Here are 10 things that I wish someone would have told me when my wife and I packed up our worldly belongings and trucked down to South Florida with barely a whisper of knowing what we were doing. I can honestly say that if I would have known these things, it would not have deterred me from moving. It just might have been made a few parts of the past 10 years a bit more relaxing. And I like relaxing.
10 MORE THINGS I WISH SOMEONE WOULD HAVE TOLD ME ABOUT STARTING A MISSIONAL CHURCH:
1. HAVING A CAREER, STARTING A FAMILY, AND STARTING A CHURCH IS A LOT OF WORK.
About every six months I make a frantic call to my friend and missional church therapist, Chris Marshall. Chris and I talk all the time, but these are special calls…the “I’m going to quit” calls. They usually happen when I am in the midst of some deadline at work, money is tight, the kids are going through some stage, and the community is in crisis, all at the same time. The calls go both ways. I whine, and then he says, “I know Mike…I know.” That’s usually enough.
Coming to the realization that this is normal was very helpful. What we are trying to do here is counter-cultural in so many ways, we are bound to run up against “tension”. (Tension is a nice way of saying, HOLY CRAP I’M GOING TO DIE.)
2. MOST PEOPLE WILL NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO DO.
I remember one particularly irksome anonymous commenter a few years ago that kept trying to pin me to the wall so he could argue with me. So, you’re Emergent, right? What about House Church? Oh…you’re a Missional guy. Finally, after about twelve deflections, he said, “You seem to be above reproach.” I’d never had anyone accuse me of that before. Kind of made me feel special.
The founder of the Vineyard, John Wimber, spent most of his ministry life dealing with severe criticism from almost every angle. Most of the time he didn’t respond, sometimes he did. What I learned from his example was that most people (well, pretty much all people) aren’t inside your head. They don’t understand what motivates you, what makes you tick. When your goal is to understand and live into the full revelation of Jesus and his kingdom, that makes labels tricky. I’ve learned that the average Christian loves to categorize. But what we are doing defies category in so many ways that it can be frustrating for everyone. Frankly, there’s no easy answer. Just lots of patience, deflection, and every once in a while…just don’t respond.
3. NOTHING OF SIGNIFICANCE WILL HAPPEN FOR TEN YEARS.
Someone actually did tell me this when we first started. Maybe I didn’t want to believe him, or perhaps I thought we might be different. But he was right, ten years is about enough time to till ground, grow roots, and see the first buds of Spring begin to bloom. Of course, “significance” is not really accurate. Everything that happens during that time is significant – anchoring yourself in a place, developing new relationships, asking questions about what it means to be the church, dreaming dreams about what should be. All these things matter deeply, it’s just that the church planting regime doesn’t buy it and won’t support you. But you need this time…covet it and don’t let anyone dissuade you of its importance.
4. YOU WILL HAVE FEW FAITHFUL FRIENDS AND EVEN FEWER CO-LABORERS.
It would have been shocking to have foresight ten years ago into how our relationships would change over the years. It would have rocked me to the core. But after the shock wore off, I would be able to walk forward with a little understanding, a buffer. This is where the most pain and wounds are collected. I really thought that being the church in this way would protect us from some of this. But alas, people are people. Even though the invitation is always open to deep community – where maturity is an outworking of brothers and sisters working through conflict in love – the broad road is so easily chosen.
There is also the truth that more will love you as a person than will love your dream. Get used to that.
5. AFFIRMATION WILL COME FROM UNEXPECTED SOURCES.
You would expect your parents, if they are of the God-fearing, supportive ilk, to be your biggest fans. Mine single-handedly sold a copy of my book to half the people in their church. Their support and affirmation has been essential. But it’s the unexpected sources that seem to carry that extra prophetic punch. There were the responses to my first blog back in 2002, some as far away as New Zealand. There are our friends from Gainesville we meet with every Thanksgiving who pray, listen, and understand our heart. And sometimes God affirms without using anyone at all. Those are my favorite.
I spent the first six or seven years of our experience looking for affirmation from sources that were not capable of giving it the way I needed. Sadly, those sources are often the ones who justify their existence to help people like me. Coming to terms with this was extremely painful, but also deeply foundational. Let the Holy Spirit be your affirmation. He’s pretty good at correction as well.
Note: So I guess by now you’ve realized that I’m not going to be as playful with this list. For those who have ears to hear, the delivery won’t matter. If you’ve read this far, you’ll understand that nothing I am writing here is theoretical. I’m not sure if that’s important to anyone anymore, but it is to me. So with that firmly established, on to the rest of the list.
6. LEADERSHIP IS NOT BAD.
One of my mentors, Bishop Todd Hunter (who was just regular Todd Hunter when I first met him…he just wanted to be like me and have Bishop in his name) said to a group of us one time, “The answer to bad leadership isn’t no leadership, it’s good leadership.” I struggled with that one. Empowering the whole Body of Christ to action was such a deep desire of mine that I felt the best thing I could do was just get out of the way. But at some point, I forgot that empowering = equipping. And equipping does not have to come from a place of control and manipulation.
In fact, I discovered that the Apostle Paul was a fantastic model of “good leadership”. We have this idea of Paul as this big-shot apostle, with everyone bowing and scraping, hanging on every word. The facts are, he constantly had to defend his right to speak authoritatively into the churches that he himself planted. Paul spent himself to see people come to maturity in Christ, even if they kicked and screamed the entire way. He lead from a foundation of love. That should be where we lead from as well.
7. BIGGER MEETINGS ARE OKAY TOO.
I used to have the attitude that if a community gathering took anything more than 15 minutes to setup for, then it was too much work and not sustainable. Consequently, most of our gatherings have taken place in homes, or at the beach, or in public buildings. Of course, that smallness and simplicity keeps with our ethos of family. It is true that volunteerism has trumped charism in the church. Most churches operate on the backs of good-hearted people who say, “Yes,
I’ll help.” I didn’t want that to happen.
But then we started an art and music coop a few years ago, and we did an art show and concert. There were maybe ten of us who helped plan and set up. Over 100 people showed up to the event and it was a blast. That’s when I realized that there is a way to do a big thing once in a while that doesn’t kill everyone involved.
Jesus drew crowds. There is a dynamic in the kingdom that happens when people respond in numbers. There are pitfalls of course. Crowds on the whole do not produce disciples. But it is a venue for the message, for the Good News to be proclaimed in word and deed. I’m down with that.
8. KEEP BEING CREATIVE IN WORSHIP.
I’ve lead worship music for church gatherings in some form or fashion for fifteen years. My Vineyard background has left me a strong foundation in worship with contemporary music, for good or ill. I’ve tried at times to escape, but it’s part of of who I am. The truth is, there is something that happens when a group of Christians sing. You may think the lyrics are cheesy or music tired, but God somehow fills it with his presence. It’s good for our souls.
But on a deeper level, there is connection between creativity and worship that cannot be understated. This is perhaps the greatest disservice contemporary worship music has done. We have had the creative call usurped by the Christian marketing machine. We need to take that calling back and create home-grown liturgy, music, art, and prayers that help us connect with what God is doing locally.
9. FIND WAYS TO BE WITH THE FORGOTTEN AND LONELY.
In our new neighborhood, there is a large migrant Guatemalan community that lives down the street. The men ride their bicycles every morning and evening down our street to the day laborer center. The women push their strollers and walk down to the small, latino grocery store. We’ve gotten to know one of the families. Their son comes and plays video games with our boys and Amber tries out her broken Spanish with the mom. They have an incredibly hard and lonely life, gripped with fear that they will be deported. We just try to give them a friendly respite at our little house.
We need not look very far in 21st century America to find people who have been kicked to the curb by society. Chances are, they may not look like you or have your same interests. But, if you get to know them, you might just see the face of Jesus looking back at you. This is not a methodology to build a big church or otherwise be successful in ministry. But there is no greater joy than to see the lonely find family, to see the forgotten find hope.
10. THE COMMUNITY WILL BE A BETTER PASTOR THAN YOU.
I went through a deep identity crisis about a year after starting our church. The idea of “pastor” just didn’t make any sense anymore. With all the normal pastoral expectations stripped away, I was left fumbling around with skills I didn’t really have and totally confused on how to actually be helpful to anyone. It seemed like the more things I tried, the less helpful I was, and the more frustrated I got.
A few years later, I fired myself from pastoral ministry. I determined to be something else in our community. I began reading more and started working on my book. Then we sent out a new group that our family would later join. For the first time in a long time, I was a part of something that I did not start. It was weird at first, but slowly things began to shift. People began to pastor one another and I was free to be what I was good at. It appeared that I had acquired some new skills. I was pretty good at pastoring too.
There is so much about life in Christian community that requires us to relax. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be playful and healing. Sure there is conflict, but that is just evidence of the Holy Spirit working among us. Embrace it. Embrace the reality that this whole thing called church is just so much bigger than you. It’s all good.