My church is the one in the church planting books. At least that’s what I want it to be. It “launches large” and grows, quickly reaching peak numbers. Finances, volunteers, and the general constellation of concerns that go with a new plant gets solved with prayer and elbow grease. Sweet. I’ll have a church that runs like a Rolex by sticking to well-worn recipes. Everybody knows what that involves—the right mix of servant evangelism, social awareness, phrase by phrase expositions of the Bible (or relevant topics), the right facility, location, number of parking slots, marketing, coffee, art pieces, technology, band, and workable ratio of cool people to nerds.
That is my church. I’ve read about it and want it. In fact, I want it so badly that when I look at the church the Lord is actually building around me, I still only manage to see the one in my dreams. That’s why reality hurts. It keeps reminding me what I don’t have. For instance, after several years, our peak Sunday mornings hit no more than 70 attendants. A couple of times we went over 100 and had to put people in an overflow room. That’s a far cry from the miracle-grow I expected. Despite all our attempts to the contrary, folks visit a few times, swear that we’re the best thing they’ve found, and yet still manage to find the exit. Call me a pessimist, but ten out of ten math majors would agree that it’s hard to add when you’re busy subtracting.
If I sound bitter, hang on, we’ll get to something redemptive. In the meantime, let me vent a little more. The books (yes, that same pile you have in your home), say to find a meeting place that will allow growth and multiple services. But we’re stuck in a large office space that we refurbished by smashing all the walls out, carpeting, and repainting it. Now it’s a giant rectangle, long and shallow with a maximum seating capacity of 100. You have to climb stairs to reach it, making me wonder what is going on in the minds of visitors while they’re on their way up.
“Exactly why did we come here?”
“Would it be rude to turn around and leave right now?”
“Umm, we’re looking for a regular church, not some kind of experiment.”
I could keep going, but I won’t. I’m afraid it may send me into a junk-food eating depression. The fact is that most church planting books do not dwell on the majority of us who are years-deep into a plant with less than 150 members to show for it. Let’s be fair. Even if they did, I would avoid them. I prefer my church plant books to read like men’s adventure novels, flush with tales of escalating numbers, miraculous accounts of buildings willed over to the church by wealthy benefacors, etc. That’s also how I like my gurus. They’re allowed to tell hard luck stories as long as the chapter closes with “and we lived happily ever after…on mission…all two thousand of us in our very large building.”
But, enough already. I’m not throwing out my church planting books. I’m not skipping the conferences. And I really like the gurus, so I’ll be listening to their podcasts whenever I can.
The problems only start when I pin my hopes on Christ building my church and not His. What happens when little Johnny unwraps a gift that he expects to be an electric train set, only to find that it’s a box of socks? Go figure. Disappointment for sure, but something frequently darker. I met a Columbus area pastor who recounted the early days of his church planting experience. This fellow did everything right. He talked to Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, and any other guy sporting a goatee, a Hawaiian shirt, or grunge jeans. He was all ready to get his train set. It was going to be a Lionel classic with functioning smoke stack. Then he launched. After a year of struggling, my pastor friend had an undersized group that was nearly bankrupt. Worse, he had funneled his life savings into it and was flat broke as well. For his efforts he had received not the model railroad of his dreams, but a barrel of tube socks. Dazed and in a condition of nervous breakdown, he wandered out on a scorching hot asphalt road in his bare feet and walked for miles, sustaining second degree burns.
Thankfully, I never descended into that kind of valley. But I have detoured into plenty of ditches—frustration with folks in my church who made promises that fizzled almost as fast as they appeared. Things done poorly. Things not done at all. Church members whose mailing addresses are here in Columbus, but who live out of town on the weekends (especially Sunday morning). Absolutely nothing happening quickly. And to top it all off, a vague sense as Sunday morning approaches that once again, it’s not going to look like “my” church.
Yet in the middle of this troubling emotional goulash, something has happened. My devotional reading has taken me through Psalms, where no less than a hundred passages either praises God or calls for the reader to do it. That message has become a broken record. On a regular basis, as the Holy Spirit in the Psalmist is soaring, the Holy Spirit in me keeps asking, “John, do you agree with the sentiment here? Are you willing to join in with it?” He seems to ask this of me as much as I ask Him to please build “my” church.
The fact is, if He would just get busy building my church I would probably be in a more praising mood. Then Psalm 115:18 delivers an awesome uppercut, saying, “We will bless the Lord from this time forth.” That’s right—not some point in the future, but this time. Those words trigger an internal follow-up that sounds a lot like my voice, except with wisdom added: “If you’re not joyful at present, then you’re missing out. You’re missing God in the now. You’re also missing the best part of your church’s life history. Don’t wish it away. Don’t get down the road to where you think you want to be, only to pine away for the old days when things used to be good. When things were small and manageable. When things were simple. When we had time to think about spiritual formation and nitty-gritty discipleship and Bible study and saving the neighborhood and…Jesus. Be careful because you’ll miss the days before the church turned into an unwieldy department store with a hiring and firing ethic that replaced its familial atmosphere.
I have to admit that I’ve been warmed by those words. Suddenly a lot of little things seem really good. The faint smell of exotic coffee in our facility. The hip upper room we’ve refitted for contemporary worship. A handful of fledgling apostles putting themselves out for kingdom work. A smallish church that is excited to find out what Jesus will say week by week. A community that knows it has something good and wants like crazy for others to come and enjoy it.
This is my church, Jesus tells me. No, it doesn’t look exactly like other places, because it is what I’m doing here. Through you. It is unique because it’s the combination of both me and you. This is the church that can’t be built by anybody but Me, through you.
Do you like it?
What should I say to a question like that?
Only one thing comes to mind: “Amen Lord, build Your church.”