When Kathy and I were in seminary in the late eighties, we began to pray, “God, we will go anywhere you want us to go, but if You would allow it, we would like to pastor one church for our ministry.” I had already been a youth pastor at a church of two hundred and a singles pastor at a church of two thousand. And I had studied enough churches with significant fruitfulness to know that long-tenured senior pastorates were a key ingredient in abundant fruitfulness. I never dreamed of a church with ten thousand people; there was no such thing at the time, and my heart was much less for a big place and much more for a God place, a glory place. We prayed and prayed for God to lead us somewhere away from Chicago and hopefully back to our home country of Canada. When seminary and our two-year commitment to the church we were in came to an end, we were fervently praying for God open a door somewhere, never dreaming we were already there.
Nobody expressed an interest in our ministry from the channels we pursued, so we decided to remain in our current assignment and put some money down on a house in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. No sooner had we emptied our little nest egg into escrow than we heard from sixteen different churches around North America and even candidated at one in Winnipeg. Still, it seemed God would not lead us to abandon our house deposit. Just then, the phone rang in our little apartment behind the bookstore at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School less than a month after graduation. It was a group of eighteen people from five different churches who wanted us to lead them in planting a new church in the northwest suburbs. As I hung up the phone, I laughed out loud, and it was one of the few times the Lord spoke clearly into my spirit, “Don’t laugh.” A heaviness came over me and Kathy, and we wept tears of submission as we knelt by the couch and told the Lord we would stay if this was the place He wanted us to remain. I really didn’t want to plant a church, as any church planter I had ever known spent the bulk of his time storing speakers in his garage or meeting around a card table with ten people. That scared me a lot, but as we met with the eighteen, they seemed very excited about a Vertical work, and the “pillars” I will share later. So after several meetings, we agreed to put our roots down and give our lives to Christ in this place with these people.
What brings more glory to Jesus Christ, persevering in relationships or starting over?
Looking back, they were taking the bigger risk, and while not all of the original eighteen remain or even lasted too long (three are in heaven, and I preached two of the funerals), four remain very involved in the life of our church. Probably fifty of those who came the first year are still with us, including my personal assistant (great is her reward) and our assistant senior pastor. We were the first three staff members. I had no idea what I was asking when I prayed to stay in one place. Why would any family want one pastor for their whole lives, least of all me, and why would I want to face into every failing from the early days and live it down right in front of those who saw me struggle? Why not become a college president (lol) or head a mission board? Or at the very least move to an exciting church on the other side of the country where we could begin afresh in the strength of the lessons learned, away from the gaze of those predicting our demise? By now you can guess the single word answer—glory. It’s the only word that dictates every decision in a Vertical Church. What brings more glory to Jesus Christ, persevering in relationships or starting over? What brings more glory to Christ, running from your failures or staying put and facing up to them in God’s strength? What better reflects the glory of Jesus—enduring relationships characterized by forgiveness or temporary ones fashioned in the shifting sand of “what you can you do for me?” Church is the place of God’s glory and to pastor one church this long and for as long as God will allow, I have had to reinvent myself several times:
• The church of 100 needed a caregiver who was approachable and available to all.
• The church of 1,000 needed a leader who could rally the troops to get into a church home.
• The church of 2,500 needed a manager to assure the quality of ministry through other staff.
• The church of 5,000 needed a delegator letting go of much to focus on a few critical duties.
• The church of 10,000 needs a multiplier, systematizing our philosophy and giving it away.
Those five reinventions of myself were way easier to type than to live. Each came with a fresh realization of how my weaknesses were negatively impacting our church at the time. The only thing that has gotten me up to dust myself off and keep going is my bedrock commitment to staying and growing for the glory of Jesus Christ.
I am not judging you if you have moved; some churches require it, and for most of us, it is all we ever knew. But I challenge you to consider staying and asking only this: What would bring the most glory to Jesus? Has trusting again after getting hurt been hard for you? Has forgiveness come in a crisis alone with the Lord, only to be swept away on a bad day of remembering what someone said to you or, worse, to someone in your family? Are you feeling today the pain of your failures, force-fed by a former friend who demands something from you that they are not doing? In a recent message to pastors, I told the story of hearing myself on the radio (not a habit, I promise) and noticing in my voice a hoarseness that I knew was not sickness. It reminded me of a critical day in the midst of the trials described above that I will never forget. Dark clouds of bankruptcy and cancer and family crisis were looming on the horizon all at once and moving in quickly as the winds picked up force. Driving in to our main campus in Elgin, I wept as I watched the windshield wipers, and everything in my flesh wanted to call someone and tell them to “take this job and …,” but God in His mercy met me powerfully in my car and first through me crying and then with my voice and finally at the top of my lungs I cried out in prayer to the Lord, “I’m not gonna quit, I’m not gonna quit! I’M NOT GONNA QUIT—I’M NOT GONNA QUIT!” I didn’t and I haven’t and I won’t and I don’t want you to either! The Holy Spirit stirring afresh your own passion to see the glory of Jesus revealed in that church where you serve is the only thing I know to keep you going.