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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Getting Caught Up

It has been quite some time since I have updated my blog. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as a sign that things aren’t going well. It is actually quite the opposite. Things are getting busier as Tidelands grows, and that means that I am going to have to be more focused and intentional about making time for my blog. I also took some time off over the holidays to be with family and relax. There you have it – my best excuses. I can provide more later if requested.

In other news, we had a few more “firsts” in December. Last December we were still only meeting once a month for worship, so this was our first time moving through an entire Advent season of worship together. I would typically preach one of the sermons during Advent when I was at Mountain View, but this was my first time planning and implementing all four weeks on my own. I have to say that I enjoyed it – other than the business of preparing for three worship services at once the week before Christmas with family in town (Christmas Eve, Sunday before and Sunday after Christmas). But it was worth it so that I could enjoy time off with family after Christmas. Having a Christmas Eve service was another of our “firsts” for Tidelands.

Our Missional Community had some wonderful time together over the holidays. We had Thanksgiving and Christmas meals together (not on the exact days, but close enough), we made cookies for the elementary school staff, had a “white elephant” gift exchange, watched some football, and continued to share the “Story of God” with our kids. A new family has begun joining us on Sunday nights. Christmas is a great time to introduce people to life lived for Christ! Most of our MC families also helped out with the giving tree at the local school again. We are still working toward helping the school district and the food bank develop a local “backpack program” (a program that provides food for the weekend to kids that need the extra help). The idea was that we would be launching the program this week, but we are running into some snags. Tidelands donated a significant amount of our local mission giving to get the program up and running, so the barriers are more procedural (and perhaps spiritual as well).

Some of the more mundane (yet necessary) things that we are currently working on have to do with the logistics of starting a new church. We registered for a EIN (Employee Identification Number) with the federal government, and we are now working on getting incorporated with the state. This also requires creating some articles of incorporation. Fortunately for us, this process is made easier by being under the umbrella of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We’re also getting more people involved with all of the details that go into Sunday morning worship: set-up, tear-down, children’s ministry, offerings, coffee bar, etc. Thankfully God is leading some amazing people to partner in this with us!

For me personally, I’m beginning to feel like the “honeymoon” is over. I’ll share more about what I mean in another blog post (hopefully on its way before another two months pass!).

Give Me an Illustration

I’ve been working on some images that I hope will be helpful as we continue work on communicating what it means to be a church with a missional community structure. Part of the challenge is that we are still working this out ourselves as well. I got the idea for the following graphics from the “napkin theology” found on the Soma GCM site. I’ve posted some of their graphics on this blog before. They are definitely worth looking at. You can also find a free e-book of Napkin Theology by Seth McBee here.

Here are some that I have been working on:
Tidelands Structure1People are often confused when we begin to talk about missional communities. We were recently asked if we were a “commune!” I have found it helpful to tell people that we are striving to be a “congregation made up of missional communities.” Though I would prefer to say that our primary mode for being the church is through missional communities, I think that only brings up more commune-like images for those that haven’t seen it. I also don’t want to say that we are a church with many “small groups” of people in MCs. The idea of what a “small group” is in the church has taken on a life of its own (often very inward-focused) and we don’t want people to think it is just a new “small group program.” So for us, the worship gathering is still our touchstone every Sunday morning for all of our MC’s (right now we only have one). We have people that worship with us that are not part of a MC yet, and some may never be (but we hope they will give it a try). But our MC’s help fill in that large gap between Sunday worship and where we live the rest of the week.

Tidelands Structure2The above image is obviously just an expansion on the first, showing the inward/outward nature of missional communities. We gather together to worship as “Tidelands Church,” but each MC is focused on sharing the gospel with a different “people group” in the larger community. The focus is outward!

MC.IdentityI stole this idea directly from Seth’s napkin theology. His is much better and you can see it here. The most simple definition of a missional community is “a family of missionary servants.” I like this because it connects us into our identity in a triune God. We have one Father so we are family. We are all filled with the Holy Spirit and are “missionaries” to those around us. We all claim Jesus as our Lord and follow him in serving others. (John 13:13-17).

MC.FunctionsAgain, the above image is an expansion  on the previous idea. If we know that the identity of an MC is a family of missionary servants, then we can talk about how they function. In the graphic above I’ve given just some of the activities that an MC might do as they seek to live this out together. I could add a lot more, and probably need to move a few around, but I hope it conveys the idea. People always want to know: “What does a missional community do?” Really, that is like asking: “What does your church do?” In many ways each MC functions like a mini church plant: finding creative and effective ways to share the gospel to a particular people in a particular culture. We do a lot of activities as an MC, but the things that we “do” are always rooted in who we “are” in Christ and our desire to bring the gospel to bear in all of life. This is not a program, this is living as the church!

I hope these are helpful. Visuals always tend to stick with me better than simply listening or reading. If you’ve made it this far let me know what you think.

Here we go!

Ahhh...vacation.

Ahhh…vacation.

Our family just returned from a wonderful two weeks of vacation! I have to say that I don’t ever remember feeling the need for a vacation quite as much as I did this summer. It has been a joyful, exciting, yet very tiring past year of our life. Last summer we were so busy trying to renovate our home on Camano Island and make the move from Marysville that we didn’t get much of a break. We had a great one week break for Spring Break, but sometimes it just takes me a bit longer to truly settle down and relax. So now we are back home and ready to launch into the fall. Kristina is already back to work (she’s a teacher) and the kids will start school next week. I start coaching fall soccer today.

Since I’m also busy writing updates for newsletter, council meetings, social media, etc., I’m  going to share one of those here that may be a repeat of some information but will give people a big picture view of where we are with Tidelands. Here it is:

Summer2013What a wonderful summer it has been to be living on Camano Island and starting a new worshipping community in Stanwood! Our first missional community (meeting on Camano Island) learned a bit more about “rhythm” together as we moved through our first summer of vacations, busy weekends, and late summer nights. With school out, it was more challenging to stay in touch with other families and bless the local school, so we took advantage of the location and weather and invited them to the beach! We built up some great relationships around the barbecue and campfire that we continue to pray about and will build upon this fall. In addition, we helped the PTA pressure wash and repaint the local elementary school playground and added a colorful USA map. Soon we will be helping re-launch the Watch D.O.G.S. program at the school.

This fall a couple of our MC members will be coaching soccer in Stanwood (and many of our kids will be playing on teams). We see this as yet another opportunity to meet and bless those that do not yet know the power of the Gospel. Looking forward, we are still hoping that we can help launch a “backpack” program in partnership with the Stanwood food bank that will allow elementary school kids in “food insecure” situations could take food home for the weekend. Keep in mind that all of this and more is happening through our first missional community. Our long-term plan is to have MC’s all over the Stanwood/Camano Island area blessing their neighborhoods in the name of Jesus!

Our Sunday morning worship gatherings have undergone quite a change over the summer. We ended up moving our worship to the Stanwood Community and Senior Center (on the hill above Stanwood High School). It is the historic Lincoln School Building. The facility has a welcoming staff and plenty of room for future growth in attendance. Also, our children now have a separate room to go during the preaching time. Heidi Adams has stepped up to coordinate this for us. It is little things like this that mean a lot when you are small and starting out!

Our relationship with the Stanwood Community and Senior Center is already becoming a great partnership and service opportunity for us! We discovered that there are a number of seniors living in the apartments attached to the Center that can no longer easily get out for worship on Sunday. They have readily joined us and are now an active part of our fellowship! These seniors weren’t exactly on our radar screen when we identified one of our target groups as those that “can’t “ make it to worship on Sunday (we were thinking more along the lines of those who had to work on Sunday), but they were certainly on God’s radar and the Holy Spirit has led us to them! What a blessing for us! Soon we will be repainting part of the entryway of the Senior Center at the request of the Center staff.

Our worship is still meeting every week and we are seeing slow but steady growth in our attendance. However, we continually remind ourselves that this cannot be the primary measure of our success or faithfulness in what God has called us to do. I pray every day that we will experience our first adult baptism. Please join us in that prayer as well as praying that God will lead other mature Christian leaders to help us in these early stages of development. I am especially hoping and praying for a worship team coordinator and administrative help.

We put off looking for an office during the summer as we made the transition into the Senior Center for worship, but we will be back at it this fall. We hope to find a small location in Stanwood that will give us a more permanent presence in the community.

Thank you all so much for your continual prayers and support!

Summer Shift

summer sandalsWe are entering our first summer with our first missional community and we are beginning to discuss what we want it to look like. There are many opportunities, but there are also challenges because of the rapidly changing weekly schedules due to kids being out of school. This is only compounded by the fact that we live in Western Washington and our summer weather is typically short-lived and sporadic and if the sun comes out poeple want to take advantage of it. I read a great article this week dealing with some of these issues. Here is an excerpt:

Summertime always prompts images of grilling in the backyard, vacation road trips, watching baseball, and adventures in the neighborhood.

In the church, it’s often a season where we “take a break” from ministry and community. I’ve always found that idea somewhat odd when I consider my identity in Christ. I don’t really ever “take a break” for an entire season from my earthly family, so why would I skip out on my spiritual family for three months?

My family rhythm certainly changes in the summer, but it doesn’t disappear entirely. The kids are out of school, and we’re on the go more, but we don’t stop teaching our kids about Jesus and His Word. We certainly don’t cease to be brothers and sisters in Christ with our church family during the summer either.

What if your community continued striving to be a spiritual family this summer, rather than pushing pause?

Read the whole article, including the great suggestions for missional communities in the summer! As we move through the summer we are going to be experimenting with some things. Sometime after the summer I’ll post a follow-up with reflections on our experience.

Instagram Church

barbie familyAs someone who worked for many years at a church where I was not only the “youth director,” but also one of the younger adults at the church, I’ve had many, many conversations about the changes in technology and the impact (positive and negative) that these changes are having on our lives. I remember sitting at a staff/session retreat trying to explain Twitter and trying to convince church leaders of the value of being on Facebook. Rarely is it possible to convincingly argue that these technological changes are either “all good” or “all bad.” I still take issue with those that want to portray the younger generations as  sitting in front of a computer or cell phone all day, ignoring face-to-face interactions. If anything, I have noticed that this is more of a temptation with the stay-at-home mom/dad crowd.

Nevertheless, it IS important that we acknowledge, discuss, and challenge the dangers and temptations that come with the increasing role of social media on our lives. The following is an excerpt from a great article by Relevant Magazine about the way we portray our lives in social media (read the entire article here):

My life looks better on the Internet than it does in real life. Everyone’s life looks better on the internet than it does in real life. The Internet is partial truths—we get to decide what people see and what they don’t. That’s why it’s safer short term. And that’s why it’s much, much more dangerous long term.

Because community—the rich kind, the transforming kind, the valuable and difficult kind—doesn’t happen in partial truths and well-edited photo collections on Instagram. Community happens when we hear each other’s actual voices, when we enter one another’s actual homes, with actual messes, around actual tables telling stories that ramble on beyond 140 pithy characters.

What was really interesting to me as I read this article is that I found myself reflecting less on social media, and more on what I have often experienced on Sunday Morning at “church.” Why is it that we dress up, act up, put on a smile, shake hands, waltz into the sanctuary with our family, sing, pray, and then bail 90 minutes later pretending that we just experienced community? Just like the “partial truths” posted onto social media sites, this snapshot of our week does not accurately portray the messiness that we really live in.

I can just hear the defensive objections coming my way already! I realize that there probably isn’t a church out there that wants our community to begin and end at the worship service. But we also all know that for many people that is what happens. But even for those that do plug into the “small group” ministry (or youth group or senior group or choir or whatever…), do they really experience community in that group? Is it a place where they can be real about their struggles, their doubts, their failures? Can they be “real” in those settings?

I know that authentic community does exist in some of these programmatic settings, but I think that it is rare. This is just one more reason why I am passionate about moving forward with missional communities. Not only does it bring people together in the messiness of life, but it also challenges them to “go out” together in the power of the Holy Spirit to share the Good News that in the midst of all the messiness Christ has overcome it all!

It is good to read about how others have approached the missional community gatherings with children. We have been stumbling along with this without a lot of intentionality or planning so far (in regards to children). It has worked for the most part, but I like the idea of having the “on call” adult for each meeting. So far, we have attempted to integrate our children into all that we do as a missional community. I am finding that, at least for me, some of the most profound learning moments have happened when our children have been engaged with us in our story time or discussion. It is a difficult challenge to navigate, but I agree with Jayne that each missional community will need to address their own unique challenges with kids. It will change as the age of kids in the group change over time.

Missional Community: Erasing Lines

eraserOne of the real blessings of starting a missional community is that the lines between personal life and “church” begin to blur as one seeks to live out the calling to “be the church” instead of simply “going to church.” One of the real challenges for me, as a full-time pastor, is classifying what parts of my life are “work” and what parts of my life are “family” or “personal” time. Truly, it is a beautiful dilemma! Let me give you some examples:

I’ve just helped launch the “Watch D.O.G.S.” (Dads of Great Students) program at my kids’ elementary school. The program is designed to get more men involved in their child’s education by volunteering at least one full day a year to volunteer at the school. On that day, the men provide a positive male role model for the kids by helping out in the classroom, lunchroom, recess, etc. They also provide additional security by checking doors, “patrolling,” etc. throughout the day. They can help reduce bullying by being another set of eyes and ears at the school. We launched the program last week, and already we have every available day in March filled with a volunteer Dad/father-figure!

As a dad, I believe in the value of this program. As a a dad and a pastor, I want to do everything I can to help the local school be the best, safest place it can be for learning. As a pastor and follower of Jesus who seeks to embody the gospel in our community, I want to minister to all of those kids and parents that are in single-parent families (the fastest-growing demographic in our area).

I’ve also been amazed at how many opportunities have come up to help in my neighborhood. At our old house in Marysville, it took us over a decade to build even a few substantial relationships with neighbors. I don’t know if it is just the difference of life on Camano Island, or if it is our intentionality and openness to forging new relationships, or if it is the Holy Spirit stirring things up. My suspicion is that it is a combination of all three things – but primarily the work of the Spirit! In the coming weeks I will be watching a neighbor’s child before school so that she can make her nursing classes at a community college. I’ve been able to do this with some other kids in our missional community this year. I have to take my kids to school anyway, I have a flexible schedule, so it doesn’t negatively impact my day to help in this way. I’ve been helping another neighbor with some things that he needs for his business. And there are other opportunities as well. Sometimes, just walking out to my office (in my shop) I will end up having a conversation with a neighbor walking by that will end up being more significant than I would’ve thought possible. The real power of what is happening in all of these circumstances is the timing. I can’t share details, but there are some incredibly significant things happening in some of these relationships and I believe without a doubt that it is God’s timing.

I could also talk about coaching, volunteering every week in my kid’s classroom, weekly dinners at the local restaurant, the impact of fixing up and living in a derelict property in the neighborhood, and more! The truth is, not having a “church office” to go to every morning has been one of the best things that has ever happened in my ministry! However, it is also difficult, because I feel like I can more easily justify my time as “work” when I am sitting at a desk or sitting in a meeting. It is much harder to define that time as I engage in many of things we need to do to launch missional communities.

I share this because Tidelands is moving into a different phase of our life beginning with Easter 2013. We are now looking for that office space, and perhaps even a small space for worship attached to that office space. We will begin meeting for worship every Sunday morning. More of my time will be spent preparing sermons, planning music, prayers, etc. In a way, I look forward to being able to spend more time teaching and leading people in worship – it is what I love to do and it is essential to our life as followers of Jesus. And yet, I don’t ever want to lose what I am experiencing now. I don’t ever want to minimize the importance of these other opportunities or limit my ability to engage with others where they live, work, and play. And this is why, if we’re going to do this well, we will always need our leaders and staff to be active members of a missional community.

The “Missional” Cliché?

“If a church exists only to meet the religious needs of church people, your vision of church and your gospel is too small.”

– Darrell Guder

I hear it more and more these days: the argument that “missional” has simply become the next hot Christian phrase creeping onto every Church website, mission statement, and leader conference like “purpose-driven” or “seeker-sensitive” of the past. It is hard to argue with that, because it does seem to be happening. And unfortunately, as the meaning of the term gets diluted, what gets lost is increasingly the very purpose of the word in the first place: to get the church to reconnect with something that it has lost.

Here is a link to an article that summarizes some of the things Darrell Guder recently said about this issue (Guder wrote Missional Church a decade before the term became popular): “Church in a Post-Christian Context.”

Language is important, and it bothers me that people may hear us talk about “missional communities” and think that it is just a cool new way to describe small groups. However, what concerns me more, whatever we call it, is that what we are doing is actually connecting with God’s mission in our time and place. Quoting Guder again (from the article referenced above), here is another way to describe what a “missional community” is meant to be:

“Missional communities are about God calling together a people to serve God’s purposes in a particular context (neighborhood) to bring healing, reconciliation and good news to those around them. A missional community is not an end itself. It is not a church that exists for its own purposes.”

I once heard Eugene Peterson say that it may be helpful at times to remove a word from usage in order to allow it to regain meaning if that meaning has become too diluted and overused. As I recall, he was talking about the pervasive use of “Christian” as an adjective to describe all kinds of things in marketing. This was perhaps prophetic, as I have noticed that I and others often choose to describe ourselves as “followers of Jesus” in order to more accurately convey to those outside the church what we are instead of connecting with the often misunderstood “Christian” label. This is not an attempt to be “politically correct” but rather to communicate effectively. My hope is that the word “missional” has not already reached this point. I suspect that it has not, only because I often find myself explaining to others in great detail what I mean by a “missional community.” What has been your experience?

The Story

We were sitting down to dinner last night and our youngest son (6 years old) agreed to pray and give thanks before we ate. He takes this “giving thanks” quite seriously and will often pray a long list of “Thank you for…”s. Most of the time I really enjoy hearing all of the interesting things he is thanking God for. “Wii”, “water,” and “babies” often top his list along with the usual “food” and “family.” Sometimes his list goes on and on and if the rest of us are especially hungry, and our food is sitting in front of us waiting to be eaten, we become quite charismatic and began mumbling encouraging “Amen”s hoping to wrap up the prayer!

Last night he ended with “…and thank you that boys are no longer mean. Amen!” My wife and I opened our eyes and gave each other a look that translated into “What is that about?” I was worried that there had been an incident at school or on the bus that we didn’t know about. But after questioning him we finally discovered that he was talking about The Story of God. Let me explain.

If you’re not familiar with The Story of God, this is something developed by Soma Communities in Tacoma to be used with Missional Communities. The resource is free and can be found here: Story of God Resources. We are currently working through the “Story Formed Way” version in our missional community. We weren’t sure how it was going to work with the kids since it really is not the “kids version” of the story. However, the kids have really been engaged, especially when we do the retelling! The Story of God is a form of “chronological Bible storying” that presents the overall Biblical narrative in condensed, oral story form. Another way to describe it would be a sweeping “big picture” of the story of redemption.

Back to my son’s prayer: He was apparently very disturbed (and rightly so) that in the beginning of The Story there is a repeated theme of people “doing what is right in their own eyes” and that “their every thought was evil.” Now that we are deeper into the story and have arrived at Jesus, he is experiencing relief that, in his own words, “boys are no longer mean.” What I love about this, is that even though he doesn’t have the theological or church language to talk about sin,  evil, redemption, etc., he is grasping the story! He is getting the “good news” – the Gospel! And not only that, but he is personalizing it! “Boys” and “meanness” is something that he can relate to in that he has both experienced it and he has been the mean boy at times.

I have no idea how we will look back on this later. We haven’t even finished going through The Story of God once yet, and ideally we will do it once every year in our missional community. I just have a sense that we are onto something that I have longed for since the day that my children were born: that they would know God’s Story and see themselves as an ongoing part of that story in the world!