Twenty years ago I planted a church called Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Besides becoming a Christ follower, and then marrying my wife and being graced with four incredible children, it has proven to be the defining act of my life.
On Saturday I will tweet twenty reminisces about that very first weekend twenty years ago, and this weekend (Saturday/Sunday) all of our campuses will join together at our North Charlotte site to celebrate the anniversary.
In the spirit of that anniversary, I want to offer five thoughts that I hope will be encouraging to any reader, no matter where you are or what you are doing. It’s an amazing thing to toil in one vineyard for two decades, and the learnings are priceless.
Providence is a doctrine best seen in retrospect. There is much happening right now in your life, or ministry, that I am sure have you feeling defeated. You have no idea what God has in mind, and it doesn’t make sense. I understand.
For my part, I have asked: “Why did a tropical storm hit on our opening weekend? Why were we devastated by a moral failure in a very public staff person in our fragile third year? Why did we get kicked out of a high school after nine months?” I could go on and on.
But now, after twenty years, I look back and see how God used each and every event for good. Not that each event was good (your exegesis of the passage in mind is better than that), but that God used it for good. So take whatever isn’t making sense now, and take heart. Providence really is a doctrine best seen in retrospect.
Don’t overestimate what you can do in one year, but don’t underestimate what you can do in ten. Or in my case, twenty. On the front end, I just knew that we were going to break every growth record in the books. The reality was starting with 112 rain-soaked people coming to our first service in the middle of a tropical storm. Through the strength of my preaching, we were at 56 by the third week. And by the end of the first year? A respectable, but not earth-shattering, 200.
But over time, we continued to grow, family by family, life by life, until now we are in the thousands. Hold on to the old saying, “By the yard, it’s hard; by the inch, it’s a cinch.” Or as another cliché goes, “You’re running a marathon, not a fifty-yard dash.” It’s true. Speed isn’t what marks a miracle, much less an act of God. An oak tree from an acorn isn’t less of a wonder because it took years rather than minutes.
How you build something matters. It’s easy to cut corners, sacrifice integrity, or push your family to the side all in the name of “building” something for the Kingdom. In the short run, it can seem to “payoff.” In the long run, it will be your biggest regret and can bring down everything you have worked so hard to establish.
I often tell people that Meck would be a whole lot bigger than it is if I had sacrificed our mission to the unchurched, or sacrificed my family for the church. By God’s grace, I didn’t do either one. And today, yes, I have the privilege of serving a large church; I also have the joy of an intact, intimate family with four kids who love Jesus, love the church, and are all in ministry. And Meck is more on fire and true to its mission than ever before, which makes me as ready to give my life to it now as I was when we planted.
Vision is decisive. I could have never made it to this point, much less led Meck to where she is now, without a clear picture of where we were going and what we were trying to be. That vision kept me in the game on those days when I wanted to quit, or just pull up into a fetal position. It was as if I could go through anything, pay any price, endure any opposition, as long as the Promised Land was ahead – and I had a glimpse of what that land was like.
But a clear vision is also what was needed to have it become reality. Vision is like the picture on a jigsaw puzzle box. It’s constantly in front of you, helping you put things together. Tom Watson was the leader responsible for putting IBM on the map during its heyday. When asked why the company had become so successful, he said:
IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done.
The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act.
The third reason IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.
In other words, I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one.
Yes. That is precisely how vision works, and why it is so decisive.
The church really is the hope of the world. According to Jesus, the church is the heart of the force of God on this planet. He wanted to change the world, and He wanted to do it through the church.
Think about how this works with light. Light that is diffused doesn’t make much of a difference. But if you focus that light through a magnifying glass, you can set things on fire. Concentrate it even more, and you have a laser that can cut through sheet metal. As Jesus Himself said, "...I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out..." (Matthew 16:18, Msg).
As a result, the church is the most dynamic, active, vibrant, forceful project on the planet. It is the one thing we will give our lives to that will live on long after we are gone - and not just for a generation or two, but for all of eternity.
As my friend Bill Hybels has so eloquently written, the gospel is “the power of the love of Jesus Christ, the love that conquers sin and wipes out shame and heals wounds and reconciles enemies and patches broken dreams and ultimately changes the world, one life at a time. And the radical message of that transforming love has been given to the church.”
Bill continues: “There is nothing like the local church when it’s working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited. It comforts the grieving and heals the broken in the context of community. It builds bridges to seekers and offers truth to the confused. It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. It breaks the chains of addictions, frees the oppressed, and offers belonging to the marginalized of this world. Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness.”
That’s what I’ve given the last twenty years of my life to at Meck.
And if God allows, it’s what I’m going to give the next twenty to as well.
James Emery White
The Tom Watson story comes from: Gerber, Michael. The E-Myth.
Hybels, Bill. Courageous Leadership.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.