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Tag: replanting

Ministry in the Ditched Cities of America

Recently the city I grew up in, live in, and minister in appeared at the top of a national list by Bloomberg. It had the dubious honor of being the “most ditched city in America.” The El Paso Times laid out the grisly details that “In 2013, El Paso reported a net loss of 1.37 percent, losing 11,437 more people to other U.S. communities than moved here.” It’s a two-fold problem: the job market is slow here, especially for high-paying upper middle class jobs, and elsewhere the economies of Dallas, Austin, Houston and other Texas cities are booming.

Here’s what this means in my church: Over the last 10 years we’ve watched as, slowly and painfully, our church members have relocated elsewhere. In a church of less than 200 people until very recently, we’ve seen dozens of our best people leave over the last several years. We lost 10% of our members, then lost 10% again, and after that we lost count. To some degree, it continues today.

It’s not all bad news, though. The city is in the midst of something of a cultural resurgence — with a resurgent Downtown, innovative restaurants, and a stronger art and music scene–and there’s hope that brighter days may be just ahead. But right now the reality is that for many there are better jobs and more amenities pulling elsewhere. So how do you minister in a place like this?

Perhaps you’re in a city where unemployment is high, where jobs are scarce, where it’s not unusual for a family at church to catch you on Sunday and say, “We’re leaving.” Even if you’re not there now you may well be called to a place like this someday, or find yourself there by circumstance. In an era with a renewed emphasis on the Christians moving into “the city” the reality is that not all cities are thriving. So what do you do?

Here are a few ideas for how to minister in the ditched cities of America.

1) Ground yourself in your calling

In areas like this it’s easy to battle discouragement and to think, “What am I even doing here?!” The answer is found in Scripture: You’re there because because Jesus has called you there. Jesus said “as the father sent me so I am sending you” (John 20:21) and even then El Paso was one of the places the Father knew his disciples would go.

Jesus still loves El Paso. There are lost people that need to hear about a Savior. There are marriages that can be restored. There are addicts that can find hope. There are young adults burned out on sex and music and longing for eternal life. In that place Jesus says, “Go therefore…and make disciples…” (Matt 28:18-20).

It’s also crucial to remember that your calling really is this simple. There are times when faithfulness will not mean that your attendance or budget go up that year. It’s easy when things are hard to subtly drift into prioritizing people in seats over biblical priorities. So ground yourself in your biblical calling.

2) Trust the Preached Word

In the first few years of ministry here the slow but constant pull of church members out of the church made me anxious and casting around for “The Strategy” that would somehow fix the problem. I tried too many things, driven by too many worries. But all along I kept preaching. And as I preached the word did things in people’s lives.

At the end of his life, writing to his protege in the faith, Paul urges Timothy:  “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus… preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1-2 ESV). The priority of preaching is clear in the abstract, say, in a cabin as you pray on a retreat. But the siren song of new strategies or methods can lure your confidence away. “No,” Paul says to us stubbornly, “preach the word.”

Trust that God’s Word will do God’s work in God’s way. There are many things you simply cannot control, but faithfulness in preaching is one thing you can control. So brother, preach the Word.

3) Invest Generously

I remember coming home from a church party once, hearing at least four of the couples there talking about considering moving, and fighting severe discouragement. But the next day I was fighting a different temptation–the temptation to pull away from the four couples that were talking about moving. It’s tempting to try to judge “will this person be around 5 years from now?” and invest only in people that you think have a shot of staying.

But we’re called to care for the sheep, regardless of how long they’re in our care. We’re called to disciple people who will go out and make disciples, regardless of whether that’s in our city or far beyond. While there’s nothing wrong with investing intentionally in men and women that will likely be around for many years, there is something wrong with closing off your heart and time to others.

And God, graciously, sometimes defies logic: one of our deacons moved from Buffalo, NY to attend grad school here and planned to leave as soon as it was done. He’s still here 5 years later. You never know what God will do as you invest generously in the people around you.

4) Broaden Your Vision

Jesus is doing big, amazing things, not just in your city but around the world. It’s one thing to rejoice in people moving away to take the gospel to India, it’s another to rejoice that an out-of-work dad found a job in Dallas and will be going to make disciples there. But it’s no less true. Learn to love the many cities your former members will find themselves and rejoice that you got to play a part in the gospel work of cities far beyond you.

After all, our call is to make disciples in “all nations.” Jesus wants us to have a global vision. If that’s true then surely we can have a national and regional vision.

5) Call Your Church to Love Your City

I love my city. It’s not the best looking, doesn’t have a powerhouse economy, doesn’t even have a Whole Foods (yet). But I still call my church to love my city. I still invite people to stay for 5 or 10 or 50 years to invest in the church and community.

In Jeremiah 29:7 God calls his people, even in exile, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV). We are still in exile (1 Peter 1) and called to work hard, and respectably where God has placed us, and we too can carry on our hearts the welfare of our cities.

In the Bible Jesus doesn’t call us to love cities in the abstract, per se. But he calls us to love people. And loving people also means loving them in their context. You don’t have to love the geography or economy or cuisine, but you should love the people. And here’s what I’ve found: as you love those people you will begin to love what they do, what restaurants they run, what community activities they participate in. The reverse is also true to a large degree: as you find things you love about your city you’ll grow your heart for the people there.

There are reasons to love your city. They may not be the same reasons people love other cities, but there are people doing cool things in cool places right around you. Find them. Celebrate them in front of your people. This won’t mean that all your people will stay. But it will mean that while they’re in your city they’ll have a greater heart for it. And sometimes, it will mean people will feel burdened to stay and help.

6) Trust God

I have friends that have planted churches in booming suburban areas with houses, schools, shopping centers, and amenities going up every week. Optimism and opportunity are in the air. In some ways it’s easier to walk those streets and think, “God could do something here.” It’s another thing to walk through a largely empty downtown at night and think, “God could do something here.”

In this way ministering in a ditched city is a blessing. Yes, a blessing. Because it forces you to rely on God, not on strategy or economy or anything else.

So take heart, friend, if you find yourself on the outside of cultural coolness. Take heart, if you’ve watched too many people say goodbye. Take heart, if younger people diss your city. Take heart in the words Galatians 6:9 “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 ESV). We can’t make the crops grow, but we can trust the Lord of the Harvest.

The Epitaph Over Pastors & Kings

This is the reality: when you’re planting or replanting a church the biggest battle you’ll face is not wrestling a new structure into place, laying out clear values, or prepping sermons. It’s not even leading your family, loving your wife, and making sure you have good friendships where you can be real. I was prepared for some of these things.

But the biggest battle I’ve faced in the last four years as a pastor has been in my own heart. I’m talking about my relationship to the Lord–whether it’s tentative, or hurried, whether it’s inclined quickly to the Lord or must be bent back to him by circumstance, whether it’s warm or cold.

This one thing changes how I respond to conflict or uncertainty in the church.
This one thing changes how I respond to temptation.
This one thing changes my mindset as I step into the pulpit.

This. The state of my heart in relationship to the Lord.

David charges his son Solomon this way: “Know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought.” (1 Chron 28:9).

In the books of Chronicles the Chronicler applies one judgment over and over to the kings of Israel & Judah. In these chaotic reigns where kingship is quickly gained and quickly lost, where foreign powers bat the kingdoms around, where apostasy is rampant, there is still one standard of judgment: the heart of the king toward the Lord.

Solomon knows the importance of his heart but it’s stolen away by foreign women and gods. For some kings, even among other failures it is their saving grace (2 Chron 15:17). For other kings, among other successes, it is their damning epitaph (2 Chron 12:14). The writer evaluates the reign of each king this way–whether their heart is inclined toward the Lord or away from him. Essentially, sometimes this serves as the extent of the Chronicler’s comments in a king. “Because,” he seems to say, “It’s all you need to know.”

It seems so clear, doesn’t it? Yes, of course, the heart. When I’m replanting or pastoring I’ll make sure I have a day retreat every week week! I’ll take long walks in the early dawn hours. I’ll climb a mountain and write my whole sermon from there. 

But life looks different away from the mountaintop. You run over budget numbers in your mind on your way to the next meeting. You meet with ministry leaders trying to resolve issues. You groan when the air conditioner breaks again.

I’ve learned this matters. The state of my heart matters far more than my next appointment or next message. Making time for this isn’t just a good thing to do, it changes everything.

The Bottom Line

Do you know, without thinking about it too much, whether your heart is inclined toward the Lord this week? This year?
If it is, remind yourself that this matters. Immensely. God rejoices.
If it is not, don’t fix your small groups before you fix this.
If you’re not sure, take some time to pray and consider.

Then consider talking a walk through the books of Chronicles and seeing why it matters so very much.

The Exact Order to Change Things In

When it comes to replanting or revitalizing a church the questions everyone seems to ask are: What do you change and when?

Here’s what I felt like learned from my first read-through of Mike McKinley’s book on replanting: Basically, you should start preaching expositionally and then clean up your church bylaws and then have a lot of people over for lunch and then God will do crazy things like helping you plant a Spanish speaking immigrant church. I found the book helpful but ultimately walked away thinking, “But what am supposed to do if I actually find myself in that situation?”

You can see, then, why I was curious to see Mike McKinley at a seminar with Q&A. I hoped to get into some real specifics. So at the Q&A I asked my question: “But how did you decide what to change first? Then second? Basically how did you prioritize?” He thought about it for a second then (essentially) said this:

I started chipping away at the big priorities, then I just changed what I could when I could.

If I’m honest I thought, “What kind of a hilariously unhelpful answer is that? Why would he not get specific about what to do?”

It’s only in retrospect, after a few years of church revitalization, that I see some profound principles in Mike’s answer.

1) No one can answer the questions everyone asks.

No one can tell you specifically what to change at your church, because it’s too specific. There is no template you can simply throw over the top of your church and kickstart it back into gear.

What I’m trying to say is this: church planting is not replanting and replanting is not revitalization. For all their complexity I’d argue that church plants have more similarity than replants do, within their own type of model. Say you want to raise 60k and launch a Sunday gathering in 6 months–there are books on how to do that. Say you want to grab 20 friends and live in a missional community aiming to replicate through organic relationships–there are books on how to do that. There are seminars on how to launch a multi-site.  In contrast, the replanting books can either be very general, or tell their own specific story, which is often so specific that it may or may not be helpful.

The situation Nehemiah encountered called for different leadership and priorities than the situation Ezra encountered, despite their similar eras. Nehemiah wrestled with external enemies and Ezra wrestled with the hearts of the people. And God, speaking into the same time period, used different encouragement in Haggai and a different motivation for a call to build the temple. Rebuilding a church devastated by sin and scandal, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians dealt with specific issues like the misuse of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12-14) and called for an encouraging opening (1 Cor 1). In contrast, the revitalizing work among the Galatians called for a sharp tone (Gal 1).

I carried around this low-level paralyzing thought most of the time in the early days: “What am I supposed to be doing right now?” I felt like there was some script for success I should be following but couldn’t find. But there was no script other than the Bible. There are some principles to allow to guide you, but there aren’t steps in as specific an order as planting. If you allow it to, this can drop a weight from your shoulders.

2) Identifying and chipping away at the big priorities matters more than you feel like it does.

Anytime you’re in a replant or church revitalization situation you’re tempted to constantly be looking around the corner for the perfect program, sermon series, or structure to fix all that ails the church. But that will exhaust you and exhaust your church.

Paul writes to the Philippians “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you” (3:1 ESV).  Paul loved the Philippians–they were even doing well as a church. But Paul wrote the “same things” to them again. Similarly, in 2 Peter, the Apostle reminds his readers in his has last letter “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder” (1:13 ESV). No new information, rather, Peter draws attention to the same things he’s written about before. Rather than writing on a new world-changing strategy, Paul and Peter both “remind” their readers of the “same things.”

When everything in your replant situation is crying out for attention — your kids ministry is a broken, your greeters don’t show up, your sound team is asking for more money– remember those things are still not as important as the big priorities. Good preaching matters. Improving the quality of your teaching week to week, expositing the text faithfully and applying it to your situation will have a powerful cumulative effect. Practicing hospitality and being available to members will require time, but they are crucial over the long haul. Training leaders who may not make a difference next week, or even next year, feels like wasted time but is part of the church’s future.

Whatever you do, chip away at what matters most. Slowly. Faithfully. Week in and week out.

3) Changing what you can, when you can, is often the best way to change things.

In the natural life cycle of the church, leaders step down, ministries need quick retooling, old traditions get put on the table. Sometimes you can pray and plan and teach on small groups with little to no effect, but spontaneously a new ministry leader in another area emerges when someone steps down. You really want the small groups to change, but there’s a golden opportunity to bring another ministry in line with the rest of the church’s vision. So what do you do? Keep chipping away at the big priorities, but don’t be afraid to take the opportunity and change what you can in that other ministry.

This is hard for me because I like to have all my ducks in a row. I come up with a logical order (nearly perfect, actually) for how to make changes to the church, but then circumstances come up spontaneously to wreck that plan. That’s where flexibility matters. If you’ve been wanting to change your lighting and you have to replace the lights anyway, change the lighting. If you’ve been wanting to change your bulletin and a graphic designer volunteers time for it, change the bulletin. Without being vague and mystical about all this, it’s important to see the hand of providence at work in your church and seek to go with it.

[Note: This requires having a pretty clear and comprehensive biblical vision and clear methodology for your church, so that as things fall into your lap you can mold them into the direction of the overall plan. But that’s another post.]

Sustaining Advice 

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for the first year or so of replanting Mike McKinley’s advice drove me nuts, but then for the next two years it was constant and friendly companion. It freed me, sustained me, and encouraged me to be bold. I hope it will encourage you to do the same.