Twenty years ago today, Jenny and I started a storefront church. We’d gotten married, moved into our first apartment, and were expecting our first child, so it seemed like a natural next step. I’m sure that sounds like a joke, but what’s really funny to me is how natural the whole thing felt to us. We had no money, no time, and no idea what we were doing. I was fresh out of seminary, and the graduation speeches were still ringing in my ears when I signed the lease on a scary retail space in a questionable part of town, convinced that I was exactly what the neighborhood needed. We weren’t old enough to drink, but there was a liquor store two doors down.
I remember when we’d finished painting the walls and setting up the rusty donated chairs and borrowed furniture. I remember that first Sunday two decades ago –all saints day– when people from other churches in the area came to celebrate the opening and filled the tiny storefront. That vision stuck with me, and no matter how many folks actually came on subsequent Sundays, I saw the church full. Sometimes it WAS full. Sometimes the crowd consisted of me, Jennifer, our newborn daughter, and our friend Jeff, who ran sound by pressing play and pause on a boom box.
We didn’t have enough money to have a phone at the church and at our apartment, so we kept the one at the church. But we kept on. I gave some truly awful talks as I learned the ropes. But we kept on. We had struggles with our board, with the landlord, with plumbing. But we kept on.
More than any external issue, my struggle was with myself. The picture in my mind’s eye of a full storefront, and, more than that, of some giant imagined arena full of inspired congregants, did not match reality, and that disconnect haunted me.
I worked as hard as I could. I tried everything I could think of. I read books and articles about increasing attendance and building a congregation. The tricks didn’t work. Do they ever? Instead, I found that as my frustration grew, the attendance shrank.
And that’s when I woke up. Life reminded me that we increase what we praise — we get more of what we pay attention to. I realized that all I could see was the empty chairs, so the universe gave me more of them. This stuff works; I was just asking for the wrong thing.
That Sunday I delivered the best lesson I’d ever given. It didn’t feel like work after that; it felt more like music. I found my voice. People started showing up, because I remembered to be present. I let go of an attachment to the outcome and focused on being of service, and with that decision I think I really, and finally, learned how to be a minister.
This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you that we moved out of the storefront and into a converted basketball stadium. But that’s not what happened. Getting good at manifestation is only part of what we’re here to do; sometimes our work is to recognize when the right lessons have been learned and it’s time to move on.
When I let go of my preconceived notions of how things were supposed to work out, I finally learned what the storefront was there to teach me. I learned that it was time to move on. The time we spent there was hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Now I travel all over the country and speak to thousands of people a year, and I’m really just getting started. I still have lots of plans, but I know that the universe always has a better idea, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
I know that I still have a lot to learn, but now I know who I am, and I learned it down the block from a liquor store in a sketchy part of town.
Where you are right now is important to where you’re going, but the trick is to love the road more than you love the destination. Sometimes your situation will evolve. Sometimes you’ll grow into a new situation. Either way, and to the degree that you can be true to yourself and your service, you’ll get better. And so will our world.