Reflection: Four Years Into Planting a Church

boat-and-reflection-2-1450160In October of 2012 my job transitioned from the Youth Director at Mountain View Presbyterian Church to the Organizing Pastor of a New Church Development or “church plant” (also now called a “New Worshipping Community” in the Presbyterian Church). Next week our Presbytery will be voting to approve the chartering of Tidelands as an official congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Soon after, we will ordain and installed our first elders, and I will be called and installed as the first teaching elder (pastor).

What took so long?

Four years is a long time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it has been a long time. Maybe time just seems to go faster because I am getting older. Or maybe, it has something to do with the old saying “time flies when you are having fun!” It has been fun! Some might say it has been “hard,” but in my experience some of the most fun things are hard! In truth, this process has taken even longer than four years. The planning and discernment phase took over a year as well. Welcome to the world of thoughtful, intentional Presbyterian mission! I had a good friend jokingly say early on, “If we Pentecostals were planting a church in Stanwood the city would all be converted by now!”

The Model Determines the Pace

There are many models for planting a church. The important thing, in my opinion, is to pick the model that fits the mission, and not the other way around. Many church plants start with a “bang!” They first get facilities, staff, musicians, lots of advertising, lots of lay leaders, and then do a grand opening. This works well for reaching a certain group of people and probably is the correct model for some. However, this would not have worked well for us, and quite honestly, I doubt that I would be the right pastor for that church. You see, we knew that God was calling us to reach out to monaco-yacht-show-6-1560327those that either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to a Sunday morning church worship service. So while we could’ve leveraged a large group of people from Mountain View to launch our Sunday services off with big numbers, that would’ve done little to help us connect with those that would not come to our worship service. Besides, there are some really great churches in this community that do amazing Sunday morning services already and appeal to a wide range of believers. So we started slow and small with a focus on missional communities and an emphasis on going to where people are at, rather than trying to get them to come to us.

Slower Than Expected?

Without a doubt, using a model based on missional community is much slower than we anticipated. Multiplication takes time if you are going to do a good job of raising capable leaders and discipling new believers. Could we have gone faster? Probably. But the real question is should we have? And I still don’t know the answer to that question yet, and I hope to do some more reflection on that in the near future. I probably need to do a blog post about the things that we would do differently if we had a “do over.” But overall, I am happy with where we are at. There is some wisdom in the statement: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” (Apparently this comes from the tactical training world, but I find that it works in many different situations, including church development).

Some things certainly have happened much faster than we anticipated! The biggest one by far is that we actually have our own building! That wasn’t in the plans. And the truth is that every time we take a step in one direction it closes some doors and opens some others. The essential element is to be both intentional and discerning about every decision and how it lines up with the vision for the church and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have said “no” to many things that, when looking back, would’ve taken us into directions that we are glad that we didn’t follow.

Organic Growth – Where We Go From Here

I know, I know… “organic” is one of those trendy words that is almost as popular as “missional” right now! I first heard this concept being applied to the church at a conference at Regent Seminary where someone was talking about church worship styles, and I’ve used it in my ministry ever since. The basic idea is that if you want something to orange-flower-1393625grow and be healthy you have to use the ingredients that are there. As it applies to worship music, this means that you shouldn’t try to force in musical styles that you are copying from other churches when you don’t have the people to accomplish it. Use what you have. This also goes with the leading-from-strengths idea.

What this means for us is that we will likely have some times of rapid growth, and some times anemic growth. It will all depend on the people that are part of community and what they are ready, willing, and equipped to do. To take the organic analogy one step further, I want our church to be a perennial, not an annual. When the time is right, and the resources are there, I hope that we create brilliant, beautiful growth. When resources are scarce, and times are hard, I hope that we will take advantage of it to prepare for spring – deepening our roots, rather than simply giving up and dying.

Freedom to Fail Because Jesus Has Succeeded

No matter what happens, I know that we would not have gotten this far if we had not stayed grounded in the Gospel message. Jesus has already accomplished all that we need. Now we have the freedom to live in faithfulness, knowing that our failures and our successes do nothing to affect God’s love and acceptance of us. I remind myself of this every day. I could not do this work without that ongoing assurance. Whether Tidelands grows into our vision of a church that has missional communities all over our area and plants new churches in other regions, or whether our circle of influence remains small and we are deemed insignificant, I know that God is pleased with faithfulness and patient endurance and that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38f)!

Why I Don’t Wear Skinny Jeans

Actually, there are many reasons why I don’t wear skinny jeans, and at the top of the list is that I am not skinny. However, that is not what this post is about. You’ll just have to read on to see what I mean. The following is an excerpt from a good article called “Substituting Social Justice for Evangelism and Four Other Missional Misfires” by James Emery White. The following comes from his fifth point:

A flyer recently arrived in my mailbox from a new church plant, promising me relevant and practical messages, contemporary “urban” music, and great coffee. The idea is that if you offer such things, people will come who wouldn’t normally come.

It’s a subtle and enticing temptation. All we have to do is encourage casual dress, offer Starbucks coffee, play rock music and then deliver a “felt needs” message in a style similar to the popular speakers of the day and we will automatically grow.

And if you want to guarantee your growth comes from a younger demographic, just throw in skinny jeans, designer t-shirts and a noticeable tattoo. It will instantly turn the most middle-of-age pastor into a Millennial magnet.

Stop.

Think.

People already have those things. They do not need to go to church to find them. If they want Starbucks, they’ll go to Starbucks; if they want to hear contemporary music, they have iTunes and their iPod. They may appreciate those things once they attend, but it is not what will get them to attend.

This approach may have worked back in the ’80s and ’90s, but that was because the typical unchurched person was a Baby Boomer who had been raised in a church, just starting to have kids. They had the memory and the experience; once they had kids, they actually wanted to find a church. When churches took down the cultural barriers associated with attending (eliminating stuffiness, boredom, irrelevance, empty ritual, outdated music), Boomers were attracted.

And yes, back then, if you built it, they came.

But this is no longer our world, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

As ubermarketer Seth Godin notes, “The portion of the population that haven’t bought from you … is not waiting for a better mousetrap. They’re not busy considering a, b and c and then waiting for d. No, they’re not in the market. … As a result, smart marketers don’t market to this audience by saying, ‘Hey, ours is better than theirs!’”

Bottom line: The foundational way that people divorced from the church and a life in Christ will come to church and find that life in Christ is if a Christ-follower does three things: builds a relationship with them, shares how Christ has intersected the deepest needs of their life, and then invites them into the community to see, hear, taste and explore.

I appreciate the way these concepts are articulated in this article. So often when I talk to people about this concept people say, “Oh, you’re talking about ‘friendship evangelism.” Inside I cringe when I hear this because I know that for most people “friendship evangelism” equates to finding a way to invite your friend to a church worship service. But inviting them “into the community to see, hear, taste and explore” is about so much more than bringing them to a worship service. In order to do this you have to be part of a community that is living the gospel out together beyond the worship service and outside the church building. This is why I love the missional community model.

Give Me an Illustration

I’ve been working on some images that I hope will be helpful as we continue work on communicating what it means to be a church with a missional community structure. Part of the challenge is that we are still working this out ourselves as well. I got the idea for the following graphics from the “napkin theology” found on the Soma GCM site. I’ve posted some of their graphics on this blog before. They are definitely worth looking at. You can also find a free e-book of Napkin Theology by Seth McBee here.

Here are some that I have been working on:
Tidelands Structure1People are often confused when we begin to talk about missional communities. We were recently asked if we were a “commune!” I have found it helpful to tell people that we are striving to be a “congregation made up of missional communities.” Though I would prefer to say that our primary mode for being the church is through missional communities, I think that only brings up more commune-like images for those that haven’t seen it. I also don’t want to say that we are a church with many “small groups” of people in MCs. The idea of what a “small group” is in the church has taken on a life of its own (often very inward-focused) and we don’t want people to think it is just a new “small group program.” So for us, the worship gathering is still our touchstone every Sunday morning for all of our MC’s (right now we only have one). We have people that worship with us that are not part of a MC yet, and some may never be (but we hope they will give it a try). But our MC’s help fill in that large gap between Sunday worship and where we live the rest of the week.

Tidelands Structure2The above image is obviously just an expansion on the first, showing the inward/outward nature of missional communities. We gather together to worship as “Tidelands Church,” but each MC is focused on sharing the gospel with a different “people group” in the larger community. The focus is outward!

MC.IdentityI stole this idea directly from Seth’s napkin theology. His is much better and you can see it here. The most simple definition of a missional community is “a family of missionary servants.” I like this because it connects us into our identity in a triune God. We have one Father so we are family. We are all filled with the Holy Spirit and are “missionaries” to those around us. We all claim Jesus as our Lord and follow him in serving others. (John 13:13-17).

MC.FunctionsAgain, the above image is an expansion  on the previous idea. If we know that the identity of an MC is a family of missionary servants, then we can talk about how they function. In the graphic above I’ve given just some of the activities that an MC might do as they seek to live this out together. I could add a lot more, and probably need to move a few around, but I hope it conveys the idea. People always want to know: “What does a missional community do?” Really, that is like asking: “What does your church do?” In many ways each MC functions like a mini church plant: finding creative and effective ways to share the gospel to a particular people in a particular culture. We do a lot of activities as an MC, but the things that we “do” are always rooted in who we “are” in Christ and our desire to bring the gospel to bear in all of life. This is not a program, this is living as the church!

I hope these are helpful. Visuals always tend to stick with me better than simply listening or reading. If you’ve made it this far let me know what you think.

Tim Keller Talks About Missional Church

Video

I just heard this interview for the first time, even though it has apparently been around for a long time. When I think of “missional church” I don’t immediately think about what Keller is describing here. Nevertheless, being conversant and engaged with the culture where you live is certainly a very important part of being missional. I think that what Keller is describing is primarily focused on those of us that spend most of our time in professional ministry. The problem for those that don’t work in the church is that so often they ARE “just like everyone else” when they are away from the church building and the church community gatherings. They are also just like “church people” when they are around them. The key is to reorienting oneself so that all of life is under the authority of Jesus, and then living all of life on the mission that Jesus has given us. To me, this becomes the key difference between being a “seeker sensitive” church and being a missional church. It is one thing to be sure that we talk in a way that those who have never heard the good news can understand what we are talking about in our groups and in our worship, but it is another thing to begin live out the gospel in a way that permeates and informs all of our life and conversations.

Instagram Church

barbie familyAs someone who worked for many years at a church where I was not only the “youth director,” but also one of the younger adults at the church, I’ve had many, many conversations about the changes in technology and the impact (positive and negative) that these changes are having on our lives. I remember sitting at a staff/session retreat trying to explain Twitter and trying to convince church leaders of the value of being on Facebook. Rarely is it possible to convincingly argue that these technological changes are either “all good” or “all bad.” I still take issue with those that want to portray the younger generations as  sitting in front of a computer or cell phone all day, ignoring face-to-face interactions. If anything, I have noticed that this is more of a temptation with the stay-at-home mom/dad crowd.

Nevertheless, it IS important that we acknowledge, discuss, and challenge the dangers and temptations that come with the increasing role of social media on our lives. The following is an excerpt from a great article by Relevant Magazine about the way we portray our lives in social media (read the entire article here):

My life looks better on the Internet than it does in real life. Everyone’s life looks better on the internet than it does in real life. The Internet is partial truths—we get to decide what people see and what they don’t. That’s why it’s safer short term. And that’s why it’s much, much more dangerous long term.

Because community—the rich kind, the transforming kind, the valuable and difficult kind—doesn’t happen in partial truths and well-edited photo collections on Instagram. Community happens when we hear each other’s actual voices, when we enter one another’s actual homes, with actual messes, around actual tables telling stories that ramble on beyond 140 pithy characters.

What was really interesting to me as I read this article is that I found myself reflecting less on social media, and more on what I have often experienced on Sunday Morning at “church.” Why is it that we dress up, act up, put on a smile, shake hands, waltz into the sanctuary with our family, sing, pray, and then bail 90 minutes later pretending that we just experienced community? Just like the “partial truths” posted onto social media sites, this snapshot of our week does not accurately portray the messiness that we really live in.

I can just hear the defensive objections coming my way already! I realize that there probably isn’t a church out there that wants our community to begin and end at the worship service. But we also all know that for many people that is what happens. But even for those that do plug into the “small group” ministry (or youth group or senior group or choir or whatever…), do they really experience community in that group? Is it a place where they can be real about their struggles, their doubts, their failures? Can they be “real” in those settings?

I know that authentic community does exist in some of these programmatic settings, but I think that it is rare. This is just one more reason why I am passionate about moving forward with missional communities. Not only does it bring people together in the messiness of life, but it also challenges them to “go out” together in the power of the Holy Spirit to share the Good News that in the midst of all the messiness Christ has overcome it all!

The “Missional” Cliché?

“If a church exists only to meet the religious needs of church people, your vision of church and your gospel is too small.”

– Darrell Guder

I hear it more and more these days: the argument that “missional” has simply become the next hot Christian phrase creeping onto every Church website, mission statement, and leader conference like “purpose-driven” or “seeker-sensitive” of the past. It is hard to argue with that, because it does seem to be happening. And unfortunately, as the meaning of the term gets diluted, what gets lost is increasingly the very purpose of the word in the first place: to get the church to reconnect with something that it has lost.

Here is a link to an article that summarizes some of the things Darrell Guder recently said about this issue (Guder wrote Missional Church a decade before the term became popular): “Church in a Post-Christian Context.”

Language is important, and it bothers me that people may hear us talk about “missional communities” and think that it is just a cool new way to describe small groups. However, what concerns me more, whatever we call it, is that what we are doing is actually connecting with God’s mission in our time and place. Quoting Guder again (from the article referenced above), here is another way to describe what a “missional community” is meant to be:

“Missional communities are about God calling together a people to serve God’s purposes in a particular context (neighborhood) to bring healing, reconciliation and good news to those around them. A missional community is not an end itself. It is not a church that exists for its own purposes.”

I once heard Eugene Peterson say that it may be helpful at times to remove a word from usage in order to allow it to regain meaning if that meaning has become too diluted and overused. As I recall, he was talking about the pervasive use of “Christian” as an adjective to describe all kinds of things in marketing. This was perhaps prophetic, as I have noticed that I and others often choose to describe ourselves as “followers of Jesus” in order to more accurately convey to those outside the church what we are instead of connecting with the often misunderstood “Christian” label. This is not an attempt to be “politically correct” but rather to communicate effectively. My hope is that the word “missional” has not already reached this point. I suspect that it has not, only because I often find myself explaining to others in great detail what I mean by a “missional community.” What has been your experience?

Link

This is an interesting “fresh expression” of church happening in the UK that sounds very similar to Tidelands in some ways (Thanks for the link Corey). Clearly the Holy Spirit is moving faithful people in similar ways around the globe! Check out the article on City:Base to read more.

I think this balance we are trying to strike between the ‘centre’ and the ‘edge’ is an interesting one; we have our gathering once a month and Simple Church throughout the week to encourage the life of these simple missional churches to grow the life of our prayer and mission base at the centre.

City:Base in Sheffield, UK

3rd Places

Over the years I’ve led and participated in a number of short-term missions to various places in the United States and beyond. Generally the trips are no more than two weeks long, and we end up spending that time living and working with missionaries that are serving in that location on a long-term basis. Being in a foreign culture, it can become tempting to insulate yourself at the home/base of the missionaries. In that place there is a sense of safety, comforts, and a bit of “home away from home.” But in doing so, it is also possible to spend all of your time in a foreign country without truly experiencing and interacting with the very people and culture that you came to serve.

Outdoor CafeIf you really want to get out and experience a new place and get to know the people and culture you need to get out and go to where people gather. You need to spend time in restaurants, cafes, markets and parks. Some of the richest and most vivid experiences from my time on these short-term trips were spent in these places. I think of the chaos of the marketplace in Senegal, the beauty of the open-air jungle cafe in Costa Rica, and the wonderful tastes and smells of the street taco stands of Mexico. These gathering spots are the “3rd Places.”

In urban planning “3rd Places” (or “3rd Spaces”) are those spots other than home or work where people gather together. For the missional church, 3rd Places are those spots other than home or church where people gather. This could be a cafe, restaurant, park, school, gym, etc. These are places where people feel comfortable and safe. Places where food, drink and conversation flow. This is where you get to know the community and the stories that form it.

As we get moving with this new missional church, we are making a point of moving ourselves into these spaces. I’m grateful right now that I don’t have a formal office, because it makes it easier for me to find “excuses” to be out in the community. In fact, I’m sitting in a gym during basketball practice right now as I write this and I’ve already met someone I’ve never talked with before. But spending intentional time in 3rd places is not limited to individuals. We can also gather as a group. That is why, as a missional community we are going to go out to eat together at least once a month to the same location so that we can get known as “regulars” and have more opportunities to interact with the lives and stories that make up this community. Our hope is that over time this will also facilitate our ability to build relationships and make contact with those in our community that have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are two different ways that we, as the missional church, want to be intentional about being present in these 3rd places. First, we want to go back to at least one place often enough that we get to know that place and people well and truly become part of it. The first time that I walk into the Stanwood Starbucks and the barista knows my drink order before I say it, I’ll know I’m crossing into that special zone of belonging. Second, we want to visit 3rd places that we either haven’t been to before or might not normally visit. The reason for the latter should be obvious: if we only go where we are comfortable and fit in we will in some ways be like the short term missionary that never leaves the missionary’s home and therefore never truly gets to know and experience the culture.

So the moral here: Go out more often! Seriously! But as you go, be sure to look, listen, and pray that you will have the eyes to see your community and the people around you as Jesus does.

What to Measure? Beyond Butts, Bucks and Buildings…

We’re at a fun point in the discernment process right now where we have completed our mission plan (rough draft) and are beginning to think about how to measure success and/or failure in the future. If your primary measure of success is not worship attendance, income, and facilities (the “three B’s” – Butts, Bucks and Buildings), then what do you measure? There are some great thoughts at the end of this short video:

I especially love that last comment by Alan Hirsch: “A mission church is a church that measures its effectives by its impact on those outside the church not simply those inside the church.” It might be a little more difficult to do, but it seems to be worth the effort.