Reflection: Four Years Into Planting a Church

boat-and-reflection-2-1450160In October of 2012 my job transitioned from the Youth Director at Mountain View Presbyterian Church to the Organizing Pastor of a New Church Development or “church plant” (also now called a “New Worshipping Community” in the Presbyterian Church). Next week our Presbytery will be voting to approve the chartering of Tidelands as an official congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Soon after, we will ordain and installed our first elders, and I will be called and installed as the first teaching elder (pastor).

What took so long?

Four years is a long time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it has been a long time. Maybe time just seems to go faster because I am getting older. Or maybe, it has something to do with the old saying “time flies when you are having fun!” It has been fun! Some might say it has been “hard,” but in my experience some of the most fun things are hard! In truth, this process has taken even longer than four years. The planning and discernment phase took over a year as well. Welcome to the world of thoughtful, intentional Presbyterian mission! I had a good friend jokingly say early on, “If we Pentecostals were planting a church in Stanwood the city would all be converted by now!”

The Model Determines the Pace

There are many models for planting a church. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pick the model that fits the mission, and not the other way around. Many church plants start with a “bang!” They first get facilities, staff, musicians, lots of advertising, lots of lay leaders, and then do a grand opening. This works well for reaching a certain group of people and probably is the correct model for some. However, this would not have worked well for us, and quite honestly, I doubt that I would be the right pastor for that church. You see, we knew that God was calling us to reach out to monaco-yacht-show-6-1560327those that either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to a Sunday morning church worship service. So while we could’ve leveraged a large group of people from Mountain View to launch our Sunday services off with big numbers, that would’ve done little to help us connect with those that would not come to our worship service. Besides, there are some really great churches in this community that do amazing Sunday morning services already and appeal to a wide range of believers. So we started slow and small with a focus on missional communities and an emphasis on going to where people are at, rather than trying to get them to come to us.

Slower Than Expected?

Without a doubt, using a model based on missional community is much slower than we anticipated. Multiplication takes time if you are going to do a good job of raising capable leaders and discipling new believers. Could we have gone faster? Probably. But the real question is should we have? And I still don’t know the answer to that question yet, and I hope to do some more reflection on that in the near future. I probably need to do a blog post about the things that we would do differently if we had a “do over.” But overall, I am happy with where we are at. There is some wisdom in the statement: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” (Apparently this comes from the tactical training world, but I find that it works in many different situations, including church development).

Some things certainly have happened much faster than we anticipated! The biggest one by far is that we actually have our own building! That wasn’t in the plans. And the truth is that every time we take a step in one direction it closes some doors and opens some others. The essential element is to be both intentional and discerning about every decision and how it lines up with the vision for the church and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have said “no” to many things that, when looking back, would’ve taken us into directions that we are glad that we didn’t follow.

Organic Growth – Where We Go From Here

I know, I know… “organic” is one of those trendy words that is almost as popular as “missional” right now! I first heard this concept being applied to the church at a conference at Regent Seminary where someone was talking about church worship styles, and I’ve used it in my ministry ever since. The basic idea is that if you want something to orange-flower-1393625grow and be healthy you have to use the ingredients that are there. As it applies to worship music, this means that you shouldn’t try to force in musical styles that you are copying from other churches when you don’t have the people to accomplish it. Use what you have. This also goes with the leading-from-strengths idea.

What this means for us is that we will likely have some times of rapid growth, and some times anemic growth. It will all depend on the people that are part of community and what they are ready, willing, and equipped to do. To take the organic analogy one step further, I want our church to be a perennial, not an annual. When the time is right, and the resources are there, I hope that we create brilliant, beautiful growth. When resources are scarce, and times are hard, I hope that we will take advantage of it to prepare for spring – deepening our roots, rather than simply giving up and dying.

Freedom to Fail Because Jesus Has Succeeded

No matter what happens, I know that we would not have gotten this far if we had not stayed grounded in the Gospel message. Jesus has already accomplished all that we need. Now we have the freedom to live in faithfulness, knowing that our failures and our successes do nothing to affect God’s love and acceptance of us. I remind myself of this every day. I could not do this work without that ongoing assurance. Whether Tidelands grows into our vision of a church that has missional communities all over our area and plants new churches in other regions, or whether our circle of influence remains small and we are deemed insignificant, I know that God is pleased with faithfulness and patient endurance and that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38f)!

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Why I Don’t Wear Skinny Jeans

Actually, there are many reasons why I don’t wear skinny jeans, and at the top of the list is that I am not skinny. However, that is not what this post is about. You’ll just have to read on to see what I mean. The following is an excerpt from a good article called “Substituting Social Justice for Evangelism and Four Other Missional Misfires” by James Emery White. The following comes from his fifth point:

A flyer recently arrived in my mailbox from a new church plant, promising me relevant and practical messages, contemporary “urban” music, and great coffee. The idea is that if you offer such things, people will come who wouldn’t normally come.

It’s a subtle and enticing temptation. All we have to do is encourage casual dress, offer Starbucks coffee, play rock music and then deliver a “felt needs” message in a style similar to the popular speakers of the day and we will automatically grow.

And if you want to guarantee your growth comes from a younger demographic, just throw in skinny jeans, designer t-shirts and a noticeable tattoo. It will instantly turn the most middle-of-age pastor into a Millennial magnet.

Stop.

Think.

People already have those things. They do not need to go to church to find them. If they want Starbucks, they’ll go to Starbucks; if they want to hear contemporary music, they have iTunes and their iPod. They may appreciate those things once they attend, but it is not what will get them to attend.

This approach may have worked back in the ’80s and ’90s, but that was because the typical unchurched person was a Baby Boomer who had been raised in a church, just starting to have kids. They had the memory and the experience; once they had kids, they actually wanted to find a church. When churches took down the cultural barriers associated with attending (eliminating stuffiness, boredom, irrelevance, empty ritual, outdated music), Boomers were attracted.

And yes, back then, if you built it, they came.

But this is no longer our world, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

As ubermarketer Seth Godin notes, “The portion of the population that haven’t bought from you … is not waiting for a better mousetrap. They’re not busy considering a, b and c and then waiting for d. No, they’re not in the market. … As a result, smart marketers don’t market to this audience by saying, ‘Hey, ours is better than theirs!’”

Bottom line: The foundational way that people divorced from the church and a life in Christ will come to church and find that life in Christ is if a Christ-follower does three things: builds a relationship with them, shares how Christ has intersected the deepest needs of their life, and then invites them into the community to see, hear, taste and explore.

I appreciate the way these concepts are articulated in this article. So often when I talk to people about this concept people say, “Oh, you’re talking about ‘friendship evangelism.” Inside I cringe when I hear this because I know that for most people “friendship evangelism” equates to finding a way to invite your friend to a church worship service. But inviting them “into the community to see, hear, taste and explore” is about so much more than bringing them to a worship service. In order to do this you have to be part of a community that is living the gospel out together beyond the worship service and outside the church building. This is why I love the missional community model.