i.love.structures.part.1

So far in this church planting venture God has decided that bi-vocational ministry is the way it must be for me. Along with the pastor thing, I am also an architectural designer. I have a passion for design. My primary source of fascination is the interplay between structure and form. If that confuses you, indulge me for a brief explanation. Every object has a “form”. This refers to its physical shape and dimension. Every object also has structure. Sometimes an object’s form is exactly the same as its structure. For instance, the form of a snowflake is also the structure of it. Some objects have a form that requires a supportive structure. For instance, a pup-tent has the form of a triangular box, but its structure is usually two masts and some stakes in the ground. Apart from each other, they look very different. So then, my fascination is how the two (form and structure) interplay.

For a guy like me, the Beijing Olympics was very exciting – but perhaps not for the reasons you might guess. I really did not care at all about the competitions that were taking place. Instead, I was taken by the architectural masterpieces that China commissioned for the games. Two buildings in particular really got me excited: the National Aquatics Center (‘water-cube’) and the National Stadium (‘bird nest’). I salivate at the thought of those two buildings. They are marvelous structures. Again, I am mostly intrigued by the interplay between form and structure. Wow.

I share all of that to hopefully illustrate the passion that overtakes me as I begin to evaluate and massage the structural model of my church plant. Not the building – but the church itself. I am just as fascinated with the interplay between calling, leadership, values, processes/programs, resources, passion, people and God’s spirit-fuel as I am about the form-structure thing. The really fun part is that unlike a building that is built and then finished, this model is constantly changing. We adjust here, cut there, push here, stretch there. This constant fluidity is actually one of the metrics we use when evaluating things. If that model ever becomes stagnant, that means that we are not adjusting things to keep up with God’s work.

More on this in the next post.

threading.the.needle

Limited resources – from money to people, most church plants live with limited resources. Now, before someone gets all “holy” on me, understand that I understand that God’s resources are unlimited, but for whatever reason (and there are many) church planters typically deal with a very limited resource set. It has been my observation that in spite of the level of resources available, church planters share one thing in common and in abundance – passion. We want to see God’s love poured out over people and real life-change occurring in as many people as possible. The problem is that our passion, more often than not, far outpaces the available resources. So then, the very real challenge facing church planters is to make the most of those resources.

I don’t know how rare this is, but as a young boy, I was actually shown how to sew. No, I am not talking about being able to make a garment, just the repair sort of thing – replacing buttons, fixing a pulled hem. One of the challenges for my young hands was threading a needle. I remember my aunt telling me that I needed to get rid of the frays in the thread and sharpen the end of the thread to get it into the needle’s eye. Trial and error taught me how to accomplish it. First I would try to lightly wet the thread with my mouth and twist the thread. Usually this would work, but sometimes it would not. Sometimes the frays were just too much to be able to smooth out in this manner. For those times, a more drastic method was necessary. I had to break out the scissors, and cut the end of the thread at a sharp angle. Sometimes, I had to combine this with the first method.

I have often had to apply these techniques to our church plant. We are always threading needles. We have big dreams for our church plants. God has given us a wide vision of the future of this work we are tasked with. Remembering that it takes many steps to get there is a necessary discipline. We cannot do everything with limited resources. The trick is to do what must be done, and no more than that. Notice that I did not say “what can be done” – I said “what must be done”. Just because the capability might be there does not mean the justification is there. The “frays” are what make the job hard. Without a focused point, the thread simply will not go into the needle’s eye. It just won’t. As long as we allow them to linger, the needle will not be threaded. We have got to focus our efforts as much as possible. Some wise person once said that he would rather do one thing extremely well than to do a lot of things with mediocre or barely adequate results. That is, in my opinion, a wise maxim for church planting. The challenge is choosing that one thing.

Oh yes – I almost forgot. Remember, sometimes I had to cut the thread – the frays were just too stubborn. Sometimes, this technique also has to be applied to church planting. Despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes a ministry area becomes so unfocused that the plug just has to be pulled on the whole thing. That, speaking from experience, is a very humbling position in which to find one’s self. Perhaps it is a pride issue, but for whatever reason, once we start something we loathe the thought of stopping it. However, we know that we cannot allow something is not working to drain resources in vain. Take out the scissors and make the cut. It may feel like a failure or a defeat, but in the long run we will find that it was worth it. We can never be adverse to change, even a complete overhaul, if it isn’t working.

I am no expert, and am only commenting upon my own experience as a current church planter. But ironically, I believe that the resource problem is a healthy one, and probably divinely designed. It causes on lean heavily on prayer and to expect miracles. It forces us to focus in order to be effective. It causes us to assign high value to the essential things and to scrutinize the “frays”. If we embrace the situation, and allow it to guide us (with the Holy Spirit’s leading), we should have healthier church plants, which become healthy churches.

seeing.orange

When we started our church plant, we inherited the assets of a church that had closed. The closing was an unfortunate thing for that church, but God redeemed the hard work and sacrifices of that congregation as these inherited assets were re-purposed for our church plant. One of those assets was a group of wood-framed chairs with burnt-orange cushions. While they would not have been our first choice of color and material, they are nonetheless quite comfortable.

While it would be nice to have a more neutrally colored set of chairs, it can be quite expensive to find sanctuary chairs that are comfortable and durable. So, we accepted the fact that these chairs would be with us for a long time because we just could not see ourselves spending $6000 of our ministry budget on chairs. Especially since we recognized that buying chairs would be focusing funds on our own comfort, while severely impacting our ability to make a difference in people’s lives. Yes, they would have also made for a more inviting experience for newcomers, but buying chairs meant sacrificing “passing it on” (outreach). So, even though these bright orange chairs clashed pretty abruptly with our otherwise modern decor, these orange chairs would be with us for a while.

Over the past couple years of this church plant’s journey these bright orange chairs have become part of our identity. The leadership team and staff actually began to “love” them as they collectively came to symbolize our commitment to being a frugal church intent on utilizing as much of our resources as possible for ministry outside of the church body.From time to time, we would entertain the idea of new chairs, sometimes even looking at some different choices and their costs. But these brief musings often ended with content resolve: as long as new chairs meant cutting back on “passing it on”, we would keep what we have. We are thankful for all the gifts that God has given us, even these bright, burnt-orange, wooden chairs.

Something interesting happened recently. A source for some really nice used sanctuary chairs revealed itself. They were used, but very nice. Slightly larger than typical chairs, they were nearly new and there were just enough of them for our current needs plus a little growth. Best of all, they were unbelievably inexpensive. The source wanted about 15% of their original cost.

Wow. Amazing deal. But, I had a problem – I had this commitment that I made to God. He has been (and still is) so good to us. I promised Him that I would not buy new chairs unless somehow that purchase facilitated “passing it on”. But how could that ever be? If we spend money on new chairs we take away from our ability to “pass it on”. It seemed that the condition I put on buying new chairs was impossible to meet. But, God is not bound to our understanding.  Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV) says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

As it turns out, the source of the “new” chairs is a church plant that closed its doors (very unfortunate). Despite being closed, they still had some “pass it on” ministry commitments that they had no idea how they were going to be able to fund once they closed their doors. I don’t believe in coincidences. God connected us so that He could accomplish two things. He blessed our church with new chairs that help us create a more inviting experience, and He used the funds we gave them (in exchange for those chairs) to fund their “pass it on” commitments. Two birds, one stone. Two promises/commitments fulfilled with one great big God.