It was time to try a new path

I had the privilege of interacting with Ron Mackey, who recently planted Harbor Community Church in Barnhart, MO – just south of St. Louis. His experience and insights were worth sharing.

What motivated you to take the bold step of starting a new church, especially one out of the culture?

I had come to a place in my own life, serving in a very traditional church culture, where I had a growing sense that what we were doing was not working any longer. The church I served was struggling – as were most traditional churches. As a result, I began to seek out answers from a variety of sources. I started with demographic study of the area in which I served and lived. What I discovered confirmed what I sensed when I went to the grocery store or out for a burger – our formerly upwardly mobile, very educated, upper middle class culture had changed drastically. The immediate areas were now more blue collar, less traditional in family status, and more ethnic (eastern European). I then studied the demographics of our church. What I discovered brought many things into focus. In 1997 85% of our church membership lived within 3 miles of our church campus. In 2010 those numbers had shifted dramatically with less than 30% of our membership living within 3 miles of our campus. The vast majority of those who now lived more than 3 miles away were continuing the suburban migration farther away from the city in which they worked.

Thus, when I would talk about reaching out to our community in new ways, the majority of the people could not see the needs I was talking about. The result was a period of real struggle for me personally. It became obvious to me that there was a real gap between our church and our community. It was at this time, I encountered the sociology work of Howe and Strauss in 13th Gen. It was then that I began to see my church more clearly. I was now faced with a church culture that was not prepared nor willing to reach the culture around us. I had watched a process where the established culture simply would not move to allow a younger generation a place in their fellowship. Some even said things like, “I know these changes are needed, but you can make those changes when I’m dead and gone.”

I came to the quiet and peaceful resolve that I was not the person to lead a traditional church down a road they did not want to travel. Oddly, my tenure of being with them for over 13 years made it very difficult for them to see me as a catalyst for change rather than the guy who had helped them grow their church and build the nice facility they had always dreamed of having.

I knew I was no longer able to lead in a traditional setting. I was not angry, but calm and assured that it was time to try a new path. So, at age 47 I set out with my wife and a few friends and we decided to see if this growing dream in our hearts could become a reality. Today, that reality is called The Harbor Community Church, “A Safe Place in the Storm”. We are a little over 1 year old. We have about 130 worshippers each week and have recently purchase an old daycare and are trying to reach those who have never been comfortable with the established church culture.

You got a hold of a copy of No Perfect People Allowed a couple years ago – are there any ideas or principles you learned there that have shaped how you lead at the Harbor?

No Perfect People Allowed has become the voice that has crystallized the dream God has given us at The Harbor. I have read and re-read the book on several occasions. In fact, our entire leadership team has read the book and we have recently used it as a study guide for our Harbor Groups (small groups) with great success and insight for our folks. I think the principle that stuck with me the most was the challenge of becoming a humble truth teller.

I was raised in a very conservative and traditional Christian church and denominational framework. I went to college and seminary within that same framework. What I took away from that training was the concept that we are in a battle for the truth and when we encounter our culture we must engage in that battle and seek to win the argument. I really identified with John’s story about sharing the gospel with an individual who’s response was, “yeah, I believe what you’re saying, I just don’t want to be like you.” When I read that, I sat down and cried. God convicted me that I was more interested in being right, working for the passage of legislation to protect my vision of culture, and making sure everyone knew what I stood for, than I was interested in the brokenness of the culture right in front of me.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned is, “God changes people”! It is not my job to defend the truth – what a ridiculous notion! I am a broken, frail, messed up human trying to follow Christ, how on earth can I, one who stumbles daily, defend truth. It’s God’s truth. My job, I think, is to seek to live to best of my ability with a radical trust in the grace of Jesus. And in living that out to do so humbly as I interact with my culture.

I had inadvertently became a barrier to people finding grace – that is hard to admit but it is the reality. Today, I want to serve and lead with a new sense of honesty. A confessional honesty about my struggles, fears, lack of understanding, and to encourage others to join me in following the one who provides hope, trust, healing and most of all grace.

Is there a person whose story would summarize what the Harbor is about?

There are many stories of lives being transformed in our fellowship, but the one that has inspired me the most is the story of one of the members of our band. We were in need of another instrumentalist in our band, so one of our band members posted that need on Craigslist. Craigslist should be a key component in the educational process of all church planters! Our ad included the following statement, “We are just a group of broken people who love playing music together and enjoy leading people in worship. The greatest quality we are looking for is a sense of brokenness.” We had a guy respond and he came to practice for a tryout with us. Before he unloaded his equipment we set down and talked. He shared with us that he had just recently been released from jail because he had some issues with not paying tickets, not keeping his car properly licensed and an alcohol problem. He shared his frustration in trying to find a church where he and his family could worship together. They were frustrated because they felt like they were constantly on the outside looking in.

We all prayed together and then started playing. It was amazing! Musically he fits us better than any other lead player we have had. Spiritually he has grown so much and now sees his opportunity to play music has having a much more important role than it has ever had before, because he is playing to help people worship God! God has blessed his faithfulness in many ways, just this past Sunday we baptized his youngest son and a relative who is living with his family and is trying to start life over again as well.

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