Monday, October 24, 2011

Our First Members and a Thirteen Year Journey

The very first members of PCC were:  Renae Christian, Chuck Bell, DJ Bell, my father (Hoss), my mother (Jewel), Renae’s mother (Carylon), and myself.  There were seven of us.  Humble beginnings.  I am deeply indebted to them and filled with gratitude for believing in the vision of starting a new church.  Of course, it wasn’t about me, but their love for Jesus that caused them to “buy in.”  We spent six weeks in my living room hand-addressing 5000 envelops which contained an open letter to the community inviting irreligious people to our first public service on Easter Sunday, 1998.

Here it is, almost fourteen years later.  In April of next year (just six months from now) PCC will celebrate fourteen years of ministry!  I can hardly believe all that has happened over that time:  planting the church with no financial backing, no people, and no income; being a bi-vocational pastor for almost a decade; growing as a congregation; buying 25 acres of land with very little money  (this purchase was MIRACLE in itself); meeting in a school cafeteria for 8 ½ years; our building program; Hurricane Dennis and the collapse of our building; baptizing hundreds of people; discipling almost as many; our Ten Year Hiccup (which cost me a pound of flesh); having to officiate at my father’s funeral and then preaching two days later in the Sunday service; to eventually becoming a multi-staff church with dozens of ministries led by exceptional leaders. 

Wow.  What a journey.

It feels like a whirlwind, but when I stop to remember the entire journey I am reminded there were plenty of disappointments and successes along the way.

After resigning from the denomination I had belonged to for a number of years, my family and I returned to Santa Rosa County to establish PCC as a church for the unchurched.  We deliberately positioned ourselves differently than the existing churches in the area because we wanted to reach the kinds of people that the existing churches were not reaching.  We prayed and sought God to confirm the calling and then proceeded to have a Bible study in my home for our launch group, consisting of the original seven.

Six weeks later we launched on Easter Sunday, 1998, having our first public service.  Seventy people showed up.  We met for a while, God added a few more people, and our church was off to a decent start.  Looking back, I didn’t totally know what I was doing.  But I had a vision and had enough faith to believe God for the impossible.  I always felt like this was my calling.  Other people were inspired, bought in and supported the work and eventually God’s favor began to manifest itself in fruitfulness.  Somehow in God’s wisdom and sovereignty, we grew.

Of necessity, I was bi-vocational for almost a decade.  I owned an operated a landscaping business, and a pine straw sales business, just to make ends meet.  My two sons were in elementary and middle school, and by the time they entered high school, it was the most expensive period of my life when my income was the lowest.  We lived penny-to-penny and paycheck-to-paycheck.  Yet, we marveled as we watched God provide just in time.  Our faith grew.

We didn’t want to take people from other Christian churches because we felt like there were enough unchurched (or de-churched) people in the area that we could target.  We had a lot of church hoppers, church shoppers, drift in and out of PCC.  We also had a lot of double-dippers show up (i.e., people who attended with us on Sunday morning but attended other churches on Sunday or Wednesday nights) to take advantage of every opportunity offered without giving anything back, so I encouraged them, rather, I insisted, that they choose one church they could commit to and serve in.  Many left us.  I was glad because it was too draining to have these double-dipping consumers bleed us dry. 

In time, new families started to come – some even drove from great distances away to attend with us; as far away as West Pensacola and East Milton.  There were also some real conversions taking place and we started to look like a real church; baptisms, disciples, and personal growth.   In spite of the dirty school cafeteria we met in, we found a niche in our community among the irreligious and those who had given up on traditional churches.  The straight forward teaching we offered appealed to many, especially the unchurched, which was a surprise to me.  The most common compliment I heard was, “I am learning what the Bible actually says” or “you make it plain for me to understand.”  No higher compliment could be paid to a teacher.  Our casual atmosphere, church band, exceptional talent, emphasis upon fellowship, and down-to-earth style was attractive too.  We had no traditions – except the Bible, baptism, and communion – so we were free and flexible to try new methods when the notion struck us.  All of this worked in our favor.  We wanted to attract irreligious people, and we succeeded. Yet this came with it own set of challenges.  Ministering to messy people is messy work.


Both Renae and I sent endless hours with dysfunctional people, working through life issues, sexually deviant behaviors, violent marriage problems, and fragmenting families.  Along the way we also busied ourselves by doing all the church hospitality events (like refreshments wedding showers, baby showers, dinners, fellowship activities, etc), all while struggling with our own home-related pressures of raising kids, paying bills, and coping with family illnesses.

Without a mother church or denomination supporting us, we were more alone than I ever realized we would be.  We were on our own.  We assumed this was what church planting looked like and just kept at it until our joy got depleted.  The stress affected our home life, causing significant strain at times.  But God always came through, and because of our commitment to each other, Renae and I have always seen our way through the difficult seasons.  There have been plenty of times when both of us felt like we were drowning.

We genuinely cared about the people in our church, but realized that many of them didn’t feel the same way about us.  Relationship drama is probably the hardest part of church planting (or pastoring an established church for that matter).  We constantly had of people in our home, trying to serve them, disciple them, minister to them, and embrace them.  People virtually lived with us, others called at all hours of the night, and we poured our lives into the church.  The stress and long hours were exhausting.

I kept praying for God to bring some mature people to help, but that didn’t happen instantly.  We had faithful people like my family members and a handful of friends who did childcare, served on Sunday mornings, stacked chairs, set up the sound system, who served in hospitality, and served unselfishly in a variety of areas on Sunday morning.  We even had band practice in my garage for a number of years.  It was a great picture of people doing what they could to keep the burden off one person.

In the midst of it all, God was doing a deep work within me for His glory and our redemption.  I have never liked confrontation, but now I realize there are times that confrontation is necessary in order to protect the truth and the people we love most… and to grow in Christ.

We had a lot of confrontation along the way.  Almost every week there was some “issue” arising that I needed to address.  I developed thick skin along the way too.  I know how to fight and was willing to do so when necessary.  I had been laying down my life for the sheep of this congregation, and there was no way I would ever allow anyone else tear it apart.  The most significant confrontational period in my life was PCC’s Ten Year Hiccup.  What started out as nothing more than “work place junk” turned into a lot of very sinful behavior.  It was withering.  Yet PCC survived and so did I.


Over the years a lot of non-Christians came to see what was going on at PCC.  It was different than anything they had seen before in churches in our area, and they didn’t feel like an outcast.  As someone who had been exposed to traditionalism and heavy doses of legalism for a number of years, I had to really change what my definition of what a Christian “looked” like.  It was no longer the conservatively dressed, Victorian-laced, proper-mannered, nice person that I had usually seen in church.  Rather, we began to see raw people, with complicated lives, who didn’t wear in suits, or listen to the Lawrence Welk type music that I had usually seen in church.  We saw flip-flop wearing, short-pants wearing, independent-minded people from all walks of life show up at PCC who surrendered their lives to God and had a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.  We also saw a lot of hurting people find healing in Christ.

I was so excited to see this.  It also convicted me of my judgmental attitude of people that didn’t fit the Christian stereotype.  It’s hard to change your DNA, unless you are wiling to be a “growing” person.  I was ashamed of the way that many churches had excluded such amazing and servant-minded people, and I didn’t want to be part of that rejection.  Jesus is our great example of serving and saving sinners like me.

God kept saving people (in spite of a few self-righteous types who found their way into PCC, and even on our staff), and our church kept growing.  People loved to hear me teach the Bible, bringing it to life.  It was evident that God had given us a humbling opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  The stories of life change (and salvations) were nothing short of miraculous.  I can recall dozens of married couples recovering form adultery and unfaithfulness; divorced couples getting remarried; married couples celebrating their silver and golden anniversaries; addicts being freed form drugs and alcohol, single moms getting married to godly men, numerous baby dedications; and people simply excited to learn about Jesus!  Additionally, we practice a great deal of church discipline at PCC and I am amazed at how much God blesses us for this.  It’s also a pure joy to see the many people in our church family who humbly submit to it and eventually find their way back to ministry involvement.  It really is amazing.  I think we have a good New Testament church.

Optimistic about the Future

I’m not very emotional, but I am moved when I reflect on all that God has done and how much His people have sacrificed to PCC for His purposes.  God has done the impossible in Pace Florida, saving hundreds of people who were totally lost, totally depraved, and incapable of finding their way to Him except for His sovereignty in drawing them to salvation, and He did so through the ministry of this church.  I might add, He did so “in spite of” us because we are far from perfect.  We don’t always get it right.

The journey of PCC has been the hardest and the best thing that God has used to develop me as a person, as a minister, and as a husband & father.  My family and I love Jesus.  We understand the importance of living a God-honoring life.  We have amazing friends that surround us and we experience community – like an extended family – along with people who are still coming to the faith.

Today, right now, at this very moment, I trust God in ways I never knew I could.  I didn’t do anything to deserve the blessings of PCC.  He is a good God that makes sinners holy, wondering people whole again, and lost people found.  He honors faith, and can even use regular people like me, the original seven, and hundreds of others, to plant a church that brings glory to Him.  My hope is in God, and that He hasn’t finished His work at PCC or in me.  I am very thankful for His forgiveness and patience.  I look forward to many more years of serving and loving His people.  I can’t wait to hear more amazing stories of lives being changed by the power of God.

This never gets old.

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