July 20, 2018

Church Planting 3: The Paradox

by StartUp

Background show artwork for StartUp

The Story:

In the world of church planting, every Sunday counts… but there are a couple Sundays each year that can truly change the fate of a church. One of them: Easter. If you want to grab somebody who is open to church, but for whatever reason isn’t going, Easter is the time to do it. AJ and Leah need to double the size of Restoration by the end of this year, so they need this day to go well. They don’t have a fancy egg-dropping helicopter or an egg-shooting cannon like some churches do, but they do have a plan… one that involves 100 frozen chickens. In this week’s episode, we follow AJ and Leah as they give everything they’ve got to make their plan work and watch them navigate the fine line between success and faith.

This is the third episode in our series on Church Planting. Listen to the first episode here

The Facts:

Peter Leonard mixed the episode. 

Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.

Additional music by Bobby Lord, John Kimbrough, and Haley Shaw.

Where to Listen


ERIC: I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate what a big deal Easter Sunday is for Christian churches. Lots of churches will spend months preparing full-scale, dramatic reproductions of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. And, of course, it’s standard practice to hold an Easter egg hunt to bring people to church. But when you really want to get the community’s attention… when you really want people to visit your church… you gotta go big.

TAPE: Ok, everybody raise your right hand. I promise (I promise) not to tackle (not to tackle)

ERIC: This is from a recording of an Easter Egg canon event at Christian Life Assembly Church in Southern California. A seven foot tall compressed air cannon shoots 100 plastic eggs into the sky. Once they land, all the kids run and try to grab them.

TAPE: Here we go! [cannon sound] Screams.


ERIC: But for some churches, even cannons aren’t enough...

helicopter sounds

ERIC: At Lifesong Church in Sutton Massachusetts… they rent a helicopter every year. They line all their kids up on the side of this big field, and then fly the chopper over the center of that field…  and proceed to dump thousand of plastic eggs to the ground. Upon impact, children rush the field like it’s 1840s California. 


ERIC: There’s gold in them there, eggs. 

This helicopter thing is actually more common than you’d think. There are easter egg chopper drops in Virginia, Alabama, Michigan, Connecticut, North Carolina… 

AJ: Yeah, Easter’s huge.

ERIC: Especially huge for people like AJ Smith, the pastor of Restoration Church in Philadelphia, the church plant we’re following for this series.

AJ: It’s pretty well known among church planters that winter is a difficult time to reach people. Once spring comes, people are out, people are out in the streets, people are engaging, people are in a good mood.

ERIC: AJ needs to double the size of Restoration by the end of this year… and Easter might be the single best opportunity to make that happen. A big reason is what people in the church all Chr-easters… people who really only turn out for church on Christmas Eve and Easter. If you want to grab somebody, somebody who is open to going to church, but just… for whatever reason… isn’t… Easter is the time to do it.

AJ: So 'Easter is a huge opportunity for us to reach people. It might be the biggest of the year. So we are all hands on deck. 

ERIC: They don’t have a helicopter or a cannon. But they do have a plan… one that involves 100 frozen chickens… And if the plan works… this could be the boost they need to get to self-sustaining. But… 

AJ: ...but when we talk about people actually coming to church on Sunday… I’ve learned there are no guarantees.


AJ: I play this game with myself, where I sit in the front seat in church when we’re doing the worship songs, and I make a conscious effort where i don’t look back. I don’t look back, I just pray and I... that people are coming in. when I turn around with the microphone. It’s like pulling back the curtain and it’s like, “aaaand no one’s here” or “oh my gosh! There are six new people here who I’ve never seen before!” Easter is definitely gonna be that on another level… My skin is going to be crawling with anxiety. 

ERIC: Welcome to StartUp, the show about what it’s really like to start something new. I’m Eric Mennel. This is the third episode of our series on Church Planting… on what it takes to grow a new evangelical church from scratch. There is this Fundamental question all entrepreneurs have to wrestle with at some point … And that is: How much of your company’s success depends on you, and your hustle… and how much depends on factors entirely beyond your control? 

ERIC: And in church-planting, this gets especially tricky. Because your success.. is supposed to be in God’s hands. Or, at least some of it is. But... how much? And is it possible that all your hustle… the thing that makes you a good entrepreneur… can also make you a bad Christian? It's a question that's been messing with AJ for months. And this week, the week of Easter, the highest stakes week for Restoration Church to date… we’re gonna watch as he wrestles with this tension. All while trying everything he can to get new people in the door on Sunday.

ERIC: It’s about a week before Easter. A friday night. AJ has just put his two kids to bed and now he’s downstairs, sitting quietly in his recliner. A pastor, finally settling in for what has become one of his most sacred weekly rituals. 

AJ: One thing that’s really special to me about Friday nights is I dip on those nights. Chewing tobacco basically. But it’s something I’ve done on and off since I was 15. 

ERIC: As he’s gotten older he’s shifted away from straight dip…  down to a version that’s made of mint leaves. Less cancer, same oral fixation. This is his time... maybe his only time in the week to replenish, and relax. Sometimes as he dips, he listens to music, sometimes he watches netflix. But whatever he does, it’s his gift to himself, time to not to think about church. I asked him to record an audio diary of what was going through his mind during this dip sesh… and one of the first things that came up?

AJ: Man, our sign did not get up again this week, 

ERIC: Church!  The church’s main sign is still just a plastic banner draped over the old sign for the dentist that used to own the building. AJ’s been trying for weeks to get it replaced, without any luck. And with all the hurdles they’ve faced getting people in the door, this is one he wishes he’d cleared by now. 

AJ: I mean this electrician… was supposed to be there, saying he’s gonna be there, he doesn’t come through, then he promises he’ll be there, i’m told he did have the work, i show up there’s nothing done!  That sign has to be up. And it doesn’t look great. it doesn’t have a sign… I mean it doesn’t have a sign.

ERIC: AJ’s burnt out. He’s been running on all cylinders since taking over back in October, trying to get the church, and the new building, ready for Easter weekend. He has this pain running up the right side of his neck that’s keeping him from sleeping very well. It happens sometimes because he pulls his man bun too tight… but he and his wife Leah were both pretty sure this is a stress pain.  

AJ: I’ve been so, so sick some weeks. So tired. Feeling so awful, so anxious, just the worst I’ve ever felt physically. Building chairs, writing sermons, meeting with people, driving all over the place... not getting enough sleep.

ERIC: Burnout is pretty common in startups. Founders work themselves into the ground trying to keep their companies stable, and thriving. But when I ask AJ about this in studio… He brings up this paradox that seems very specific to building a church. It’s this question of whether the amount of work he’s putting in… says something about the amount of faith he has.

AJ: It’s a weird mental place to live as a christian as a pastor….it’s like you’re saying in your actions that I really don’t believe god is doing this. I really don’t believe the answer is prayer. And I really believe i’m better, I’m going to take this over. And that’s been evidenced in my life like to an extreme. Where it’s just like you know I could spend a half hour praying or could write this donor a letter. Like I’m not gonna sit up there and say I hope the holy spirit gives me a sermon. No, I’m gonna put hours into my sermons. Just hope people show, no we’re going to put hours into ministries and outreaches.

ERIC: Why do you think you do that?

AJ: I think … I think I need this to work. 


AJ: You know I've been I've been going towards this since I was 18 and I went to Bible College I've been nothing but move towards Ministry since then. 

ERIC: your entire adult life. 

AJ: Yeah. everything's been moving towards this you know. 

ERIC: For a lot of new companies, the founder is the brand. And because of that, their identity can become wrapped up in the success or failure of the company. But for an evangelical church… Jesus is supposed to be the brand. Which is why AJ is struggling with having his identity so wrapped up in Restoration’s success. There are moments where it feels like it’s about him… not God. It’s really confusing.

AJ: If you're not actually engaging God. If you're not like developing a relationship with him and really depending on him, what you're doing doesn't even matter. And I think, um, that’s something you know, I probably need to work through.

LEAH: Church planting is a weird psychology. And sometimes I feel like it might be a little inhumane. 

ERIC: This is Leah Smith, AJ’s wife… she’s feeling this conflict too...

LEAH: I can say this because i’m a part of it, when it’s like, i feel like my identity is intertwined with the church plant. So i’m gonna speak for me, Eric. I want to be successful at this.  

ERIC: The fact that she has become so consumed with trying to make the church work, is sort of a surprise to Leah. She’s the church’s worship director, meaning, she plays piano and sings most Sundays. But for the majority of her life, she had a totally different dream. She wanted to be a professional musician...

ERIC: When she was little, she performed at the churches where her father  was on staff. And as a teen, she got a huge break -- when this really famous Gospel singer named Israel Houghton, heard her recordings and asked her to move to Texas so he could help her make an album. 

LEAH: First of all, he was an idol to me. I was like, Oh my gosh, Israel wants me to record an album this is a thing. So I convinced my parents. It took a little bit of convincing.

ERIC: She got to sing with his gospel band and Aretha Franklin at the Grammys. They toured all over the world... 

Music: Orlando Concert

ERIC: This is her performing a song she wrote when she was 18, in front of a crowd of hundreds of people, just outside of Orlando. 

ERIC: A year went by… and the album wasn’t falling into place. Over the years, she played bigger and bigger venues… This is from a big christian festival she performed at… 

Music: Oceans

ERIC: But still, no album… And eventually she had to come back home to help out when her sister got pregnant.

LEAH: So my mom was like.  Uh Leah come back home now, ya know you’re coming back home now. Arrrrrrrg! Yeah I think i packed up my things thinking i'd go back to Texas. But that never happened. I just stayed in Philly.

ERIC: She met AJ a couple years later… And when he took over Restoration, the church kind of became this new project for her. A new dream she could make a reality. But that dream has forced her to confront this same paradox AJ is working through… How to build something successful, while also not making it about you...

LEAH: I wrestle with it daily, getting wrapped up in what I want at Restoration to be. That’s the fight with church planting. How do you stay centered and grounded and not enmeshed in “I am the church, and the church is me” and “the church must be what I want it to be”?

ERIC: You’re looking for it to be like a finished album.

LEAH: absolutely, absolutely. You’re absolutely right. Yeah child, to be a successful finished album. I’m lookin’ for a win in life, Eric. To be honest with you. 


LEAH: Ha ha. I think that thought every day. Im lookin for a win, ya know!  Isn’t that something that’s kinda sad - when I think about it - because then that puts so much pressure on this baby church plant to be that win and that’s not what it’s supposed to be for me. It can’t do what I want it to do

LEAH: Hi Eric! How are you?

ERIC: I’m great Leah, how are you?

LEAH: I’m good. Ok let’s move some boxes.

ERIC: It’s Saturday, the day before Easter, and Restoration church is putting on it’s biggest community event of the year. The thing they hope will bring in a bunch of new people for tomorrow’s service.

ERIC: This… is where the frozen chickens come in. They’ve got 105 boxes and they’re filling them with food… a free easter meal. They’ve been promoting the meals on Facebook for a couple weeks, inviting people in the neighborhood to come pick one up. 

ERIC: That’s a lot of boxes.

ERIC: Inside these hail mary boxes… They’ve got frozen chickens, vegetables, mac and cheese, rice. A little card with information about the church… and frozen pastries. Everything looks great. 

LEAH: Wait a minute

ERIC: until Leah looks a little closer...

LEAH: Why does it say best before July 10, 2017? 

TIM: Some of it’s expired?

ERIC: Fifteen minutes before the event is supposed to start, Leah realizes all one hundred plus pies and cakes… expired 9 months ago. Obviously, they should just throw them out. But she goes ahead and checks with one of the church’s members, Tim Wellbeck, what he thinks they should do...

LEAH: It is a frozen item? 

TIM: Its frozen. 

LEAH: What do you think Tim is it OK?

TIM: It is a frozen item and expiration dates aren’t what people presume them to be…

ERIC: Oh no, Tim. Don’t do it.

LEAH: Is it a bad look though? You know what I mean? 

TIM: Yeah you gave me some rotten dessert. 

ERIC: Walk it back, Tim...  walk. it. back. 

TIM: We don’t have to give them… if you’re uncomfortable, we don’t have to give them. 

LEAH: Yeah we don’t want to do that.

ERIC: Oh thank God… 

ERIC: And at 11 o’clock. The event officially kicks off. Like clockwork… 

WOMAN: Can I come in?

MARC: You’re welcome to come in the side door and check it out.. 

ERIC: They get their first visitor. She’s come for a box of food, but she also wants to check out the church. She comes around the side, and into the sanctuary, where Marc Savage, one the members, is playing music. He asks her about the philadelphia eagles jersey she’s wearing… but then he gets to the real question... 

WOMAN: Ha ha

MARC: so where are you at now -- what are you doing with church? What are ya doing now?

WOMAN: Still doing my live stream from my church in Miami. 

ERIC: It turns out she’s lived in the neighborhood for years. But she hasn’t found a church she likes as much as the church she went to when she lived in Florida. So she just streams their services every sunday. This is actually one of the biggest hurdles for small churches… the rise of on-demand Christianity. Who needs to go to church when you can get it on your phone?

ERIC: The thing I’m most curious about though is how she actually heard about this event. Was it AJ and Leah’s work… or was it something else? She’s here with a friend who lays it out for me…

ERIC: Did you see it on facebook or was it a physical flyer?

WOMAN: Well actually, My mother’s case manager actually sent me the information, so she sent me like a picture text of their picture from Facebook and so I had sent it out to various people…

ERIC: So… to be clear… this woman’s friend’s mother’s case manager saw the ad on Facebook, took a photo of the computer screen on her phone… and then texted it out to a bunch of people. It is a crazy Rube Goldberg series of events. And I ask Marc how he makes sense of it.

MARC: As much I say this is a cliche, and I hate to say it, God is in control and that weird stuff, weird stuff happens.

ERIC: that God is going to find people the algorithm can’t.

MARC: Right, Yes, ha ha, yes, absolutely. Yep. 


ERIC: Half an hour later… 

AJ: People really aren’t lining up right now. 

ERIC: AJ is getting nervous. Despite the early visitor, things have been very slow. He’s starting to worry his plan might have been all wrong… that the very nature of the outreach, publicly handing out free food on the street, is a little problematic... 

AJ: There’s an element of shame that comes with it. Where you don’t want to embarrass people, you don’t want people to - thank you! Have a good one - some people feel a little insulted if you come and say hey here’s a free meal! And even if you do need it, it can be a little hard with a group of people watching you. Because It’s embarrassing for some people… especially it’s a very public thing.


ERIC: To even have a shot at convincing people to take the boxes, they need to get them to the church… So AJ’s sending teams of two into the neighborhood to knock on doors and let them know about the food and the service tomorrow.

AJ: I do wanna tell people like the food is here now if they want to come get a meal also. So if you guys could do that…

LEAH: Okaaaaay !!! (sings)

ERIC: Leah heads out with another member of the church, a woman named Tixiera. They put the invites on doors and on windshields…

Leah: this might be sort of illegali-ish… 

TIXIERA: Is it really? 

ERIC: But back at HQ… things aren’t picking up.

PERSON: We’re having a slow but steady flow.

ERIC: They need to think of something soon, or there going to be stuck with some 90 defrosting chickens and no new visitors on Easter morning. It’s then that Marc and couple of the other members decide to step up their game… go full evangelical… 


ERIC: Restoration is situated on a busy road... And as the cars passing by get stopped at the red light up the block, members of the church start running into the street, knocking on people’s passenger windows, and offering them meals through the glass. 

MARC: Free easter dinner, sir?

ERIC: And… for the most part… people are rolling their windows down. They’re taking the food.

ERIC: Marc you’re killing it. You’re like opening car doors! runnin across the street!

MARC: uh its my... Intimidation factor.

ERIC: you think?

MARC: I think so. Thinking, we better take it or else.

ERIC: They give out 10 boxes this way, then a dozen. They’re weaving in and out of traffic as the cars stop at the light half a block up. 

AJ: We flipped the script - we had to change our whole thing - people weren’t coming up here so we had to go out to the cars. It’s working really well. 

ERIC: With so much movement, and activity, the foot traffic picks up as well. A woman riding by on the city bus actually gets off at the stop up the street, walks back to the church to get a box, and then takes it back to the stop, to wait for the next bus.

Woman: Oh thank you, this is awesome.

ERIC: There are Only 40 boxes left. Then 30. People are smiling, joking, breaking down the trash. 

Box sound

ERIC: AJ’s spirits are up…  for the first time all day he seems truly excited to be telling people about this church… 

MAN: You guys are the best!

AJ: yeah, were new church in the area, so were just trying to show love today

MAN: Here all the time?

AJ: yeah! All the time.

MAN: aw cool

AJ: Bought the building new location. It’s our new Permanent location.

MAN: Hey thanks so much happy easter, god bless you guys!

ERIC: And at 12:22… the last box goes out.

AJ: is that it?

LEAH: Yay. clapping...

AJ: wow. 

LEAH: thank you Lord!!

AJ: what time is it? We started.. It’s 12:22. We were supposed to end at 1? I thought we were gonna go till 5, when i got here and saw we weren’t moving product quickly. Um. But this is good.


ERIC: AJ is smiling, but as they wrap up, I catch him Leah alone in the hall upstairs. And they look exhausted. Like this wasn’t just three hours of handing out meals...  but like the last 6 months have been one, neverending outreach. Part of it is the reality that they’ve been burned before. They’ve had successful events like this that didn’t turn out any new visitors. 

ERIC: AJ is holding the right side of his neck, where the stress pain has been. It’s 1pm. 22 hours until the service starts… Where they’ll find out if all this work actually pays off. 



ERIC: Good morning. How are you doing?

ERIC: I show up to AJ and Leah’s at around 8:30 Easter morning. Easter is the defining holiday in the Christian faith… the day marking Christ rising from the dead, thus fulfilling old testament prophecy and proving he was the son of God. 

ERIC: It’s also a defining day for Restoration Church, and AJ and Leah. On an average Sunday at Restoration, there are about 40 people there. AJ thinks they need to double that if they’re going to get enough money from people’s donations to keep the church going. Today is the first chance for them see if their work is paying off… and how close they can get to that 80 person mark.

ERIC: AJ was up late last night, making last minute changes to his sermon. He was stressed… He didn’t sleep well. Ara, his four year old daughter, was excited about an upcoming trip to Florida they have planned… so she took all of her clothes out of her closet and threw them on the floor. When AJ went to wake her up this morning, he found her under the covers in her bathing suit. 

ERIC: For his part, AJ is dressed more traditionally… he’s got a dress shirt on, and a coat.

ERIC: You guys look nice… 

AJ: You know man, it’s Easter. Yeah I don’t normally wear that, it’s one of those things I swore I’d never do.  


ERIC: Despite how big a day it is… in a lot of ways… it feels like any other Sunday morning. The kind millions of families deal with every single week, as they try to get their kids ready and out the door on time for church. 

AJ: Wanna get your shoes?

ERIC: Leah pulls the kids bags together, humming hymns in the background as AJ puts Ara in her jacket. 

AJ: Look you wanna see yourself in the mirror? You’ve got a dog on your hood. Look...

ERIC: They grab buckets for the easter egg hunt later and head out to the car. AJ tries to negotiate a coffee stop.

AJ: We’re not late yet… We got time for Dunkin

LEAH: Baby, we gotta be at church at 9.

AJ: Just teasin.

ERIC: I don’t think he was teasin. Either way, we don’t stop. Soren, AJ and Leah’s two year old, decides to break the handle off his easter bucket, which really distresses their daughter Ara

SOREN: ahhhhhhh

AJ: Soren don’t yell…  

SOREN: ahhhhhhhhh

ERIC: It’s about a 20 minute drive to the church. We’re the first ones there, about two hours before the service starts. 

Door closes

ERIC: We go inside and they set the kids up with some cartoons upstairs. At this point, AJ seems to be doing anything he can to busy himself. He plugs in the vacuum and makes a round through the sanctuary… 


ERIC: At the other end of the room, Leah turns on her keyboard and starts quietly warming up.

Leah music

ERIC: It’s perhaps the most quintessential church-planty thing I’ve seen in the many months I’ve been working on this story. A young pastor, in a suit he’s not really comfortable in, nervously vacuuming his own sanctuary. His wife tapping away on the keyboard, wanting every note to be just right …

LEAH: Do do do do

ERIC: Over the next half hour, the rest of the band trickles in and warms up. It’s a real Waiting For Guffman vibe… They all seem expect there will be watchful eyes in the audience this week, people they need to impress. 

Band warming up

ERIC: And then the regulars start to arrive. There’s Ms. Anne. She’s nearing retirement and I think she has a niece she’s trying to set me up with… Tim Wellbec -- the guy who’s not quite skeptical enough of expiration dates, he’s here with his wife and kids … everyone dressed in their Easter vests… the boys in suits, the girls in dresses. 

ERIC: It’s 11am … time for the service to start… and maybe 40 people are here. It’s about average…  AJ is sitting up front. He’s doing the thing he told me about… where he only looks forward, not back. Marc Savage opens up the service with a greeting.

MARC: Good morning, good morning. Happy resurrection Sunday to you all, also known as Easter.

ERIC: Right from the start Restoration’s idiosyncrasies are laid bare. “Resurrection Sunday” is how a lot of traditionally black churches refer to the holiday… for most white churches it’s just Easter. For Restoration… a church trying to bridge these two worlds… it’s both.

MARC: Rejoice heavenly powers, sing choirs of angels, Jesus Christ our king, has risen. Rejoice all you gathered on this resurrection day 2018 let’s sing together the praises of the world’s resurrected king

ERIC: Then the band kicks in…

Band music

ERIC: And as the music plays on, something exciting happens... More people are showing up. There were 60 chairs set up to begin with… I look back and see, now all the chairs are full … and there are people standing in the doorway. Ms. Anne’s husband, Erv, is scrambling to a closet to pull out more chairs. He’s making sure people put their coats on the floor, so as not to waste any seats. He’s smiling the whole time. It’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at the church. 


ERIC: The music slows. 

ERIC: It’s AJ’s turn to pray. Finally time to turn around… to see what the crowd looks like. 

AJ: We’re here today because Jesus isn’t like any other god, jesus isn’t like any other religious figures in history, because only defeated death, only Jesus got up from the grave


AJ: I’m sorry but no one else out there who started a religion, no one else out there who claims they have the way got up from the dead. When they died it was the end of the story, but when Jesus died it was just the beginning. It was just the beginning. So we are here today celebrating the resurrected Jesus.

ERIC: He looks unphased, but he most notice… the turnout is great… He’ll later learn this is by far the biggest turnout they’ve had in these walls, nearly 80 people. It’s exactly what the church needs to succeed. It’s a good thing he vacuumed. 

AJ: Amen Amen, welcome, happy resurrection sunday, it is so good to have everyone here with us this morning, my name is Pastor AJ smith, lead pastor here.

ERIC: After the prayer, he asks for first time visitors to raise their hands. About 10 go up - some are family members, but a handful seem to have come on their own. And then there’s a five minute break for people to say hello to each other. Leah dashes from the stage with laser focus, making a beeline for one of the first-timers. She knows she can’t just revel in the success of the turnout. The important thing now is making people feel welcome… to keep them coming back

LEAH: Hi Brendon, it’s so good to see you! 

ERIC: People sit back down. There’s a little more music. And then it’s time for AJ’s sermon. The one he’s been stressing over for weeks. 

AJ: The first Christian movement was very simple. Jesus rose from the dead. You should  believe this, I saw with my own eyes and this changes everything. So becoming a follower of Jesus doesn’t cost you anything, it doesn’t require you to do or become anything. 


ERIC: AJ wraps up and the service concludes with a couple more songs. And there’s a buzz in the air.  Miss Anne is showing off her grandkids… Apparently the niece isn’t here. Marc is beaming as he shakes hands with new people in the congregation. 

ERIC: My editor Lulu and I scatter to find some of the new people… to see how they found out about the church, and if they might come back. And what’s crazy is we see both of the competing forces of church planting at work… people visiting because of AJ and the church’s hustle… and people visiting due to some cosmically weird series of events… 

LEAH: I saw yer hand went up - is this your first time here?

WOMAN: yes it is

ERIC: For example… Lulu finds a woman who learned about the church through the outreach yesterday. 

WOMAN: I belong to a church, but it’s like a mega church, and I actually prefer - I actually grew up in smaller churches. I enjoyed the pastor and the music, um, everyone seems genuine and down to earth. Um, So I would come again.

LEAH: You think you will?

WOMAN: Yeah i think i’ll be back next sunday

LEAH: Aw that’s great thats great...

ERIC: So, that’s one point for hustle.

ERIC: But then I meet a guy named Devon. He’s young -- probably in his late twenties, early thirties. He brought his daughter. Turns out … he didn’t mean to come into this church at all. Devon’s uncle is a pastor at a church somewhere on this long street, but he couldn’t remember which one… so he started walking in all of them. 


ERIC: The first was a sort of storefront, Afrocentric church with just a few people. That wasn’t right. Then he walked into Restoration… and the music was good, and the lighting was nice, so he sat down… and after about 15 minutes he realized this is also not the right church. But he was feeling it… So he just… stayed. 

ERIC: AJ’s in the lobby, shaking hands with people as they leave, but largely holding back… He’s letting the rest of the church do the engaging. He looks tired.

AJ: What we could have hoped for. Double our regular numbers. It was crazy being up front and seeing every seat filled. We’ve had so many empty weeks. My body is tired. I’ll crash later. I‘ll probably come in a little later tomorrow. 

ERIC: Maybe he’ll come in a little later tomorrow… It’s like he’s just won the Super Bowl... and still… he won’t give himself a day off. 


ERIC: Then… two weeks later… this shows up in my inbox… 

AJ: Today is Monday, April 16th 2018 at 9:58 pm. We got into Ft. Lauderdale late yesterday for a family vacation...

ERIC: AJ, Leah and the kids are on their first real vacation since Ara was born four years ago. 

AJ: ...and everyone’s in bed so I came outside… We’ve got a canal on the dock, I’m enjoying a dip, got my lip packed…  got a citronella candle burning next to me, and i’m just sittin here, by the edge of the water…just chilin, just reflecting… Trying not to think about church stuff. Or anything. See an alligator.

ERIC: In the two Sundays since the holiday, attendance numbers have mostly gone back down to normal at the church. Though a couple of the visitors have stayed… been there two or three times. But something’s shifted in AJ… ever so slightly. You can hear it in his voice. He’s starting to let go. To accept that, maybe… it’s not all on him. 

AJ: I was talking to God, praying a little bit and I realized how important it is to have time of quiet and reflection because I realized how quickly and crazy these last six months have been. I could see myself going like that for years and decades. Waking up and realizing i’ve been treating my work and the church like someone who works for a corporation or something like that. Gotta spit. I really do want to get lost in the shuffle lost in the mix the way the world defines success. I’m not trying to create a church using my own strength. 

ERIC: It cuts off like that, mid-thought. I’m not sure if it was intentional or by accident. 

ERIC: In his sermon on Easter, AJ talked about how Jesus’s death is not the end of the story for Christians, it’s just the beginning. That seems true for Restoration as well, if it’s going to survive. AJ is starting to understand his role differently… but there’s still a lot of growth to go. 


ERIC: Next time on Startup… 

ERIC: Can we talk about the hard ones now?  

AJ: Let’s do it. 

ERIC: Can someone who is openly gay be a member at Restoration church?

AJ: man you went right for it...


ERIC: How do a church’s beliefs and theology either attract people or keep them away?

ERIC: This episode was produced by Simone Polanen, Angelina Mosher, Bruce Wallace, and Sindhu Gnanasambandan.... Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Editing by Lulu Miller and Sara Sarasohn and Caitlin Kenney... Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Haley Shaw. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.


That helicopter recording from the beginning of the show was part of a story by the Worcester Telegram Gazette. 

Special thanks to Charlie Mitchell and Trevor Chin of Epiphany Baltimore. 

I’m Eric Mennel. 

If you aren’t already subscribed to StartUp, hurry now, there’s a discount for the next 100 subscribers… just kidding, it’s free… it’s always free… 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 new people to find the show.

Oh -- and an exciting update… Leah Smith finished her album! Just a couple months ago. All on her own. It’s called Tenderheaded. We’re going to put a link to it in our newsletter this week. Just got to gimletmedia.com/newsletter and sign up. 

You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Thank you for listening. We’ll be off next week but back in two weeks… see you then.