Six years ago today, after several months of meeting as two household groups, our church, Providence Church Midland, decided to do a public gathering every fortnight, and household on the other weekend.
We rented an old building in Midland, the old Midland bank:
About thirty or so of us turned up (no visitors despite a few invites and promises), and it was clanky and echoey, even in the small room we met in. Our oldest attendee, 90 year old founder of Vose Seminary in Perth, Dr Noel Vose, bravely put up with the cacophony and, as usual, had a pertinent point to make about the preaching.
My friend Damon, who planted with me, is the eternal optimist and saw it as a great start. I was my usual bunch of nerves. I just spoke to him this very morning as he was inducted in a church about 400km away where he is doing another start up – this time of a new internship program for the huge area south of Perth where people find it hard to get good, low cost, low key theological training. Six years ago I could not have done without his start up skills, he’s a natural.
I’ve learned a lot in those six years. And it’s instructive that I’m sitting writing this in the middle of a sabbatical in which I have handed on the Senior Pastor role to another young bloke who came out from the UK to work with me, and who has a great gift in building teams, and ensuring good communication lines are open.
So on this auspicious occasion, here are six things I have learned over the six years since we first publicly planted Providence Church Midland.
- It Always Feels Fragile, Always! Back then, with few people, few resources, but good gospel hearts, church felt fragile. It felt like a change of wind, circumstances, could blow it over. I remember thinking “In a few years time it will feel strong and much easier, and we’ll be on our feet in such a way that it won’t feel fragile. It always has, even when 150 people turn up, we’ve got a good eldership, and are looking at office space. It always feels fragile.
- Feeling Fragile Is a Positive. Imagine how little of God, of His gospel, of His Holy Spirit, you would need – or at least feel you need – if you felt like you were more than capable of growing this thing in your own strength. Time and time again in the six years we’ve had to come to terms with the fact that this organic thing called church is not meant to be sleek and strong and impenetrable. It’s meant to feel raw, and real and earthy, because it’s a living thing. And it’s living because Christ lives among his people for all our faults and failures.
- You Will Have Faults and Failures. Planting a church is a very exposing thing to do. Especially as you grow. Your faults and failures are harder to hide in smaller groups, and as a pastor it’s easy to become picky, narky or just plain arrogant when people don’t do what you want them to do. God has a way of exposing the planter’s true heart when things are a struggle. And sometimes I didn’t like what I saw in my heart. But better to find it out early and deal with it. I can only imagine what an unattended fault in a pastor can do over time in a church. Actually I can imagine, as, all too sadly, we see it all the time.
- Some People Will Let You Down, Some People Will Pick You Up. Church planters need to gird their loins for the fact that some people will let them down. Now in a larger church that’s also the case, but it’s often easier to dissipate the pain in a crowd. But when a family leaves a small plant, for no seemingly good gospel reason, then it can sting. A lot. And the temptation is to become proud or bitter. And the lure of insulating yourself from further pain by become more distant and aloof is always there. But don’t do it. I’ve said it before, but God doesn’t make leaders, he breaks leaders. Brittle, unbroken leaders are a toxic hazard to the church, and can load up burdens on people that they cannot bear. Conversely, some people, gloriously, will pick you up. I am so grateful to God for so many of the beautiful people, who in their own struggles and issues and pains, work alongside us in the gospel, and share their very lives with us.
- The Gospel Changes Lives. Our church is not only average, it’s an average version of average. No bells and whistles, not in a funky part of town, no building or ministry of its own that everyone talks about or knows. Thankfully the gospel does the work of growing God’s church. And we’ve seen it time and time again. People saved out of the blue. Marriages restored after difficult times. Single people live lives of godliness. Wounded people being gathered around by the flock. Mourning people being cried with. Baptising someone who just months before had no knowledge of God’s grace, and then Ka-boom! There’s something wonderful about that – something in the same vein as seeing a baby born, because that’s exactly what new birth is like!
- God Brings the Right People Along to Serve and Lead. Church plants are hungry for leaders and some people are good at training others. I have to confess that’s not me. If our plant grew by anything that we can physically pinpoint it’s probably because I am a gatherer and a moderate-to-okay preacher. My wife Jill and I also have the ability to consistently and constantly host twenty or so people in our house to get this thing off the ground. But six years on it is off the ground. When Damon left to do other things I wondered what would happen, but God brought Mark, from the UK to help out. Mark only heard of us by reading a blog post I wrote a few years back called Church Planting Mongrels and figured he was a mongrel. And he certainly is! Although only young, he had the chutzpah to turn up in Perth with his family on the promise of zero money, and see if he could be involved and perhaps work with us at some stage. That’s risky and mongrelly right there. Now, with Mark in the Senior role, we’re looking at how Providence could plant out again in a year or two, and send a trained team to do so.
So that’s it. There’s plenty more. And there’s plenty of these things that are true of all churches, not just plants. But somehow these things sharpen up in a small, struggling, beautiful church plant where people love and serve each other in the gospel, and seek to find new ways to share that with those who haven’t turned to Jesus yet.
And yes, I’m looking forward to the next six years, whatever that looks like.