Written by Andy Jansen with Terry Irwin
This is the beginning of a series of four interviews zooming in on the development stage of the Sending Church Pipeline. Developing Sent Ones is one of the indispensable Sending Church Elements for being a healthy sending church. We wanted to hear from others who have either gone through the process of development recently or are regularly involved with the development and assessment of others. At Upstream we value passing the mic to others in order to hear about the reality beyond the theory. This week I sat down with prospective church planter, Terry Irwin, who just graduated with an M.Div. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Andy Jansen: Hi, Terry. Why do you want to be a church planter?
Terry Irwin: When I was in seminary, I wrestled a lot with what to do when I finished. I started having conversations and thinking about the nature of the church. As I reflected on my own church experiences, I started comparing them to what I saw in the New Testament as a healthy pattern. Broadly speaking, I saw both encouraging things as well as aspects of New Testament churches that were absent. I began imagining what a church would look like that was built from the ground up with a biblically faithful culture.
The call to be a church planter was solidified in me one night when I woke up suddenly and felt a huge burden from God to plant a church. I talked to my wife the next day, and she was already on the same page. There have been other indicators, but that was a major signal to me that I should keep moving that direction.
AJ: How have you pursued this calling, and how has this pursuit aligned with your church experience?
TI: At the time, I had become a member of a one-year-old church plant, so I naturally sought out guidance from the leadership there. It was very encouraging at first, but it became clear they didn’t have the structure yet for developing me. There were lots of discussions over the next year that sounded like, “We have something in the works, and we want to launch it six months from now.” Such-and-such program wouldn’t come to fruition, and I’d hold out for other opportunities. Then a greater difficulty arose.
As I grew into my own understanding of the nature of the local church, I found it differed from my leadership’s understanding and their philosophy of ministry. Our differences affected the ability to move forward. I realized, for instance, that to detail my vision for a church among other members could possibly lead to dissension. The total result was a sense that I needed further development without any clear path or platform available.
AJ: That definitely sounds like a tricky scenario. Were you able to work it out?
TI: I approached the head pastor on numerous occasions, trying to be an open book so we could resolve some of our issues and unspoken tension. One on one, he would assure me there were no issues and would apologize for dropping the ball. Yet it seemed like there was more to it than that.
I had discussions with different folks in the church to find out what I could be doing better. Eventually it was told to me that the pastor did, in fact, have clear issues with me, not only for moving forward with church planting but even with leadership within the church itself. Yet he was expressing these issues to others and wasn’t being forthright with me.
I also had the sense I was being stalled in serving. I was an intern, but I had no discernable responsibilities or expectations. Even so, I actually stayed on at this church for three years in total.
AJ: It must have seemed like God was slamming the door in your face. Did you ever feel like you should reconsider your calling?
TI: Yeah, there were certainly times I wrestled with that—but never for long. Although there was a barrier, it was circumstantial. It didn’t seem to reflect so much my calling as a church planter—you know, no one would ever sit me down and say, “We don’t think you’re qualified to do this.”
The nature of the situation actually gave me more of a drive, not less. My biggest temptation was to dive in on my own, with or without a local church behind me.
AJ: Since your church’s sending process seemed unviable for your development, it sounds practical at first blush to go through a sending agency, who can back your vision instead.
TI: Well, I had a couple issues. My church was so closely associated with a particular sending agency that I couldn’t go through that agency without going through my church as the gateway. More importantly, it is my strong conviction to be affirmed by a local church. I did pursue training from a sending agency, but an agency can’t replace the assessment and affirmation of a local church.
I started asking questions: If I want to be sent out, do I need to leave this church? Should I find one I’m more likely to find unity with?
Except, that’s where things get complicated—ha, ha! The questions themselves can be neutral, but the Lord revealed to me that my aspirations, rather than my convictions, were guiding me. Sometimes the immediate result of different motives may look the same, but our motives, good or bad, will grow and bear fruit later down the road.
AJ: How do you think God himself has used all the messiness and waiting to refine and sanctify you? How do you imagine things would have gone if you had been fast-tracked instead?
TI: If I had been fast-tracked, it would have been a disaster.
Regardless of my church’s intentions, the Lord was putting up barriers and using others’ messiness to slow me down. It exposed in me a lot of potential ambition to create something successful by my own standards. Even as I observed the insecurities of others who were in charge of the sending process, it was like a mirror, showing me that similar insecurities were driving me. In hindsight, I was more frustrated by how I thought my pastor viewed me than the stagnation itself.
It also concreted this truth in me: I shouldn’t be part of a church I can have unity with just because I think it will advance my goals but rather because it’s good for me as a Christian.
AJ: How would you encourage others who are in the process of development to be a church planter?
TI: Don’t give up on the local church. Trust that God can and will use difficult situations for your good.