There’s a certain theology that seems to say that if we can do all the right things then God will show up in powerful ways. That was the essence of what Charles Finney was on about in his book on revival. I wish it were so easy… I wish all we had to do was confess sin, get right with God and pray like crazy.
Sadly life is a little more complex than that and God a bit harder to manipulate. The further I go along the more I realise there is no formula for a ‘successful’ ministry. But still we look for one…
Its a little bit depressing for those of us who are achievement oriented to say that there is no list of ‘5 keys to seeing God work’, but I think that’s the truth. So all those ‘how to’ books we have bought over the years are worthless… No, not really, but perhaps we have been more technique and success oriented than God is. And maybe if we’re honest that’s more about us and our ‘glory’ than it is about him, or is that just me?…
After several years of exciting and vibrant youth ministry we were now on the other side of the curve. We could feel it, but the question that we couldn’t get on top of was ‘how do we get back to where we were?‘ There’s an old proverb that says ‘when your only tool is a hammer don’t be surprised if every problem starts to look like a nail.’
We had a very good ‘hammer’ and we knew how to use it, but the problem was no longer ‘a nail’. We weren’t fixing what was broken and it was disconcerting. We hadn’t been here before and none of us really knew what to do or how to cope with a decline. For a long time the youth ministry had been the flagship of the church – the area we held up as our crowning glory – but now it was struggling.
There were some very solid competent leaders in place and in many ways we had an excellent team of people in all areas, but the chemistry had changed. Its hard to describe, but if you were there you would have felt it.
One of the significant changes was that in 3 or 4 years we had all got a little older. Now that would seem obvious, but I’m not sure we paid enough attention to that fact. As we got older we began to lose the strong focus we had on high schoolers and we mellowed in musical style and service format. This zany bunch of high schoolers and teenagers were now becoming young adults. Some even got married and a few started to breed. Kids started to show up on Sunday nights – not the 13 year old variety, but the poo and spew variety. Life was shifting for all of us and I am sure that was a factor in the change.
On a personal level my dis-ease with youth ministry continued to grow and I was aware that my number was up. The ‘old north wind’ (see Chocolat) was blowing again and it was time to resign and find a new path. During the first 3 or 4 months of the year I became increasingly aware that my heart was shifting and I was having to work harder to do the things that used to be my passion. I had spoken with the youth staff and the pastoral team and around May I made the decision to give it away at the end of the year.
All I knew for sure was that my time in youth ministry at LBC was over, but I didn’t know what the future held. As I began to explore, I saw myself looking at youth ministry roles elsewhere as well as senior pastor roles. This was a huge shift for me to even be considering a non youth role. Our denominational youth worker job also came vacant at the same time and I was encouraged to apply, but it just didn’t feel right.
Alongside the changes in youth ministry, as a church we were looking for a new pastoral team leader (senior pastor). As we moved towards being a ‘Willow Creek’ style of church Garth Wootton who was the senior pastor acknowledged that while he was a brilliant pastor and teacher, he found it hard to think in terms of vision and strategy and was not that kind of a leader. He actually initiated a process of finding someone who could take his role and allow him to be free to do what he did well. There are few people around with Garthy’s humility and it was the action of a very secure man to voluntarily offer to ‘step aside’.
Over a period of 2 years we had been working towards finding that person to lead the church but without any success. Initially we had explored a re-shuffle in the current staff team, but I didn’t see myself in that role and I/we didn’t feel the other pastor was appropriate for the job either. In the middle of the year the associate pastor resigned and moved on. As a leadership team we felt this was right thing for him to do but he had made some strong connections in the youth scene and his departure also left an impact.
Around the middle of the year my name started to get seriously mentioned as a possible pastoral team leader. Up until I actually resigned it never really seemed to be a valid option to me. I felt my strength was in working with young people and I wasn’t interested in a job with big people, but now I was actually considering other possibilities, and this one seemed to be striking a chord.
It took me a while to get my head around what such a shift would even mean, but it began to stir feelings of enthusiasm in me again, partly because it was a new challenge, but also because it meant Danelle and I could stay and be with a bunch of people we really had grown to love and enjoy.
In accepting that challenge my focus changed and while I knew I needed to finish the year well with the youth my eyes had moved to a different horizon and I was in caretaker mode from around August onwards.
At this point the youth scene was stable, with around 100 Sunday night regulars, but the old energy had disappeared. Baptisms were no longer celebrated with party poppers, streamers and loud cheering, in fact I don’t think we had that many baptisms that year at all. Everyone noticed the drop in numbers, but no-one knew what to make of it.
As a youth staff we were working out some of the challenges that the future held and I seemed to be gifted at mis-communicating with one of our team in particular. Around the middle of the year Debbie resigned and went back to being a volunteer and then at the start of 2001 Melanie resigned just as the new youth pastor arrived. Greg soldiered on as a high schools worker, but he had been an integral part of the ‘good times’ and I think he felt the strain of this different period.
In 5 years we had moved from being a struggling group of young people with little sense of vision or purpose, to be being a rapidly spreading epidemic of young Christians, to what was now a well organised and structured machine with all the processes and procedures in place that are typical of such a group.
Its a familiar pattern and it seems almost every group that catalyses and grows follows this pattern. It raises the very serious question of ‘how do you organise a movement without killing it?’
One big shift that occured was a move from high involvement (probably 80% of those present serving in some way) to low involvement – maybe only 20-30% serving while others came to ‘be served’. As the value of ‘excellence’ was embraced only a few could rise to the standards that were set, hence the rest had to cheer from the sidelines. (I never liked excellence much as a value, but then mediocrity just didn’t grab me a whole heap either and it seemed we just defaulted to excellence as the standard of the era.)
Some people had burnt out, others were just weary of the same old same old while the faithful core kept plodding on, because that’s what you do… Some went to check out other churches – the kind were ‘God was really moving’, and some just continued to wander away.
Even as I write this I can sense the energy waning, the desire to end this story because it is now less than inspiring. But – and this is important – this is real life
– this is where most of life is lived and while we were blessed to see God do some whacky stuff in our community we also needed to just get on with the everyday of being faithful to the calling.
When you’ve lived on adrenalin and seen rapid fire growth it is difficult to be content with a different season of ministry where there is little to cheer about and God seems less evident..
I began writing this because I sense that most of life is extraordinarily un-extraordinary. As much as I would love to be part of another LBC like period, I am now willing to accept that whether it comes or not we are simply called to be the people of God here and now and be true to that.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about a lifetime of the ordinary. I don’t enjoy mundane, run of the millness and I do love being part of something that is igniting and spreading faster than we can contain it. I’d like to be there again, but despite all the books on the subject, I just don’t think I/we can make it happen.
I will always be grateful for those years as in my life where I was in the thick of something crazy and wild and wonderful. The last few years have helped me see that it was very little to do with me and my ‘gift of leadership’ and much more to do with just being there when ‘God showed up’. Humbling hey?
So, that’s it…
There’s much more that could be said and many people who I would love to mention as the characters and heroes of that period, but truth is it was God’s
doomsday dvd over the hedge divx show. It always has been and always will be – we are his assistants and sometimes its good to be reminded that the world doesn’t need us as much as we sometimes think!
This story began with me listening to Deb Hirsch sharing the story of South Melbourne and asking the question ‘Does God still do that kind of stuff today?’ The answer of course is ‘yes – he does.’ But there’s definitely no recipe and no formula that ambitious pastors can follow to generate their own revival!
Maybe one day I’ll take the time to write about how I moved from youth pastor to team leader to church planter all in the space of 14 months, but that’s definitely another story…