Leading with a Limp: The Surprising Truth of Church Planting

I was working forty hours a week as a shift manager for the local Panera Bread while simultaneously trying to guide the middle school ministry for our church, and I was beyond exhausted. I had recently been a full time youth pastor south of Detroit, Michigan, and before that a youth pastor for a church plant in California. I knew the exhilaration of putting all of my time, energy, creativity and prayer into vocational ministry. So when I was asked to consider leading a church plant it seemed the answer would be quite easy and clear, and in that moment it was, “No.” Wait, what? You meant to say yes, right? No, because my focus and drive was on what I wanted rather than what the community needed, and church planting cannot be driven by what we want, it needs to be birthed out of what the community needs.

The church needs a big vision and in that moment my mind was preoccupied with what I thought I knew, what I thought people would like, and what I thought I would like. And it was that sharp sense within me, the one where I thought I knew what would make a church successful, that became the very reason why I should say “No.”

You do know that God has a phenomenal sense of humor, right? Yeah, He is hilarious. About a year later I joined the pastor who had since been recruited to plant the church, me becoming the family pastor for the launch of this new church start. We planted in Muskegon, Michigan, one of the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse cities in West Michigan. Muskegon is no stranger to headlining the local news stations, but sadly it’s almost entirely due to violence and crime. The first three years of the plant I engaged in an intense struggle, a relentless wrestling match with the Divine. Why isn’t this church taking off? Why weren’t we finding success in numerical growth? Why were people choosing the safety and ease of other churches in the area over this fresh new start up?

I was struggling, my bones were growing weary and I felt like God was taking a giant meat tenderizer to my heart. Oh, and at the beginning of this wrestling match, my wife gave birth to our first son, just two months before our preview services started. At the three-year mark she gave birth to our second son. Three years of my heart feeling like the ball in a pinball machine, and I found my mind completely confused and my soul exhausted. For three years we had family and friends join the church and then leave the church, many because our urban context was too uncomfortable, with too many messy people. Everything in me wanted to quit.

At this juncture the lead pastor felt strongly that for the church to have any chance of finding sustainability he would have to cut significant finances, so he cut himself. Through a few heart-wrenching meetings, he told our leadership team he was leaving and he encouraged them to seek the district’s approval to appoint me as the lead pastor. With a three year old, a new born, and a soul that was walking with a significant limp, the answer was a quite clear, “Yes.” In the confusion there was clarity; my “Yes” would not come from all the things I thought I knew, but from a heart that had been aggressively molded and humbled through the Divine wrestling match. I was now pleading with God to bless the bleeding and to roll out the path we would begin walking—even if our walk had a limp.

I hardly recognized my faith from when we launched the church. I was now staring into a fresh faith that had far more questions than answers, but I believed the garden of my soul was now properly tilled for growth. It was in the limp on the other side of the wrestling match where I was trusting God to build His church.

It has been six years since that season and I believe more than ever that it is in the wrestling match, in struggling with the endless questions that the Divine does His best work in our lives. I talk often with pastors and those preparing to plant a church, and my questions are clear and concise to them:

  • Do you have more questions than answers?
  • Have you moved beyond merely deconstructing and more into the reconstructing mindset?
  • Is this about what you’re against or what God is for?
  • Is this about what the community needs or about what you want?
  • Are you holding your ideas loosely or are you white knuckled in your grip on them?
  • Are you and your family often questioned about your sanity?
  • Are you willing to jump even if many friends and family only cheer from bleacher section?
  • Are you prepared to wrestle and embrace the limp found on the other side of the struggle?

If you’re willing to risk, willing to limp, willing to trust, and focusing on God, then you just might be ready to participate in church planting.