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Hope for Church Planting in a Global Pandemic

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Have the last two years squashed many of your hopes? Attempting to plant a church, in the east end of Ottawa, during a global pandemic, has equipped me with experience to discuss the advent theme of hope with perspective. From a miraculous healing journey in 2018, God brought me to a high peak of hope in 2019, followed by a low valley in 2020, before I witnessed a hope-flooding turn of events in 2021.

2018


In 2018, I became very ill. Within a few days, I started to find it difficult to breathe. The doctor sent me to the hospital. The medical staff ran a battery of rather uncomfortable tests on me, which led the doctors to two possible diagnostics: cancer or sarcoidosis. Sarcoidosis is a rare condition affecting the lymph system, with side effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. This condition is scarcely understood. There is no cure for it, but some symptoms can be treated. A week later, the medical verdict came back: cancer was ruled out; sarcoidosis was confirmed. My health condition had severely deteriorated, and life adjustments were required. I had to choose between walking a bit during the day (around five minutes) or speaking for up to an hour. I slept about eighteen hours each day. In the depth of my crisis, my conviction to devote my life to God and Jesus’ Great Commission grew like a multi-century sequoia. However, I did not have sufficient faith to pray for a recovery. My spiritual senses were coming alive, but the desire to pray for healing was not present. I surrendered to God’s will for my life. My family was in deep sorrow. My children and Madeleine (my dear wife) were aching. My siblings and parents were crushed. But they prayed. Thankfully, close friends at work also prayed for me. A group of people at church (Église Évangélique Baptiste d’Orléans and Bilberry Creek Baptist Church) gathered to intercede for my recovery, and elders anointed me with oil, following James 5:14. When this happened, our prayer time was an oasis of sweet and intense communion with God. Nothing happened when I went back home that night. The next day, however, I felt a potent urge to walk. It did not make any sense, but I thought I would try. I took my first son, Mathéo, with me, and we walked… ten minutes. It was amazing. I could barely believe it. I was able to walk at an average pace… for ten minutes! Seeing something extraordinary happening in me, I resolved to walk each day as much as I could. So I walked and walked with God. I still had to strike a balance between talking and walking each day, but at least I could walk. Seeing God’s increasing work in me, I decided not to cancel a speaking engagement for a youth conference in Ottawa. The organizers were surprised and likely concerned, but they accepted. I barely could speak a few hours before the conference, but when I opened my mouth, on the first evening, I felt gates opening in my heart, and I preached as if I was not sick. The following night was an intense battle, with all kinds of aches and turmoil in my heart and body. Madeleine and I fought at the spiritual level, and the next day, I preached again and again. The number of people who committed to discipleship with Jesus at that conference far exceeded the results I had witnessed in response to my preaching over the years. At work, I discovered a group of people who could not walk fast. Before that season, I had not noticed this community, because I walked too fast. There are friends God has in store for us for seasons of slow walking. Hope is also for those who stroll, those who are stricken by illness or burdened with emotional wounds. Progressively, my healing became more evident to friends and colleagues. This process provided ample opportunity to highlight what God was doing. My determination to mentor others at work also grew significantly during that season. It reshaped the course of my career. I was set on investing in others, and pass on what I had learned from colleagues who had invested in me. In that season, Madeleine and I met Pastor Jason and asked whether we could be assessed for church planting through NAMB.

2019


In 2019, Madeleine and I were assessed. This was a long process, filled with forms and statements on our doctrinal convictions, on the one hand, and input from various friends who could vouch for us, on the other hand. There is hope in the trenches of administrative applications. Thankfully, Madeleine and I received a green light from the evaluators. An experienced planter mentioned that such an outcome was honorable because no condition was added to the assessment. This kind comment energized our hope. Since NAMB endorsed my candidacy, I was ready to be trained. I tried my best to get the church planting training going as soon as possible, but there were delays after delays. It felt rather anticlimactic, but my hope had not dried up. In our Orleans neighborhood, our family started outreach activities. Madeleine and I also helped our home church (Église Évangélique Baptiste d’Orléans) discern which role it would play in our next church planting steps. Our home church was exceedingly generous with prayer and money. They provided a sizable budget to cover initial expenses. This gave us the ability to try out things and learn from experience. For example, all outreach expenses could be covered. Anything associated with hospitality and communications was also covered. We had a budget to purchase subscriptions and see what would work best for a website, podcast, church management software, graphics editing, etc. This was a godly church planting investment, for which we are immensely grateful. Now, we reap the early return of that costly mission-minded investment.

2020


In January of 2020, our hopes were high. We started monthly vision casting meetings in our home. The initial feedback was encouraging. Then came covid-19. Within a few days, I was sent home from the office, and in-person congregational gatherings stopped. Our home church did not use Zoom at the time. Watching Youtube for church services did not work well for us. We floored the homeschooling gas pedal and made significant progress when most families were struggling. I started to work significantly more than usual. This change in my routine brought stress to my marriage, and Madeleine, who showed signs of burnout, became increasingly fragile. I tried to care for her and made the mistake of not sharing how challenging life was for me in those days. I did not want to burden her, but it was a mistake. To exacerbate things, I started a business, which chewed precious family time. The church planting training had still not started. Any experience and training I had for church planting involved gathering people. People could not congregate. It was unclear whether people outside my neighborhood wanted to get together. Meeting people online in my neighborhood did not work well on my street. I did not know what to do. Early in the provincial stay-home order, the idea of bringing personal gifts to neighbors was frowned upon. We decided to send Amazon gifts (e.g. car games) to neighbors, to encourage convivial family conversations. This initiative was a blast and ignited intentional community care on our street. By God’s grace, our relationship with our neighbors sky-rocketed. I was invited to serve as a math tutor. People started to stop by and talk to us regularly. Some shared their struggles. We helped care for a neighbor whose wife passed away. Our street cred was up-the-roof. Another initiative we took in the church planting process was to take pictures of Orleans. This was fun and helped us see our mission field with intentionality. We learned that this is a fun and practical way to boost prayer and gather valuable information to build a website. I wrote articles that documented, on the one hand, our love for the mission field where God had placed our family, and, on the other hand, our desire to see people reconciled with Jesus. It was a soul-searching initiative that put words on my heart to tell the story of a great God who loves Franco-Ontarians. A significant focus of the website material was about Jesus’ mission towards Franco-Ontarians living in Eastern Ontario. Writing helps thinking. In this case, developing the website helped me reflect on a people group that needs the Gospel. Over the summer, Madeleine started to feel better. God was showing me, once again, how to care for her heart and how to allow her to care for mine. Stopping the business provided room to breathe in our family’s life. I began to disciple people, mostly from Montreal, who were stuck at home. This helped me become aware of struggles experienced by young adults during the pandemic and allowed me to care for them. Caring for this online group also allowed me to discuss 9 Marks material in French (an essential skill for my church planting journey). Our family designed an Advent Challenge calendar for the Advent season. The calendar was packed with family challenges to care for people in our community. We raised money for local charities (e.g. Safe Families), cared for teachers, encouraged people delivering mail, and surprised one another on the street. It was terrific to nurture community, build trust, and point people to the Bible story of Christmas. From a strategic training viewpoint, Pastor Jason was gracious enough to start a church planting cohort in 2021, at Celebration Church. Madeleine and I asked Église Évangélique Baptiste d’Orléans to release us officially to join Celebration Church, for my church planting residency. This happened in November 2020. We formally joined Celebration shortly after. Plans were developed for my church planting residency, and the church planting cohort started in 2021.

2021


In 2021, I started to serve more intentionally at Celebration Church, through life-on-life discipling, MSC involvement, preaching, and other engagements in congregational worship, particularly in the area of prayer. Through the church planting training, I was asked to document my plans and the needs of my target community (Orléans, Ontario). Something special occurred when I was invited to explore what would happen if the church plant was successful. I started to consider neighboring towns as mission fields. The most important neighboring town on my list was Rockland, Ontario. I knew there were needs in Rockland, but I had postponed serious personal consideration for church planting there. God showed me that I had effectively reduced the scope of the Great Commission to Orléans, Ontario. Repenting from such a narrow perspective, I reached out to church planting people I knew in Rockland, to see what needs they had. It became clear to me that they could benefit from a church planter who could become a pastor. In Orleans, I was not aware of a similar felt need for a church plant. For some reason, God had used the pandemic to stop our church planting initiative in Orleans. In Rockland, there was a group of five French-speaking disciples who met over Zoom and sought to plant a church. It was springtime. Madeleine and I started to attend their virtual weekly gathering, to get to know them better. I had things to share, but time was limited during our meetings. We focused on Bible study and prayer for personal and evangelism-related needs, which was a perfect opportunity to get to know one another. One couple, in particular, from that group was used by God to energize our hope in Christ. Their warm hospitality, kingdom mentality, and contagious zeal for mission was potent and inviting. Unassuming and simple in their relational approach, they were deeply encouraging. My heart was starting to be burdened for Rockland, as I considered it a mission field. I had finished my church planting assignment, but my heart was still exploring. As I prayed and gathered information, I started to realize that, from what I could perceive at that time, church planting in Rockland was more compelling to me than church planting in Orleans. I focused on what I discerned spiritually and the needs felt by people I knew. I reached out to a brother who was committed to disciple-making and lived in the area. I asked him whether he would be open to praying about the possibility of partnering in church planting, in Rockland. For weeks, Madeleine and I joined him and his wife, at their farm, for prayer. My heart was filled with hope. I started to document what I discerned and took input from our four-person prayer group. The floodgates of spiritual enlightenment opened wide. I regularly asked members of our two-couple prayer team whether they discerned any red flags from God. Thankfully, God affirmed the prayer exploration steps we took. I shared with the French-speaking group that I had met a church planting partner, and things looked encouraging. I had so much to share with them, but time wasn’t ripe for me to share. My church planting partner and his wife spoke French but were more comfortable with English. This raised an obvious question because Madeleine and I had been seeking to reach French speakers with the Gospel. Through prayer, we determined that God was calling us to participate in a discipling movement to reach the people of Rockland, including French and English speakers. This made so much sense, in light of our linguistically diverse experience. Both couples had French-speaking parents. Both couples had significant experience in English. This released a well of hope in our hearts, as we realized God had been preparing us for such a time as this. Rapidly, it became clear that I needed to ask the French-speaking group whether the vision God was giving us matched their aspirations. There were delays. Then, I went on a five-week trip away from the National Capital Region. When we came back from our trip, we had other scheduling delays, but my heart was filled with peace. We went to visit friends who visit in Rockland, and asked them for feedback on the idea of planting a Rockland church focused on discipleship. Their analytical and enthusiastic response was a bright star of hope for us. Through my church planting partner, we also discovered a group of people who lived in the Rockland area and had been disconnected from the church during the pandemic, due to difficult circumstances. It was a pleasure for me to discover that group, and to become aware of another thread of God's work in Rockland. There were mission pioneers who had been laboring in Rockland for years. It gave me another perspective of God’s activity in that mission field. I shared with the French group that other people I had met seemed interested in the vision God was putting on our hearts. Thankfully, God provided an opportunity for me to present our church planting vision to the French group. At that point, I had developed ample foundational documentation of our vision, mission, doctrinal distinctives, missional approaches, and plans, in English and French. From our doctrines to our discipling pathway, writing those foundational documents enhanced the clarity and precision to the vision. It allowed people to review the vision in great detail, quickly. An instrumental cause of the volume of documentation was the extent of delays in vision casting. I had learned to convert delays into documentation. Those delays were used by God to prune part of my impatience and to teach me how to convert apparent frustrations into productive contributions. Crafting those articles also freed up my mental space and helped me rest in the Lord. A week after that presentation, the French group explained that the vision I had shared with them did not correspond to what God was leading them to pursue. I knew the group consisted of committed disciples who were zealous for Jesus. Understanding the importance of diversity and unity in mission, I recognized that the best approach was to bless them, in Jesus name, hoping we could serve as partners in the Gospel. I did not feel rejected, and my hope was not dashed, because it was firmly anchored in Christ alone. On the contrary, I felt released, as if God had given me wings to fly. As we witnessed spiritual interest among various groups in the Rockland area, particularly among sheep without shepherds, we invited people to a vision casting event, on September 18, 2021. We put little effort into promoting the event, but people shared the invitation with others who could be interested. Those who were invited were people who either did not have a home church or were in church transition. We asked anyone else to include their spiritual leaders in their decision process regarding participation in the planting of a new Rockland church. We sought to honor existing spiritual leaders. The overall response we received was hope-giving. Within two weeks, about twenty people indicated they were ready to participate in gatherings focused on discipling, as we took time to plant Connexion Rockland. Hope was becoming reality. Many challenges still stood before us, but our hearts were refueled with hope.

Hope for Church Planting in a Global Pandemic


Hope is found in the presence of God. The river of God is full of water (Ps 65:9). Hope is a feeling of expectation and desire that something will happen. Our hope is in God, who is our salvation, our very help in the time of need. Hope shines when opposition to the Gospel casts dark clouds over our lives. Hope lightens our hearts when the absence of human resources is heavy. Hope paints a picture in full color, on scarcely apparent sketches of truth. Hope catapults the lonely heart, amid seemingly uncaring crowds. When life seems to go on for everyone else, hope is like a friend who sticks closer than a brother. Hope floods mundane habits with unstoppable spiritual vitality. Hope keeps our eyes on Jesus, when people mischaracterize us, misquote us, or mistakenly assign sinful motives to things we say. Hope is the ground for believing that something good will happen, by God’s grace. Because God is good and sovereign, He supplies relief from the sorrows of waiting. He supplies the joy of finding in Him our most precious treasure. Reliable hope comes from the assurance that our sovereign triune Shepherd accurately reveals Himself to us in appropriate ways. In the fullness of time, our wise Counselor helps us discern aspects of His plan. Our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ paid the price to redeem souls from eternal damnation for their good and His glory. Since Christ did that, He will also work out a glorious path from people to Him, through the preaching of the Gospel and the granting of repenting faith to those who seek Him. God is at work. He leads. He drives the church-planting process. Despite aggressive spiritual attacks against the unity and holiness of Jesus’ church, there is ground for hope in the success of church planting initiatives, in a national or global pandemic. I do not often understand God’s ways, but they always make sense in retrospect. Thankfully, we have God’s word. God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.

Advent Hope


May God grant us spiritual sight to discern Jesus' presence, as He opened the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. May our hope in Christ help us apprehend the power of His resurrection from the dead, to fight inner carelessness. May our hope in Jesus stand tall, on the promises of a faithful God who does not lie. Let hope fill our hearts with joy, patience, and peace. If we share in Jesus' sufferings, we will also share in Christ's comfort. Let hope in Jesus make us bold. Through the Spirit, by faith, let us eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. May our spiritual eyes be given sight to see and clutch, through hope, the riches of God's glorious inheritance in the saints. He has laid up for us in heaven, a hope which cannot be quenched by the accusations and guilt-inducing insinuations of the enemy of our souls. The helmet of the hope of salvation is our protection in challenging conversations. When we feel estranged by health policies, let the hope of eternal life in Jesus give us the unwavering assurance of the secure position granted by God in heaven to those who hope in Christ’s return. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope. Our faith (the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen) is a living hope. Let us therefore hold fast the confession of our hope. In the footsteps of Anna, daughter of Phanuel, let us labor whole-heartedly for God, as we wait expectantly for the advent of our Savior.

Deholo Nali

2021-12-02

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