Almost 4 years ago, on April 30,2009, my wife Tabitha and I announced in this blog post that we would be launching Revolution Church. We began holding weekly services on September 13, 2009. This was the realization of a vision God had given me that was 4 years in the making. It was the product of a decade away from ministry, church staff work I never envisioned, and a scouting trip to Boston. But God finally solidified that my very hometown would be the birthplace of a fledgling work that He wanted us to start.
To say this journey has been an emotional roller coaster would somehow reduce the intensity of the experience to common cliché. No adjectives seem to adequately convey the spiritual, emotional, and even physical weight of what these last 4 years have been like. We experienced unbelievable highs that caused us to soar above the eagles and crushing lows that had us looking up at the ground. But with every step, we had the calm assurance that God was leading…teaching…shaping…and moving us in the direction He wanted us to go. In short, we had great peace in knowing our steps were steps of obedience. Not that we didn’t make mistakes – we made plenty. But the overriding and guiding principle was that we were walking in obedience to the calling God placed on our lives.
This is precisely what we are doing today.
A Tough Season
Today, Sunday, April 7, 2013, we announced to the people who are Revolution Church that this would be our last Sunday meeting. We are closing the doors and ceasing to operate as a local church.
This is a conclusion we believe the Holy Spirit led us to after much private prayer, discussion with our elders and outside pastors, and sifting through what God has endeavored to teach us through this experience. I once said that Revolution represented the balance of my life’s work – that I would keep doing what I am doing even if it was just my wife and I who remained. I was sincere in that statement – but I was also wrong.
I know that though our congregation has been small (never more than about 120 people), our circle of influence has been much greater; and as a result, there will be many questions concerning this decision.
Thus the reason for this rather lengthy blog post. It is an attempt to provide a thorough piece of closure for many, as well as a place that we, and others, can send people who have questions. My sincere prayer is to avoid what would be at best unproductive speculation and at worst malicious gossip.
Knowing that this is an overused, oversimplified, Sunday school answer…the most direct answer I can give to that question is that this is what God is leading us to do.
Though I am about to provide answers to the question ‘what went wrong?’ – this decision is not circumstantial. If we believed that God wanted us to continue doing what we have been doing, we would continue to do so in spite of the examples that follow.
The better question, I believe – and the question my wife and I have been praying through for a couple of months now – is ‘what are you trying to teach us?’ This is where these next examples have had a breaking effect on us, but soon after a soothing assurance that God really is working all things together for our good and His glory.
What Went Wrong?
**(Disclaimer) – No individual(s) are intended to be singled out in this as a matter of blame or in an effort to shame. In addition to the people in our lives, due to technology, this post will likely be read by many church planters and if this can help one family, one congregation, one calling, one community, one church…then it is well worth the transparency and vulnerability.
#1 – Far too little incubation time.
I mentioned above that we announced the formation of Revolution on April 30, 2009. We held our 1st preview service on June 7, 2009 and went to weekly services in September.
I allowed myself to be swayed into launching services long before we should have. This is a decision that you cannot back up from. It’s like trying to get toothpaste back inside the tube.
It is my opinion, now my experienced opinion, that a core team should meet for at least a year before beginning to determine launch dates and those kinds of details.
Takeaway: You can never launch too late but it is common and easy to launch too early.
#2 – Core team commitment
Tabitha and I had been praying, dreaming, and planning this plant for 4 years prior to launching. What we failed to realize is that our core team had not! These guys had amazing excitement and energy. However, due to our short incubation time, I failed to insure that these guys truly bought into the vision God had given me for the church He wanted to birth in our city.
There is only 1 individual who is with us today that was with us in the beginning.
As I look back on those early families, I see people who were genuinely excited and needed direction. One of the primary jobs of any leader is to clearly articulate the vision to the team and achieve alignment. I failed at that.
I took for granted that repeating a vision statement and owning the vision are different animals. As a result, we had multiple, competing visions concerning the face, personality, and focus of the church.
Takeaway: Vision is slippery. Just because you can recite it, doesn’t mean you embrace it. A vision statement that’s catchy should always take a back seat to a vision statement that’s sticky.
#3 – Lack of geographic focus
In the 3+ years we have been meeting weekly, we are currently in our 5th location. Now if you read Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren you will potentially conclude, like me, that location is not that important. And I agree, in part.
We have met in a hotel, an office building, a church building, a movie theatre, and a fitness center. The actual building matters little.
Our dilemma lies in the geographic diversity, or mileage, among these locations – particularly given that we had very little traction in the community when we made these venue changes.
We never (I never) picked a hill, stuck a stake in the ground, and said ‘we will die serving these people’.
Takeaway: Though we are a long way separated from mill villages in our communities, the Gospel impact is still contextualized. Since resources are always limited, a 1 mile, 3 mile, and 10 mile vision is imperative.
#4 – Orphan church
This one stings personally. The biblical example that we see practiced in the New Testament is ‘churches planting churches’. Not disgruntled staff people ‘starting their own thing’ with a disgruntled group of church people coming along with them.
We were poised to launch as a plant from within another local body and due to circumstances at the end, that ended up not happening. I will probably question why that was until I get to see Jesus face to face. Still, I am convinced that our journey would have been much smoother, and we would have certainly had more support if we had been nurtured and launched as a plant from another local church.
Takeaway: There are too many churches with a vision to plant churches to attempt it on your own. The Lone Ranger was a great TV show. He absolutely sucks as a church planter.
#5 – Lack of financial support
This kind of goes along with #1 (short incubation time) and #4 (orphan church). If more time had been taken on the front end…if we were sent out by a local body…we would have been more financially solvent from the beginning.
I am not a fan of soliciting primary financial support from individual outside sources as many church plants do today. We intentionally discouraged people from our former church from coming with us. If a church seeks outside support to supplement #4 that is another story.
Because we did not launch with the support of a parent church, and our incubation time was so short, this meant less capital to begin with and much less recurring income to plan an operating budget.
Takeaway: Ministry always takes place within a cultural context. In our context, it takes money to do ministry. This is really a result of not applying the takeaways from #1 and #4.
#6 – Permissiveness in doctrinal differences
New church plants are actually an easy target for individuals with an agenda. We inherently attract those who are often on the theological fringe. In our zeal to grow, we allowed people to come into our fellowship with vastly different theological views and competing agendas.
I have dear friends with whom I differ theologically. There is room at the cross for opposing views on non-essential matters. 2000 years on this side of the cross, with the Crusades and a Reformation behind us, doctrinal lines are clearly drawn. While this may be sad and unproductive, it is nevertheless a fact.
I failed to be diligent enough in guarding against this, and as a result, we experienced a situation in our 2nd year that did a great deal of damage to the Body.
Takeaway: Baskin Robbins has 32 flavors for a reason. In our context there are too many options for worship to allow even the possibility of divisive behavior or contrary beliefs on church doctrine. Choose the hills you are willing to die on carefully – but then be willing to die.
#7 – My own leadership weaknesses
I have led in a variety of situations and have experienced varying degrees of positive results. In other words, I have been modestly successful as well as wildly successful across multiple industries within the secular work force as well as ministry positions.
I am not patting myself on the back in saying that. I am merely stating what my experience has been. It’s especially interesting since that success came largely to my own surprise, in the midst of situations I was completely unqualified for, and often when I was actually running away from God rather than toward Him.
I say that only to say that I am aware of my strengths in leadership. As a result of this experience, I am today much more aware of my weaknesses. There are particular things within my leadership skill set that are very counterproductive to everything listed in #1-#6.
I am strong as a strategist, but weak as a tactician. I can manage mature groups well, and inspire fledgling groups, but struggle to do both simultaneously. I am militant in my expectations, which can be good for getting things done but horrible as the earthly image of a shepherd. I am better in authority when I am also under authority.
These are areas I need to experience growth.
Revolution Church could not have been successful because ‘I’ possessed the ability to make it successful. This is the Bride of Christ – His Church – that Jesus himself said he would build.
At the same time, while recognizing areas I need to grow, I am not taking the blame for the failure of Revolution Church – not because I do not believe mistakes were made, but because I do not consider Revolution Church a failure!
Was This A Failure?
To put it plainly…
Let me explain…
If you define success the same way the world does then of course, it looks like a failure: an entity began…did not reach expectations…and then ended. You don’t have to interpret standard deviation or market conditions to know that this was probably not the plan. So, did it go like I thought it would? Of course not!
This has been one of my most recurring frustrations – even within ‘church planting‘ circles. Upon meeting someone new, there is small talk, a smidgen of vision, then the unavoidable question: ‘so how many are you guys running?‘ It’s the pastoral version of the adolescent ‘mine is bigger than yours‘ comparison and it’s devastating to pastors, in both existing works and new ones. It’s even some of the ones with smaller congregations asking – no hoping – to find someone with a ‘smaller’ work than they have to somehow justify or validate the work they are doing…as if someone having it more difficult than you should be a defining characteristic in anything.
I have said this numerous times in conversations, messages, and to myself. And I am as convinced of the truth of this statement today as I have ever been:
‘The blessing is in the obedience.’
There are several things we could have done along the way to simply add numbers. Lots of things actually. We did not do it perfectly and mistakes were definitely made, but there were immovable guardrails that we would not compromise on. I believed then and I believe now that the temptation to negotiate on these were opportunities to compromise the high calling God placed on our lives in order to gain the approval of man. It was tempting. It was hard. But even as I type this, I am secure knowing that my conscience is clean before God in that regard.
As best as we knew how, we were obedient to the calling God placed on our lives.
Am I embarrassed? Yes.
Do I struggle with my own feelings of failure? Without a doubt.
Are there days I want to quit altogether? I would love to hide myself and my family from the scrutinizing eyes of the public.
But in all of this, it is my sincere belief that God had an ultimate plan to grow me as a follower of Jesus, as well as a pastor and leader. I am also encouraged to know that many of the things He did in and through Revolution Church will carry a lasting impact for years to come.
There’s Always Reason To Celebrate
Earlier, I was speaking with someone who was around during our beginnings. He recounted many of the reasons we have to celebrate and give God praise for. He reminded me of a statement I made at one of our very first services. I boldly, unashamedly, naively and maybe even a little arrogantly said ‘I believe God wants to reach 10,000 people in 10 years through the ministry of this church‘. He said ‘That’s exactly what’s going to happen, it just isn’t going to look like you thought it was.‘
Isn’t that just like God? To do something so incredible that only He can get the credit for it?
In spite of the difficulty of this journey and the pain of this decision, I am encouraged to know that Heaven will be more crowded because Revolution Church existed. In the almost 4 years we existed as a church, we have seen over 150 people make a public decision to follow Christ. While that is barely a weekend at some mega-churches, many churches would do anything to see God move like that! And if Jesus was serious when he talked about leaving the 99 for 1 lost sheep, then there is more rejoicing over those souls than 15,000 ‘righteous’ people.
I am excited about the shaping of other church plants. Several outside plants have gleaned insight based on some of our decisions and counsel – some from mistakes we have made and occasionally from something we did right! There are those from within us who have gone or are going on to be a part of new works. Again, if Paul was correct in Ephesians 4, then it is the job of the local church leadership to ‘equip the saints to do the work of ministry‘. This will frequently not be in your patch of earth. We want to celebrate that God has birthed new things from the ministry of Revolution.
Lastly, I have learned so many things about myself through this process. While it’s true I did not run, arms wide open, to embrace many of these truths, I embrace them today and realize more and more that pain is a necessary byproduct as the potter massages the clay and flexes His fingers to mold me into the masterpiece He sees in His mind.
I have not arrived – and I won’t this side of Heaven. But I am ‘ok’ in knowing that the fire of sanctification is a hot one. It burns as it purges impurities to the surface so we can deal with them. 4 years ago, I thought I knew what I needed to in order to plant a church. Today, I am certain I do not. Does that make me more or less qualified today? Time will tell.
I can tell you God is not through with me. So is this the end? Absolutely not. I’m not even sure it’s a new beginning. Maybe it’s just the end of the beginning. This part of the story is coming to a close, but I can tell you this: it’s not our story anyway. It’s His story and we just get to play a part. We will move onto our next part to play – but for today, we must face the sadness that rests in front of us.
And so we do. Today, as we announced to the church, was one of the most difficult days I have ever faced in the life of Revolution. People are sad. Expectations are unmet. Many will be at a loss for what to say or where to go from here. But we must know this is just the last paragraph of the previous chapter. And while maybe not all at once – but still sufficient for the moment – joy will come. And from our joy…peace.
So here we are, with joy in the midst of our sorrow, hope creeping around the edges of dread, watching one thing come to a close but knowing with confidence that this is not the end. We serve a God who makes dead things live again.
And so it is for us.
And so shall it be for you!