Last spring, a young man came to pick my brain. He and a partner are dreaming of planting a church in another city. But not just a church, a church in a coffee shop. As I shared about my experiences and where we've ended up as a congregation, he got more and more excited. He said we're doing what he envisions. He told me how thrilled he was to get to experience the culture we've developed. And then he told me that he'd written up this same model and culture for a class as his ideal approach to church.
His professor told him that he was naive and idealistic and his proposal wouldn't work and couldn't succeed.
I agreed with his professor.
By all of the metrics of the modern American church, this model can't succeed. We've been "doing church" for nine years this month. The standard metrics used in church planting all label us a failure. Except for one thing. We're still meeting. The church is still alive. But our cultural definitions couldn't possibly call our congregation a success either.
After nine years, we're still only a couple dozen strong. We're not attracting crowds. Our growth is glacial. We're not making waves in the community. We're not sustainable. It's only in the last year that our church tithes cover the costs of keeping the building open. The bulk of my less than minimum wage pay is raised from outside donations.
I still struggle emotionally with all of that from time to time.
Fifteen years ago I walked away from a bright career in a megachurch. I provided financial counseling. I taught financial classes. I worked with the benevolence and community services ministries. I'd played a significant part in starting a homeless shelter for families (It's now the nation's largest shelter for homeless families completely funded without government contributions. Check it out at www.familyshelter.org) Two different department heads had offered to groom me to be their replacements. I lost faith in the ministry approach and walked away.
At the time, many were convinced that I'd go on to do bigger and better things. One person even told me he thought I'd be governor by the age of forty. (I wholeheartedly rejected that one, believe me!) A local reporter contacted me every couple of months to see what I was working on, sure that I'd be working on something newsworthy.
Where do you go from there? There was no doubt in my mind that the shelter would be the biggest, most newsworthy thing in my life. And there's no shame in that. How many resumes have such an accomplishment?
I was absolutely certain that my future was smaller. More personal. More intimate. One-on-one. I never expect to speak again to a group as large as the one who heard the announcement of my departure.
But that doesn't mean that I don't have value. That doesn't mean that I'm doomed to failure. That doesn't mean that I've made all the impact I can.
It means the impact will be different... smaller... and hopefully, deeper.
I grew up in a stagnant church in a small town. Most of my extended family attended that church. When I was a kid we had a great pastor. Bud. That was the only name I knew for him. The only thing I ever called him. I never used a title for him. I don't remember a single line of a single sermon he preached. But he made a serious impact on me. When I remember Bud, his laugh is the first thing in my mind. He was fun. He was kind. He was genuine. He wasn't an authoritarian. He was a real guy. I don't recall ever being uncomfortable in his presence. And I do remember being in his home.
As far as I know, Bud never preached to large crowds. I think he spent his whole career in small churches in small towns. The kind of churches that struggle to find pastors these days. There was no chance for glory. There were no accolades. There was just ministering to people. Walking out the faith.
But he left a legacy. Two uncles and myself are in full-time ministry now. We all grew up in that little church and we all give significant credit to Bud for our understanding of what it means to be pastors. And those uncles have sons who are also in ministry. All told, just in our family, Bud's legacy stretches to multiple ministries in multiple states. And I'm sure our family isn't the extent of his reach. Not too bad for a small-town preacher.
Maybe it's time for a new definition of success...
I'll explore this a little more in my next blog post.