church, never able to settle in. The ones in distress will also fade away, frustrated that someone wasn’t constantly holding their hand through life. The ones in perpetual financial crisis, if they don’t find ways to get healthy, won’t stay long either.
This is why the crowd that is there for the first year or two of the church plant usually isn’t there within a few years. In order for a church to survive, it needs solid leaders who have emotional intelligence and stable lives. Without people like this, the church will not make it. True disciples of Jesus Christ willing to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel has always been the core of a healthy church. Yes, the church should always be reaching out to the broken and the lost, and this will always make church messy. And yes, life always brings unpredictable crises into the lives of church members that we all walk through together. But the core of the church leadership can’t be in disarray or it won’t survive. And many church plants don’t.
The church was never meant to be a nonprofit where the discontented gather. It was never meant to be “the cave of Adullam.” It was meant to be on mission as the Body of Christ in the world ushering in the Kingdom of God to earth. It was meant to be a worshiping community of those filled with the Spirit and on fire for God. For every believer, the church serves initially as a hospital for sinners, but it was never meant to stay that way. It’s not supposed to look like a permanent ER. It’s supposed to look more like an army of saints, who take a field hospital wherever they go, spreading the love of God and the good news of Jesus.