My sense is the story of Shaun King is just in it’s earliest chapters but already it’s worth telling. I first met him four years ago when he came to us to be assessed for church planting. His dream was to plant in inner city Atlanta where he grew up. The first thing that set him apart was that he had a powerful death to life testimony. Our assessment team unanimously recommended him but I think it’s fair to say we wondered if he was a right fit for our system. No doubt in our minds that he’d succeed but perhaps there was the thought that our system would stifle him. Months later, via his magic with social media and the grace of God, he became our largest launch to date, over 600 on his first Sunday at Courageous Church.
Those of us who played even a small part in that beemed with pride. His success gave him leaway to buck the system a bit… I remember he riled our feathers when he noted publicly our meetings were too white and the speakers on our platforms were all white. A few years after that smoke cleared I can report our meetings are less white.
Shaun is a social media specialist and he raised massive amount of money for Haiti and got thousands of tents sent there. In the earliest days he somehow directed search and rescue efforts via Twitter from his home in Atlanta – no kidding, U.S. relief ships were following his leads to hurting people, doctors in the US were being directed to specific people in specific places. Shaun appeared on many national news and morning shows. There is a similar story to tell about his work helping the Atlanta Flood Victims. Those of us who’ve been following him on Facebook and Twitter grew to look forward to his updates loving how he just said what needed to be said. Things like; “Note to Donors: Please do not donate your dirty draws & bras. I will have a scientist from GA Tech run a DNA scan & twitter your name.”
In March of this year he felt led to make a radical shift in his church. He announced in a few weeks he’d preach his last sermon at the church. It wasn’t because he was leaving the church. It was because he was changing his church and focusing on three causes instead of church just being about pulling off Sunday morning services. I’ll repost his comments here because they are worth reading.
Currently, the overwhelming percentage of our time, energy, skills, budget, and creativity are spent preparing for Sunday morning services, getting people to our Sunday services, and getting them to volunteer for our Sunday morning services. I love what we do on Sunday morning. I love preaching and it is one of my primary gifts. I love our worship team, our breakfast, our volunteers. Our church is growing.
However, 5 things have convinced me that this extreme emphasis on Sunday morning is not the will of God for our church.
1. Our city is falling apart in painful ways that break God’s heart. Atlanta is now the nation’s hub for child sex trafficking. We have one of the highest teen incarceration rates in the nation. Our education system in Atlanta is beyond broken. In the face of these things, the church continues to preach and sing, but kids keep getting sold to perverts for sex.
If James 1:27 is true and “Authentic faith in the eyes of God is caring for widows and orphans” then I declare that our church will have authentic faith and have hands and feet that address these issues. Right now, our church, like most American churches, as Rick Warren said “Is one big mouth”.
2. As I read the Gospels and see Jesus, I am increasingly stumped how we determined sermons and songs are what makes us most like Him. I am not saying we do away with them, but we preach and sing too much and serve and love in radical ways far too little. The answer is not to add love on top of the sermons and songs, but to decrease the sermons and songs and increase the service and love to create a balance that looks like the life of Jesus.
3. This week I was able to meet with a personal hero of mine and he said something to me that was shocking. One of the best preachers in the world, he leads one of the largest churches in the country. He told me, “At this point in my life I have preached thousands of sermons and I am not even sure what they mean to God, but nothing makes me feel more alive and like I am nailing God’s will like caring for foster children. I can point my finger in the Bible and say yes – this is what God wants.”
For me, I do not want to wait another twenty years to come to this conclusion. I do not want to wait until our entire church is built around my sermons (as it is becoming) and then conclude that it may or may not be what most honors God. I’d rather go for it now.
4. Anybody that ever heard the vision of Courageous Church before we launched in January of 2009, knows that our vision was to never become a Sunday morning machine, but this is what we have become and we do it well. A real temptation exists to keep chugging along, do it like other churches do it, and try to forget the original vision of Courageous Church to take bold leaps of faith to bring about real change in peoples lives, in our city and in the world.
Most of our time is now spent thinking about the arrangement of chairs, the execution of payroll, the brightness of the lights, the printing of the announcements, the lyrics on the screens, the pitch from the mics, and in the midst of all of this – I confess that people have been hurt in the process. We created a church to love God and love people and in the busy-ness of it all – people that we cared about were neglected and forgotten. I won’t do it this way another day.
5. I feel like this is what God wants for Courageous Church.
Rather than meet weekly on Sunday mornings, Shaun broke things down into three discipleship groups that met around three causes; child trafficking, education and caring for widows. The Cause Groups would meet twice a month, the entire church would re-gather once a month for a Festival.
In all my years of church planting and training church planters I have said a thousand times, we don’t build churches on or around a cause – we build a church on Jesus. For sure this is what Shaun was seeking to do. Even so, Shaun is spot on when it comes to pointing out (what I’ve been calling) the theotainment model of the mega-church today is probably not what Jesus wanted us to build. I’ve long maintained that the church is a community and that causes are the domain of the parachurch. Shaun makes me rethink that.
In case you are wondering, Shaun’s experiment didn’t work. He faced perhaps the roughest summer of his life as his church sought to transition into these uncharted waters. Last month Shaun announced that since the bulk of the families in the church wanted to return to the traditional model, he would transition himself out of leadership. Here’s part of what he had to say in his announcement:
I thank God that I am not stepping down in shame or scandal, but it is clear that God is calling Rai and I to take our family in a direction that is just significantly different than what most in the church are asking for. Over the past 6 months I have taken Courageous Church down a difficult, counter-cultural road in an earnest attempt at building true disciples. It’s been rough. All but a few families are now yearning to go back to a traditional Sunday focused system and I am sure that I am not the person to lead you there.
Those of us who assess church planters know it’s often more insightful to talk to the guys wife if you want the real scoop. Here’s what Shaun’s wife Rai had to say about leaving Courageous Church. You’ll have a hard time finding anything more honest about being a pastors/church planters wife. My o my o my o my, it’s the perfect thing to read here on this last day of “Pastor Appreciation Month.” Made me wonder what my wife would write if someone asked her honest feelings about the state of the church.
The last couple months Shaun’s been writing about giving away everything he owns, 1000 books, his new ipad, his bed…. everything. This is the first time I’ve ever voiced this but I’ll say it here, every serious follower of Jesus would do well to walk away from everything they own at least once to follow Jesus. I’ve given away my retirement three times and gobs of other things and dollars and certainly there was a time when I had nothing that wouldn’t fit in my car, but never have I walked away from everything. I do believe these are days to live a wartime lifestyle - living only on what we need and giving the rest where it’s most needed.
Shaun wrote a fascinating article on when a leader loses his mojo. He likens himself to Obama in that regard – at the top of his game just a couple years ago, now a fog has set in and it’s better to pull over if you can’t see where you are going.
Don’t think for a moment Shaun now lacks vision. After living his entire life in inner city Atlanta, this week he drove his family to California where they will live for an undetermined period of time before he and a team move to Africa – the suffering in Somalia has gripped his heart. And he’s climbing the worlds seven great mountains of need. Check that out here TellTheMountainToMove. You can read his next steps here.