the shape of leadership

Sowing in Tears, Reaping With Joy

God can redeem what may look like a ministry failure

Kristi Northup on June 17, 2019

When my husband, Wayne, and I were first starting in ministry, we became staff evangelists at Emmanuel Christian Center (Assemblies of God), a powerful church built on prayer in Minneapolis.

Pastor Mark Denyes and his wife, Shirley, planted Fridley Assembly (which became Emmanuel) in 1963 with several families in a living room. Under their leadership, it grew to more than 3,000 weekly attenders, and it has continued to grow through the years.

Before working a full day in the office, Pastor Denyes always started the morning with two hours of prayer at the church. The staff respectfully joked that the pastor was omnipresent, because if anyone did anything questionable, somehow he always appeared. 

Incredibly humble, Pastor Denyes could barely take a compliment. But that didn’t keep him from boldly preaching with a prophetic voice each Sunday. We were there as he transitioned into retirement at age 74. He was a giant of the faith.

Before the powerhouse of Emmanuel, the Denyeses had a different kind of ministry experience. In 1957, they moved their young family from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Chillicothe, Missouri, for a position at a Bible college that never materialized. Instead, they took full-time jobs and began to pastor a little full-gospel church called Chillicothe Evangelistic Center.

Pastor Denyes sold biscuits on a route that took him to eight cities in Northern Missouri, driving 200 miles a day. Shirley worked full-time in laundry service and cared for their young children.

“On a good day, we had 35 in the church,” she recalls. “But we saw some come to the Lord who had resisted a long time.”

After six difficult years, they made the decision to close the church and start again in Minneapolis. In later years, Pastor Denyes sometimes talked about their time in Chillicothe. I heard him speak of it during a chapel service at North Central University. He said, “The saddest day of my life was the day I closed the doors to that little church in Chillicothe, Missouri.”

Fifty years had passed, but the pain of it was still real. It was the only time I ever saw that stoic Canadian break down and cry.

Six years ago, Pastor Denyes went home to be with the Lord. He lived as an amazing example of one who overcame the brokenness of failure by obediently following God to build His kingdom.

Last year, I was at a Church Multiplication Network event for church planters. At dinner one night, I sat across the table from a couple I had never met, Stan and Michelle Saunders. They began telling me their story, explaining how Stan’s father had planted an independent work, Cornerstone Church, where Stan became the senior pastor in 1991.

Our failures do not belong to us, and neither do our successes.

In 2014, Stan sensed God saying, “Ask the Assemblies of God if they would consider letting you plant churches in some of their failing locations.”

Stan thought this sounded arrogant and rude. He asked God, “Do I have to say ‘failing locations’?” But the prompting wouldn’t go away.

So, Stan met with the district superintendent, who thought this was a great idea. With permission from the presbytery, Cornerstone started a campus in a little town that had an AG church building with three people attending. The congregation soon grew to more than 70 people.

The Saunderses went to another town, and another. This is how they came into the Assemblies of God. Now they are in the process of opening their fifth campus. They attended the CMN event as coaches to other rural church planters.

At the end of the conversation, I asked, “Where did you say you were from?”

Michelle replied, “A little town you’ve never heard of: Chillicothe, Missouri.”

I nearly fell out of my chair. Chillicothe, Missouri, where my former pastor had sown in tears 60 years before, and left without reaping. Out of that little town, God has raised up a healthy church that is planting churches all over Northern Missouri.

Ten months passed, and this story was still in my heart. I recently reached out to Stan and told him how much I would love for my husband to meet him. He said, “Well, we’re going to the CMN Launch event in Minneapolis next week.”

Incredibly, the event was being hosted at Emmanuel Christian Center, where Mark and Shirley Denyes had pastored for more than 40 years.

A few days later, I had the honor of introducing Stan and Michelle Saunders to Shirley Denyes. They hugged and cried, laughed and told stories like long-lost family for more than four hours that evening. It was one of the highlights of the year for me.

I’ve learned so much watching this story unfold. Psalm 126:5 says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy” (ESV). We have to remember that church planting isn’t about marketing, or giving, or location. It’s about sowing, which requires a painful sacrifice.

Perhaps you have sown ground with your tears. You don’t know what God will give birth to in that place and others through the death of your dreams. Our failures do not belong to us, and neither do our successes. Someone sows in tears. Someone reaps with joy.

The apostle Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). I’ve always thought of this verse as situational, but it is so much more than that.

We may think that the story ends with us, but the work God begins through us is ongoing. It isn’t finished when we leave. It isn’t even finished when we die. It won’t be finished until Christ returns! The end of the story for your family, your ministry and your community is not written.

No matter how discouraging some days may be, take heart. God is still working, and He will continue fulfilling His purposes until the day of Christ Jesus.

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