Thursday, March 13, 2008

My Message to Future Church Planters

Despite the fact that I'm really sick, I had a good day today at Mid America Nazarene University, my Alma Matter. The chaplain, Randy Beckum, asked me to come share my church planting journey with MNU's ministry students. It's quite an honor to be able to do that. It's also pretty cool to be able to talk about church planting in the same chapel in which God first called me to plant a church.

The best part of the day, though was spending an hour talking with Randy. Randy and I became friends my freshman year of college, when I was on the student ministries council and he's been a significant mentor ever since. I consider Randy a wise judge of character, so it was very encouraging to hear him tell me, "Donnie, you're got the right vision, you're on the right track, keep going after people that aren't in church." He's able to hear my heart for the unchurched, which is encouraging.

Randy also gave me a great one-liner today. As good as the one he gave me last spring. link
He said, "The way of Jesus is not upward mobility, but downward mobility - the way of a servant." Great reminder.

Below is the message I gave to MNU students:

Things have always come fairly easy to me. In high school, I was all-state choir, captain of the football team and captain of the Iowa District Bible quizzing team (yeah!). In college, I got a football scholarship and was Student Body President. I graduated NTS summa cume laude and was given the Evangelism award (still not exactly sure what that mean). And at Fed Ex, I received some safe-driving awards. I think I still have the alarm clock.
Which to be honest, has given me a sense of entitlement. I’m a good guy, people like me, things should come easily for me.
But this church planting thing has been another story altogether. Without a doubt, this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in me entire life. I’ll show you what I mean by giving you a snapshot of one typical day on the job.
It was Saturday night, Feb. 16th. I went to bed early like usual. But this night I was hoping pouring rain would either fizzle out or at least not freeze. But I woke up early Sunday morning to see several inches of snow and that more was still falling. And here are the thoughts that started going through my head when I saw the snow. “There’s no school on Monday, will the school district force us to cancel church? If not, will they charge us $700 for snow removal? Will we be able to get the trailer from it’s parking spot to the school? Will this finally be the Sunday I’ve been dreading – the Sunday when NO ONE shows up? Why does it always snow on Saturday nights?”
We had been promoting this Sunday morning for weeks. I’d been telling the church over and over, “invite your Fave Five.” We were showing a short film called Most, a powerful parable about the cross. We’d printed cool invite cards. I’d sent out several email invites. “Why does it always snow on Saturday night?”
The trailer made it to our school – barely. They had to stick to main streets and when it was going up the slight hill in front of the school, they told me it had gone sideways. Our set-up crew, which was short that month to begin with, got smaller when our sound guy called to say he was snowed in and couldn’t get out of his driveway.
And at 10:30, the time worship usually begins, there was a pure blizzard going on outside. “Why does it always snow on Sunday mornings?”
We launched Trinity Family in August of 2005. Since that first day we launched, I’ve fought some serious emotional and mental battles. I’ve had to continually fight off these serious self-doubt and self-pity that have bordered on depression. God has been teaching me a lot during these struggles. My wife once read “planting a church will change you more than it will change anyone who comes into your church.” I think I really started to get a grip on my emotional rollercoaster rides last fall, when we were two years old. The gap between what’s needed in me as planting pastor and my own skills is huge, but God has been showing me how he fills in that gap.
But I fell back into old patterns that morning. As we were struggling through set-up that morning, I went into the bathroom to get away from everyone else and those old thoughts came running back into my head. “You’re a failure. What’s wrong with my church? What’s wrong with me? Maybe I should just quit? What if I started over in a new city? I’m in way over my head. I suck at this.”
That was 9:45. I wanted to get in my car and go home.
By 10:40, some people had showed up. At 11:25, I explained the act of communion. At 11:30, I watched my sister-in-law, along with her live-in girlfriend come forward to take the elements. Later that day, Molly sent me this message on Facebook, “we sure did enjoy going to lunch with you all, we had a good time helping Erin with her thing that she was doing, we would love to help her doing the thing. (that thing is my wife’s stripper ministry) WE really want continue to going to your church as much as possible. Thanks you both we love you guys so much. Much love from the both of us.”
God called me to plant a church in a division chapel at MNU, spring of 2000, my last semester. Larry McCain from NCS was speaking that day and boldly declaring “the single most effective way to reach unchurched people is to start a new church.” If what Larry said was true, I knew I was going to be planting a church someday. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know where, I certainly didn’t know how (I still don’t really know how) but I knew God had called me to reach unchurched people.
A few years later, my second year at NTS, we joined the core team of a church plant in West Shawnee, GracePoint church. Not long after we launched, my wife invited a fellow teacher, Jeremy to Gracepoint. Jeremy soon gave his life to Christ. We had the privilege of baptizing Jeremy and discipling his entire family.
Just before my senior year at NTS, we went through the church planter’s assessment. We passed it with the highest possible score, it wasn’t easy. So we started praying, “where do we go plant a church?” About that time, Jeremy’s family moved to Gardner and said, “why don’t you come plant a church here?” We had other offers, too but weren’t sure. So I went on a long fast, “God, where do we go?” At the end of that fast I was very skinny and I had a deep sense that Gardner was the place. At a church planter’s conference in Atlanta a few weeks ago one of the speakers said, “you know you’re called when you leave the town but the burden goes with you.” I’m in Olathe right now, but my heart is in Gardner.
And it’s that calling that kept me from driving home that difficult Sunday morning. I’ve realized that God’s calling in my life is a bit more significant than my own happiness or even my own “success.”
Which is exactly why God gave me a little talking to last December. I had it out with God one day. “God, why in the world aren’t we growing? Why is TF like my ipod – stuck in the 90’s?”
This doesn’t happen often, but God spoke to me directly that day. “Donnie, when I called you to Gardner, I didn’t promise you a big church. I didn’t promise you people would be writing books about you. I didn’t promise that other church planters would be reading your blog and asking your advice. But I did promise you you’d reach unchurched people. Make a list.”
And so I did. And here are some of the people on that list.
Amanda A single mom who had some Catholic upbringing but not much church involvement. Her son, Alan, goes on and on about our kids ministry. She’s started reading the bible for the first time in her life and goes on and on about what she’s learning.
Emily She works at my wife’s school. My wife got to be friends with her when she told us of a friend that was pregnant and we began moving toward adopting that baby. One night in November, Emily called my wife and said, “Jennifer is going into labor.” We knew a baby 4 months premature had no chance to make it but Erin went to the hospital anyway, to be the presence of Jesus there. And she was. Jennifer’s own family left but Erin sat there all night long. And that’s what broke through to Emily. Two months later, she realized she needed to get off drugs and give her life to Jesus.
Travis a year and a half ago, he wasn’t sure he believe in God. But we started studying John together, just for the heck of it. Travis was captivated by the person of Jesus. Several months later, in the middle of a discussion, he said, “Donnie, I’ve decided to ‘take that step.’” Now in our Bible studies he’s teaching me more than I teach him. We’re starting a bible study in his home later this month. And he doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to take over that group pretty soon.
Casey A little bit of Catholic background but that’s it. Lived with us for a month when she was separated from her husband. We had so many people praying for them, but it looked hopeless. He was done with their marriage. 5 months later, she’s in church every Sunday. She and her husband are in counseling and they’re taking the FPU class together. Every Sunday morning, her adorable little two year old girl comes running up to me, “uncle Donnie!” Another one of my wife’s sisters we’ve been praying for whom we’ve been praying for years.
I could go on and on…
I don’t care whether I’m ever considered a success. I don’t care whether I’m ever on the cover of grow magazine. I don’t care if I’m ever voted Alumnus of the year. That’s why God called me to plant a church and that’s what God’s doing through our church.
If you think you’d like to do this someday, there are some questions I need to ask you.
Are you called? I don’t mean are you called into ministry, I mean are you called to plant a church. Not everyone is called to do it. It’s hard and scary. If you can work in a comfortable established church, DO IT! My assessor told me when he moved to Phoenix, knew no one, other pastors hated him, he pulled the blinds closed in his house and cried out to God. It was the sure sense of divine calling that kept him from driving back to Olathe.
Are you gifted? We don’t have to be superstars (case in point) but church planters do need a unique skill set. Two ways to find this out. Join a church plant and help start something – small group, ministry, whatever. If you can start something from scratch you can probably start a church. Also, go through an assessment. Everything they told me in assessment, both positive and negative, has turned out to be true.
Are you healthy? Darrin Patrick of Journey church in St. Louis said, “pastoring means you’re passing out a photocopy of yourself. You church will begin to reflect your character.” Scary stuff. I heard another pastor say, “health leader = healthy church. Dysfunctional leader = dysfunctional church.”
Do you have healthy relationships? Do you model a healthy marriage? Do you have a healthy self image? Darrin Patrick also said, “I don’t want to be that guy who wakes up on Sunday morning and has his self-worth determined by the size of the crowd and the size of the offering.” Are you healthy physically? Are you taking care of yourself? Or are you a glutton who gets behind the pulpit to condemn the sin of homosexuality? Are you healthy financially? If I had a dollar for every future pastor who wined about their school debt, I'd have my own school loans paid off by now. If you're just racking up debt while you're in school, there's no way you'll be able to make it as a church planter; there's not a lot of money in this gig. "But MNU is expensive." Let me give you a secret, it's called a JOB. Work as much as you can, get as many scholarship as you can and then work your tail off to pay off your loans right after you graduate.
Are you serving in a local church? Great question! “But I’ve got a job, I’ve got homework?” So will the team of volunteers you’re going to try to lead someday. I spent four years in ministry before I could make a living on it. No one wants to follow the professional with no credibility. You’re building your credibility now, as a lay leader.
There’s a lot of annoying little crappy jobs that church planters need to do. Without a servant’s heart, you’re doomed.
Are you leading? Or, are people following you? “He who thinks he’s leading but has no one following is only taking a walk.” Do you inspire confidence in others? Have you felt the burden of leadership? Can you cast a vision? Or are you the guy who reads a book, points out the flaws in a pastor that’s actually trying something and says, “when I plant a church…”
What are your motives? Why are you planting this church? Is it because you’re disgruntled where you’re at? Guess what, people don’t change much from church to church? You’ll have the same relational struggles. Is it to grow a big church and make a name for yourself? I hope you grow your church, but the last thing we need is another hotshot preacher stealing sheep from the church down the street because he’s a better preacher or his music leader has a cool guitar.
Or are you planting a church to reach lost people? That’s the only legit motive.
Are you giving? Are you tithing to your local church? Don’t give me that, “my tuition is my tithe, I have to buy school books.” There’s a deep theological word for that (actually two, but since I'm in chapel, we'll just use one) BULL. Not only are you sinning, but how can you call other people to give when you just decided to start giving when you started getting a paycheck? This is a big one. Money is a HUGE part of planting a church. Can God trust you with his money?
Are you evangelizing NOW? Can you think of at least one stinkin’ person right now that you’ve built a relationship with that doesn’t know Jesus? Times up. If no one popped into your mind, then give up right now. You’ve got no business planting a church. I’m dead freaking serious. Just because you get the title “church planter” doesn’t mean you’ll be able to throw a switch and suddenly start talking with people about Jesus. In fact, when you become a pastor it gets harder. I really miss my FedEx days being surrounded by sinners.
The best indicator of future performance is past behavior. Your character matters. It matters not only when you become pastor but it matters right now. Are you investing in your future church by being a good lay-leader now?
Now that I’ve ticked everyone off, let’s have some questions.

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