The Real Mission Wasn’t the Moon

As a young boy, Jim looked into the clear night sky hoping to spy the “man in the moon.” He grew up when science fiction hit puberty. After college Jim watched as the two major superpowers cooled their aggression on earth only to heat up a war in space. When President John F. Kennedy declared before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Jim was applying to NASA. And though Kennedy’s untimely death prevented him from seeing his dream become a reality, Jim’s dream of becoming the man on the moon was rocketing towards reality.

Jim’s resume paved the way to the launching pad. After flying in the Korean War, he applied to the first NASA astronaut program named Mercury. Though he didn’t have the right stuff to be a part of the magnificent seven selected, he was tapped for the second group of Gemini pilots in 1962. He was the first to orbit the moon on the Apollo 8 mission. If Neil Armstrong had come down with the flu a week before Apollo 11 took off, it would have been back-up commander Jim Lovell taking “one small step.” After NASA completed two successful lunar landings, Jim finally strapped into the commander’s seat for his shot. They asked him to design the logo for Apollo 13.

His life-long dream became a reality. The mission was clear – land on the moon.

For NASA and the rest of the world, landing on the moon had become routine. Train guys with the right resume and experiences. Pour energy, manpower, and money (Apoll0 13 cost about 4.4 billion dollars) into proven rockets. Have the best and brightest support team. What could possibly go wrong?

54 hours and 4/5ths of the way to accomplishing their stated mission, Jim realized their real mission wasn’t to land on the moon.

When we planted Renaissance the dream was to build a church that wakes up the soul of suburbia. Our checklist seemed foolproof: find guys with great resumes and experience, pour energy, manpower, and money into proven methods; create a great logo. What could go wrong?

After two years, 104 worship services, 150 car magnets, countless ads, and thousands of flyers I’m finally realizing our real mission is not to build a church.

When Jim uttered the misquoted words, “Houston we’ve had a problem,” (as movies often do, they change history and our vernacular with a verb tense), though unrealized in the moment, the moon would fade from view and the real mission would come into focus.

After the astronauts were hauled onto the deck of the USS Iwo Jima, Walter Cronkite relayed to the world that Apollo 13 was deemed a “successful failure.” Somehow I doubt that’s how Jim’s wife would describe it. I bet when Jim kissed his kids goodnight, failure was the farthest thing from their minds.

Jim never landed on the moon, but he never failed in his mission.

Back in 2003 I was doing yard work at my home in McKinney, TX when I heard a massive explosion. Neighbors gathered around and saw huge jet streams plume in the sky. The space shuttle Columbia was only 15 minutes from touchdown when it blew apart killing all seven astronauts. Though they completed their mission, I doubt anyone would call it a success.

Because the real mission wasn’t in space, it was to get home.

For two years I’ve believed our mission was to get to the moon. To build the next great American suburban church: steady numerical growth, kicking kids program, riveting preaching, rocking praise band, and a coffee shop in the foyer.

You wouldn’t have caught me saying that. It’s far too unspiritual. But deep down, I believed we had the right checklist. What could go wrong?

For those of us who grew up as the mega-church movement was hitting puberty, church plants growing to maturity (assuming numerical growth = maturity) became routine and expected. Stanley Hauerwas, a Duke theologian pointed out, “The problem with the modern American church is that it’s far too modern American and not nearly enough church.” Our American church model believes that if you have the right checklist, you’ll land on the moon: Resumes. Experience. Creative Philosophy. Great Preaching. Kids Program. Kicking Band. Cool Logo. Eventually you’ll take one small step for God and one giant leap for your church – a building fund.

We spend great time, energy, and resources on the pursuit of growth rather than the pursuit of God. Don’t get me wrong; people represent souls. But if I’m honest, as a pastor, it’s troubling that I don’t lament the fact most of our growth comes from transfers rather than converts. They’re coming because we seem to have a better rocket ship.

The real mission is not the moon. It’s getting people home. It’s not about perfecting our methods; it’s about proclaiming the message: “God wants you home.” He sent His Son from Heaven to earth to bridge the space-like chasm between our hearts and His.

In truth, I, along with many pastor colleagues, unwittingly steal Jesus’ job description. He says, “I will build my church…” He calls us to deliver His message. So Peter proclaims the gospel. John proclaims the gospel. Paul says to a little church in Corinth:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

Here’s the deal. God may call us to lay down our lives for Him, but I don’t want to do it just to say we built a church. What happens when the worship center is built, the in-ear monitors bought, the pulpit finally in one place, the coffee shop created, and the Village rooms are painted in cool themes? I don’t want the culmination of our desires to be brick and mortar, paint and trim. He didn’t die on the cross for Christians to build a mega-church, but to turn hearts toward home.

Jim realized his mission when an oxygen line exploded. I realized my real mission when my expectations blew up.

So Renaissance will change a few things. For many believers, the only shocking thing will be how long it took us to figure this stuff out:

1. Depending more on God than our gifts. It sounds elementary, but prayer is often preached, but rarely practiced. We have talented people, leaders, and creative ideas. But you can have a massive church without lasting life change. Only the Spirit can awaken people’s hearts to the greatness of God. When you realize Jesus can only complete the mission, it drives you to your knees.
2. Becoming more passionate about a clear message rather than perfecting cool methods. Early in our church history we spent a great amount of time memorizing and practicing our church distinctives. We wanted to see our church advance. They weren’t unbiblical, but they kept us Renaissance-centered rather than gospel-centered. Now we are embracing the gospel as good news, not old news. God will wake up suburbia if we simply live out and tell the story about an awe-inspiring God who rescues us from our awful sin through the awesome sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ.

Jim Lovell is one of 24 people who have flown to the moon and the only person in the world who has flown to the moon twice and not landed. If anyone deserved the moon, it was he. Yet God saw fit to keep his feet in the rocket ship fulfilling the real mission, making it home.

So at Renaissance we’re finally recognizing our real mission – to call people home. If we end up landing on the moon along the way, so be it. I do hope it has a coffee shop!