Church Planting: Year 1 into Year 2 – 5 Reflections & 5 Aspirations
I came to Dublin 3 years ago with the aim of getting a job in the high-tech sector and starting a church. I am 2.5 years into working in technology sales and we are just about to enter the second year of our church plant. Do read my blog post called Living the Tension about being a pastor and a salesman for more on how my two lives intersect. In this post I want to reflect on a few things by looking back at year 1 and looking forward to year 2 . You can read my previous blog post about 11 lessons I had learned about church planting after 6 months to catch up on the story up till now.
So here are 5 things as I look back (reflection) and 5 things as I look forward (aspirations).
5 Reflections on Year 1
In no particular order,
(1) More Normal Than Expected
The first thing to say is that starting a church was actually more normal than I expected. (I probably had the wrong expectations!) You have to rent a building, start services, organise a preaching rota and a music team and a refreshments/welcome team and all the normal things you have to do in every church. In terms of leadership, Leanne and I had to plan the rhythm of our week and our Sunday routine so we didn’t overstretch on the one hand but didn’t miss a trick on the other. Then we had to start raising up some leaders (of Sunday Teams and City Groups) and invest in them so they could share the responsibility. Overall it was very normal; it was like every other church I have ever been a part of.
(2) More Fun Than Expected
I am not sure what I expected but once we started I looked forward to our Sunday Services, our midweek meetings and our social events. I found I was energised by church life and did not resent it or wish it away. Even when things went wrong or my expectations weren’t met or I had to work long hours (which happened a lot!), that didn’t dampen my spirits, enthusiasm or sense of fun. In fact I wrote a blog post about the vision of our church one year ago called ‘What happened to all the fun?‘ where I lamented that church life had got so boring in so many cases. Well I am glad to say that year 1 was not boring but full of fun. And of course, the people that I met and the friends I have made are the real reason for that!
(3) More Long-Term Than Expected
I once heard someone tell me “make less of your 1 year plans and more of your 10 year plans” and yet I think I forgot that this year. Whilst I am delighted with how far we have come and are excited about the momentum we have going into year 2, I also see that “we are only just beginning…we have barely scratched the surface.” Building a community of Jesus followers and equipping them to seek the spiritual, social and cultural blessings of Dublin doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time to make a positive impact on a city! Leadership development cannot really be fast tracked. It takes relationship building, trial-and-error, opportunities, mentoring, feedback and all that takes time.
(4) More Uncertain Than Expected
As I look back I can see that some of the plans I had took off and others flopped. Some of the people who I thought might become leaders did and others did not. And there were many surprises too. Some ideas that I hadn’t taken into account and some unexpected people ended up becoming central to what we were doing. This all makes you realise that Jesus builds his church, not me (Matthew 16:18). Whilst I do not think it is wrong to plan and think strategically/wisely, ultimately we have to leave it in God’s hand and trust that he is at work through our feeble efforts.
Then there was the issue of renting a space. When you don’t own a church building you are at the mercy of your landlord to keep their side of the bargain (which filmbase.ie did more than enough!) and to keep you on (which they haven’t been able to do). So just as we were really beginning to feel at home, we have had to move on and find a new home, 28 Bachelors Walk. This isn’t necessary a problem, but it keeps us on our toes.
So on the one hand everything felt more fragile and vulnerable and on the other, more empowering and exciting than anything else I have been involved with. Which leads me to my next point…
(5) More Prayer Than Expected
As with all of these reflections the issue may be about my expectations rather than anything else. Since Leanne and I decided to come to Dublin (February 2012), we have prayed more fervently and more specifically than in any other time in our lives…and guess what? God has answered our prayers, way above and beyond what we expected. The small steps and prayers of faith that we have made have been met with great blessing and provision. I remember on one of my pre-Dublin ‘reckies’ I was walking up one of the hills outside Dublin with Jon Tyson, a church planter based in NYC, and I asked him “What bit of advice do you have for me?” and he said “Pray!” It has proven to be good advice and given the uncertainty and fragility of the last 3 years of being in Dublin and the last year of starting the church, we could not have got where we are without prayer. God has been our strength and song, our rock and our refuge.
5 Aspirations for Year 2
So with those five reflections in mind, let’s look ahead at what I hope will remain.
(1) Non-Christians Remain Welcome
When Leanne and I came to Dublin we wanted to start a church that ‘made sense’ to non-church going people. We hoped that those who didn’t call themselves Jesus followers would feel they could come (with no sense of pressure to convert!) and check things out. We hoped that the community and the services would be warm and welcoming but would also provoke questions. And then as we engaged with their questions, doubts, fears, concerns and hurts, they could discuss them without feeling they needed to ‘agree with us’ to remain part of the community or come along on a Sunday.
So it has been a joy to have many people come along who haven’t come to a church service for years (expect for your typical christenings, weddings and funerals) and they have then joined us for a drink down the pub. Some have come back, others haven’t. And I remember on 2-3 occasions self-proclaimed atheists have joined us and (from what I could see) felt at home. As I explained in A Church Not For Ourselves, if the church of Jesus Christ is to do what he meant it to do, it must be able to engage with people who don’t go to church in a way that they feel like they never need to come again.
I have had friends and visitors say to me:
I am not coming again but it made sense to me what you’re doing.
I am not going to become a Christian but I may join you down the pub for more discussions in the coming months.
It’s not my cup of tea but I would like to meet for lunch to discuss this more.
Steve I think you’re nuts but what you’re doing is great.
I was totally put off church growing up and whilst I still have reservations, I am keen to come back and explore more.
I’ve been so delighted to hear this kind of thing!
(2) The Pub Remains Central
One of my favourite stats is that as a church we spend one hour ‘in church’ (4.30-5.30pm) and then two hours down the pub (6-8pm) each week. Last year it was Crowbar, this year it will be Sweetmans. In fact, this statistic fits nicely with some of my most favourite words from the mouth of Jesus, from Luke 7:34;
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Jesus clearly enjoyed his food and wine, so much so that he could be accused by the religious establishment of being a drunkard and a glutton. He also hung around with the wrong people (tax collectors and sinners!). In all cultures, particularly Irish culture, the place where people eat and drink is the place where friendships are formed, banter and conversations happen and people loosen up to be real and honest, whether with doubts or joys.
I hope the pub continues to take up two thirds of our time on a Sunday!
(3) The Non-Religious Feel Remains Normal
Meeting in a film screening studio in the middle of Temple Bar was a fantastic way to ensure that we didn’t smack of being religious! Yes, we had a cross at the front of the room and a Bible verse on the wall but nothing about what we did looked or smelled like church as the average person would know it. In fact, we hope it felt quite normal and accessible. But more than just the setting we have worked hard to keep our services short and simple, to not have any Christian jargon, to explain everything we are doing and to continually affirm that people can engage as much or as little as they like. I am not saying we’re perfect, but we work hard on our language and we certainly don’t want to form a Christian sub-culture (or clique!) which alienates people who are not in it.
I remember one time a young guy came to visit for the first time and we were watching England vs Ireland on the big screen in the room (Ireland won!) and then we watched an 8 minute video about the founding of the Guinness Brewery and the Christian principles which drove it. And when I turned round to him he said:
“What kind of church is this? You watch rugby, watch videos about Guinness and go the pub?”
My hope is that it might be the kind of church that Jesus would want to be a part of.
(4) Truth Remains Decisive
For all our efforts at being culturally relevant and having fun and not feeling religious we must not and cannot compromise on truth. That is what is so impressive about Jesus. Just when he is getting popular he makes sure he tells people the truth about who he is and what it means to follow him so that they are not deceived. In fact, he famously said two things about truth which we mustn’t miss, both recorded for us in the Gospel of John.
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Jesus would not fit in nicely with our post modern tolerant culture which says “there is no such thing as truth, you believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want…let’s just not say anyone has the truth.” Jesus would think that idea was ludicrous and tell you that truth isn’t subjective. There is such a thing as objective truth and ultimately it is found in him. And Jesus is so concerned that we know the truth because, from all the way back in Genesis 3, it was believing that lie that meant we were enslaved and lost, so it is as we discover the truth that we are set free.
In the last year we have had people who, whilst not Jesus followers, have been fascinated by what the Bible actually says. They may have been brought up going to church but they have never really engaged with the scriptures directly. Some have found them exciting and attractive, others offensive and narrow. However, as we move forward as a church we are not interested in teaching the latest ideas that will be palatable to people’s ears, we’re interested in truth…and truth that will set us free. So truth remains decisive for us and ultimately that truth is grounded in the person of Jesus and his resurrection. We build all we believe from those two things!
(5) Adventure Remains The Order Of The Day
My hope is that as a church we don’t take ourselves too seriously and that we have a blast. On our holidays Leanne and I read a book by Eugene Petersen based on the book of Galatians all about Freedom and he starts one chapter like this:
The word Christian means different things to different people. To one person it means a stiff, uptight, inflexible way of life, colorless and unbending. To another it means a risky, surprise-filled venture, lived tiptoed at the edge of expectation. Either of these pictures can be supported with evidence. There are numberless illustrations for each position in congregations all over the world. But if we restrict ourselves to biblical evidence only the second image can be supported: the image of the person living zestfully, exploring every experience – pain and joy, enigma and insight, fulfilment and frustration – as a dimension of human freedom, searching through each for sense and grace. If we get our information from the biblical material, there is no doubt that the Christian life is a dancing, leaping, daring life.
I hope that after year 2, that can be said of us!