Pulling Back the Curtain – Part V

Curtain-Pulled-Back-300x204As a church planter, I’ve been posting over the last few months about some of the things happening behind the curtain. The purpose is both accountability and demystifying it so as not to seem like the Wizard of Oz.

Church planting during a pandemic is interesting. In fact, the first service that we did online after the stay at home order was issued by our governor in Virginia was on our six month anniversary. What a nice anniversary present, right? But a lot has happened in the six months leading up to that and the month and a half since the stay at home order was issued. One of the most significant things is that in just a few days, we will be moving into our first space.

One thing that I’ve learned during this process is that holding your plans loosely is not only encouraged but almost essential. Things rarely happen the way that you would like them to and the sooner you realize that, the better off you will be. Rolling with the punches is a necessary occurrence on almost a daily basis.

After a few months of searching for a possible location prior to our launch, we were getting nowhere. Strip malls had told us that they wouldn’t lease to a church. This was the case with the strip mall that most fit our needs and was located within walking distance of the community that we had felt God calling us to reach. It was disappointing news, but a few pastor friends in town had offered their spaces as possibilities for me, so I knew that we would have a location somewhere, it just might not have been exactly what we were looking for to start.

Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that the Holy Spirit had given me that we would be in this strip mall. I couldn’t explain it, but after one of my administrative team told me the answer he got back from the property agent about not leasing to a church, I said something to the effect of, “If God wants us to be there, he will make a way. I’m not worried.”

Now, there are a handful of times in my life when I’ve said things that were fairly uncharacteristic of me, things that just didn’t make logical sense. The only way that I would say something like them would be if they came from a God confidence that was lurking somewhere deep inside. This was one of those times. The engineer in me has a tendency to NEED to know what’s happening and have all my ducks lined up in a row. When that doesn’t happen, I can have a tendency to freak out a little bit.

Still a chance conversation with a leasing agent in June before we launched eventually led to another phone call nearly four months later on Halloween while I was having lunch with a friend in the very plaza we had felt pulled towards. That phone call turned into more phone calls, emails, and texts as well as conversations with my team. It led to lots of prayers and even more phone calls to friends and colleagues.

The thing about the October phone call was that I had told the leasing agent in June not to contact me until after January 1st. While I was still a rookie church planter, I knew enough to know that we needed to establish ourselves before finding a more permanent location. I was probably a little annoyed at the agent for contacting me two months early, but I’ve come to realize that sometimes God drops opportunities in your lap that you need to entertain, opportunities that sometimes seem so outlandish, unreasonable, and even impossible that they almost might work.

Nearly two months later, as I was readying myself for a trip with my thirteen year old son to celebrate his 13th birthday trip from his grandparents at Universal Orlando and also preparing for Christmas, I was running around trying to find a way to make it work for us to actually get into a space that seemed to be twice as big as we needed but the exact same price as other places that were half the size.

As an aside, not only was this location in the VERY plaza that we had felt drawn to for the sake of our mission, but the space was 1000 times better kept than the other spaces in the very same plaza we had looked at. My team had talked about not wanting to move into a space that we would outgrow in a short period of time, this space remedied that, leaving us plenty of space to grow. In addition, my attempt to “beat the bushes” and find additional funds to help us afford this dream was met with incredible encouragement and not just one year’s partial support, but two.

Now I sit here, days away from moving into this space. This space that seemed impossible. This space that seemed too good to be true. This space that would act as a mission outpost in our community. As I think about all the pieces coming together, I am constantly reminded of dreaming dreams that are big enough that only God can accomplish. This dream is certainly that big.

We are stepping out in faith and, if I’m honest, there’s some fear in there as well. I feel like Peter in the boat, poised and ready to step onto the water when Jesus calls him. I feel like the Israelites on the banks of the flooded Jordan River, ready and waiting to step into the promised land but having no dry path to get there. Peter stepped out and took his eyes off Jesus, causing him to sink. The Israelites stepped into the flooding waters before they eventually parted, leaving them a clear path to the other side.

Faith rarely affords us a perfectly mapped out gameplan that we can see, as the Who sang, for miles and miles. Instead, the image of a lantern to our path, shedding light to the few feet immediately before us seems like a better analogy. I want to see more, but I can’t. If I could see more, would it really be faith.

I can’t take any credit for what’s happened up to this point. The only thing that I have been is obedient, and I haven’t even done that well. God has been driving this and I am grateful to be along for the ride. This is actually giving me the chance to model the very things that I have taught and preached and spoken of for years. This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

This feels like Christmas to me, or a first date, or the first day of college. It’s a bit overwhelming, scary, humbling, and exciting all wrapped into one. I know that God’s got this. I know that this space will only help us do the very thing he has called us to do, especially as I look at my dining room full of food collected to help the very neighbors who will now be within walking distance of this new space. This isn’t a space that we will be using on Sundays and then leaving vacant the rest of the week. This isn’t a space that we are relying on to establish ourselves in the community (although it won’t hurt), but rather an outpost that will allow us to have feet on the ground and be more effective at becoming a place where life and faith meet so that God can break down barriers to his grace.

It’s exciting and scary and I know that this wild ride just got a little more wild. Here we go!

 

Middle Man

middlemenI always find it fascinating in my life when two unrelated conversations happen to converge on some of the same subjects and material, especially when I wasn’t the one to have steered them that way.

I think that I can safely say that all of us continue to use words like “interesting” and “challenging” and “unprecedented” to describe the days in which we are living. I’m pretty sure that I would have been feeling that regardless of the situation I’m in, but the situation that I am in, being the pastor of a six month old church start up, has made all of those descriptors seem more apropos.

The other day, I was in desperate need of getting some work done, a need that was being elusively filled at my house. I still share an office with the church who sent us out to plant our new church. I decided to go to my office as I knew no more than one person would be there.

After finding myself more productive than I had been at home, I walked down the hall to poke my head in on one of the other pastors working in his office. As we talked about our own experiences and families from a safe social distance, he made a statement that stuck with me for the rest of the day. He said, “It seems like there are a bunch of pastors who are trying to justify their jobs during this time.”

He went on to say that he wasn’t feeling that at all but instead was feeling like this time, in many ways, was justifying and even demanding more of him. When he said that, it hit me right between the eyes as I realized he had articulated something that I had been feeling over the last few weeks.

I’ve been exhausted on so many levels over these past few weeks. To start, this is one of the worst times of the year for me and my allergies. While I’ve been getting allergy shots over the past few years and I take allergy medication, my allergy doctor has reminded me that there are always reactions and symptoms of those allergies. I’ve been feeling those big time.

I’ve been emotionally exhausted while five of us share the same space. While we all love each other, there is a new normal to acclimate to which is just different. That adjustment has been exhausting.

There’s the unknown which in and of itself is something to adjust to as well. That’s exhausting. My friend and fellow pastor described it best as going on a foreign mission trip and having to learn and adjust. All good things, but very tiring.

But my friend’s statement about pastors feeling the need to justify themselves and their existence, it struck me. I’ve seen it and it reminded me of a line from “Blazing Saddles” where Mel Brooks’ character tells his team of advisors, “We’ve got to protect our phoney baloney jobs.” I wondered to myself, how many pastors are out there right now who are feeling that same sentiment?

Thankfully, I haven’t felt that as much. What I have felt is that the needs of the people have skyrocketed. I’m not talking about people within my congregation, although they can be included, but the needs of people in general. People are scared. People are worried. People are depressed. People are angry. People are grieving. People are really experiencing the stages of grief as we journey through the unknown.

Those are the things that I’ve sensed in my reading, in my conversations, in my journeys through the community. If meeting people who are scared, worried, depressed, angry, and grieving doesn’t cry out for the presence of a pastor who can bring a message of love, hope, and peace, then I don’t know what does.

It was right around the time of this first conversation that another friend sent the lyrics to me from a song from one of my favorite bands, the Avett Brothers. We had a conversation here and there about it before, but she was pressing on me for my thoughts on the words.

The grandfather of the Avett Brothers was a pastor, so there is a deep faith rooted in them that they sing about often. On the song in question called “Me and God” they speak about a pastor who is a good man but express their belief that they don’t need a “middle man.” They can experience God in the various things of life, romance, music, work, and other things. They talk about going to church and even swearing when they pray, and the song concludes with them repeating the refrain, “My God and I don’t need a middle man.”

Why did this song hit me like it did when it did? Well, I agree with them, we don’t need a middle man. It kind of goes back to why the Reformation happened. Among the things that defined the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers, the fact that the only mediator we need is Jesus Christ, so we don’t have to pray or confess through anyone else (although there are commands to confess to one another in the Bible).

You see, I don’t see pastors as middle men, I see them as side men. There may be times when it seems like they’re leading the expedition and no one else can do that, but if that’s the position that they always find themselves in, then they’re doing something wrong. There is education and experience required for being a pastor, but the calling of a pastor is to discipleship, to teaching others how they can look more like Jesus and follow him more closely.

It’s kind of like parenting, when your children are young, there is a need for more guidance and instruction, but at some point, if they grow and mature the way they should, it becomes more of a growing with them, a walking with them, rather than a directing and guiding.

Maybe one of the reasons this whole season is uncomfortable for some pastors is because they’ve forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. Maybe they forgot that it wasn’t about always being in front but more being alongside. I don’t feel like I need to justify myself to anyone, instead, I feel like I need to lead in such a way that others will follow. And once they’re following, the positions and postures change and we find ourselves walking alongside each other on this journey called life, helping each other to become more like Jesus.

Kingdom or Empire

seed-in-hand-copyLike so many other pastors during this strange and uncertain time, I’ve been rethinking a lot of things, not the least of which is how we go about doing ministry. It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for far longer than the few days that we’ve found ourselves  in the place we’re in. I’ve really been asking that question since I started in full-time vocational ministry nearly sixteen years ago.

Not only am I a pastor but I’m also a church planter. I snicker to myself as I write this, thinking about what an interesting time it is to try to build a church. Then I have to stop myself and realize that while I am and have been working to build a local community and expression of the church, my bigger goal and desire is to show people Jesus. Yes, I make a living as a pastor, but if that becomes my driving force, I think I’m missing the point.

Do I worry during these days? Sure. It’s a little unnerving not knowing what’s next, when all this social distancing can stop and we can go back to gathering in groups of ten people or more to do the things that we are so used to doing. Do I get anxious? Sure. I’ve done my best to stop looking at my retirement savings in these last few days as they continue to diminish in large quantities.

But I have hope that’s beyond the circumstances. If I don’t, then I’m a fraud and I probably shouldn’t be doing what I do. Again, that doesn’t mean 100% absolute surety that everything is going to be all right and that this won’t touch me at all. I’ve been touched by tragedy before and I’m sure it will touch me again. During that tragedy, I still knew God was there. He didn’t manifest himself the way that I would have liked him to. I wished for and prayed for better things, but that’s not what I got.

Or did I?

Every parent knows that if we gave our kids everything that they asked for, we would just end up with a bunch of spoiled kids. And there are often times when the things that our kids ask for and the things that our kids need are not the same thing. Giving them what they need often has to win out over giving them what they want. While they may think they know what they need and equate their wishes and desires with their needs, parents generally know better.

So, do we trust our heavenly father? Do we trust that he knows what’s best for us?

As I keep thinking through why I became a pastor and church planter, I keep reminding myself that I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t want to see if I could build an empire. I didn’t want to see if I could stand there checking off all the people as they walked through the door, puffing myself up with every check mark I added. I certainly didn’t become a pastor to get rich. If I had wanted money, I’d have stayed in the engineering world. Get-rich-quick pastors aren’t preaching the same gospel that I believe in.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. The kingdom is here and is coming. A now and not yet. Leaving his church, his people, to do the work of the kingdom meant expanding that, not through buildings but through people. The church isn’t buildings. The church isn’t programs.

I’ve told people over and over again that I want to have a kingdom vision of the Church. I want to think beyond myself. I want to think towards a God-sized vision, a kingdom vision, a vision of people meeting Jesus. To think that only happens through my local expression of the Church might be one of the most arrogant things that I could think. If I only want people to come to my church, then do I really have a kingdom vision? If I really want people to meet Jesus, shouldn’t I be okay with them ending up anywhere he is preached and worshipped?

These are trying times, and I know that everyone, including those who are part of the church, is feeling overwhelmed and anxious. But I do see it as an opportunity. I see my focus staying the same but I see myself changing my medium. Instead of face to face conversations at my local coffee shop, I’m trying to evoke thoughts and conversations online. Instead of speaking to a roomful of people every Sunday evening, I’m speaking to a screen and sharing the same hope that I would be sharing if I were with them in person.

You see, I want people to see Jesus. I want people to know Jesus. He’s the only reason that I’m not freaking out right now. He’s the only thing that’s keeping me somewhat sane right now. Without him, I have no idea where I would be. If they can know that, if they can see what he means to me and the difference that it makes, then I’ve done exactly what I’m supposed to do.

I’m doing my best to be part of building a kingdom. Empires crumble and fall. Empires are built around people and their arrogance and power. The kingdom I want to be a part of building has a king who is loving and selfless and gracious and kind. He gave up his only son so that we might live. He calls us to be part of his kingdom, but he doesn’t force us there. He urges us there. He loves us there. He pursues us until we finally realize just how much he loves us. He is a gentleman king whose love far surpasses anything that we could ask or think or imagine.

I have no idea what will be when this is all behind us. So many church plants fail within the first twelve to eighteen months. But I have to keep reminding myself that my main goal isn’t to build a church, to build an empire, it’s to build the kingdom. I get to be part of that no matter what I’m doing, and no virus can take that away from me.

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part IV

Curtain-Pulled-Back-300x204Identity. Where does it come from? Where do we find it? How stable is it?

Having had a father who was a pastor for more than 40 years, I began to see chinks in the armor towards the end of his life. A guy who had answered the phone, “Pastor Gibson,” every time someone called the house, it seemed that his identity was steeped in what he did rather than who he was.

At the end of his life, when that was gone, it’s hard for me not to think that loss of that identity contributed to his lostness. He didn’t know what to do with himself at that point.

I’m not judging him, just making observations that hit close to home. As I’ve been on this church planting journey, I am all too aware for myself how I can wrap my identity up in a worldly view of success. Am I building the biggest church? Do people like me? Am I following the Holy Spirit or the constituency which cries out for what they want?

Knowing the potential for problems doesn’t guarantee that you avoid them, but it sure makes you more self-aware. I continue to go back to something that my cousin, a church planter as well, said to me when I was very early in this process. In my cocky and self-assured way, I had said that I wanted to hear all the mistakes he had made so that I could avoid them. His reply was that I might avoid the mistakes that he made, but I would still make plenty of my own. #humbled

It continually brings me back to the question of how we measure our success. Do I simply count dollars and people? Is that an effective measurement? I don’t think it is.

But how do you measure impact, especially when you can’t always see it? How can you dig beneath the surface to try to understand what’s really going on in a person?

Through relationship. Through one on one conversations. It seems so completely contrary to everything that I learned, but it also seems to make the most sense. Investing doesn’t mean that I find the biggest group of people, sit them in a room, preach to them, and then wait for everything to finally sink in. Investment means that I know the value and importance of one on one relationships, that I know the value and importance of being present with people in the moment.

As I continue to pull back the curtain to see what’s lurking back there in the dark, it’s too easy to want to pull it back again and cover up everything that I find there. But airing it out, hanging it on the line for all to see is so much more therapeutic. I’m beginning to understand more and more why James wrote that we should confess our sins to one another. When we do it with people we love and trust and who love and trust us, it’s accountability and helps us as we move forward.

I am who God says I am. I’m not who anyone else tells me that I am. I’m not my last failure nor my last success. I’m not my anger, my grief, my pain, my sorrow, my fear, my lust, my ego, or anything else. Those things won’t define me unless I let them.

So I’ll continue to press on towards the mark for the prize. The prize isn’t more people or more money, it’s the high calling of Jesus Christ. That calling is more important than anything else, an invitation to join the kingdom work that God has called us to.

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part III

Curtain-Pulled-Back-300x204Transparency.

It’s a word that people seem to love to throw around and yet one that seems to be exhibited much less frequently than we might like to admit.

As I continued on my church planting journey, I keep trying to admit to myself and those whom I lead that most of the time, I probably don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m running on instinct more often than not, exploring the places that seem natural and, sometimes, unnatural to me.

The other day, I had just finished up a meeting at a local elementary school. I was excited to see more partnerships developing. As I was leaving the meeting, I was marveling at what was being accomplished. In my opinion, partnerships are the quintessential means by which to achieve goals. Keep your self-righteous and pompous views that you can accomplish anything you want if you put your mind to it, I’ll gladly join with others to see how much more we can accomplish together.

I’ve been to conferences and seminars. I’ve listened to podcasts and read books. When it comes down to it, I feel like a lot of what I do comes out of the things that make the most sense to me. I’m not modeling it any one thing that I’ve seen, I’m just going with what I know.

For years in ministry, I’ve heard people say, “People just want to be lead.” It was uttered so many times that it began to grate on me. But the truth of the statement and its simplicity may be just why it seems to grate. We sometimes look for solutions that are much more complicated than they need to be. We assume that somehow, if we figure out a complex solution to a somewhat complex problem, we’ve somehow earned our money and justified our own existence.

But solutions are rarely as complicated as the people who solicit them. Simple is better and I’ve more often than not found that simple solutions are not only among the most effective, but also the most easily explained and embraced when trying to lead others.

I sat in another meeting this past week and heard someone thank me for modeling what I am asking of my team. I scratched my head and said, “I couldn’t do anything else.” To ask others for something that I am unwilling to give myself is hypocrisy of the greatest sort, management rather than leadership.

I’ve often said that my greatest sermons come out of the deepest sense of preaching to myself. The moment that I have someone else in mind as a target for a sermon is the moment that I take the transparency out of it. But when I’m preaching to myself, it usually translates to some ounce of truth that could be helpful for others. Preaching out of what God is teaching me is the only way that I really know how to do it. So if I can’t do that, it either means God’s not teaching me anything, or more realistically, I’m not listening.

Church planting can be a lonely journey. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with a team of people whose commitment to the mission and vision is beyond lip service. There is no room in church planting for people who simply want to put on a good show and cast a pretty picture to those around them that they’re getting it done. It’s far too important a calling to simply put on accoutrements that make us look as if we’re accomplishing something that we’re not.

Over and over again, I marvel at the place to where God has brought me. While I might arrogantly attempt to take much of the credit, if I’m honest, I just can’t. Too much of what has happened and is happening is not my own doing. There are Divine fingerprints on so much, I feel that I’m simply following the trail to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.

During this season of Advent when there is anticipation, expectation, and excitement for what is to come, it’s a reminder to me of just how important it is to hold these things beyond just this season. If I am not constantly anticipating, expecting, and excited about what is to come, I had better check myself. If I think I’ve got it figured out and I’m leaning on my own understanding, I had better check myself.

The roller coaster ride of ministry may just be a more magnified version of life, having more pronounced and dramatic peaks and valleys. I’ve been in that valley in recent days and finally had to just step away. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if anyone tells you that there is, you might want to distance yourself from them, especially if they’re your boss or supervisor.

I’ll continue to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s going on back here. It’s not always as magical as it might seem, but that’s the beauty of it and part of the Divine mystery and miracle: God accomplishes the extraordinary through the ordinary. I’m not anything special and somehow God chooses to use me to be a part of the unfolding of his plan. That’s reason to boast, but not about myself, about the One whose plan I get to be a part of. If that doesn’t give me reason to anticipate, expect, and be excited, I had better check my pulse.

Pulling Back the Curtain, Part II

ПечатьA month into this church planting journey, I feel like I’m getting more insights every day. I’ve known since the day I left my engineering career to take a job in full-time vocational ministry that it’s a calling and not for the weak of heart. Church planting is no exception to this.

Last year, as I was in the pre-launch phase of the church plant, I told people all the time that I had never experienced more self-doubt than I had during that season of life. I’m not generally a person who struggles with confidence, but that season was rough for me. Rough, but good, as I realized that self-confidence should be replaced with God-confidence, knowing where my confidence should be rooted.

Ministry in general, especially in smaller settings, can be incredibly lonely. You’re busy running around and checking on the welfare of everyone else and not everyone is conscious of the fact that no one is checking on you. So, you need to be proactive and make sure that you’ve got someone who you can lean on in those times. Lone rangers in ministry rarely last long. In fact, I think the road of ministry is littered with the broken lives of those lone rangers.

In an effort to continue to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s behind it, I want to share some insights from this first month and a half (and all the time leading up to it as well).

1) Measuring, Not Counting

A few months ago, a friend of mine shared some insight with me that I couldn’t stop mulling over in my head. We were talking about the metrics by which churches answered the question of whether or not they were “successful.” I told him that I was tired of the “nickels and noses” model, where we count how many butts in the chairs and how much money we had raised.

He said that we needed to move to a place of measuring rather than counting. We measure life change and transformation in people. That’s not something that you can easily do if you’re just counting the people and their money.

Standing there in our worship space Sunday after Sunday, as the clock moves closer and closer to the time of our worship service,  my heart sinks further down if no one shows up (thankfully, that hasn’t happened). It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to wonder what I’m doing wrong.

But we need to move beyond just butts in the seats. Are we making a difference? Are the people who are coming being impacted for Christ? Would it matter if we were here or not? These are the more important questions, in my opinion. These are the things to measure, impact and influence.

2) Trends Take Time

The world is a very different place than it was when I was a kid. The church is also very different than when I was a kid. Assessing today based on yesterday is really hard. Solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions is downright silly (go read “Canoeing the Mountains”).

As much as I would like to see every person in a worship service every weekend, I know that expectation is unreasonable. Life happens. Stuff happens. While I think being part of a faith community is essential for spiritual formation, people need a reason to care and a reason to invest their time into something.

I don’t know how long it takes to see patterns and trends in data, but I can tell you without a doubt that it’s not six weeks. It’s like farming or gardening, you do the behind the scenes stuff and then just wait. We are doing our best to do that behind the scenes stuff, outreach, relationship building, consistently and persistently. We will watch the trends over time and see what we see.

3) Where Your Treasure Is, Your Heart Is Also

One of the best books that I read in preparation for this journey (other than the Bible) is a book by Simon Sinek called “Start With Why.” It’s a book that I think is an essential read, not just for church planters, but for pastors as well.

Churches have gotten really good at telling everybody “What” they do but have forgotten (or never even knew) how to tell people “Why” they do it. The “What” is not nearly as compelling as the “Why.” People rarely give to “What” but they may give to “Why.” People want to make a difference and they want to see that they are making a difference.

If someone is going to give their hard-earned money towards something, they want to make sure that it’s worth it. That makes perfect sense to me.

At the same time, this is one of those things that needs to be measured. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” When people give to a local faith community, the local expression of the church, it’s a pretty good indicator that someone believes in what’s happening. So, if they begin to give of their hard-earned money towards the vision, then it’s probably because they believe in that vision.

4) Vision Casting

Speaking of vision, it’s something that needs to be spoken of often.

I think that some pastors and planters get the idea that because they believe strongly in something and think about it all day, every day, that everyone else does the same.

Not the case.

People live busy lives. I don’t say that as an excuse, I say that because it’s true. I think that part of the responsibility of pastors is to continue to help people remember to be looking at their world through a specific lens, the lens of a Christian worldview.

They won’t necessarily do that on their own, they need help with that. They need reminders. Those reminders need to happen beyond just the Sunday worship service. When they walk out of your church on Sunday, it’s possible that they might not think as deeply about Christ again until the following Sunday.

Vision casting is about letting people see just how seeing the world through the eyes of Christ can impact them. It’s about letting them see God’s vision for the world, that Jesus cares for those in the world who are furthest from him as well as those who are close to him. This needs to happen often, otherwise people forget.

5) Culture Making

The same friend who I talked about measuring versus counting with also had a conversation with me about culture making. We talked about Andy Crouch’s book of the same name. Many people within the Church are critical of the culture in which we live, I understand that, but what is the Church doing to combat that? How does the Church combat that?

Crouch, in his book, talks about how the best way to change culture is to create culture. If we are dissatisfied with what we see in culture, are we creating a new culture? I won’t go through all that Crouch says, but this means so much more than just creating a “Christian” alternative to what’s already happening. 

Honestly, I could write a whole post (if not a whole blog series) on this, but the long and short of it is that we create culture in what we do. What kind of culture are we creating? People may be attracted to programs and certain offerings of the Church, but those things won’t necessarily make them stick. They need something more.

If I marry someone just because they are beautiful and there is nothing more to our relationship, that relationship will be short lived, because it’s based on something fleeting. But if I find someone attractive outwardly, get to know them, and find them even more attractive inwardly because of their character, it’s more likely that the relationship will have staying power.

What kind of culture are we creating in our local expressions of the Church? Are we just offering a place where people can run and hide from the big bad world that lurks beyond the doors? Or are we seeking to create a culture that engages the world beyond our doors, seeking to have conversations about what Jesus means to us and why he matters?

I’m far from done learning on this journey, but I will keep sharing as I go. I’m no expert and will make far more mistakes, but it’s in those mistakes that we can learn the most. I’ll keep pulling back the curtain for anyone who wants to see. Hopefully, the insights that I’m gaining might be helpful for even one other person in this journey.

 

Pulling Back the Curtain – Part I

ПечатьI have been on a church planting journey unofficially for about a year. The decision to plant happened sometime in the summer of 2018. Throughout the Fall of that year, plans were being made, funds were being raised, a team was being assembled, and prayers were being prayed. In January 2019, it became official, we had received our 501c3 status a few months before and we were ready to begin the pre-launch process.

Growing up in the church, the concept of church planting was not foreign to me. But I definitely encountered a number of people who looked at me sideways if I used the term. It sounds kind of weird if you don’t have a church background. Most people just want to say that you are starting a new church, which is much simpler and probably leads to less staring.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued to strive for authenticity from myself and the people around me. Authenticity and transparency. I get a little tired of things being shrouded in secrecy. Maybe it’s a result of growing up in a pastor’s home where Mom and Dad were always whispering about something. Nowadays, even with my kids, I probably tell them way more than they should know, but secrets never helped me in my own formation, so why should I think it will help them?

All this being said, I know that some of the most powerful lessons that I have learned in life have come from two places: learning from the mistakes of others and learning from my own mistakes. Throughout this church planting journey (as I seem to keep referring to it), I’ve decided that I need to pull back the curtain to show what’s behind it. While there are multiple reasons for it, the two main ones that jump out are that it will provide some accountability and it will also demystify what’s back there.

Two weeks after launching the first public worship service of our church startup (aka church plant, The Branch), the big question I was bombarded with was, “How’s it going?” I knew everyone meant well, but it’s a far bigger question than a two minute conversation thrown out in passing at the grocery store. I’ve never been known for brevity in words, and this time is no exception, so asking such a gigantic question and leaving me limited space to answer is hard for me.

The answer that I consistently gave to those who asked was that church planting is a little like tracking your 401k, it’s more about the long game, the journey, the trajectory. If you look at it day after day, it’s easy to get frustrated, angry, scared, worried, nervous, anxious, and a variety of other emotions that are based on its instability. Church planting, like a 401k, is not about overnight success.

I’m not sure what everyone wants to hear when I am asked that question, but I have desperately fought to not simply throw out numbers. Telling people how many people were at our launch service and how many we have had every Sunday since is tempting but not a true indicator of what’s really going on. Unfortunately, that seems to be the way we count in the 21st century church. I call it “nickels and noses.” How much money do you have and how many people are coming?

If that’s what we’re counting, than we aren’t measuring something that gives a deeper indication of the change or transformation that is happening in the people who come, in our community, and in ourselves. I didn’t start a church from scratch to see how big it could get, I started a church from scratch because a) it was what I felt God was calling me to and b) I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. Despite popular belief, walking through the doors of a church and sitting in a chair or pew doesn’t automatically equate to life change and transformation.

So, I’ve tried to get into the habit of talking about what I am seeing beneath any numbers. I’m talking about things that some church planters might not be talking about. I’m walking with a high school student through depression, identity, and thoughts of self-harm. I’m visiting a recently graduated young man in prison, I’m spending time on the psych ward of a hospital with a friend, brother, and fellow sojourner. I dare say that you’re not going to see a ton of church planters doing these things.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to distinguish myself as different, outside the norm. I like to mess with people’s preconceived notions. It’s probably heavily linked to being an Enneagram 8, but I also think it’s because I’ve grown tired of settling for the status quo and the norms that are too easily passed off as prerequisites for success.

We don’t have tons of people coming to our Sunday worship service, but we are beginning to make a mark. We’re caring for people. We’re caring for our town in small ways. We’re doing our best to seek the peace and prosperity of the place where God has planted us. We are partnering with others whose heart beats with a similar beat.

So, if you run into me in public and you decide you just might go there and ask me how it’s going, be prepared, you probably won’t get a statistical resume of how wonderful of a leader I am (I’m not) and how amazingly successful we’ve been so far. Instead, I might just tell you a story, a story of how God is beginning to break down barriers one at a time. While others are doing their best to put up walls, we’re trying to break some down. If you want to hear stories like that, then go ahead, ask away.

I Need, We Need

As I am on the heels of kicking off a new faith community, a lot of my thoughts have been about the church. Not only have I been in full-time vocational ministry for the last fifteen years, but I grew up in the home of a pastor and can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t connected in some way to a local church community.

Starting a church from scratch has given me the opportunity to look at everything with fresh eyes, as if I had never experienced any of it before. When you start things from scratch, you don’t get to say, “We’ve always done it that way.” There can be no excuses.There are no magic formulas. There should be no sacred cows.

I have spent the last few years focusing on StrengthsFinders and how it relates to people within the church community. One of the key uses of StrengthsFinders is to help people connect with what will engage them in their jobs. It made sense to me, as I thought about StrengthsFinders, that the same application could be used within the church. Couldn’t we look for the ways that we would be engaged in our church to find out how we could stick better?

When we start looking at ourselves as pieces of a bigger picture, we move from simply looking for ways to have our needs met to looking to help meet the needs that we see before us. We don’t just ask what I need, but we also ask what we need.

I had a meeting the other day with a few friends, two of whom have been on this church planting journey with me. All three of these friends have a strong voice of advocacy for their own special needs children. I brought us all together to consider what we can be doing as a new church to consider this important community and how they can fit and integrate into what God is building in and through us.

As we talked about different local expressions of the church, one of my friends talked about this very concept of needs. When we fail to see who the church is and why she exists, we fail to move past the question of what she can do for me. We simply see the church as an organization that provides goods for us to consume.

But what happens when we ask ourselves how the church needs me. The way that I see it, in community, we should be transformed and be transforming. Not only are we transforming, but we should be part of that transformation process in others. We should be seeking to be used and to use the gifts that we have for the sake of the community as well.

When we come to this place, we began to see how we fit into the big picture, we begin to see that if we are truly seeking to be used, then our community needs us as much as we need our community.

It was a beautiful reminder of the mutuality of community. Any kind of relationship that is one-sided will grow stale at best, will lead to some kind of abuse or burnout at worst. But when we find the mutual aspects of community, finding our way, our use, and our purpose, it changes the whole thing.

So, considering our place in community, how do we move from simply asking how I am getting what I need and move to the place of helping us with what we need? I think we need to understand who we are, how we are made, and what we have to offer. If we can identify that first, that’s a great step in the right direction of helping us stick better and find our purpose in the place that God has brought us.

Fearful

home aloneAs the day approaches when we will publicly launch out our new church, it’s been a journey of faith for me, my family, and the team of people who have joined us to embark on this new adventure.

I met with a friend yesterday, thinking, dreaming, planning for the future as we look at how we can collectively, with our two churches, press into the place where God has planted us. 1 John 4:18 came up in our conversation, a verse that I’ve quoted many times in years past. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

I told my friend that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s fear.

There have been many days along the way that I could easily have been gripped by fear. There will be many days ahead where I could be gripped by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the inability to provide for my family. Fear of failure.

But there are also many times along the way that I have seen my faith multiplied and enlarged. In those moments when fear begins to creep in, slowly threatening to overtake me, God has allowed these small glimpses of what could be, propelling me forward with just enough hope to get me over the next hill, kind of like the little engine that could.

Fear tells us that we can’t. Faith tells us that God can.

Fear tells us that we aren’t enough. Faith tells us that God is everything.

Fear tells us that it’s impossible. Faith tells us that all things are possible with God.

I have refused to be gripped by fear in all of this, and every single time that I am ready to give up, to throw in the towel, to pack it all up and walk away, I am reminded that the driving force behind what I am doing has nothing to do with trying to be good or look good or succeed, it has everything to do with feeling called to do what we are doing.

There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.

I believe that I am loved by the One who created me. I believe that he has given me the talents and strengths to do what he has called me to do. I believe that he can sustain me and that just as the author of the Book of Hebrews says, he can equip me with everything I need to accomplish his will.

Is it easy? No. Is it comfortable? No. Do I wish that I didn’t have to walk in faith? Sometimes. But the whole reason why I am at this place in my life, fifteen years away from a successful engineering career, is because I didn’t feel like I could make the same difference in the world around me as an engineer as I can as a pastor. That’s not to say that engineers can’t make a difference, just that as an engineer, I didn’t feel like I could be as effective as I can doing what I am doing now.

And so, we press forward in faith, not fear.

Many people tell me that this is what I was made for, to do this, to launch out. I can echo those sentiments and I see this as the culmination of years of being shaped and formed.

Only time will tell whether or not we are “successful” in the eyes of the world. But in the eyes of God, I would much rather be faithful and faith-filled than successful, because I think in his eyes, faithful and faith-filled actually amounts to success.

 

Owning vs. Taking Ownership

I had a conversation with a good friend last night about all that’s happening in my life right now. As we get ready to start this brand new church in a matter of weeks, so many different things are coming to the surface.

Having grown up within the established church, I’ve got my fair share of stories. Despite the fallibility of people, I realized a long time ago that my faith wasn’t supposed to be in them but rather in Jesus. People will disappoint you, discourage you, let you down, and sometimes stab you in the back. We encounter people like that within the church and we are surprised but I don’t think that it should be any more a surprise to us than when we find sick people when we go to the hospital.

It’s not the surprise of finding them in church, it’s the surprise that the behavior is tolerated and sometimes even encouraged. Yes, Christ came to heal because it is the sick who need a doctor, but doctors generally give some direction on a plan of health and wellness to be on the road to recovery. If patients fail to follow that, they can’t be surprised when they don’t get better and feel better.

Over my years within the church, I’ve heard the statistics that 80% of the work of the church is done by 20% of the people. I’m not sure how accurate those statistics are and, frankly, I’m not sure I care because anything less than 100% of engagement means that we still need to be working so that people can not just attend church but be part of the church.

It makes me think about the difference between owning something and taking ownership of something. You see, I think that there are some people in the 21st century who believe that they own the church but they don’t want to take ownership OF the church.

Owning something means that you paid a price to possess it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you take care of it once you have it. It might mean that you pay someone else to take care of it. It may mean that you don’t take care of it at all.

But taking ownership of something means that possessing it isn’t the main goal, it means that you take responsibility for it. When it succeeds, you rejoice. When it fails, you lament. As it goes, so you go. You don’t abandon it when things aren’t going well. You stick by it.

A few years back, a phrase became popular to utter, “I love Jesus, but I hate the church.” The thing about that phrase is that the church is the bride of Christ. So, if you say that you love Jesus and hate the church, that’s like telling your best friend that you love him but you think his wife is a……well, you get it.

As we launch out with this new church, I want to allow God to build us into a place where people take ownership. I don’t want people to feel like because they have given money towards the ministry of the church that they somehow own the church and get to call the shots. If anyone owns the church, it’s Jesus, she is his bride, but I don’t think it’s about owning, it’s about loving and committing to her.

No, the church is not perfect, but neither are any of us. Abandoning her when she shows her imperfections is no better than abandoning your spouse the moment he or she begins to show that they are human.

I hope and pray that when people come to see what God is building through us, the specific local expression of his body, that they will see people taking ownership of the church rather than owning the church. I hope that they see beyond the flaws of the people who are there and instead see the flawless head of the church, Jesus Christ, who we are all seeking to be more like every day.