Starting Strong—But Not Too Strong
Three weeks ago, I stepped into a new position as lead pastor of a new church. Part of the reason I had been selected was because of a missional mindset and a passion to connect with the community and connect people to Jesus. Of course, as soon as the moving boxes were sorted and I found where the grocery store was, I began planning and plotting how to start eighteen fresh expressions of church in my new community in the next week. You might say I was a little excited.
But then I look a deep breath and recognized I was, indeed, starting from ground zero here, in this new place, among a new people. That would require some chilling out for a while. But in my prayer time I also realized I did not want to waste the opportunity to teach and lead in to a fresh expressions culture from the get-go—but without giving people whiplash.
A new season of ministry– whether starting as the pastor of a church, taking a position as a new staff member, accepting a new job, entering a new stage of life such as retirement, or just moving across town—is a place and time to reorient yourself and your team toward a posture of mission before you are pushed to settle in to a rut of expectations and needs. Like me, you may have come from a setting where you were doing cutting-edge stuff, starting dinner churches, pouring into leaders to begin fresh expressions of church, and getting people to think outside the box. But you will remember that did not happen overnight.
Neither will it happen overnight in your new context or season. It means being smart about your approach—kind of like prepping the soil for later planting. What you do now is not about the harvest. What you do now is going to set the stage for the new season of a new harvest.
Five Keys to Starting Strong
If you have the goal of eventually reaping the harvest of a fresh expressions culture, I offer you five ways I am approaching this season in my new setting.
1. Listen for it.
Listening is foundational to the process of starting fresh expressions of church, and it’s a great way to start as you enter a new context or place of leadership. Slow down from planning and do some deep listening. Any book about what you should do in your first 90 days as a pastor tells you to meet with people and get to know them, but utilize those conversations to get a glimpse of what connections already exist, what passions people have, and what God is already doing. Listen to church members, listen to fringe members, listen to community leaders and school principals. Listen for who may be persons of peace and who some pioneers could be. They may not be who you expect! In your prayer time, listen to God. Walk the community. Pray for your neighbors as you walk or drive by. Invite your kids and family to listen with you.
2. Read it.
With your staff, council, board, or ministry team, read a book together that will begin introducing some of the concepts of fresh expressions. Fitch’s Faithful Presence, Sweet and Beck’s Contextual Intelligence, or Beck’s Deep Roots, Wild Branches are all good to start with. Rally others around you to read, discuss, dream, and pray together. Leaders are usually readers and will appreciate you exposing them to some new ideas of what church can be.
3. Preach it.
My first sermon at my new church included references to “forms of church for spiritually curious people.” It was natural because part of my journey includes coming back to faith through a fresh expression of church a friend started at my workplace way back when. But in every sermon, I am intentional about posing a question, telling a story, and/or talking about the mission.
4. Pray it.
Whether it’s in a leadership team meeting closing prayer, Prayers of the People, prayer list, or prayer group, most of the time, those prayers are 100% about the congregation and those connected to the congregation as family and friends. In those intentional prayer gatherings, begin to pray for the community and ask others to do so too. Pray for the needs you see and the neighbors you have. Pray for the store across the way, the barber, the teachers prepping classrooms, the homeless shelter in town. Pray for laborers for the harvest, as Jesus instructed his disciples. Involve the saints of the church and ask them for community prayer requests from neighbors and needs they see. This begins to open eyes to the mission field that has been in their backyard all along.
5. Write it.
Mentors and more experienced pastors have told me “you only get fresh eyes once.” It’s true. When you’re new, the first few weeks and months are when you see things that others do not notice any more. From the church junk crowding the halls, to the geographic proximity of the library, to the skateboard kids in the grocery store parking lot, you will notice things. Write them down or type them into your phone. There may be recourses and connections and needs others may not see any more because they have been there so long. There’s so much potential! Ask the Lord for eyes to see it, then write notes about it.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
If you’re starting in a new position or season, you’re in the perfect place to begin preparing the soil for fresh expressions of church to grow. So relax. Have fun. Get to know people. But be intentional. Starting strong is possible without going from zero to 60 in five seconds. It takes the patience of a farmer who knows and understands time preparing the soil is more than worth it.