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.


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: Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Gospel For Muslims

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I was not sure what to expect when I picked up Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Gospel For Muslims. I think I expected apologetics. I wanted ammunition for good Christian – Muslim arguments. That expectation had always kept me from reading the book, actually. I didn’t feel it would be very practical. I live and serve in rural Missouri. There are no Muslims in my town, and any passing through probably don’t stop. I assumed that this book might be practical for someone else, but not for me.

I was wrong. Oh, was I ever wrong.

Let me say from the start that this is not an apologetics book. Anyabwile makes that clear from the introduction. The Gospel is the Gospel, thus there does not need to be a special presentation for this group or that group.

I once had the privilege to hear Anyabwile preach. His gentle demeanor impressed me, especially how it stands in sharp contrast to his own claims of once being an angry, racist, hateful man. He discusses his past a bit in this book. He refers to his anger, his conversion to Islam, and his conversion to Christianity. If nothing else, he is perfectly qualified to speak to the issue of evangelism to Muslims and is a testimony worth remembering.

Part one of this book focuses on the Gospel message itself: Who is God,? What is sin? Who is Jesus and what did He do? With each point, there is common ground, but Anyabwile is careful to point out the irreconcilable differences. These are the points that must be made.

The second part of the book is about the witness. Here, Anyabwile emphasizes those things that we too often forget. He reminds the witness to lean on the Holy Spirit, use the Bible, practice hospitality, and yes, even be ready to suffer for the name of Jesus.

Though the book contains very practical insight for sharing the Gospel with Muslims, I found that it is equally relevant for sharing the Gospel with any religious person. Far too often, I view witnessing to a person of another faith as a necessary battle. The only method considered is well-rehearsed arguments and counter-arguments. Too often, what is left out is the Gospel itself, both in word and spirit. This book reminds me that I need to focus more on presenting the Good News of Christ than I do on winning an argument and that by a Gospel-centered life, I can have opportunities for such conversations.

The information is helpful, but the gentle, humble spirit of Thabiti Anyabwile’s teaching is essential. I recommend this book side by side with J. Mack Stiles’ Marks of the Messenger, as must reads for evangelism.

Motive Makes the Difference

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Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake! For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks? (Psalms 6:4, 5, NKJV).

Sometimes the motive of an action makes all the difference. In Desiring God, John Piper gives the example of the husband who arrives home on his anniversary with two-dozen roses. His wife is thrilled until the husband says, “Think nothing of it, it’s my duty as a husband.” It is the heart of our actions that we ought to be concerned about, for there is the difference between love and duty; between devotion and bargaining.

To some extent, I’m afraid that modern evangelism has ignored this in order to achieve a desired result. What is in a person’s heart is not as important as whether or not they walk an aisle, say a prayer, get baptized, etc. We’ve watered down talk of a changing of a heart to simply repeating a prayer and really “meaning it.”

Much of the focus of evangelism has been Heaven and Hell. Certainly, Heaven and Hell are realities of the Gospel, but what is lost when we convince a person to fear Hell and desire Heaven? Perhaps they strike a bargain or attempt to work out a deal, but is there a changing of the heart? Is there a desire for God that was once destroyed by sin?

In the sixth Psalm, David prays from weakness and brokenness for salvation. It might be easy to point out that in verses 4-5, David explains the urgency of such a prayer by showing that death is final. However, I think there is something more. The motive of David’s urgency is not his own condition in death, but whether or not God is remembered and praised. Motives make all the difference.

What will become of evangelism when the goal is no longer heaven, but the love and worship of the Lord?

Hey Loca-Dia, that’s Tang! (El Salvador Day 2)

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This morning, I read a chapter of 9 Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. The particular chapter dealt with the Gospel and how too often we fail to present the Gospel as part of life. To often we separate the Gospel from everything else to the point that it comes across muddled and confused. It was timely reading, since the purpose of this trip is to share the Gospel. I tried to keep this in mind today as we shared the Gospel in different ways.

After breakfast we visited a park in Chalchuapa and had a few conversations with people about the Gospel. This afternoon, we visited homes again discussing the Gospel with people in the community of San Vincent. Tonight, I preached on the reality of our guilt and how that points to the greatness of grace.

The Good News is magnified in light of the bad news. Our salvation is all the more amazing when we are aware of our depravity. That’s the context in which I think we need to share. The good news intertwines into everyday life at the point of the bad news. This is what is missing so often in ready-made evangelistic methods.

This became very obvious today when I visited a home I first visited 4 years ago. During my first trip to El Salvador, I visited a woman near the church who was in the midst of crisis. Her husband had been in an car accident near their home in which one of their sons lost his life. Unable to handle the grief and guilt, the husband found escape in the United States. Though he supports his family financially, He left them with the burden of grief and day to day struggles. These burdens fell on the shoulders of his two remaining sons. I remembered well how they stood at a distance, unwilling to talk to us, as their mother shared this tragic story. I never forgot how broken they looked and I’ve prayed for them many times in the past four years. Today, we visited the home again and I sat down with the oldest of those sons, William. There isn’t an evangelistic method that addresses that situation. Instead we talked about doubt and struggle and we prayed for peace. I pray that the Holy Spirit continues in that home.

This is my hope for this trip, that we are able to meet people where they live, and from their share the Gospel of Christ. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn this, as its what we need to do back home too.

Speaking of life, we’re certainly living the adventure that has become our El Salvador mission trips. We’ve had great home-cooked meals (though its been chicken every time), good tortillas, taunted a very angry snake, baffled Kacey at all the nicknames we can invent for her, and had a great little arm wrestling tournament between Jamie and several teenage boys at the church.

16 Ways to Demonstrate Love and Unity in the Church (and in so doing, Become a Healthy Evangelist)

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This list was taken from Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel by J. Mack Stiles (pp. 107-109), a book I HIGHLY recommend!

1) Attend a church that takes the gospel seriously
2) Become and actual member of a church
3) Read C.J. Mahaney’s book Humility: True Greatness once a year
4) Turn down jobs that might take you away from the church
5) Arrange family vacations around your church’s schedule
6) If your church doesn’t have a church covenant, think about developing one that expresses your love for each other
7) Move to a house closer to the church and use your house as a place of hospitality
8 ) Practice church discipline
9) Respect, even revere, theauthority in the church
10) Turn heads — really practice the biblical teaching of giving an receiving forgiveness
11) Take care of people who are in need physically in your congregation
12) Pray for each other
13) Sympathize with other believers
14) Focus on caring for one another spiritually by discipling one another
15) Share your faith together
16) Read Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church

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