What I've Discovered About Church Planting in My First Six Months
I have been planting my new church, The Journey, for the past six months. It is something I have always wanted to do from the moment I began pursuing a call to full-time vocational ministry in 2003. I was elated when the Conference informed me last year that I would be appointed to start a new church in July. I began to immediately map out what my new church was going to look like and the strategic process that I would implement in order to ensure that The Journey would become successful.
That was in June. It is now February, and I have learned a lot. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned that may help potential new church start pastors or any pastor for that matter when heading in to a time of change or renewal.
1. It is NOT my church. When the Conference asked me to plant a church, I assumed that I would be planting the church that was in my head. God asks us to plant “His” church (Matt. 16.18), not our church. Six months in to this and I can truthfully say that very little of what I intended, dreamed or strategized in June has actually happened. With that in mind, however, what God has birthed has been far greater than anything I could have ever hoped or imagined.
Our ideas of success are not necessarily God’s ideas of success. The typical process of starting a new church in the US has really been more about “building” a church than it has been “planting” a church. The model that I inherited and was encouraged to follow involved gathering a group of people, creating a “relevant, cutting-edge” worship “experience” and inviting the community to come. “If you build it they will come.” This has not been my experience. The idea behind this model of church planting is that successful churches grow numerically (translation: more and more people come to our worship service) and financially (translation: those people who come to our worship services give generously to support the new church). The natural outflow of this model involves hiring professional staff, developing quality programs to compete with other successful churches in the community and building larger and more functional facilities. What I have discovered is that God is not nearly as interested in that model as I supposed. I am beginning to realize that success for a church involves authentic encounters with broken, hurting people in unconventional, non-threatening spaces within the community on a daily basis. This does not mean that we forgo our worship gatherings; it just means that we don’t put all of our eggs into that basket. On the contrary, I have come to see that success for our new church takes place every day when we connect with the community and offer Christ to them through love, compassion and grace.
3. This approach to reevaluating success obviously begs the question: how do you support yourself? This has been the biggest challenge for me so far. When we began to see that God had called us to this community to serve them and to go to them instead of focusing on getting them to come to us, we obviously faced the challenge of sustainability. What we decided to do was to open a small non-profit business. We leased space initially for small groups and offices. About a month in to the process we began to sense that God wanted us to do something different with the space. So we transformed the front portion into a coffeeshop. The Journey Java Connection is a fully operational coffeeshop in downtown Crestview on Main Street. Since its official grand opening in November 2011 The Journey Java Connection has tripled in both average daily guests and income. The coffeeshop has become a missional hub for this new church enabling us to both connect with the community in ways that we never would have by simply building a church, and providing necessary income to help sustain the church financially. In December we began to see the need to transform the back portion of the space to accommodate groups and provide meeting space for the community. We purchased dozens of toys and children’s items from a Day Care Center that was going out of business and created a play area in a corner of the back room. Soon some of the “mommies” in the area discovered that we had a space for children to play. We now have 5 “mommy groups” that use our space throughout the week. We have had to develop a weekly calendar and begin scheduling groups on a daily and weekly basis. We have also begun to see the value of the coffeeshop as a means of bringing the Church in Crestview together. Although our church is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, we see our role in this community as ecumenical. We have a college group that meets on Tuesday nights bringing together college aged students from all denominations and backgrounds. We have groups affiliated with the Baptist Church, the United Methodist Church, nondenominational churches and home churches that have been meeting in our space for conversation and Bible Study. We began offering live music every Friday night beginning in January. We have singers and musicians from every conceivable religious and secular background that come out on Friday nights for Open Mic Night, karaoke, and Christian Music Night. The fourth Friday of every month is for invited musicians and we have been intentional about trying to find local secular talent to play so that we can draw in those that are not affiliated with a local church. We do not proselytize or overemphasize our Christianity, but we also do not hide it or apologize for it. We believe that those who patronize the coffeeshop will encounter the love and grace of Christ in tangible ways and that God will be able to do what He needs to do in their lives in ways that might never happen otherwise.
These are just a few of the things I have been learning. I do believe that it is important for the Church to gather and celebrate weekly, thus we continue to work hard on providing a worship experience that will connect with those far from God or those that have been alienated by church for whatever reason. However, I am beginning to believe that the future of the Church is going to have to be more focused on planting movements organically than building churches strategically. I learned rather quickly that I needed to simply plant some seeds of faith and allow God to grow the church that He wants for this community. I do not think that all of the seeds have sprouted yet; in fact, I am certain that God has much more in store for us.
We do not have all the answers, but I do believe that by allowing God to grow His Church organically, and by planting movements instead of building churches, we will be successful at making disciples of all people for the transformation of the world. There is great hope for the Church of Jesus in 2012. We simply have to be willing to think outside of the box, embrace creativity, take some risks, and trust that God loves His Church and promises that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.