I’ve met people in Europe who have told me that church planting doesn’t work over here like it does in the States where you just “put up a sign and people show up.” That’s funny for a couple of reasons. First off, that is not the experience of most church planters in the northeastern US. And, I used to make the exact same statements about California & the bible belt while I was in Ithaca, NY. (I guess the grass is always greener…)
In October of 1991 I sat outside in the middle of one of the residential quads at the University at Albany leading a bible study. Okay, that isn’t exactly what happened. The reason I was outside, was because the student who was hosting the study in his room, didn’t show up. But then again, neither did anyone else. Just me. So I sat outside and made a decision. Even if nobody comes, I’m still going to teach what I’ve prepared. So I did. I sat there in the dark and cold teaching something that I have long since forgotten. (and this was before mobile phones and bluetooth devices, so if people saw you talking to yourself, they just assumed you were…well, off a bit.)
That previous year Liz and I would at times show up to our weekly worship nights, and not even bother unpacking our stuff, because we were the only ones there.
But at one point we decided that even if nobody comes, we’ll still do what we came to do. I’ll teach to an empty room, or be the one person singing along while Liz leads worship in an empty room.
While I do think that there were some spiritual principles at work in us doing that, in many ways it was a decision on our part to persevere. We believe we are here for a reason, and until we sense God saying we’re finished, we’ll press ahead.
Nine years later, Liz and James Cherian and I, along with one other person, sat in a large empty room on the third floor of the Community School of Music and Arts building in Ithaca. It was 10 minutes past time for our worship service to start, and we were wondering where everyone was. We were all still planning on worshiping and teaching with just the four of us (well, and my three kids). However, I was going to go outside to remove our sign because I didn’t want anyone coming in and seeing that. It’d be much better they came the next week…this week would be too weird.
Liz and James, would not let me remove the sign. And sure enough, a couple walked in, sat down and we had a six person worship service.
Those are not fun experiences to go through. In the moment, they can be kind of awful in fact. But we’ve learned in our 25 years of starting campus ministries, and churches, they are just part of the deal. And while they can be discouraging when they happen, that Sunday church service with 6 adults is one of my favourites stories. Liz, James, & I have all recounted it several times, and laughed a lot about it. It remains a constant reminder of God’s faithfulness.
As Liz and I begin to embark on this process all over again here in Dublin, I’m reminded of these experiences (and way too many more just like them).
At the same time, I’m encouraged (okay that is a strange word to use) that we’ll have more of these stories over the next several years. And while I may not share all of them publicly, they are part of the process of starting something new.
It’s still difficult. We’re okay with that.
I should wrap up those two stories above. The couple that came that Sunday in Ithaca…they didn’t come back for 2 months. And when they did, well, that was our second 6 person service of the summer. (If memory serves, the sixth person that week was James future wife Anna). And strangely enough, that couple continued to attend for the next few years.
That student in Albany…he became one of our student leaders in Albany, a good friend and is currently part of our financial support team.
Even in the midst of those times when you look around and think, ‘we’ve hit bottom,’ there is usually something God is doing…if you’re willing to hang around long enough.
[*the picture above is Méabh walking around Dollymount Strand.]