Eugene Peterson wrote the book and coined the phrase, “Long Obedience in the Same Direction,” to summarize the balanced life of the Christ follower. I have learned, through personal experience, that it is also a great description of the typical experience when planting a successful church.
In 1990, my family and I left the warm confines of a mega-church to start a new work in the spiritually complicated state of Utah. My wife and I both sensed a definite sense of calling to uproot ourselves from familiar soil and let God plant us out in a frontier location. We felt God say, “Go,” so we went. When viewed from the perspective of advancing my career, it was a dumb move. For me, personally, it was purely an act of obedience.
Once we got there, we had no idea what to do.
So, we prayed. We felt that God was directing us to simply knock on doors and meet our neighbors. So, in desperation mixed with obedience, we did. Now, I’m not a door knocking kind of person, so every door I knocked on truly was a small act of obedience.
We also recruited a team of students to make phone calls to over 3000 homes in our area, letting them know that a new church was starting up and requesting their permission to send them more information about us. Between our door knocking efforts and phone calling campaign, we collected the names of about 300 people who gave us their contact info and permission to stay touch with them.
We used this initial list as our primary invite list for our Grand Opening.
We sent them letters—one each week during the four weeks preceding our launch event—inviting them to be our guest. Then, we prayed, held our breath and were delighted when over 50 people showed up to our first service. A few of them were from our list of 300, but most were nice people from other churches who showed up to “encourage” us. Many of them didn’t come back the next week and none of the 300 did.
Over the next six months, our attendance numbers drifted down toward zero with the low point being six people, four of which were my family. Discouraged, I remained obedient as God reminded us that He had called us here and He wanted us to stay.
We did our best to provide good spiritual leadership for everyone the Spirit brought to us and we continued to reach out to those 300 on our mailing list.
Looking for a different approach, I decided that if they wouldn’t come to us, we would go to them via our monthly newsletter, written with them in mind. In essence, I preached mini-sermons every month to my newsletter-only congregation, never knowing if they were getting the message or not.
Eight years later, those original 300 were still receiving my monthly sermonette and a handful had found their way to the church.
Our congregation had grown to hundreds, primarily through personal invites and church sponsored community events, and the monthly newsletter distribution list had grown into the thousands.
One day, Susan showed up at our New Member’s Class. She told me she hadn’t been to our church, yet; but she had learned about us through our monthly newsletter. I asked her how long she’d been receiving the newsletter and she replied, “About eight years.” She said that she’d always wanted to visit our church, but her husband wouldn’t allow it. Her marriage had recently broken up and now she felt free to check us out. But, before she went to a main service, she wanted to go through the membership class (which she learned about in the newsletter) to learn what we were really about. Four weeks later, her questions were answered and she announced she was ready to visit a worship service. That day, she prayed to receive Christ as Savior and Lord and she never looked back.
Because of stories like this, and those of other church planters, I’ve concluded that long obedience in the same direction is definitely the way to build God’s Kingdom.