(Updated and Rewritten)
Have you ever tried to convince someone that you are suppose to do something? It is strange feeling. For years I have believed, believed strongly enough to say that have known, that I was suppose to be a minister of the gospel in the county of Santa Cruz, CA where I grew up. Since I became sure of that calling I sought training at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, where I completed my undergraduate education and received to master’s degrees in theology and philosophy respectively. The intention throughout the entirety of the seven years that I lived in southern California was always to return to Santa Cruz and be a pastor. Now, after moving back, reaching out to contacts, and establishing a footing for my family, I found my self staring at a word .doc on my computer that had a few lines to be filled in answering the question “do you feel that you have a strong enough calling to church planting?” I felt that there was a missing phrase from the question. As I considered it I inserted parenthetically “(to not blow up, burn out, or in general be a waste of time and energy)” just before the question mark.
It is a legitimate question from every point of view:
- Theologically – These people have never met me or heard my story, calling is critical to the success of ministry. Jesus selects his under-shepherds with intention and care. Church planting is no easy task, they just want to know that I am ready for what I am getting myself into.
- Practically – The organization I am filling out the questionnaire for only has limited resources, they just want to know that they are well spent investing in me and my vision.
- Personally – They are brothers and sisters in Christ, they just want to make sure I am doing something wise and are genuinely concerned to see that I am doing the right thing.
I could understand the question and its intention, but it was still weird to write it out. I kept thinking about George Whitfield’s answer to the man who inquired as to whether he could print the transcripts of his sermons, Whitfield responded, “Certainly, but you can’t put the thunder and lightning on the page.” The meaning, as I have been told, is that during his sermons, his words were being employed by the Holy Spirit, there was no guarantee that they would be used by the Spirit when presented in a different medium, when presented without the passion and enthusiasm of the preacher. That is very much how I felt but I tried to be convincing. Here is what I wrote:
The first time I preached, I had given messages before yet I do not think I had preached, I realized something novel to my experience. For the first time in my life I had tired myself doing something that I both enjoyed, found challenging, and believed was deeply important. This had never happened to me before. I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life preaching the gospel. I wanted to spend the rest of my life stretching my mind, pouring over the Bible, and trying to teach people about the most important truths in the world. Soon afterward I discovered that I did not only want to preach, but I wanted to shepherd people. I wanted to offer wisdom and guidance, to show love and compassion, to point people to God and watch them be filled up, empowered, and sent out by him. I wanted to see the transforming work God had wrought in my life in the lives of others. A third realization occurred shortly after this one. I did not want to minister just anywhere. I specifically wanted to engage people from my home town. Thinking about stepping into other people’s ministries in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, or Seattle had little appeal to me. But doing it in my home town, with people I knew and loved.
Through a series of events I became convinced that if I were to minister faithfully in Santa Cruz, I would need further education, further practice, further discipleship. For those reasons I eventually moved to southern California. My wife and I prayed, thought, planned, dreamed about ministry. I referred to our absence from Santa Cruz as our exile—a time of study, investment, and obscurity. I never thought of La Mirada as home in spite of the friendships and surrogate family that we found there.
Throughout my time of study, I developed my theology and my convictions. I thought hard about ministry and pastoring. I came to conclusions that I thought, and still think, would be unpopular in Santa Cruz (if not California generally). I became a Calvinist, then complementarian, then reformed (Calvinism expanded outside soteriology), then a Baptist, then a high church enthusiast, then a critic of the mega-church, then a critic of the multi-site church, then a ministry idealist. My theology and convictions changed, refined, increased, and settled. I found myself still believing many things that would make my friends and family back home walk out of any church service in which I explained them, but I still could not shake the feeling that Santa Cruz was where god was calling me.
The rationale, I suppose, is something of a natives make better missionaries idea. For most of my life I breathed the anti-authority, anti-corprate, pr0-green party, pro-legalization, free-love, drink-surf-repeat air of Santa Cruz. I understand why those position are appealing, but I also know that I cannot agree with many of my college and high school friends anymore, and I know why that is too.
Not only would some of my position and convictions be counter-cultural to Santa Cruz, they would be counter to many of the churches in the area as well. Not to say there are not good churches, there most certainly are, but I knew of none that believed as I believed on what might be classified as “second-tier” theological tenants or ministry philosophy. By the time I found out that there were a few small churches that might agree with me on some of my more controversial beliefs, I also discovered that Santa Cruz county (with a population of 220,000 adults) had only 5.3% evangelical Christian versus 69% no religious affiliation. Though I would not be alone in my beliefs, there is a huge need for more churches that were faithfully pursuing the mission of God.
At this point I became convinced of my calling to plant a church and to lead it the way I felt God had called me to. In my time in and around Los Angeles I saw a lot of churches that seemed like carbon copies of another church, but in Santa Cruz, it seems clear that we need churches with a wide range of differences. Churches that would preach the gospel faithfully, but also engage their people and community in different ways. Churches need to be unique. Even if unique meant hold positions that would be very unpopular.
Thanks for reading,