I was in a full-on death spiral of identity crisis.
Exponential is a conference for church planters. Based on that fact alone comes some explanation of why my spiraling began. My husband Anthony and I aren't church planters, but instead are moving into the seventeenth year of him - which means us - in vocational ministry as a staff pastor. We've served at our current church for the last decade, and it is also the church we essentially grew up in and where my father himself served on staff for several years. If you didn't catch it, that makes me both a pastor's wife and a pastor's kid. I
We walked into that first building at Exponential and it was full of a hundred booths containing thousands of resources for fresh-faced, vision-driven men and women to avail themselves of, mostly for free. There was everything from curriculum to books to web hosting to fund-raising resources to music to database management. The air was electrified with a palpable and literal buzz while networking took place and words like "planning phase," "pre-launch" and "launched" were on many lips as they told each other their stories. It was such a clear oasis of refreshment for so many who are trekking into and through the great unknown of church-planting. It was phenomenal and like watching parched sponges soaking up so much water.
And all I wanted to do was run. Away. Far, far away.
Our church "launched" a long time ago. We've tried a lot of things. We've been fresh-faced and full of ideas. We've been "the flavor." But we've also been forgotten. We've been the trend-setter, and we've been the outcast. We've been rich, and we've also been broke. We've been the neighborhood church on the main thoroughfare through town, and we've had the neighborhood bought, scraped, the land abandoned, and the traffic diverted away from us towards a bypass.
Sitting at a table in the middle of that building, with so much purpose and potential swirling around me, I felt completely and undeniably out of place. Maybe even lost. If I can get brave enough to say it, I felt abandoned.
I sent a text to my best friend telling her as much in far less thought-out words that were also way more full of panic, and asked her to pray. Trying to say it in a way that wouldn't squelch his excitement, I confessed it - a little - in broken and abbreviated phrases to Anthony. Having been to considerably more big-venue conferences than me, he tried to encourage me about pushing through the "consumer" side of things; the ten-thousand-and-one "BEST IDEAS" for all things ministry that one can sometimes feel like are being presented or vended by the booths. I knew there was truth in what he said and it gave me a little comfort, but mostly not.
When I paused for a moment I realized that I believed this conference, through absolutely no fault of its own, was going to be used as one more moment when someone - this time God - would point out everything we still aren't as a church, everything we aren't doing right, all that we should've been by now but haven't taken the right steps to become. That he would turn to us and say, "you're all wrong." And it would hurt like hell.
The only thing I did right in that moment was not run away, and maybe then only because we were a seven-hour drive from home.
I shuffled into an auditorium, climbed some stairs to a balcony on the periphery of the main seating, and sat down. With all the despair and certainty of what was to come I went through the motion of pulling out a journal, a pencil, and a laptop, as if prepared to write things down that I heard the speakers say. If nothing else, in my identity crisis I would at least have the notes serve as some sort of reference sheet of what we should be, delivered by men and women from a platform who obviously knew how to "get it right" in all the places we get it wrong. If nothing else, we could at least emulate them and fake knowing who we are in favor of being like someone else.
For twenty hours and through twenty-four speakers, that didn't happen. Not once; not even for a second. Oh, notes happened...nineteen typed pages of them. But with every twenty-minute talk given by another speaker, dread started to literally drain out of me as if someone had pulled the stopper out of a tub. I didn't know what was coming in its place, but I knew despair was leaving.
I wonder why after all these years I still sometimes slip into believing God sees me worthy of being ground to dust. Matthew - a man that walked with Jesus after coming out of a life where he collected the taxes from his own people to pay to the very men that raped and murdered their sisters and brothers - saw things so clearly: "If your child asks you for bread, would any of you give him a stone? Or if your child asks for a fish, would you give him a snake? Even though you’re evil, you know how to give good gifts to your children. So how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?"
Hope would've been a good gift this week. Peace in my tumultuous soul would've made all the difference. I got those things, utterly and miraculously. But more than those, what I believe I got - what we got, what we carry with us like vessels - is this:
In a room full of 5,000+ people, getting lost in the crowd is not hard. But he kept whispering, "I see you." When thirty-plus experts in their fields pour out their insights, feeling amateur is almost automatic. But he kept whispering, "You can do it. You ARE doing it." When the pull to compare and contrast threaten to tear off our limbs, he kept whispering, "You are all ONE body." When awe and envy and the desire to imitate bored into our pysche, he kept whispering, "Be you, completely in Me."
Every woman and man that was given an audience during Exponential spoke with such authority. And to the last, each one wound us up, turned us around, and said, "Now go. Tell your part of the world how lavishly and infinitely they are loved by Jesus in everyday ways by being uniquely YOU!" We were not charged to turn our churches into mini models of theirs. We weren't told to scrap the old churches or try to follow some delusion of being trendy by forming a new, cooler community of faith. Simultaneously, they called out courage in the ones who are stepping into forming new churches from the DNA up, and renewed courage in those of us that come home to established churches.
Our church has existed for 30 years. About twenty years ago she had her name changed. She's now been called by her current name longer than she was ever the name that went before. Sometimes, often times, I still hear her called by her old name in the community. I got to thinking about that and her diverted road and the other churches that have grown up in the area, some of which now contain people who formerly attended. Those things are hard and painful sometimes. There's a lot there that can exacerbate an identity crisis. But after a week like that of Exponential, those things start to burn off in the light of truth.
We are a people that loves God, loves others, and serves the nations. We are a people that reaches out to all kinds of people with the message of God's love and forgiveness. We are ambassadors of love, mercy, grace, and truth willing to set ourselves up as embassies, to say to the hurting, the questioning, and the wandering "come and see!" so they can find refuge and warmth.
He has called us by his name and we are his.
I expected a reprimand. I knew there'd be an agenda and a bullet list of all that's wrong. I prepared for a crumpling up and tossing of our current M.O. and some elaborate multi-step plan to change everything. But that's because I forgot how deeply known we are. That's not what we got. There's refocused vision and insight, and certainly some needed correction and some shifting to take place. But more than anything there is a very real sense that from this day forward our church could know who she is and be herself fully.
This is what the Lord says: Forget what happened in the past, and do not dwell on events from long ago. I am going to do something new. It is already happening. Don’t you recognize it? I will clear a way in the desert. I will make rivers on dry ground. - Isaiah 43:18-19