Church Plant Memoirs: What Was I Thinking?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Nearly 9:00 PM, and I feel like a prisoner in my car. If there is one thing I feared the most about being part of a church plant in the heart of New York City, this would be it.

I leave my house between 1:00 PM and 1:30 PM every Sunday afternoon. Our service starts at 5:00 PM, so I need to get there early to begin the process of setting up the church equipment in the facility we rent. The kindness of the morning congregation that holds service in this old Lutheran church, to allow us to keep our equipment stored there, most likely shaves an additional two full hours off of our day. Now, it takes me on average 45 minutes to get there, and it usually leaves me 1½ to 2 hours before service starts. This leaves myself and others faithful to the success of this church plant, to set things in place. There’s a sound system to set up, communion to prepare, bulletins with inserts to ready, coffee to make, and numerous other small tasks that come up in-between all of that. If I’m lucky, and we get everything going fairly quickly, I can make a run to the local Dunkin Donuts for an iced coffee.

Soon after the sound is set up, the musicians arrive to acclimate themselves for the day. Being in NYC, though this might be hard to understand, we pay our musicians. Trust me when I tell you we are not the only ones. It creates new relationships, and a good reputation for the church. This is NYC after all. The land of the starving artists. A church willing to pay a good musician for a job well done, believe it or not, is a good testimony. Being the treasurer, means that’s one more job for me on Sunday. So I make the rounds, and pay each one, and thank them for their time and good work. With doors wide open in these warmer months, I can’t accurately explain to you the dividends we reap, as people often stop a moment to hear the music wafting out of this old Lutheran church. I’ve had a least a half-dozen or more conversations because of the sweet music alone. As much as I’m able, they leave off with a sense of what the church is about, and a card with our website and further information on it. If they’re still reluctant, you can be sure I still invite them back at 5:00 PM next week, if only to hear more great music. If that’s too seeker-sensitive or relevant for you, I’m sorry. I can guarantee you if they ever make that next step and sit in a pew, the gospel will be heard in detail throughout the service.

And here we are…

Equipment set up. CHECK! Communion set up. CHECK! Coffee brewing for when church is done. CHECK! Bulletins with inserts ready to be handed out. CHECK! Musicians paid. CHECK! (actually several checks) We are usually done and ready to go with a half-hour to spare, plenty of time for the musicians to pray (Oh. Did I forget to mention they’re believers?), and for the pastor and his team to pray. Thankfully, though new, the service usually goes off without a hitch. From worship to benediction, it’s wonderfully and purposefully gospel-centered, with care to strike that right balance between law and gospel. I have to add, that with so many churches regulating communion to a once-a-month service, I’m thankful to be fed weekly this gospel-meal, and to see others be nourished by it as well. All in all, the service lasts about an hour, and then we’re done. We were fortunate to see six new people come visit us this week. Conversations were had, and names were learned, and we pray they come visit us again. To God be the Glory.

Just before the service ends, with at least one ear still attentive to my surroundings in case of need, I’m already doing little things to make the breakdown of the church for the night, go that much quicker. With a month in the books, including four Sunday services, and a good Friday thrown in, the transition in building up and breaking down is becoming a much smoother process. I don’t know if it’s because of the desire to finally get some rest after a long day, but the breakdown time has probably improved the most. Yesterday, we took note that the service ended slightly after 6:00 PM and we were out the door by 7:00 PM. Yes. This was a good day all around. In fact, every week has felt satisfying. Like good work is being done here on a regular basis.

The church is packed up, put away, and the doors are locked tight. I’m ready to head home. On a normal traffic day, or even on a slightly more congested one, I can usually be at my door in Staten Island in under an hour, with some room to spare. This is only a 17-mile trip. On some open country roads, this would be less than a half-hour ride. Sunday in NYC, is usually as close as it gets to that. Except tonight. For whatever reason, the convergence of cars in relation to the various exits out of Manhattan seem to be at an abnormally high level. Whether accidents or construction, or simply due to the mass exodus of additional cars, there was no easy or relatively quick exit out of the city this night. My trip began with my usual drive towards the Brooklyn Bridge, and diverted. I went first, to what will forever be known to me as, “The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel” (with apologies to Hugh L. Carey), and then eventually to the Holland Tunnel. I fared no better there, but at this point, I just wanted off this concrete island, and figured it was better to sit and wait it out, instead of trying someplace else by getting on the back of another line out of the city.

So I wait, and I move incrementally at a snail’s pace. Still in NYC. The latecomers to the line for the tunnel burrow their way in-between myself and other cars with frustrating regularity. It feels like every car adds 5 minutes to my trip home. If there were any redeeming qualities to this painstakingly slow burn home is having the time to call a dear old friend. It’s blessing to chat with him, and catch up on life. We talk about our struggles as husbands and fathers, and our spiritual health as well. It’s incredibly therapeutic for me, though that’s not the specific point. It just happens that talking to an old friend that you can be yourself with, lends itself to being the best kind of therapy. It can be honest and raw, and even if it last only a half hour, it can have the effect of taking the edge off what was an extremely frustrating evening commute. If you have a friend like that, be thankful. Since I began traveling back and forth last year, I’ve had similar conversations with this friend, as well as others. I’m thankful for every one of them.

By the time we say our goodbyes, the merge has ended, and I am finally in the tunnel to New Jersey. While the traffic is still moving slow, it’s now a steady pace. As we near the exit, we pick up speed into the night. Traffic is now back to normal, and I’m tired, but also happy to be making steady progress through Jersey, then over the bridge to Staten Island, then to finally pull in and stop in my driveway. The time? 10:00 PM.

Whew!

When I found out my pastor was leaving Staten Island for Manhattan, I gave serious thought to going. He hadn’t asked to be a part of it yet. But I was already thinking about it. Thinking about the possibility of nights like tonight, are what made me skittish about saying yes. In fact, I had some regrets while driving home, if you can call sitting in traffic for two hours, driving. I regretted not taking public transportation tonight. I regretted not waiting it out at the Brooklyn Bridge, or trying another expanse into the adjoining borough. I’m sure I’ve had other regrets as well. What I didn’t regret in that moment, and haven’t yet, is saying yes when the pastor asked me to come and be a part of this. I’ve learned to love the city again, and even learned to love meeting and talking with people again. There’s been immeasurably more positives that have come out of this than any negatives that I can think of. I’ve seen people begin to see the truth of the gospel. I’ve seen people become increasing more curious, and open to hearing even more. I’ve learned more patience and humility (especially as a treasurer). I’ve had time to catch up with friends, as we both suffer and rejoice with each other. So, I guess I can’t say I have many real regrets. If there’s one that I can admit to here, it’s that I can’t do more. The way God works sometimes, maybe that’s not a good thing to admit to out loud.

So, here I am. Stuck in traffic every so often. Frustrated by it frequently, but thankful despite it. Thankful for the opportunity to serve and love people, thankful the re-connections I’ve made on the journey home. Thankful to see God working the way he does. Especially the way he works through this man with flawed hands and heart. (I’m not sure if I’m talking about myself, or my pastor. Let’s just say both.) I know I’m the flawed man he has to remind regularly, that he’s forgiven yet again, and then through Christ, still deems me worthy enough to put something in my hands to do, for the sake of others.

I think I can stand a little traffic.

IF YOU’D LIKE TO HELP SUPPORT THE WORK THIS MINISTRY IS DOING, CHECK OUT OUR CHURCH WEBSITE FOR MORE INFO: http://epiphanylutherannyc.com/

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