If someone had asked me to describe church starting six months ago, I would have said that it is the hardest thing ever. I would have said this partly because I lacked confidence in my ability to be a church starter, especially the starting pastor. I believed that I was far too shy, introverted, and did not have a large enough group of friends and family to get things going. Truth be told, I never even wanted to pastor, let alone start a church. My perspective has changed, however! Why? Because God has taught me the deepest lesson in church starting to date: as much as I want this, God wants it more, much more!
When I said yes to the idea of starting I was terrified. I discussed the idea with a team, and we decided to have our first service, a “trial service.” Well, 70 people attended. I thought instant success! I was elated. I secretly wondered maybe I can do this. Two weeks later we had another trial service. Fifteen people attended. I was terrified, terrified because I had to face my deepest fear: failure.
Yes, I wanted Restoring Hope not only to survive but thrive because of its potential to impact lives and introduce individuals to Jesus. At some point, however, my nightmare of failure became stronger than my trust in God and I focused more on metrics than on how the church was impacting lives. The American idea of success—you know, being bigger, stronger, nicer, more noticeable—had somehow eclipsed the mandate from God to impact lives with the Gospel in Jesus name and let God handle the rest. A sense of the mandate still existed, but it was not as strong. I became torn between a) hearing God’s voice and moving forward in faith and b) pausing until we were confident that we were ready. I started to resist God’s mandate, beginning to wrestle with three types of resistance:
- Thoughts of insufficiency that prevent one from moving forward
- An acquiescence into a “comfortable state” that makes one numb to the need to move forward
- Doubt coupled with a sense of adult responsibility that manifests itself as an effort to look for more evidence of one’s readiness by checking off a list of goals or benchmarks
Before continuing, let me make it clear that the question is not whether one should strive to be responsible and/or test her or his readiness by looking at metrics, benchmarks, and/or a list of goals. Such actions are both to be expected and necessary. Rather, a problem exists when one cannot hear or refuses to hear God in order to address one of these efforts. What happens when we are torn between a) hearing God’s voice, telling us to move forward in faith and b) adhering to one or more of these three categories?
I sincerely thank God for grace, for God taught me two crucial lessons. First, I was not expendable but crucial. Realizing that I was not living up with God’s will was painful and humbling. God restored me to healthier thinking by graciously holding me at a distance so I could see the growth in Restoring Hope. This growth was not told by the metrics, at least the ones I was using. This growth was not numerical, but spiritual. The members were actually ready to lead but I had not sufficiently realized it. During these years we had been organizing I became more fixated on whether we had 50 – 100 faithful adults. God, however, was concerned about forming a team that was united around a common vision and truly functioned as a church family without predatory tendencies that could hurt a sheep that God may send to us. In other words, were we ready to be a sent church that would receive and love on people? Once I observed this growth in all of its splendor, I was able to hold it in front of the team, and the sadness and apathy that had become commonplace were replaced by a sense of joy and confidence that God really wanted us to make it.
Second, God wants this church to exist because God loves people, a love that we should reflect. We were reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew:
36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:36-38, NRSV)
God communicated to us that we were sheep that were and are cared for and that there are other sheep are out there that we are to care for and to whom we should demonstrate the love of Christ. Having previously felt insufficient, I realized that I was mistaken about my insufficiency. My sufficiency is rooted in God’s divinity, and if God is the Lord of the harvest, God knows who is capable of handling which areas of the harvest. To doubt myself is to doubt God’s investment in and call of me. To maintain such doubt is to suggest to God inadvertently that God’s calling was extended to the wrong person, and if not to the wrong person, then to the right person at the wrong time.
I did not realize that I was doubting because I believed in God and our potential. But this doubt was subtle and disguised itself as an attempt at being responsible. It manifests itself as thoughts like we needed a certain number of members, to average a certain amount of giving, the “baddest” band in the land, etc. Again, lists and metrics are important, but not when they dampen our hearing God’s voice. It is true, we do not want to get out there prematurely because we did not attend to any of the best practices and wisdom regarding church starting that involve looking at metrics and benchmarks. We should ask ourselves, however, whether some of our thinking is more a reflection of a desire to launch big—you know, American-style bigness—rather than starting a ministry that judges its success by the degree it is able to impact the lives of those persons that God has sent to it.
As I conclude, allow for me to use an image of a multi-act play of how God has transformed my thought regarding starting. If ministry, in general, is a play, then RHF is an act in the play. In hindsight, I realize that I did not believe that I had the part of the starting pastor and RHF did not believe it had the part of impacting lives. In our minds, we were still in front of judges auditioning. Since we are just auditioning or getting ready to be selected rather than performing or living out the call, we did not adequately go out and encounter people with the Gospel.
The play may go on without us, but something would be missing. Us! Although the play may go on, people would miss out because the characters that we were to play are meant to reach certain people in the audience. If we are not there, then those persons may not be reached. They may remain like sheep “harassed and helpless.” The communication that they need to hear from God may be embodied by our faith walk, a walk that we never show because we are still auditioning. Sometimes there is no need for additional makeup, better costumes, and vocal coaching to get the part. Our life experience and relationship with God qualifies us, so we should just go!
Restoring Hope Fellowship is currently organizing in Lavon, Texas, a rural area in the far northeastern Dallas/Ft Worth Metropolitan area. Christopher Jones is proud to be the starting pastor.