A couple months ago I had the opportunity to join a few dozen denominational and network leaders in NYC to talk urban church planting with Tim Keller.
If you’re not familiar with Keller, he and his wife planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan almost thirty years ago. Despite the challenges of ministering in one of our nation’s most progressive and post-Christian cities, Redeemer has since grown to over 5,000 in attendance and helped plant over 250 new churches in 48 cities around the world.
So when Tim Keller speaks on what he sees happening in urban centers and what it means for future ministry, I lean in and take notes. This conversation in particular has been bouncing around in my head a lot since our time together. For those paying attention to what is happening culturally, currently involved in ministry in a large metro area or considering doing so in the future, I think there is a lot here for us.
I love church planting. I’ve committed much of my life to it. My passion is to see new churches planted that transform lives, serve neighborhoods and impact cities. But over the years I’ve seen a kind of church planting that I worry has the potential of doing as much damage as it does good.
This kind of church planting often begins with the best of intentions. The planter loves Jesus, wants to be his ongoing transformative work in the world, and senses a call to plant a new church.
But somewhere along the way, either because of explicit training, implicit assumptions or a combination of both, the planter decides to employ a rather popular method of planting their church. They are told it is an “effective” way to plant a church. And besides, he/she can cite numerous examples of churches like it around the country.
It all seems to make sense on paper.
However, in my opinion, this is a method that has been tried and found wanting. While it may be effective in gathering a crowd, it seems to largely fail at effectively making disciples. In fact, when you strip the particular strategies down to their core and examine the values that drive them, I worry it is a way of planting churches that may actually run counter to Jesus and his kingdom way, inevitably threatening to undermine the work altogether.
When my dad began to sense that God might be calling him to plant a church someone gave him a sheet of paper that would hang on our refrigerator for years. At the top it read, “Future Church Planters: Count The Cost!” As a young man I remember really disliking that sheet of paper. I found it depressing; nihilistic even. Over the years, however, I would come to understand why my dad returned to that sheet of paper so often. He was living it.
The lights. The sounds. The smells. The sense of anticipation in the air. Christmas music playing twenty-four hours a day on the radio. Endless replays of A Christmas Story on TBS. The one peppermint mocha I’ll drink all year just because I can. Watching our kids lose their minds on Christmas morning.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Some years it really is.
But what about the others? What about those years when it’s not the most wonderful time of the year? Because let’s be honest, we all have them.
Wednesday morning I woke up to learn that Donald Trump will be our next commander in chief. It seems like just yesterday he announced his intentions to run for president and the country collectively burst into laughter. “This has to be just another publicity stunt, right? Surely this smug billionaire-turned-reality-tv-star doesn’t really think he’s remotely qualified for the country’s highest office, right?” No one gave Donald Trump a chance. Shoot, Trump didn’t seem to give Trump a chance. But after a dismal voter showing at the polls, a big white working class push, and overwhelming support from the evangelical community, Donald Trump edged Hillary Clinton as the next president elect. My mind has been spinning all week. How did we get here? How did this happen? And what does it mean for the church? Now that it’s been a few days, I want to offer a few pastoral thoughts on the other side of this crazy election:
“Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” – Psalm 146:3
This is a truth I constantly need to be reminded of, perhaps especially during election season. I am very grateful to live in a country where I have the ability to vote, but as a Christian my hope and security does not lie in any nation or president (thank God!). It is not in any prince of this world or in the people or institutions they govern.
To tell you the truth, I debated on whether or not to share this publicly. It can sound so presumptuous, as if writing a book is what one does after they’ve risen far above everyone else with their cute little assumptions and misunderstandings.
“Excuse me, people. Author coming through.”
But that’s not me and that’s not why I’m writing this book.
A couple years ago I decided I wanted to do something special for our kids.
So on a whim I jumped into their room and announced we were going to get some fish. The girls screamed with excitement. We hopped in the car and headed to the pet store. Together we picked out some fish to adopt and a whole setup for them. We even splurged on a Sponge Bob motif equipped with miniature versions of Squidward’s house and the Krusty Krab for our fish to lounge in after a long day.
We got it all home and spent most of the evening getting the whole thing setup. Finally the moment came for the fish to enter their new habitat. The girls and I counted down from ten, “10, 9, 8, 7…” and then we plopped them in. The girls jumped up and down with anticipation as they watched the fish explore their new home. I gotta admit I was feeling pretty great as a dad in that moment.
To our horror, however, over the next twenty-four hours we watched as one-by-one the fish began to float a little funny.“What are they doing, dad?” “Uh, they’re back floating honey.” (Which technically was not a lie.)
Within two days all of them were dead. Every single one.
It was just about six years ago that Megan and I loaded everything we owned into our 2001 Honda Accord and a small trailer in a parking garage in Los Angeles.
We had spent the previous few years preparing and now it was time to make the long trek back to Lincoln, Nebraska. Our goal? To be a part of unleashing a movement of God’s grace in the city of Lincoln. We had no idea all that would entail (and we still don’t) but we did know one thing: it would start with the planting of a church.
“Oh my god! Did that just go in?! I think that went in!”
I was fifteen years old and I had just hit the golf shot of a lifetime.
Set deep in the trees with over a hundred yards to go and just a six foot window to put the ball through, I was in what us hackers affectionately call a “swing and pray” situation, as in swing hard and pray the ball misses all of the trees directly in front of you. Normally I’d simply utilize my trusty foot wedge and conveniently relocate the ball somewhere less deadly, but just as I located my ball a family walking down an adjacent road spotted me in the forestry and stopped to watch the show.
I spent the next few minutes nervously trying to figure out my shot while pretending not to hear the muffled voices of my own personal shame gallery standing directly behind me.
Flustered, I prayed a short and desperate prayer, nervously stepped up to the ball and swung.