Some thoughts on church planting…
So, over the past year, I’ve learned a few things.
Allow me now to take a step back and emphasize that the above statement is probably my UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE YEAR. To say that I’ve learned a few things through this long, grueling process doesn’t even begin to do justice to the events of the last year and the subsequent wisdom gleaned over that time. Not that I consider myself to have now arrived in church planting. I confess that the majority of lessons learned were hard ones that I never saw coming (and most likely fought kicking and screaming all the way). Nevertheless, as I look back on the year (yes, it’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I stepped down at FBTC), I am amazed at the journey. Here are a few brief thoughts about some of the more surprising tidbits gleaned in the school of hard knocks affectionately called ‘church planting.’
1. God really does provide for his people, but that rarely means things are easy.
This year has been anything but easy. I finished last year as a student pastor who showed up daily to a relatively physically undemanding job (unless you count late night express trips to Six Flags and pizza five times a week physically taxing). Now, I go to work every day I can as a general contractor doing anything and everything under the sun. This year, I have painted houses, pressure washed, cut yards, landscaped, flipped houses, installed electronics, cleaned out foreclosures, painted murals, roofed, changed out appliances, installed lights and fans, laid tile, renovated kitchens and bathrooms, replaced rotten soffit boards, patched drywall, installed wood floors, and a hundred other things I can’t even remember. It amazes me (and quite frankly, scares me) to think of how different my life is now. I get home and I’m physically exhausted and emotionally drained. And then I start to think about ‘church stuff’ for the week on top of whatever I have going on. Life has been anything but easy over the past year. But hear me when I say this: God has provided for us every step of the way. Yes, I have had to work my tail off to provide for my family while the church is unable to provide for our needs. But I decided early on in this process that if God would be faithful to provide the work for me, I would be faithful to do whatever it took to plant this church while providing faithfully for my family. I learned the hard way what everyone kind of alludes to when they say, “Where God guides, God provides.” I learned that he certainly does provide. Though often he requires us to do our part in the equation. Oftentimes, God doesn’t provide a handout. He provides opportunity. And it is this opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful. God has provided. It hasn’t been anything like I thought it would be going into this past year, but it has been all the more incredible because of it.
2. Things rarely work out like I plan, but I’m becoming strangely ok with that.
This whole process has been anything but ideal. Going into the process of planting a church, I put a lot of thought and planning into how things were going to work out. I had it all planned. All that had to happen was for all the cards to fall exactly as planned, and within a year or two we would be the next great amazing work of the Lord in the city of Mobile. While I do believe we’ve seen some pretty amazing works of God in the past year, I never would have foreseen exactly how things have turned out. From the outset, we had a good idea of where we would meet, who would be a part of our core group, what kind of structure would work best for us, how we would best do outreach, etc. Throughout the year, NOTHING HAS TURNED OUT EXACTLY AS I PLANNED! When it comes to meeting place, we were blessed with the use a facility far beyond anything we could have imagined. Several of the people who I expected to be some of the most pivotal members of our core group have pursued other directions in the Lord. Our nice, neat, diagram-able structure has morphed into something similar yet incredibly different. And our outreach efforts have been totally different that we could have ever expected (in some good ways and some not-so-good ways). Suffice it to say, we’ve had to roll with A LOT of punches.
But the craziest part of all is that I have been pretty okay with most of the changes in ‘my’ plans. Those of you that know me well, you know that this is not a typical part of my character. I like to plan things out to perfection and then sit back and watch my work come to fruition. If you’ve ever played Risk with me, you’ve seen my planning in action and know that I don’t like when something doesn’t work out the way it was supposed to. But just as in a game of Risk, I am learning that things often don’t work out the way I planned for them to. And strangely, God is making me more and more alright with that. While I never want to abandon the vision God has given me for the work to which he has called me, I am learning to take things in stride and realize that often God fulfills his will in our lives in ways that are far different and far better than anything we would have ever contrived in our greatest moments of creativity. The bottom line is this: God’s ways are truly better than our ways. We say that a lot. I am learning how little I actually believed it until recently. God has taught me the hard way that I really do need to trust him more than I trust myself. And through many trials by fire, I can honestly say that I am making steps in the right direction to do just that. I still have A LONG way to go, but I glad to look back over the past year and realize that I have made huge strides in the right direction. So bring on the bumps in the road. Bring on the twists and turns. Bring on the unforeseen forks and dead ends. Bring it all on. I am willing to follow the Pillar of Cloud and Pillar of Fire wherever he chooses to lead. I can’t wait to see him part whatever sea might stand in the way of his will in my future. So bring it on.
3. Kingdom growth doesn’t always look the same as our idea of church growth.
Our church’s growth has been anything but typical. Re-envisioning my idea of what constitutes kingdom growth has probably been the biggest stretch for me throughout this entire process. To be honest, it’s been a total paradigm shift for me. Let’s face it, we come from a system where the only tangible way to measure success is by measuring the face of the ugly monster of numbers. We say, “Numbers aren’t most important,” but the first question I always get when people ask about the church (almost without fail) is, “So how many are you running now?” This is fair and honest question, but it really is telling about what we use to measure kingdom growth: are there more people in a congregation this year than there were last year. Maybe we itemize more than the next guy: more people in a discipleship program, more people participating in an outreach program or event, and of course, more people in the pews (or chairs, depending on the church). It always boils down to numbers attending something or other. And to be fair, this is really the only tangible way for us to measure how successfully our churches are growing. The problem is, this growth can often be very misleading. Even our best numbers, those going through the ordinance of baptism, can be very misleading. Our measurable growth can often be skewed because we often fail to take into account the fain, distant, incredibly remote possibility of re-counting (in case you haven’t noticed, I’m laying on the sarcasm somewhat thickly at this point). Often, our baptisms are third or fourth baptisms for an individual. And while I strongly believe a person should do it as many times as it takes to get it right, I do have a big problem with us patting ourselves on the back when the majority of our additions in numbers have come at expense of some other church dealing with a subtraction. This year, I have really been forced to reexamine what kingdom growth means. And I’ll be honest, what I have learned has been somewhat of a gut check to me.
Before I explain, let me begin with a small disclaimer: I don’t believe this is the ONLY way for churches to operate. Nor do I even argue that this is the best way for churches to operate. But what I can say is that I had to come to this conclusion for our specific group seeking our specific goals. That being said…
I have had to come to grips with the fact that kingdom growth doesn’t always translate into individual congregation’s growth. I grew up in my faith believing that if I focused on true kingdom growth, it would always eventually show up in growth in my respective congregation. It was Reaganomics in the form of discipleship. Focus on the big picture of evangelistic discipleship and my church would grow. But what if I had it wrong? What if focusing on big-picture, kingdom minded discipleship not only didn’t always translate into congregation growth, but in fact often didn’t affect my congregation’s numbers at all? Here’s what I mean:
This past year, we have focused A LOT on grassroots, evangelistic discipleship through relationships. In fact, we believe that everything good that comes through the church ultimately works best through the context of relationships. This is how Jesus did evangelism. This is how Jesus did discipleship. And this is how the early church exploded as it did. It all happened within that context: people discipling other people who in turn disciple other people. It’s exponential growth in the kingdom versus simple additions in a congregation. Here’s the problem though: if you really do focus your relationship discipleship on maximum kingdom impact, the best place for those people who you have discipled to be is often somewhere other than where you are. When Jesus was done discipling the twelve, he sent them out while he went somewhere else. When Paul discipled Timothy, there came a time when Paul left Timothy in Ephesus while Paul went elsewhere. There were a bunch of other times when Paul sent Timothy where he couldn’t go. That was kind of the idea behind genuine discipleship: grow someone so that they can go somewhere else and grow others. Or, grow someone who can remain behind so that you can in turn go somewhere else and grow others. Either way, even though the kingdom has been impacted, the individual church remains numerically the same. The kingdom gets a +1 but the local congregation stays even. While this math makes perfect sense when the goal is spreading the kingdom, it is difficult to swallow when our ulterior goals are to pat ourselves on the back for how big our congregation has become.
The question I’ve been struggling with is, if our congregation never really grows that large but makes a huge impact on the kingdom by raising up leaders out of the depths of Mobile that no one else gave a chance to, would I be okay with that? It’s a tough question, but I am beginning to get to a place where the answer is ‘Yes.’ Over the past year, we have baptized six people. Most of these people probably would never have taken that step in a traditional church context. That, in itself, is an amazing testimony to what the Lord has done over the year. But the coolest part of the story comes after that. There is one guy among the group who is now a theology major at UM and has been my fill in, preaching while I was away. He also now leads a small group for our church. He’s ready to lead others through the exact same journey he took this year. That’s discipleship at its finest. The other five have similar stories. They are being groomed into genuine Christ-followers. So is the rest of our church. What I am having to come to grips with is the fact that genuine Christ-followers are often asked to follow Christ into different contexts than they are presently in. And that means away from our church. And strangely, I’m becoming VERY COMFORTABLE with this new paradigm of church growth. It really scares me because I know what it means for my pride. I will most likely never be able to answer with pride about the huge number of people we have in our fellowship. But I can be very proud of how God is impacting his kingdom through the work that he has called us to. And that is good enough for me.
So when people ask me how many we have attending now, I still don’t know how to answer them. I usually just give them a number that is far less impressive than they seemed to be looking for. But know this, that small number is impacting the kingdom in ways I never could have imagined. It’s a lesson that was hard to accept, but one that I am very glad to begin understanding. Now, I just have to figure out how to finance such a different church model. I guess I’ll save that for another day and another post.