Confessions of a Church Planter: Normal is Better than the Next Best Thing
I am a church planter...(*winces and waits).
I’m guessing you are having one of the following visceral reactions to that statement right now:
- What does this mean?
- A gag response because you believe I'm an heterodox anti-traditionalist.
- A trunk filled with the baggage of Exponential, Acts 29, and ARC (among other church planting methodologies).
Church planting in America is burdened by “radical” approaches to discipleship, evangelism, worship, and outreach. For example, here are some themes from various church planting conferences past and present:
- Dream Big
- Hero Maker
Impressed? If not, you should be. I mean, aren’t we all inspired by big, hairy, audacious goals and conceptual methodologies proven to work by the largest churches in America — the very ones we seek to emulate for the sake of the Gospel? If you’re like me, then you certainly were. My church plant training introduced me to the world of BHAGS and chasing an ill-conceived dream of becoming a celebrity pastor. I read leadership books on strategies for success. I attended conferences designed to give me a false sense of the future. I prayed for radically missional multiplication. I sought recognition for the fruition of my mission, vision, and execution.
Sometimes Normal Looks Like Failure
Sorry to break this to you, but I am not a celebrity pastor. I haven’t been to a church planting conference in years. Books on missional communities, innovative outreach events, and the like have been replaced with others that dig into the depths of racial inequity, white privilege, and fundraising. My district considers my plant to be a failure. Why? Because like a former addict I’ve also been detoxing, not through Celebrate Recovery but through my church plant. I’ve endured the initial suffering caused by the expulsion of toxins pervading my system. Now I’m enduring lifelong recovery, faced every day with temptation to fall off the wagon.
My initial goals for ministry were stereotypical: identify a hard target of wealthy, suburban sprawl, be more relevant that their Instagram feeds, and entertain them better than the puppy dog face Snapchat filter they overuse. If I wasn’t ahead of the radical curve of providing a comfortable church home then I would be resigned to something unimaginably worse — an ordinary church. The truth is that all of our churches are bound to disappoint people looking for extremely epic transformationally authentic experience week in and week out.
It's as depressing as it sounds. So should we throw in the towel? No. Should we make obstinate claims to Reformation purity as the only legitimate expression of our Lutheran identity? No. Should we continue to draw lines in the sand between under-shepherds trying to be faithful in the unique contexts of their communities? Should we continue to naively approach ministry under the condescending delineations of ethnic, millennial, urban, or small town rural? No. However, it is still our pastoral aim to emulate the discretion of St. Paul when he declares, For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them (1 Cor. 9:19). Amidst the cadre of quick fix and easy sell gospels floating around we have a desperate need to actually look into effective tactics for contextualized discipleship, worship, and evangelism. Let’s be real for a second: In the LCMS we tend to view white, suburban, midwestern churches as normal while everything else needs an adjective or title. In doing so we perpetuate a savior complex in which we are always helping them, serving them, saving them. Our corrupt natures are continually guilty of establishing us vs. them distinctions, which detract from the authenticity of the Gospel and provide false motives for discipling our members. It is justification for incentives trapped by the American need for the next biggest, baddest thing.
Normal is Better.
Before setting sail on the self-conscious adventure of planting, I was having a conversation with another church planter about our prospective philosophies of ministry. As we both looked out over the terrifyingly open ocean of American Christianity he asked me my thoughts on discipleship. What came out of my mouth surprised me. What if it's not an ecstatic experience but ordinary and boring? Like my family — like your family. Grinding it out through the rough patches and surfing the waves of the good times. What if it is patient, kind, slow to anger and abounding in love? What if our churches acted like my family does - deeply committed to each other because we’re stuck with one another? What if it's a lifelong journey of mundanely shared suffering?
Let’s get radical. Legitimately radical. The word radical is defined first as, of or going to the root or origin. Therefore, being radical is more ordinary than you would think. The ministry of our churches, including discipleship, is radical in the sense of going back to the roots: practicing the ordinary thing you’ve received, heard, seen from the Holy Spirit because of Christ. One of my favorite verses in Scripture comes early on in Luke’s recording of the Acts of the Apostles. Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). The boldness on Peter and John wasn’t in a Pentecostal conversion rate but in the bold proclamation of the Gospel as a direct result of their three year planting grant with Jesus.
Being ordinary is bold. Being bold is radical. As a matter of fact, ordinary isn’t boring, but takes more courage and boldness. Some people describe the ministry of Bridge City Community as radical — and they’re right! Just not in the traditional sense. We are an incredibly humble and unassuming congregation in our neighborhood. We stand alongside every other financially precarious and incredible transient urban congregation. We do everything, feeling like we’ve accomplished nothing, yet seeing how God is doing something. Peter and John were common men, underestimated and overlooked. Like our neighborhood. Like our church. Like Peter and John, we’ve found that being ordinary encourages boldness because we’ve got nothing to lose. What if ministry isn’t fancy or complicated but unassuming and ordinary? What if we allowed habit, rhythm, and repetition teach us instead of celebrity pastors or plastic-wrapped guides with only 10 Steps to Success?
Peter and John received the greatest honor by those to whom they were proclaiming the Good News: recognition they had been with Jesus. Jesus was radical, not just because he performed miracles and signs, but because he took on the ordinary. It begs the question, should we chase miracles and perform signs to shock and awe those who need Christ? Or, should we emulate our Galilean brothers and proclaim the radically ordinary reality that Jesus is the stone that was rejected by [the builders], which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Church planters face rejection all of the time. Pastors face rejection all of the time. Good news! — Jesus was rejected too. The builders threw him and his message out, believing it wasn’t good enough. They saw the writing on the wall that it would result in wild success, just not for their prideful agendas.
Salvation in no one else, in no other name given among men, is a radically ordinary claim. Perhaps we should embrace the ordinary, remember our roots, and be radical.
Rev. Josh Woodrow is the founding pastor of Bridge City Community in Chattanooga - an urban mission humbly pursuing reconciliation, justice, and mercy. He is married to his wife, Jenny, and together they have four wonderfully wild children - Harper, Rose, August, and Silas who love to keep them busy with creative chaos. Josh has too many hobbies, but loves to roast coffee, build stuff with wood, and try to keep his 1972 Triumph motorcycle running.
You can listen to more of Josh Woodrow's thoughts here.