On Success and Failure

Leave a comment

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.

Advertisements

Dear Pastor-Me…Sincerely, Church Planter-Me

2 Comments

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.

Our Big Announcement

6 Comments

God often calls us where we least expect to go. To be sure, I never expected to say what I am about to say. Two years ago, Samantha and I begin to sense that God was calling us to the field of church planting; beginning new churches. We prayed about it and sought out some advice from various folks. At the time, the doors just didn’t open and we knew it was best to simply wait. We continued in our ministry in Birch Tree until very recently when we begin to hear that call once again. This time as we began to seek advice, various doors began to open in this direction. It became apparent that God was indeed calling us to church planting and that it was time to move in that direction.

At that, we begin to pray and ask God where He was calling us to plant. The answer came to Samantha and I independently. It was not what we expected. Granted, it was a place that God had placed on our hearts years ago, but the idea was just too far, too “out there,” too crazy. So we shared this idea with a few people, waiting for someone to say, “that’s just nuts!” Instead, one person after another confirmed it. There was one week where I prayed daily, “God if this is really your will, show me something today that confirms it.” And He did.

We did our research. This place is truly a frontier mission field. It is one of the most international locations in our country. It is truly a global mission field in one small part of the U.S. It is also one of the least evangelized. Evangelical churches reach approximately 3% of this growing metro area. The idea is exciting, if not completely overwhelming at the same time.

So, after much prayer, we have decided to plant a church in Hawaii. (I told you it sounded crazy!)

I know that leaves people with a lot of questions. There are a lot of things unknown right now as we are nailing down all the specifics and remaining flexible to do as the Lord commands. We are currently discussing the possibility of partnering with Second Baptist Church in Springfield, MO. Second Baptist is on the forefront of missions and we are really excited to work with them.

As for First Baptist Birch Tree, I will continue to pastor this church until the time comes to relocate (most likely next summer). We love the people of Birch Tree and First Baptist. We hope to take this journey together with First Baptist being one of our partners.

We pray this for you as well. We need people to partner with us in many ways. We will need people to provide financial support and we will have plenty of opportunities for people to come for short-term mission trips on Oahu. In the meantime, what we need most of all is prayer. If you would be willing to pray for us during this time, please contact us and let us know.

A Thought on The MBC

Leave a comment

I want to share a few thoughts I have about the 2010 meeting of the Missouri Baptist Convention that just wrapped up in Springfield.

Newly elected 2nd Vice President, Micah Fries has done a great job recapping much of the optimistic news of the convention. I won’t try to reiterate his post here, but I will share an observation.

I am the kind of guy who reads into things a little much. Maybe too much. However, I’ve always thought that a good measure of the convention is the kind of buzz words we here in the nomination speeches. For example, “He has a proven track record of ministry in Missouri” may mean, “He’s older and that’s important.” Or, “He shares the values of many Baptists” may mean, “This decision is about [insert hot topic]” We’ve had this kind of speech before, but this year the buzz word was missions. At times, the nominations speeches almost sounded like a “I’m more mission minded” competition, but that’s not a bad thing. I’d rather that be our point of passionate discussion. I’d love to see the day where we bring the busloads in to passionately discuss the best way to spread the Gospel. This year, the nomination speeches were a step in the right direction.

Reinforcing this, the convention elected John “3:16” Marshall as president. Dr. Marshall’s church, Second Baptist of Springfield leads the way in missions and looks to be doing the same in church planting. The unanimous, unopposed election of Dr. Marshall shows that Missouri Baptists are ready for missions. Further, the convention chose Joshua Hedger, a church planter/pastor to preach next year’s annual sermon. Is this a new day of missions and church planting in the MBC? Lord, may it be so!