I will never forget the look on their faces when I promised them I would either lead us to impact the city or - in the effort - close our doors. I was a very young believer at the time and only in my twenties, but I was sure that there was no promise in the Bible that insured survival. Once survival has become our supreme goal, we have lost our way.The New Testament word for "witness" is the same as for "martyr." We have come to know martyrs as those who have died for the faith. They didn't survive, but they died facing the right direction. Around the world, Christian families, tribes, & communities have been persecuted and brutally killed for their faith. They didn't survive. Yet they left a witness. The purpose of the church cannot be to survive or even to thrive but to serve. And sometimes servants die in the serving.Erwin McManus, An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become the Church God Had In Mind
I won't ever forget reading that passage for the first time - it was early in 2002 and it was becoming increasingly clear that the church I had dreamed about, planted & led was on life support. I don't remember where I was - by that time I studied mainly at home or in my car, as we'd gotten out of the office space to save money - but I do remember tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn't want to read something like that...
Nearly six years later, Erwin's words still have the power to pierce my heart - both because they're so incredibly Biblical & jaw-droppingly painful at the same time. And that's especially true this weekend, which is the 10th anniversary of the "launch" of the church @ hickory hollow. On January 25, 1998, seven of us set up chairs & a sound system & a coffee table in an elementary school assembly area... and so officially began tc@hh (which was our short-hand way of writing out the name of the church). Of course, we set up a lot of other stuff, too: the rug that's still underneath my chair in my office here at NewLife, a supremely ugly bar stool that had escaped from the 70's which our worship leader used while he sat & played guitar... and, of course, tons of black curtains we used to create "atmosphere." (Of course, not exactly what we were hoping for: one visitor the first Sunday said it "looked like a coven" with the black drapes & the candles.)
Most importantly, though, we brought with us a deep desire to "do church" in a way that was attractive to those embittered by traditional church or separate from any kind of church background. We did anything we could to make sure the message of Christ was translated into the context of contemporary culture. One Easter, we projected the Prince song, "The Cross", on one screen while showing clips of the crucifixion from The Jesus Film on the other. We had an entire worship service where the message (about small groups) was shared by a small group in a living room setting we'd put up on our "stage." When Shari & I suffered our first miscarriage, we ditched the original worship design and I talked about grief & pain - my grief - and about the God who loved us in the middle of it.
We tried different ways to make people aware of who we were - we did a couple of mass mailings that were reasonably successful... and one $3000 experiment with movie slides (the things they used to show before the previews) that was a complete bust. (Well, not exactly - we had ONE person we know of who came because of the movie slide - for one Sunday. Sigh.)
If you've seen an episode of M*A*S*H, you have a pretty good picture of what tc@hh ended up as: a triage unit. Although our dream was draw in people who were completely unchurched, that just didn't happen. Instead, we attracted people who had been burned in a variety of more traditional churches and used our church as a re-entry point into the church life. And because we were targeting 20- & 30-somethings, many of our devoted folks ended up moving because of jobs or life issues that kept us in a constant state of flux. Just like a triage unit, we didn't get to keep anyone very long - we just patched 'em up and sent them on somewhere else. Hopefully the years have sucked my personal bitterness over our role in the body of Christ - it's awesome to see the continued healing & growth in the lives of so many of the folks who attended tc@hh.
In the end, what was once a church of 70 folks had become a small embattled crew of 20 folks who loved Jesus & each other dearly. (An excellent indication of that: the last year of the church we had services on Saturday nights so we could use our sponsor church's building - almost every Saturday night, the majority of the folks attending the service ended up at Paul & Amy's house to eat, hang out, watch TV & play games.) And that's where Erwin's quote came to bear - we had become a group of people focuses on the survival of a church we loved rather than dreaming & working to change the community we lived in. It was time to close the doors.
But, you ask (and well you should), what does this have to do with NewLife? Good question.
Last Sunday night, as 15+ of us sat sharing & brainstorming about the re-launch of NewLife @ Night, I was reminded of the same pioneering spirit that fueled the church @ hickory hollow. More importantly, I was reminded that both have more in common than the desire to culturally relevant & Biblically solid - they are both empowered & directed by the Spirit of the Living God. What we're doing on Sunday nights is not an attempt to recreate tc@hh (to start with, most of you would need Southern accents) or Veritas (the service Aaron led in Portland) but instead wells up out of the desire of so many folks here at NewLife long before Aaron or I arrived on the scene.
That desire is to make a God-sized dent in Easton & the surrounding communities, particularly with folks who don't attend church. That desire is for a worship gathering with rock'n'roll music and inspired teaching that connects with youth & young adults as well as those who've passed "the top of the hill" (like me!) That desire is for that gathering to act as a springboard for healthy small groups & classes that draw folks into community with God & with each other. That desire is to not simply attract more people but to see people's lives transformed by the power & grace of Jesus Christ.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the 1/27/08 edition of the Grapevine, the newsletter of NewLife Community Church.