NOTE: I wrote this article on Easter Sunday, 2017. I’ve waited until now to publish it.
I remember driving past an ugly little country church one Easter. The sign out front said simply “He is not here”. From some churches I’ve been in, I knew that sign was probably a great example of truth-in-advertising…
Well, it’s Easter Sunday today and I’m a pastor. But this morning, I slept in.
Last Sunday after 5 years spent planting a new church, we called it quits. And I figured instead of going through the motions for Easter, the honorable thing to do was release my people to find a new church home on the Sunday most churches put their best foot forward.
I did drive over to our old location about 10 minutes before our usual service time. I told my wife I just wanted to make sure no one showed up expecting church at the space we’d been renting for our services. I think I really drove over because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I’m a pastor and it’s Easter, the best fodder for sermons – God gave it to us on a silver platter. But I’ve got nothing to do.
I drove around the parking lot, haunting the place like a ghost. I eventually drive back home and have brunch with my family.
Five years ago I’d left the staff of another church to start a church focused on reaching the truly unchurched.
You know, the people every church says they’re trying to reach, but never seem to get around to.
For five years, I pushed a sound system in and out of three different rented buildings, hoping I’d have enough help to get everything together by worship time. We’d been everywhere from a foreclosed warehouse to a school to finally a nightclub.
Yeah, you read that right: a nightclub.
And along the way, we did get to see many people come to Christ. But unfortunately, not quite enough to pay the bills.
To make ends meet, I tried to get odd jobs. I did a stint as a jail chaplain, which was scary and frustrating. Nothing like having to hand out copies of the Qu’ran when you’re a Baptist preacher. By the end, I had blown through most of my savings and retirement, trying to fund the thing and hoping to eventually attract some stable, mature Christians who’s come in, tithe, and help me disciple the new believers. All of this happening in what was basically a retirement community.
Unfortunately, most of those folks want a nice anonymous church service and a quick exit. But as my teenage daughter noted, ours was a little too small and personal for some who just wanted to watch and blend in with the surroundings.
So we worked and struggled and reached out and succeeded at the Great Commission, winning and baptizing new believers into the faith…yet ultimately failed to be self-sustaining.
Today while I’m home with my family at 10:30am, my mind focuses on my young, vulnerable church members as they are now looking for a new home…
I pray they stay away from the myriad of Prosperity Gospel Emporiums in our area, all promising an easy life in Jesus.
On the other hand, I worry they’re attending some place dry and spiritually dusty, and get too frustrated to keep looking next Sunday.
I feel like a father who just drove his toddlers to the mall, dropped them off at the food court, and then turned and drove away.
Tonight we met at the beach to be together one last time as a church family and have baptism. As they arrived, my people shared their experiences from visiting other churches that morning. I knew it was frustrating for them, because it was for me too.
Last night, we attended a Saturday night service with one couple from church. It was the big baptist church in our town, running thousands of people. We sat through ok worship and a frustrating, meandering sermon.
My friends were really turned off at the bulletin insert plugging their million dollar renovation project for a new “state-of-the-art sanctuary”. Really, you pick a weekend when you’ll have hundreds of guests who are cynical about church to beg for more money?
I look around the room at the high tech lighting and crisp, clear sound they already have and wonder what our church could have done with what these folks don’t want anymore.
As more friends gather at the beach, they say nice things about how hard it is to listen to another pastor after getting used to my quirky sense of humor and delivery. The great thing is, they seem to really mean it. It’s nice to think now that it’s all come to a close and I’m feeling like a failure, I might actually be missed.
Maybe we didn’t die simply because I stink at being a pastor. Maybe…
After a few words of instruction, we move toward the water’s edge. One by one they walk out into the ocean toward me. Some stop and tell me how much our little church meant to them, how they can’t imagine finding God anywhere else. I wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of my now-deceased little church.
We slip around together in the cold Gulf of Mexico water, a sloppy mess trying to keep our footing…a perfect picture of our awkward little church trying to stand for five years.
Now all the baptisms are done. They ask to say a prayer over me and my family, for God to bless whatever comes in our future. God reminds me once again, “These people really care about you”.
We give our final hugs, promising to keep in touch…
I wander back toward my car, covered in sand, soaking wet having forgotten to bring a towel. Another church member shows up late just then from work, a young adult girl. She apologizes for being late, but just wanted to tell me what the church had meant to her.
To be such a screw-up, these people really care about me.
I finally make it into the car and turn the heater on that warms my car seat. I sit there for a minute watching families hurry past on their way to the beach. I stare out and realize I’ve just lost something very precious.
There were hard times when I tried to tell myself I wasn’t losing much at all. But now the significance of it all comes crashing over me like one of those waves I’m watching through my windshield.
I’m realizing what I’ve always heard to be true: that the significance of a work of God isn’t properly measured by its size and scope. A pastor is foolish if he presumes the impact on lives and on the world is equivalent to the number of people through his church doors or the number of years his church survives.
In truth, I understand something most of my big church pastors can’t face: all churches eventually die. Some just die sooner than others.
And my sweet, happy little band of immature people in love with Jesus was meant to be predominantly a birthing station. Once they were alive and able to stand on their own, God thrusts them out abruptly into the world.
And all I can do is watch, like a father watches his child’s car out of the driveway toward college.
“They’re in your hands now, Lord,” I think to myself, missing the fact they were really there all along. I only got to watch over and pray for them. I’ll continue to do that, only now from a greater distance.
I start the car and drive back home, with the weight of it all bearing down on me.
After a few hours, the rain that had threatened us momentarily at the beach now starts in full. It peppers the patio outside me now. My Father knows how much I love the sound of rain, so I take it as an intentional gift for me. Hopefully, a gift for a job well done.
Tomorrow I move on, giving away the last bits and pieces of equipment we’ve collected over the years to other struggling churches. But for now, a Father and His servant sit and think about their kids and all that’s transpired.
More than anything, I’m thankful for perhaps being a profitable servant during the last five hard years of my life.
And even with nothing left now to show for any of it, that somehow makes it all seem worthwhile…
Easter Sunday, a day about new life when one church’s life was over. Yet I’m holding to the promise that despite how dark things appear, new life will yet rise from every grain of wheat that’s fallen into the ground to die, every seed that’s been planted.
Because He is risen, we shall also rise with Him.
Time to go plant a new garden…