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When young pastors get dreams of church planting in their heads, the dream almost always entails them standing up before large crowds. To this end, almost all church plants rush too quickly to the weekly worship service and many die upon this hill. Below is my ‘count the cost’ moment. Weekly large gatherings can be the lifeblood of a community or its death. In my experience, here is what is needed for a relatively simple weekly worship service:

  • 40 people
    • Without this, when the wind blows the wrong way, you will have 18 people in worship, half of whom are in the band. It will be deflating, not uplifting.
  • A preacher/liturgist (10-40 hours/week)
    • Coordinate and prepare liturgy each week (1 to 3 hours/week)
    • Sermon (5-25 hours/week)
    • Need a backup preacher for vacations, sick days, etc.
    • Regular preaching creates an expectation that you are available for hangouts, crisis counseling, hospital visits, new people, etc. (5-10 hours/week)
  • Lead musician (5-7 hours/week)
    • Prep, set up, power point slides, leading, and tear down.
    • Recruit musicians and coordinate practice.
    • Need a backup musician for vacations, sick days, etc.
  • Childcare Coordinator (5-7 hours/week)
    • Recruit and train volunteers.
    • Acquire and maintain background checks for all volunteers.
    • Create or acquire content for kids’ classes.
    • Meet up with struggling teachers.
  • Team of childcare volunteers/Sunday school teachers.
    • A minimum of 2 per week needed. (At least a dozen people).
  • Rental Coordinator
    • To manage the relationship with the landlord and deliver rent on time.
  • Setup and cleanup crew.
  • Food and snacks crew.
  • Tech person.
    •  For microphones, projectors, and all things tech.

All this before discipleship and mission are ever engaged. And this is the heart of the problem. The weekly worship service begins to consume the time and energy of the young church plant, which prevents it from growing, either internally or externally.

Likewise, since you are a young church plant, half your volunteers will quit or flake out. Many an energetic young preacher has been worn down by setting up the chairs, making the coffee, and then having the projector break 5 minutes before the service.

There are ways to simplify a gathering and get around a few of these (i.e, don’t have kids), but they won’t just take care of themselves because you believe God has given you a vision. Weekly worship can be great. But count the cost.

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I am a big fan of Les Miserables.  When I was 17, I had three cassette tapes in my car – Phish, DC Talk, and the Les Miserables soundtrack, and I pretty much know every word of all three.  And as a Christian, I have always been deeply moved by Jean Valjean’s conversion, the amazing moment where the bishop overwhelms him with the gift of the candlesticks and says, “Use this silver to make yourself an honest man.”  Last week, I may have Valjean’d someone.

Two weeks ago, one of our elders pulled me aside at our monthly church gathering and asked if we could put up Billy for the next two weeks.  Billy is one of our college students, but unlike the innocent upbringing of many of our Christian college students, Billy grew up with a meth lab in his house.  Until a year ago, he was a user himself.  During Christmas break, he got in a fight with his parents in which they accused him of being high, to which he responded, “If everyone thinks I’m just a drug user, maybe I should just use.”  Sound like Valjean?

We had an open room, we prayed about it, and decided to put Billy up.  And as it turns out, Billy has an extensive background in construction.  And we happened to have a kitchen floor that was being replaced and a stairwell that was being rebuilt.  Bored and grateful, Billy went to work and proceeded to fix our house.  I kept insisting he didn’t have to do it and he keep assuring me that he knew that.

As he was packing up on the last night, we decided to give Billy a financial gift out of gratitude.  He refused.  I told him it was a gift, not a payment.  He refused.  I told him that if he truly felt bad about it, he could give it to someone who needed it more than him.  And he finally cracked and said, “I am just so grateful you guys let me stay here.  Nobody does that.  I find myself constantly cynical of people in need, but you guys just helped me out.  After two weeks of being here, I actually feel myself changing.  I don’t think I could do what you guys do.  I hope that someday I can.”

It was slightly embarrassing for me as all we did was let him sleep in our house.  But it was a reminder that sermons are wonderful and programs are great – but what truly changes people is when we simply choose to be conduits of God’s grace.  When we let God’s generosity flow through us to others, everyone is changed.  As Billy goes on with life, I hope he knows that he is not prisoner #24601.  He is God’s beloved – forgiven, loved, and set free to be just as generous as the God that loves him.

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What is Redemption?

One of our college students wrote this poem on the topic of “What is Redemption?”

What if Humanity lost its humanity? Well… What does that mean? Could I be a pawn of an organization that seeks the good of itself? Well, that would certainly make sense since it is this American dream that fuels our growth in all the well intentioned evils that spawn across the world from this communal spirit of greed and independence. Perhaps redemption is more than just a buzz word then, but a battle cry; something to be sung about across the burning plains of Wall Street and the TJ Max’s of the world. A state of mind that keeps growing on itself; keeps building up from the bedrock of our souls through the top soil of our hearts, reaching into the hardwoods of our minds and finally purifying the air of this real world that we find ourselves born into. It doesn’t matter if you’re a prince, or just hopeful, a ballerina or just a dancer, living, or just walking; but this world needs you, your responsibility, your mission, your privilege is to plant these seeds of redemption. The well intentioned evils of this world must be held accountable or we risk being devoured by our own twinkling eyes and desires.

The right questions are like a compass and westward breeze leading us home; the right answers are never good enough, like fruit that is ripe they too will one day rot before our eyes only to show us that this world is not static, but dynamic and changing. There are still seeds in that pear; there is still banana bread to be made by those bananas. So what are we waiting for? A green light to stop and think? I have sat long, too long, and tried not to think, tried to just walk, just sleep, just breath; but we’ve been called to something way bigger. This journey is not for those of weak constitutions, those whom embrace the subtle thoughts imposed for then of a system that cares not for them only its own consuming projection or those who like erotic relations. But the good news is that there is no height limit or minimum, no tickets that need bought in advance and no rsvp required; we are invited to think, to reason, to observe and respond. The ability to learn from our past is what sets us apart, it’s what makes us able to think, reason, observe and respond; when we deny its existence, we deny our ability to redeem, to redefine, and to recreate the world around us. We give up our greatest weapon against all the well intentioned evils of this spinning rock.

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Last Monday, Hurricane Sandy blew through Bristol, taking down branches, closing our schools, and knocking out our power.  While I was relieved the damage wasn’t worse, when I woke up Tuesday and the power was out, I put away my ‘To Do’ list and prepared for a day off.  After all, who could be fruitful without the Internet?

At 10 am, my phone went off.  It was Krista, seeing if we were still on for brunch.  I said ‘Sure, why not?’  So James and Krista came over and by candlelight, we discussed life, Bristol, work, and what God was up to in our lives.  About 1 pm, Mike came over and joined the conversation.  Then Brittany and Kristen came by.  Then Shannon, Krisann, and Hanah showed up.  Around 3 pm, after 4 straight hours of conversation, I started to get a little antsy.  Forrest was away on his honeymoon and planning to move out when he returned.  So we all went up to Forrest’s room and packed up his stuff for him.  Around 6 pm, Marjorie came with her parents and we did a historical walking tour of Bristol, in the dark.  And while we talked about the history of Bristol, it was also a time to tell the story of Redemption and invite Marjorie’s parents into what God is up to in Bristol.

At that point, Susan and I headed over to James and Krista’s.  They had a frozen turkey they didn’t want to go bad, so they had cooked a full turkey on Monday.  Around 12 of us ended up gathering at their house and had a Thanksgiving dinner by candlelight.  Finally, near 10 pm, Susan and I walked home through a dark and quiet Bristol, enjoying the full moon and the cool autumn breeze.

Why do I share this story?  First of all, it was a beautiful picture of the family of God.  People didn’t come together for a program or a small group or because the pastor was teaching and they needed to be fed.  They came to simply be together.  And as brothers and sisters, we fed each other, took care of each other, enjoyed one another, and walked towards God together.

Secondly, it was a reminder that people desire love more than comfort.  Half the people who showed up on Tuesday had power and yet they still came to Bristol.  Thus proving that friends are better than electricity.  So often, we try to attract people to Jesus by making things comfortable.  But what people truly want is to be part of something bigger than themselves.  Sometimes we just need a hurricane to remind ourselves of this.

And lastly, it was a reminder that what matters in ministry is people.  I was officially unproductive on Tuesday.  I didn’t send any emails, work on any programs, or write any sermons.  But I was with people.  And as long as I could sit still and let the Spirit of God work, ministry was happening.  There is nothing wrong with email, programs, or sermons.  But they exist to make days like Tuesday happen.  Days where we simply sit, open our lives to one another, and invite God in.  Last Tuesday, I was completely unproductive.  And it was one of the most fruitful days in the history of Redemption Church.

(If you would like to donate to those still struggling from Sandy, visit the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse.)

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It’s difficult to know what any one encounter will ever mean.  Some people pass through our lives quite quickly and we might be tempted to brush off our response to them as insignificant.  But sometimes God pulls back the curtain and reminds us that heavenly things are swirling all around us.  The summer of 2012 started with a very insignificant event here at Redemption Church of Bristol.  Since then, God has been writing a marvelous story.

For the summer of 2012, we decided to try a house church model here at Redemption.  Instead of our standard liturgical service at a local church, we would meet in my living room on Sunday evenings for an informal service, followed by an open-invite barbecue and pool party.  And while I was preparing for week one of summer worship, I got a phone call from a guy named Steve.

I had been trying to sell my old dryer on Craigslist for some time, so when Steve said he and his friend Brian could come pick it up on Sunday night at 7:30, I agreed, even though this was right in the middle of our scheduled barbecue.  I thought, “You can get a dryer out of a house and on a truck in 10 minutes.  This shouldn’t really be a problem.”

So our first service went well and as we were enjoying food together, Steve and Brian showed up to pick up the dryer.  They were both friendly guys and so I asked, “We just pulled some hot dogs off the grill.  You guys want a hot dog?”  They accepted.  3 hours later, we were still hanging out, having talked about hot dogs, houses, jobs, God, life, and everything in between.  Brian turned out to be a Christian, but also someone who admitted some deep struggles in life.  Yet he was eager and joyful to talk about God and overflowing with encouragement for us.  Steve, on the other hand, was a secular Jewish guy, who suddenly realized he was in the middle of a church and started making sarcastic comments about how God was going to strike him down.  Finally, at about 10:30 pm, we called it a night.  We exchanged handshakes and hugs and wondered whether we would ever see these guys again.

The following Saturday morning, I received a phone call from a woman named Sarah.  Sarah and her husband, Bob, were very close friends of Brian’s.  They had basically adopted him and walked with him through all his struggles.  Sarah was calling to let me know that on the previous Sunday, she had been praying for Brian, specifically, that he would meet someone who could connect him to God.  She let me know that on Tuesday, she had talked to Brian and he had gone on and on about Redemption and how blessed he was to have been with us.  And she let me know, quite sadly, that on that Thursday, after a series of terrible things had happened, Brian took his own life. Sarah wanted to pass on Brian’s words about Redemption, and she also wanted to ask if her whole family could come to be with us that Sunday night.

They came.  And our little living room church service suddenly contained a full family, complete with three teenagers.  We prayed together.  We cried together.  They told us stories about Brian and we shared how blessed we had been by him.  And then we hung out.  We shared food.  It was one of the kids’ birthdays and so we had cake.  The kids played games with us.  Sarah

Jesus hanging at our after church BBQ.

sat and talked with our homeless friends for several hours.  And amazingly, Steve, our secular Jewish friend, came back as well.  The family asked me to help at the funeral and I gladly obliged, sharing the hope and comfort of Christ.

If that had been the end of it, it already would have been a beautiful story.  But it keeps going.  Steve has come to church every week since.  Two weeks ago, he opened a Bible for the first time in his life.  This upcoming week, he is bringing the meal and several friends for our barbecue, including Brian’s son.  He still makes sarcastic comments about being the Jewish guy, but from what we can tell, he loves being with us.  Meanwhile, Bob was in charge of cleaning out Brian’s apartment.  He decided to give the furniture to one of our homeless friends, who recently moved into an apartment.

There are few things in life darker than suicide and we have been charged to mourn with those who mourn.  And yet, grace is so big that beauty can emerge from something even this dark.  Hope, healing, and new life are being born out of tragedy.  And all because I offered a hot dog to a stranger.  As the book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

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Changing the Script

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about collective identity.  When a group of people think something bad will happen, it usually does.  Chicago Cubs fans assume their team will choke in the playoffs.  So when a big game comes and something goes wrong, all confidence leaves the building.  And lo and behold, the team chokes.  The entire city of Philadelphia struggled with this for years: “Of course it will go wrong; it’s Philadelphia.”  And the same was true of Ireland for centuries.  Collective identity leads to expected results.

In Bristol, where we faithfully try to be the church, there is a crappy narrative.  Everyone in Bristol assumes that nothing good will happen in Bristol.  They assume all good efforts will end in disappointment.  They assume that nothing can really change.  I’ve been told that Bristol is a lost cause.  I’ve been warned, ‘this place destroys pastors.’  When new and beautiful things happen in Bristol, the town remains distant and skeptical.  The narratives of apathy and defeat become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Emails don’t get returned.  Everyone shows up late.  Local businesses don’t get local support.

It’s become my conviction that if we are going to see this town flourish, we need to change the narrative.  Unfortunately, this seems easier said than done.  And I would love any thoughts as to how to make this happen.  My initial thoughts:

  1. Bathe ourselves in the story of God.  We need to know a different narrative ourselves – one of hope, restoration, and the remaking of all things.  I always say church planters are those who see a place with ‘new eyes.’
  2. Be persistent in hope.  Even when local businesses fail.  Even when first efforts fall apart.  I think we need to be almost stupidly hopeful.
  3. Preach it on the streets.  We can’t just preach it on Sundays.  We have to get out of our church building and help Bristolians rediscover hope.  We need to challenge the reigning despair and be public witnesses of the new life of Christ.

This still needs some work.  I would love your thoughts.  When a town or an institution is drowning in its own negative narrative, how do you change the script?

“Into the ear of every anarchist who sleeps but doesn’t dream, we must sing, we must sing, we must sing.”

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This picture is from our 2nd Annual Redemption Beach Day, where we take our homeless friends to the beach. This year, we took 14 people to Island Beach State Park and had wonderful time of fellowship and fun; a beautiful opportunity for our homeless friends to feel normal for a day.

As we settled in for the night at a local beach house, I got a phone call. “Pastor Gary!  You better come down here!!” A few of our friends had wandered off, bought some beer, and, when confronted by the local police, one of them had mouthed off. Lacking identification or even a good explanation for what they were doing at the beach, they were in trouble. As I ran down the block, I found them being grilled by three policemen who were ready to haul them away. And I said, “Yeah, they’re with me.” I proceeded to explain who they were, who I was, and what we were doing at the beach. The police let them go.

I’ve thought about that statement a lot: “They’re with me.” Isn’t that what Jesus says about us all? Whether we are broken down sinners or egotistical abusers, Christ looks on us with compassion, turns to the Father and says, “Yeah, they’re with me.” And we are set free. Maybe ministry isn’t much more than that – throwing in your lot with the sinner, the skeptic, the lost, and the wayward. Identifying with those who don’t deserve solidarity. Standing as one with the screw ups and saying, “Yeah, they’re with me.” And then letting the grace of Christ flow through you so that healing, hope, and salvation come to this broken world.

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