It’s odd. I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been.
Big-city life is thrilling to me, and Seoul bigger than the biggest city in America. My wife and kids love living overseas. We’re all enjoying learning Korean, more or less. Work is tiring, but fulfilling. I have some fine colleagues and some generous friends. Church life is joyful and familiar: Presbyterian, liturgical, biblical, theological, communal, small, foodly. The kids are flourishing, my wife is wonderful, and the cherry blossoms will bloom in a couple weeks time.
Things really are great. Really great.
In his memoir of his spiritual journey, CS Lewis writes about occasional, unpredictable experiences that he called “stabs of joy.” He was mostly melancholic, but every once in a great while, he was deeply moved by something otherworldly and joyous, painful because freighted with longing.
I, on the other hand, feel as though I am living in a world of enchantment—things are great, and I’m happy. But every so often I experience not the Lewisian stabs of joy, but rather their opposite: stabs of sorrow.
I’m rather new at this.
I was new to the unforeseen disappointments of leading a group of prodigals and pilgrims in a shared and local life. I was new to having my influence rendered, in many cases, surprisingly uninfluential.
I was new to seeing families rent asunder up close, and I was certainly new to that peculiar sort of failure one feels when one knows that one’s help didn’t help—especially when help, it seemed, was so desperately needed.
I was new to opening my heart and my life and my home to so many different people. And I was most definitely new to having many of those people close their hearts and lives and homes to me.
And I’m new at the grief and melancholy that now strike unexpectedly, when the sheer awfulness of some particularly awful days in a hard season not so long ago come flooding into my consciousness. Without warning, it all comes back, but somehow stronger and more achy with the passage of time.
I make my attempts to reconcile with the apparent inevitability of it all, which blunts the force of these stabs of sorrow. But even my belated ‘acceptance’ (whatever that means) of these severe providences seems to cement this season in my past and make it always retrievable. My disappointments have become memorialized now; they’re a thing of my historical record, a chapter in my unwritten memoir that gets read aloud to me involuntarily from time to time, whether I like it or not.
There are books with titles like Leading With a Limp and The Wounded Healer that sound like they were probably written for punks like me; for people who find themselves—what’s the Christianese word?—humbled. I should probably read those.
There are also many people I know whose present suffering makes my reflection on these stabs of sorrow, situated as they are against a backdrop of steady happiness, feel utterly unwarranted. I should probably remember this.
My grief isn’t utterly overwhelming like the grief of many others. My vocational failure isn’t utterly catastrophic. But since my sorrows stab me every so often, perhaps my grief is a grief that nevertheless ought to be observed. I’m attending to these sorrows when they come upon me. Surely they have something to teach me, even though I suspect at times that the truths I’m meant to learn are ones I already know: fallenness, finitude, frailty.
I take these stabs of sorrow to be indicators that my knowledge of these postlapsarian conditions needs to be deeper still. More personal. It’s not “people” who are fallen, but me. It’s not “the world” that is frail, it’s me. It’s not “creation” that is finite, but me.
These stabs of sorrow are no fun, but the creatureliness they underscore is true. And a reckoning with true things, however not-fun, has got to be a good thing.
You can fill an opening. Or you can go through an opening. These are actually two very different openings. I have experience with both.
When I realized there was a position open at a school in Seoul, I imagined the prospects of both excitement and relief. The thought of finally getting a chance to live in a big city thrilled me. The notion of getting rid of most of our belongings tempted me with the beauty of the simplicity it would yield.
Life itself had gotten really complicated. Relationships, planting a church, homeschooling kids, running a small business: none of these things by themselves were simple to navigate, and navigating them simultaneously was less simple still for me and my wife.
A job opening in Korea meant less complication.
A job opening initially meant, in our case, a chance to earn enough money doing mostly enjoyable work with enough time away from that work to explore an exciting city, country, and region. It meant a chance to send the kids to a great school, which de-complicated my wife’s life, especially.
And that is what the past 5 months has indeed been. Less complicated by far.
“Look! There’s an opening! We’ll fill that slot. We’ll swap this crazy life for that really attractive and simple life.”
This opening has been filled.
But there’s a second sort of opening.
This sort of opening isn’t filled. It is not applied for. It can’t be plugged into. It’s not a job-plus-time-off.
Rather, it’s an opening the other side of which yields a new, unforeseen, and perhaps complicated life. This opening presents itself as a summons to walk the long and hard road with a promise attached that there’s a good end. It’s fraught with danger, not from the surroundings, but from the souls one finds on the other side, volatile souls that will look your soul in the eye and dare you to not turn away from them.
We are just about to head to Thailand for vacation. Though I’ve been working for 5 months, I see this coming vacation as the vacation to cap off the vacation I’ve been on since arriving in Seoul. A vacation, in a way, to end all vacations.
Five months after filling an opening, I’m being called in through an opening. Double-dog-dared to start looking souls in the eye and to allow the eyes of souls to look mine in the eye. Summoned back to a way of being-in-the-world that would please good ‘ole Heidegger because it reckons with death by living in light of it.
A job opening attracted me to vacate a complex life and manage a new rhythm balancing work and leisure. A summons calls me to vacate vacation and enter, once again, but really for the first time, through an opening into a world of souls. The first opening allows me to be either on or off. The second opening challenges me to be either in or out.
I want in.
I’m working on my promised posts about how I believe a Sabbath / Neighborhood / Vocation ecclesiology can and should give evangelicalism’s Donald Millers no need to quit going to church. Truthfully, it’s been challenging to think through why exactly I believe what I believe on this issue. Hence, the delay.
In the mean time, another standard church planting proverb.
I remember in seminary and during my several pastoral internships, I received a particular challenge and an accompanying caution.
The challenge was not to set myself up as the unreachable paragon of spiritual maturity in my congregation. People needed to hear, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and family, that I knew I was a sinner. That I had abiding idolatries that needed to be pulled from my heart’s embrace. That I was prepared to be the Lead Repenter. That I was in the same spiritual battle for holiness by grace that they were engaged in.
I believed what my professors and pastors said concerning this challenge. I committed myself to struggling for holiness by grace in the context of my community, just as I called others to do. I exhorted people to holiness by grace in my preaching and teaching, all the while sitting under my own preaching (and, thankfully, that of others in our community), and often made my own struggles plain to my congregation. I believe, fundamentally, that a pastor’s first identity is that of a plain, ordinary Christian. And I believe that emphasizing this helps people in their pursuit of holiness by grace.
In the very next breath, however, my profs and mentors would caution me. “Andy, whatever you say to people about your own struggles and sins, your own propensities to idolatry and your own inadequacies, these very things will be used against you. You can guarantee it.”
Really? People are that big of jerks? Yessir. And of course I’m one of those jerk-people myself at times.
And, in fact, this is just what has happened. 95% of my self-effacing references to my own hang-ups and inadequacies are at least somewhat effectual in enabling people to think more honestly about their own, and about the gracious Savior that is intent upon making us holy. But 5% of my disclosures are being gathered as intelligence data against me, and will be thrown back upon in a moment of fury.
Just recently, I suggested to someone that they could stand to imitate me in one respect: I have learned, relatively speaking, to bridle my tongue. The person had been setting forests ablaze with their torch of a tongue. I pointed out that I have a lot of relationships with people, many of which have been intact for a number of years, and that I’ve had much sweetness, a fair amount of authenticity, and very few fallings out. And that the individual, on the other hand, had burned bridge after bridge.
This individual replied that the only reason I have intact relationships is because I’m a people pleaser. I had fireproofed my relational bridges not because of growth in grace, but because my relational bridges were lacquered in idolatry.
This person must have been reading my blog or something.
What did my profs and mentors say? They said to be vulnerable. They said to expect your vulnerability to be used against you. What else?
They told me to do it anyway. It’s worth it.
In fact, one of my mentors told me that the people who are most angry at their pastor, who use his shortcomings against him, are often the people who are in a spiritual jam. They are often the ones who are uncomfortable with the God of grace who seems to be an inescapable, claustrophobic presence surrounding them. They are those who take out their frustration with Jesus on someone other than Jesus. And so they are those whose outbursts and condemnations you cannot take personally, because it’s not about you; it’s about Jesus. Unlike the people half asleep during the sermon and half asleep through most of their spiritual lives, these people are miserable.
So I’m simply here to reiterate what my teachers have said: Stay vulnerable. Know that it’ll be thrown back in your face. Don’t take it personally.
What’s at stake
What’s at stake here is not your self-esteem or your career or your emotional equilibrium. You probably are a people-pleaser on some level, even if it’s not to the degree that I am. But it’s not about you and it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the culture of gospel-drenchedness you’re hoping to cultivate. It’s about the unabashed pursuit of holiness-by-grace and the culture of loving challenge that must develop in order to provide the right environment for that pursuit. It’s about abiding in and with and under Christ Jesus. Yes, it’s about Jesus.
So don’t lose heart. Make yourself the bond-slave of your people for Jesus’ sake. Work on your idol of people-pleaserness, and trust that Jesus is more determined to get rid of it than even you are. But don’t quit being vulnerable, and don’t take it personally when that vulnerability is turned into condemnation by a few. Pray for these people: they’re miserable and their hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in Jesus.
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Back when I was writing up the core values and vision of Hill City Church—what dorks church planters can be with all their visionizing!—I came up with something cool. I thought it was original, and of course it’s not. It was about discipleship. I wrote that, ideally, everyone in the church would be both a Paul and a Timothy. Every Paul would have a Timothy, and every Timothy would have a Paul. Everyone would seek out someone less mature than they are, and pour themselves into them like Paul poured himself into Timothy. Everyone would also seek out someone more mature than them, and insist that that person pour themselves into them.
Pretty cool, huh?
I forgot at least one big role that we all need. I forget who it was that brought this to light for me. But I experienced it last night, and it struck me afresh how vital this role is in the life of any Christian, and especially church planters.
Barnabas. Everyone needs not just a Paul, and not just a Timothy. Everyone also needs a Barnabas.
Barnabas was the encourager. Not the disciple. Not the discipler. Of course, he himself was both of these. But his overwhelming contribution to those around him—especially the ‘apostolic’ types who are always starting new things, taking risks, and getting disappointed when those ventures don’t cash out in the way they imagine—was to be an encourager.
My Barnabas eats frozen pizza with me. He meets burns the midnight oil with me in order to burn away my discouragement. He preaches the authentic gospel to me when I’ve been preaching phony gospels to myself. He grabs my identity by the scruff of the neck and slams it (gently, of course) back into Jesus Christ when it has become parasitic on the applause of others. He drinks beer with me even though he doesn’t like beer. He has a well-tuned BS Detector, but he wields it kindly.
You can’t afford to not have a Barnabas.
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I just observed the 5th anniversary of my ordination. Five years ago, I was 28, and was reading Andrew Bonar’s short biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. M’Cheyne was a Scottish pastor who died at the age of 29, but who in his short ministry had grown so much in grace that he bore much fruit.
Thinking about M’Cheyne’s early death made me feel like I was a goober, a phony. And I certainly was (and am). “Impostor Syndrome” (as Seth Godin has called it) is real because, in fact, we are all impostors in some profound sense.
When you set aside the actual fruit that M’Cheyne bore in his young ministry, you’re still left with the fella himself. And what did that fella say, to make you feel even more like an impostor?
“The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.”
I remember when one of our church plant’s early contributors quoted this to me. I had asked her where she stood with respect to her decision to “go on mission with our new church”. I had laid out a new model for community, for mission, for discipleship. I had cast a vision for something innovative. I had proposed the perfect blend of ancient-future worship. I had been bold in exuding “leadership”. She said, “ok, that’s nice. But the thing I need more than anything is to know that my pastor has an authentic, growing relationship with Jesus, so I can follow him as he follows Jesus.”
She hadn’t read M’Cheyne’s biography. She didn’t know who M’Cheyne was. She had just heard this one line somewhere from ‘some pastor in church history’.
Speaking of feeling awful. Speaking of Impostor Syndrome.
And yet, there it is. And who can disagree? There will be lots of people who do lots of great things, merely in the power of the flesh. There will be church planters with exquisite preaching skills, perfectly calibrated models, innovative team-building methodologies, and uncanny charisma to compel crowds to action.
But these are not the first and most important things that disciples of Jesus need. These are not the first things that would-be lay-misisonaries need. The first and most important thing they need is your personal holiness.
Paul isn’t bashful about calling Timothy to an obvious growth, discernible to anyone with their eyes open:
“Godliness is valuable in every way. … Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. … Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” – I Timothy 4
“So that all may see your progress.” As a pastor, you are looking for visible growth in God’s grace among your people. But they are also looking for it in you. We started Hill City Church two years ago this month. In those two years, is it obvious to all that I am walking more closely, more authentically, more confidently, more joyfully, more dependently, with Jesus?
Your personal holiness: this is not just the sine qua non of a truly thriving church plant. This—the planter’s walk with Jesus, irrespective of his call to plant and pastor—is the fountainhead of all true, abiding flourishing in and through a church plant. Out of it flows all the humility and authority you must have to speak words of grace and truth, and to do acts of love and mercy, without which you may have an impressive bit of show business. But without which you will not have planted a church.
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I hope that this notion is not controversial.
Open-Eared Theologians and Plugged-Eared Evangelicals
John Calvin said that a failure to appreciate and apply the wisdom and insight of people who are not sealed for salvation by the Holy Spirit is actually an insult to the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther said that when it comes to heads of state, it’s better to have a wise Turk (i.e., Muslim) in power than a foolish Christian.
Richard Mouw has written about this uncomfortable spiritual reality in his exquisite, provocative book He Shines in All that’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace.
One of the laziest things evangelicals do is assume that if some principle or practice is gleaned from the business world, it must automatically be anathema to find its analogous application in ecclesial practice. Ironically, these are often the same evangelicals who would take a bullet for BIG BUSINESS.
Revelation and Non-Christian Neighbors
Last evening we had our neighbor over for dinner. She is wise. Does she lack the One in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge? Is all of her wisdom, therefore, at the most important and fundamental level, essentially misunderstanding? Do many of her particular assumptions about the world go against the grain of Orthodox Christianity? The Scriptures indicate that yes, all of this is the case.
But phooey on me if I don’t zip my mouth and open my ears and listen closely for what wisdom the Sovereign Jesus might be imparting to me through the wisdom she regularly imparts to me—wisdom that the very next day is often directly applied to my work as a church planter, pastor, and evangelist.
Be Radical: Opt In
In our subcultural rush to OPT OUT of everything that isn’t branded with our brand, we often plug our ears to the general revelation around us in the form of our atheist neighbors. In our anxiety about the instability of our own Christian identity, we often close our eyes to the wisdom that calls to us through the common grace insights, offered in kindness, by our non-Chrisitan friends.
If you want your church plant to be known as a bunch of cranky Opter-Outers, then by all means, go ahead and assume your neighbors are idiots because they haven’t embraced the gospel. If, however, you want your church plant to be known as a community that is ‘all ears’ whenever wisdom is available for the furtherance of the kingdom and the flourishing of the community, learn from atheists.
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I’ve always resonated with the cry of the Toys R Us kid. I don’t want to grow up.
This renunciation of my faithful parents’ work toward my maturity didn’t just effect my learning (I wanted to be ‘well-rounded’, and so I raced toward popularity through jock-dom at the expense of doing things like reading).
This renunciation didn’t just effect my college major choices (I rejected my dad’s insistence that I would be very good in the business world, and in sales and marketing in particular, and opted instead for a dream of loafing around while teaching high school social studies and coaching football).
This renunciation has ultimately effected my pursuit of church planting.
While I proclaimed the evangelistic advantages of planting new churches, I was more-than-just-a-little-bit interested in escaping what I perceived to be a rather stuffy, adult ecclesiastical environment. In some ways, I wanted to have a license to not grow up. To not be the adult my age was trying to make me.
What have I learned in church planting? What is the one big piece of counsel I might give to prospective church planters?
Be the Grown-up in the room.
You can only play cool for so long. You can only ‘contextualize’ your philosophy of ministry toward young and/or less mature people in your community to a certain degree before it becomes plain to your wife, to the actual adults there might be in your church plant, and, finally, to you, that you’re really just trying to not grow up.
Church planting is not nearly as hard, in my experience, as people said it would be. So much of the great stuff that’s happened has seemingly just happened.
But what the experience has done to me is exactly what I hoped to avoid by entering into it. Church planting has forced me to be the adult in the room. To say the tough thing that needs to be said. To say something “spiritual” when everyone else might be content to just go on chewing the fat. To stop trying to be everybody’s buddy and to start being who I’ve actually be called to be: their pastor.
To a great extent, church planting has pressed forward the task that marriage began and children carried on. It has made me reckon with the fact that the most selfless, loving thing I can do in many instances is to simply play the part of the grown man.
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)
My grandmother has the coolest name of anyone in America, guaranteed. Olena Sigurros Homfrieder Paulson Stager.
She’s probably also from the least cool place in America: Mountain, North Dakota. The population has never topped 220, and the size has never reached 0.15 square miles.
That is a provincial locale if there ever was one.
Gonna Die in a Small Town?
“Provincial”, of course, is usually a pejorative term. Backwater. Flyover country. Irrelevant.
I am reading a set of essays by someone who has been called provincial. He is also from North Dakota. As a novelist, Larry Woiwode lived for a time in New York City, but wrote about the North Dakota he felt connected to. Eventually he decided he needed to move back to North Dakota to learn whether the North Dakota he remembered, and the North Dakota that emerged in his fiction, was rooted in a semblance of facticity.
It was, and it wasn’t, as he says.
After living in New York, and in England, the most cosmopolitan Anglophone places on earth, ultimately his family re-settled in that provincial place.
Citizen of Nowhere?
“Cosmopolitan” is the strongest antonym of the adjective “provincial”. Originally “cosmopolitan” was a self-congratulatory word Enlightenment elites loved to have applied to them. It did not mean that they were Parisians or Londoners or Frankfurters. It meant that they were not citizens first and foremost of their own country. They were fundamentally citizens of the world. (Or technically of the cosmos.)
They abstracted themselves from the narrowness of their motherland. Even Paris was too provincial for such free thinkers. “Internationals” was still too constraining. They were supra-national. Cosmopolitan. They were enlightened, after all.
Wendell Berry has an essay in which he laments the academic institutionalization of agrarianism. Another way to say this is that he regrets the ism-ification of the agrarian intellectual movement. Somewhere along the way, the best agrarian writers and thinkers moved to places like Columbus, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois. Places where they could get away from their provincial farming communities and the peculiar social and physical demands of such places. Places where they could think, write, and rub shoulders with … cosmopolitans.
Berry and Woiwode both say that the more distant you become from the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the dreadfully provincial places they’ve come to love, the more difficulty you have saying something truly valuable, unique, and believable. Why? Because you are not inhabiting a place that is utterly unique. You’re inhabiting, like those enlightened cosmopolitans, everywhere. Which is to say, you’re inhabiting nowhere.
Move Up in the World?
Tim Keller, a personal hero and inspiration, wants to see an emphasis placed on church planting in Global Cities. I get that. Maybe someday I’ll even do that. But for now I am in a smallish town. You probably are too. Should you move to the big city and plant a church? Maybe.
But maybe not.
And if not, embrace your small town. Delight in, and study closely, its provinciality. Don’t be bullied by the cosmopolitans. Instead, take heart and heed the words of Woiwode, Berry, and, last but not least, Chesterton:
“The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men…In a large community, we can choose our companions. In a small community, our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized society groups come into existence founded upon sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.”
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What is the difference between a church plant with a weekly one-hour show and a church plant with a rich communal life?
The church planter’s sanity.
Let’s consider the alternatives:
How to go insane:
Plant a church in which everyone is supposed to show up at the same time on Sunday for roughly an hour. Ramp up toward the Sunday service all week. Scramble to get the bulletin formatted just right. Scour the music repertoire for just the right songs to pull just the right heart strings — the same ones you’ll be tugging at in the message.
Oh yes—the message! Write the sermon. Then revise it 45 times. Then memorize it. Then practice it in front of the mirror. (No, seriously. I know of a pastor who does this. He’s good. Every facial expression and gesticulation counts.) Don’t forget to submit it in time for your production team to create gripping visuals and snappy bullet points for the projector-and-screen rigs (which cost more than your car).
By any means possible, don’t screw up. Don’t be “off”. Don’t take a day off, either. Like on Wall Street, every hint or whiff of not-quite-rightness spooks the market, and your offerings and attendance will suffer.
If you think this is an exaggeration, you’d be wrong. This is reality. To the degree that your church plant (or your established church, for that matter) is focused on the production of a Sunday service, the planter/pastor’s career, identity, and sanity rest on how well it goes. There are planters who pull off the road 3 times on the way to the Sunday service to barf. There are mega-church pastors who fret for hours in their office on Sunday afternoon because attendance was only 13,000 instead of 15,000.
Do you really want to go anywhere near this treadmill of insanity and death?
How to temporarily avoid insanity:
Want to not have that happen? Me neither.
Look, we have Sunday services. I want them to go well. I want people to come. I want my preaching to hit the mark. I want the music to connect and stir people’s souls.
But I just won’t survive if my life is built around the Sunday stats. I’ll go insane faster than most.
How am I doing?
I’m doing alright.
Because my church plant is built not upon the one-hour Sunday event, but upon the thick, rich bonds of shared life.
And it’s not because the people in our church plant are super-duper mature. They’re not the spiritual superiors of any of the people in the one-hour Sunday show churches. They’re busted and bruised, broken and bandaged.
But they know one another well, and the more they know one another, the less afraid they are to be the broken people that they are slowly-but-surely realizing that they are. After all, the people they are sharing life with are just as broken, and it’s becoming more evident all the time.
What’s the cash-out for the church planter?
The church planter gets to be broken instead of going insane. He gets to have a crummy day instead of being propped up as the slick, rock-steady, fearless leader. He gets to repent. He gets to try and fail. He gets the satisfaction and assurance of knowing that if Sunday attendance is down by 50%, that simply means that half the church has taken a camping trip together.
Even if there is no camping trip to explain the low offering or dip in attendance for a week or two, the planter gets the assurance of knowing that the church is both gathered and scattered plenty of times quite apart from the 11 o’clock and 12 o’clock hours between which he is “doing his thing”.
So, the choice is kind of yours.
Go insane or not. Your call. I’d suggest the latter.