Church planters are prepared for barriers. Books, trainings, and good friends warn of budget challenges, leadership struggles, and working with finicky committees. Yet no one warned me about the biggest barrier I would face in my first two years of planting a network of fresh expressions of church.
King Street Church has a very simple mission, “Forming Christian community with those who have never experienced it before.” We’re a missional campus of a large United Methodist church in North Carolina, which allows us to narrow our focus to being church with those outside the church.
We are not going for big numbers, and we are not aiming for big givers who will make us financially sustainable; we are aiming to be in Christian community with folks who have been excluded from the church.
I live in the same town where I went to college. I’ve been here almost a decade and have seen several church plants launch over the years. This is how it goes: a pastor comes to town with an itch for something new, the pastor says they want to start a church for the unchurched, the launch is heavily advertised, and a new congregation of people from older churches in town is formed.
Some of these churches are amazing, their ministers gifted, and their ministry in our community incredible, but they threw the whole unchurched aspect of their vision on the back burner.
And So We Began…
When my senior pastor and boss asked me to start a new campus of our church I wanted it to be different. I wanted this new church actually to be for those outside the church, not just in words, but in reality. I knew it would have to look radically different.
Out of the gate we focused on forming relationships with folks outside of the church. We gathered our friends who were interested in faith, but not in church, and started eating together. Eventually, a little fresh expression of church emerged. It was a beautiful mix of Christians with solid faith, Christians with big doubts, and folks that were not Christian. We looked at verses from the Bible and wrestled with how they spoke into our lives. Everyone’s voice was respected and folks were encountering the Gospel through our discussions and through the community that formed.
When I approached a grant committee for support, one member of the committee asked, “Why are you excluding church members from participating in this new campus?” While I felt the word “exclude” was a little harsh, I had a sense that too many church people would throw off what we had going. I figured if we wanted a church for those outside the church, we better start with those outside of the church.
Our little group began to grow and we had to decide how we would grow. We settled on a network model, opting to start more groups instead of the one group getting bigger and bigger. The word started getting out.
The religion reporter at the local paper approached us about an article and the cat was officially out of the bag. When I started telling her about us she said, “You have been meeting for a year? I stay pretty well informed on church starts in town and haven’t heard of you until very recently.” I didn’t tell her that was intentional.
And Then We Won! (But Not Really)
After the article came out everything changed. Everybody and their mother wanted to “come check us out.” If numbers were our goal this would have been like winning the church planting powerball, but the only folks that the article brought to us were church people. We were the new shiny thing in town and church people were all about it.
We had an influx of church people and we were officially in trouble. Instead of an even balance, the folks who were not Christian were suddenly vastly outnumbered. In one month we had six of our non-Christian folks stop coming. When I asked why, I kept hearing, “the vibe has changed.” One young man said he was tired of being the “token agnostic in the group.” We were officially in crisis mode.
I talked to my fresh expressions coach, Stan Graham, desperate for some direction. I asked, “Should we change our direction with the group? Maybe church people is who God is bringing us?” Stan smacked a little sense into me: “Luke, your town doesn’t need another Bible study for church folks. I’m sure there are plenty. Your town does need a place where Christians and folks who aren’t Christian can interact. It is time to get back to your mission. It is time to get back to a balanced group.”
Thus began the most painful process this conflict-avoidant pastor has faced in ministry. I began telling church people who had started coming that we were focused on folks outside the church, that they were being driven away by the influx of church folks, and that if they would like to stick around they would need to be starting a new group.
I began having very explicit and intentional conversations with church people who wanted to visit our group. It goes something like this: “We would love to have you join us some time, but this group is aimed at folks outside the church. If you end up liking it, we put church people to work. This is not something for you to simply attend because it’s not really for you.” Slowly we have moved back into our balance.
If we are to form expressions of church that invite our neighbors into relationship with Christ, we might have to actively resist growth. We might need to have tough conversations to create the culture needed to invite folks in who are not Christian. We might need to build our community with attention to balance in order to form communities of faith where non-Christians feel safe. No one wants to be the “token agnostic.” Everyone wants to be valued, appreciated, and deeply belong to a community.
If you are looking to start a church full of church people, go with advertising. If you are looking for a community where non-Christians feel truly welcome, save your money. In our increasingly post-Christian society, there are no more shortcuts to building the kingdom, only the long road of relationship.
Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog A Way in the Wilderness (http://www.awitw.org).