When I was first asked to write an article for The Current about the experience, I thought, “Sure. No problem. There were several things I can share.” But then it came time to write…
How can I communicate what was experienced on a five-day trip that covered 1,500 miles and stopped at four different, fast growing, new United Methodist Churches? What can be said about the travels of six young adults and three not-quite-as-young adults? One of my hopes in planning the trip was to inspire young adults to dream of starting new ministries that reach new generations for Christ.
Working with new churches and studying church planting for more than 10 years, I was excited about the opportunity to meet first-hand with the leaders of the four churches. Our travels took us to St. Louis, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, and Chicago, meeting with the planting pastors of The Gathering, Rez Downtown, Embrace Church, and Urban Village.
It was a time of learning and being reminded of some basic foundational principles.
Growing churches use the same basic principles, but apply them based upon context: The most important thing we observed was the church planters operated from the same basic principles but they applied them in different ways unique to their context.
A quick word about each context. The first campus of The Gathering is in an area of St. Louis undergoing re-gentrification. People are buying and restoring older homes in the neighborhood, so renovating and using an old building of a church that closed is a strategic fit for the people they are seeking to reach. Likewise the Rez Downtown building fits its surroundings, being a renovated bar and concert venue in the area of Kansas City where people come for dining and entertainment. On the other hand, a contemporary style, fairly new church building in the rapidly growing area of Sioux Falls is natural in its setting. Urban Village, on the other hand, was started with the idea of having several sites in different neighborhoods throughout Chicago, and four years later, they have four sites in four completely different areas. Rather than owning buildings, they find space they can rent for a few hours each Sunday.
Growing churches have an invitational culture: One key to the rapid growth of each of the new churches is the invitational culture. The churches don’t wait for people to come to them. The people are excited about being a part of the church and invite others. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Matt Miofsky from The Gathering explained it well. The Gathering never sends a mass mailing. They create cards for people to hand out as they invite their friends and family. He said, “Giving people things to invite people to is the biggest piece of creating an invitational culture. People have no problem inviting others to something compelling and exciting.”
Growing churches give their people tools for invitation (including online sharing through social media). The next step is to give them tools: cards, Facebook posts, sharing online sermons, etc. They ask people to share social media statuses and posts. On Easter, The Gathering asked people to take pictures from where they were sitting in worship and share the pictures on Facebook and Twitter. Miofsky said that regularly in worship they demonstrate how to have a conversation in which you invite someone, as a way to train people for invitation.
Small groups are the primary discipleship strategy for adults. All four churches utilize small groups as the primary discipleship strategy for adults. Rez Downtown has a different approach in that they utilize mid-size study groups (25-40 people) as the initial point to connect people to discipleship opportunities, and it is from these groups that small groups are borne.
Simplicity is important. One thing that stood out to me is the simple nature of the churches. Even though each of the churches have attendance in the hundreds, with Embrace Church anticipating moving beyond 1,700 in worship this fall, each church limits the ministries and opportunities it offers. They do not seek to offer a lot of programs and ministries in order to reach a lot of people. The churches have not developed multiple mission outreaches, but instead serve alongside already existing need-meeting ministries in their communities. The counter-intuitive thing is that by doing offering less ministries, they are able to be more effective and fruitful in the ministries they do offer.
Adam Weber of Embrace Church in Sioux Falls said that they constantly ask, “What is the 5%?” Most churches do the 95%. Embrace looks to take it a step farther, doing what others don’t do, in order to make the experience just a little better, a little more memorable, and therefore, more likely to have a greater impact on those who participate.
Planting churches is hard work and a support team is vital. Church planting is hard work. More than one planter expressed that there were times they struggled with depression and the temptation to quit. Starting new ministry involves not only great effort and creativity, but a great dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Christian Coon of Urban Village reminded us of the importance of our “support team” when we engage in ministry, particularly those who will pray for us.
I came away from the experience grateful for how God is at work in each of these churches, reaching people for Christ, and growing the kingdom. I came away even more hopeful for what Christ can and will do as we follow him and adapt our approach to ministry to effectively communicate the good news to those in our communities.