We followed the directions from all the church startup kits and training conferences. After a ton of marketing and Facebook hype, 396 people showed up on launch Sunday. I think most of those people were family members of the launch team from out of town, because 8 weeks later the church had less than 200 people in attendance on average. Even 200 people was too big for my britches. In retrospect, I was all around a weak leader. We didn’t have great systems to care for people and many fell through the cracks of our new church, some feeling unloved, overlooked, and uncared for.
I beat the drum of inclusivity and acceptance, but I didn’t have a solid plan for discipleship, care or spiritual growth. Over time, Oasis became a middle schooler with a mustache. We had a church body that was too big for our church brain, and I could not keep up. We became clumsy. I was naive and immature. From the outside looking in, we looked healthy. But it was kind of like watching a nascar race…the whole time you’re just waiting for an accident to happen. Looking back, the church was just a reflection of me. Don’t get me wrong, we had incredible leaders on the team. Some of the most Godly, Spirit led people I knew were right beside me. I’m glad God surrounded me with high quality people because I still had a whole lot of growing up to do when it came to leadership, emotional and spiritual health.
Nevertheless, we baptized hundreds of people. Some grew in their faith, but many did not. I referenced Luke 8 often to explain why some people weren’t growing spiritually. I said “some do, some don’t, so what” too much. I think saying that made me feel better about the reality that I wasn’t the best pastor / shepherd / etc. I was GREAT at marketing and hype. I was GREAT at writing and crafting a narrative. But I was not the best at actually leading people spiritually.
It took me forever to finally learn that if my ability to get people in the door is stronger than my ability to help people grow in faith and mature in Christ, THEN my ability is actually a disability and a liability. Thank God the church doesn’t rest on my abilities alone because if it did we wouldn’t have one. I have to constantly remind myself that I am the pastor, and when it was all said and done, somebody has to take ownership of the vision and mission of the church. What I really needed all along was a God given vision for making disciples, cultivating leadership development, helping people get rooted in their new faith.
Getting people in the door is important, but getting people back out the door healthier than they came is paramount.
Looking back, our Sunday church services sometimes came across as immature. We played lots of crowd games from the stage including family feud, dance offs, lip sync competitions, and more. They were fun, yes, but also a little odd at times. Our intentions were good, but we probably ended up feeling more like a mega youth group. In our early days, we opened every single church service with a pop culture or a classic rock song, the kind that you’d never expect to hear in church. One time a full family of 5 showed up as visitors wearing nice clothes, their hair was well kept, and the Dad was carrying a big, leather-bound King James Bible. Out of curiosity, I asked around the church to see if anyone knew this family because they seemed important. As it turns out, they were the owners of a very popular local business. They had a great name in the community as successful people who really loved the Lord. I could tell this was a Sunday loving, tithe giving, back-bone of the church kind of family. Immediately after the service was over, I chased them down the hall of the old Middle School we were meeting in hoping to shake hands and maybe get a “see you next Sunday” from them. But they didn’t say that. In fact, the mom was appalled that she “exposed her kids to Justin Bieber” on a Sunday. I guess we had a popular playlist rolling during our preservice countdown. She sharply confirmed my suspicions when she exclaimed “we will not be returning to this church ever again.” As they walked to their car I mumbled lowly, “are you sure?,” but I wasn’t speaking loud enough for them to hear me. I guess I was more thinking out loud than trying to ask them a question anyway. I looked at my toes for a moment, swallowed the rejection, and moved on. I realized that we never set out to reach good Christian families with KJV Bibles. We wanted to reach a different crowd, I wasn’t sure who yet, I just knew it wasn’t them.
In the beginning, the 3 primary things our church focused on were music, kids and preaching. I knew I’d be doing the preaching, so I needed to make sure we had a high quality music leader, and a top notch kids director. Todd Davis (who I’ll introduce later) set aside $10,000 in the church budget and decided to split that money between a music leader and a kids director. It wasn’t much, but at least it would ensure that they were prepared on Sundays. We figured paying them something would hold them to a higher standard, and we got exactly what we hoped for.
We had a rock star from Southern Florida who moved to the area to help with the music. This guy had been traveling all over the United States, playing music at huge conferences and youth events. I first met him at a youth camp back when I was an overpaid babysitter. I remarked “if I ever start a church, I’m calling that guy to do music.” Sure enough, Joel Henley led everything for the first 6 years of our church. He was reliable, faithful, and mature. Our music and worship was really well done and a lot of people who visited the church stayed because they loved the music.
Next, we needed a kids director. I met Matt Lundy after posting a vague video online in which I shared our vision and asked for kids ministry leader applications. Matt emailed me his resume expressing how much he loved the video and how he was looking forward to interviewing for our full time kids pastor position. I realized I may have mis-represented the situation a little because everyone else who emailed me their resume also thought they were applying for a full time job.
When I called Matt, I quickly shared some vision for our church, and then I had to inform him that we were not actually hiring anyone. In fact, this “job” didn’t pay anything except a $100 per week stipend for one year. His silence on the phone was deafening. At this point, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I told him I’d like him to consider moving his family 2 states away to help me start a church with a sketchy promise that I might could maybe possibly pay him $5,200. Matt hung up and laughed. But a few days later, I got a call back from him and he said he just couldn’t shake the thought of moving to North Carolina to start Oasis. So, after a few more interviews and visits, Matt and his family of four moved to Holly Springs with no job, no promises, and not a lot of money saved. My bait and switch video worked.
So we got a great music guy, and we landed am awesome kids guy, but my preaching was a different story. I don’t know how to describe it, maybe a good word is “meh”? Much of my preaching was filled with bad theology or crass humor, and while many people in the church thought it was cute, the adults did not. In retrospect, the hustle of church planting was so time consuming that I didn’t give my best energy to sermon writing or preaching. My best sermons weren’t even mine anyway, they were downloaded from open.church. That’s a thing that a lot of preachers do, but they just don’t tell anyone. Because of my incredible mimicking & chameleon skills, my preaching probably sounded a lot like Craig Groeschel just with more stuttering, umm’s and uhhh’s. The main difference between me and Craig is his biceps. That dude has some real muscles bulging from his expensive t-shirts. Oh, and he happens to be the pastor of what seems like the most explosive, widespread, multi site movement in the USA. So, before you criticize me for mimicking him, let’s just be honest, a stuttering Craig is way more attractive than an authentic Bill. At least, that’s what I thought back then.
People will put up with average preaching if you have an excellent kids and music program. That means there is hope for all of us who are trying to start churches. Oasis started with incredible music, an excellent kids ministry, and mediocre preaching. We had the best equipment a church plant could ask for, the town of Holly Springs desperately needed a new church, and all the people were excited about our vision and values. Even though it was led by an orphan boy from Eastern North Carolina whose marriage was on the rocks and his personal finances were in shambles, this church startup was the perfect concoction for explosive church growth.