Over ten years ago, I decided that starting new churches, especially fresh expressions of church was where the action was. I decided to participate in these churches and prepare myself to lead them as well. I joined a young church, read books, listened to podcasts and hung out with people who had started churches before.
Just about three years ago, myself and a handful of new friends launched Austin Mustard Seed. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting all those years, but this isn’t it.
An encyclopedia could be written about the difficulties of starting a new church. What gets lost is the unexpected joys along the way. Such as:
1. People who “Get it”
Recently I heard the term “church planter” or “apostolic leader” defined as “the people who are willing to go where no one else wants to go and do what no one else wants to do.” It’s shockingly true. When we were looking for a few friends to help us get started, it seemed like we heard an endless stream of “go, be warm and well fed.”
Eventually, by the grace of God, people started saying, “I’m in.” Our “early adopters” have been people of impeccable character. Most of them have been in church leadership roles before. A few have helped start new churches before. Unique to our team is a surprising number of people on our team are professional counselors.
These people show up early, stay late and create opportunities to hang out. They know how to greet strangers and invite them into our life together. They are seeking God’s will for their lives and quick to join in with what is happening in our church community.
Starting a new church isn’t for everyone. Getting up on Sunday morning is hard enough. Not to mention, if you live in a city like mine and want to go to church, there are already dozens of great established communities with top-notch programming.
By the grace of God, we’ve found a few people who just get it. The idea that “we need more churches and better churches for the sake of our neighborhood” seems natural. They don’t bat an eye when Sunday gatherings feel a little ad-hoc or there isn’t a clearly defined children’s ministry.
It’s easy to relegate starting a church to regularly “pitching your idea” and hoping people will buy in. Finding a group of people that “get it” is not only personally refreshing, but it’s also incredibly inspiring. Who knows what God could do through them?
2. Set up time
Every Sunday, we host a participatory liturgy. The hour and a half before this gathering has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the week. Initially, it was a mess. We ran around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to set up chairs and get the sound system to work right.
We’ve finally got into a rhythm. We even have a checklist! From the outside, it looks like set up time is just lighting candles and grinding coffee beans. But it’s becoming one of the few unhurried moments in our week, where we can reconnect after a long week a part. We share jokes, adventures, fears and prayers.
It’s easy to understand why people sleep in and show up late on Sundays. When else would you be able to do that? But it’s too bad. It’s one of the best moments of the week.
3. When something doesn’t work
Not everything we try works. We’ve had events with no-shows. We’ve had technology fails. We’ve had great people decide our church isn’t for them.
When these things happen, there’s always a little sting of embarrassment. Once that’s past, there’s also a great sense of relief. It feels great to be able to say “well, that didn’t work” and try something new.
We are learning that we have a God who cares for sparrows, lilies and even me. Good ideas and hard work are not a promise of success.
“Success” is notoriously difficult to define. The process of trying new things, whether they “succeed” or “fail” is also the process of articulating who we are. We’re learning specifically what we do and don’t do. Eventually, we’ll look back and be able to say “this is who we are.”
4. The Grapevine
It started with a truck.
One member of our community showed up driving another member’s truck. They had read their Bibles, and knew that churches are places where people care for each other’s needs.
Every time we gather, I hear stories about unofficial, unprogrammed get-togethers. People are in each other’s home for dinner and babysitting each other’s kids. One guy, whose “road warrior” sales job keeps him out of town most weeks, sends text messages throughout the week with a few other guys. One woman realized her elderly neighbor needed some help getting around town, and quietly organized others in our community to care for her.
The best things happening in our church community have not come out of official events or programming. They are happening because we have a group of people figuring out how to care for and love each other.
5. Potential Miracles
Our Sunday Liturgy includes a time which we call “the prayers of the people.” We open the mic to share and respond to people’s praises and prayer requests. During this time, as well as in our groups that meet in homes, we’ve seen people be incredibly vulnerable about their hopes, dreams, and needs.
We’ve already seen some great things happen. We’re also developing a running list of “potential miracles,” that is, specific things we’ve asked for God’s help with. Yet-to-be-fulfilled prayers have cultivated a sense of expectation. We are excited to see what God will do among us. We are also excited to see how God will use us. This sense of anticipation fills both our official and incidental gatherings with a sense that anything could happen.
Starting a fresh expression of Church isn’t easy. It’s also full of joys that were unexpected. What unexpected things is God doing in your community?
This post was originally written as “Five Unexpected Joys in Church Planting” for ChrisMorton.info.
Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.