“I want you to try replanting. It will be easy and everyone will love you for it.”
That is not the call I heard. That is not the information that I received.
God’s call for replanting in my life sounded more like this: I want you to repent of building the kingdom of Cornerstone and invest your life and heart into building the Kingdom of God. You will trade the fleeting and false joy of high attendance Sundays for the eternal joy of walking next to an ailing church as it experiences the resurrection power into life. “Tree”, God shouted. “I put you where you are so that you would seek healthy churches.”
Where My Replanting Journey Began
When Ralph, our Associational Church Planting Catalyst, called me, I was reading the Gospel of Mark. I was intrigued by the calling of the disciples and this phrase from Mark 1:19-20 planted itself in my head and would not release me. “Going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. Immediately He called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went away to follow Him.” Mending their nets… I know why they were mending their nets, they were getting ready for a day of fishing that they would not experience. James and John ended up mending nets for someone else to benefit. God was calling me to mend nets for another fisherman and then my phone rang.
I had been the pastor of Cornerstone for about a year when Ralph, called me. He was about to help a church through a difficult transition and he asked me if I would help him listen to them. This was a church in severe decline and they wanted to discuss their options. Would they continue until their reserves ran dry? Would they entertain the possibility of a healthier church taking the driver’s seat for a time? Would they choose to close their doors with dignity? One question I didn’t think to ask was “What lessons would God teach me in this process?”
Church Attendance Growth and Church Growth Are Not the Same
My question was, “How did you get here?” I wasn’t asking for them, I was asking for me and the church I pastored. What must I do to strengthen my church so that we would not have to have this conversation in the future? How do we become a healthy church that is not in danger of closing our doors? They answered my question by telling me about some needs they had: They were looking for leaders that lived in the area, and a way to reach the college students that live right down the road, and men that would stand up and teach. They were frustrated and tired and ready to give up.
They needed help, but I did not want to help. Even now, it is difficult and embarrassing to write that down, but it was absolutely how I felt. Maybe you feel the same. I enjoyed hearing the conversations about church attendance growth. “When we have these seats filled, what are we going to do?” “Should we build a larger sanctuary or start another service?” Church attendance growth and church growth are not the same. That may be my most treasured lesson from this replanting story.
So there I sat, with a few worn out saints of God that didn’t know what to do about a church that wasn’t performing the way they expected. God defeated my complacency with His love of the people with whom I was in this meeting. I was beginning to be broken-hearted at their despair. I was beginning to be hurt by their pain. I was happy with where I was standing, but God wanted me to stand somewhere else in obedience to His call. He was about to move and I wanted to go with Him.
Church attendance growth and church growth are not the same. That may be my most treasured lesson from this replanting story.
Partnerships Are Essential
Here is another fun lesson God wanted to teach me: Where we go, we go together. I had the great privilege of looking into the face of a church that wanted to try replanting as an alternative to shutting her doors, but now I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in the power and excitement of partnership. I looked for partnerships everywhere.
I was given resources from our Colorado Baptist Convention staff, a people that share God’s desire to see healthy churches grow all throughout Colorado. I sought advice and received wisdom from our own Calvary Englewood. Those guys are heroes in the encouragement arena. I received constant prayer and camaraderie from the Longs Peak Baptist Association, and I received needed connections at just the right time. When I say we are better together, I do not mean the work is easier with partnerships; I mean that it is impossible without them.
If you are called into the replanting, revitalization or fostering churches world, get ready to experience the great cloud of witnesses that will, without ceasing, cheer for you and cry with you until Jesus returns.
When I say we are better together, I do not mean the work is easier with partnerships; I mean that it is impossible without them.
Sometimes I’m the One That Needs Convincing
In fact, there are three partnerships that I have not mentioned, though they are the most amazing of them all. There was a great partnership with our home church. I heard God’s call, now it was time to ask the saints to come marching in.
I spoke with our leadership and staff first, using phrases like, “What would happen if…”, and, “How do you think our church would handle…” Then we went to the whole family to try to convince them that God wanted a healthy church in us AND in the city next door. I am beyond excited to report that there was not much convincing that had to be done. Or, if there was convincing, God had already taken care of that. We presented for a season. We prayed for a season. We said “yes“ together. We dove in. Together. Better.
As a pastor, I can tell you that I have always loved this local expression of the church and God’s people here. This is my family.
As a partner with our church, I can tell you that my love has been set ablaze. I cannot imagine going into the depths with anyone else other than those that have been battling Satan’s hold on dying churches with me through this season.
I cannot imagine going into the depths with anyone else other than those that have been battling Satan’s hold on dying churches with me through this season.
Sending is Not Losing
There is the partnership between God and our home church. I made a mistake in verbiage that was actually a mistake in theology. When we began replanting this sweet church, we sent a team of brilliant followers of Christ to help. I told people that our church “lost” two deacons, our lead trustee, a young man recently licensed to the ministry, and all of the families that went along with them. “Lost” is the incorrect word, a wrong concept. “Lost” implies that I had possession of them in the first place. “Lost” assumes that there is a hole in the church in the shape of these families. Neither of those are true.
We eventually saw those positions taken care of in our own church as God would bring others into those places. More valuable than that was the exciting view I got to have of God calling people in this church to Kingdom work. God called people to ministry positions in both churches and He did that right in front of my eyes. I felt a lot like Eli from 1 Samuel 3:10 telling people to say to God, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.” There was a revival of callings in our church as God invited His people to minister with Him.
God took our surrender to His will and has continually used that to change a church (and pastor) that was inwardly-focused into a church that wants to see healthy churches ignite the atmosphere.
What a great joy partnership between churches has been! There is a new spirit in our church. Now, when we have too many people in attendance, we assume God is bringing us another place to send great leaders, whether for a season or a lifetime calling. We have an unwritten policy here: If there is a church in need, we want to be the ones that help, or pray, or love them with all our resources. God took our surrender to His will and has continually used that to change a church (and pastor) that was inwardly-focused into a church that wants to see healthy churches ignite the atmosphere. We must decrease. He will increase.
The book of Revelation talks about seven churches in varying states of health, but Jesus is the only One that keeps them open or closes them. I cannot open the church, I cannot close the church. I am not the one that makes a church healthy. You wouldn’t know it from looking at my ridiculous ego, but through church replanting, God ‘helped’ me remember that I am not as strong as I think I am. I wonder what great lessons God would teach you through obedience this year.
“I want you to try replanting. It will be difficult to the point of tears and repentance, and the world will see Jesus in your love for the hurting ones.”