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.

A Day in the Elephant Room

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It might seem like a strange idea. Gather seven influential pastors in one room and set up debates so they can slug out their differences. People will pay to see it. In fact, they will pay to watch it on a simulcast. They will even drive in the wee hours of the morning to get to the simulcast. Well, at least I did.

The Elephant Room consisted of James MacDonald, Greg Laurie, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, David Platt, Perry Noble, and Steven Furtick. Conversations were arranged that would include two of them and a moderator (MacDonald or Driscoll), with the other four voicing their opinions with thumbs up/down lights and just plain interjecting. The conversations were light sometimes, but very heated at others. There was plenty of jesting, but some very hard words between these pastors as well. All in all, it was a great look at some difficult subject with an eye toward understanding. Here’s a review:

Conversation #1: The Weekend Service: evangelism vs sanctification. Steven Furtick and Matt Chandler.

Furtick began by stating that Jesus’ mission was to seek and save the lost; that the physician comes for the sick and not the healthy. Chandler replied that an infant breastfeeding is cute. A 19 year old breastfeeding is disturbing. He pointed out that the Ephesian church grew big but Paul instructed Timothy to guard doctrine.

Both agreed that the caricature of the debate is “You don’t care about Content/You puff people up with knowledge”

Chandler took issue with Furtick rebuking his congregation for wanting to grow deeper when their were lost people to reach. Furtick explained that by “deeper” he meant people coming to fulfill a selfish desire to know more or be more spiritual. Driscoll interjected that Furtick’s church is very young and is still “All wedding and no funerals.” Naturally, everyone agreed that evangelism is important. “If a church will not evangelize, it will fossilize” was Greg Laurie’s comment. Furtick and Noble (both known for pastoring more seeker-oriented churches) both argued that evangelism is not contrary to preaching the word. Platt offered some great wisdom when he said that it is much more effective to send Christians out than to expect to draw thousands of unbelievers to hear him preach.

In the end, both “sides” realized that they were caricaturizing the other and offered the better definition of “preaching to Christians with a mind to the lost” (Chandler) vs preaching the word in order to win the lost.

Conversation #2: Culture in the church vs Church in the culture. Perry Noble and Mark Driscoll.

This conversation was not initially very polarizing, as both pastors are known for embracing culture beyond what a normal church might. Noble argued, “the church is answering questions that nobody is asking.” He pointed to scriptural examples of Paul using the idol of the unknown god and God using astrology to speak to the wise men as examples of using culture to speak truth.

Driscoll said that the question of culture in the church comes down to where do you contextualize and where do you contend? He said that culture fits into three categories: what should be rejected, what should be received, and what should be redeemed.

However, the conversation did get a bit heated when it was mentioned that Noble’s church played the AC/DC song, “Highway to Hell” as an opening to their Easter service. MacDonald pulled no punches in giving his opinion that it was way over the line and said that Noble had sinned in doing so. MacDonald said he had no question as to Noble’s Godly motives, but that the action was wrong. All but Furtick said that they would not have made that choice (with Platt saying “absolutely not”). Dricoll, however made one point in defense of Noble:

“We hammer guys who go too far. Why not hammer the guys who don’t go far enough? John Coward would never have “highway to hell” played in his church, but he’s got a highway to hell in his church.”

Noble continued to defend the service by stating that it works. “Were those salvations real? If you get to heaven, I guess you can ask them.” Chandler replied, “I know someone who came to Christ when his mother was run over by a car, but I don’t want to start that ministry.”

Though this conversation will most likely be remembered for “Highway to Hell” the real gold was Driscoll explaining how to properly evaluate culture. The categories of reject, receive, and redeem provide much room for though, beyond the normal response of “the lowest IQ on the internet simply saying, “it’s worldly!”

Conversation #3: Do Compassion Ministries help or hinder the Gospel? David Platt and Greg Laurie

There was not a lot of disagreement in this conversation. All agreed that compassion ministries are important and all agreed that churches must be careful that they never hinder telling the Gospel. Laurie warned of churches calling compassion ministries “evangelism” when they never share the Gospel. Noble mentioned that compassion ministries often turn in to social justice ministries “which save people from hell on earth but damns them to hell for eternity.”

The most controversial statement was MacDonald who said that compassion ministries were for the body of Christ and evangelism was for those outside the body of Christ. This statement did not get near enough attention. One of the irritating things about the day was that MacDonald could make statements like this and not get a lot of heat for them. His house, his rules. He was also good at misrepresenting some of the others’ ideas for the sake of argument, but I’ll address that in a later conversation.

Platt said it best when he said that he does compassion ministries globally “simply because of the overflow of Christ in us.”

Conversation #4: Can’t we all just get along vs My way or the highway. Steven Furtick and James MacDonald.

“You listen to Joel Olsteen and John Piper? That’s like saying ‘I’m a meat-eating vegetarian!’” (Driscoll)

Furtick recently posted a blog in which he named off the preachers he enjoyed listening to. Some were those common to people in the Elephant Room and others (such as T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyers, and Joel Olsteen) were of questionable doctrine. Furtick defended himself by stating that he was a “big boy” and could eat the fish and leave the bones. MacDonald’s frank reply was “I wish you would grow up.” The problem for most seem to be that Furtick may be able to discern, but his followers may not. This lead to quite a discussion regarding how pastors should handle false doctrines and teachers of false doctrines that seem to be so popular today.

Furtick emphatically called for pastors to be known for what they are for rather than what they are against. Driscoll warned that both wolves and shepherds love sheep. “It’s a shepherd’s job to shoot the wolf for the love of the sheep.”

“Everyone claps at ‘shoot the wolf’ until someone says you’re a wolf “ (Furtick)

Perry Noble offered the most practical advice when he said that calling a wolf should be done by the elders of the church and based on doctrine.

How do they all distinguish the wolves? The metaphor was brought up that some issues are national borders while others are state borders. They were all in agreement: Inerrancy of scripture, Christ is the only way of salvation, man is sinful, and more are national borders while speaking in tongues, modes of church leadership, etc are state borders. What about hell (with someone saying “love wins)? All agreed, that topic is a national border.

Conversation #5: Multi-Site: Personality Cult or God’s Greater Glory? Matt Chandler and Perry Noble.

This conversation was a bit one sided. 6 of the 7 pastors have mult-site churches. (Multi-site churches are churches that have several locations but still have one primary teaching pastor). I appreciated hearing Matt Chandlers reservations and ultimately his reasons for going to the mult-site format, and I gained some new insight as to why this might be a good idea. Driscoll mentioned that satellite locations are more successful than church plants. Furtick mentioned that satellite locations tend to teach the congregation be less consumerist.

Still, what came across the most was ego. It just seemed to me that many of these pastors think they are irreplaceable. MacDonald even said, “why do I need to give the most fruitful years of my ministry for someone else?” As a pastor of a small church (the average church in America, by the way) I could only think that some of these guys are out of touch with how most churches function. Of course, what do I know about a mega-church? All in all, it was interesting to hear their thought processes.

Conversation #6: Prosperity Gospel or Poverty Gospel? James MacDonald and David Platt.

If people are not remembering the Elephant Room for “Highway to Hell” then they are talking about goldfish crackers: the subject of a heated debate in conversation number six.

David Platt began by giving many of the arguments of his best-selling book, Radical. “Any approach to money must be a look at the world through the lens of the word.” “Money is not inherently evil but it is very dangerous in the hands of sinful man”

MacDonald was very aggressive from the outset, but he was arguing against the idea that poverty is inherently spiritual; a stance David Platt was not taking. This misrepresentation or misunderstanding of Platt framed the entire argument. Platt even said:

“I don’t tell my people not to make money. I tell them to make a lot of money. Use your God-given gifts, but your standard of living doesn’t have to increase. Your standard of giving does.”

MacDonald continued to argue against the idea that poverty is spiritual. He claimed that people are jumping on a poverty bandwagon, and that pulpit committees are using Radical to beat down pastors and force them into poverty. (I pastor in one of the most impoverished counties in the country. I have encouraged my congregation to read Radical. I have not been beaten down about it.)

The conversation hit its lowest point when MacDonald mentioned that he heard that the kids at Platt’s church were not allowed to have Cheez-its so that more money could go toward missions. Platt said that was “close” and began to explain how every department in the church had given certain things up in order to advance the Gospel overseas. The pre-school kids chose to forgo their Goldfish Crackers. I say began to explain because at that point, Driscoll and MacDonald would hardly let Platt speak. I respect all three pastors, but I have to admit, Platt’s humility was the example to follow.

Conversation #7: Love the Gospel vs Share the Gospel. Mark Driscoll and Greg Laurie.

The final conversation centered on the competing priorities of evangelism and doctrine. There was essentially no disagreement here. Everyone agreed that doctrine is important as is reaching the lost. Laurie challenged pastors to be personally involved in evangelism. Driscoll compared those who focus too much on doctrine this way:

We’re gun collectors not soldiers. We have this nice, beautiful antique gun collection that we’re proud of. We spend lots of time and effort keeping it clean and showing it off. Shoot something!

Conclusion

The Elephant Room ended with a quick Q and A that basically answered questions pertaining to famous pastors (eg. How do you deal with celebrity?)

All in all, it was a great event. I really enjoyed hearing theses pastors discuss so many different issues in an atmosphere that allowed for their genuine personalities. In most of the conversations, I had my mind made up going in and probably did not change it, yet I left with more understanding and a few challenges. If anyone were listening to me (they are not) I would suggest the following for the future:

*Widen the scope and include some more differences in the selection of pastors. I’m not saying bring in the wolves, but it would be interesting to hear a wider range of opinions.

*Widen the scope of topics. If its supposed to be a debate, don’t include topics where everyone will agree.

*Have a neutral moderator. There were times for moderation and MacDonald wasn’t the man for the job (nor was Driscoll good at moderating MacDonald).

*Include some unknowns. Fight the celebrity pastor culture by bringing in some unknown, “smaller” pastors. Surely in that vast array of church planting networks and campus pastors, there are some guys with a lot to offer.

In the meantime, pastors, don’t just watch other pastors debate in a healthy manner. Surround yourself with other pastors and let iron sharpen iron.

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.