I died once while planting a church. Yes, I mean literally and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It is not every day God lets you really contemplate what your church would look like without you.
How to Kill a Church Planter in 6 Weeks
We were six weeks into our core building phase in the fall of 2009 and were meeting on Sunday nights in the basement of a Jewish synagogue. Things were going well. New people were showing up and getting connected. It was during that time I went to bed one Tuesday night feeling fine other than being a little tired. After being asleep for roughly an hour my heart went into an unsustainable rhythm and finally stopped beating completely. My wife awoke and thought I was having a bad dream but quickly realized it was much more serious. With my son’s help she got me onto the floor and gave me CPR while my son called 911. It was roughly eight minutes later when a police officer came and hit me with a defibrillator to start my heart back up. I spent the next two and a half days in a medical coma at Tufts Medical Center and the following seven days getting endless tests done.
Peace, Mystery, and Being a Cyborg
The good news is that I made a full recovery and had no more brain damage than I had before. Amazingly, the doctors couldn’t find an underlying condition that caused the cardiac arrest. While it is a mystery to medical science, to this day I am convinced God protected me and healed me for his glory. The only thing I have to show for the whole incident is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (or ICD) in my chest in case it ever happens again. I tell people I am cyborg because it sounds awesome. Fortunately, the ICD has never gone off and I am in overall good health.
Peace and Concern
When I awoke in the hospital, I had an incredible peace. Even when the doctors warned me, “Healthy 36-year-olds don’t have sudden cardiac arrests. Something is wrong and we are going to figure it out,” I remember sensing God saying “I've got you.” Not in the sense of everything was going to be good but that whatever happens, I was in God’s hands.
The only concerns I had while in the hospital were about the church. How would people react to finding out the pastor of this new church almost died and was having tons of tests run to find out what is wrong? By God’s good mercy, nine days after my cardiac arrest I went home from the hospital and two days later I went to our Sunday night core group worship gathering. I had an incredible joy going home and to gather with our new church, but I had not yet seen how God was going to use my experience to build his church.
The Man of Steal
I would love to tell you I had only pure kingdom motives in planting a church in Boston, but that’s simply not true. In reality, I had wrapped up my name with the name of Jesus and was hoping while he got most of the glory, I’d get some for me, too. I was a man called to plant a church for Jesus’ name, but with a secret ambition to steal some of the glory for my name. My great pride was mixed up with kingdom motives. My cardiac arrest brought that reality to the surface in an unavoidable way. Jesus didn’t need me to advance his kingdom, he let me to be a part of it. Trying to advance my kingdom at the same time was an idolatrous delusion of my own significance.
Dead Man Pastoring
It seems weird to say, but I thank God for my cardiac arrest. It reminded me of the joy of living for Jesus's name and fame above all others. The impact on my church plant was substantial. God united that core group together in praying for me and caring for my family. These folks became our first members, community group leaders, and elders. In his great kindness, God has let me lead City on a Hill for 8 years, to see many people connected to Jesus and built up in him, and to plant 5 churches directly and coach, resource, and encourage many others. Jesus has let me see fruit in the ministry of this dead pastor and I honestly feel very much like I am along for the ride. I deserve death, but Jesus gave me life and he lets me be a part of helping others experience life in him.
Maybe You Should Die Too
Jesus said in John 12:24: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."
Jesus is the grain of wheat that died to bear fruit of eternal life for me and all of God’s people. My death was a gift that allowed me to see fruit in my life and ministry I do not believe I would have seen otherwise.
I do not want to give you any false sense that I’m humble – I’m not. I fight my enormous, voracious, and gluttonous ego all the time and far too often, I lose the battle. Even as I type these words, I’m hoping you like them and me. The truth is that my cardiac arrest didn’t kill my pride, though Jesus will do that when he returns, but it did mercifully choke some of the life out of it and, for that, I am eternally grateful.
Jesus likely won’t take you through a cardiac arrest or another near death experience, but I wonder what he might do in and through more dead pastors.