This Sunday, February 3rd, Christ Centered Church will celebrate our 5th birthday! Why do we call it a birthday and not an anniversary? While no one has ever asked me that directly, I hear many people referring to our annual celebration in that way. Here’s the deal—five years ago something new was born. This wasn’t an agreement between a few people; it was the birth of a local church! Like many five-year olds, we have more to learn that we even know, but we’ve also learned a few lessons along the way.
Lesson #1: Church planting is more difficult than we ever imagined.
And it’s a good thing we didn’t know how difficult the journey would be, or we never would have taken the first, second, third, or 1,825th step (if you’re wondering, that’s 365 x 5). We often use the analogy of mountain climbing. We knew the mountain was high, but when we started the climb, the path ahead was so foggy that we didn’t know if we were climbing Everest or Kilimanjaro; we see that as glorious, divinely gifted, gracious ignorance.
Church planting is a slugfest—a day by day fight to take inches at a time from enemy territory. In seminary, our professors warned us never to resign a pastorate on a Monday. That’s often the day that pastors feel empty from the battles fought, won, and lost on the previous day. For church planters, we have to adjust the mantra: never resign on a Sunday afternoon! Or Sunday morning for that matter! Some of our hardest battles are fought before we ever get an opportunity to start the service; the trailer is stuck, the truck that pulls the trailer won’t crank, the venue forgot to tell us about fourteen other events occurring at the same time as ours, the venue forgot to unlock the doors, and in the early days, if three people call in sick, the church literally can’t operate!
Lesson #2: Church planting is more expensive than we ever imagined.
I often tell new church planters, “Whatever amount you have in your mind to raise before launch, double it!” If your model is an attractional, launch large model, it’s going to take more time than you think to reach self-sustainability for a well-executed weekend service. If your model is a house church model, the kind of ministry you will need to reach neighbors will cost more than you think. If your model is highly missional, someone has to pay the bills in order for your church to teach people how to live on mission, and in my experience, those bills add up to more than the bottom line on our spreadsheets.
Lesson #3: Excellence is important, but faithfulness is more important
This has been a hard lesson for me. Christ Centered Church is an extension and reflection of my leadership, and I want us to operate with excellence. At some moments along the journey, that commitment to excellence has resulted in a misplaced focus. Almost one year ago, the Lord put us in a place where I was forced to let go of some unrealistic expectations I had for particular areas of ministry. You might be thinking that this story ends with, “Once I let go of control, those ministries took off!” Not exactly. What actually happened is that we created a new level of expectation—in many ways, it’s a lower level. I used to say that I wanted our worship team to be so good that we would get a call if the Passion worship team had to cancel for an event at the last minute. Now I just want to see our people use the gifts God has given them to worship Him through music. I used to press for more and more small groups in order to meet the metrics of all the “healthy” churches. Now I just want to make sure the groups we have are really discipling their members and the leaders feel supported and equipped. I used to set aggressive attendance and baptism goals then press our team to come up with creative strategies to accomplish those goals. Now, I just want our church to be faithful.
Is it wrong to set and pursue high expectations? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is God honoring to set and pursue high expectations. Church is seasonal, however, and right now we are in a season of focusing on health rather than growth. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to grow any more than it means we didn’t want to be healthy during seasons of focusing on growth. Health and growth are two rails of the same track, and if it wasn’t for those seasons focused on growth, we probably wouldn’t a be self-sustaining church with the luxury of focusing on health!
Lesson #4: Church planting is worth it.
To this point, nothing in my life has been more difficult than planting and leading Christ Centered Church, but neither has anything come close to being this rewarding. By God’s grace, our marriage is stronger, our family is more missional, my wife and I feel closer to the Lord than any other point in our lives, and we have seen the gospel transform so many people in so many different ways. Each Sunday, there’s an almost miraculous feeling as we gather with our faith family. Something has been born—something with eternal significance.
In the weeks and months leading up to the launch of Christ Centered Church, I asked God to focus my heart and mind on individuals and not crowds. When I prayed for the church, I tried to visualize faces rather than rooms of people. Then, I could only imagine the faces. Now, when I think of Christ Centered Church, I don’t think of a Sunday worship gathering. I think of people—individual people the Lord has given us the incredible opportunity and responsibility to disciple and shepherd.
Lesson #5: The Lord is faithful
In the beginning of the journey, we worked really hard to define our measure of success as faithfulness to the Lord. If we only reach ten, and we are faithful, we succeed. If we reach 10,000 and are not faithful, we fail. That’s what we told ourselves, and for the most part, we believed it. Still, in those moments when it seemed like the church might not have the resources to make the next leg of the journey, or when the growth hasn’t come as quickly as we would like it, or when we lose a great leader, or when we’ve been so exhausted we’ve felt like giving up, our emotions betray our hearts to reveal that success is still connected in some way to something beyond faithfulness. Despite our best efforts, we have failed at times to simply be faithful to God’s call to make disciples for His glory and not our own.
Although we have often failed, God’s faithfulness has remained. If you want to be able to sit across the table from the most convincing and ardent atheist and just grin at the insistence that you let go of the childish fairy tale of a loving, faithful God, plant a church! We have walked through the valley, and we have found Him there. We have felt the fire, and we have found Him there. We have doubted ourselves in every conceivable way, but we have never doubted God’s faithfulness. He just won’t let us. He keeps showing up just when we start to wonder.