ERIC: It was early June. And AJ Smith, the pastor of Restoration church in Philadelphia, told me about this thing he likes to do sometimes to escape
AJ: Did you tell people this is where you're going today?
ERIC: a couple of people.
AJ: What’d they think?
ERIC: I think they were like... that's going to be terrible audio.
AJ: You know, that's what I was thinking
ERIC: I'm like, eehhh… whatever.
ERIC: We were on our way for a day of silent meditation… Fasting. Breathing exercises. Journaling. It’s a way for AJ to work through some of the church’s issues, but it’s also a way to work on his relationship with God. He does it at this hermitage out in the woods, outside of Philly. It’s just a few cabins run by a bunch of nuns. And the whole thing is right up AJ’s alley. Everyone had told me how much he loves nature… loves being alone.
ERIC: Do you have anything you’re specifically thinking about today going into this? A thing you’re going to be working through or focusing on?
AJ: That’s Good question. One thing I’m always… You’re going to turn left on 16th street. (GPS says: turn left)... I mean on a very base level, one thing i’m always working through is me trying to work through my doubts and have more confidence in my faith. I’m always hoping i can enter into a very focused state of prayer. I can open myself up and that I’ll experience some form of God’s presence. Cause God’s presence changes you.
ERIC: Hearing AJ talk like this… about experiencing God’s presence… I got very nervous. It was the kind of thing Christians say but, to most people, doesn’t mean anything. And it’s also an incredibly difficult thing to track. Like how do I even know if I’m experiencing God’s presence? It made me think about this unsettling thing that had been happening while I was reporting this story.
Nearly every person I’d interviewed had asked me a version of the same question: Are you a Christian? At first, it felt innocent enough. Like maybe they were just curious about my interest in the topic. Are you a Christian? I’d say yes… have been my whole life… and then we’d move on.
But over time, it started to feel different… like people weren’t curious, but were checking to see if we were on the same team. Are you a Christian? One guy told me he was glad to have a “witnessing Christian” doing this work. I felt very weird about it. Yeah… I identify as a Christian… but right now, I’m just doing my job. I’m a journalist, I’m not trying to get people saved.
And with people constantly asking me if I was a Christian, and my growing resistance to answer, for the first time I was really having to confront the possibility... that maybe I wasn’t.
Because the reality is… I haven’t gone to church in over a year. And I haven’t been able to articulate a good reason why. Religion has been very important to me for most of my life, but I’d been having a lot of questions about my own faith, and my relationship to the church. It’s hard to imagine spending a day in silence with a pastor in cabin run by nuns and not thinking about what I believed. Not staring it right in the face. So, yeah… I was nervous.
But I did have an expert there to help.
ERIC: Do you have any advice for me? About what to focus on or what to expect?
AJ: Don’t freak out. Rule number one is don’t freak out.
ERIC: Do people freak out?
AJ: so I would I would go in being very curious about myself. Sometimes.. one thing you can start is like, I want, I fear, I surrender as a journaling thing. I'm like I want... and then writing all the things I want, the things I fear, or in the things I surrender, and what I'm going to give up in light of that.
ERIC: I want... I want, I fear, I surrender?
ERIC: I feel like I understand I want and I fear. What is I surrender?
AJ: So, I surrender means so you kind of give that over to God you kind of say all right. I'm surrendering this this thing over
ERIC: I spent the rest of the car ride turning that word over in my head… Surrender.
ERIC: I wasn’t sure why… but it felt like it had taken a seat in the corner of my brain… and at some point today it was going to demand attention…
ERIC: all of a sudden it feels like we're kind of in the middle of nowhere.
AJ: We are. It’s where nuns thrive.
ERIC: This is StartUp the show about what it’s really like to start something new… I’m Eric Mennel. This is our last episode with AJ and Restoration Church, the church plant in Philadelphia… And we’ve got a lot to cover. We’re going to take a final headcount to see how much the church has grown this year. We’re gonna figure out where things stand financially… If this whole endeavor is sustainable or not. We’re gonna do the startup thing.
But, before all that… a detour, into the woods, to deal with something I’d been thinking about more and more over the reporting of this story. That maybe I’d been asking the wrong question all along. Not, how does the church gain someone, but how does the church lose someone?
ERIC: Let’s do it. Do we stop talking now, or…?
ERIC: The hermitage is about 40 minutes outside of Philly, tucked away in a storybook forest, down a long drive from the nearest main road. There’s a convent on site, but not the kind you’re imagining. It looks more like a senior living facility… tan… a few stories tall, filled with elderly sisters who ride golf carts around and wear very practical shoes.
On the way over, we pick up some food to eat at the end of the fasting… AJ and his wife, Leah, are on the Whole Thirty diet… so he brought some nuts and a bar made of egg whites and crickets or something. But I knew this was going to be a stressful day for me… so I bought an Italian sub and a purple vitamin water from Wawa. Triple X flavor.
We booked two cabins, one for each of us. They’re not particularly charming… more like small, studio-sized mobile homes.
ERIC: It's just like a little twin bed, rocking chair, beside table, little tiny kitchen, bathroom.
AJ: And that's kind of like your meditation station is this. Sometimes I've incense, you can light candles, zen garden.
ERIC: It does look like the kind of place where I would go crazy.
ERIC: There’s a sliding glass door and a very small deck out back. Behind that, just trees. We step outside and see our first signs of life.
ERIC: oh there's foxes. There's two of them. two little foxes.
AJ: Oh my gosh!
ERIC: that's adorable. If that's how this ends up, us each holding one of those foxes -- Oh, there's a third!
AJ: They live under the porch there in that cabin.
ERIC: Turns out the foxes live underneath AJ’s cabin. I am immediately jealous.
AJ: Oh my gosh. Baby foxes under the cabin.
ERIC: AJ heads off to his fox cabin and leaves me alone… envious, full of doubt, empty of calories...
ERIC: I’m already hungry so this should go well.
AJ: Hide your food.
ERIC: OK. See ya.
ERIC: The plan is to meditate for six hours. AJ suggests I rotate activities… one hour meditation… one hour journaling. Repeat. And I’ve decided to focus on just one question... Why did I stop going to church? Like… deep down… really... why?
For the first hour, I try this exercise AJ told me about, where you choose two words to focus on… one word while you’re breathing in. The other while you’re breathing out. I sit down in the rocking chair, lean back, and think.
ERIC: An in word and an out word. I’m not sure if these are the right kinds of words but let’s just try clarity and calm. Clarity and calm. Clarity and calm. Clarity and calm. Clarity and calm.
ERIC: 10:45: I’m staring out the sliding glass door, into the trees out back. My eyes bounce between the leaves, looking for something to settle on. I grip the arms of the chair and rock steadily back and forth. I’m waiting for something to click.
10:57: three giant deer run by. Two of them continue on, but the largest one stops and looks in at me. “It’s a sign” I think. “Is this God? Is God trying to tell me something?” A few seconds later it runs off to catch up to its pals. I’m back to staring at leaves.
ERIC: 11:13: I fall asleep.
ERIC: 11:23 I wake up. I look out the window, at the tree closest to me. It’s an oak… and the bark looks to have the face of an old man in it. He looks confused. Or maybe skeptical. Skeptical of me? “It’s a sign,” I think… and then become acutely aware of how this day is going to go if I keep looking for signs.
11:30… My body begins to stiffen. I haven’t moved in 45 minutes. The tick of the clock on the bedside table seems to be getting louder. And louder. And louder. I haven’t been in such stillness in years. I start to feel that my body is floating. That the whole cabin is floating. That the earth has stopped spinning, gravity has given up, and this is how I’ll float away… alone in a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania.
ERIC: I think about AJ floating away, and the baby foxes underneath his cabin floating away. I think of all the nuns floating away, as their shoes slip off into the sky. I try to recenter… Why did I stop going to church? But my pulse quickens and I become anxious. My mom would tell me when I was little that Mother Teresa had so much faith in God that she would literally levitate while praying. That people had seen this happen. And that maybe I could levitate if I just believed enough. This feels like the opposite of that. I am terrified. After 20 minutes, I force myself to stand up, and it aches. Hour one, done. Five more to go.
ERIC: Hour two… Journaling. I pick up the spiral notebook I bought on the way into town. There are measurement conversions listed on the inside… 1 tablespoon equals three teaspoons. Who knew?
I decide to follow AJ’s prompt … I want … I fear… I surrender.
This feels more concrete… like it might lead to a more tangible answer to my question about why I left church.
Page one. I want... I want to be happy. I want to feel safe. I want something to care for. I want someone to care for.
ERIC: I want someone to care for me. I want to allow someone to care for me. I want… I want… I want to know what love is. I want you to show me. I want to make someone laugh. Not just smile, but the kind of laugh where you worry your insides might explode out of your nose. I want God to be OK with me wanting that. I want God to want me to want that.
Page two. I fear. I fear I’m not wanted. I fear I could sit in this cabin for the rest of my life, until I was nothing but skin on bones, and they’d come to find me and think… it’s a shame. I fear there is no God. I fear the days I’m walking down the street and thinking to myself… Geeze… 60 more years of this? I fear being this sad forever. I fear being seen as sad forever. I fear I’ll have a child as sad as I am. I want an apple. I should have brought an apple. I want to know what happened that made me this way. I fear I’m not a Christian. I fear I am alone.
ERIC: I fear I don’t trust anyone and people don’t have time for those who won’t trust them. I fear I’ll never really trust God… And God doesn’t have time for people who won’t trust him. I fear I will be let down. That trust hands over the softest parts of you to hands that are already full and unsteady… I don’t trust my family… I don’t trust my friends… I don’t trust my work or the church or my God or myself. I want a do over. I fear I’d be exactly the same again.
Page 3. I surrender… I surrender… This page stays blank. And I stare at it for the rest of the hour.
ERIC: I try to read. I lie on the floor. I light one of those little candles at the meditation station.
Eventually I just leave the cabin, and spend some time wandering the hermitage, standing in the sun. There’s an outdoor chapel. It’s like a tiny home, but for praying. And inside, I see a wasp crawling across the altar. I watch it circumnavigate the whole structure twice.
Watching the wasp, a memory comes to mind, something real and vivid, and I start to write it down in the journal… I’m on the beach, the tide is harsh, I hear voices yelling coming from the water.
But before I can finish, it’s somehow 5:30, and I see AJ emerge from his cottage. I feel like I’ve just run a marathon I didn’t train for. AJ, however, is smiling. Calm. Like he just walked out of a day spa.
AJ: So how was it?
ERIC: I mean I just spent six hours thinking about my crap. So i don’t really know what to make of it yet. How are you doing?
AJ: Great. It was powerful.
ERIC: Of course it was.
ERIC: We pull out our food… AJ his nuts… me, my italian sub… and settle in for dinner at the patio furniture outside our cabins. But before I can ask AJ what was so powerful for him… he wants to know what it was like for me…
AJ: You didn’t have any breakthrough experiences? No visions?
ERIC: A lot of what I was trying to work through was… this feeling of, like I have a hard time trusting people. I have a hard time opening up to people. And I was just thinking about the prompt you set up and the idea, I want, I fear, I surrender. But the idea of surrendering is a real sticking point for me. I have a lot of trouble trusting God. And trusting God will be around at certain times. Or even God will be that helpful.
AJ: Because a lot of the religious answers for God helping or God being present aren’t really that helpful. So why is it you think you stopped going to church this last year?
ERIC: I think I had a moment of like, oh i just want to figure my own stuff out. Give me a minute God and let me do that and i’ll come back around. But then a minute turns into two. And then it turns into an hour.
I’d been trying for months to pinpoint what that moment was… when I decided I wanted time away from God … And I think I did stumble on it … right at the end of the silence, when I was staring at that wasp.
It was a Saturday afternoon last summer… right at the time I had stopped going to church. And some friends and I went to Rockaway Beach, here in New York. Rockaway has these stone jetties that shoot out from the shore into the ocean, and the rip current was particularly strong that day. So, for the most part, we were staying out of the water.
But around 5pm, while we all reading our books and magazines, we heard screaming from the water.
ERIC: We looked up and two little boys, maybe 10 years old, were stuck on the jetties… the waves were slamming them against the rocks, and the rip current too strong for them to get back in.
So people started running to the water, towards the kids. I used to be a lifeguard… so I took off… I dove head first into the water and beelined for them. It took about a minute to get to where they were, and by that point a couple of other people had already made it, they were pulling the kids out. And they were going to be OK.
I turned around to swim back to shore. But after 30 seconds of swimming I realized I wasn’t getting any closer. I was stuck in the rip current now. I looked to my right and there was a woman with a boogie board who looked to be in the same situation. We made eye contact and she thrust the boogie board towards me. I grabbed it, and we both held on to it, and tried to push to shore. But we weren’t making any progress. And now the waves were pushing us to the rocks. Large waves, a few feet high. One would come, throw us both underwater. We’d come up for air and immediately another would hit. The boogie board snapped in half and we grabbed each other by the wrist. And I had this thought… oh… this is how people die. Like… actually, die.
And then, out of nowhere, this guy with leathery tan skin, captain Ron hair, and flippers on his feet swam up to us and grabbed the woman by her other wrist. Like a human tug boat, he pulled us out past the jettie where there was a sandbar, and for the first time we were both able to stand on our own two feet. We walked around the jetty, and we were able to ride the current back in to shore.
When I got home that night I cried for a while. Not because I was afraid of dying. But because I hadn’t felt so taken care of in such a long time.
For the briefest moment, I did surrender… I had no other choice but to trust this guy. And the fact that I was only capable of that when my life literally depended on it made me so sad... I don’t trust God, I remember thinking. It seemed like such a basic part of having faith… And I was somehow missing it. Why would I want to be reminded of that every Sunday morning? And so I stopped going to church.
ERIC: It’s a little embarrassing to feel like I’m almost 30 and some of the questions i had about the church, it’s like stuff 7 year olds ask. And to be like don’t know that I’ll ever have an answer that’s totally satisfying.
AJ: I remember having talks with Leah, telling her, I think I doubted I was saved every day of my life. And she’s like it’s never crossed my mind.
ERIC: It’s right about this moment that I recognize what AJ is doing. He’s being a pastor. He’s offering advice, he’s commiserating… He’s offering his own doubts… He sees I’m struggling with this and I think he genuinely wants to help me out.
AJ: I think I’ve doubted it every day of my life.
ERIC: It’s also right about this moment I realize just how truly difficult AJ’s job is. I grew up in the church. I’m open to going back. He’s doing all the right things a pastor is supposed to do to get me over this hump… I mean, he spent a whole freaking day with me at hermitage in the woods… if there was ever a place to close a deal for Jesus, this is it.
But I’m not there. Not yet, at least. And ultimately, there really isn’t much AJ can do. It’s not up to him if I come back.
ERIC: It comes down to what might be the most stubborn, complicated force in the entire Universe… the desire to change. It’s my choice. And there’s no hack to get around that.
AJ could be the best damn pastor in history and still not overcome that force.
ERIC: After the break. One final visit to Restoration Church.
ERIC: When we first started the series, AJ needed to double the size of Restoration Church in order to make it sustainable. That meant growing from about 40 weekly attendees to about 80 by the end of this year. There were a number of factors at play. For one, churches need to fund themselves mostly through offerings… people giving money every Sunday morning. Most church plants set up shop in wealthier or gentrifying neighborhoods, which can make this problem easier to solve. However, Restoration planted in a lower-income neighborhood, where in order to get the same amount of donations you need a lot more people.
Check one two check check. Alright, this is my last Sunday Restoration Church. This is both exciting a little sad.
In July, I went to Restoration for one final check-in. To see how much had changed over the months… if there were any new people. The first difference you notice… the church has a permanent sign out front now. A big fiberglass logo hanging over the sidewalk. I walk inside and the band is warming up. AJ’s wife Leah is singing backup today. And then I learn something else that’s different… AJ has the week off from preaching…
AJ: This is my first two weeks not preaching in a row.
ERIC: He’s worked with a few of the church’s elders to have them give the sermons this month. Today, Marc Savage is up. Marc was one of AJ’s first recruits to the church, and one of its involved members.
AJ: So he's in the basement stairwell like of like the old baseball junk down that rehearsing his sermon.
ERIC: This is probably the biggest change around Restoration since I started. People are taking more ownership of the church. AJ has been building systems around him… men’s ministry… marriage groups… trying to turn this church plant into a normal, functioning church-- one that he and Leah don’t need to make work all on their own.
ERIC: The service starts. One thing I remember about the early days of Restoration was that summer months are particularly bad for attendance. Everyone is on vacation. So my expectations for turnout are pretty modest.
AJ gets up to make an announcement… for the first time that I’ve seen, he’s being very forward about the state of the church’s finances.
AJ: So we're going to take a break at the minute, but I do want to remind you that we are in a season what we are trying to become a self-sustaining Church.
ERIC: And I start counting heads…. 1, 2, 3..
AJ: What does that mean? It means we're a church plant that was started with the help of a lot of other churches giving us some financial assistance.
AJ: That financial assistance is...
AJ: …running out at the end of this year...
AJ: ...So we are trying to be a church that is no longer a church plant but an established church.
ERIC: 46, 47, 48, 49, 50 adults… 28 kids. Aside from Easter, it’s the most of all the other Sunday’s I’ve visited. I see at least one new family I’ve never met. And a guy sitting alone in back, who tells me he’s from the neighborhood. It’s a good sign… an uptick in what is usually a slow period.
So there’s growth. People are taking on leadership roles. It’s all trending in the right direction. But… the thing is… it’s still likely not enough. Not yet.
Right now, the people at Restoration give about 8,500 dollars a month to the church. But there are a few outside churches that have helped fill in the gaps for these first three years. Those commitments end later this year. And so to make up the difference, AJ needs to raise $5000 more every month going forward, just from people inside the church. That would mean 10 new people or families donating $500 a month … It’s not impossible… but it does feel pretty far away.
This got me thinking about something I’d heard from AJ’s mentor, Doug Logan. Remember, Doug planted a church in Camden, New Jersey-- and he’s maybe the closest thing there is to an expert in inner-city church planting. And over the years, Doug’s come to think whole church-planting system needs a change. Specifically that wealthier churches, ones with big surplus budgets, need to be ok with giving away more to churches in need. Here’s Doug...
DOUG: Yes. Yes, but there has to be an ownership and an understanding that that's okay. Jesus doesn't need a Roth IRA. Jesus doesn't need a bank. He wants disciples. And I'm not saying to be foolish with the money and be reckless and not have enough money to pay your salaries and your budget and your electric. I'm saying, man, um, you don't have to save so much sometimes. Don't stack so much. Spend more on Kingdom Ministry. It's a greater return than, you know, 8%. These churches are going to need support for 10 and 15 years. That's just what it is. And I've had people embraced me like that. So I've had a church support us since 2011 and they said they have no interest in stopping. I have a couple of churches like that, but that's just not the the the norm.
ERIC: It’s not the norm… because the Silicon Valley style of church planting is, essentially a market-based approach. Supply... demand… if people want your church, they’ll pay for it. What Doug is suggesting, and what AJ is trying, is do this thing for people who can’t necessarily pay for it. It’s a nice dream… But AJ is also realistic. He may not be able to upend the entire church planting infrastructure in the next four months. And so … back at the meditation… when I was nearing the end of my time with AJ, I had to ask him how he was feeling about the rather uncertain future of the church. And his answer surprised me…
AJ: Things are just coming together really well. like it's not we're not having some explosion of growth or anything. but. I don't feel like I need that though. Like I feel okay if that didn't happen.
ERIC: Most confident I've heard you sound about it.
ERIC: AJ, this guy who, just a few months ago told me he needed this church to work… That he wouldn’t be ok if it didn’t… He seems like a different person now.
AJ: I don't know what happened to me... But I, kind of, for at least for now, I'm over the comparative stuff. I can't stress about why this visitor is not coming back. I can't control any of that. The people I do have seemed to be growing and changing and excited and loving it. So it's like like just kind of reframing the whole thing and stepping back from me has been um, super helpful.
ERIC: Instead of thinking about numbers the way a founder might … are they growing fast enough? Can they double this year? AJ’s thinking more about what each individual number represents.
LUKE: Oh that’s Eric.
ERIC: Hey Luke what’s going on?
LUKE: Hey Eric!
ERIC: This is Luke… He just started coming to Restoration a couple months ago.
LUKE: My name is Luke CR, I’m not american, I’m all the way from the island of Fiji.
ERIC: Luke works in maintenance… He’s always been a bit of a loner… And last Christmas, he was having dinner with his aunt, when she noticed his face was turning pale. So they rushed him to the emergency room…
LUKE: I had blood um high blood pressure. That day was like, it was so ridiculous they said I could have been dead if i was like five minutes late.
LUKE: And one of the things that the doctor told me was your life is like a ticking time bomb. So that’s sort of like a turning point in my life, I was like I cannot do this by myself you know.
ERIC: Shortly after, he got a text from a friend, named Chantal. Chantal is the drummer for Restoration Church’s worship band. They were looking for a guitar player and she thought… well… I know a guy who plays guitar…
LUKE: She knew that I played guitar. So she said come and check us out, ya know, We’ll be jamming on tuesday. So I was just sitting there watching them practicing.
ERIC: I think I was there…you’re first night at band practice, the first time you were there
LUKE: Yes you were there. Exactly.
ERIC: And I gotta say, watching you, you were so uncomfortable that first night.
LUKE: Yeah you could tell, cause it’s uncomfortable right? Surfing through the new territory. Surprised you picked that out.
ERIC: It was actually my very first day visiting Restoration. Luke brought his acoustic guitar, and kind of just sat in the corner of the room while the band practiced. He strummed along, but he wasn’t plugged into an amplifier or anything. He was quiet. At the very end of the night, the bass player, Justin, pulled out an instrument cable and dragged it over to Luke so that he was plugged into the speakers.
The next time I saw Luke was Easter weekend. And he was on stage, a full-fledged band member. It had only taken a month, and he was already in the fold. Laughing, joking with the group. A lot had changed for him… he was spending a couple of days and nights at the church every week...
LUKE: Yeah, it’s been really good, and i could see a change in my life and I could feel it in myself physically, getting to know these people they’re awesome. So that’s one of the things that captivate me in coming back to the church as well.
ERIC: And for AJ, seeing a transformation like Luke’s take place. Seeing that, in some small way, he has helped another person on this Earth find a dash of belonging… even if it’s just one person a month… That’s the whole game.
For a lot of entrepreneurs, the idea that success is out of your control feels like a liability. A cop out even. But talking with AJ… It’s like all the things he would have counted as success don’t matter much anymore… not really.
It’s like he’s found some loophole… and he gets to feel at peace whether or not the church makes it. All he had to do was give in… All he had to was the thing that I seem so unable to do… surrender.
AJ: So I think that kind of led me to contentment and only after that that I start really feeling like I think this thing could work out.
ERIC: it’s funny.
AJ: yeah yeah.
ERIC: I’m gonna put this down now, my arm is tired.
ERIC: This season of StartUp was produced by Simone Polanen, Angelina Mosher, Luke Malone, Bruce Wallace, Kimmie Reglar and Sindhu Gnanasambandan .... Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Editing by Lulu Miller and Sara Sarasohn... Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Tim Howard, Haley Shaw and Peter Leonard. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
In just a few weeks we’ve got one more, special church planting story… One from a type of church planter we have not heard from in the last five episodes:
ABBY: if a man cannot stop talking about his work, he's passionate and driven.
ABBY: but like if you're too passionate and too driven. And you're a woman then they call you a EXPLETIVE. Yeah, am I allowed to say that?
ERIC: You're the pastor!
ABBY: sometimes I wear my clerical collar just to remind myself that there are no swears.
ERIC: A woman. A church planter with two x chromosomes.
That’s coming up in just a couple weeks. And, because I have a microphone in front of me … I just want to thank the entire StartUp team one more time --- Lisa Chow, Molly Messick, Lauren Silverman, Bruce Wallace, Heather Rogers, Amy Standen, Simone Polanen, Sara Sarasohn, Peter Leonard, Angelina Mosher, and Sindhu Gnanasambandan.
You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. I’m Eric Mennel. We’ll be back in a few weeks, Thanks for listening.