God has not given up on his church. But sometimes, he has to tear the temple down, only to rebuild it in his timing, and for his glory.
Wasting away for a year and a half, and maybe longer, and finding myself wasted (literally, emotionally, physically, mentally) at the end of it all was one of the hardest moments in my life. I had given it my all, I had lost it all, and for what? So that the organization of the church might succeed moving forward in it’s quest to have more people in the seats? Make more kingdom impact? Have a bigger budget? No. I did it because I believed that I was called. I had an experience years ago at a church camp that will always have wonderful memories for me where I was walking on a gravel road early one hot summer morning. I was doing my morning devotions as any good Christian camp counselor would when I looked up at the sunrise and distinctly (it was distinct then, it feels so distant now) heard deeply in my soul that God would use me to help the church. He didn’t say that I was to be a ‘professional pastor’ or that I would lead in big churches across the United States or that many people would come to faith because of me or the church I was in. He told me to serve the church. I remember questioning this experience for many weeks, maybe even months. I had never had any spiritual encounter like it before or since this day. I was reeling from trying to make sense of what it even meant. With this encounter in mind, I made a choice to major in something at college that would direct the course of my life, so far, and take me down paths I never intended to go down.
Calling is an interesting idea when it comes to spirituality. In Christian and non-Christian circles alike, we equate calling to something that we understand about ourselves to be true. Some people have the calling of being a missionary (whether for Christianity or against) while others have the call to help people by being a doctor, a construction worker, or a fire fighter. My call was not so specific. God wanted me to ‘serve the church.’ And so I did what any 18 year old would do at the time, I began my crusade to change the church. In college, I had everything figured out. If the church would just understand and implement the idea of honesty, authenticity, and then gracious care of those that were honest and authentic, I naively believed that it would change the entire course of the church in America. I had grown up watching church dysfunction, and somehow, I was going to save that dysfunction from happening to others in the future. I dove in headlong and took every opportunity to be bold about my opinions and my hypothesis. I made claims that the church would only be the church when we were willing to confront one another, approach sin, be gracious, and move forward. I chastised churches for simply doing a Sunday morning gathering and all the ‘programs.’ If only churches would just choose a simple path to programming, they might find themselves in a much better place, a growing place. Maybe then churches would grow with people that had come to Christ for the very first time. Maybe then churches would have the momentum and influence in this world to be able to actually make a difference in their communities. Maybe then, the church would no longer be considered a slow dying organization in the United States and instead we would see the likes of ‘google success’ or ‘apple success.’ We needed simple programming and better systems, within the context of relationships. I really did know it all.
And then one day I lost my understanding and knowledge. We had planted several churches at the church that I was serving at and I was pushing for more to be planted. One of my dear friends, a church planter that was part of our network, was slated to meet with me for breakfast. I went through my morning ritual and met him to eat bagels, drink coffee, and talk life. Over this meal, he let me know that he thought it would be best to close the church that he had founded and was leading. Clearly, the church that he planted was one of the more successful church plants that I had been a part of. It was growing, there seemed to be people coming to faith, and those that were a part of the core team still seemed fairly excited about what was happening. But as this church planter looked at the financial reality, he understood that the church was on a very quick and very painful trajectory toward failure. They didn’t have enough money, enough people, enough time to really make it happen. In my own selfish like way, I tried to save the church. I campaigned for fundraising money. I tried to help the church down a different path and plan. I schemed and came up with ways that it could succeed moving forward. And then, one day, it closed. There was no more organization that I had ‘prayed for’, that I had ‘invested in’, that I had ‘promoted.’ It was just gone. The people were gone, the location was gone, my friend was gone. And all that was left was a distant memory of having great hope that this church, yes, maybe this church would ‘get it right’ and be the gamechanger for other churches in America. How wrong was I?
As one of my former supervisors once pointed out, I was ‘dead wrong.’ To have hope and to have excitement about something that would have the global effect that I was hoping for was not helpful and created more turmoil within a system that is built on slow change and anti-adaptation (at least the churches that I knew and were a part of). It was wrong. I could only change what was in front of me, and that was something that I didn’t spend a lot of time on. After this experience with the church plant, my drive to plant churches and see a ‘new wineskin’ (pardon the reference to alcohol, but the bible does say something about it…) churches birthed that would radically shift the global environment, that drive ended. I knew that planting churches would never cease to exist because church folks that are American are also franchise wired. We want to take what works and ‘capitalize’ on the market that exists. I had become a mere franchise builder, taking what was already and shifting it just ever so slightly to look, feel, sound, just a little bit better, a little bit cooler. But at the heard of the matter, God wasn’t speaking. He wasn’t meeting with me on any gravel road and giving me direction of how I needed to serve the church. I think of Abraham when he took matters into his own hands in Genesis 12 and 13, and resonate. We needed to change the church, the organization, and actually produce what I believed God wanted us to produce. I retired from planting of churches and having that be my outlet for ‘serving the local church.’
As I ponder these days of my life, where church planting consumed my every waking moment and activity, I know just a few things to be true. I know that God did call me to serve His church. I am currently serving the church by staying away from it (at least from the inner workings of it) and focusing on being healthy. I cannot and will not offer anything to anyone, if I am not healthy. I also know that, maybe for the first time every in my life, being a pastor isn’t synonymous with serving the church. It is anti biblical in fact, to say that it is. Paul points out that there were ‘some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be shepherds and teachers and some to be evangelists.’ They were made that way, not knighted into some conditioned occupation. Those ‘pastors’ in the early church worked hard, alongside each of the members of the church, to maintain their life, for the sake of the one that they served. Some sacrificed everything, but you know what they didn’t do? They didn’t try to ‘change’ the nature of the church. They just were. They found solace in the fact that they were growing slowly in some cases and some cases literally dying off. It’s why Paul writes ‘I give everything up for the sake of Christ.’ A dear friend of mine, who desired reform in the local church for years, probably even before I went on the crusade, told me once that the only way that things will change is if God chooses to work in the same powerful mantra that he employed at the beginning, the genesis of the early church. Only then will things be different in the United States, he would tell me. I tend to agree. There is not one person that can change a church, an organization, or correct a misguided ship. But there is a God who can, and, as they say, may you find him now.
I know that churches do amazing things. You may be sitting here thinking that I hate the church or that the church is something that I am criticizing. The opposite may be true. To criticize the church would be to be a complete and utter hypocrite, of which I have been for many years. I called the church to certain action, and privately and inside, didn’t engage the practices that I believed that the church, my employer should engage. I love God and am falling more in love with him daily. I loved (and to some degree, still do) God’s church. I love people that were part of the churches I had the opportunity to work for. The disappointment in God that I have experienced because of ‘calling’ is something I am still grappling with and processing. I may continue to do so, until I meet my maker, post this human life. I don’t have all the answers anymore. I know less now in this subject than I have ever known before. And certainly a collective group of people that are thinking about these issues daily together can navigate reform further than even I can in my head.
I’m reminded again of what one of my atheist friends posed as an answer to the question, “What is the will of God?” He said to the group sitting in front of him, “I believe that if God’s will was a reality, it would simply be to ‘do the next right thing.’” And I still think he’s right. I also believe can and will save, redeem, restore, remake, and renew his church in his timing and in his way. Before Jesus died, he said, “I will destroy the temple in three days and then rebuild it.” It would be foolish for me or others to say the same thing about his ‘temple’ today. I personally lack the power, the authority, and the influence to do what only Jesus can do. And that is probably for the best.