Earlier this month marked the 20th anniversary of day the church we planted in Ithaca held its first regular Sunday worship gathering. I remember a few things about that day.
- It was snowy.
- Elizabeth showed up with Brenna who was 3 days old.
- There were 36 people in attendance.
- We took everyone out to Pizza Hut afterwards.
When we started that church, I hoped we would “make it.” That we would grow. That we would, last. And we did! (We did have two Sundays that first summer where we had a total of 8 people (counting the 5 Wilsons)…so, making it, didn’t always seem likely.)
Beyond becoming established, I had two contradictory thoughts concerning the future;
One was a hope that the church would still exist and be impacting Ithaca 100, even 200 years down the road.
The other was thinking we should set a mandatory end date.
If you read about the life cycle of a church, you’ll find that over time they tend to lose their outward focus and become more concerned with the maintenance and preservation of the organisation. The church becomes more focused on how to care for those who are already part of it, rather than how it reaches out, or how it makes disciples.
I used to wonder, what if after 25 years we stopped, broke up into several groups and each started new churches in their communities. However, since I left in the thirteenth year of the church’s life, the idea was moot. And it is unlikely I ever would have done that…I probably would have been fired if I tried!
I have always been more future-oriented than past or present-oriented. One of my weaknesses as a leader was not celebrating successes along the way. Once we accomplished one goal, I immediately looked ahead to the next one. That wears people out. So I’ve been working on that.
But I left Ithaca with a hope that in 100 years, that church would still exist. However, after a couple of years in Ireland, things changed. Rather than being focused on the future of the church, we had planted, we faced an ending. On our first trip back to the States in 2013, the church already had several people attending that I had never met. That was exciting.
However, we have not been back since. On our next trip to the States in 2016, the vast majority of our friends were no longer part of it as it began to go in a different direction than we had been going while we were there. (To be fair, during our last couple of years in Ithaca we were working on making course corrections that our leadership sensed were needed.)
I spent a good deal of time after our last two visits to the States thinking about how things had changed since we left. It was quite emotional. I wondered, “Was it my fault?” “Would things have worked out differently had Liz and I not moved?” “Did we let our friends, and our church family down?”
While I do still wonder about what would have been different had we stayed, we have no doubts that leaving Ithaca for Dublin was what God had planned for us.
Where I’ve Landed
With all that bouncing around in my brain the past few years here is what I’ve come to believe. Whether the church we planted made it to 100 years, or 20 years is irrelevant. What matters is the community that was together for that period. “Did we care for each other?” “Did we help people come to know Jesus?” “Did we encourage, and exhort and work to build each other up in the faith?”
We made so many good friends during those 13 years…And I think that community living out what it meant to be God’s image-bearers in our city…trying love him, each other and our neighbour…that’s what matters.
And come on, is hoping the church “I” planted is still around in 100 years more about my legacy (glory), or God’s glory?
If the church we planted is still around in 80 more years, I hope it differs greatly from when we planted it. I imagine Ithaca will be a very different place in 2099, and I hope each church in that city is engaging their culture with the good news of the Kingdom!
That is what has been bouncing around my head for the past month.