Pastor A started Church X in a basement in Seattle around the same time Pastor B started Church Y. Both paid homage to the Seattle music scene made famous by Nirvana. Both spoke gritty sermons that resonated with grunge culture. Church X and Church Y began growing beyond expectations, and both Pastor A and Pastor B were regularly invited to church planting and denominational conferences.
But just a few years into their church plants, Pastor B had a moral failure. Church Y was devastated. The faith of their core group was challenged at a foundational level. Church Y stopped being cool. It lost its edge, and the folks that remained struggled to persevere with hope. Thankfully, the denomination held it together until a new pastor, Pastor C, could be found.
Pastor A and Church X kept on their phenomenal path of exponential growth. From 20 people, to 800, to 3000, to 10,000 over a twelve year period. I attended Church X and sat under Pastor A for six years, experiencing their phenomenal growth. In my early years, when attendance was around 800 people, I learned much from sermon series through Galatians, Jonah, and Ephesians. But when the church bought a new building and growth took off to 3000 and then 5000 and then 7000, sermons changed. Though the gritty trappings remained the same, the cultural wrapping paper no longer held deep reformed, theological truths. The theology that used to be regularly present, spoken in ways that grunge and hipster attendees could hear and understand, was replaced with watered-down content. While the presentation levels went up like they were on steroids, the actual doctrinal content went down in a similar fashion to a body builder on steroids who loses other core masculine parts.
During that season, I began attending Church Y and sitting under the regular teaching of Pastor C. By this point, Church Y had lost its cultural bells and whistles. It didn’t put up cultural barriers, but gone were the candles and dark worship that called to the independent music scene of Seattle. Church Y had two reasonably full services until they planted another church in the city. We sent off friends, saddened by the smaller attendance for our services for a bit. But eventually, we made it to two services again. We sent away our assistant pastor to plant a church in New York City. Again, we were saddened by the loss of this important family in our congregation, but over time, Church Y brought in two more staff members and slowly continued to grow.
I sat under the slow and steady teaching of Pastor C, thirty minute sermons that taught through a book of the Bible week in and week out. Pastor C taught clearly with relevant applications, but he was not a firebrand. I learned though. Slowly and methodically, I learned.
A few years later, exciting, flamboyant Pastor A resigned in disgrace. Though Church X had thousands of attendees at the time, it dissolved, selling off buildings and shuttering a number of its campuses. But Pastor C and Church Y plodded on—sending out members and staff to new works year by year, slowly growing themselves, or as the psalmist puts it in Ps. 37:3, cultivating faithfulness.
I think of Pastor A and Pastor C, Church X and Church Y, a lot as I now live on the other side of the nation and am once again involved with a young church plant. Pastor A and Church X represent the dream of many church planters – dynamic sermons and exponential growth. Their success was seductive. And deceptive. For the tale of these two pastors and their churches has a moral as old as Aesop’s Fables. The race goes to the tortoise.
The problem, of course, is that the tortoise is not glamorous. The tortoise is slow, plodding, methodical. Sometimes, it’s boring. But if you keep an eye on the end goal, you get the perspective you need to value the tortoise.
We all want fruit. Church X saw fruit. Pastor A’s sermons resulted in fruit.
But Jesus whets our appetite for something more than simple fruit. Jesus speaks of “fruit that remains” (John 15:16).
So here I sit sixteen years after I darkened the doors of Church X and ten years after I stepped in the doors of Church Y. One’s doors are still opened. One has enduring fruit that wasn’t choked by the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth (Mark 4:19).
The lessons from these two church plants mean much to me as I now sit in another small service, two years into another new church, on the opposite coast from Church X and Church Y. No bells. No whistles. Just the ordinary means of grace—prayer, Bible study, communion, fellowship. My new church doesn’t garner the attention of Mother Jones or Slate (or even our local newspaper, The Times and Democrat). Our sermons aren’t downloaded by thousands each week. But young fathers are being mentored by older ones. The unemployed are receiving help to find jobs. The hungry are fed, the poor are helped. Bible stories are taught and application is made, disciples slowly trained up in the Scriptures. There isn’t anything grand or glorious in this church plant.
Except maybe the most glorious thing of all, fruit that remains.
You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. John 15:16