Yesterday Mike Christner, as Chair of the Board of Overseers, announced that they have accepted my request to be released from my call as lead pastor of Sarasota Community Church. Then I got to explain why.
Since the ramifications of this announcement are far-reaching, and hard to digest if just hearing it for the first time, and since many of the people who relate to SCC were not here yesterday, I've decided to put in writing below what I said in person yesterday. (The same is available to watch here.)
The following is more or less a transcript of what I said yesterday.
This past week our church hosted a Q&A panel discussion with me and three other local pastors. Questions were submitted ahead of time and one was so insightful I couldn’t answer it because I knew I'd be answering it Sunday.
It read: “Pastor Roger has said many times that he believes God has a purpose in this pandemic and that God is calling us to new ways of being His followers and doing His work. He’s also said that his greatest fear was that we will all rush back to doing things as before. It now seems that we are quickly returning to things ‘as before.’ Have we missed God’s call for new ways?”
My sermons this past year have dealt with provocative and challenging concepts, and it almost sounds like I’ve been setting up something. Some pastors have a preaching calendar where they plan their sermons way in advance, but for me, I’m usually thinking two or three weeks in advance, but not settling on a topic until the week of. This means I’m usually speaking to what’s going on in the world, or in our congregation, or just about what God’s teaching me. So when you look back on my sermons, it tells a story of our experience together.
If we look back over the past year, some of the sermons are obvious: “Encouragement for These Last Days” or “Follower of the Way.” And in context, sermons like “Stop Doing Your Devotions” (and instead devote yourself to the four things the first believers did) seemed like just focusing on faith and discipleship — which it totally was. But when you add to it sermons that brought what I would call a prophetic critique or warning, a pattern emerges:
“What Most People Still Get Wrong About Worship”
“What's Wrong with the Church”
“What’s Wrong With Your Pastor”
“Is There Danger Ahead?”
“Surviving the Storm”
And for me, the question I spoke to five months ago has continued to stir me: “Would Your Faith Survive Underground?”
I have considered this for me, for us, for those under my pastoral care: If the above ground systems and structures that we rely on for the practice of our faith were suddenly taken away, would we know how to practice our faith?
I have been disturbed to see churches fighting to keep state-sanctioned gatherings as if they are essential to the practice of faith. Gatherings are — of course. But the Church doesn’t need to be state-sanctioned in order to be the Church. It certainly doesn't need church owned buildings with public worship services in order to be the Church!
So these things have been stirring in my heart. And I’ve been considering, “Is there another way to be Church?”
So it sounds like I’ve been setting up something, but really I’ve been actively contemplating something. And today I get to explain that “something.”
If it feels like I’m talking too much about me, that's just the context of what I need to say, so please bear with me. I know that not everyone listens to everything I say, or reads every word I write, so some may be surprised by what I say today. But if you’ve been paying attention, it’ll come as no surprise when I describe what I’m being stirred to. And especially if you were part of the six prayer meetings that we called in October, November, and December where we spent time just praying for the future of our church. And especially if you came to the January meeting where we talked about what we had sensed God telling us during those prayer meetings.
I talked that night about things that I’m gonna talk about this morning, and I’ve blogged about these things for many months — so if you’ve been paying attention, it won’t be much of a surprise when I explain my vision for “Another Way to Be Church.” But it may come as a surprise that today I’m not talking about another way for SCC to be church.
God has given me a vision for a network of microchurches meeting in people’s homes throughout Sarasota or as far as relationships can reach, designed around a very simple and reproducible, low cost model of being church — and I believe I’m supposed to give my attention to that ministry instead of to the lead pastorate here at SCC as I have for the past 11½ years.
Today I’ll explain the why, what, how, and where, but I can’t fully explain the when, other than that the transition begins today, but we just don’t know how long of a transition it will be or what it'll look like.
We have asked Dennis Bontrager to serve as a temporary pastor — an interim from within our congregation — who will take on lead pastor responsibilities while a permanent lead pastor is found.
Dennis has been here forever, he was on the elder board that brought me in as pastor, and has served on the pastoral team under my leadership for the past ten years. He's well loved.
We’ll transition at a speed that seems prudent and healthy, but we don’t know yet how long that is. Right now I still speak with positional authority as the pastor of this church, but after today, that relationship starts to change. What I do know is that the timing will either be too quick or too long, but probably not just right.
Our goal is to treat this as a transition, where I work with Dennis to hand off day to day responsibilities while remaining available as needed, and while transitioning into this new ministry. And even when I’m no longer teaching here, and even if the new model doesn’t have an auditorium with a stage, my heart is to continue teaching weekly online for as long as it’s helpful. (You can access that by clicking here.)
So that’s the announcement.
I want to describe what this new way of being church looks like, but most of what I have to say today is actually about saying it — and the tensions it creates for me to use this space to say it. But I believe that working through tensions like this is not only a witness of our love in Christ, but is also itself instructive about how to do such things in Christ.
So I want to name SEVEN tensions I have about this. And then I’ll tell you what this other way of being Church will look like.
1st Tension: What I’m doing right now doesn’t feel like a sermon.
When we decided to announce this on a Sunday morning, I realized that any sermon I preach will be a throw away sermon — unless I preach the announcement. But it doesn’t feel like a sermon.
My ministry verse is Colossians 1:28-29 “[I proclaim Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.”
And 2 Timothy 4:2 says to “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
I typically do that by opening scripture and studying it openly. I don’t like to replace worship with church business or sermons with announcements, so this just feels odds to me, and I’m naming the tension. But in reality, this is a practical sermon. And next week Dennis is going do the same with respect to what he sees continuing forward at this church.
2nd Tension: I don’t know if everyone has been listening.
In my preaching and teaching I have had to bring a prophetic challenge many times about the state of the larger Church.
1 Corinthians 14:3 teaches us that “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort 4 [and] edifies the church.” That’s my heart in any critique I’ve spoken, and it’s all online for anyone to listen to and read. So I'm choosing to not lay all of that out again this morning.
But I believe hardship is coming.
Some of it is just cyclical. There’s some indication that here in America we’ll be facing the transition of an 80 year institutional cycle, and a 50 year socio-economic cycle, all within the next decade, and it’ll probably be pretty rough, but it’s just sorta what happens. It just hasn’t ever happened at the same time before.
But some hardship will be inflicted on us by the world. Culture will try to control which parts of scripture we teach or preach. We may see the loss of government sanctioned places of worship and independent professional clergy which is made possible by tax exemptions. And at some point, we’ll have outright persecution. Most of us say it’s coming but we’re just not ready.
And I believe some of the hardship will prove to be self-inflicted. The wealth of the generation that sustains churches like ours is getting ready to be inherited by a generation that doesn’t support churches like ours. And immigration growth will continue to lull us to sleep thinking the church is growing when it’s really just unhappy Christians migrating for different programming.
I believe hardship is coming and I believe what I’m being called to do will help prepares us all for it. Even those who don't join in it. And yet I don’t believe it’s the only way to be prepared for it. I just hope everyone is listening and eager to respond well.
3rd Tension: I don’t know whether to soft sell this new vision or let my fire burn.
If I speak with passion, some will accuse me of trying to get people to follow me. It’s a good concern, but I’m not.
Hear me: What I explain today is not for people who are moved to be part of the conventional church model. I’m not trying to persuade anybody.
But if I happen to connect with someone whose heart has already been longing for what I’ll describe, then I believe this is a wonderful opportunity for that person. I have a special place in my heart for disillusioned and dechurched people — and that includes churched people who are exhausted by the prevailing church model, or who are just mailing it in each week because they don’t have another option.
But! I’m very aware that if I speak with too much passion today, some will think I’m just trying to take people with me.
On the other hand, if I just sorta float this out there as something I’d kinda like to try for a change, not only would that be dishonest, but you might conclude that this isn’t really about God’s call. You might conclude that I’m bored or burned out, and that would be misleading on my part.
Romans 12:11 says “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” So my choice is to just let my emotion be what it is, and let your interpretation be what it is.
4th Tension: I need you to know that I have not resigned, but rather have asked to be released from my call to SCC.
That may be a bit semantic, but it’s important to me, because I don’t relate to this as a “job” but as a call. I find it disturbing when a pastor sees himself as the CEO of a non-profit corporation that he can resign from to take another offer. In fact, that’s part of my prophetic critique of the Business-Styled Church, and this tedious need for clarification about being released rather than resigning is a lived out critique of it.
1 Peter 5:2-3 tells pastors to “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
That’s my heart.
August of 2009 this church called me to come help revitalize it by bringing in young families, and by October I had moved my young family here from Oregon.
That’s how the call was stated to me: "To bring in young families" — because there were hardly any.
During the past 11-½ years we’ve been able to bring in many younger families, but almost all of them have left after awhile. We can point fingers if we want — at them, or at me, or at each other, or at God, or at the devil — and we could argue about which finger is correct. I'm sure one is.
But I always try to start with the finger in my own chest. I personally own that I was not able to turn this church into a multigenerational church like I had hoped to — like I was called to do. While I know I made changes that not everyone liked, I just couldn’t bring myself to really deprogram and reprogram this church around a young families model, because I honestly believe it needs to start with a heart that wants to do that. And if the heart is there the reprogramming happens naturally.
I sorta suspect that many here released me from that call early on, and would have preferred to even redefine the call if possible — but you need to know that I still feel the weight of the call I accepted, every day. And I think it would be healthy and appropriate for the church to release me from it, and to bring in a new pastor with a new call as determined by the church for this next season. You will need to decide whether that call is to bring in young families or be a church for seniors, whether it is to be a contemporary church or a traditional church. Those aren't moral or immoral decisions, they're just hard and necessary.
So, I didn’t resign but I did ask to be released to follow this new call.
5th Tension: I’m aware that some people are glad to hear this, and some people are sad or mad to hear this.
Some of you are no doubt thinking maybe you can get your church back, that maybe we can stop trying to do a blended thing, and go ahead and just be a traditional church for seniors. I think that’s understandable.
But others of you are here because we dared to do the newer music, and now you’re afraid it’s no longer going to include you. I think that’s understandable.
Still others are glad to hear about an opportunity to be part of a simpler way of being church. I think that’s understandable.
Whatever your emotion about this, take Philippians 2:3-4 to heart: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." And 1 Corinthians 1:10, "Let there be no divisions among you."
That said, enjoying something is not selfish, and neither is not enjoying something. Value others above yourself and God will give you understanding about this.
6th Tension: I imagine some of you are wondering what the “real story" is.
This is the real story.
There are no political games being played here.
If it feels fuzzy it’s because it’s not polished up.
This is not just a glorified dismissal or resignation.
No one is asking me to leave.
No one is forcing me to leave.
No one is tricking me into leaving.
I'm not leaving to escape anything, or because I'm mad or anything.
In fact, I don’t even see this as leaving. I see this as being sent — which is a real distinction. But I also understand that it is technically “leaving.” Just know that there’s no cover up of any kind of any thing.
And please know that our leaders are good and desire to follow God. Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
Thank you to those who have done that under my leadership. You really do have the power to make leadership a joy or a burden. It's always to your benefit to make it a joy. Please continue to do that under the next leadership. If anyone gossips to you, set the record straight. If you don’t know the record, ask, don’t speculate.
7th Tension: While I believe the decision to do this separate from SCC is good, I was hoping it would be something we could do together.
I recommended it as a hybrid where SCC would serve the Sarasota Community through both a centralized experience here on this campus, and a decentralized experience via the network of microchurches.
I thought this campus could serve as a hub to train and encourage leaders of microchurches, and to house monthly praise and worship concerts, while also providing a conventional worship service on Sunday mornings.
I thought the people involved in the microchurches would be available to serve in various capacities, and we would create opportunities for fellowship between all the different groups.
I wasn't sure how that would work financially. My goal is that the new thing I’ll describe in a bit would be no cost or low cost, so I didn’t have a good answer for what it would look like financially. And I wasn’t sure if those in the centralized experience would wonder why those in the decentralized experience “don’t come to church.”
I knew that other churches have figured that out and I felt like we could too. I knew it would have its share of difficulties but I just wanted to try.
But as we sought counsel and conversation with various people in our church, people had no problem with the network I was proposing, but they couldn’t see the hybrid model working. The conversations rarely moved past why it wouldn't work to how it could work. And ultimately it seemed like there are enough who don't buy in to it, that we shouldn't attempt the hybrid.
That's a bit sad for me.
I accept it, and I even agree with it.
I believe it's the right decision.
I was just hoping it would work.
And yet, every time the overseers or others on the pastoral team asked me whether I felt God was calling me to this new thing, I said Yes, without ambivalence or equivocation — and that I need to do this even if not as a hybrid at SCC. So my request to be released within SCC to do the new thing became a request to be released from SCC to do the new thing. And while I’m sad for what that means to my relationship with this church, I know God is in this and I buzz with enthusiasm to see this new thing begin to develop.
And that is a good place to describe what I’m talking about.
The New Vision
This is still fluid — I’m not claiming to know what it becomes, but I do have a vision for what it is: A network of microchurches meeting in people’s homes throughout Sarasota or as far as relationships can reach, designed around a very simple and reproducible, low cost model of being church.
Many talk about this as a Disciple Making Movement, or a Multiplying Movement, or the House Church Movement or Microchurches or Simple Churches. Sometimes I say tinychurches but it’s all the same thing. It's not a small group ministry that you add on to church, it is church.
And it’s nothing new, but for some reason God seems to be breathing new life into it.
I know of five other pastors being called to leave conventional church models for this. There’s books and podcasts and even the national church growth conferences are now focusing on multiplication. And yet, there’s not just one way model for how to do it. So I've been chewing on this for awhile, trying to think what it would look like.
What catches me is the simplicity of it. It’s simple, relational, reproducible, flexible, sustainable.
And perhaps most intriguing is that it’s original — not with me, but it's closer to how the early believers gathered. So I think it’s a good pattern to go back to, to see what God wants to do in this new season.
As I’ve boiled this down in prayer to the simplest defining agreement of this network, I describe it as ONE PATH, FOUR DEVOTIONS and TWO LOVES.
We have ONE PATH.
We follow Jesus as Lord.
That’s our Faith.
We have FOUR DEVOTIONS.
We gather weekly in our homes, or at a park, or the beach or wherever, to devote ourselves to the same four things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42 — the apostles teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
This is our practice.
And then we have TWO LOVES.
This is our mission.
The way we know we’re on mission is that we’re “loving God… and our neighbors...” And the measure of our effectiveness is not how God or people respond, but by how much we love.
This mission will lead us to help to meet tangible needs as well as spiritual. If loving God with all we are leads us to throw a worship service somewhere, we do it! We’re on mission.
If loving our neighbor with all we have leads us to buy groceries for someone, we do it. We’re on mission.
And if we discover that we have hope in Christ that our neighbor needs, or wisdom that we have from God, or even a challenge we might have from scripture, we "love them with all we have." We’re on mission.
So, what’s our plan? To love God with all we are and love our neighbors with all we have.
And what’s our five year plan? To love God with all we are and love our neighbors with all we have.
What’s our ten year plan? To love God with all we are and love our neighbors with all we have.
So that's how I think about it: ONE PATH, FOUR DEVOTIONS, TWO LOVES.
And I believe that’s enough for this to be more than enough.
And I suppose that’s also enough of a description for here. The other details probably belong in a meeting specific to that, but I wanted to explain to you what I’m being called to do.
Next week the interim pastor will explain what he hopes to see happen here while searching for a lead pastor.
Again, the timing of this transition is still being figured out.
I’ll close with these scriptures.
John 14:6, "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' "
Acts 2:42-47 "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...All the believers were together and had everything in common...Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
Matthew 22:37-38 " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
May this be true of us wherever we’re found.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.