Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
Two years ago, we did something crazy: we planted a church. Let’s be clear about something: while in college, I had dreamed of planting “my own” church, doing it “my own” way. My closest friends and I used to study at a Caribou Coffee, tucked into a quiet corner apartment building along the river, and we’d talk about what it would look like to plant a church and how we’d do it (and, yes, do it better than anyone else).
But by the time I finished grad school, that dream had gone by the wayside. First of all, I didn’t want to have to raise my salary while trying to plant a church. Second of all, it started to feel like a lot of church planters I knew of just didn’t play well with others and had to go it alone. Third, and maybe this is connected to number two, most church planters I knew were miserable.
So, through a surprising series of circumstances, we ended up back in my hometown, in a United Methodist Church, tasked with starting a new worship experience for younger generations. It took me six months to figure out, to my horror, that even if I wasn’t planting a church in any official capacity, I was doing the work a church planter does.
It took me another year to accept that this calling was my calling, and not a gift God had meant to give to someone else, but I walked into the room and opened it on accident, so there I was, stuck with it.
There’s this book I read once, something about the ten most common mistakes church planters make. By the time I read it, I’d already made four—and by the time we launched, I think we got close to seven or eight.
We had originally planned an Easter launch, but I begged off, because if we had launched then, I think the attendance would have been two: my wife and I. We moved the launch to the Fall, and in the intervening time, we went to a thing called church planting boot camp.
It was intense.
There was a guy who’d been planting for a while, who got up and left the room for a minute because he already knew all the things he wasn’t doing and couldn’t handle hearing it again.
I was jealous he was brave enough to leave.
We put together a plan, with post-it notes and butcher paper, and put together a plan that was hasty at best, crazy at worse.
“You’re going to have to work your ass off,” the facilitator said.
She was right.
We left boot camp, took a quick trip to Arizona to see my parents; I ran off to licensing school so I could be, you know, a real pastor in the UMC, and then we went to our Annual Conference. We came back, and had our anniversary dinner—our second anniversary dinner, at one of our favorite restaurants in town.
We finished dinner, and I said to Steph, “OK, let’s go plant a church now.” We went to get ice cream, holding hands in the car. Looking back now, we may or may not have been holding on to each other because, well, that’s about all we knew for sure—just her and me and this calling that seemed like a sweater two sizes two small.
We went to ice cream, and bumped into a friend from high school and her fiancee. At boot camp they’d said, “Tell everyone you meet that you’re starting a church.” So we did.
Two years later, this couple is at the very center of what we’re doing—they would later become the first people to step across the line of faith in the work we did.
So, we followed the facilitator’s advice, and worked our asses off. There were some really, really hard moments along the way. Moments when Steph would be praying in the middle of a worship song that there would be more people in the room behind her than when we started. There rarely were. Moments when someone you thought was with you just…wasn’t anymore. (And that’s OK, seasons change. It’s just hard when someone else’s season changes, and yours…won’t.)
Like I said, it took me a year to accept that part of my calling was to be a church planter. That year ended when Jesus finally asked me, “Are you just mad at me because I never asked you if you wanted this? Or are you mad at me because I put you in a position where you have to trust me more than your brain, your skill, or your personality?”
The answer was: “Well, both.”
But there were some beautiful moments along the way, starting at a slow, slow, slow drip, but now starting to come at more of a steady, if narrow, stream. 20-something guys at my house until 10:30 on a Thursday wrestling through the book of Ephesians. People learning to sing with a worship band for the first time. Little kids running in the hallway and babies making their baby noises while I preach. People inviting their friends, their parents, to watch them get baptized.
Oh, yeah, the baptisms. That’s when it all came into focus: as I’m standing in a water tank with the lid cut off by one of my closest friends, also a church planter, the water making me shiver, as I ask:
Is it your testimony today that Jesus is your highest treasure, and that you’ve come to a place where you’ve stepped across the line of faith, trusting only in Him for life and salvation.
Then, the person getting baptized: Yes, it is.
In that moment, Steph and I, her outside the tank with a towel in her hand for when this person gets out of the water, and I inside the tank, while I watch this person I’ve prayed for before I knew their name go down into the water and come out—in that moment, Steph and I think, as close as our hands clasped in the car two years before, “I’d do it all over again.”
Jesus says that the Kingdom is only found, and obtained, at great cost. The Merchant found a pearl, after some time of looking; and then purchased it, even when it cost The Merchant everything.
I have a children’s book of Jesus parables, and in the story, The Merchant has a floppy, feathered hat that’s his favorite. When he goes to buy the pearl, he’s short a few dollars, and the guy selling the pearl offers to buy the hat to make up the difference.
And, the story says, the merchant laughed. He laughed because even his favorite, floppy feathered hat is a price he’s willing to pay because the pearl is just that valuable.
I have learned a great deal over these last two years. I have learned to preach and teach and train and share my faith and how to persevere and to strategize and counsel and marry and do pre-marriage and have what are, hands down, some of life’s most challenging conversations.
But the most important thing I’ve learned is this: I’ve learned how to laugh.