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.

My Farewell to FBC Birch Tree

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Six years does not seem like a long time until you begin to think of all the things that can happen in that time.  I’ve spent some time thinking about that and several things come to mind that make it hard to say good-bye.

I think about my first Sunday here.  Wyatt Layman was just 15 years old.  My first Sunday he hit me up to see if I was going to pay him to mow the parsonage.  Now he sits here, a new husband.  He and Audrey have spent some time teaching our young people and I know they are off to a great start.

There have been several weddings in six years.  One that really stands out was Caleb and Lyndsey.  I had just had surgery and had not done anything until it was time for that wedding.  Still on pain killers and straining my voice, I was determined to preach it.  You see, there were 6 other preachers at that wedding and each one made a point to tell me that if I could not do it, they could.  I figured if there are 7 preachers at a wedding and I’m the one that gets to preach, I better do it!  Weddings like that are fun because we see the beginnings of a new family.  Now we see little Luke, and it is a joy because I know he’ll be raised in a Godly home.

We have also experienced some funerals.  There were a lot of them in six years.  They were each a mix of celebration and sadness.  We celebrated a life; often seeing the funeral as a great testimony to a life lived for Christ.  Still, we mourned over a loss and each one I preached, I watched you and your loved ones in your sadness, and my heart broke for you too.  Each one left and impact.

Still, over these six years, the one that will stand out the most is my dad’s.  I remember one night when I got word at midnight that he had been taken to the hospital.  It was a Saturday night and I had to let Tracy know at midnight that I would not be here on Sunday morning.  A few days later, Caleb had to go to the hospital.  I was in Springfield and couldn’t come back to go with Samantha and Caleb to the ER, so I called James at 3am and he went.  I’ll never forget that the deacons at this church are the kind you can call in the middle of the night.

Then at the funeral, I remember 3 pews full of you, all there to support my family and I.  The day before, I had determined to buy a new suit.  I did not own a good black suit and I decided I needed it for my father’s funeral.  Samantha agreed and we decided that we would buy it and figure out how to move things around later.  At the funeral, Van Kitchens, pulled me aside, explained that he knew that times like that bring about unexpected expenses.  He handed me some money, and wouldn’t you know it was the exact amount of the suit?  I will never forget how God uses the generosity of this church.

In these 6 years, there have been some great times too.  I like to think of all the baptisms in 6 years.  The first to stand out in my mind is that in this time I was able to baptize my own son.  His walk with Christ began here at First Baptist Birch Tree.  Recently I was going through some records and realized that one of my first baptisms here was Cody.  Who knew what God had in store there?

Many other baptisms stand out as well.  Particularly 3 men.  Eddie, Ethan, and David.  Each of those men are so much larger than I am that I had to get some help in the baptistry.  Our churches, communities, and our nation are in desperate need for men to stand for Christ.  It is good to know this is a church moving in the right direction.

In all honesty, when I think over the past 6 years I think about my many mistakes.  If I have ever hurt or neglected you, please understand that I am sorry.  I have often lost sleep going over how I would do things differently if I could and wishing I could go back and do some things again.  Yet, in the end, just like we all do, I have to realize that the cross was enough and I rest in that grace. Of course, it was in those times that I was often greatly encouraged.  Without fail, when I began to get discouraged I would get a phone call from Norma, a card from Willie and Jolie, or a dinner invite from Brian and Marta.

Throughout these 6 years there is one thing I hope to get across.  We tend to turn being a Christian into so many things, but it is not about those things.  It is not about being good.  It is not about setting the country right.  It is about one thing:  That Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again to give us life.  That’s it.  We follow Jesus.  No more, no less.  No less because anything less than Jesus would not be enough.  No more, because what more could we want or need?  It is about Jesus.  If you have never given your life to Jesus, I hope you will consider to do so today.

And now our paths must separate.  We will certainly meet again someday, but before I go, I have one more thing to say to you as your pastor.

I want you to consider as a church what really gets you going; what gets your blood moving; what gets you excited about this church.  It isn’t necessarily classes, fellowship lunches, or special music, though those things are all good.  Over these past years, what really got you going was missions.

I remember when I first went to El Salvador.  I told you I was going so that the next time, we could go.  Many told me flat out that this church would not do mission trips.  But you did, and it was a joy to watch you go.  Remember how exciting it was.  That’s what I mean when I say it gets your blood moving.

I remember when Kacey signed up.  We didn’t know about that.  We wondered if she knew what she was getting into.  In fact, I had dramamine in my pocket, just in case we needed to knock her out on the plane.  But I will never forget how she stood up in front of those kids and taught.  The next year, I just put her in charge of the children’s ministry.  We had the chance to go to a school, and when we walked in, the kids were so excited because Kacey was there!  Kacey is going to see some amazing things when she follows God in the mission He sets before her.  And so will the rest of you.

Remember when the Texas group came?  You were pumped and excited and it was amazing to see how God moved.  That was a tough week.  There was a lot of hard work, but nobody cared about that.

The reason missions gets you going is because it is God’s heart.  When you set your mind to get involved in what God is doing, things are different.  Things get exciting then.

Matthew 28:18-20 says:  18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

It says Go.  The apostle Paul compared the Christian walk to running a race.  A race starts with the word “go.”  So, now is the time.  Go.  I’ll see you at the finish line.

 

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.

A Season of Giving

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The holiday season is a hectic time for me. At the church, there are several various fellowships, services, and other events that take extra time. There is also a lot of activity at home with shopping, planning, and the annual shuffle from house to house seeing aunts, uncles, in-laws, and out-laws. I’ve come to notice that despite the wishes of good cheer that accompany the season, it seems to be the time when people are most likely to anger, hurt, and otherwise bother one another; myself included. As one given to anxiety, it is a stressful time. I enjoy the holidays, but I’m always glad when they are over.

The moment Christmas ends, I begin to think of where the church is and where we need to be. There are victories and challenges that must be examined before moving into a New Year. As for victories, this has truly been a season of giving. We have had several mission projects as of late, all showed great giving. We donated five large boxes of new gifts to the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. We collected gifts for needy children in our community. We gathered stockings full of gifts for the local nursing home. Hopefully, in those efforts we have helped spread some joy in areas where joy doesn’t always take. We also collected over our goal on our annual Lottie Moon Offering for International Missions. Hopefully, in doing so, we have supported the spread of the Gospel. Beyond these planned projects, I have watched our members give of themselves for each other. This has come largely from those who teach children. There have been parties, movies, and even a trip to a famous roll-throwing restaurant; something many of the kids had never experienced before. The teachers and helpers who gave of their time and resources here invested in the hearts of children. Those dividends tend to be longer in coming, but rewarding nonetheless. Truly, we have had a season of giving.

I would love for such a season to set the tone for the year ahead. If anything, we must learn to give more. Our budget includes about 10% for various “mission” causes. By the year end, that number runs closer to 20% but it should be more. Further, we must give more of our time. In order to accomplish the task the Lord gives us in the Great Commission, we must be willing to give a lot of time. Yet, it doesn’t stop at time and money. It would be so much easier if that’s all it were, but there is more.

We must truly learn to give of ourselves. We must give of ourselves to the point that we become smaller and smaller. We must become slight in order to make much of God. This will mean sacrifice. This means first and formost, the sacrifice of will. Everything else after that will be quite an adventure

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30 ESV)

A Thought on The MBC

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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!

Book Review: David Platt’s Radical

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“If you read one book this year, read the Bible. If you read two books this year, read Radical.” These were the words of a pastor friend of mine. It was not the first time someone recommended David Platt’s new book to me. I have listened to people talk about how challenging and moving the book is. I have heard it described as “dangerous” and I have listened to people talk of how God used this book to challenge them to huge steps of faith in their lives. I’ve also listened to very uneasy people question why their church suddenly wanted them to read this book. With such a buzz about it, I moved it to the front of the line of my reading list.

Dr. David Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills, has been the envy of many pastors. That is, if pastors can be envious. When he became the pastor of the Church at Brook Hills he made national news as the youngest mega-church pastor. As success for a pastor is measured, Platt has it all. He has notoriety, an effective ministry, invitations to preach at large conferences and conventions, a large congregation to lead, lots of resources to do big ministries, and, unlike the average pastor, it is assumed that he has a large salary to boot. However, in Radical, Platt is quick to deny these things as any measure of success.

In this book, Platt challenges American Christianity with scripture. Where is the justification for spending so much money on luxuries and comfort, when there is a mission field and a clear command to go? These challenges do not come easy. He challenges everything from where money is spent to how the message is presented. Be warned, you may not like what he has to say. The hard part, however, is that he backs up what he has to say with scripture. We eventually must face the question: are we pursuing the American dream or Christ?

When I first began to read this, I wondered if this wasn’t a better book for other mega-churches. I can easily agree that those churches with lots of resources should better use their resources. Myself, on the other hand, I pastor a more average (or maybe smaller) church. Our church averages less than 100 people. We don’t bring in $100,000 in a year. Clearly, it is everything we have to keep things running. That reasoning may work if it were not for one thing. We are not judged according to what others have, or what we have, but the command we’ve been given. Even my church, with our limited resources, must admit that we don’t do all that we can for the mission to which our Lord has sent us.

Thus, Radical is a stinging book at times. It is ripe with stories of Christians that have far less and do far more; that face greater risks, and minister with greater abandon. In the end, I must admit that Platt is right. There is no way to claim to have surrendered our lives to Jesus and still live for ourselves. The book concludes with a challenge: Pray for the entire world, Read the entire Word, Spend time in a different context, Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose, and Commit to a multiplying community. I am praying through what that means for me. I strong recommend that you read this book and pray about the same.

Ah! Gringos!

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Today began with an early breakfast so that we could take some time to make plans for the day. Before we went to the church, we quickly stopped by the coffee factory in Chalchuapa and picked up some fresh bags of coffee. It was kind of strange setting to buy coffee. It wasn’t a store, but rather an office in which I presume people normally order mass quantities. They didn’t seem to mind at all, and we all left with plenty of coffee.

We then went to the church where we met up with the pastor and he lead us to another church member’s home to have lunch. It was great. We had a lot of fun visiting with that family. Afterward we went to a local school. We went class to class with our Gospel soccer balls and spoke to the kids. After visiting four classes, the school had a 20 minute break so we were asked to stop and take a break. Within seconds it seemed I was surrounded by kids wanting to talk to me. They wanted to see if they could speak English. After the break, we visited two more classes and left. Of course, we left behind the soccer balls which excited all the kids…it looked like the school needed them.

In the evening we had another worship service when I preached. I feel like my voice is going after all the classroom visits today but I’m sure I’ll be ready tomorrow. We are supposed to go to the border tomorrow and walk in to Guatemala. Also, the church is making pupusas for us tomorrow…I’m a little worried at how many they expect me to eat.

Today, I have realized that the struggle people face on a mission trip is the tendency to ask “What’s in it for me?” A trip’s success is often determined by some great feeling or experience when the question that needs to be asked is “Am I glorifying God?” Of course, that’s the challenge we face in church back home and if we can learn to seek God’s glory rather than ourselves, we’ll see a whole new kind of “success.”

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