Every so often I come across a website or a Facebook page of some type of new church start, a church plant of sorts from any given part of country. Immediately when reading and checking out these churches websites the one thing that comes to mind is how much money must be going into the said churches for them to get established. Before becoming a pastor none of these things would have registered with me because 3 years of pastoring a small and poor congregation makes one privy to certain realities like the expenses involved in marketing (mass mail outs, advertising in the local papers and radio stations etc.) and hiring a full praise team and music director or simply having a secretary. What’s now apparent to me is that church plants cost a lot of money. And that’s fine with me, I’m not knocking church plants or who they reach but whenever I see the church putting forth tons and tons of money to reach the lost I get an empty feeling in my stomach. And like I said it’s not because I am opposed to what church plants are about in general. In fact, I’m all for starting new congregations and doing things a little differently from the normal Lutheran way.
The empty feeling that I get stems from the fact that I have a tough time reconciling the way of Jesus with this way. I have a tough time reconciling expensive marketing techniques with Jesus’ way of reaching people. I have a tough time reconciling Jesus of Nazareth with the hip looking pastor of the church plant who comes with gelled hair, designer jeans and vintage t-shirt. Basically I have a tough time reconciling the way of Jesus with the way of American Christianity. And please forgive me if I sound harsh because that is not my intention. But the Jesus found in the Gospels really doesn’t jive with this culture of an amazing praise band, sleek pastor, marketing perfection and ingenuity.
My question is “whatever happened to simply being human with another human being?” Why are such vast operations required or even assumed or expected in order to reach the lost? Why do we come expecting to get something out of that person who comes through the doors of our church building, movie theater or storefront? Why can’t we just serve and love without the ulterior motive of numbers and success? This is the model of ministry for Jesus of Nazareth and the early church. There wasn’t an effort to seem appealing to the people, to the surrounding culture of the day. Rather they were just themselves and it was through persecution, through death that they grew mysteriously like that mustard seed that Jesus spoke of. As I spend more time with Jesus, as I read the Gospels I find myself further alienated from the church that so often seems to be concerned with worldly success and status. And I know the Augustine quote about the church being a whore and yet also my mother. I know that one. But when the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t really seem to get much play in our minds apart from Him dying for my sins I get a little disappointed, don’t you? Jesus was poor, came from the town of Nazareth which many thought nothing good could come from, he openly dismisses the leaders of the day, doesn’t care about status or political clout or even saying the right words to the right people and marketing his brand.
By all worldly standards I’m a failure as a pastor. I came here in July of 2009 and despite the uptick in attendance from previous years not much has changed in terms of new people coming through our doors. Sure, I can give you a list of people who have come and gone, moved in and then moved out but nonetheless we’ve remained relatively small. I’ve done the marketing thing as far as money would allow, we’ve gotten a beautiful new sign and painted the church an eye catching red, I’ve spent plenty of time in the community, I’ve followed up with guests and consistently urged familiar faces to check us out. But we still average 18 a Sunday. Unfortunately I don’t think the LCMS Reporter will be reporting on my successes nor will I be on the cover of the Lutheran Witness nor do I think I will be featured in Concordia Seminary magazine. But I’m okay with that and I am also okay with those publications spotlighting some amazing ministries that we have in our church body.
Oddly enough I sit here writing this on a bench in a park in Glenwood Springs and a few hundred feet behind me are some of the homeless men I’ve gotten to know through our feeds and being around town. There they are, real people. Men in need of love and mercy just like me. Some good, some bad, some upstanding, some despicable. But nonetheless human beings. I’m not exactly sure which ones are Christians and which ones aren’t. Some have gotten a little nasty with me due to their previous experiences with the church. That’s okay I can deal with that, the point for me is not to get them in my church rather to simply love them as Christ has loved me. That’s the agenda. It took me a little while to get that concept as a new pastor, it’s easy to see people as potential members, as one more body in the pew giving more money so that we can finally get a music director and not sing along to recordings. Oh and let me not forget personal glory! I could picture the headlines so quickly, “New Pastor Grows Diminished Church”. But that’s not what God had in store. I sit here writing on a park bench with a growing and intense love for the Gospel of Mark. I’m not concerned about growing the church in the same ways as before rather I’m concerned, obsessively I might add, with knowing Jesus deeper. I refuse to see people as potential converts but rather as human beings who I am called to love. I’m not concerned with my synodical political attachments, I’d rather camp out in the mountains than rub shoulders with the rich and powerful. I still feel called to be a pastor but more so a servant concerned with justice and mercy, concerned with people. So who knows where the Lord will lead. All of this reminds me of a scene from the Office Season 3 when Michael Scott said to Ryan (who had just said that Dunder Mifflin would eventually fail and go out of business) “People, Ryan. And people will never go out of business.”