On October 11, 2009, I preached the last sermon ever delivered at Lifeway Church in Arlington, TN. On October 18, 2009, the next Sunday, I delivered the first sermon ever preached at Compass Church in Batesville, AR. Within a week's time, I had experienced the death of one church & the birth of another. The range of emotion was overwhelming. From sadness & grief one week at the loss of a church & the death of a vision to the excitement & anticipation the next week at the birth of a church & the possibilities of realizing that same vision. The two experiences could not have been more different. Even the messages that I preached were miles apart. At Lifeway (the closing church), I preached the whole life of Joseph from the book of Genesis with the main theme of, "What the enemy meant for evil, God means for good." I reassured the church that God works all things out together for our good & his glory. At Compass (the new church) I was preaching about the vision God had given us to reach that community for Jesus through planting a new church. Not many people have experienced these two polar opposites, much less in the same week! But I have. And it wasn’t easy.
I came to Lifeway in 2004 & we struggled for 5 years to see the vision of a healthy, viable, gospel-centered, & mission-focused church birthed there. The church was already 5 years old when I joined the staff team. I was only working part-time doing music at the time while I went to seminary. In 2006 my pastor went to Brazil to serve on the mission field & I was asked to be the pastor there, just two months from graduating with my Masters of Divinity. The next 3 years we had many ups & downs but eventually we felt led to close the doors of the church. It was 10 years old & God had been faithful but it was time to say goodbye. And what hurts even more about this was our church was situated in one of the fastest growing communities in the Memphis area. Since then, several churches have planted new campuses there and are doing well. I often look back at Lifeway & wonder why it never became what we hoped it would.
The results at Compass again reveal the difference in the two churches. Our first preview service in October of 2009 had 3 times the people at it that the last service at Lifeway had. When Compass officially launched in February of the next year we have over 150 people in attendance. Now, we regularly average over 400 people in weekend worship services. We have done 3 services to accommodate the growth & are working on building a new facility. Again, the results could not be more different.
With this in mind, I want to share the things that I have gleaned from being a part of a church that has done well & a church that has struggled. Maybe you can find encouragement for where you are in your life as a church planter.
First, your successes or failures in church planting is not dependent solely on you. If this were true, Compass would have failed or Lifeway would have succeeded. But one closed & the other has thrived. And it cannot all be because of me. I have been a part of a church that closed & one that has done well. But I'm still the same person with the same vision for what I believe God wants for his church. Not much has changed from what we tried to do at Lifeway from what we are trying to do at Compass. It's not about me & it's not completely about you either. The success (and we constantly need to look at how we are defining that term) or failure (that one too!) of your church plant has to do mostly with God. I don't understand it but I do believe that God in his providence works these things out. We are called to be faithful to plant & water but ultimately it is God who controls the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). There are many factors that lead to a healthy church & many factors that lead to an unhealthy church. Ultimately, the church does not rise or fall on us!
Secondly, your past does not define your future. Trust me, people who close the doors of churches are not in high demand. No one wants to put that on his resume. And that was a concern for me & the leadership of Compass when we planted. How would I be able to be a strong part of the leadership of this church having just closed another? But God is faithful! And just because you have had a hard time in ministry in the past, doesn't mean that you will continue to struggle in the future. You don't have to be defined by your failures. We are now defined by who we are in Jesus, not how we lead churches. The last thing I wanted to do was be a part of another church plant. The thought made me literally physically ill. But when Mickey Jones called to tell me that they were planting a new church & wanted to know if I would be interested in being a part of it, God restored my excitement for church planting again. I mean, even Michael Jordan was cut from his Junior High basketball team.
Lastly, God never wastes any experiences. From our perspective we often wonder what God is up to. Some of the things he allows into our lives don't always make sense to us. But God never wastes any experiences in our lives. I'm reminded of what Tim Keller has said about Romans 8:28. "Because of Jesus," he says, "Even our bad things turn out for good, our good things can never be lost, & the best is yet to come." I honestly don't believe I could have been a part of Compass the way I needed to be if I had not first been the pastor at Lifeway. For one thing, it would have been tempting to believe that everything that was happening at Compass was because of me. But I know better than that. Why? Because I also know I have the ability to close churches as well as be a part of seeing them grow. So, no matter what your experience has been in church planting, keep in mind that God is not wasting any of this. He is working all of these things out together for your good & his glory.