Planting a church for young adults

People are more important than programs and buildings

Karl Haffner is the senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Tacoma, Washington.

My heart was pounding like a drum roll. After seven years of school bills, cafeteria cuisine, and theology classes, the moment had finally arrived to enter ministry.

"Your assignment will be to pastor the North Creek church near Seattle," the conference president said.

"North Creek? I didn't know there was a church there."

"There's not. We want you to start one."

I would have preferred swallowing a bucket of nails. I sat like a statue in shock. "Um, ah, start one?"

"We want you to plant a church."

"With all due respect, sir, I'm about as qualified for that task as a platypus designing the space shuttle."

"We feel that God has called you to this challenge ..."

"But I've never interned. I've never been to a board meeting. I've preached three times. And I have to start with nothing? Isn't there some 10-church district where you could place me?"

My protests fell on deaf ears. Soon I found myself standing behind the pulpit (a rusty music stand) in my new church building (a rented storage room with flaming-red and chocolate-brown carpet) scanning my congregation (my wife and two other couples). "Welcome to North Creek church," I muttered. "Let's sing a cappella our morning hymn, Number 441 'I Saw One Weary.'"

My assignment never got easier, but it did get more enjoyable. It became apparent that God had called me to a special ministry. When I finally resigned myself to God's punishment calling and climbed into the saddle He gave me (on a horse I thought was headed to Nineveh), I experienced the most exhilarating ride of my life.

Getting started

The search began for helpers in the ad venture. Since the only people we knew in Seattle were former college classmates who weren't attending church, we started there. To our surprise, most people were eager to be involved in a church "designed by young adults, for young adults."

From the outset the atmosphere was casual but electric. Jeans and T-shirts were acceptable church attire. Voicing an opinion in the middle of the sermon was OK. Testimonies about inviting homeless people "to sleep in my spare bedroom for a few weeks" were commonplace. Mistakes were embraced with compassion. Thought-provoking drama, contemporary Christian music, and laughter were part of the unique packaging that North Creek church could offer with no resistance from disdainful voices saying, "We've never done church like this before."

Within three years we were offering three services. The classrooms were overflowing. The parking lot was full.

The experience, however, was not all hymns and happiness. In the trenches some were deeply wounded. Hateful words es caped. Egos jockeyed for position. Gossip poisoned. Mistakes carried serious consequences.

Along the way there were fumbles and there were accomplishments. What follows is a top 10 list of these along with the lessons learned through our church plant. The list was compiled by the leaders of North Creek church after seven years of growing together. As my dad would say: "Education is expensive." Nowhere is this more true than in the classroom of life. Here's what we learned.

Fumble 1: we established unhealthy boundaries

Because most of the core leaders at North Creek church were either single or married without kids, we had ample time and energy to devote ourselves fully to "God's calling." We attacked the challenge like pit bulls at a barbecue. Every week seemed consumed with church activity. From Sundays at 7:00 a.m. (when we jogged together at our marathon clinic) until midnight on Saturday (when we wrapped up our weekly party) our lives were oriented around the church.

While this sounds commendable, our obsession resulted in leadership burnout. After seven years of battle I felt exhausted and spiritually wasted. I lost the emotional reserves to answer one more phone call or confront one more "grouchy sheep." Spiritually depleted, I questioned everything from my own salvation to the value of church.

Lesson: While offering a three-inch-thick catalog of ministry alternatives is nice, it's a sure recipe for burnout if adequate re sources are not available and members are not empowered. When involving young people in church life, it is critical to recognize and respect human limitations. Place a high value on balance and boundaries.

In our case, it's clear now that I failed to allow the church to outgrow me. Feeling compelled to assure excellence, I failed to empower others. As a result, some quality leaders either crumpled under the stress of doing too much or gave up under the frustration of not measuring up to unrealistic standards.

Fumble 2: we embraced a distorted model of success

One of my earliest sermons was entitled "2,000 by 2000." In it I challenged the hand ful of members with a vision of our future. Pointing to the day of Pentecost, I preached how God was calling us to win 2,000 souls by the year 2000. We mapped out a strategy to double the number of Home Bible Fellowships every year until we had 500 groups by the turn of the century.

Although my vision was fueled by an impassioned spirit for lost people, it was anchored in the huge ego of a talk show host. I embraced a distorted model of success. In my mind the only portrait of success was a megachurch. Thousands of people. Hundreds of ministries. Plenty of accolades.

I still believe God is calling His people to establish growing churches. I now understand, however, that forming a Spirit-filled community is more important than building a mammoth church.

Lesson: In Acts 2:42-47 Luke describes a community of believers. The early Christian church was not just big. It was a vibrant fellowship in which lives were changed, the sick were healed, the poor were cared for, the lost were transformed. The Spirit was active.

The early Christian church sparkled with the raw vulnerability that we craved. After redefining what a church is called to be, we resolved to begin each worship service by reading Acts 2. It became our motto and sole desire to be a Spirit-filled community.

Fumble 3: we created an environment in which cynicism and distrust of authority flourished

Some of our core leaders were former Adventists who had been "burned by the church." We teamed up with an unspoken mission to "do church the right way." Consequently there was a sardonic poison that flowed through the foundation of our fellowship.

In today's culture there is plenty of fer tile ground in which to plant seeds of cynicism. According to the Barna Research Group, only 8 percent of people today deem leaders of nonprofit organizations to be "very trustworthy." 1 In this age of skepticism, petulance seems an easy shortcut to fellow ship. Beware, however, for shared bitterness builds only the facade of community.

Lesson: After a board meeting an elder confronted me on a verbal quip I had carelessly made. "When you make digs against the church system," she said, "you are training leaders to respond to your spiritual authority and leadership in the same way."

"But you know I was just joking ..." As my lips stammered to defend, my gut screamed, "She's right." Through her God whispered the golden rule of ridicule: "Show the same respect toward your authorities that you desire from the people you lead."

Fumble 4: we discontinued multiple services

Offering multiple services was not popular with everyone. Members complained: "Now we can't get to know everybody." "Let's stop focusing on getting new people and take care of the people we've got.""Let's just do one service, and if people can't get a seat, that's their problem."

Approximately a year after starting the church, we offered two services. A year later we offered a third. In doing this, we made an amazing discovery: every time we added a service we grew by 20 percent.

Eventually we moved from the assembly room into a 500-seat facility, thus eliminating the need for multiple services. Although I felt strongly that we should continue to offer at least two services, I was too weak to fight.

After returning to two services, attendance plunged by 20 percent. When we offered one service, attendance again took a nosedive.

Lesson: People today expect options. No longer do you choose between sk colors for bathroom towels. Bon Marche displays more than 100 different colors for towels! Savvy business owners understand: the more selection, the more sales. The principle holds true for churches. More options mean greater response.

Fumble 5: we failed to confront problems

We valued peacekeeping above truthtelling. I can't describe the heartache that resulted from "dancing around the proverbial elephant" that sat in the middle of our sanctuary. I feared talking about it. I wanted everybody to be happy. I squirmed at the thought of tackling the delicate issues.

Rather than upholding relational integrity and confronting moral issues, we ignored the stinky animal in hopes that it would go away on its own. Instead, the elephant had babies, and before we realized it we were operating a zoo.

Lesson: We learned that violating relational authenticity always comes back to sting. Healthy churches are rooted in healthy relationships. Compromise relationships, and your ability to lead will be diminished. At North Creek our failure to attack com promise in leadership carried an exorbitant emotional and spiritual price tag.

And now the achievements!

Volumes could be written about our failures. We made more mistakes than Abraham had descendants. In the midst of failures, however, God's grace blossomed. The achievements proved educational as well. Here are the top five and the lessons we learned.

Achievement 1: offense, not defense

At the start we stormed our mission rather than defending our mansion. As we grew into a more established church, how ever, we did drift toward a more defensive mind-set.

At one of our first meetings someone suggested we invite a TV personality to speak at our church. Rather than discussing the budget for such a weekend, we asked God to reveal His will. After intense prayer, we agreed that God was in it.

I contacted the individual. "My expenses and honorarium are $1,000," he said. "Can you afford that?"

"Um, ah, sure we can!" I wondered why we hadn't discussed finances. All we knew was that God was calling him to minister to our community. "We'll cover the cost," I assured him. At the time our church had a balance of $34.53.

Next, he informed me that he was booked for three years. We wanted him in five weeks. My mind swirled in confusion: But God wants you at North Creek that week end. I felt violated when he declined.

Fifteen minutes later my phone rang. "I can't explain this," he said, "but my appointment for that weekend we discussed was just canceled. Would you still like me to come?" As it turned out, the weekend was a success. And of course, the money to cover expenses flowed in.

Lesson: I am not advocating irresponsible money management, rather responsible risk-taking. I suspect too many churches expect money to come before the vision. Inspire people with a clear, bold vision, and money will not be an issue. Start by asking, "What miracle is God calling us to be a part of?" rather than "What's in the budget?"

Achievement 2: we created an environment in which mistakes were honored

The most refreshing part of being involved in a new church was the freedom to try anything. One Sabbath the worship team had arranged for a magician to punctuate the sermon with a routine involving candles. Since my message was on being the light of the world, it seemed a perfect fit.

Unfortunately the thrust of the message was never communicated to the magician. Instead of a routine on candles and light, he launched into a 20-minute discourse on being "true to your karma."

To say his show was inappropriate in church would be like saying kids shouldn't smoke dope. Very few people shared positive comments about his performance. There was overwhelming support, however, for the worship team's courage to try some thing innovative. Their willingness to risk was applauded in spite of the failure.

Lesson: Why do churches so often denounce innovators? Applaud their efforts even if they fail. As church growth expert Doug Murren says: "Remember, any attempt to be creative will always be appreciated. Past church experience tends to be so short on imaginative projects that any attempt to improve that experience will cause you to stand out."2

Achievement 3: we didn't beat up babies

For all our blunders, one accomplishment stands out North Creek church created an environment that was sensitive to baby Christians. At one baptism the candidate was so surprised to see that her sister had flown across the country to attend the service that she raced ecstatically toward her, through the congregation, shouting expletives that shouldn't be published.

While I'm not promoting questionable language at baptisms, I am contending that the church family should be accepting of people wherever they are in their spiritual journey.

Lesson: We must challenge people to be more and more like Jesus. His holiness is our objective. In the process, however, we must not destroy baby believers. The church must challenge believers to grow but accept them at every stage of growth.

Achievement 4: we placed a high priority on people

Since we had no church building or school, we were able to invest a significant percentage of our budget in people. We in vested more than 75 percent of our money in evangelism and discipleship training.

George Barna asks: "Why do we spend five dollars on buildings and maintenance of church-related properties for every one dollar we spend on evangelistic activity? Is this the ultimate statement of our ministry priorities?"3

Lesson: Most church leaders would readily agree that people are more important than programs and buildings. If this is true, then the budget should reflect the priorities. Unfortunately, some churches are strangled by a maintenance monster that gobbles up all of their finances.

Achievement 5: our focus was on infiltrating the community

With all of our baggage and hang-ups, our small church did possess a heart for the unbelievers in our community. We recklessly sacrificed ourselves to build bridges that would connect us to unsaved people. Divorce recovery groups, 12-step programs, the Eats-n-Acts Christian Dinner Theater, the Adventist Marathon Clinic, the annual Living Nativity Drive-thru these pro grams were used to help us reach lost people.

Lesson: God implores us to reach lost people. My experience at North Creek challenged me to keep investing my life in answering the Great Commission. As Christians, nothing is more worthwhile of our full devotion.

One final thought

God called us to infiltrate a growing suburb of Seattle with His gospel. In no way was the church wildly successful. Nor was it a colossal failure. Progress was incremental. The process was invaluable. For the unique spiritual journey I took with a team of extraordinary young adults, I will always be grateful.

Although I no longer pastor the North Creek church, it continues to grow through fumbles and achievements. Young adults still lead. God still blesses. And the conference president still believes he sent me to the right place. I happen to agree.

1 George Barna, Absolute Confusion
(Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1993), p. 121.

2Doug Murren, The Baby Boomerang
(Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990), p. 118.
3Barna, p. 142.


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Karl Haffner is the senior pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Tacoma, Washington.

March 1997

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