I’m writing this from a hotel room in Oklahoma City before speaking at a conference called “The Small Church Conference”. Craig Groeschel from LifeChurch.tv and Toby Slough of Cross Timbers Community Church north of Dallas are speaking as well…all from megachurches.
There’s a little obvious irony here, eh? Israel Hogue, pastor of The Edge Church, is sponsoring the conference. As Israel puts it on the conference website, “Craig, Toby and Dave have all come from small beginnings. They know what it means to be a local church with not a lot of people, money, or resources. They didn't start "mega," they started "micro" and grew from there.”
It got me thinking about those early days with Steve Sjogren. There were a lot—and I mean a lot—of sacrifices made by him and his wife Janie to see a different kind of church launched in Cincy. When Anita and I came on board in 1984, we were meeting in Bruce and Sandy Ullrey’s living room with twenty or so people on the north side of Cincinnati. Like many starts, everyone was in their late-twenties or early-thirties, mostly bored with church as we knew it, and wondered why there couldn’t be a church that we actually liked going to. And couldn’t it be simple and just have authentic no-big-show worship and have a heart for the poor? Maybe a message that didn’t sound canned? And a service that didn’t make you feel worse than when you came in? Spirit-led…but not weird? Authenticity. Simplicity. Relevance.
I led worship for four years every weekend as a volunteer. I wrestled with coming on staff in 1990; I wasn’t sure I wanted to be paid to do something I liked doing…as if that might mess things up. We had probably grown to about 700-800 adults by then. After coming on staff (I use that term loosely), time marched on and things heated up. There were a number of years where I was gone at least four nights a week when our girls were little, eventually doing eight celebrations a week, leading worship at each of them, teaching every midweek, often on weekends, and pulling off seminars and conferences. Those were heady years. Everyone wore lots of hats; many of us easily put in 60-70 hours a week. I can remember pulling many an all-nighter for a video, print or music project. We were on a mission.
Looking back, it obviously wasn’t healthy. We were a bit crazy and addicted to our own adrenaline.
Now 25 years later, there are still formidable hurdles, mega-problems, new issues, and big challenges to conquer. I don’t think it ever gets simple…because life in a fallen world is not simple. And besides the corporate decisions, personal choices are still the most difficult (we’re in good company: Jesus sweat drops of blood wrestling with his decision in Gethsemane).
One more thing, though.
Sometimes I think when people want to return to being a “New Testament Church”, there’s an idyllic myopia. When people ask me why we can’t be more like the New Testament church, I answer “Which one? The church in Corinth was sexing it up every which way and getting drunk at the church potlucks. The Colossian church was worshiping angels and beating their bodies to prove they were holy. The Galatian gang was legalistic and racist. The Thessalonians were sitting on their hands waiting for Jesus to take them away, hoping for a Left Behind scenario. And check out the things Jesus said to the churches in Asia Minor in the Revelation. It isn’t pretty.”
Just a reality check.
I’m not sure how this works, but either Jesus views us as we shall be, or else He sees us through a lens of love that “covers a multitude of sins”. Somehow this is His plan: “to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:27 TNIV).
Big, small, messy, tidy, broken, bruised, lethargic or vital…we are the Church.