If you missed it, check out part 1 here.
Two months ago we had our final San Angelo Church service but it’s taken this long to blog about it. Just needed some time to process it I guess.
When anyone asks “What’s it like to plant a church?” I always say, “Imagine organizing and announcing a public event and worrying if ANYONE was going to show up? That’s the weekly fear of a church planter! Seriously.”
So many memories over the 31 months that San Angelo Church breathed. Here are the first 30 months in 8 paragraphs.
First Meeting – Our very first meeting was around Christmas of 2008. Twenty-four adults met in the game room of a friend’s house. (I had to learn keynote software quickly to have something visual.) We talked, dreamed, and prayed.
Family Connection – I remember our first public children’s ministry environment at the West Texas Training Center in San Angelo. I was blown away with how amazing the environments looked and how prepared our volunteer leaders were. We had over 30 adults serving in this ministry and that first day I was fearful no one would show. We ended up having about 30 kids (birth-5th grade) show up.
Convention Center – Then we moved to the San Angelo Convention Center for our first public adult worship service. I remembering listening to the band rehearse and excitedly realizing that they were so far above “church plant quality”. I was preaching that night so I was nervous as I looked around admiring the set designed by our team. Then I started worrying, “This music is a little too loud.” (The walls were hard and flat – a sound engineer’s enemy.) Just then my fear began to slowly return . . . “What if no one shows? All these volunteers are working hard and people have invested lots of money,” I thought.
Finally, it was time for the service to start and to my horror there were only about 15 adult guests there. My greatest fear had come true! The service began, some people keep coming in and by the time the band had led a couple of songs ALL of the chairs were occupied and extra chairs were needed. I soon realized that this “lack of punctuality” was the reality of a church for young adults and unchurched people. Turned out to be a GREAT service!
Johnny – I remember one couple in the their mid-forties attending. The husband was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He had NEVER been a church goer. He not only came but he gave his life to Christ! Johnny began attending a weekly small group. He wouldn’t say much but I knew he was listening because when he called me on the phone he would discuss the topic of that week’s small group. I was honored to be there when Johnny died and two days later conducted his funeral. I look forward to seeing Johnny again.
I remember another worship service where I was so nervous about speaking but at the end two adults gave their life to Christ. I also remember some of my friends (previously unchurched) coming each week, serving, and attending small groups. That energized and encouraged me so much!
Sunday services – I remember moving to our last location and, for the first time, being able to combine children’s ministry and adult worship. We finally “felt” like a church. We met on Sunday evenings and averaged about 100 people in attendance.
However, our long-term goal was to become sustainable on Sunday mornings. We looked and looked for buildings all over San Angelo. But we were never able to find a place. So the reality that we could not continue was hard to accept and equally hard to communicate.
(You can read more on the why behind our decision to close the church here.)
Closing a church is emotional. Here are some memories from the final month:
The Tension – Mission vs. Reality. There were so many people in our town not going to church yet we were unable to become the type of church that would engage them. The tension was “Had we tried hard enough, long enough?” “Were we about to reach a ‘tipping point’?” Yet, I didn’t want to push too long to harm the relationships of so many incredible volunteers who were serving and sacrificing to pursue this vision.
The Decision – I struggled with this for a few months and then experienced an intense struggle for the final weeks. Ginger and I got away for a few days for some prayer and solitude. It became clear that God was leading us to close this young church. I wish God would have spoken audibly so that I would never have any “what if” thoughts but I sensed His will was clear enough and confirmed in others enough for me to act.
Ginger – Ginger shared the original dream and the sacrifice through the years. I wanted her to share my confidence that this was God’s plan. She did. Did I mention I am blessed with an incredible wife?! We then sat our kids on the couch and shared the plan to close. They simply asked, “Then where will we go to church?”
North Point – I was so honored and humbled that North Point Ministries had chosen to partner with me in this endeavor. Everything in me wanted to honor their incredible investment in me by launching a “successful” church. So it was a tough phone call to inform North Point that we would be closing the church. However, I was once again amazed by their grace and encouragement even throughout the closing process. Our relationship continues and I am forever indebted for their decision to pour three years into this West Texas dreamer.
Advisory Board – I met with the Church’s Advisory Board members one-on-one initially. Some were emotional but all understood. Then we met together as a group. (I wanted everyone to work through their initial emotions and questions so we could focus on next steps as a group.) Still grateful for these good and godly men.
Staff/Core Team – Then I met with the staff to inform them. First there was some surprise, then the natural questions (“Are you sure?”), then tears. On our team there was always understanding and strong support for each other. I’m so proud of the character and friendship constantly displayed by this team. Then I told our core team. These people are the salt of the earth and were mostly concerned with our “newly churched people” transitioning and not getting left behind.
(We had communicated from Day 1 that reaching the benchmarks would be necessary in order launch because we wanted to create the type of church that would engage unchurched people. Our Advisory Board, staff team, and core team received regular updates on our progress in this area and all worked hard to achieve them.)
We didn’t want a “long funeral” so we shut down in about three weeks encouraging the small groups to continue as long as each group wanted. (Even a couple of months later some of these groups continue to meet weekly.)
During this time (final 3 weeks) there was an odd “numbness” that I experienced. Maybe that was God’s protection – I don’t know . . . it’s hard to articulate.
The final service – More on that later. I already miss seeing these people regularly.
The sale – The following Saturday we had a “church’s only” sale liquidating all of our equipment. We sold more than 90% of our equipment in the first 90 minutes. We were grateful for that but it was hard watching people take “our” stuff. Traditional congregations get attached to a building in ways portable churches (we had 4 different locations) get attached to their trailers and equipment.
The empty office – We closed all church accounts then took our furniture home where I made an impromptu office. (I actually like my office at home but it’s odd not leaving the house in the morning to “go to work”.)
The silence – There were no Sundays to prepare for, no staff meetings to lead, no one-on-one coffees to cast vision, no problems to solve, no strategies to tweak. Just silence. I didn’t like that.
The future – First, I updated my resume. I had to mentally fight against all of the negative “what if” scenarios.
The “condolence” conversations – Well-meaning people around town would see me and ask, “Mark, I’m so sorry to hear about the church. What happened?” Tough.
Even typing it now is tough.
Though I’ve described this in an emotional way, there was a peace that God provided Ginger and I that He was in control. Don’t get me wrong there were days when Ginger and I experienced less peace and more anxiety. But His peace was prominent overall. The peace surprised me yet I knew exactly what it was and Who was providing it.
I hesitated in sharing this much because I don’t want to discourage some of my church planting friends. However, I hope that my story of God’s constant provision will give you confidence to pursue BIG dreams. Secretly you know what I discovered? “‘Failing’ ain’t so bad!” 🙂
I recently re-read my first journal entry right after our last service. It is brief but I think it best summarizes my emotions during this season.
“Sunday night was final service at SAC. Hard service! No way to ‘soften blow’. Did extended worship, communion, sentimental videos, and message by me. I talked about ‘What do you do when God doesn’t act like you think He should?’ I talked about 2 Kings 5 when Namaan didn’t like God’s unusual process of healing his leprosy. Namaan just wanted healing. God’s unusual process provided healing AND eternal life.
Don’t ever want to have a church’s final service again. But willing to risk it to reach people!”