A couple of months ago, I participated in a little conference here in PDX, co-sponsored by the Ecclesia Network and North West Church Planters. It was called Rain and Shine, and the point was to draw together, for two days, a group of church planters who would talk about the brightest and darkest moments they had experienced in Church planting. Everyone got 14 minutes to speak. Here's an edited version of what I presented- my highest and lowest moments in being a church planter.
Probably like a lot of you, I came to church planting through the route of dissatisfaction and hurt. The angry young man. I grew tired of asking the same questions, banging my head against the same walls- tired of feeling hurt by the system and tired of seeing people I loved leave because they had been “hurt.”
So, when we planted our church here in Portland about 7 years ago- like you did or will do, we secretly, inwardly held the idea, even if we outwardly disavowed it, that we were going to be the church that got things right.
It’s not so much we thought we were better or somehow the pinnacle of ecclesiastical evolution- it was simply that we thought we could learn from the mistakes of the churches we had come from and just do it differently. Seems so easy, right?
We were going to be organic, non-programmatic, we would listen, learn, love... and though we took careful pains to warn people as they came into our community that community hurts, again, secretly, we believed- we would be the church that would never hurt people.
The question in our talks here at Rain and Shine is this: What are the darkest and brightest moments of church planting for you? And for me, there have been plenty of both- but probably the darkest has been over the last couple of years realizing that no matter what we do, we were going to be a church that hurt people.
I first started getting an inkling of this when I noticed that though we saw many people coming into church and coming to Christ or coming BACK to Church or back to Christ through our community, we saw just as many for whom we were the last stop on the way out. They had grown up in the evangelical church, many were even pastor’s kids, and they would come to our community as this last ditch effort. We meet in a pub, we’re not happy clappy, we’re not trying to be slick or production-oriented- for a lot of them, we were something still Christian that they thought maybe they could stomach. We even had some tell us “This is my last try- if this doesn’t work, I’m out.” I mean, no pressure, right?
And time and time again, though we saw many stick and find what they were looking for, we saw just as many turn around and walk out the door again, some with real anger towards us, or towards me. And in trying to pin down why this would happen, we’ve never come to any real conclusions, other than that some people are just going to be hurt, no matter what you do- their issues with God and with church are going to bubble up. Which church in inconsequential- it could be any. And quite often, it’s going to be yours.
But it hasn’t always been simply that some people were setting themselves up to be hurt- sometimes it was us- our choices, our actions. In dealing with people, with couples or individuals or even staff members, we made choices with the best of intentions that ended up alienating people, confirming their worst fears about church...hurting them.
It wasn’t what we intended, we meant well, but we stepped wrong and someone else ended up getting blown out the doors.
There have even been times when we knew- we knew- going into a situation- there’s potential here for great hurt, and we as elders would circle up and discuss- how can we do this with the minimum amount of pain? How can we do this right? Only to have it blow up in our faces, to have our decisions and choices hurt people we loved very much.
So what is MY darkest moment in church planting? My darkest moment in church planting was coming to the realization that no matter what I did, I was going to contribute to the hurt, the brokenness and pain that people had around church. I just was. We just were.
We always wanted to be a part of people’s faith stories. It’s just that we wanted to be a part of the good bits- the place where people came to Jesus- not the place where they rejected Him. The place where people found community and had their faith in followers of Jesus restored- not the place that got to drive the final nail in the coffin.
And after instance after instance of seeing people leave- angry, hurt- of trying SO HARD to bring the least amount of pain to people through some really hard situations and instead finding ourselves somehow, inexplicably bringing the maximum amount, I’ve come to the hard but good realization, that we don’t get to pick which part of people’s stories we get to play. Yes- we get to pick whether or not we will act in love, with kindness, like Jesus to the best of our ability- I get that. But I’m telling you- there are times when I have felt and when you will feel as though we were in a tragic opera- that God was using us in someone else’s life and what He happened to need at the moment was not a soft place for them to land but a hammer and a chisel. God was going to use us to get some people where HE needed them- to a place of discomfort or even crisis. There have been times when I cried out to God- really? Really? We’re trying so hard with this person and still- it seems like all we can do is screw it up further- that everything we do just seems to make it worse. REALLY?
And if that’s all there was to this thing, I think I probably would have packed it in a long time ago...
The good news is, though there have been a lot of dark moments, a lot of times when I wondered if we were going to “make it”, if what we were doing was even worth the effort it took to “make it,” there have been a lot of bright moments as well- mostly centered around the times when we stopped trying to build the Church, and just rested in the joy of being the church.
As I think back to those moments of gathering down at the river or creek to baptize people, of dancing for hours after marrying two people who met and fell in love in our community, of sitting with people and untangling some of the knots that they had encountered in life or faith, even of walking with some couples through some really deep water and seeing marriages actually make it, I’m glad that God has allowed me to even take part in this thing. Because though we often unintentionally hurt people, though we mess up, though God uses us in hard ways at times, He also is kind enough to let us share in the up times as well. The putting back together of what is broken and the healing of what was hurt.
And I’ve been able to see that best and brightest in seeing how the Gospel actually works in community. How rather than sitting as a lifeless proposition on a page, the Gospel is actually the tool the Holy Spirit uses most as He brings us not just to a saving place of faith in Jesus, but to maturity and Christ-likeness.
I have loved sitting with people who are describing to me their struggles with workaholism, or anger, or money, and realizing- Oh- the real issue here isn’t money, or work or whatever- the real issue is what you are asking it to do for you. To somehow save you, give you hope, give you worth. Let me tell you about Jesus.
I’ve loved sitting with couples in crisis- well, I haven’t loved that part, but I’ve loved being able to tell them- I know, I know the hurt seems overwhelming and forgiveness seems like an impossibility right now, but I want you to think hard, to remember, to meditate on what Jesus has done for you- how and how much He’s forgiven you, and see if that doesn’t open up new possibilities for you here.
And most of all, I have loved realizing that even for me, at my darkest moments as a pastor and in church planting, the Gospel has something to say. Those moments laying awake in bed at 2:30am on Sunday night after preaching- when attendance was low, and giving non-existent and I’m feeling like: “After that sermon it will be a miracle if anyone comes back next week.” And realizing- that in getting so tied up in the metrics, in resting so much of the weight of my soul and my identity on results, on what happened, on how I was perceived and received, I was asking those things to do for me what only Jesus could- to tell me I was worth something, make me whole, save me.
The Good News is that my people and their attendance, their applause, their approval are not my savior. Jesus is.
And so my brightest moment of all in church planting has been realizing that the Gospel- this good news about Jesus and His kingdom isn’t just a truth we learn at the beginning of our spiritual journey... the Good News is the transformative engine of change in the world, not just for Non-Christians, but for Christians and even for pastors. Our communities and we ourselves will never outgrow needing to hear it, and so we’ll never get past needing to preach it to them, to others... to ourselves.
In church planting, and in pastoring in this broken world hurt is inevitable- both to yourself and to those you are serving and reaching. Thank God we have in the Gospel the answer to the brokenness and hurt we inevitably experience and even in our best intentions bring to other people. Thank God for Jesus.