An update on my church planting journey

In the past couple weeks, I’ve realized that I haven’t let everyone know “where I’m at” with the Vineyard Church of Waterville. So I’m long overdue with an update! In the words of the great Inigo Montoya: “Let me ‘splain…No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

(Although this journey is very much a shared partnership with my wife, I’m going to only speak for my experience, not ours. It’s safer that way. Emily and I are very much in agreement with where we are but I’m incredibly poor at speaking for her! She does a much better job speaking for herself! Our kids have been a very active part of this processing too. But again, I’ll speak for myself!)

Back in May, I closed the church plant I’d been pastoring in Waterville, Maine. I thought we were shutting down version 1.0 in order to take a break and then launch VCW 2.0 by Easter 2009. Our board and sending pastor were really gracious. They wanted me to rest over the summer. My only homework was to ponder questions like: What would my perfect life look like? and Where in the last 6 months had I felt truly alive? Great coaching questions like that. (Emily was asked those too.)

It’s humbling being part of a church planting movement that really values people over programs. Usually, I’d hear organizations say they valued people but they wanted to be sure the lights stayed on in the building. But the Vineyard East folks were willing to have the lights go out rather than have a pastoral couple burnout.

Well, resting was hard. I am used to working 2-3 jobs. Plus, there was the institutional life of the church that kept on going: board meetings, processing donations, etc. (Yep, people still tithed even though we weren’t meeting!) And, even though I knew closing the church wasn’t a bad thing, I did go through times of mourning, tears, and second-guessing. Still do even now. One of my games to help me through hardest part of this season was creating an “OH, that’s why the church closed” list of things I did. Like brewing my own beer. Or going to a movie. Or taking the kids to a pub for dinner. Or enjoying quoting The Life of Brian. 🙂

As I prayed about the next steps, and worked on the questions, it became pretty apparent that I didn’t want to be the lead pastor in a VCW 2.0.

I enjoyed the regular group of people that called VCW their home. We’d been through a lot in the last 3-4 years! I loved the teaching and people told me my teaching helped them in their relationship to Jesus. I really got good at organizing servant evangelism outreaches. Over the years, I’ve consistently exhibited a gifting in helping a small group of people produce an extraordinary amount of results. (In about 3 1/2 years, our little group of 25-30 touched over 5,000 individuals in our communities with practical ways of showing God’s love!)

But effectively starting a church really requires a gift-mix that includes an ability to draw a crowd. Close in four years of church planting, and more than 20 years of being a Christian, this is a gift I’ve never exhibited.

So, in September, I resigned as pastor of the Vineyard Church of Waterville. It is incredibly gratifying to know that the Lewiston Vineyard (our sending church) still wants a Vineyard up here and that the Waterville folks still want a Vineyard up here! It’s good to know the church will restart, even though I won’t be part of it.

I really miss the privilege of being an active part in people’s spiritual growth. And it’s sad to know that I won’t be part of that. Having the former pastor in a congregation only works in very special circumstances. People keep looking to the former pastor for cues about how the new one is doing. Most often, it confuses people and undermines the new pastor’s authority and leadership.

Please join me in praying that VCW gets a pastor or pastoral couple with a different gift mix than I had. The folks that live up here really deserve the best!

As for me, I’m trusting God to lead me as my family and I move forward. I still think church planting is in my future at some point. But taking a rest is nice. I’ve actually had more time to enjoy my family and just “be” with them than ever before.

Finding a church was odd. We went to the Lewiston Vineyard and the Portland Vineyard for the summer and fall. But that wasn’t sustainable: we weren’t able to plug into small groups or develop relationships with people in either location. So we’ve recently started attending a United Methodist church 5 minutes from our house. What a treat! They even did a Vineyard song on our first Sunday.

And I’m really grateful for a terrific job and that people continue to buy my fundraising book and invite me to give fundraising seminars.

Waterville, Maine is a neat place to live. If you’re ever in the area, let me know. I’d love share a taste of my latest brew!

Fixing my eyes

Today has been a l-o-n-g day. Really long.

But my best friend (my wife) encouraged me to grab a beer and go out on the patio to read. So with a Smithwick’s and a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, I came across this quote:

“Lucy went first, biting her lip and trying not to say all the things she thought of saying to Susan. But she forgot them when she fixed her eyes on Aslan.”

And I was undone.

I needed to be reminded of that.

Yesterday I turned 22

Even though I’m 36, I was really born 22 years ago yesterday.

It’s hard to word that. I wanted to say, “I became a Christian” or “I started my journey with Jesus.”

Words fall short.

I’d been reading the Bible and doing “Christian” things for years before August 17, 1986. In the early ’80s, my parents had led me in the “sinner’s prayer.” And at some other point, I’d responded to a call from a former Red Sox baseball player when he led a group in the “sinner’s prayer.”

But it took root on August 17, 1986 at a place called Camp Fairhaven.

I was full of Bible knowledge and strong opinions. But hearing a speaker tell of the intense, grueling experience of crucifixion, something in me broke. All I’d done up to that point was built on my own effort. My work. My learning.

But the cross was the boldest statement that all I had done wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

I remember sitting in that meeting and thinking, Jesus could’ve blurted out “I didn’t mean it!” or “Hey guys, I was just kidding!” at any point during the humiliation and incredible pain of the process.

But he didn’t.

So maybe he really meant all that he said. That he was the way, the truth, the light (ie. John 8). Maybe no one does come to the Father but by him (ie. John 6:44).

And I remember so clearing wondering if all the other teens in the room would think I were a freak for being moved by this. It just didn’t make sense. God became man? I’d be forgiven without having to earn it? God would be so restrictive as to have only one way? Come on. That’s just not right.

But, in the end, I realized I didn’t want to risk it. I decided to throw my lot in with Jesus. If it weren’t true, then I’d be no worse off at death. If it were true, then I’d have eternal life. So I timidly raised my hand and was led out back to pray.

Now, 22 years later, I know a couple things about that day. One, it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. Two, that I don’t even get credit for making that decision; God had been pursuing me and my family even before I was born.

I still don’t have all the answers. And stuff Jesus said still makes me uncomfortable. I also know that this life with Jesus is more than a one-time “(born again” experience and more about becoming life-long students or “disciples.”

But with the freedom and growth I’ve experienced in the last couple decades, I’m more convinced than ever that this journey with Jesus is the way we were all created to live.

So Happy Birthday to me. And Soli Deo Gloria–to God alone be the glory!

If enough of us just believed…

Chris Busch has a great blog post about Saving Tinkerbell.

In it, Chris says:

Peter implores the audience to show their belief in fairies by clapping and as the live audience is worked into a frenzy, Tinkerbell is miraculously revived and averts certain death. We just needed to believe in fairies hard enough.

I’ve seen a lot of people in business over the years trying to save Tinkerbell. I’ve done it myself. Made a dumb decision, or two… OK, or three, and then believed that in spite of my own bad judgment I could somehow revive Tinkerbell if I just believed hard enough.

It reminded me alot of our decision to close the Vineyard Church of Waterville.

Someone apologized to me last night. “I’m sorry I didn’t show up more and pay more money.” I thanked him but told him that wasn’t the point. It’s not that “if we just believed more” Tinkerbell (aka VCW) would be saved.

Our God is a God of resurrection. Sure, He could’ve revived VCW. But that’s not the way this journey is headed. VCW is going to die. Period. It served its purpose. It’s time to move on.

What will come next? I don’t know. But I’m thinking a resurrection is coming. The Jesus that was raised from the dead was not the same Jesus that died. The Jesus that was raised had been changed. He now can walk through walls and show up wherever he wants. (Really. Read Luke 24.)

In some amazing way, resurrection made Jesus’ body even more “substantial.” So real, even atoms moved out of the way for Him. (Check out C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorcefor an idea of what I mean.)

In his post, Chris says:

As a teenage lad I was grumbling one day to my dad about how hard life was. A man of few words, he never looked up from the big wheel bearing he was packing with heavy grease, but just said, “It’s supposed to be hard.”

Hmmm. Come to think of it, I don’t remember Dad clapping for Tinkerbell.

The death of Jesus was real. Believing in Him didn’t make it go away. This isn’t Peter Pan.

But the Good News is that resurrection was even more real.

May that be the same with VCW 2.0!

Thanks Chris for helping give me some language to describe the part of the journey we’re on!

Closing the Vineyard Church of Waterville

Today, Emily and I shared with everyone that we are closing the Vineyard Church of Waterville.

You read it right.

We’d asked our board about just closing down Sundays. Attendence has been declining over the last 18 to 24 months. Offerings have always been below what is needed. As a pastor, I was concerned for the team. There was no “bench” to draw from. We encourage all levels of leadership or oversight to be looking for the person they’ll pass it on to. But there aren’t those people.

Here’s a graph of our weekly attendence, each year in a different color:
VCW Attendence
You’ll note two things:

  • The 2007 trend line is going in the wrong direction. It’s going down. And 2007 was lower than 2005 or 2006.
  • The purple line is 2008. It’s lower than any other year.

I also showed them this image of last year’s offerings and this year’s.
VCW Offerings

The red line is the barebones budget, less in 2008 than in 2007. What this doesn’t show is that our average monthly tithes and offerings were twice this, around $4000, in 2005.

But other things are going well: our budget course is attended by people from our church and guests. People have been healed and demons have been cast out. And servant evangelism is going through the roof:
VCW Servant Evangelism

Clearly, our church is having an impact far beyond our numbers. And we continue to find amazing favor in our community. But something’s not connecting to make this attempt viable.

I’m so glad to be part of a movement. People wiser than us and in authority over us have been recommending we get some rest. We’ve been working at this very hard for the last 3 1/2 years. Now is a good time to take a rest.

In telling this to one of our leaders, I commented, “I don’t feel I need a rest.” She asked me, “Isn’t that the time you should rest? Before you’re totally burnt-out?”

So we’re closing VCW 1.0 on Sunday, May 18. The old sign is already down.

Then we’ll all enter into a period of rest. My family will go to our sending church, the Vineyard Church of Lewiston, a couple times each month. We’ve been encouraged to go up for prayer every time we can. (No matter what the call is for! 🙂 ) We’ll go to the Vineyard East Regional Conference in July. And we’ll rest and play.

Resting is so foreign to American Christians. But it’s pretty biblical. This is like a Sabbath. It’s stepping back to move forward. Steven Covey calls this “sharpening the saw.”

“Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

‘What are you doing?’ you ask.

‘Can’t you see?’ comes the impatient reply. ‘I’m sawing down this tree.’

‘You look exhausted!’ you exclaim. ‘How long have you been at it?’

‘Over five hours,’ he returns, ‘and I’m beat! This is hard work.’

‘Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?’ you inquire. ‘I’m sure it would go a lot faster.’

‘I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,’ the man says emphatically. ‘I’m too busy sawing!’

So many churches are to busy sawing to stop and re-assess.

Interestingly, as I share this with the people I feel called to, they instinctively “get” it. And it makes sense to them. Hopefully this will help us build even more credibility!

At some point toward the end of the summer, we’ll begin to regroup. We’ll be articulating our vision as pastors. We haven’t really ever done that. We’ve always articulated our vision in the context of the reality of having a building. Phil commented that we’ve been planting this church from other people’s vision. So true. Now we’ve been here for a few years and have a heart for the people and the region.

We’ll also do a hard assessment of the first plant. We certainly want to identify what wasn’t working so we don’t bring that into the next plant!

And we’ll begin meeting with our team–who ever is left in Waterville, the board (all in Lewiston), and other people. We’ll be hammering out our strategy for a launch, which we hope will be Easter 2009.

Then we’ll re-engage. We’re planning on starting a good kinship in September. And are expecting to start monthly gatherings in October (6 months before the launch).

Even with the sadness of putting a church down, I’m pretty excited. I know God’s not through with us here in Waterville. And He’s giving us a chance to plant the kind of church we’d want to go to. We’ve always wanted to plant a church

  • that is experiential, not just a head-trip
  • that attracts artists, not just reads about them
  • that inspires community and inter-personal connections, not just talks about them
  • that minsters to people knowingly following Jesus and not knowingly.

To hear more, and many of the questions that I think are good to ask, listen to Emily and me talk about it during today’s sermon Closing the Church: Rest, Regroup, Relaunch.

This isn’t a neat and tidy process. We’ll be unpacking it over the remaining three weeks. As in today’s sermon, I’ve asked Adrian Monk to walk us through the stages of grieving. Just click on this image:

Please be praying for us and the people that call VCW their home. And the people that will call our next church plant, Waterville Vineyard 2.0, their home!

It’s not just a Protestant thing

Listening to NPR this a.m., I heard an amazing statistic: 68% of Catholics in America feel they can live a God honoring faith without attending Mass.

This makes my earlier post on not focusing on attracting people to an but penetrating the community even more understandable.

It’s exciting to live at a time when more and more of Jesus followers are once again living their faith in their daily lives. I’m so glad “being a Christian” is getting divorced from merely “going to church.”

But we must not forget Hebrew 10:25:

…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching…

We were never meant to live this out on our own. The big danger in our 21st century approach is that we’ll reduce faith to the “me and Jesus” mentality of the late 20th century. Oh, we’ll do it in a more sophisticated, sacramental sort of way. But it’ll still be an anemic shadow of the real, vibrancy of faith incarnated in a community of followers of Jesus.

That’s why at the Vineyard Church of Waterville we’ll always keep serving our community in ways the are relevant. And while we’ll always have at least one weekly worship gathering.

Isn’t it an exciting time to be a follower of Jesus?!

Now I’ve got to get to that worship gathering!

A Crash

I read this in The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Withinover a year ago. It’s still incredibly inspiring!

With insects most of us know that bees are called swarms, and ants are called colonies. Among ocean life, I was aware that whales are pods, and fish are schools. Cattle are herds, birds are flocks, and if you watch Lion King, you know a tribe of lions is a pride. If you grew up in the country, you might know that crows are murders. Maybe the most unnerving one is an ambush of tigers.

I was surprised to learn that a group of buzzards waiting around together to feast on leftover carnage is called a committee. Just this one insight is worth the price of the whole book. This explains so much of what’s going on in churches – a lot of committees waiting around to live off human carnage.

Groups of flamingos are called flamboyant, which for some reason reminds me of TV evangelists. And groups of the less glamorous owls are known as parliaments. They do seem sort of British.

But my favorite of all is the group designation of rhinos. You see, rhinos can run at thirty miles an hour, which is pretty fast when you consider how much weight they’re pulling. They’re actually faster than squirrels, which can run at up to twenty-six miles an hour. And even then, who’s going to live in dread of a charging squirrel? (Sorry – that was a bit off the point.)

Running at thirty miles an hour is faster than a used Pinto will go. Just one problem with this phenomenon. Rhinos can see only thirty feet in front of them. Can you imagine something that large moving in concert as a group, plowing ahead at thirty miles an hour with no idea what’s at thirty-one feet? You would think that they would be far too timid to pick up full steam, that their inability to see far enough ahead would paralyze them to immobility. But with that horn pointing the way, rhinos run forward full steam ahead without apprehension, which leads us to their name.

Rhinos moving together at full speed are known as a crash. Even when they’re just hanging around enjoying the watershed, they’re called a crash because of their potential. You’ve got to love that. I think that’s what we’re supposed to be. That’s what happens when we become barbarians and shake free of domestication and civility. The church becomes a crash. We become an unstoppable force. We don’t have to pretend we know the future. Who cares that we can see only thirty feet ahead? Whatever’s at thirty-one feet needs to care that we’re coming and better get out of the way.

We need to move together as God’s people, a barbarian tribe, and become the human version of the rhino crash. The future is uncertain, but we need to move toward it with confidence.