The Messy Middle
I’ll be honest, when I was approached about helping to plant a church in Southeast Louisiana, I didn’t even pray about it; I said “no.”
My wife and I had recently had our second child. (10 months from the date we had our first child. Yes, we have cable. No, we didn’t realize kids could be that close.) I was starting work for our city’s police department, and Louisiana was a long distance from the life we were trying to create in Ogden, Utah. Inconveniently long.
Not only that, my wife and I both came from broken homes, filled with financial and familial instability. We were focused on breaking that cycle in our own family, and this didn’t fit into our plans. Planting a church would interrupt our march toward the American dream of stability and prosperity. I mean, yeah, Jesus calls people to lay aside everything else and follow Him, but surely that was a metaphor for leaving our old lives and becoming His disciples. Surely?
A young family, a promising new career, roots in a state renowned for its stability. I mean, God wouldn’t take us out of that world and into the uncertainty of church planting, right? Right!?!
Of course, you know the end of the story because I’m writing this blog post from…you guessed it…Southeast Louisiana, and this month, our church, The Genesis Project Slidell, is celebrating its 5th birthday.
It’s my wife’s fault. And since she’s not in the room as I write, I can safely blame it on her (I’m in good biblical company in that). I told her that there was no way God wanted us to jettison our plans for a stable life. Her reply was a mild rebuke: “Baby…if our stability’s not in Jesus, we’re in big trouble.” She was right. That was years ago. Here we are.
There it is, a beginning, and, in a sense, an end (at least the end of calling what is now officially a “church” a “church plant”).
But that’s not where the real story (or, the point of this blog post) lies. No…for us, the meat is in the messy middle.
Do you know, until we embarked on this journey, I didn’t realize how often a messy middle finds its way into the stories of Scripture. One might argue, the Story of God in its entirety has a messy middle. Abraham leaves Ur, and is promised a child in his old age – but there’s a messy middle to that story if you know it. David is anointed king, and is guaranteed a descendant to sit on his throne forever – but there’s a messy middle to that story as well. God in Christ promises humanity a renewed and redeemed creation – but we’re all living in the messy middle.
And in the past nine years, we experienced a messy middle of our own. Initially, my wife and I came to Louisiana to help a friend plant a church. We were just here to serve. I ended up serving as the associate pastor – which I was under the impression had been planted by the church we left in Utah to come here. The first few years were incredible. We were reaching the lost, discipling the found, and developing a solid reputation in the community we’d landed in. It was an exhilarating, fulfilling experience.
Over time, my wife and I began to connect with families that lived about 30 minutes East of us in the neighboring community of Slidell. Soon after we were leading exploratory Bible studies in several homes, and had to divide our time between the church plant we’d helped start, and the growing number of folks we were connecting with East of us. We began to feel the call to plant a church there; realistically, one was already forming, and God’s hand in it was evident to us.
Our pastor was excited! We dreamed big dreams about sister churches, about developing more planters for our region, about taking the world by storm.
But all that changed as our lead pastor experienced burnout, and he experienced it hard. Burnout is a term that every church planter needs to be aware of; I learned that firsthand. Burnout took a man whom I loved and respected and devastated him and the church we’d birthed together.
It was unexpected, it was heartbreaking, and it quickly deconstructed all that we’d worked so hard to build. While all this was happening, our fledgling church in Slidell was just getting off the ground, and we had to manage the tension of a church in turmoil, and a church that was launching, all at the same time. A messy middle, a very messy middle. As we sought guidance and direction, we discovered that the church we’d left in Utah had never really sanctioned the planter we came with and that for all intents and purposes, we were on our own to figure out how to proceed. We were the church plant of a disintegrating church disconnected from any other church.
It was rough. It was painful. There were many opportunities to call it quits. After all, I’d started this whole journey by saying “no,” and there were times when saying it again sounded awfully appealing. It would have been easy to understand if we’d decided to close this chapter in our lives and move on. There are always other options in our culture.
We had no support structure, no sending church, no outside financial investments, a handful of lay leaders, a church full of new and not-yet believers, inherited debts from the first church plant and we felt incredible pressure.
Thankfully, we had recently connected with Stadia. While we weren’t a traditional Stadia plant, and our circumstances were less than ideal, they came alongside us, invested in our fledgling expression, and walked with us through a pretty tough time. The resources that Stadia made available to us, from planter development to huddle coaching, along with the tender and consistent outreach from senior leaders was like an anchor in our storm.
And, despite the pressure, uncertainty, and turmoil, there was a church in Slidell. Against these odds, we’d planted it. God was drawing people to Himself through it. People were being discipled, people were being reached, and He showed us in a hundred ways that He was with us in the messy middle. He reminded us that through the waters, and the fires, and the storms, He was by our side, and not only that, He sent us help in the form of a church-planting organization that was no stranger to the often-gritty realities of church planting.
So, we marched forward with Him at our head for the next four years, and with Stadia at our side. We tackled challenges and issues that seemed insurmountable, only to watch as every desperate prayer and plea was heard and answered by the True Church Planter.
We’re on the other side of that experience – for now. The Genesis Project is a growing church. We’ve gone from homes to a dance studio, to space in the old town district of our community, and we’re moving towards the purchase of our first building. We’re continuing to bridge the gaps between culture and Christ in our city, we see our second generation of leadership development taking place, and we’re making disciples.
As we celebrate five years, we’re looking forward with hope-filled anticipation to the next five years, and to the opportunities available to us through our partnership with Stadia.
I guess what I want to say to you – the future church planter who may be reading this blog post is this: Planting a church is the craziest, most rewarding experience of my life (aside from marrying Ashley…who eclipses everything else but Christ). It’s not about calm beginnings and nice, neat endings. It’s gritty, it’s messy, and it’s intense.
But the fruit of this experience has left me with a much stronger trust in God as I look back over the track-record of His faithfulness…and a much stronger stomach for the reality of laying it all on the line to follow Christ’s call on my life. I’ve discovered that stability – real stability – isn’t everything in its place working as intended with no hiccups or troubles along the way; it’s eyes on the King even if the wind howls and the rain pounds, finding that the same Jesus who saw His disciples safely through the storms on Lake Galilee is at the helm of our experiences today.
See…there are things we can only learn in the messy middle. Things like “faithfulness is the actual measure of success”; and “what takes you by surprise doesn’t interfere with God’s plans”; and moving forward even when you’re overwhelmed is the only way to experience “God’s power made perfect in weakness”; and “God sends the right people at the right time.”
It brings you to the brink. And there at the edge, you find that what George Mueller once said is true: “the steps of faith fall on the seeming void, and find the Rock beneath.”
Five years. Five years of stepping out into the seeming void and finding the Rock beneath. That’s been our experience. That’s really what we’re celebrating. That’s what prompts our hope for the future; that’s what colors our view of the past.
If He can do that for us, He can do that for you, and we’ll be there rooting for you when you reach the messy middle because that’s where God often does His very best work.
But a word of advice: don’t go it alone…let someone with experience help. Someone like Stadia.