Dear Pastor-Me…Sincerely, Church Planter-Me


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.


The Lighthouse

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I found a lighthouse the other day.  To get to the lighthouse, I had to drive down an unfamiliar road, past a refuse incinerator, two recycling plants, and a scrap metal buyer.  I had to drive until I reached a dead end at a beach park that no one in their right mind would desire if they sought a beach or a park.  I then had to park and walk through the park, past a smashed and burned picnic table and no less than two hypodermic needles.  Reaching the water’s edge, I had to navigate a rough shorebreak, walking carefully between waves crashing against the rocks and the roped off property of a tourist show that’s location defies reason.  After navigating the tricky shoreline, I found it amongst the weeds.  A lighthouse.  It was automated.  No charming lighthouse operator that Pete’s Dragon had taught me to expect.  Just a locked tower with a whirling light on top.

I searched for a better path out of the place, but the Coast Guard has clearly let the surrounding land go.  The weeds are high and thick, with large rocks and old concrete blocking any possible path.  “What are they thinking?”  I wondered.  Do they not realize that people like to see lighthouses?  Do they not realize that they need to make it easier for people to enjoy the lighthouse?  In the past week I have mentioned this lighthouse to two friends who each live near it.  Neither had even heard of it.  What is the Coast Guard thinking?

Their website regarding this lighthouse says exactly what they are thinking, “The light is an active aid to navigation and is not open to the public.”

There it is.  The lighthouse does not exist for tourist to come and gawk at it.  It does not exist for picturesque landscapes or vacation photos.  It exists to navigate ships.  Big ships.  Serious ships.  Ships that without navigation will meet disastrous consequences.

Serious work and comfort seldom go hand in hand. The Coast Guard has chosen to ignore comfort and ease for the tourists and instead focus on navigating ships.  The Church must forego its own comfort for the sake of her mission.  Christian, you must leave your comfort zone and be about the work of the Lord.

You are a lighthouse, not a resort.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Matthew 5:14

The Upcoming, Exciting, Unusual Event

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On Sunday I announced to the church that on January 8 we host an event we call “Underground Church.” Inspired by the way persecuted Christian meet around the world, and stealing the idea from David Platt’s Radical, we will meet from 6pm to 12am (or longer) with only focus: scripture. We will read and discuss scripture. There will not be games, food, childcare, music, guest speakers, special offerings, videos, workbooks, or anything else. Just people, bibles, and a lot of reading and discussing. If that doesn’t strike you as the least bit interesting, that is alright by me. This is not something to come to just to show your commitment to our church, or because you think you have to attend. However, if you are reading this and thinking, “That might be something good,” then I hope to see you there.

The real question is why?

There are a few possible answers that might come to mind:

A) We will develop a heart for the persecuted church
B) I read it in a popular book and want to imitate a popular pastor/author
C) We need it.

I suppose by calling it “Underground Church” and thinking about the persecuted Christians that hunger for God’s word then we might spur some thought toward those less fortunate. I’m not sure that would be too successful. Maybe for a few hours we’d think about it, but then we’d feel relief as we return to our comforts and freedom. I don’t think pretending to be less fortunate will help. I do however think that praying for the entire world, country by country, might have some heart changing effects, and I encourage you to do so.

It is true that this idea comes directly from David Platt’s Radical. I think this is an amazing book and I encourage everyone to read it. However, that isn’t why we are doing this event. In all honesty, if I were to try to imitate David Platt, I’ve gone pretty far already. He and I both attended the same seminary. He and I both have sons adopted from Kazakhstan. He and I both named said son, Caleb. I am older than David Platt by a few years though. Maybe he’s trying to imitate me? Seriously, the idea of copying famous pastors and books is common among Christians. Experiencing God made us all take long walks with Jesus. Purpose Driven Church had us all write mission statements and compare our churches to baseball fields. So naturally, Radical might have us all hosting uncomfortable, long sessions of Bible reading. It is a fair concern, but no, it isn’t why we are doing this.

The real reason we are doing this is: we need it. Scripture has become little more than a footnote in most churches. Sunday School classes are taught around quarterlies that contain a whole lot of what the author says and only snippets of scripture. Worship favors simplistic music rather than scripture reading. And sadly, many pastors only read a passage of scripture but spend the remaining time stating their opinion or telling stories. Before long, we have entire churches full of people that know the Bible is important but have no idea what it says. It really is time that we get back to understanding scripture. If I could get just a few people to spend some solid time reading scripture, maybe it would start something. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a hunger for more. And then maybe, we’ll become a church that not only hungers for God’s word, and not only begins to know God’s word, but begins to share and live out the good news found in God’s word.

It’s a crazy idea but I’m willing to give it a shot.

How about you?

Some thoughts on church membership and church discipline

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Most agree that a church should reflect the nature and character of God. Someone should be able to see the goings on of a church and its members and understand something of God. The problem is, that they seldom see truth about God. Christians become torn between trying to display the love of God or the holiness of God. This is problematic. The church that focuses on the love of God will drift towards an “anything goes” doctrine. The church that focuses on the holiness of God will drift towards a harsh legalism, not unlike the Pharisees of the New Testament. The challenge for a church is to reflect both the love and the holiness of God in order to show truth about God.

To better understand how this can be done, consider Matthew 16. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am.” Peter provides the correct answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus says a peculiar thing.

17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19, NKJV).

It is necessary to carefully consider a few of the words in this passage. First, consider “rock.” Jesus claims that upon the rock of Peter’s confession (the Greek words for “rock” and “Peter differ), He will build His church. The church is based on profession that Jesus is the Christ; the Son of God.

Next, consider “church.” The ekklesia was a list of citizens in a community that were called out for important decisions, trials, or defense. Jesus, claims that He will build just this sort of group, on the foundation of this profession of faith. This is the beginning of our understanding of a church. It is a group (and I would argue a specific group, though I do not exclude the notion that there is a universal body of all believers) of people that believe that Jesus is the Christ, which has been called out for a specific purpose. By definition alone, it is apparent that membership has its place.

After this, Jesus says something that has puzzled many for years. He tells the disciples that they are given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Some implications here (particularly that the disciples, and by extension the church, determine salvation) seem to contradict other teachings of scripture, so it is important to find clarification here.

A good means of clarifying a passage is to look for parallel passages. In other words, look for the same thing said elsewhere in scripture and then look for the context there to find a better understanding of the teaching. A parallel passage is found just two chapters over in Matthew 18.

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:15-20, NKJV).

This time, the teachings (found here in vs 18) are in the context of church discipline. Where before they were in the context of what composes a church, now they speak to what does not compose a church.

It is important to note that as Jesus says “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector,” Jesus loved heathen and tax collectors. Love is not absent from this process. The goal of the process is to bring someone to repentance; to encourage faith and growth. The purpose of removing a person from the church is not to shun, but to attend to salvation. How often do we simply try to assume the salvation of someone who strays? That may bring comfort to church members, but which is better: to assume someone is lost only to find in eternity they are not, or to assume someone is saved only to find in eternity that they are not? Love is the means and purpose of this process.

So what of the difficult reaching of verse 18? The church roll is a testimony to the coming judgment. Both by membership and by discipline, the church testifies to the judgment of a just, righteous, holy, and loving God. By profession of faith there is inclusion. By lack of repentance there is exclusion. Faith and repentance are inseparable, thus they both speak here to the nature of God.

Consider the testimony of the church. Be careful here. Many times, a Christian simply considers what the world thinks. There is a desire to gain a hearing; to show love, so that which is offended is avoided. Motives are good here, but the method of considering what the world thinks is questionable. Instead, consider the testimony that the Lord calls a church to show.

Consider three applications here: 1) With no regard to membership or discipline, we lack a good testimony. 2) If we do not show holiness (that is, have no discipline), we testify that God is not good. 3) If we so not show love, we testify that God is not love.

Having considered these things, let me challenge you to do the following:

1) Honor scripture. No matter how difficult, seek to apply these important doctrines.
2) In every aspect of your church, ask, “What does this say about God?”
3) Shore up membership. Seek to display an honest testimony and seek to call brothers and sisters in Christ to commitment.
4) Lovingly hold each other accountable, strengthening each in their walk with Christ.

For further reading, I recommend this book.

Fishers of Men

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I am really proud of the people of First Baptist Church of Birch Tree.

In case you don’t know the church well, we are a small, rural church not unlike a lot of Baptist churches scattered across the fruited plains. We are not terribly innovative. We are not following any sort of growth model or marketing plan, but there a few things we do well.

Our semi-annual fishing tournament is a good example. We just finished hosting it this year so I can give you a run-down of the event. 58 kids, plus their parents, grandparents etc. came out to fish for a couple of hours. Judges weigh each fish – any fish- that might get caught and in the end there is a nice trophy for the highest total weight caught, the biggest fish, and the most fish caught. Don’t worry, fish lovers, all the fish are quickly set back to swim and eat and meet us again next year. Every kid got a T-shirt, and everyone got a really good hotdog and hamburger lunch. Its all free. We don’t set out a donation bucket and we don’t ask for or expect a dime. It is our gift to the community. It looked like everyone had a great time.

That’s not all. Throughout all of this, there are the people of First Baptist talking and laughing with the participants. I see church members getting muddy as they try to detangle lines from trees, and one get more than muddy trying to remove a stubborn hook from a stubborn fish.

That’s still not the best part. This is going to sound bad, but for me, the best part is, I don’t do anything. Well, that’s not entirely true. I MC the event, I helped weigh a few fish, and I talked with everyone I came across, but I really have very few official responsibilities at this event. Not that I don’t mind work. I’m usually pretty busy. The thing is, this event was never my vision. God gave this vision to Jeff Brake and Jeff has done a fantastic job casting (no pun intended) it to the church. They rally around him and before I know it, the whole thing is organized, publicized and running like a well-oiled machine. Go, First Baptist, Go!

My only real responsibility at the event is to share the gospel during the awards time. Between you and me, that is really, really easy to do after so much love is shown by the church. Keep it up, everybody!

Caleb and the 2lb Bass

My son caught this monster bass just before time was up! What a day!

Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine

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Two different traditions may define the role of the pastor. The older, more traditional view is that the pastor is a clergyman. He carries out religious services and ministers personally to the congregation. A newer approach suggests that the pastor is a CEO of sorts. He manages and leads an organization to accomplish its goals.

I personally feel the tension between these two approaches all the time. The expectation of many church members is for the former, but every exciting book and speaker suggests the latter.

In The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshal and Tony Payne suggest a new approach: The pastor as “trainer.” In actuality, all disciples are called to be disciple-makers. In this approach, the role of the pastor is to train disciples, who will in turn make disciples and train disciples. The pastor serves as more of a player-captain to the team rather than clergy to the parishioner or managing director to the organization.

This approach means a lot to me. After a very negative experience in ministry, I came to the realization that ministry must be about people rather than programs. For me, the traditional approach had a sort of emptiness to it. The pastor-clergyman would visit, teach, counsel, and pray, but all that he did seemed to only carry as much weight as his title. His words didn’t matter, nor his advice, and for that matter, his theology, only his title. I didn’t find the answer in the contemporary model. The pastor-CEO has so much invested in programs that they must be carried out, often at the expense of people. This was contrary to ministry and seemed to drive further and further from the Gospel all the while seeking to draw people to it. The concept of the pastor as a member of the team, training people for ministry is simple, biblical, and exciting.

However, it isn’t that simple. Marshal and Payne cast a big vision. They suggest a church that is made up of people following Christ and leading others to follow Christ. They desire to see disciples making disciples, with the pastor and elders training more and more “vineworkers.” Their vision expands all the way to practical advice on how to encourage more church members into the gospel ministry.

I recommend this book as it does propose a necessary shift in thinking. I would love to see what a church with so much invested in people would look like. I want to see the church where everyone works to further the purposes of God; where disciples are made and taught to make more disciples; where leaders emerge and plant entirely new works. That’s the vision cast in this book, and its one I long to see.