Here are four key lessons I have learned in my 20 years of ministry so far.
- It’s not about you; it’s all about Jesus
Right out of college (Taylor in Indiana) I served as youth pastor at my home church in the suburbs of Chicago (Glenview, north of the city). I was on fire for Jesus and would have told you my life and ministry were all about Him. But in reality I was pretty confident that once the world saw how amazing I was, people would come flocking in record numbers.
The Lord used a number of people and experiences to teach me that success and fruitfulness in ministry would not come from me, but depended entirely on the Lord. For my first retreat I’ll never forget driving the church bus with six students and seven adult leaders (from a youth group of 25-30 kids).
Once my ego was out of the way the Lord used one key student to bring a friend and that friend went on to bring dozens of his friends, several got saved. It was very exciting. But it had nothing to do with my plans, my charisma or my eloquence. The Lord had to teach me that prayer must undergird everything – a lesson I have had to learn over and over again.
2. Busy does not mean productive.
From Chicago we moved to North Carolina, having completed seminary. I went on staff at a large church as the family pastor and was immediately responsible for several direct reports in a growing and complicated family ministry. We ran KidStuf, a weekly stage production involving choreographed dance numbers and elaborate skits. My wife and I had three young boys, with a complicated soccer schedule. Life was fun. We were busy.
I remember receiving an appeal from the Mayor of Charlotte, sent to churches, begging for help with the local schools. The city was growing so fast the schools couldn’t keep up and many were failing. The Mayor was so desperate he asked churches to help with tutoring, clean up projects, anything. But I was so busy just keeping up with my job, plus hospital visits when I was on call, plus my growing family… So that letter sat on my desk until it was eventually thrown out.
Sometimes good things are the enemy of the best things. That missed opportunity haunted me and I wondered what the churches in town were doing that nobody acted to help with the schools. (Thankfully the church there did go on to develop an elaborate community outreach strategy that has impacted the schools!)
3. We need each other.
The opportunity to serve with my father-in-law led us to Louisville, Kentucky. Though our church was small we had a big vision to reach the region by multiplying disciples, groups and churches. They had planted a church the year before I came and the hope was to grow and plant again in a couple of years. Unfortunately the plant proved challenging for the mother church and a number of people ended up leaving.
My in-laws were called to the mission field and I took over as lead pastor of the church, helping to rebuild and heal after the church plant. In the midst of these challenges and changes I got involved with an active group of local pastors called One City, One Church. They met every month to pray and encourage one another. Sometimes we did joint worship events, prayer walks or concerts.
A couple of pastors near me became dear friends – walking with me through times of discouragement and frustration. One pastor became my accountability partner, helping me finally achieve victory over some struggles of my younger years (your guess is probably right).
A few of us in this network of 25-30 pastors were burdened to “not just pray.” Building on the foundation of regular prayer for our city, we studied city networks and began to discuss what it might look like to work together to reach our region with the gospel. That was when I read To Transform a City by Eric Swanson. That was also when I began to learn about Christ Together and the developing work of God in cities like Austin, TX and Columbia, SC. Tim Hawks from Austin and Jeff Shipman from Columbia came to Louisville to lead a pastor meeting and give us a vision to reach “every man, woman and child” in Louisville with the gospel.
As pastors, we need each other personally and if we are going to reach our city with the gospel we have to work together!
4. The key is Multiplication
From Louisville we moved back to Chicago and I served on staff at a large church as outreach pastor. We hosted big events and attempted small initiatives including door to door evangelism and invitation. We ran Bible studies (my favorite is Christianity Explored) and did trainings, with some of the best apologetics experts in the world (Barry Cooper was amazing).
But the best results we saw were a few converts here and there. The stories of life change through the gospel are always inspiring, but in spite of a great investment of time, effort and money, the results were uninspiring.
In 2017 we moved here to Tampa, just three weeks before Hurricane Irma (quite the welcome!). Of course, we immediately fled back to Kentucky. Early in 2018 I attended an informational lunch in Riverview about something called Revive Florida. That is where I first met David Oates and Ryan Schrag, two fellow members of our Lead Team.
Revive worked to help us network and recruit, building toward an outreach campaign in October that concentrated in the Apollo Beach and Brandon areas. Those efforts brought together the nucleus of pastors that has become Tampa Bay 4 Christ. Our first joint effort after the revive outreaches was a Prayer Summit in January of 2019, which has become an annual blessing.
COVID-19 gave us the time and space to form a leadership team over the spring and summer of 2020 and begin to discuss what a coordinated effort to reach our city could look like. Our team went through the Christ Together Gospel Saturation Primer over several months. Then Will Plitt, Executive Director of Christ Together brought two more CT leaders to a leadership gathering in November of 2020.
This whole process, plus my current sermon series going through the book of Acts, has led me to the conclusion that the only way to reach a city is to multiply disciples as disciplemakers and to multiply churches.
This is why our Lead Team settled on our mission: to mobilize and equip every Christ follower in Tampa Bay as a multiplying disciplemaker so that every man, woman and child in our region has repeated opportunities to see, hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.