How We failed at Successful Church Planting
I sat with middle aged white men in a room decorated by someone infatuated with browns and oranges. The paintings seemed vaguely reminiscent of French vineyards and Italian streets, yet I was closer to crop dust, cotton and Crepe Myrtles in Macon, Georgia. The inquiry began after a couple of jokes and a word of prayer. I crafted my vision of the Church of The Misfits, sharing with conviction about contextualizing Christ to postmodernity and passionately conveying my desire to offer safe space for spiritual nomads. The five elders listened intently to my story, hopes, and callings. I was interrupted only once by water being poured into a heavy glass nestled by a brown and orange coaster on the expensive wooden table. I continued with charisma and humility until I felt I had lost the room. One balding pastor crinkled his head forming a long beach of skin dunes that crashed into his eyebrows. Another constipated or angry ordained minister shifted his body away from mine while crossing his arms and asking about doctrinal stances.
This last tribunal,
this last hearing,
this last heresy trial or
either affirmation of the church plant continued for hours.
Another preacher-man sat with lips pursed with quiet ambivalence towards my ideas. The district presbyter leaned in, smiled, and full of the Holy Ghost, said “Your heart is beautiful for God. I love the way you love others.” The council resolved that I was called by God but that this wonderful denomination could not go with me.
Some of this resulted from my biblical understanding of LGBT issues, my flare for a Godly edginess that shocked the religiosity, and my mishandling of the sixteen fundamentals in exchange for two statements of 1) Love God and 2) Love your neighbor. And mostly a lot of preachers from Louisiana and Texas playing the theology gestapo on Facebook during 2007-2011.
It hurt. I was angry.
Terry and I attended several churches after my bittersweet goodbye from my home. I didn’t even tell my home pastor I was leaving. I just never came back. I felt so rejected, and the denomination did not approve of the church plant.
Yet the calling kept calling- to the Misfits of West Georgia.
Even in disillusion. Even in other pastors’ sermons. Even in dreams.
So, we plant a church. How hard can it be?
I went to the best evangelical church planting conferences, I learned from everyone, and read all the right books.
And yet I failed to plant a church.
Church of the Misfits may be a church if you look at the early Christian narrative in the book of Acts. But we aren’t a church by many standards. Some have proclaimed that we are little more than a 12 step program for Church hurt and those with deep religious wounds. Some say we are a mission. Some say a gathering.
I don’t know what it is- it’s a fun and beautiful thing and super messy thing.
But I failed to plant a church. And much of my ego was tied up in being a “successful” pastor.
Here’s two ways how you too can fail at successful church planting:
1) Insist that the people are the church and not the building. Sounds nice. Feels like we’re giving the big C church and its institutions a nailed letter on their doors, a prophetic outcry against mortgages and maintenance costs, or perhaps the “I’m fresh out of seminary and know it all” angry-disillusioned-middle-finger, right?
Community defines the Church, not the brick, mortar, wood, and roofing. Yet, American thoughts of Christianity mingled with consumerism and individualism, not to mention reconstruction and post-war economic growth, contributed to a massive social construct of sacred spaces. Despite grass roots, revivals, and historical church movements in America, which commonly rejected institutionalism and preferred fervency towards social justice, proclamation evangelism, and community transformation, we muddled the Acts narrative with the notion of a building being the church. Now, usually people’s first question to me about our community is:
WHERE DO YOU MEET?
It’s like the legitimacy of a gathering finds is basis in its location. As soon as you say house church, front porch church, bar church, or pool-side church people look at you with a side eye. NO WE DON’T PASS OUT KOOLAID, or have group sex with our members, or all own white cats, and are waiting to jump on the next comet. We do drink some adult beverages, some of our group has had sex in the past or is currently married to one other member, some of our members own cats ( I know, ANATHEMA!) and some of them like watching comets and Stephen Hawking, but no we aren’t a cult because we meet in our home.
I realize the branding of safety that takes place in a brick or wood establishment. Somewhere in the American conscience, we know that First Pres, or Wesley UMC, or Trinity Lutheran, or St. Stephen’s Episcopal are going to be safe spaces wear people hopefully aren’t preaching stuff about killing ourselves and waiting for the mothership with wide eyes.
Some spaces and buildings members created an endowment to take care of the light bill and the organ. Some churches have watched their numbers dwindle into the teens and can’t keep these gorgeous buildings. Some huge evangelical churches have lost sight of the mission because the funding pays the mortgage and the capitol campaign for some super complex and parking lot larger than the mall of America.
But what if we used space differently,
The whole earth is sacred.
The earth is the Lord’s in the fullness thereof. So meet in pub, under a tree, meet in the hills, on a beach at the sea. Don’t get me wrong, the buildings are gorgeous. And if you desire to SUCCEED according to many “Church Planting Models,” you’ll want a big space- either full of the ancient and symbolic, or hip with fog machines. Yet, I have found that some of the most spiritual discussions and deep moments of healing come not while we gathered at the altar, but around my front porch, chain smoking American Spirits, and slow sipping ale, sangria, or sweet tea.
I have often desired a space of our own- but property itself can be a blessing or a curse.
What problems do you associate with owning a building?
What good things happen when you have a building?
I’ve had my share of creepers. That can be problematic when you meet on your front porch. Or sue happy folks. Hopefully you can have them read 1 Corinthians 6 about not taking other believers to court if they get hurt at your space.
If you have a building, and it’s becoming heavy- try thinking about sharing your space. My friend Dana Pedersen works with an organization that helps others to rethink spacing options, and provide living wages through co-ops. This might be how some churches could leverage their space to change the landscape of rising building costs and community issues. http://cooperationtexas.coop/ Also contact The Center for Progressive Renewal for ideas about reshaping church and church space. https://www.facebook.com/progressiverenewal
2) Love people who are broken and poor. People who are broken and poor can’t pay for fancy stuff. And it we look at the early church we see Paul and Peter and even James constantly reminding early churches in Near East Asia to remember the poor, and make space for them at the table. We see the setting up of the early church to be two fold
1) The preaching of the Gospel and
2) The serving of tables (ministry WITH the poor).
But successful big huge churches have hard times moving into another capitol campaign when their church is comprised of society’s marginalized. This may sound like snark, but I promise my writing is not. I want to show just how our church planting conferences and education miss out on community forming and seek to be another Mall to have worship in or draw people towards- instead of being ekklesia ( CALLED OUT ek, “out from and to” and 2564 /kaléō, “to call”)or apostolos (SENT apostéllō, “to commission, send forth”) TO THIS modern day entertainment space. It’s beautiful if we have programs and if we have a multimillion dollar building, but we still must GO into the world.
Loving broken people. When I named our little gathering Church of the Misfits, I really wanted to foster the idea of a people who were tribe-less and rejected becoming the people of God, without boundaries, except the bond of love. Yet, I couldn’t constantly understand why so many people with so many issues kept showing up at our front door. It was like Church conflict, and histrionic women who wanted to make out with me, and meth heads, and sex addicts, and you name it, they came. And I really was glad. But it was hard work. Imagine my surprise with “M” called me to come flush her last baggy of meth after a 48 hour binge. Imagine the ride when we tried to get “J” into Ridgeview as he was attempting suicide. Imagine the time “C” and “L” were kicked out of their house for being lesbians, and we were the only place they could go. Imagine when my rag tag group of Misfits faced cancer, deaths, and sexual identity crisis. Yet the celebrations- man, the celebrations. The marriages, the coming outs, the one year of recovery, the graduation from schools, the paying off of debts. I loved every minute of it- but it was tiring, and I didn’t know too much about self-care. I have to admit that I am doing a better job of that these days.
And I have stepped back from leadership of the church, but really didn’t have anyone to take over. So it failed to be “successful.” But it’s still a gathering, and we all play roles. We are there for each other, even though we are a revolving door of Church hurt and spiritual nomads. Some find safe space elsewhere and we are happy for them when they go. We provided a space for each other to heal, and laugh, and sort through our doubts and wounding.
We failed in so many other ways.
I don’t think we ever had an offering over $5, but what we do have is a funky little community where differences in skin color, sexuality, beliefs, creeds, or doubts don’t keep us from Love.
Never needed a steeple to abide with you. My altar rises through concrete in streets near and far, my Eucharist transforms my heart under dim lights at the pub and bar. I cannot name you-I dare not try, but you have been my constant, my incandescence in fogged night. I search you out in clouds, through the arbors, across sun-sprayed fields. looking for you in graffiti, reel, print, paint, there your smile ‘s revealed. I see you in the eyes of the drifter, the laugh of the toddler, and in the shrill of the wheel-chaired angel. I crouch under an overpass to sing for Mark, or light up Delores’ smoke, or eat with Juanita. I felt you walk near me tonight in your city.
What ways have you “failed” to be successful?