In January 2006, I officially left my position as a youth pastor and set off full-time as a church planter in Lansing, MI. I was 22 when I went to the assessment center in August 2005 and was ready to save the world a few months later at 23.
I was naive, arrogant, insecure and full of subconscious motives.
Now I’ve just turned 33 (the age Jesus died; several of my pastor friends reminded me of this), and this September our church will celebrate the 10 year anniversary of our public launch. Here’s some of the biggest things I’ve learned over the past 10 years:
Don’t Throw Stones
So much arrogance can be cloaked in “critical thinking” and “observation.” 10 years ago, I felt superior to the way the established church was doing things. I would throw stones in private conversations at specific established churches, typically the larger ones in my area. What a direct rebellion against Jesus’ desire for the Church to be unified! What an insult to the Kingdom of God.
A Lot of the Bathwater is Just Fine
The phrase, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” is often used with church planting. Don’t throw out Jesus and the gospel as you throw out the things of the established church that “don’t work.” What I had to learn the hard way is that a lot of the stuff in the established church works just fine and my reason for getting rid of it was arrogance (and my feeling of superiority), not usefulness. What I mean is, I discovered there actually was a purpose for things like greeters, a paper bulletin and an expected format of sermon and songs. We were trying to do things so “cutting edge” (needlessly) that we outpaced culture. “Outpaced” isn’t the right word; more like we just swung and missed. We didn’t have the word “church” in our name when we started, and the name of our church was Barefoot! Rather than thinking this was cool, edgy or attractive, (or breaking down barriers to the gospel as we had hoped) most people thought we were a hippy church and significant barriers were built up instead. Making tweaks to the established church is needed and fine, dismantling the whole thing because you think you’re the smartest person on the block is not.
Subconscious Motives are Slavemasters
I planted a church because I wanted to see people come to know Jesus. Or at least that’s what I told myself and anyone who asked. So why was I so glum when we had our first conversion to Christ in our ministry? Because we were only averaging around 25 people in attendance! My conscious (and verbal) motive was to see people accept Christ and to see lives changed, but time and circumstances revealed my subconscious motive, which was my real motive: to fill my insecurity. It was to fulfill the expectation I felt from my donors, church planting network, and church planting classes and textbooks about what a successful church plant was supposed to look like. My concept of being a valuable person was based in having a visually successful church plant. The church planting lore told me if I should have around 150 people at our first weekend service and around 80 at our second and would grow to around 200 within the first few years. We had 50 and then 18 and were under 50 people for our first four years. The number one question people ask a church planter is(especially when you’re simultaneously in seminary, as I was), “How big is your church?” It’s no surprise I dealt with clinical depression for the first time in my life.
The Only Way to Learn Humility is for God to Drag your Face through the Mud
Our first church location came about from a cold call email I sent an established church in our target neighborhood. I asked if we could use their building on Saturday nights and for some crazy reason, they said yes. The pastor, still a friend of mine, was in his late 50’s and had also planted a church when he was 22. He had sympathy on me so he agreed to meet with me! He told me in one of our earliest conversations that we could use their building (for free) and that he was praying we would fail. We still laugh about this, both because he said it, and because God answered his prayer! He explained to me that one of the worst things that could happen to a young pastor, especially a church planter, was immediate success. Immediate success goes straight to your ego and there’s hardly a 22-year-old in the world who can handle that in a non-sinful way. We can of course put spiritual sounding blankets over it, but it’s almost always there. My ego is already a monster that’s very difficult to reign in, I can’t imagine what would have happened had I received the success I wanted when I wanted it. By God’s grace, he dragged my face through the mud. For years and years and years. (See: How God Uses Failure to Protect Us, Mold Us & Mature Us)
God Doesn’t Need Me; I Need God
In one of my deeper pits of depression (I think it was year 5 or 6), I had a significant breakthrough with a psychologist I was seeing. This was the first non-Evangelical counselor I had been to, and that factor proved to be very significant. As Evangelicals, we think the worst possible thing in the world is that our church close down. As if the Kingdom of God would collapse if my 50-person, 5-year-old church plant in Lansing, MI closed down. Of course objectively, this is ridiculous, but it feels this way. And if it feels this way, it is this way as far as my stress level and depression are concerned. Therapists call this “catastrophic thinking.” My non-Evangelical psychologist’s main concern is eliminating my depression. The lifespan of a 50-person start-up church in a dingy $800/month storefront really wasn’t a high priority to him–it was pretty evident that this animal wasn’t something to bend over backwards to save, but was the predator and culprit devouring my soul bite by bite. In fact, as a Catholic, the whole idea of a new church was strange and frankly, unneeded. His objectivity was so liberating for me. Here is this client in his office in a deep depression (and asking for help) because he had melted his soul into this unneeded 50-person church. My psychologist asked me, “What’s the worst thing that would happen if your church closed down?” I told him I’d have to get a different job (Dun dun dun! Sounds like the end of the world to me…). He asked me if I felt like I could get a different job, if I was hire-able. I said yes, that wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, it would be a relief. Boom. Huge shackles broke away. As I walked down this path further, I realized I had been living like God needed me. This is the complete opposite of how we are designed to be in relationship with God; it’s no wonder I felt imprisoned and defeated! Learning to live like I need God (leaning on him and trusting him) has been a long and slow journey, something I certainly haven’t mastered, but is the only path of freedom and peace.
What I hope to have learned 10 years from now…
Ten years from now when I’m 43, I hope I can write another blog post about some significant things I’ve learned between now and then. I gladly invite your prayers for me along these lines:
To not be so jealous. Specifically, jealous of large churches (even though I don’t want my church to be large), jealous of pastors at large churches, jealous of conference speakers, and jealous of pastors and writers with large blog followings and / or large book sales.
To not be so judgmental. Almost all of my jealousy morphs into judgement. Cynical, critical, self-righteous judgment.
To see how tiny and powerless I am in contrast to God’s magnitude, God’s sovereignty and God’s glory. “He must become greater; I must become less.” -John the Baptist (John 3:30)
To not care about who gets the credit. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13)
That I’ll stop trying to protect myself and learn to fully trust God.
That I’ll stop caring what people think of me. Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)
- Ep. 69: Pastor Jack and Becky Sytsema on being in a mixed orientation marriage and how the Church should treat LGBTQ+ people - August 8, 2022
- Ep. 68: Thoughts on Hillsong Exposed, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, & Willow Creek - July 19, 2022
- The Flip Side Ep. 67: Jack Sytsema shares about being a gay / same sex attracted pastor in a mixed orientation marriage - June 25, 2022