Not long ago a blogger who had faced some difficult times in his ministry wrote: “I would rather be a missionary in the most dangerous, anti-Christian place in the world than try to revitalize an existing, traditional Southern Baptist church.” Though I don’t personally know that blogger, I have friends who share his sentiment and lean the direction of church planting.
I myself have been tempted by the wiles of church planting (don’t jump on me about the temptation language—I value church planting, I’m just trying to be cute!), but have chosen the route of pastoring in established and traditional Southern Baptist churches. Call me a glutton for punishment…
And I speak as one who has gone through the pain of being forced to resign from a church that was, at best, a terrible situation. While in seminary, I pastored a small country church in south-central Indiana. It had little structure, an out of tune piano, a liberal-leaning lady who ran the show, and hardly any men. It actually proved to be a great experience. In the course of three years, I grew as a pastor and preacher, the church doubled in size without any formal outreach efforts, giving went up, and though I disagreed with several people on certain points of theology (and politics!) they loved me and I loved them. It was a good beginning.
Then…I graduated and decided to head in the direction of home (Missouri). I ended up at a church in Southeast MO, it was my first fulltime pastorate, and I thought I would be there for years to come. Boy, was I wrong. Less than a month in, red flags started flying. A lot of what I wanted to do was undercut with talk behind my back while people smiled to my face. The problems grew worse and I became more isolated and disenfranchised, yet I determined to stick it out since I was sure God placed me there. Finally, after eight months they dismissed me complete with a series of events that left me feeling manipulated, lied to, and angry. It doesn’t help when they try to send your character through the shredder and tell you, “We think you’re a great teacher, but you’re a terrible pastor.”
At the age of 27 I was jobless and homeless (the church had a parsonage), and forced to move back in with my parents (thus, also, humbled). Emotionally I was exhausted and spiritually I was bitter. A good friend of mine invited me to a young adult Bible Study at his church, and I went determined to be as silent as possible and to not let anyone know I had been a pastor…because I just needed to hear other people talk about God for a while. And it started the process of healing.
Yet with the experience, I was on the verge of dropping the pastoring thing, especially with established churches (the one I grew up in for the first 20 years of my life saw its own slew of problems that are permanently stuck in my mind as well). But I couldn’t shake the feeling that was where I belonged. And here I am, nearly three years later, pastor of another established and traditional SB church (albeit on the opposite side of the state)… It has its issues and problems, and several areas concerning doctrine and practice that serve as potential points of a split if poorly handled. And I’m happy here. In part it is because we have started a new discipleship paradigm and I am spending a lot of time with individuals and small groups (especially a group of men), training them on what it means to live the gospel and apply it to their families and others they might mentor. They’re excited, I’m excited, it will be a slow process, but there’s great potential.
But I wouldn’t be here now if not for the fact that I love working in established churches…so what draws me to them? Two things:
First, Ephesians 1:3-14. It doesn’t matter how rough around the edges we are, it doesn’t matter how young or immature in our faith we might be, it doesn’t matter our problems or our issues…if we are saved by the grace of God, then God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing and he has destined us to become holy and blameless people who receive a great inheritance. This is true with churches and individual Christians: we should look at them not for what they are, but for what God is shaping them to be. No church is perfect, nor is any church plant. Every established church was a plant, and every plant if it survives will become an established church steeped in its own traditions. Yet they all fit into this passage. I’m not going to be naïve about the potential issues in a church (especially not after the experiences I’ve had), and as much as I would love to focus solely on the people who want to be growing disciples, I’ll also have to deal with the Pharisees and snakes when they slither out from under their rocks. That’s life. But I choose to see the deep-down potential in God’s work more than the cracks and blemishes.
And second, 2 Timothy 4:1-5…especially in terms of the word “patience.” When working with individuals in discipleship you are faced with the reality: spiritual growth, maturity, and sanctification are slow. There are questions that sometimes get asked 40 different times in 20 different ways. People struggle with sin and fail constantly. There are ample misunderstandings, occasional laziness, and rampant busyness. Pride rears its ugly head far more than humility. And a lot of people think they know more about the Bible than what they actually do know. It takes a lifetime to even begin to become like Jesus. And if that’s true for the individual, how much more is it for a church filled with 50, 100, 2000, or 10000 individuals? It takes patience and understanding, and even times where we must “endure suffering.”
I value and support church planting. It is a needed mission and ministry where churches do not exist. But the established churches need love too, even if they are sometimes hard to get along with.