20 July 2015

Confessing Church Planters Guilt

I’ve been going at this Church Planter thing for a few years now. I must say that it’s taken more years off my life than my previous decade in ministry. If there is one thing I’ve learned is that there are a plethora of expectations pummeling a church plant. I’ve experienced many nights tossing and turning over the projected wants lobbed in my general direction. At those moments I make my best attempt at getting still with God and releasing those burdens to the Trinity to deal with. I’ve experienced great spiritual direction over the years in how to root myself in the love of God and not the affirmation of others. All of this has been helpful, but I personally find myself susceptible to hearing, feeling and owning the expectations. The last five years I’ve spent dwelling with and coaching other planters and discovered I’m not alone. The sheer battering-ram of what a successful church plant should look like is felt in the chest of a church planter. Unless you have skin like Teflon, the cultural demands, and the interpersonal demands seep in and stir together a stew of guilt. Guilt that your church is not enough, doing enough, far enough along, dynamic enough etc.
Many of the expectations put upon a church planter and their church are soaked thoroughly in the cultural waters of Idealism. Idealism is the epistemological doctrine that mental ideas are the most fundamental reality. Essentially, it is any philosophy which argues that the only thing actually valuable is what is brewing in our cerebral cortex. René Descartes was one of the first to claim that all we really know is what is in our own consciousnesses. Therefore, he claimed, “I think, therefore I am” is the only assertion worth pursuing. Idealism in its culturally appropriated forms infects our ability to accept reality, work within reality and find real contentment within reality. Idealism has infiltrated most of our society and cajoles us to exalt our preferred dreams as authority over the raw, complicated, messy, relational material before us. Idealism perpetuates self-love for our own ideas and creates a naive delusion that we can actually live up to our own ideas. Idealism doesn’t humble our opinions, it exalts them. Idealism perches us on a ledge waiting to criticize, measuring everything against our perceived perfect scenario of how things should be. Idealism sours us against the anvil of messy practice. Years ago I think a portion of idealism caused me to believe I could plant a church that mashed together all my ideals, theological idiosyncrasies, social convictions with a twist of attractive flair. I never considered the most important factor, my church would not be constructed of people that would think like me, feel like me, read like me, see like me and have a personality just like me. My entire church planting journey has been generously peppered with compromise and negotiation. Oversimplified, I get about a 25% to a 50% portion implemented of every ideal I have for my church. This can feel unsatisfying when the fullness of an idea is what beautifully captivated my mind in the first place. Here’s an unrelated metaphor that helps illustrate how this tension plays out. Almost every time my wife and I take a long road trip, about a few hours in I’m craving coffee; a drip filtered, fair-trade, freshly roasted, good cup of coffee. I know I’m picky but my palette longs for this. Every time without fail, the only thing we can find is Dunkin Donuts, a watered down, sugar-saturated, 2 hr burnt cup of imposter coffee. I’m miserable and my wife says “at least you got a cup of coffee”. Church planting can feel this way in the world of Idealism. There are vast regions of my church that I have to say “at least I got a cup of coffee”.
Not only is this Idealism a torment within but it also comes from without. I’ve journaled over  the years all the statements of expectations and ideals made about my church plant:
  • You worship’s not Spirit-filled enough
  • Your church doesn’t have enough for kids
  • Your church is not liturgical enough
  • Your church has too much liturgy
  • Your church is not diverse enough
  • Your church is not multi-generational enough
  • Your church is too small
  • Your church is too liberal
  • Your church is too conservative
  • Your church is too hierarchal
  • Your church has no strong leadership structure
  • Your church is not missional enough
  • Your church is not relational enough
  • Your church is not intellectual enough
  • Your church is not blue-collar enough
  • Your church doesn’t use the Bible enough
  • Your church doesn’t talk about relevant issues
  • Your church has a weak website
  • Your church isn’t into justice enough
  • Your church seems like it’s all about justice
  • Your church has too much space for conversation
  • Your church doesn’t have enough conversation
  • Your church is too institutional, not organic enough
  • Your church is too organic, it feels chaotic
  • Your church encourages doubt
  • Your church gives no space for doubt
I get exhausted reading through that list again. Reading that, the yoke doesn’t feel lighter it feels like a cinder block just got laid on my shoulders. Consumerism tempts me to find a way to purchase the ideal, or find a way to manufacture a shortcut to the perfect church so that people are happy. Part of my soul wants to please people so they walk away saying “that’s the church I’ve always been looking for”, yet I’m increasingly realizing that's not possible in the here in now. My theology of the Kingdom situates in a frustrated tension. The Kingdom has broken into the world through Jesus and there are parts of the kingdom that can be realized but there are parts that cannot be realized. An under-realized eschatology lulls me into apathy about the ideal, but an over-realized eschatology tricks me into hubris that my ideals can be fully experienced. Understanding this truth gives me both a sense of ongoing hope and cold realism as I’m cultivating a church community. The work of church planting is the work of the Kingdom and if the Kingdom is caught in a push-and-pull then the church is caught in a push-and-pull. Just as the kingdom is already here, but not yet here, so we should also consider the church as already beautiful but still kind of ugly.
Honestly, grace is becoming my soothing balm under the demands of idealism, over-realized eschatology, and my people-pleasing tendencies. Grace is not an excuse for not changing but it’s a consolation amidst the difficulty to change. I need grace because I’m humbled by how short my church falls of the ideal. We’re addicted to stories of dramatically “ideal” church’s, ones that have cracked the code on the above list. There is not enough information I can consume that changes the pain of working with real-humans, with real-differences, with real-complicated lives, with real-passion and a real-weak follow through. I’m encouraged by reading the stories of the churches planted by the Apostle Paul. These oikos (household) churches were a hot-mess, with minimal resources and with a minimal impress factor. Nothing but the Grace of Christ Jesus bonded them together in the midst of imperfection. The first-century church was not utopia, it was filled with strife and disappointment. The Apostle Paul embraced this imperfection and carried it in his own body by suffering as a “faithful intermediary, filling up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of laboring for his church."  (Col. 1:24) I feel the ache of imperfection but I must persevere and seek shade under God’s tree of grace.

Beautiful Mess
The pursuit of the ideal church is an idol. Dietrich Bonhoeffer slayed this when he said Those who love their dream for the church more than they love the community of the Church itself become destroyers of that community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial… those who dream of this idolized church demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another accordingly.” Idealism can wreak havoc on the church planter’s heart, baiting them to be whatever the world needs them to be. I’m trying to let go of Church Planter’s Guilt. I’m trying to take the counsel Paul offered Timothy in the midst of a tsunami of church demands “seek a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:3–5). Just the other day someone asked me “what’s your church like?” and a response slipped out of my mouth “my church is what it is”. We are beautiful mess in progress, learning to be faithful to the unique mission God has given us and learning not be crushed under weight of idealism.