What I Learned as a Church Planter: Be Yourself.

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Be Yourself

This post has been republished by the Exponential Network.
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Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said,
“In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’
They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?'”
– Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

Who do you think you are?
I mean that as a serious question: Who do you think you are?
At the very core of your being who is it that God has uniquely created you to be?

Each and every one of us has an identity, a unique being that rests deep within our core waiting to emerge. Too often however, instead of listening to the gift of our true identity we spend our lives trying on the identities of others. Like a pile of clothes in the fitting room we see the characteristics or mannerisms of others and we put them on. We become mere imitations rather than living into our true selves. Your True Self, according to Richard Rohr, is who you objectively are from the very beginning of your life. It is your substantial self, your absolute identity.

I spent a good portion of time as a church planter engaged in a hard battle with my identity. I listened intently to people who tried to mold me into who it was they wanted me to be, who they needed me to be, who they thought I was supposed to be. I imbibed the criticisms of others when it struck against my True Self. I recoiled from my True Self turning towards the encouragment I received when I fitted myself with a new False Identity. I rejected my passions and exchanged them for the passions of others. I rejected my interests and exchanged them for the interests of others. I rejected my voice and exchanged it for the muddled voice of others. I had become an enigma.

You see, you cannot be an authentic person when you continually try on the identities of others. Trying to live into someone else’s identity will inevitably fail. It will do great damage to your church and it will do great damage to your soul. As church planters, it is easy to see other pastors and church planters we admire and begin incorporating the best of them into our selves. We drink deeply from their identity and slip into theirs trying it on for size. But it doesn’t work. It never provides us the fulfillment or the acceptance we’re so desperately looking for. Why?

Because,
You are not Rob Bell.
You are not Jon Tyson.
You are not Erwin McManus.
You are not ______________.

You must be yourself. You must be the person that God has created you to be. You must be “Zusya”. Which means you have to drink deeply from the well of God, for our True Self comes from God.

You must be yourself because here’s the thing: We need you. We need the real you, the true, authentic you. We don’t need more imitations in the church. We need your unique giftings and personality, the combination of your passions and your interests, your true voice.

It is a process. It takes time to listen to your voice as it calls out from within your being.
But it is worth it.

Parker Palmer writes in his book Let Your Life Speak:
“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought [or think we ought] to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service to the world.”

Let us live more and more into the person God has created us to be.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Fundraising Partners are more than bags of money

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Church Planting
This post has been republished by the Exponential Network.
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One of the greatest fears of the church planter is running out of money before the new church is self-sufficient. This is especially true for the urban church planter. When I started the journey towards church planting I consistently found myself up against the suburban church planting model which allows for the new church to be completely self-sufficient in 3 years, including the 6 month ramp-up period for the church planter to move into the community and launch a new church. The realities of the city are much different than that of a suburban community, in fact I was told on a couple of occasions from other urban planters that it would take at least 5 years before you could become a self-sufficient church. Although they were well meaning, this only helped to stress me out making the ticking financial clock sound louder and louder with each passing month. (If you’re thinking about urban planting you will definitely need more than 3 years to become self-sufficient… unless through a miraculous act of God the community that is assembled are already tremendously generous!)

The fear of dwindling money can serve to create a scarcity mentality making you see your fundraising partners solely as bags of money. When I started IKON, I had 22 different churches partnering with me financially to make this possible. Twenty-two different churches from all across the country banded together behind the vision of IKON and generously supported nothing more than a dream. Now that’s a pretty remarkable collection of churches and by no means the norm, however it created several challenges for me that I was unprepared for.

Some things I realized:

  1. Churches want a return on their investment. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they expect hundreds of baptisms/conversions in the span of a few months. (Although this may very well be a metric they’re hoping for–don’t leave this unspoken.) Usually what churches are looking for is connectivity. They’re looking for a relationship that goes beyond sending money every month/quarter/year. They want their connection with your church plant to be something that helps their own people grow by exposing them to something new/different. This means they will more than likely want to send teams of people your way to help out in some way… a short-term missions trip of sorts.

    I did a horrible job with this. In all honesty, I saw this as more of a burden than anything positive. I consistently viewed these offers of help as taking away opportunities for growth from the people of IKON. So I did everything I could to steer clear of the asks and instead of finding a win, separated IKON from opportunity.

    Here’s the reality that I should have strived for. I should have seen this as a wonderful opportunity for the people of IKON to mingle and interact with other like-minded Christians from around the country. I should have seen this as an opportunity for these churches to help me ingrain the DNA of service I so desperately wanted for IKON. One missions trip could have ingrained more into the life of IKON than a series of sermons on the topic. Why? Because it would have been flesh and blood examples right in front of their eyes. This was a huge missed opportunity on my part.

    What I needed was a plan, and that’s exactly what I lacked. If you’re a church planter, you need a plan for short-term missions trips coming to you. If you’re an organization, you need to help the church planter develop a plan. If you’re a supporting church you need to ask the church planter what their plan is. Here are three things I’d recommend be a part of your plan:

    • Make your intentions to the missions team known: I want you to exemplify service to this church. You are here not only to serve us but be examples for us to look to.
    • Create opportunities for your people to serve alongside the missions team. Don’t simply let the missions team serve and then interact relationally with your people in the evening. There needs to be co-serving and co-mingling.
    • Make sure that you have created a missions trip template. What will all missions trips look like? You can create options for the teams to choose from, but you need to make sure that you’re not planning every trip that comes in. Bonus point: Develop relationships with organizations in the city that your people are serving in. When missions teams come to the city, have them set up a time to serve that organization on your behalf. This will save you time and increase your relationship with local organizations.
    • Have someone from your church lead the missions team on a tour of the city before they serve the city or your church. This will give them a great deal of context. (What better way to develop passion for the city in a member of your own community than to have the share about the city!)

    There are certainly other criteria to add into this list, but at least this gives you a starting point.

    Perhaps a question for you to ask yourself: If you wouldn’t want the DNA of the particular church to be a part of your own church community, then do you really want them to be financial partners with you? If you don’t want the people of a particular church to interact with your own church community, then do you really want the to be financial partners with you? These questions may help you in locating the right partners…

  2. Churches want regular communication. This should be a “duh” statement. I would say that I did a decent job with this at first but as the rigors of the church came into play it became increasingly difficult to stay on top of. In fact, it simply became just another “thing” on my to-do list. I’d recommend passing this off to someone from your church to do well. Remember that churches want to share with their people exciting stories of what God is doing in other parts of the country. They are trying to expand their congregations outlook beyond their own local community.
  3. Churches want what’s best for you. If you’re partnering with the right churches, those that share the same DNA as you, then you can rest assured that they want what’s best for you. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help where you’re struggling. Partnering churches want to be more than bags of money, they want to be a resource for you. I wish I would have realized this and known what to ask for when we were struggling with various things. Unfortunately I realized this a bit too late. It was in our last year that I asked one of our partner churches to help us clarify and better communicate our core values. It was a tremendous experience and a wonderful help to us, unfortunately I waited a little too long.

    Your partner churches are established churches that are doing some things right, highlight for yourself what it is that you think they are doing really well and ask them to help you when the time is right. Do you have partner churches that have a tremendous volunteer culture? Then ask them to help you develop that. Do you have partner churches that are knocking it out of the park when it comes to evangelism or arts or music or preaching or discipleship? Then ask them to help you develop this within your own community. This can happen in a variety of ways. Don’t think you have it all figured out because you’re a church planter… you need help and a lot of it. Partner churches can be the greatest resource you have at your disposal. Don’t leave it unused on the side of the road.

  4. Fundraising partners are more than bags of money. They are valuable relationships that can help you in myriad ways. Expand your vision, expand your horizons, expand your understanding of partnership and the scarcity mentality you’re wrestling with will soon be replaced with an vision of abundance because you’ll have more than you ever thought possible.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Don’t Let Go of Your Vision

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Vision
This post has been republished by the Exponential Network.
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One of the hardest things about closing down a church, especially the church you started, is trudging through the list of regrets. Let me tell you, the list will be long and the water can get really deep… don’t sit in the regrets for too long.

As I’ve reflected on my experience as a church planter I have done my best to stay away from regret and instead focus on what I can learn. It is a fine line however, and a difficult one to navigate. One area I’m attempting to navigate away from regret is this: Don’t Let Go of Your Vision.

I spent several years preparing to plant a church. Included in that preparation were numerous sleepless nights filled with prayer, years of conversation, a multitude of exciting dreams and visions, hopes, possibilities, plans, all of which culminated in a beautiful vision for a different kind of church. This vision, I believed, was inspired by God.*

When we finally arrived in San Francisco, I worked it out so that I could have 14 months of prep-time before the official public launch. (Typically organizations give you a 6-month ramp up period for this, don’t be afraid to negotiate what you feel is necessary, it will more than likely require extra fundraising on your part. It did for me, but it was definitely worth it. Refer back to the post To Partner or not to Partner.) I spent the first 6 months exegeting the city, learning as much as I could about our neighborhood through demographic studies, listening to the values and belief systems of our neighbors, listening to their hopes and dreams, and even hearing their stories of abuse and pain from previous religious experiences. It was an invaluable time to simply listen. I used this time of listening to confirm and re-work portions of the vision until I felt comfortable that this was what God was calling me to do/lead. (This was all done sans-team, by the way. I hadn’t yet hired anyone to join the team.)

The first test of the vision was casual conversation. People would ask, “So, what do you do?” to which I would respond, “Starting a non-profit.” (I didn’t want to get bogged down in a conversation about the evils of the Church or Christianity in general, I simply wanted to test run the vision.) “Really,” they would respond with intrigue, “tell me more about it.” This was my opening to cast the vision, to communicate gospel-oriented values and see if there was any traction. Time after time after time the vision was met with tremendous acceptance, specifically from non-Christians. “I would love to be a part of something like that!” Was typically the response.

As an aside, shortly after we launched I had a similar conversation with someone about the vision of IKON only this time I wasn’t using “non-profit” language. Instead I referred to what we were doing as “church”. Her response was fascinating: “That sounds so amazing. I would really love to find a community and be a part of something like that. I just don’t want anything to do with the Jesus part. Maybe, I’ll start a secular version of that!” The vision really struck a chord with the heartbeat of San Francisco. God had been working on this vision in me for years, and I was the steward for that vision.

The vision that we started with however, was not the vision we ended with. And this is perhaps one of my greatest regrets. (Again, trying to toe the line between regret and reflection is a very difficult walk.) Shortly after launch, I began to loosen my grip on the vision. I invited others from within the church to give input into the vision. No longer was I casting vision, instead I began looking for affirmation. I think it’s fair to say that this switch was the result of insecurity–where it came from I still do not know (Tracy, my wife says it was Spiritual Warfare). As a result, the vision became murky and muddy. So we changed it. And not just a piece of it, but wholesale changed the vision of the church. If you want to confuse people, if you want to see people leave your church that had bought in to what they thought it was about, if you want to see two different groups work for two different things, then changing your vision 6 months in is a good way to experience that. Eventually, we changed the vision again… and then again. This really led to a great deal of confusion in our church.

Insecurity is one of the greatest deterrents for the church planter. Somehow, insecurity not only infiltrated my mind, but rushed in with a vengeance and captured my heart. There are myriad internal and external relationships and pressures that I’ve identified which led to these insecurities, as well as my own junk that I have since dealt with. It was this insecurity that led me to to look for affirmation… an affirmation that never really came. At every turn I didn’t find the affirmation I sought, but rather different people looking to have their own, very different preferences included into the overarching vision.

Important note: When you start leading from your insecurities, you’re really not leading you’re simply jerking them around.

As a church planter (and even as a pastor) this is a big challenge to overcome. I believe every pastor deals with insecurity to some degree, all the time. And really, how could you not? You’re being told how awesome you are at one turn and how terrible you are at another… constantly. Everything from your preaching to your style of dress is seemingly under constant scrutiny, it’s enough to make you go mad. It’s easy to begin jerking people around on the insecurity roller coaster when that’s the only ride you can see. There are three things I wish I would have done/recognized early on that would have helped prevent insecurity.

  1. You need a person. Identify a close confidant. Now let me say, I had a coach, in fact at one point I had 5 coaches for various things, but a coach is not a close confidant. That’s not their role. They are there to push you, kick you in the teeth when you need it, and expose you to truths that you’re not paying attention to. But they’re not a pastoral type of figure for you. A coach, although essential, is not what I’m talking about. You need a person, your person, who is walking down a similar road. I’m not talking about a mentor either. I’m suggesting that you need a friend who is also a church planter, perhaps in a different part of the country, that you make it a point to talk to each other regularly about what you’re experiencing and going through. There is no one that will understand what you’re going through more than another church planter. Networks are great, network meetings are great, network phone calls are great… but you need one person not 4. One person you can count on, one person you can dump some stuff on, and one person who will pray for you about your junk… and at the same time you are that person for them. It’s a give-give relationship, a life-bringing, life-giving relationship. I wish I would have recognized how important this was early on. I eventually found that person in the desert… seriously, he literally lives in a desert. It changed a lot of things for me, unfortunately it was a bit too late for IKON. This is vital for you to identify sooner rather than later.
  2. Identify the source… and then cut it off. It’s important to take a step back and reflect, and when you find yourself wrestling with insecurity the same feels even more necessary. So, take a step back, go away for a retreat or just lock yourself in the closet for a couple of hours and think through where the source of insecurity is coming from. Is it from an individual? (In my experience this is the most likely case.) Once you’ve identified the source of your insecurity, then you need to figure out why it/him/her has this kind of power over you… and then cut it off. I found that at one point insecurity was growing in me because of a feedback loop that was out of control. I had invited a team of people to give feedback on the Sunday messages, however, for various reasons–and perhaps insecurities on their own part–the feedback loop became damaging. So, I shut it down for a season before re-opening it in a different format and way. It allowed me the space to find solid ground once again and move forward. So, identify the source and cut it off… this is a lot harder when it comes to people. Especially if that person is on your staff team.
  3. Don’t Forget Your Daily Affirmations. This video: Daily Affirmation is really important to integrate into your life. No, seriously it is. Have you watched it yet? Well do it now.**

Don’t let go of your vision. Remember that if you did the work, if you listened well to both God and your city, the vision is something that God has placed on your heart to lead. Don’t be so quick to let go of it, instead hold tightly and see what God actually has in store…***

* I’m not using the phrase “inspired by God” in the same way as I would use it to describe Scripture.

** Now of course I’m not completely serious, but remember humor is a great way to deal with your insecurities… if anything it gives you a brief mental respite.

*** Some of you read this whole thing and got really frustrated because I didn’t mention things like prayer, or turn to God, or read the Bible, or journal… basic spiritual disciplines. Well, let me just say that if a church planter (or pastor) is not doing those things, if we cannot assume those as the basics that undergird everything then we have greater problems as a church than insecurity. Can’t we move past the basics for a change?

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Lighten Up!

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Journaling
This post has been republished by the Exponential Network
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A journal is extremely useful… especially if you use it, and use it well. Meaning, it’s not just a place to capture your thoughts and experiences in the moment but something to come back to and reflect upon down the road. It’s a tool that can help you see marked change and transformation in your life, or just how much you haven’t changed. It can even be a tool to show you how much of a tool you were and continue to be…

Recently I’ve been reading through my journal entries for 2011 and 2012 (the last two of four years spent on the ground in San Francisco as a church planter/pastor type), I’ve been shocked at just how hard I was on myself. I mean, really hard (and that feels like an understatement.) They say that there’s no greater critic than oneself and although I’ve certainly lived up to that standard I couldn’t help but step back from my journals and say, “Dude, lighten up!”

Every church planter, every pastor knows that receiving criticism is a big part of the job, from “your sermon sucked,” to the people that want to critique minute details of your theology, to those that are offended you would suggest such a thing, to those that just want to harp on how you dress. Criticism is ever present, and as a lead pastor/church planter I received more criticism than I ever expected (it gave me a newfound respect for the senior pastors I’d worked for in the past). Nary a day went by that I didn’t have to deal with one form of criticism or another from congregants to staff to our venue through email, phone calls, text messages, or in-person ambushes… and that’s not a fun space to occupy. The worst part of it, however, is coming home and doing it to yourself all over again–hijacking the personal/sacred space of your journal to beat yourself up even more harshly.

I wish I could go back a few years and tell myself to lighten up, to not be so hard on myself, whether it was a failed sermon illustration or continually berating myself for my perceived lack of devotion to Jesus (which was borne out of owning overly unfair and harsh criticism from others). So, church planter/pastor here’s something I learned along the way, Stop fighting yourself. Stop beating yourself up. In fact, it reminds me of the scene in Fight Club (I am Jack’s Smirking Revenge) where Jack starts to beat himself up in his bosses office; that’s sort of what we’re doing to ourselves. We take enough body shots throughout the day from others, we don’t need to go home and continue the pounding. Stop fighting yourself; stop abusing yourself.

I know it’s easier said than done. I know that the weight and pressure you’re under is unbearable at times, especially when we continually remind ourselves: “I have to answer to God for this church someday…” And although that is true, can I just say that it is a completely unfair standard of perfection to place on your shoulders alone. There are a lot of others that have to answer for this church someday, not just you alone. All God asks of us is to be faithful: “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

So recapture your personal/sacred space. Recapture your head space and lighten up. Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re doing just fine. Continue to be faithful and let God be God in the church he’s called you to lead.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Spiritual Warfare is Different Than I Thought

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spiritual warfare
This post has been republished by the Exponential Network
……
When I embarked on the journey to plant a church in the city of San Francisco I had been a pastor for a decade. I had served in various congregations in California and the suburbs of Chicago, I had taken on various roles from youth pastor to worship pastor to director of ministry. Each and every one of these roles helped to formulate some thoughts and ideas surrounding spiritual warfare, but being that I am not from the charismatic/pentecostal stream of theological thought, spiritual warfare was seen as more of an inconvenience instead of a hard and fast reality.

In the past, spiritual warfare was often just an excuse. The reason why no one came to the marriage retreat? It wasn’t because we planned it during Memorial Day weekend. No, it was spiritual warfare. The reason the sound system blew out? It wasn’t because we continually pushed it to “11” during youth group. No, it was spiritual warfare… the Devil doesn’t want us worshipping on Sunday mornings!* The way in which we have used spiritual warfare in the evangelical, non-Pentecostal/Charismatic church has eroded away our understanding of what actually takes place behind the scenes. I would argue that we have actually succumbed to one of the world’s greatest lie’s succinctly stated by Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

I had never had an encounter with what I could undeniably call “spiritual warfare” until the journey to plant a church began. We had been in the city for almost a year, preparations for launching were well underway and we were closing in on our official public launch. I was excited and ready to see all the fundraising, the training, the dreaming, the conversations, the vision casting finally come together for a Sunday morning gathering.

One October night, I went to sleep with tremendous excitement, with such an overwhelming exuberance that I thought I was going to explode! The next morning I left the apartment in a much different state.

During the middle of the night I was jolted awake. I began shouting and kicking as hard as I could, “Get off me! Get off me!” My wife who was sleeping beside me was instantly thrust out of her sleep and tried to calm me down. “Are you okay?!” She repeatedly asked. “Yeah,” I responded. “Just a bad dream.” She went back to sleep, but for the rest of the night I laid wide awake. This, however, wasn’t a bad dream.

I had been jolted awake by someone or something grabbing my legs and pinning them down. I was completely paralyzed, unable to move, unable to kick, unable to do anything… I couldn’t even open my mouth. The room was overtaken by a great darkness, darker than anything I had ever experienced, and as I struggled with every fiber of my being to move, I could not. This lasted for what seemed like an eternity but was only a few minutes and then, all of a sudden, it loosened its grip. That’s when I was able to kick and scream and startled my wife out of her sleep.

When I got out of bed in the morning I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t explain what had happened, I was in a state of confusion and shock, and I didn’t know how to wrap my mind around the experience. I went about the business of the day but I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I didn’t tell my staff team, I didn’t tell my coach, I didn’t tell our management team, I didn’t tell our project manager, I didn’t tell a soul. I couldn’t. I simply held it in for fear that people would think I was a crazy person. That’s when the real suffering began.

For the next 3 months I dried up relationally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally. Every fiber of my being was robbed and I began shutting down.

I shut down with God. I lost interest in prayer, in Scripture, in journaling. I felt at a distance and disconnected from Him. I shut down with the staff. I was carrying this unfathomable experience around and I didn’t know how to process it or how to talk about it. So, I didn’t. I shut down with people from the congregation. I blamed it on stress, I blamed it on being busy, but I began to separate myself bit by bit from the people I was charged with caring for. I shut down physically. I stopped running, I stopped exercising. All I wanted to do was sit on the couch and watch television all day. I was becoming a shell.

For three months this continued until God broke through and I snapped out of it. Except I never fully recovered from this experience. This greatly affected the first three months of the life of IKON in ways that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully grasp, and as time went on it affected and threatened the entire existence of IKON.

I wish I could say that this was the only time this happened, but it wasn’t. A few years later, in May of 2012, I experienced an identical situation. I was jolted awake, paralyzed completely by a darkness that pinned my legs down and breathed heavy on me. The moment I was able to speak I spoke with as much authority as I could muster, “In the name of Jesus, get out!” In an instant the darkness was gone.

For the next week I recognized the same pattern was beginning to emerge. I was shutting down emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally. This time, however, I decided I would not go down the same road. This time I spoke up and began reaching out. I emailed our management team and asked them for prayer. I let my church planting network in on the situation. I asked various leaders in our church to pray for me. This time was going to be different.

This was a battle like none I had ever faced. I continually found myself slipping in and out of what felt like catatonic states but this time there were people praying, a lot of people praying, and I could feel the difference.

There are moments, even in the recounting of this experience, that I still feel crazy. I have questioned myself over and over again on whether or not to actually publish this post for fear of what others might think or say. But I believe this is one of the most important things that I learned as a church planter: Spiritual warfare is frighteningly real and it’s a lot different than I thought.

Here are some things that I learned, and by no means is this comprehensive. My hope is that you’ll at least begin to think through some of these things and have a course of action to take at the very least.

  1. You have authority through Jesus… remember that. In the midst of whatever attack you are facing, call upon the name of Jesus.
  2. Tell people. You cannot shoulder this burden alone. It is far more than you can handle by yourself. There are people in your life that love and care for you and will pray with you, for you, and continually check in to see how you’re doing. So, tell them. Have them pray for you. Ask them to check up on you, you’ll need people to be proactive in this. Don’t hold it in alone.
  3. Pray + Read Scripture. Don’t allow yourself to disconnect from God during this time. Immediately pray, set up reminders on your phone or in your calendar to pray. Be proactive about this and don’t let it slip. You need to allow an experience like this to drive you closer to God rather than to drive a wedge. At the same time, do not neglect Scripture. Read it. In fact, I would encourage you to deviate from your reading plan and spend time praying through the Psalms. There will be a great sense of comfort and encouragement there as you read and pray through the prayers Jesus prayed.
  4. Write it down. Record your experience in a journal. Spend time recounting what happened with as much detail as you can as soon as you can. Don’t wait to long. Over the course of the next week begin to take stock of where you are Relationally, Physically, Mentally, Emotionally, Spiritually. Perhaps grade yourself on a scale of 1-5, and then evaluate what has changed in you since the attack. This will be valuable not only in processing what has happened, but also in how you pray and for how other people pray for you. It will also be an invaluable tool for you if you experience the exact same kind of attack again. You’ll be able to spot patterns more quickly and mitigate the damage. (I really wish I would have done this.)

I am quite sure there is more that can and should be done in the wake of an experience like this, and I hope you will do some investigation. My goal with this post is to awaken you to the realities that demonic attacks can take place in the life of the church planter, and that you will at the very least have a course of action.

Remember, you are breaking new ground. You are establishing a beachhead for the Kingdom. You should expect real and serious resistance. But know that God has called you to this and although it may not feel like it at the time, He will always be there fighting alongside you.

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* These are pretty ridiculous, and not actual events… but they are indicative of how we’ve used spiritual warfare as an excuse in the past.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Advertise Differently

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church advertising

This post has been republished by the Exponential Network
……

There are different schools of thought out there regarding advertising and the church, each with their merits. I don’t want to get into the debate surrounding advertising and the church, but perhaps what this post will offer by way of insight is something to chew on and a potential third way to move forward with.

Before I launched IKON (a church plant in downtown San Francisco) I knew I didn’t want to go the standard route of advertising through postcards. I didn’t think that it would resonate well in the city, especially from an environmental waste standpoint*. However, we had a dedicated budget line for advertising and it was generally understood that we would use this for postcards, so if I wanted to by-pass this medium I had to think of a different way to use the dedicated budget.

My friends at REUNION Christian Church in Boston launched a few years before us and found some success in advertising on the T platform (the city’s public transportation line.) I was fascinated by this as a medium but wanted to think of it a bit differently, not as an invitation to join us but as a means of communicating truths to the masses. This is how our first MUNI (San Francisco’s public transportation line) ad came to be.

We paid an artist from Seattle for the rights to use his artwork in our advertising scheme. He had developed a series of wood etchings called “The Fruits of the Spirit” that were “ironic” in nature. We chose 2 for our MUNI advertisements: “Love” and “Peace”. This is how they turned out:

munilovemunipeace

We paid for a 6-week run in three different MUNI stations, however these signs stayed up for over 6 months. When inquiring about the longevity of the advertisements we were told by the ad company that there was a California State Assemblyman who really liked the powerful statements that were being communicated. He asked if they could remain up as long as possible. As a result, the ad company took a bit longer than usual to sell our spots. I received a great deal of encouragement and support from people throughout the city for these ads, many of which were not Christians and many of whom didn’t really have or want a connection to the church. The message resonated well and opportunities for beautiful conversations surrounding gospel truth began opening up.

(We also printed out 1000 postcards of these images and set them in coffee shops around the city, like many other businesses do. They stood out like a sore thumb–but in a good way. It wasn’t outside the norm to see these postcards on people’s desks around the city–most of whom had no connection to IKON, or attached to mirror’s in people’s homes–again no connection to IKON and no clue that I was responsible for these postcards when I was invited into their home for coffee or dinner.)

Our second MUNI campaign was also very well received by non-Christians within the city, however Christians were very critical and disparaging. Again, the idea was to communicate truth and create opportunities for conversation. As a community we were walking through the Gospel of Luke and specifically hitting on a section of the Gospel where the love of Jesus was becoming explicitly clear. We decided to borrow a book title for our sermon series and naturally thought the truth that was being communicated was to good to pass up, so we turned it into a MUNI ad. The truth? Love Wins.

muni Love Wins

Christians inside and outside of the city immediately accused us of promoting Rob Bell’s controversial book by the same title and claims that our church was a cult increased in the Christian community (always a fun battle to walk through). I responded time and again to harsh emails, nasty phone messages on the church voicemail line, and disparaging comments from Christians, however non-Christians resonated with the message and appreciated a church that was promoting love. (This always struck me as odd that we were appreciated by non-Christians as promoting love… isn’t that what the church is supposed to be doing all the time anyways?)

Our third campaign was in its final stages of design and testing before IKON closed. Unfortunately it never saw the light of day, however it was my favorite MUNI ad of the three. This one, however was a bit more bold than the others and actually received some great feedback from non-Christians, especially when asked what they would do if they saw this on a MUNI platform while standing with a friend or co-worker. The general response from non-Christians? “I’d talk about it… not about whether it was right or wrong to have the name of Jesus out there, but I’d talk about what the name of Jesus meant… I mean it’d be hard not to with that staring you down.”

munijesus

I want to advocate that you shouldn’t use advertising to get people to come to your church service. If that is your goal, I would argue that you’re not only caught up in but perpetuating a cycle of consumerism, creating and catering to consumer Christians. Most non-Christians won’t see your ad and think, “Yeah, I want to go to there.”

I want to advocate a different type of advertisement for the church. In fact, this is what I learned. When you advertise the truth about the gospel in creative and bold ways, when you instigate conversation through a MUNI ad, when people are ready to have those types of conversations in a spiritual group, you’ll be the first place they turn. Advertising shouldn’t be a short term strategy to experience numerical growth. Instead, take the long approach and let people know that when they want to have honest conversations about truth, about Jesus they know that you’re the church community to jump in with.

*My original hypothesis regarding postcards was that they wouldn’t work in San Francisco. However, after seeing them work for a church planter in downtown LA and several churches in SF shortly after us it has definitely proved to be a viable option. It works simply because no one uses that medium in the city outside of political campaigns every four years.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Exegete Your Culture

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Church Planting Culture

This post has been republished by the Exponential Network
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One of the most important things I learned early on in church planting was this simple truth: You are not a church planter first, you are a missionary first.*

Let me explain.

The current reality of church planting is such that nearly every church planter is moving outside of his or her own known cultural context. Meaning, like myself, people are moving from the confines of what they know and understand into an environment where familiarity of the people, language, culture, customs, etc. are unknown. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if we do not do the work of cultural exegesis, how will we ever be able to properly translate the gospel and communicate in word and deed what the good news is in our new context. Therefore, I believe, as church planters, we must first take on the posture of missionaries.

Five years ago this was my journey. I moved from the Chicagoland area to the city of San Francisco to plant a church. There was, as you can imagine, a great cultural difference between the suburbs of Chicago and the city of San Francisco. Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to not only honor the city I was called to, but more importantly its people.

In order to take the posture of a missionary you must begin to learn the language, the customs, and the culture of the city to which you have been called. Here is a short process for how I went about understanding my culture.

LISTEN
The first thing you must do is listen intently to the city. This is a skill that you not only must develop, but never set aside. If you continually listen you’ll be able to hear the subtle shifts that take place within the culture of the city.

I started listening by simply sitting in the most popular coffee shop in our neighborhood. I would simply sit with a cup of coffee and a book pretending to read but really eavesdropping on the conversations around me. I heard people’s hopes, their dreams, their struggles and challenges. I heard conversations about politics and elections, ballot measures that were important to people’s hearts and which ones were frustrating and frivolous. I learned about the city’s view of children and families, of the local schools, and where people worked. I also learned what tv shows, newspapers, news programs, podcasts, music, blogs and books people were engaging.

I also listened to the news. Every night I watched the local 5 o’clock and 11 o’clock news. I listened to what was important to the city.** I listened to the newspaper columnists as well, and even browsed the comment sections of the online op-ed pages. This provided me with a great deal of insight into what the hot-button topics or important issues residents faced. I also started listening to local podcasts to get another flavor of what was happening and taking place.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sights were very important for me to engage with as well. These were the mouthpieces for my culture. You, undoubtably will find similarities in your context and other avenues that are the major mouthpieces for your culture. It is important to listen well and synthesize the wealth of information you ingest in order to create a better understanding of the city and culture you are called to.

Listen to the city and listen well.

LOOK
Talk a walk regularly and often. (Couple this with prayer… just don’t close your eyes and bow your head–you’ll miss a lot and probably run into things.)

Every afternoon I would venture out on a nice and long walk throughout my neighborhood and simply observe everything that was taking place. I looked at new construction projects, what people were wearing and the types of accessories they held with them from tech to fashion. I looked at what people were reading, the types of cars that were present in the neighborhood. I looked at the types of businesses, coffee shops, whether they were local or chains. I looked at the types of people in our neighborhood, whether there was a presence of homelessness or not, whether there was a visible economic disparity, what political signs people displayed in their windows or on their cars, how many churches and what types of churches, what other religious communities are around, etc, etc, etc. Look around regularly and see what you can see.

The things you observe may begin poking holes in your preconceived notions… and that’s okay, and a good thing. Make sure you have a teachable posture, an observant posture and make sure you’re paying attention to what you’re seeing.

LEARN
Learn about your neighborhood as best you can. The NY Times recently put on their site a tool called Mapping America that consolidates some of the 2010 census information. It is a great help to a church planter, giving you a great ethnic breakdown of not only your city, but your neighborhood. I also would recommend taking a look at the Barna Group’s Cities Report for your area. Pay attention to their detailed “theographic” breakdown. There is a wealth of current information regarding your culture.

Take your time pouring through statistics on Census.gov to help understand your context and city from a birds-eye-view. You’ll get a good sense of ethnic breakdown, educational breakdown, age categories, and other indicators that will help you paint a picture of the make-up of your city. There are services out there that will run reports for you that can be helpful and will consolidate all of this work for you, but if you’re cheap like me it’s easy to put in the legwork yourself and you can do it for free.

Take time to learn from those who have come before you. Sit down with other church planters that are recent entries into the city and ask them about what they’ve learned, their successes and their struggles. Sit down with established churches and pastors who have been in the city or area for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or more. Ask them what they’ve seen in the life of the city and how it relates to the church in their time. Be a good student of the city and learn from them.

Take time to learn the intricate history of your city, from its founding to major turning points, what drives people to your city and what causes them to leave, study the economics of your city, the cultural hubs and hot spots, the religious history and movements that have come and gone. You should know everything there is to know about your city… meaning take some time to sit down with a city historian–there’s always someone who knows the history whether they have that title or not. Find them.

Take time to learn from leaders in the city. Hang out at the local firehouse for an afternoon or two, or seven. Do a ride along with police officers in your precinct. Work to schedule time with your neighborhood association, your district supervisor/alderman/council person, the Mayor, with your State Representatives, Congress person, whomever you can. I would suggest shooting for a 15 minute meet and greet with one or two really good questions that you’d love to hear their perspective on. In a city like SF getting together with any of these people is a really difficult proposition, our Congress people are Nancy Pelosi in the House and Feinstein in the Senate… not a likely possibility even though both of them know SF really well (Feinstein used to be the mayor of SF.) However, I can say that I tried really hard to get a sit down to no avail.

If you do get an opportunity to sit down with your city leaders, make sure you are prepared and respectful. You’ve got 15 minutes, a lot of good learning can take place in 15 minutes. I’d suggest taking these steps after you’ve learned as much as you can in other arenas of the city.

The bottom line is that you should be the best student of the city to which you have been called.

LOVE
Finally, you should love the city. If you have done all of this research, taken all of this time to know the ins and outs of the city and you haven’t fallen in love with it, then perhaps you missed your calling. All of these steps not only should help you figure out ways to communicate the gospel in the most effective way possible in both word and deed, but should create within you such a deep love and longing for the people to whom you have been called. This love becomes a stark reminder when the going gets tough of just why you are there in the first place.

Are there other ways you’ve found to be invaluable to exegeting the culture to which you’ve been sent?

* Honestly, this could be said of any individual. We are all called to be missionaries wherever we go.

** In our area there are 5 major news outlets: NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and KRON4. It was important for me to find the one that covered San Francisco news more often than the others. I quickly discovered that NBC detailed mainly San Jose and FOX mainly covered Oakland. ABC, CBS, and KRON 4 were your main sources of San Francisco news. I settled in on ABC as my local source of news after checking the three SF area broadcasts because my impression was that they were handing SF issues better.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: To Partner or Not To Partner

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church planting partnerships

This post has been republished by the Exponential Network
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I have often been asked about my church planting story, “If you had it to do all over again, would you partner with an organization to plant a church or would you go it alone?”

I spent 5 years fundraising for, training for, launching, leading, and pastoring a church plant in the city of San Francisco. There are several lessons I learned along the way; lessons from failure, lessons from success, and lessons from reflection. As I reflected on this question of partnerships the one thing I do know is that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer.

My initial purpose for partnering with an organization in planting a church was two-fold:

  1. I needed money to make this dream of planting a church in the second most expensive city in the country a reality.
  2. I didn’t want to walk this journey alone. Church planting is an extremely lonely endeavor (perhaps one of the realities we blind ourselves to the most) and I was terrified as I stared at this reality.

My two criteria for partnering with organizations (money and relationship) were motivated out of fear. This is a terrible motivator for partnership.

The partnership relationship is a very important thing for a church planter, especially for the non-denominational church planter. There has been a rise in church planting networks around the country fro Ecclesia to NewThing to Acts 29 to Arc, etc, mainly to fill the void of the denominational structure lacking for the non-denominational church planter. This is a good thing. However, when looking for partnership one must begin to look beyond money and relationship as the sole criteria because, let’s be honest: every organization has money and offers a level of relationship. This will not distinguish an organization nor will it set you up for a positive and lasting partnership.

There are 4 criteria that I would recommend investigating when answering for yourself the question of partnership.

  1. Do your core values align? This is the sing-most important question for the planter to ask. First because it requires that you, the planter, have done the work of identifying your own core values. As a church planter it is important that you are planting the church that Go has called you to plant, to birth the vision he has placed on your heart. It is all to easy, especially in the throws of church planting, to never identify your own core values and instead adopt the core values of the organization you have chosen to partner with. Secondly, as your partnership grows, an alignment of core values will create a greater sense of unity and possibility moving forward. If your values are not aligned, you are only inviting strife and challenge down the road, perhaps even at a crucial moment.

    When I say core values, I’m not speaking of the church’s core values but rather your core values. At this stage in planting there are no church core values (at least there shouldn’t be–there is no church yet). Therefore, you have to align personally with the organization you’re partnering with. Ultimately the organization is looking to partner with you, not your church. (This is a blurred line that can create some challenges down the road if your values are not in alignment.) If you haven’t yet concretely identified your own core values, I’d recommend checking out Kouzes + Posner’s Leadership Challenge Values Cards set. It’s a tremendously valuable exercise that will help you discover your Core Values.

  2. What’s in it for them? The second question you need to ask is what’s in it for them. I know that we want to believe that church planting organizations are altruistic and simply want to give you money and make you successful, but that’s not the case, fully. Church planting organizations have people to answer to, investors, partners, etc. For me, one of the benefits the organizations we partnered with received was saying they planted a church in San Francisco. This was a benefit, it looked good in fundraising letters, it showed a commitment to urban planting, etc. However, this was not the primary benefit.

    Most organizations have a “pay it forward” agreement that is written into their contract. You need to know what is being asked of you and your church moving forward. Some organizations require you to give 10% of your offerings for the next 10 years, others ask for 13% for 12 years, others ask for a “partnership fee” which can range from $5,000/year on up for the lifetime of your partnership. It’s important that you know what the organization is asking in return, that you’re comfortable with it, and that you can fulfill that agreement. (I would add, don’t be afraid to negotiate the “pay it forward” to something you can be comfortable with, that you can fulfill, and that won’t hamper your vision.)

  3. What is expected of you? This is a two-fold question, first what is expected of your time and secondly what are the metrics of success and expectations for your plant.

    As a church planter your sole focus should be on the church that God has called you to plant. The organizations role should be to support you however they can. Different organizations have different expectations and demands on your time and you need to be familiar with those expectations up front. These, demands/expectations are not a bad thing. The motivations behind them are good, whether they are training exercises of sorts, meetings that discuss the future of the organization, networking opportunities, etc. However, if you are expected to leave your city for these sorts of events more than 4 times a year it is more than likely to much. It will drag on you and it will drag on your congregation. Be sure to take that into account, your schedule as a church planter is already going to be hectic and to add in one more thing can be a tipping point towards burnout.

    As for the expectation of success, you need to know the scorecard the organization is playing with. This will dictate what their expectations are of you and you will need to play by their scorecard. So you need to agree with it. If you are wanting to start a different church than is typical for that organization then there could be a challenge down the road for you. I would recommend talking with them up front about their scorecard, asking whether they would be willing to toss their scorecard aside for the vision of the church that you have, and then offering them a replacement scorecard they can use to evaluate you with.

  4. What do other people say about that organization? When it’s all said and done, you need to ask others about the reputation and reliability of the organization. Don’t simply ask those who have successfully planted with that organization but also those whose church plants didn’t make it. You will gain a wealth of information and stories, you’ll hear the frustrations and the positives, and this will help you gain a clearer picture of what partnership with that organization will look like, and perhaps how they have learned from past failings. Remember it’s important to ask specifics, and be sure to ask question that stem from your concerns.

Remember, partnering with an organization is a two-way street. You are not only courting them but they should be courting you as well. Don’t allow the fear of money and the loneliness of planting be the motivators for partnering with an organization. You need to make sure you have a good fit.

If I had it to do all over again, I would still partner with an organization or two to plant a church. I believe in partnership and I believe in the synergy and momentum that partnership provides. I would, however, enter differently into those partnerships and as a result I believe the partnership would not only be more beneficial for all involved but more successful.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Focus on the Positive

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church planting

Creating something out of nothing is never easy, and that’s part of what makes church planting so difficult. Thankfully there is a plethora of new books, resources, and conferences available to help the church planter navigate the models, strategies, and networks that can help you bring a new church into existence. However, what often times gets left by the wayside is the other side of church planting, equally as difficult and perhaps more disastrous if left unattended: YOU.

Before launching IKON, one of the cultural markers I wanted to create in a new church was a culture of encouragement. The impetus being: encouragement and a positive outlook will propel your church forward with greater momentum. A culture lacking encouragement and a focus on the positive will stall out, focus on the wrong things (major in the minor), and find itself in a hole at best and a tailspin at worst.

I thought that I had learned my lesson. After a prior stint as a lead pastor, I wrote in my journal:

“I wish we would’ve celebrated our wins… instead, every meeting started with the problems and issues we were facing (and they were a multitude). Everyone left these meetings feeling down and out.

The solution, I thought, would be to start every meeting by highlighting the positive. This one simple act would help craft the culture I sought. I relied on this one “trick” to create encouragement and failed to take the next steps required to craft a true culture of encouragement.

Focusing on the positive and crafting a culture of encouragement requires proactivity. Relying on the “trick” at the start of meetings may be a good start, a good way to share with a group stories and conversations everyone may not have been privy to, however, if you (the leader, the pastor) are spearheading the conversation there are unintended consequences that can occur that ultimately short circuit any hopes of crafting a strong culture of encouragement.

  1. You will be viewed as only wanting to hear about the positive. This can (and in my case did) close off a valuable feedback circle. It can alienate you from some of the real needs within the church because you are seen (whether fairly or not) as only wanting to know about the good things that are happening, brushing the challenges and problems aside.
  2. Relying on this “trick” makes it harder to discover other positive stories. When relying on this space, you stop actively pursuing the beautiful stories that are taking place in the church. You expect these stories to “come to you” and forget it is important to be proactive in seeking out the stories of your church community. And when the stories don’t “come to you”, discouragement can quickly overtake you.
  3. The “trick” can put others on the spot, creating a culture of competition or withholding. One of the thoughts that can circle the room in these moment:”My story isn’t as good, so there’s no reason to share it…” Unfortunately this devalues the good, no matter how “small” it may seem. Sometimes, the “small” stories are the great stories! If the “trick” is the only space for sharing stories, then you’re not actually creating a culture of story-telling within your church. And if you’re not creating a culture of story telling, then stories never get heard and fade away. When you come into a space where the “trick” is employed, no one is there to champion your story and share on your behalf (because they never heard it in the first place) leaving you questioning the value of your story.

There are certainly more unintended consequences, but these are three I directly experienced in our church culture.

It is vital that as a leader, you focus in on the positive for your church. We have to celebrate the amazing things that God is up to in our midst. There are many beautiful stories happening all around us, every day, but we must be proactive in discovering them if we truly want to create a culture of encouragement. Meaning, it must be a point of conversation in every interaction with others. Seek out the good that God is doing, don’t expect it to come to you.

At the same time, however, your conversation needs to be balanced. You have to be open to hearing about the needs of the individual and how you, as a pastor, can walk alongside them. A culture of positivity and encouragement is only possible when balanced with genuine interest and care.

I failed at the balancing act and tended more towards the “trick” instead of nurturing a culture. As a result I missed some of the tell-tale signs of impending disaster. I became the guy that only wanted to hear about the positive, not the challenges lurking around the corner. This posture secluded me from what was really happening beneath the surface.

Creating a culture of encouragement is easier said than done. It is a difficult balancing act that must be walked wisely. However, I believe it is one of the most important cultural distinctive’s that must be nurtured for longevity and health in a new church.