ERIC: AJ Smith is something of a phantom. He has almost no online presence. There are no videos of him preaching… I found exactly three photos of him on google. He’s on twitter, but when I looked him up, he hadn’t tweeted anything in a year and a half. For a guy who is the public face of a new church, he isn’t very public.
ERIC: CHECK ONE TWO, ONE TWO ONE TWO
ERIC: It was back in March when I finally went to see this church... It’s called Restoration. It’s the church plant we are following for this series. And to be honest… i almost missed the building all together. It’s this completely unremarkable brown brick storefront… on a busy road, sandwiched between a daycare and a lounge called Krush, spelled with a K… The sign out front is just a plastic banner draped over an old dentist’s marquee. It says “Coming Soon, Restoration Church.”
ERIC: I walk inside and find AJ.
ERIC: How you doin?
AJ: Good, good.
ERIC: He also looks different than I expected… for one, he’s lost the dreadlocks in favor of a man bun. It’s an upgrade.
ERIC: This is the place!
ERIC: And the inside of the church looks pretty great too. It’s been completely gutted and redone with new drywall and carpet. There’s a fancy new lighting system, a stage for the band… room to seat nearly a hundred people.
AJ: Yeah, so this was, when we bought it, it was just dental chairs.
ERIC: wow, I never woulda guessed.
AJ: They did a really nice job yeah.
ERIC: You report on anything long enough and you realize… what you see as you’re driving by is not always the same as what’s going on inside. The same can be true of people. And part of the reason I’m in Philly this week is to get a sense of what AJ is like in his role as a pastor. A reticent white guy, who’s taken over a majority black congregation. One of my first glimpses into this, is during a monthly coaching call between AJ and his mentor, a guy named Doug Logan. Doug’s the pastor who trained AJ back at his church in Camden, New Jersey. He’s written one of the few books that exist on planting churches in the inner city. In other words, Doug is probably the best person to help AJ figure out how to make the church grow.
AJ: [beep] Yo.
It takes about 9 seconds for me to realize … Doug’s not one to hold back.
DOUG: Here’s the thing I’ma ask you how’s you and Leah doin? everything good?
AJ: Yeah, we're doing well we're doing well.
DOUG: Unless you gotta tell me you’ve been withholding sex from her because you think you a pimp, then we’re good.
AJ: No, I'm over that that was last week.
DOUG: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!
ERIC: Eventually, Doug gets to the actual reason he’s calling today. It’s AJ’s online presence… or lack thereof. He wants AJ to post more video clips of himself preaching, so people can get a feel for the church… see that AJ is not your average white guy.
DOUG: You're preaching needs to be pimped. You're not pimping that preaching. People love your preaching. Why don’t I have no clips?
AJ: Wow, okay. okay.
DOUG: I need clips!
ERIC: AJ sinks into his chair, with a look on his face that is something between a smile and a grimace. You can just tell… He is deeply uncomfortable with this idea. He’s not the kind of guy who likes drawing attention to himself.
DOUG: For the naked eye, you’re just a white boy with a man bun. They don't know you a preacher. they are looking for somewhere within not going to run into some corny Trump supporting Liberty college type dude
DOUG: You are white as you can be. But you got some some hot sauce from a bunch of different black people. That's a good mix. I mean, I just had some quiche right now with some spinach. I dumped a little hot sauce on it, that thing was good.
AJ: ha ha
DOUG: ha. So. That’s what you are, some quiche with some hot sauce.
AJ: sighs. I just felt like i drank from a firehose.
ERIC: Was there anything he said in there that you’re actually going to do in the next weeks?
AJ: Yeah, like one example, it’s not something im comfortable doing on my own, but probably should get over is having recordings of myself. It is helpful for people to see oh that’s what the pastor looks like, or the inside of that church looks like.
ERIC: that feels like pretty contradictory to how you tend to approach things.
AJ: yeah like I’m not good at that stuff. Like I’m not a self promoter. It’s just not my style. I’m not real comfy promoting myself. Right now I can put flyers up I can put graphics up and if people don’t come, meh. It’s not my face that’s out there. But if it’s me out there, I’m taking this leap, Now it’s, they’re rejecting me.
ERIC: There’s this central tension in church planting between being a humble pastor and a successful entrepreneur. There are celebrity pastors who are very good at promoting themselves, with clips and personal fan pages and hundreds of thousands of followers online. And, for the most part… it works. They grow big successful churches. AJ is not that. His favorite thing to do is sit alone in the dark, and listen to music. He is not one to put himself out there. And it really bothers him when others do. So he’s stuck… right in the middle of this tension… And it has him wondering, in order for this thing to work… does he need to become someone he doesn’t want to be?
ERIC: Welcome to Startup, the show about what it’s really like to start something new! I’m Eric Mennel. This is the second episode of our series on what it takes to start a new church. In the first episode, we learned AJ has until the end of this year to double the size of his church and make it sustainable. And there was one question everyone, including AJ himself, seemed to be asking from the minute he took over… Is AJ the kind of person who can grow a church? Does he have the personality, and the skillset, to attract new people, week after week? That’s what this episodes about.
So let’s start with the obvious… How did AJ even wind up wanting to become a pastor?
AJ: I don’t know how much time you want to spend talking about my issues.
ERIC: Uh, a lot.
ERIC: Ever since he was young, AJ Smith has been a pretty anxious person. He’d grown up in rural New Jersey. Spent lots of time running around barefoot, catching snakes and bugs… But when he was nine, his dad decided to go back to school, in Connecticut. And the rest of the family … to save money… had to move to a smaller house. Suddenly, AJ had less freedom to roam. He didn’t know any of the kids in his new class. His whole world shifted… and it caught up to him.
AJ: I was just anxious all the time. I was just stressed all I mean nine and I'm just stressed like beyond belief all the time. I'm blinking all the time. I'm sucking in my gut all the time doing these neck stretches making sounds doing these things to just try to release anxiety. I would count the syllables in my sentences with my fingers before I'd say them so end on an even number. It was just all these OCD behaviors.
ERIC: Perhaps not surprisingly, this anxiety extended into AJ’s church life, as well. He grew up going to a church plant, a big one, with a big youth group. And they’d have these sleepovers, where the kids just stayed at the church for the night…
AJ: All night, all nighters… called lock-ins where you that you'd be locked in the church for like 15 hours. You would eat pizza and they would uh have video games and foosball tournaments and and then at midnight they would play like the “Left Behind” movies, with Kurt Cameron to try to scare the hell out of you...
ERIC: ha ha. yeah. Left Behind was this series about like the people who have been left behind after the Rapture and how they like deal with the world? Right?
AJ: Yeah, and so you didn't want to get left behind. If you were really Christian like you would vanish one day.
ERIC: And then after the movie is over, you would go and make ice cream sundays or something?
AJ: Well you could do that but if you were serious, you had the option to go to the sanctuary and work some things out with God. And there were a few of us and I took that opportunity because I was always scared that I was gonna get left behind. Even to my earlier age. I remember being lost hiking with my family. Me like, you know looking for a snake and getting off the trail and turning around they weren't there and I said, oh my gosh, they've all been raptured. I'm left behind. The Antichrist is going to rise, this is bad news. And I'm just discovering all this now like with my therapist. Like what's all going on there?
ERIC: Like as an adult?
AJ: yeah, like no literally like last week with my therapist. I'm going back Wednesday. So that was like my reality like my entire childhood, adolescence, into adulthood was that anxious unsettled insecure weird Christian Life.
ERIC: In a lot of ways, this insecurity is what made AJ want to be a pastor. For a neurotic kid worried about being raptured, spending your life thinking about a God that could take care of you… was a pretty comforting idea. So, when AJ was old enough, he started going to Seminary in Philly. And every day he’d pass through the city right next door… Camden.
AJ: There’s tent cities in Camden. People living in serious poverty. Tons of violence. Murders all the time.
AJ: And you’re driving over and I’m like, “man, why don’t christians do anything here? Why are we always scared of Camden?” And so I became very burdened like, I want to start helping homeless people.
ERIC: So he did… Every sunday morning, he’d go to a CVS parking lot in Camden and give away books and bibles and glasses and socks.
AJ: And hundreds of homeless people would show up. I just loved it. I remember being out there and thinking, this is what the Kingdom of God is all about. Christians out here feeding people and giving them God’s word and loving them and getting to know them. So one day, this guy… he’s this black guy and I can hear him from like a mile away. And we’re in this crowd of people and he is walking through this crowd like he owns the place. Like he’s just talking to people walking over to people laughing hysterically messing around with people. And he put his hand out and he said, “Doug is my name.” He always introduced himself that way. And that was Doug Logan.
DOUG: Well before I became a pastor, I owned a barbershop for... nearly 10 years.
ERIC: This is Doug Logan, AJ’s mentor from that phone call. To say I’ve never met another pastor like Doug Logan would be an understatement. I’ve never met another human like Doug Logan. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who can quote scripture in explaining how and why to breed American Pitbulls. He dresses in polo sweaters, and wears reading glasses... but he also talks about wanting to kick the crap out of other pastors who are jerks to him. He sleeps maybe four hours a night and might be the closest thing our country has to an expert in planting churches in the inner city. But before all that, Doug ran a barbershop.
DOUG: We had everything in there we had from gangsters to pastors. We did eyebrows for women. I had a nail tech. so it was a full-service shop man you ever if you ever watched the movie Barbershop and beauty shop.
DOUG: It was just like that. We had people coming in trying to sell stolen phones bootleg polo coats. We had people selling dogs. Man, washing machines. People selling steaks.
ERIC: wait, wait, wait, hold on. How do you sell a washing machine and a barbershop
DOUG: man, you pull up in your truck and you run in and say yo Doug, I've got six Maytags. Give me $100 each take him.
ERIC: ha, yeah...
DOUG: Oh man, we had everything in there, man. And I believe man that's where I got the heart for church planting the way we plant it because, man, people still see me and say, “remember when!” They remember the community the love the jokes the prayer they remember all that crazy stuff and it was a joy to them. I don't know if people talk about church like that. But I wanted them to. So I wanted to plant a church like my Barber shop. A community spot with some of everything. But at the end centered in Jesus and like but fun though!
ERIC: It was a vision for a church unlike AJ had ever heard. And AJ was unlike any white kid Doug had ever met.
DOUG: You know the joke name we called called AJ was dirty Jesus. but he was the funnest dude and hungry for the word. And those guys who are crazy like AJ are some of the best learners in the urban context. Because they're already open for crazy stuff. I mean AJ had tarantulas growin up and spiders. If he's crazy enough to hang around us? Man. I'm gonna make sure he feels welcome.
ERIC: From the very beginning, Doug seemed certain about AJ’s ability to plant a successful church. But AJ had his doubts. He knew he was an anxious, introverted guy. What he needed was a way to test himself… something that would push him to his personal limits.
ERIC: Doug had an idea for that test…
AJ: within 15 minutes he was like, “alright, here’s what i want you to do… You work?” yeah “You in school?” Yeah. “But you gotta quit all that and come be my intern.”
D: So I pulled him in. Technically AJ was our first intern and he was the white guy! Ha ha ha.
ERIC: That internship turned into a paid residency. For the next year, Doug was going to throw everything in the inner-city church planting manual at AJ, hitting him over and over again, like one of those inflatable clown punching bags, just to see if he’d keep getting up.
AJ: The residency season was intentionally intense… it was designed to make me kind of have those rock-bottom experiences.
ERIC: What were the things that would happen that like pushed you in that way?
AJ: It was the unpredictability. The building's got a leak, we got to go get some vacs and get this out, or it's 3:00 in the morning and we got to get to the airport because we got to go somewhere we need to make a presentation.
DOUG: I’m a task master and I can be in some instances. And I was challenging and pressing on him.
ERIC: And it wasn’t just Doug… it was Camden. AJ was seeing things he’d never seen before… a woman being beaten right on the street, drug abuse unlike anything rural jersey. There were shootings right near the church. It was all building up inside him… like a pressure cooker. One night, AJ was driving Doug back home after a conference in Mississippi.
DOUG: We're on 95, man, and it was snow storm and everything and we were just riding down the middle of the highway! almost on the wrong side of highway and i screamed AJ!!!! We were sort of sliding, and he didn’t know how to handle the wheel, and I screamed grab the wheel, and he sorta blacked out, driving! Got out and prayed and put my heart back in my chest.
ERIC: What do you think happened?
DOUG: AJ is a passionate person. He's a sensitive Godly dude, and there was a lot of challenges in urban church planting! You know, I'm from the hood so I'm built for that. AJ is not. Emotional overwhelmingness was real for him.
AJ: I was just having so much anxiety. And then this pressure of the clock ticking. Well at the end of this i have to plant your own church! And ALL the other guys i knew who were planting churches are like “God has given me a vision plant here!”
AJ: During that time, I'm like God hasn't like given me like this clear vision. I don't even know if I'd be good at this or I'm not that confident people should dump all their money into my vision. So I was coming home every day just like not in a good place. I should just go back to my old job and just forget this, seminary was fun, but this isn't for me.
ERIC: After the break, the mathematical equation … it’s literally a mathematical equation… that determines who is the right person to plant a new church.
ERIC: Welcome back. This next part of AJ’s story is about something I’d never heard of until just recently. It turns out that there is this official process… almost like a reality show tribunal … where people who want to plant churches, go before a group of judges who test them and evaluate them… to see if they have what it takes. If you pass, you’re much more likely to get access to the funding and networks you need to help launch your church. If you don’t… well… there’s always podcasting.
BRAD: I just realized I have a great radio voice though, or maybe everyone sounds this good!
ERIC: This is brad Novosad. Everyone say hi, Brad! Brad is one of the judges for this process… it’s called Assessment. It was developed by a psychologist named Charles Ridley in the 1980s. And over the past thirty years or so it has come to be considered maybe the number one predictor of whether or not a pastor will succeed. It’s based on this sort of psychographic profile of the ideal church planter.
BRAD: So there’s 13 areas, there’s 66 specific qualities that the research showed is kind of vital for a church planter to have.
ERIC: Things like resilience and charisma and the ability to start something new from scratch. During assessment, people like Brad ask a long series of questions to determine if you have these qualities… and you get a score. The higher your score, theoretically, the greater the likelihood your church will work. And Brad insists… success comes in lots of packages...
BRAD: I had a guy we were interviewing him. He was a drug dealer, but he got, uh, radically changed by Christ and he was a part of a church for several years. So obviously when we talk about the project you started from scratch, you know wasn't going to be a churchy answer because his project was his drug business.
BRAD: So he started this phenomenal drug business. He had people working for him dealing drugs. Like dozens of people. He made, I can't remember how much money, it was a lot of, but it applies. And he has gone on to plant an amazing church.
ERIC: When AJ agreed to help start Restoration church, the network that got them a lot of their startup money, Orchard Group, wanted him to go through assessment. It was a way to vet him as an investment. And they opted to send him to the most intense version there is: it’s called an assessment center.
AJ: It was pretty much 10 to 12 hour days for five days in a row.
ERIC: An assessment center is essentially a weeklong job interview, meets bootcamp, meets therapy session. AJ’s was at a church in Fishers, Indiana, with about 30 other wannabe planters.Every day, they were given new exercises that would test their readiness. And the assessor's — the judges — would stand to the side with their clipboards… and just take notes…
AJ: You’d be in a room and have to preach a 10 minute sermon and they would grade you on that. And then they would give you these... weird scenarios where they would pretend that the one room is filled with millionaires who were potentially gonna fund your church. So you and a group of people had to spend your day coming up with a pitch, like it was Shark Tank or something. And they see what kind of people take over as leaders, who are too strong armed, who are not saying anything.
LEAH: Something like this really draws out the ... profound insecurities in people.
ERIC: This is Leah Smith, AJ’s wife. One of the weirdest parts of assessment is that spouses get assessed too. The thinking behind this is that planting a church is so stressful… that it can ruin a marriage. So, they really want the spouse to be on board. Spousal support is what they call a “knockout factor” in assessment. If you don’t have it, you’ll almost certainly be denied. So, Leah was there too.
LEAH: So I remember being in one of these rooms with some other pastoral candidates, and someone asking, “would someone like to pray?”. There was this guy there, you know of course this guy comes outta nowhere! ‘Yes I’ll be the one to pray!” He wanted to be the first at everything.
AJ: There were so many people who seemed like they were really into it. Getting energy from it. Oh! I’ll be the one to present. Ooh I'll be the one to do this!
LEAH: And AJ is so… he doesn’t try to be the loudest, he’s not the alpha male...
AJ: I saw myself as being like, uh, I’m not a choice person for this. Like people with that personality are gonna be obvious. They would be the type to get approved and me, I probably need to work on these things. So that’s how I felt the whole week. Definitely didn’t think that we were gonna pass.
ERIC: To AJ… it seemed like the kind of pastors that really bothered him… the self promoters… were excelling. And it made him wonder, is this whole intricate assessment process, the thing that determines who gets the money, who gets to start a church… is it engineered to select for this type of person?
LIZZETTE: Oh! That’s an intuitive question. Ha ha ha. let’s dabble in that danger zone a little bit.
ERIC: This is Lizette Beard, a researcher who studies trends in church planting for a Christian organization called Lifeway.
LIZZETTE: Yeah, I certainly think we are currently dealing with an idealized church planter. You imagine someone with all of Ridley’s characteristics.
ERIC: Ridley again is the psychologist who came up with this church planter profile.
LIZZETTE: You see it in one or two particular packages. Is there a gentle way to say ego gets in there? I would say we highly celebrate maybe some characteristics more than others because of their appeared and real connection to effectiveness.
ERIC: Effectiveness meaning, they grow big churches. But, in recent years… the church planting world has been dealing with the unintended consequences of this bias.
ERIC: Some of their most successful church planters have been caught up in the kinds of scandals you see from some Silicon Valley startups: emotional abuse, public meltdowns. The most famous of these scandals centers on a guy named Mark Driscoll. He started what would become a mega church in Seattle, called Mars Hill. If you’ve only heard of one church plant, this is probably the one you’ve heard of. Driscoll was a huge personality, flashy, edgy... revered among a lot of church planters for pushing the envelope. One of his more infamous sermons was titled, “The Porn Path.” But there were some pastors who openly called his attitude arrogant and brash… And in 2014 he came under fire after allegations of bullying his staff came to light. He subsequently resigned from his church.
LEAH: We’ve seen some breakdowns, breakdowns of some men who’ve become these very powerful, very autonomous, narcissistic monsters. Gifted, but monsters. I see it kind of similarly to any other man who’s not a christian and wants to start a business and be the man. Right? You got that in Christianity, you got that outside of Christianity. And so I do ask, why? Why are you starting a church?
ERIC: When I talked to Lizzette Beard, from Lifeway, and a bunch of other assessors… they all acknowledged -- this 30 year old assessment process has its flaws. But they say they’re trying to correct for some of them. There’s been a shift away from selecting for this superman-type planter… one big personality who can do everything… and looking more towards people who can build teams around them, who can balance out their own weaknesses. AJ and Leah talk about their assessment week as one of incredible vulnerability. They shared intimate details of their marriage… they were only married for a year at that point, and like anyone, it wasn’t always smooth. AJ talked about mental health issues, including his anxiety. It’s stuff they had shared with almost nobody up to that point. After a week of these kinds of activities and conversations, and counseling… the assessors gathered everyone in a room … and gave them their results one by one.
AJ: You either are denied…which means we don’t recommend you at all as a lead pastor. You’re approved with conditions, meaning we approve you with these certain conditions we layed out, you have to get back to us. Or the best result is to be approved without conditions… meaning right now we completely affirm and recommend you to plant a church now. But they have to walk back out and you can tell by people’s faces. And there were some people, my goodness, who were the most confident, they were runnin’ the show the whole time, they walked back there, confident as anything, and they walked away with their head hanging low. Like they got shot down completely. Like not to plant a church. And watching them walk out and saying goodbyes to them. Most people not getting favorable... results.
ERIC: It’s like actively seeing someone’s dream ripped from them.
AJ: absolutely! So they sat us down, we’re sitting down and they look at us and they say, “We completely endorse you and approve you without any conditions… meaning we support you in planting a church right now as you are.”
AJ: and Leah was stunned. Who would have thought you could actually put it all out there, be completely truthful about all your issues, and despite all that, be recommended to be the lead pastor of a church!? Unbelievable! And so for us, that was so empowering on every level, cus everything we knew both from society and from church would lead us to believe that if you don’t look this way or act this way, it would disqualify you. And it didn’t!
ERIC: Not only did this openness not disqualify AJ, it’s proven to be a real asset as a pastor. The kind of thing that’s drawn people in.
MARC: so when I came over, came over to philly… in my little studio apartment, not really being able to pay for school, working more hours that I needed to work at Starbucks.
ERIC: This is Marc Savage. It was three and a half years ago… and AJ was right in the thick of trying to bring people into the church. Somebody mentioned Restoration to Marc and he decided to go for a service. He walked in … and he found AJ, standing at the front of the room… preaching... about his anxiety.
MARC: anxiety, he had talked about practical ways to pray. The little snippet he shared of his experience, the way his thoughts would come at him- and how he kinda needed to calm himself down by writing down prayers and focusing that way, that resonated with me.
ERIC: Marc is now one of the most committed members of the church. He joined the worship band, and sings alongside Leah. He helps with bookkeeping. All this, because he identified with a sermon that was the opposite of what many planters would have preached…
MARC: And that was very comforting to me. Especially to know that somebody who was pastoring - was experiencing some of the same kinda things I did… and being pretty transparent about it, that was really helpful to me.
SUNDAY SERVICE SINGING
ERIC: My first Sunday at Restoration, I finally got a chance to see how AJ handles the spotlight. When the service starts the seats are pretty empty… maybe 15 people are there. The band leads a few songs… That’s Marc you hear on the mic by the way… dude’s got pipes!
ERIC: But by about 15 minutes in, the room starts to fill up. About 40 people are there… mostly black, with a couple white families. And there are a lot of kids, almost as many as there are adults. Then it was AJ’s turn…
AJ: How many of you know that God is great…. And i don’t just mean on a theological level that God is greater than your trauma… Clapping
ERIC: He gets out of his chair and moves quickly across the room. His hand is up, his eyes are closed. It’s like watching an old time revivalist…
AJ: God is greater than… your failed relationships. yeah...
ERIC: And the congregation is with him. Waving their hands, shouting “yes, lord”s … AJ’s a quiche… but with some hot sauce.
AJ: They can meet u where you are! Clapping… hallelujah!
LEAH: Assessment for us was eye opening
ERIC: Leah again
LEAH: To hear them say we believe you guys are on the right path. That was really affirming…and shifted my perspective… of what can a lead pastor look like.
ERIC: At the end of the service, I look in front of me and see two little girls, probably about six years old. One is black, her hair in braids, wearing a red flannel dress. The other is white, blonde with a ponytail, in a blue dress. And they’re holding hands. Swaying together. It doesn’t really matter if AJ is suited to build a church. What matters if is he able to build this church. And looking at Marc on the stage, Leah on the piano, and those two girls holding hands in the seats, it seems clear to me … something’s working. The question is … can they bring in enough people to keep the whole thing going?
ERIC: Next week… on StartUp….
AJ: Ya know I can always play games in my mind to convince myself, like well, ya know it was a rainy weekend, who can blame them? When people don’t show up... But man, I tell you on Easter I make a conscious effort where I don’t look back. I just pray, that people are comin’ in… My skin is going to be crawling with anxiety. ”
This episode was produced by Simone Polanen, Luke Malone, Angelina Mosher, Bruce Wallace, and Sindhu Gnanasambandan.... Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Editing by Lulu Miller and Sara Sarasohn... Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Haley Shaw and Peter Leonard. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
Special thanks to Kimmie Regler, Daniel Im, Ed Stetzer, Casey Smith, Mark Owens, Jamin Stinziano, and Sojourn Community Church.
I’m Eric Mennel.
If you aren’t already subscribed to StartUp, it’s OK… you’re forgiven… this time… but go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you use and hit subscribe. And while you’re there, leave a review. It is really one of the best ways for other people to hear about us. Oh, and if you’d like to take the buzzfeed style quiz to find out if you have what it takes to be a pastor, subscribe to our newsletter. We’re gonna send out links to online assessments, photos of Leah and AJ, and the rest of the church. Just go to https://www.gimletmedia.com/newsletter
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