Some lessons you learn by reading books and blogs. Those feel great.
However, the most life-changing lessons are often learned through painful mistakes and brutal moments in valleys so low that you aren’t sure if you’ll ever climb out. Over the past year, I’ve been in that valley, and while I was down there, I learned some lessons that probably took a few years off my life expectancy in the process. I will be a better leader this day forward knowing these things. I want you to know them, but this is a blog and you’re so hardheaded that you’ll probably have to learn them the hard way, too. Here they are anyway…
(Remember – these lessons cost me a few fingers and toes so I hope you pay attention.)
1. Start a thing as close to the way you dream it being down the road as you can.
For 10 whole years before I started Courageous Church, I dreamed of it being one thing, started it as another, then spent the next 3 years trying to get it back to the church of my dreams. I own this. The vision of my heart was for a committed community of people that first and foremost served God in radical ways in inner city Atlanta and in broken places all around the world. Sunday morning would simply be the time when those people came together to celebrate and honor God and invite others into our Monday-Saturday adventure.
Instead, I started a super cool Sunday worship service centered church with 700 people and spent the next 3 years begging thousands of people to help me be the hands and feet of God by fighting child trafficking and caring for widows and orphans. I was advised by the best church planting experts in the world to go this route, but in the end, it was my decision, and it was the wrong one. I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week and could never quite get it back. Whatever it is you are starting (a business, a new job, a church, etc.), you need to remain as true to your core vision from the start as humanly possible, or you may find yourself lost in an unfamiliar place so far from your dream that you don’t even recognize it. That’s me right now.
2. People L.O.V.E to hear about radical change. They just don’t love making it.
Political campaigns based on radical change win. Books written about radical change sell. Sermons on radical change boost Sunday morning attendance. The idea and thought of change is exciting to people, but mistaking that excitement for an actual willingness on behalf of those people to change now or later could be a miscalculation. I found out the hard way.
In March of this year, I announced I was preaching my last sermon series of all-time. For the next 8 weeks, I preached the most radical, game-changing sermon series ever entitled “Disciple.” Our average attendance was its highest ever. Our average offering was the highest ever. Excitement was its highest ever. Man, I was pumped!!
Then, almost literally the day we jumped into change, all types of stuff started falling apart. People left in droves. Scores of people started falling through on leadership commitments they made. Systems starting failing. Attendance was down. Offering was down. Excitement was down.
I had no idea that zero correlation exists between how much people love hearing about change and their actual willingness to make it. I then made a series of gross errors that really cost me dearly based on what I incorrectly assumed was a desire for people to change when, for most people, what existed was just an interest in the topic on a theoretical level. Here are some of the errors:
- I seriously overestimated how excited (or even willing) people were to actually do the things I was talking about.
- When people left our church saying they did not support the changes, I did what I never do and helped talked them in to staying. I meant well, but this was so dumb of me. These folk stayed but never earnestly fought for the vision because, as they already stated, they don’t believe in it.
- Change sounds pretty but actually looks ugly, feels like hard labor, takes time, and pushes every limit we have. I had said that the changes I was suggesting could take 3 years to really nail down. Few people objected when I said that because we hadn’t actually changed yet. When I took a private poll just 3 months after we made changes, over 85% of people stated that they wanted to go back to the way things used to be. Our board did as well. I overestimated how willing folks would be to deal with the ugliness of it all.
- These miscalculations also took an enormous toll on my family and me, and it was at this point that I decided that I could not lead the church back to a place where I had no heart, vision, or stamina to go. The death of Pastor Zach Tims shook me up in such a way that I didn’t want to ignore my own warning signs before it was too late, and I ended up losing my family (or my life) in the process.
3. Few disciples of Jesus Christ actually exist in the world.
I’m not even saying I am one and nobody else is. I have to fight the battle for my own discipleship daily. What I am saying is that church attendance, Sunday morning services, sermon-listening (or even sermon preaching), song-singing, hand-clapping, amen-saying, and all of the things that “Christ-ians” have lifted up so high look so little like Christ himself that I am utterly convinced that we are completely off base with what discipleship means.
Considering all of this, I think I have given up on church as I knew it. Big buildings. Huge crowds. Few disciples. I’m not with it. It’s inefficient and just doesn’t feel right with my soul. This is not a rejection of big buildings or huge crowds but an indictment on how few disciples are being made in the process of it all. A better way has to exist.