Trading Office Plants for Sand Castles

In the latest chapter of my ministry journey, I’m now in the beginning stages of trying to plant a church. The existing congregation I serve is not capable of growing into the kind of diverse, welcoming, multigenerational church it wants to become, so I’ve been deputized to gather a new community of believers under a new vision with a new name that will eventually begin worshiping in our current space.

As you can probably imagine, it’s a tricky proposition.

Because of this, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and praying about what it means to plant a church. And I’ve realized that even that term “church planting,” for me, evokes some problematic imagery. Not having any kind of legit agricultural experience, when I think about planting, I think of buying an existing plant from a store, then placing it in a preselected patch of dirt. In this scenario, planting is a simple, straightforward affair. Buy a plant, then plant that plant.


Much of my journey has been about God lovingly stripping away the armor that I use to burnish my own image.


My experience has been nothing like that. Rather, trying to recruit and gather a new community of believers feels a lot like building a sand castle. While the raw materials are plentiful, it takes a lot of careful planning, moment-by-moment intuition, and when the weather patterns shift, improvisation. It means being vigilant and wary of those who might, with words or actions, clumsily trample on a fragile structure. And it means boldly moving forward even while feeling like it could fall apart at any moment. It’s a move of the Spirit—an organic, nonlinear, context-sensitive experience that upends all of my linear, systematic instincts.

And the doubts…oh Lord Jesus, the doubts. I could write a whole chapter on how to deal with the doubts, the insecurity, and wanting to quit every other week.

I’m realizing that a lot of my ministry journey has been about God slowly and lovingly stripping away the armor that I use to burnish my image. In most of my ministry life I’ve been a worship leader, where it’s easy to rely on my musical ability to maintain an air of invulnerable competence. Sitting behind the piano feels safe, like it’s a shield. When I started preaching more regularly as an associate and co-pastor, I dabbled further in honesty and self-disclosure. But still, I found a certain amount of comfort and protection in using the lectionary texts and following the established, well-worn liturgies of the church. It’s a privilege to serve in an established church that has its own history and legacy.

But when you’re planting a church, you don’t really have any of that. You’re not burdened by that baggage, but you can’t lean on it either. As a matter of fact, one of the unspoken questions church planters must answer is, “What makes you a leader worth following?” As I invite people into my home, or have chats in coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, and parks, what I’m really trying to do is demonstrate through my life the kind of culture that I want to build in this new church.

It’s a challenge, therefore, to share my life with people when I sometimes feel like I kind of suck at living the kind of successful life that others should want to emulate. I don’t own my home, I’ve never raised children, and my credit score is worse than my Xbox gamer score.

I recently attended the 30th anniversary celebration at Irvington Covenant in Portland, Oregon, the church my dad founded, my growing-up church. Once again, the good reverend Henry Greenidge said something that deeply impacted me. Quoting his good friend Mark Novak, former executive minister of the ordered ministry, he said this: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, because you’re not that great. If you take yourself too seriously, it means you’re not taking God seriously enough.”

I want to inspire people to take God so seriously that they want to be honest and to share their doubts with someone who’s learning not to take himself so seriously.

So Bible studies and potlucks are good, but maybe what my nascent core team needs most is a day at the beach to build sand castles.

I’ll bring the goofy sunglasses.

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1 Comment

  1. Just a few comments for Jelani. Never forget from where you came. Planting requires soil that has the right stuff in it to grow what you plant. And guess where that comes from!! And what you want to grow comes from a root or seed. You may ‘buy’ that but no guarantee it will outlast all the elements. That is one reason we are all very grounded in God’s word and his guarantee that all comes from Him. Do not deviate from those facts.
    You have some good insights and there are needy ones out there and even at all generations they are discovering there is something missing. HELP THEM FIND GOD!
    But never leave out your basics, the soil and the seeds, the roots. Include the generations with the love they can give.

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