Monday, November 14, 2011

The Gospel's Seasonal Effective Disorder

I'm recalling lately the opening worship service agony I put myself under in my previous life as a non-church planter pastoring a floundering church plant. There were plenty of gatherings where our worship band outnumbered congregants. I would read our call to worship and as the music began, I would make my way back to the building foyer, prostrate myself on the floor and beg God to send a few more people before I had to preach the word. It was a soul-wearying battle with pride, with unrealistic expectations, with distrust. Our church began as a young adult ministry in a megachurch, and preaching gospel-centered expository sermons each gathering was like re-landing an alien mothership each week. Once we'd gone out to find our own way as independent community, people stayed away in droves.

I'm in Vermont now. Our church attendance has nearly doubled in the last two years. Our giving outpaces our budgeted need each month. People are excited, sparkling about the eyes and bringing their lost friends. We're baptizing adults and enjoying the exclamatory gurgles of babies in the service.

And I am not doing a thing differently than I did in the lean days. I'm in a different place, sure, and minister to different people, but my preaching, my counseling, my leadership, everything else is the same ol' same ol'. I am the same guy stubbornly doing the exact same thing. I am insanely repeating the same "methods" and expecting different results. And it appears to be working. This proves to me it has nothing to do with me (which is quite liberating, actually).

I believe there is an "in season" and an "out of season."

In my pride, I wish I could take credit for having devised a new system or appropriated the right model. When I am tempted (often) to glory in accomplishments and visible signs of success, I remind myself of those agonizing floor-of-the-foyer moments in the olden days, when I wanted to trust stuff God takes away as easily as he gives. I recalibrate my spirit on the gospel often, beating it into my head continually so that faithfulness to its proclamation is my measure of fidelity, my gauge of success. Everything else can be taken away like that.

What I am reminding myself is that we are not charged with creating fruitfulness but preaching the Word. The growth is up to God. Luther remarked that he simply studied and taught and then the Reformation happened while he was sleeping or drinking beer.

Brothers, let us be faithful to simply, as Spurgeon said, open the cage and let the lion defend itself. The word will not return void in God's time. The gospel will create its glorious disorder among God's people according to the movements of his Spirit.

preach the word; be ready in season and out of season . . .
-- 2 Timothy 4:2


David McLemore said...

I remember those lean days too. I remember sitting in the booth running the slides and hoping to see someone else come in the door. It literally never happened.

I can tell you though, now that Sarah and I are at Immanuel and we're diving deeper into ministry, there is nothing that I would trade for those precious Sunday evenings gathered with only a few people to hear you preach. You grew us up. You made us hear the gospel. You freed us.

I look back on those leans days and thank God that he was faithful to give us what we had. It taught me a lot about church. It taught me a lot about the gospel. And it taught me a lot about what "success" is.

Many of us go to different churches and import our past church experiences into our current church. Ray warns us against it all the time. But, for me, I was ok importing my previous church experience into my current experience. Partly because of the leadership you showed but mostly because it was a previous church life centered on the gospel. If we're going to import anything, shouldn't it be freedom in the gospel?

We're still meeting in that same ol' building and I talked to Ray just the other day about how it will be hard for me whenever we leave that building. I've got fond memories of two small church plants led by two God-given pastors who faithfully led their people people to stare at Christ. And I've experienced the true freedom of the gospel there. It is precious to me.

Thank you for that.

Jared said...

David, you made me cry in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis. Jerk.

I love you.

Jason Wert said...

I love the honesty and transparency that radiates through your posts, Jared. Thanks, man.

J. Curtis Watson said...

We need more posts such as this. I often wonder what our pastors conferences would look like if more "struggling" pastors were the keynotes at this big events instead of the wildly "successful" ones.

Bill Streger said...

Jared, I think this is one of the most important pieces you have ever written. Thank you for your faithfulness in season and out of season.

Alvin Lin said...

Thanks for the post.

Always good for me to meditate on.

I was wondering if you have any other blog posts/links sharing your previous experience.

Thanks again!

Lori P said...

I found much encouragement in this post. As a church-planter's wife in a community that needs nothing--much less church--, I needed to hear this great reminder. Thanks so much!
Pressing on...

Kenny Hamm said...

Thanks for the post Jared…such an encouragement to us in our church plant. We are 7 months in and we can relate to those floor-of-the-foyer moments. This “season” is allowing us to grow up and mature a little in our thoughts on success.

It’s hard!

Thanks also for reminding us that it really is all up to God.


Jeff said...

I too thank you for this post - a very timely reminder! We too are in the early days of a church plant.

Matthew James said...

Those lean times are so good for the soul.

After 10 years of "successful" ministry on staff at a growing tech-savy church, the Lord convicted me of how far I had strayed from the Biblical call to be a minister of the gospel. I resigned from my position with a wife and four young kids and nothing practical to fall back on, not even a college degree.

I continued to volunteer in that church for over a year, picked up a job as a glorified hall monitor at a local high school and waited for God to move.

Our next step moved us almost 200 miles away from all our friends, back to my hometown, where we lived off of a Pell Grant and a Work-Study job I got as I went back to school.

I knew God wanted me to teach people all about Jesus, but I had no idea how it would ever happen. However, there was something about the whole thing that was incredibly raw and healthy. So much healthier than things had been in years.

And then one day I got the distinct sense that things were about to change. I thanked the Lord in advance and just asked him to help me learn absolutely everything I possibly could from this lean time while it remained.

Now, less than a year and a half later, I am a bi-vocational senior pastor of a small baptist church that is growing in size, that is meeting our budget for the first time in years, and most importantly, that seems to be growing in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ as well.

And as an added bonus, my family and I are meeting our budget, and we even have health insurance for the first time ever!

God is good. Faithfulness to him and the Good News is of utmost importance. God knows those who are his and he will show himself strong on their behalf.

And Jared, throughout this process your posts, really your heart, has been a constant encouragement. You have reminded me that I'm not crazy, that it's all worth the sacrifice and the risk, and that the Good News is the most powerful reality on earth.

I think this might be my first comment on your blog, but God has been using you in my life for years. The work that he is doing through you reaches farther and to more people than you could ever imagine. Stay the course brother! You are in my thoughts and prayers.

dac said...

In talking with several church planters, it seems a fairly common experience that the first plant always "goes bad" But only bad in our own perspective, while living in the moment