When Shawn Lovejoy started a church with one other couple at just 28 years old, he was determined to grow a big church. But looking back decades later, he realizes that he was dumber than he thought he was.
As part of the seeker-sensitive movement that grew in popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he tried to reach people with bells and whistles. “We were going to hype our way to being a big church,” he said this week during Pushpay's Church Disrupt, an online event geared toward church leaders.
“We realized over time, 1) it’s an impossible treadmill to get on and sustain and 2) we were a mile wide and an inch deep,” Lovejoy, who founded Mountain Lake Church in Georgia, said.
He warned pastors that “what you reach them with” — which could include one’s personality or a slick production — “is what you have to keep them with.”
That’s just one out of many painful lessons he learned as a pastor and wants to help others avoid.
One of the main regrets he has as a pastor is spending more time with “lost people” and nonbelievers than with believers and aspiring leaders.
While he led hundreds of people to Jesus, they were followers who neither served nor tithed, he said.
“We had tons of followers; we had no leaders,” he said.
“If you think about Jesus doing Bible study in the Gospels, … all the time He’s trying to get away from people … to be with the leaders and invest in them more.”
But many times, “we stiff arm our own leaders to make ourselves available to the masses. It’s opposite to the way Jesus led,” he noted. “It pins you to the church long-term because you don’t have leaders.”
While his Georgia church grew into a megachurch, Lovejoy began to feel he was dying on the inside.
“I think burnout is not something that happens because of physical pace,” he said. “It’s emotional toil of operating outside our gift mix.
“What’s required of this role is different [from] what it used to be and I no longer fit that going forward,” he realized.
Lovejoy, who coaches leaders through Courage to Lead, urged pastors not to tie up their identity in their title as a pastor but in being a child of God.
There were some fears about whether the church would survive if he transitioned out of his lead role. But he felt God tell him, “What you’re talking about is your church, not my church. I said I’d build my church and my church is people. It’s not that sign on the road. That’s a logo and an ego. That’s probably going to die. The little c church has a lifespan. It’s finite. None of the churches in Revelations still exist but the big C Church still goes on.”
Tips from Judah Smith
When his father passed and the baton of being pastor of City Church in Seattle went to him, Judah Smith knew he had to take it slow.
“I recognized, ‘Hey, what I’m transitioning into is not supposed to be a speedboat. It’s supposed to be more of a cruise liner. If we make turns, we’ve got to make these turns with people in mind, meaning I don’t want people to fall off just because I was careless as a leader,” he said during Church Disrupt. “I want to make a gradual turn. We were careful, probably could’ve been more careful, to get feedback from people we love. We also had to take it with a grain of salt.”
Though at the time, he felt he was going “way too slow” with the transition, he’s now grateful for the pace they took.
Today, City Church has been renamed Churchome and has expanded to five locations in Washington State and California. Its Los Angeles campus draws celebrities including Selena Gomez and Russell Wilson.
Not everyone is going to agree with every decision made during transitions and it’s OK if someone feels the need to move on to another church, Smith said.
“I do not subscribe to this idea that when a congregation member from your church leaves that it just instantly should be seen as wrong or bad,” he said. “God has every one of us on a spiritual journey. We’re talking about the big capital C Church and what we ought to be passionate about as pastors and church leaders is that people are knowing Jesus and they’re getting plugged into a church where they can thrive.
“If they can’t thrive, if they can’t be their best in your community, they ought to transition and go to other churches. That ought to be something that we celebrate and yet I find quite the opposite sometimes.”
He added, “I’m going to get to Heaven someday and go, ‘Wow, it wasn’t about Churchome, it wasn’t about Hillsong, it wasn’t about Elevation, it wasn’t about Zoe … It was about Jesus.”
Smith also said that pastors “run the risk in our climate and ecosystem of social media to replicate ourselves in a very detrimental way — meaning thinking to ourselves ‘be like me, act like me, talk like me’ when in reality that wasn’t the heart of the Apostle Paul. I think he allowed Timothy to be truly who he was.”
Smith noted that God has gifted each person with a gift (singular, not plural, he emphasized). “What is the one thing I’m on the planet to do?”
For Smith, he began going on stages across the country with his preacher dad since he was around 9 years old. He gave his first official sermon at 13 years old. He loved preaching.
But he warned, “I urge you to fall in love with people more than your gift, to see your gift only as valuable as it adds value to people. That’s where you gift is valuable. That’s where you’re at your best, not when you’re using your gift to build your brand … but when you use your gift to make a difference.”