Guest Post: theStory, Sarnia: A Ridiculously Abbreviated Reflection on Chapter One

This is a guest post by Joe Manafo. Joe and I started theStory (a church in Sarnia, Ontario) four years ago together. Since he has given up on some aspects of technology (oddly, Twitter is is chosen method of communication, @joemanafo) and doesn’t have a blog, he needed to get this off his chest. It highlights a lot of the ups and downs we’ve had over the last number of years and his struggle to be where he feels he needs to be. My take is different, as I didn’t move my family, with two children away from two well paying jobs to plant this church like he did. Nevertheless, this is part of my story as well, so I’m happy to post it. Enjoy.

We’ve been chasing the dark now for a little over four years. Well, if you include the months of planning, conversations and online back and forths, we’re unofficially nearing the five year mark.

Since the beginning we’ve held to the notion that the local church is God’s pilot project for the New Jerusalem – his greater intention, his end goal as it were, for all of creation. Healing. Wholeness. One final swoop in setting wrongs to right. So without giving it a second thought, we decided to establish our roots in a location that most would consider inopportune: an atrophied downtown where more storefronts were boarded up than open for business. Nevertheless, we considered the opportunity as golden.

This is not to say that we were without our challenges. On some days it seemed like our detractors were lacing our plot of land with salt in an effort to ensure that nothing would ever grow from it. Locally, a group of justifiably concerned business owners and realtors threatened to petition city hall to change the zoning by-laws so that a church could not legally take up residence. But even before that, the first organization we courted to help us in our new adventure scratched their heads in confused disapproval. “Sarnia?” the man in charge quipped, “Why would anyone…” Then, pulling down a chart and with pointer in hand (I’m not making this up) he proceeded to literally point out the ‘top church planting cities’ in south western Ontario. Sarnia wasn’t on the list. After an insulting barrage of facts and figures, it was awkwardly obvious that we were in disagreement. Looking back on it all, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to us at that time. Any blame or finger pointing has become unnecessary. None of us could have foreseen what was really coming together.

A good friend of ours, displaced Canadian David Fitch (professor, church planter, and author of a book that continues to influence our work) made an offhand comment during an impromptu visit near the beginning that went something like this: “It’s going to take at least four years for you guys to get your bearings. And if you can make it to five years and beyond, then you’ll begin to see some of the fruit of your hard work.”

At the time, we dismissed the comment fairly quickly. Four years? Maybe he was kidding. Maybe we’d given him too much credit. But now, four years later, we realize that he was dead on. In short, this is what the low hanging fruit is looking like these days:

*Sacred Space + Community Venue: Of all the key copies that we’ve made for our physical location, more than half belong to people who are not part of our worshipping community.

*Fight. For the Right. To Participate: Recently, it was our downtown neighbours who, without our knowing, petitioned on our behalf for us to be included in a local cavalcade of arts and culture exhibitions.

*50/50 time: Our lead team has commissioned me as the lead pastor to spend 50% of my paid hours in functions and relationships that are outside of internal church responsibilities.

*I Do: 1/4 of the weddings I officiated this past year were for people who had no previous connection any church and for the most part felt disconnected from God.

*Mission Impossible: In our Sunday worship gatherings, we’re beginning to find balance in having varying people from varying points of view at varying points in their God journey to worship and commune together. This has been (and continues to be) no small feat.

*24/7 & Intentionally on Sundays at 10:10am: We’ve created an environment where the following could be overheard at any time: Question without penalty; Every kid gets an instrument!; What do you think?; Stay for the potluck even if you didn’t bring anything; Did that guy just drop an F-Bomb in church?; Who’s the pastor here?…no seriously; Where have you seen God at work recently?; Love God, Love Others, Tell His Story.

For all this I am very thankful, and on most days, I feel encouraged and validated. However (and in full transparency) my fears, doubts and ego chase me down daily. Like the hallucinations in the film A Beautiful Mind, my collective worries hang out with me on a regular basis. We’ve become old friends, but I wish they’d just leave me alone.

Transitioning from full time professional clergy to pastor/planter/part-time stay at home dad/bi-vocational misfit was a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Today my income is lower than my very first youth pastor gig. Early on, like a flashing red Bat Phone, job offers from other churches would come in with the promise of a new challenge. Everytime, I would proudly decline. Today it feels like that line is attached to a dusty fax machine. No one uses it much anymore. I sit by it hoping that it will light up again. Not that I’m actively looking for a way out, but the thought of escape prompts my already over active imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully invested in what theStory is all about and am aware of God in the life of our community, but I’ve come to despise what this experience has coaxed out of me. Go ahead. Read between the lines if you like. It won’t bother me. This isn’t news. Sometimes I wonder if this church is more about what God wants to do in me than through me. At least that’s what it feels like.

So as chapter one closes for theStory and we transition from being a church plant into a healthy, established church, I am ever hopeful. Hopeful for what has begun and for what is ahead. There is certainly no shortage of ideas and dreams. My best prayer is that our hearts and legs will hold out as we continue the chase.

Joe Manafo

Fall 2010

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: theStory, Sarnia: A Ridiculously Abbreviated Reflection on Chapter One”

  1. Wow, its refreshing to hear your heart. Continuing to be excited about the story. Its been a joy to watch it unfold. Who would have predicted this 13 years ago

  2. Exceedingly rare to hear from fellow Canadian organic church planters.

    It also sounds like you’re way, way, way past chapter 1….

    Props for fighting the power.

  3. all i know is when it was time for me to come to God…the last place i saw myself was in a ‘regular’ church with pews and stiff collars. The interactiveness, freedoms of individuality and the telling of the Story in a way i can relate has kept me coming back. If the format was not what it is…i wouldn’t.
    For i have had alot of questions and anger…the occassional F-Bomb has needed to be dropped…if not during service then in private rantings…
    thank you Joe and Nathan

  4. My interaction with TheStory is very limited; however, as a person watching from a distance, hearing stuff like this gives me hope for the kingdom.

  5. refreshing honesty. Reads like the psalms with vulnerable questions and hopeful surrender to something greater than what we understand or know. thank you.

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