On Success and Failure

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I recently had coffee with a friend of mine.  He is a fellow church planter here in Hawaii. We met to discuss his recent decision to return to the mainland.  It was a somber discussion, for sure.  Church planters live on a wing a prayer.  Either a church grows and we become pastors of thriving churches, or we return home.  When we do the latter, we have to face all of those supporters that hoped for the former.

As we talked I found myself saying something about what makes a “successful” plant, but I found myself stumbling over that word.  Saying it naturally implied the other side of the coin:  failed church plants.  It felt as though I was suggesting that my friend’s efforts had failed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Certainly, he will have some discussions about what could have been different or what should be done in future efforts.  Some people will try to calculate what aspects of his work resulted in a church plant that did not thrive.  With so much money and energy being put toward church planting, it is good stewardship to have such conversations.  However, it can be a dangerous habit to cast the outcomes of ministry in terms of success and failure.

I say it again, my friend did not fail.  He came to this island and devoted himself to making disciples.  He has proclaimed the good news.  He has taught people to follow Jesus.  There is nothing in the Great Commission that places the results on our shoulders.  If we truly want to see the kinds of things that only God can do, then we must let go of our control of the results.  We have to simply do as we are commanded in scripture and trust that God will further His kingdom as He wills.

In 1 Corinthians 3:6-7 Paul wrote,

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

When I read that verse, my mind wanders back to Kindergarten.  One day, each of us in the class got to put a little seed (a bean) in a wet paper towel.  A day or two later, it sprouted!  We moved them into little milk cartons full of soil and watched them grow.  Every day they were bigger.  This was very exciting.  Here in Hawaii, we grow pineapples.  I am told that it very easy.  Apparently if I simply chop the top off of a pineapple and bury it in the ground, I will grow a pineapple…in about 18 months.  That’s right.  Pineapples grow a lot slower than bean sprouts.

And trees grow even slower.  I have often used a tree as an explanation of Aloha Community Church.  I think of it as a tree, but I am only still putting seeds in the dirt.  It is all I can do.  It is all you can do.  Sure, we can manufacture all kinds of impressive things, but only God can make a tree.

That is why we must be careful when we cast ministry in terms of success and failure.  My friend has planted seeds.  One day, long after he is gone, those seeds may still produce.  I am confidant that they will.  Judge success and failure if you must, but remember this: we are seed planters, not tree makers.

Dear Pastor-Me…Sincerely, Church Planter-Me

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I have been a church planter for going on 11 months.  That isn’t a lot of experience, especially in light of the 12 years I spent as full-time staff at established churches (6 years as senior pastor).  Nevertheless, I would like to give myself some advice.  That is to say that I want to give my old self advice.  Church Planter Me has a few things to say to Pastor Me.

You don’t have to own it

I am quickly learning that a church will not start or grow based on my ideas.  Instead, I have to constantly watch to see where the Lord is moving.  That is not always in my ideas and my planning.  Sometimes the Lord moves in different ways through other people and I have to be ready to involve myself in what he is doing.

Small groups are the core of our church planting effort.  My plan is to see several small groups form and them come together to launch a church.  I started the first small group in October and ever since I have been carefully planning where new ones can be.  Not a single one of my plans has come about.  In our community there is a neighborhood that is isolated from the rest of the community.  It is gated and it sits in a remote location such that one never happens to just drive to it or even near it unless they intend on going there in the first place.  I knew at once that we needed a small group there.  My plan was to get a family from our sponsoring church to host it.  They live there, it was the perfect plan.  The problem was that they were so busy with things at our sponsoring church that they did not have time to host a small group.  I saw no way that I could launch a group there and began to wonder if it was God’s will that I even think of doing so.

Then a new person in our group came and said “I want to have one of these in my house. What do I do?”  They live there.  They are 4 adults sharing a house (not uncommon here in paradise where housing costs keep skyrocketing).  It was not my plant, but it seems to be the direction that the Lord is moving.

When I was a pastor, I always tried to plan for the next way our church would accomplish its mission.  I was always careful to check my plans with others, but that was it.  I checked.  My plan was either a go or it was tossed out.  What I want to say to my old self is this, “You don’t need to own it.”  It never had to be my plan.  It is God’s plan all the time, and as pastor my job is just shepherding the people according to that plan as it unfolds.  That may even mean going with the plans God lays on their hearts rather than constantly pushing my own.

It is ok to admit your struggles

I am the master of the brave face.  It is important, maybe even crucial to put up a good front when speaking publicly about ministry.  I have always believed that if I am negative, everyone else would be as well.  As a pastor, I always made sure that I celebrated victories, championed ideas, and spoke of things in their ideal states.

As a church planter, I have learned that sometimes there are just not enough things to celebrate.  Do not get me wrong, there is plenty to celebrate but this is hard, hard work.  The spiritual warfare is intense.  The pressures on my family are enormous.  The realities of our progress do not look so good when I compare them to my expectations.  This is hard.

At first, I hid all of that.  I made sure to voice prayer requests, but I knew that things must be positive.  That is how you keep people excited and on board.  That is how you keep partners running along with you.

One day, I changed that.  I typed one little line in my monthly report/blog post that broke my rules about being positive.  I said, “sometimes I am discouraged.”  I thought about taking it out but decided it was one little line; it would go unnoticed.

It was noticed.  It was noticed a lot.  For the next few days, I got tons of calls, emails, and messages about that one little line and I learned something.  If people do not know when you are discouraged, they cannot encourage you.  Those emails, calls, and messages were full of encouragement.  I needed that and by trying to be positive all the time, I was denying myself that bit of grace that my brothers and sisters were ready to give me.

Pastors are pressured to be perfect.  As a pastor I saw every one of my weaknesses as a potential deal breaker for the church.  If they knew I struggled with this or if they knew I had my doubts about that, they might not want to follow me.  In retrospect, by hiding my weaknesses, I most likely hindered the strengths of others.  If I am going to proclaim grace, I better start living in it!

Be a student of culture

In 11 months I have learned one thing:  Hawaii is a foreign land.  Yes, we are the 50th state.  Yes, we have congressmen and senators.  We have interstates.  We use dollars.  All that aside, Hawaii is a foreign land.  How else can you account for our love of Spam?

In order to minister effectively here, I have had to become a careful student of culture.  I watch, I listen, and I try to embrace what I see.  I try new foods, I follow the unwritten rules of the supermarket, and I try to learn pidgin.  I do this so that I can go from being an outsider to being a local; so that I can go from being a stranger to being a friend.  It requires a lot of effort and it never stops.

The things is, this is not the first time I have lived in a foreign land.  I have served churches in Arkansas and in rural Missouri.  Both were very different than where I grew up.  For the most part, I probably surrounded myself with people most like me.  That was not very effective.

Pastor, become a serious student of culture.  Study it, learn it, practice it.  Do not be an outsider, but become a friend to those in your community.

It isn’t “us” and “them”

In ministry it becomes easy to see two kinds of people: church people and non-church people.  The world becomes a group of people who are either us or them.  As a pastor, it always seemed as though the debate was do I lead us to go to them or do I train us to go to them.  It was always us and them.

As a church planter, I have learned that everyone is on a spectrum in their relationship to Christ.  Some are far away.  Some are not so far away.  My goal is to walk with them as they move closer, where ever they may be.  I have found that this completely changes my perspective in a lot of ways.  It removes the annoying similarities that evangelism can have with high pressure sales.  It also removes the division between discipleship and evangelism.

Pastor, you will never find that balance in your work between us and them.  Instead, see each person as one loved by Christ along a path to Him.  Guide them a bit further.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my pastor self these things, but as it is, I’ll just move forward this way and prepare to learn a lot in the process.

On Repo Men and Evangelists

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My presence could clear a trailer park. I would park the truck a block away. I would cover up the store logo on my shirt and hat (a corporate no-no, but those guys in the corporate office never did my job). I would try to look casual, but my face was recognizable. As I walked up the drive into the long row of single-wides, someone would make eye contact and sprint for their door. It was over. In less than a minute, the phone lines were hot all through the park. I was there. Don’t answer your door.

In reality, I only wanted one. One trailer had a big screen TV and a computer that the family was never going to pay for. Everyone else paid eventually, and I generally left them alone. Yet, their trailer park camaraderie enlisted them in the fight against me.

So, we launched a sneak attack. 8am marks the legal time for collections to begin. We were in the park by 7:45, walking carefully along the fenceline in the back. We walked through wet grass and weeds, avoiding the roads and the kids on their bikes and their moms who liked to smoke and gossip on their porches first thing on a Saturday. We waited.

8am, on the dot, and I sprint for the back door. Tony sprints for the front. Tony is nervous. This isn’t his route or his turf. He handled the projects, I handled the trailer parks. It was color-coded. Tony had reason to be nervous. I took the back door which worked. I caught Mrs. Big Screen stepping out to avoid Tony who was knocking on the front. She stepped back inside quickly and hoped she was somehow invisible that morning. Tony was on the front. We both pounded loud and yelled our standard greeting as loud as we could. The goal was to make a scene. And a scene was made indeed.

Minutes later, as we are still pounding and yelling, Tony is surrounded by about 30 people. Neighbors, all agitated that a black man is there. I race around to the front and relieve the pressure by asking Tony to go get the truck. He gladly leaves. I continue knocking while the crowd offers their views on my job. One man yells, “They don’t even got power, let ‘em keep their TV!” I’d love to address the logic of his argument, but it doesn’t have anything to do with my task that morning. My boss had made it clear, “If you get one thing done today, get that TV.”

I knock and knock (pound really, the door almost comes open). Tony brings the truck. The family finally surrenders. She storms out humiliated and furious. She carries a towel and shampoo in order to shower at the neighbor. They really don’t have power, or gas, or water. He waves us in then sits on his floor and cries. I sat down next to him on roach infested carpet and tried to remember who I was. I offered the best advice I could. I tried to point him in some good directions. Tony points to a flier on the table from one of the local churches. “That’s a good place to be,” he offers.

I hated being a repo man. Excuse me, Account Manager. It isn’t me. I have lots of interesting stories like this one. Some are sad, some are funny, some are scary. They are all true.

I don’t want to be a repo man. I’d love for my presence to be known. I’d love to wear the badge of my Lord in such a way that when I step into a community, they knew who I’m there for. I don’t want surprise attacks. I don’t want commotion. I don’t want to wage a war on dignity. Evangelists can do that too, just like repo men. I don’t want to. Instead, I want the larger, stronger, quieter life. I want the life where Christ is known by my actions, and heard in my words, and longed for because of the evidence of my own longing. That’s what I want. That’s where I’m headed.

Check out my adventure towards this larger, stronger, quieter life here.

Cowardly Christians and Brave Birds

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This afternoon, I mowed my yard. I love to mow my yard. I inherited my father’s cub cadet mower, and its pretty fun to zoom around my yard with that 24 horse power mower. Today, as I mowed I noticed a Robin that seemed unafraid of the mower. I would get within a couple of feet from this bird before it flew away, but it would return very quickly. It stayed with me the entire time I was out there.

It took me a while to realize why he stayed so close. Eventually, I got it. You see, my yard has been water logged lately. I haven’t been able to mow because it was so wet. So today, as I mowed the tall grass across soft ground, I was stirring up a lot of earthworms. The little bird knew this. He braved the mower because that’s where the harvest was!

Christians can learn a lot from my feathered friend. It seems we would rather stay away from the places and things in this world that frighten us or that may even be dangerous. We have plenty of places we won’t go and people we won’t talk to. The tragic reality is, those places are where the harvest is.

I pray I can become as brave as that little bird.

Book Review: Tony Merida and Rick Morton’s Orphanology

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One very cold, Siberian morning, my wife and I sat in an orphanage in northern Kazakhstan waiting for another visit with our favorite 10 month old. (You can read his story here). As we waited, an orphange worker came walking by with two small children, a boy and a girl. They were about two years old, and they stared at us immediately. The girl was very excited and she began to jump and shout, “Mama! Papa! Mama! Papa!” as the worker hurried them away. Our hearts jumped too, but alas, we only had the paperwork, approval, and money for Caleb. We could not be the parents of these two.

The memory has stayed with us. When I think about Caleb’s life in an orphanage or I consider what our lives would be like without him, or his without us, the memory of those two excited orphans reminds me: there are more.

And there are more. Many more. Millions and millions more.

In Orphanology: Awakening to Gospel-Centered Adoption and Orphan Care, Tony Merida and Rick Morton ask a difficult question, “Will we settle for a safe, comfortable religion or will we use the resources for the good of the world and the glory of Christ?” Orphanology is a challenge. It is a challenge to take seriously the words of James 1:27:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (ESV)

Readers may wonder how James might say that this is “pure and undefiled religion.” The answer is simple. Orphan care is at the heart of the gospel. The horizontal adoption visible in orphan care, points toward the vertical adoption that all in Christ have experienced.

The challenge is clear and obvious. Merida and Morton highlight this challenge by examining this and other passages of scripture, by explaining the facts of the state of orphans throughout the world, and including many touching stories of adoption and orphan care. UNICEF estimates between 143 and 210 million orphans in the world, yet that number does not reflect them all. Many children are institutionalized, homeless, or caught up in human trafficking; uncounted by UNICEF. These children are also orphans and they are in desperate need of Christ and His church.

The challenge being clearly stated, Orphanology moves on to very practical methods that any Christian or church can implement in order to address this need. This is the real strength of the book. Merida and Morton offer insight as to how a church can begin:

Orphanage funding

Churches can partner with existing orphanages around the world. in order to support them and their mission to care for orphans.

Foster care ministries

Churches can encourage members to become foster parents, support and encourage those who do, and welcome the foster children with open arms.

Adoption ministries

Churches can rally to support those in their congregations that are adopting. Adoption is a long, difficult, and expensive process and a church can offer encouragment and financial support.

Transitional ministries

Many children are too old to be “in the system” and too young to be on their own. Churches can help these teenage orphans as they transition to life in the adult world.

Orphan hosting

By hosting a group of orphans for a short stay in the U.S., churches have an opportunity to show love, share Christ, and encourage ongoing adoption and orphan care.

Further, there is an entire chapter covering how church leaders can cast the vision for such ministries and implement them.

All said, there is no reason why a church cannot care for orphans. Is everyone called to adopt? No. Is everyone called to be a foster parent? No. Yet, Christians are called care for orphans. Merida and Morton have done an excellent job relaying this call and giving practical steps toward answering it. The real question is, what will YOU do?

99% of you don’t have the guts to re-post this

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I have watched social networking through a few well-known disasters (floods, earthquakes, etc) and have noticed an interesting pattern among Christians. First there is a sharing of information. The links to news stories travels fast. Quickly on its heels are the calls for prayer. Before long information will be shared on how to help; what to collect, how to text a donation, etc. Churches will share how they are mobilizing and opportunities will abound for getting involved. Then a strange thing happens. A forwarded post shows up. It looks something like this:

Doesn’t make much sense, does it??: Homeless go without eating. Elderly go without needed medicines. Mentally ill go without treatment. Troops go without proper equipment. Veterans go without benefits that were promised. Yet we donate billions to other countries BEFORE helping our own first. 1% will re-post and 99% won’t. Have the guts to re-post this.

I have never re-posted this and it has nothing to do with guts. I don’t re-post it because one, I am a Christian and it is outside of my mission as a follower of Christ, and it really lacks a lot of common sense.

Let’s tackle that second reason first. Common sense. That’s somewhat of an oxymoron, as sense is not too common. However, let me show you what I mean. Yes, America has its problems. Yes there are homeless people in the streets. Yes, many go without health care, and so on. However, to be needy in America is vastly different than being needy elsewhere in the world. If you don’t believe that, you probably need to take a few trips outside the country. In my community, I am the treasurer for the Ministerial Alliance. That means, just about every request for a local church to help the needy in our community comes through me. Food, temporary housing, rent, utilities, clothes after a fire, etc, are all requested. Our county is among the poorest in the country with more than half the population living below poverty. I think I see a good cross-section of America’s needy. Most are living better than the average person I have met in El Salvador and Kazakhstan. Most have luxuries that folks in those countries can hardly imagine. Yet, they fit in that category of “Homeless going without eating, Elderly needing medicine, etc.” The average person that comes through my office gets about $75 worth of help. Very, very few are grateful. Many have actually cussed me for my efforts. I tell you that to tell you that I once also helped a woman on the streets of Kazakhstan. I’m not much for handing out money on streets, but when I saw that she was cleaning meat off of a chicken bone from the trash in order to feed her toddler, my cold heart was won over. I gave her what change I had left, the equivalent of $3. She burst into tears.

Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of needy people in America that are grateful when helped. I once delivered about 300 gallons of bleach to a Katrina relief station and was hugged by about a dozen people. What I am saying is not that people in other countries are more grateful, but they are more needy. Let’s face it, given the choice, I’d rather be homeless in America than have a home in Haiti, especially after the earthquake!

Let’s also consider the massive amount of resources available for the needy in America, especially in times of disaster. If you are in a major disaster in the US, the relief comes rolling in while you get a hotel room and plenty of funds to rebuild. If you are in a disaster in Haiti, you will sit on a pile of rocks. Before you email me and tell me of someone that wasn’t helped in the US, ask yourself which is more often the case?

The fact is, that it makes sense to raise support for other countries because we have it and they need it. They need it far more than the “needy” of our country do.

However, my first reason is more important. I don’t re-post this silly post because I am a Christian and it is outside of my mission as a Christian. You see, Christ sends His people “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). You may say that I should help America first, but I say I do not serve the god of America. I serve Christ. His mission is global, thus my mission is global. That is not my country first and then the world, but the world, which includes my country. If you are a Christian, you should absolutely be seeking to help the needy in your community, in your state, in your country, AND IN YOUR WORLD!

I guess the real question is not do you have guts enough to re-post a silly little forward (what courage that must take!) but do you actually have the guts to follow your LORD?