The Big Bait-and-Switch: How God Gives Church Planters a Vision He Never Intends to Fulfill, and Why It’s Better That Way

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Excerpted and adapted from The Honest Guide to Church Planting, Zondervan Publishing. Tom Bennardo will discuss “The Lies People Tell Church Planters” on the Frontlines show on Monday, August 31 at 2:00 p.m. ET. Register here.



Bait-and-Switch / (bāt- әnd-swĭch) / noun

1. “The action (generally illegal) of advertising goods that are an apparent bargain, with the intention of substituting inferior or more expensive goods.”

  1. “The ploy of offering a person something desirable to gain favor, then thwarting expectations with something less desirable.”
  2. What God does with the “vision” he gives church planters.

When we venture to plant a new church, vision—“a clear mental image of a preferable future”—occupies center stage. Vision is what ignites the pioneering leader’s drive and sustains them through challenges, setbacks, and roadblocks. Vision propels us forward to empower and enlist others to chase the dream—God’s dream—together.

Which only serves to amplify our utter disillusionment when we discover one more truth few are ever told about church planting: God has little intention of fulfilling the vision he gives us in the form we receive it.

God, it seems, is a master of the bait-and-switch.

Now before that gets your boxers in a bunch, consider this: allowing people to embrace a vision they’re convinced is from him and then taking it in directions he didn’t mention to accomplish purposes he didn’t disclose has always been God’s MO.

When God delivered the Israelite nation from bondage and promised them a land of their own, he led them on what turned out to be a forty-year forced march—circuitous wanderings through barren wasteland under severe conditions. They hung in there, mostly because they had no choice, but also because they carried a God-given vision of a land flowing with milk and honey on the other side of the journey (Exodus 3:8).

Those forty years were agonizing—filled with threat, vulnerability, and constant risk. The wanderers never felt settled or secure. The rations couldn’t be stored. Basic resources were limited. And then there were the infrastructure issues. Have you ever thought about what the sewage system would look like for a nomadic group roughly comparable in population to greater Cleveland?

They were willing to endure for only one reason—the vision. Milk and honey.

Imagine their surprise when, after forty years of hardship, they were informed of a few small details about inheriting the land that had been conveniently left out of the initial vision:

  • They would have to fight their way across the entirety of the country in order to claim it.
  • The opposing armies included hulking warrior-giants.
  • The free Daily Manna Bar was now closed.
  • Oh, and the milk and honey thing? That was just a metaphor. The land was fertile and all, but they would find no actual milk or honey flowing through Palestine.
  • And one more nugget. Yes, reaching the Promised Land was important, but the underlying reason for all the wandering hadn’t been primarily to reach a destination. It was to teach some heart lessons along the way.

Bottom line? Reality was going to look much different from the vision they’d been driven by for four decades. God advertised one picture and then delivered another. It’s a technique he’s regularly employed ever since.

And that brings us to you. God gives you a vision. It’s pure, lucid, and undeniable. It’s kingdom-focused and multitude-of-counselors affirmed. You see it so clearly and believe in it so deeply that nothing could sway you from your commitment to follow God to its fulfillment.

But as the story unfolds, major twists and radical turns create significant deviations from the original picture. You try to course correct, to maintain the path toward the image you’re convinced is God’s will. But the most attractive elements of the vision never materialize. Crowd sizes, baptism numbers, the spirit and tone of a thriving gospel outpost, the expansion of a unified team? No-shows. By the time you’re too far down the road to turn back, the result is light years removed from your initial vision. You’re left feeling confused and deeply disappointed, questioning whether you misinterpreted the vision in the first place, somehow failed to deliver it, or, worse, were duped by God about it.

If you decide it was that last possibility, you’ll want to call shenanigans. How can the God who is Truth draw a blueprint for something he doesn’t intend to build? How can he justify allowing you to feel absolutely convinced he’s steering your ship toward a particular port, knowing all along he’s planning to land you on an entirely different island? What kind of God does that to those who have completely committed themselves to take him at his word?

What if God’s entire purpose behind your vision to plant a church is to accomplish something that has nothing to do with you? What if the whole endeavor is actually about a singular experience he intends for someone in your core group? What if his solitary reason for moving you where you are is to position one of your children to meet and marry someone they wouldn’t have otherwise, to accomplish something through one of their grandchildren two generations away? What if everything you’re sacrificing your life to pursue is part of a plan to effectuate other kingdom goals in other places, among other people, none of which you will live to see?

Here are the big questions:

• If you know God has never intended, nor feels obligated, to produce the vision you believe he has embedded within you, will you still sign up for it? Can you release your demand that God deliver what you’ve assumed he promised you, on the basis of the fact he is God and you are not?

  • Can you accept the idea that he has a will he’s enacting but isn’t divulging, and that he doesn’t owe you explanations or outcomes?
  • Will you sell out to God’s ultimate vision, even if you know it won’t match the one you currently see?

Please hear this: in the end, no one who fully and completely answers yes to these questions will ever regret it.

Joseph declared to his brothers that the evil plans they’d conceived, and his own bold visions, fell servant to another plan that God always had in mind. His famous words, “God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20), stamped God’s trademark on every vision to follow. The final picture of God’s completed will always surpass whatever vision we might have clung to.

Your efforts to plant a church—with all its path shifts, frustrations, and disappointments—will prove just as eternally worthwhile. Romans 8:28 may be overly quoted, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The God you serve is good. He’s in control. He will prevail. Every death of a dream, every divergence from the goal, every sacrifice and failure you endure, will ultimately be swallowed up by the victory of God’s unfurled master plan—his magnum opus—accomplished through you in ways you never, ever saw coming.

When this great adventure is complete, we’ll stand before his throne, cast whatever crowns he’s awarded back at his feet, bow in worship, and erupt in applause at the genius and generosity of the Most High God. He’ll have done more marvelous things than we could ever have imagined and will have allowed us the honor of being co-journeyers on the greatest adventure the world has ever known.

That is a vision worth surrendering everything for.

Tom Bennardo will discuss “The Lies People Tell Church Planters” on the Frontlines show on Monday, August 31 at 2:00 p.m. ET. Register here.

We are better together!

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
John 17:22-23

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