I didn’t understand this when I set out to plant LifeCity Church – I couldn’t have understood. But I would quickly experience a tension that I believe every church planter encounters. This tension if not understood will lead to frustration, disappointment, and ultimately defeat. The reality is this:
Every church planter actually starts two churches. Allow me to explain…
The first church is the one they imagine they will start, lead, pastor, and grow. It consists of tons of faith, big vision, and courage that borderlines stupidity. This church begins from the very moment a planter answers the calling and says “yes” to God to start a new ministry in a needed community. The planter feels full of potential and sees every single engagement with an individual as a “divine” appointment from God to reach their mission. The only problems the planter sees with this “church” is: a) It lacks resources, and b) It hasn’t happened yet.
The actual problem with the first church a planter plants is that it is entirely in his mind, and in reality it will never exist. None of the people in this first church plant have hurting marriages. None of the people in this church have a problem with tithing, serving, or buying completely into his vision. They all love their kids and lead their homes well. The people in a planter’s first church have no addictions, never struggle with lust, and have been waiting for someone (the planter!) to finally explain the gospel so clearly to them. They celebrate “Pastors Appreciation Month” 12 months of the year, rearrange their work schedule to be at small group, and get along great with all the new people they meet in this first church plant.
But then every planter quickly faces reality, and wakes up one Sunday morning to realize the church he is about to preach to, shares only a faint resemblance to the church he planned to start. The attendance is going to be a fraction of the size he envisioned in his “first church plant”. He’ll have lost countless hours of sleep trying to help someone in need, or worrying over what he could have done differently. People on his launch team back out. Pastors who said they would help finance the new church never come through – and suddenly get very difficult to reach and follow up with. Ministries are more difficult to get off the ground. People don’t always get along. In fact, they can sometimes be down-right hostile toward his work.
This second church exists for me just like it does for every church planter. But before you assume that this is a cathartic outburst I’m having, bemoaning my shattered dreams of being a “big, successful church planter” please understand where I’m coming from…
I love the second church I planted far more than the first. For one simple reason. The second church consists of real people. People with names, and families, and stories that God is redeeming. People, who are broken, and messy, and precious, and beautiful to the God who created them… and also to the church planter who was lucky enough to get the chance to see them come together and become the second church that he wasn’t smart enough to dream of in the first place.
When I only had the first church, I would tell people about how we were going to change the Bay Area, and plant a dozen churches in ten minutes after we launched, and how we were going to lead the people of Silicon Valley to fully experience life in Christ… Now I get to tell people about my fishing buddy, Josh who I got to baptize on our Launch Day. I tell people about Mike, my Filipino friend who faithfully carried our worship ministry for a year when we didn’t have a worship leader on our team. I mention Amy Nawatani, the ill young lady who I got to lead to Christ three months before she past away. I talk about Juli, and her three precious kids. I talk about Valerie who can’t help but bawl her eyes out every time I preach, and Jim – the coolest dude with a walker I’ve ever met! I talk about Gabbi and Michael, leading a Christian club in the middle of their public high school. There’s Liz, and Luke, and Ban, Po, Aubrey, Ronald, Connie, Jack, Jewel, Peggy, and so many more who have actual names and stories and lives. This is my second church plant – it’s not exactly what I thought it would be, but it’s actually much better than I could have hoped for.
I’ll add this – I still have the first church plant. Yeah, it’s fake, I know that now though I didn’t know it until well after I understood the second church I accidentally started. Why do I still keep it? Because the second church I planted would not have ever happened without it. You could almost say that my first church plant started the second church I planted; even though the first one wasn’t even real. Also, the first church represents things I believe God is going to do in the second one. No, I don’t know exactly how those things are actually going to look when they find their way into reality at LifeCity, but I finally understand that I’ve never, ever, ever out-dreamed God when it comes to the vision for His church. And I accept His word more truly when it tells me that He wants to do, “far abundantly beyond all we could ask or imagine – according to the power at work within us.” (Eph. 2:21).
Pastoring the second church requires even more faith, vision, and courage than the first. In addition, it also requires immense patience, nurturing, care, love, and courage (did I already say courage?). But the joy that comes from leading your second church plant massively outpaces anything the first church could offer. The first church is all talk. The second church is actual, hard work.
Disappointment and unmet expectations in ministry can be crushing to church leaders who do not accept what God is doing. But if we embrace the ministry we have been given, rather than the one we may have dreamed of, we not only find that God is faithful – we see first hand that, “as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts, says the Lord.”
P.S. – LifeCity Church is going great! I love my church. We are seeing God lead the people of the Bay Area to fully experience life in Christ! I’m honored to be your pastor. God is working something amazing here. You’re better than I could have asked for or imagined!