I Love it When His Plan Comes Together
We were ready. We had done all of our homework. We had raised funds, assembled a team, gone to boot camp, read the books, listened to the podcasts, attended the conferences, recruited a church planting coach and aligned with the right networks. I had taken months training the team, establishing a plan and preparing to land on the field ready to carry out the vision that God had given us for Bellevue, Washington. I knew it would be hard. After visiting a few sister church plants led by gifted, dynamic leaders who after 3-5 years were just starting to hit around 100 in attendance (on a great day.) I wasn’t cocky, but I was confident that perhaps from standing on their shoulders, and having so many of the “essential elements” of church planting success in place that perhaps I might be able to speed our growth along a little faster than the “northwest norm.” In mid-July of 2012 we landed on the field ready to take on Seattle with our vision to “Magnify Christ and Multiply His Kingdom.” The plan was quite simple really. Serve in the community. Host an informational meeting in August and a catered informational dinner in September. Roll out a small group or two in Bellevue. By October, we would hold our first preview service, and then do a preview service once a month until February, launching in March with a core group of 100 to 300 people. By that point we would be ready to start looking at hiring additional staff and begin preparing to plant our first church.
Problem was, things didn’t go according to plan. After serving our community and sending out a mailer to 5,000 people around our meeting area, our first informational meeting reaped us one family and a single dad. Not bad, but certainly not impressive. More service, and a ton of personal invites and our informational dinner resulted in one family. We had a plan, so we stuck with it and sent out another 10,000 mailers to the community in preparation for our first preview service. We went out into the community and handed out flyers. We put another 1,000 invitations on cars in mall parking lots. We had a mission team come in to help us pull off the historic first service. In terms of actual prospects at the service, we had less than 10. November was worse and December was disappointing.
What were we doing? By this point in the plan, we were supposed to have 50-75 people, yet, I wasn’t sure if we really “had” anyone! It was time to re-evaluate. While we had not seen the influx of numbers that we had hoped for, we realized that God was still at work all around us. In this process, God had begun a relationship between Essential Church and a local, Christian non-profit that is doing tremendous work in our community. Through our relationship with Jubilee Reach, we had been able to reach a few individuals who had been through some very difficult circumstances, yet were open to growing as disciples of Jesus. I prayed… hard. I asked God, “What are you trying to teach me?” “What do you want this church to look like?” “How do you want us to ‘get there?’” When we came back from Christmas break, we had a new plan.
This was the new plan- serve like crazy, disciple like crazy, and pray like crazy. Large scale preview services would no longer be our primary focus, but rather, we would channel our resources into loving the community and hosting a scaled back, weekly, “pre-launch gathering.” On a personal level, I made a commitment to try to disciple 10 men who would in turn disciple one person by the end of 2013. As a team, we would try to get involved in a variety of activities and interests that would open us up to many more relationships outside of our immediate team. Most of all, we would try to see where God was already at work around us, and then join Him in it.
This is what we have learned through our adventures in Church Planting.
Church Planting Takes Time: The problem with the original plan was that the focus of whom we were trying to reach was not actually the lost. Generally, a lost person is not looking for “a new church with a new vision,” or whatever the outreach-marketing slogan might be. That is a great approach for reaching disgruntled church members or those bored with their current church. However, in Seattle, we have discovered a unique paradigm that makes this approach nearly impossible: Since only 4-6% of the population attends an evangelical church, the potential pool of church attenders is already very small. In addition to that, in greater Seattle, there are 5 or 6 mega churches doing modern worship at a world-class level with some of the most popular pastors in the world. As a result, those that attend these mega churches absolutely LOVE their church and couldn’t dream of leaving it. What this has meant for us, is trying to grow our core by reaching disgruntled and bored church attenders is a dead end. We would have to focus on the 96%; those not “looking for a new church.” This takes much more time because you have to build relationships, build trust, and build credibility one person at a time. It means getting out of your comfort zone, meeting new people continually, taking people out to lunch and to get coffee, inviting people over to your home (many, many times), and trying to do all of this while walking the line between “having an agenda” and “being on mission.”
I explain it to my friends in places of the country that are more churched like this. Think about the time it takes to meet someone for the first time, learn their name, get their contact information, spend time with them, see them become interested in spiritual matters, invite them to a Bible study or a worship service, have them actually show up, get them to attend again, share the Gospel with them, wait on the Spirit to bring them to a point of decision, get them involved in regular worship, get baptized, become a member, begin serving in the church, and then become committed to recreating that process in someone else. Now imagine trying to build a new church this way. At any point in that timeline, you might reach a stand still, hit a dead end, or simply move much slower than you would like. In basketball terms, there are no “easy buckets” in this process. Every person, every family takes time, care, prayer and intentionality.
Unconditional Love: To love without any strings attached, no expectations and no agenda is much harder than it might seem when you are actively trying to plant a church that no one has heard of and no one cares about. Most of us are familiar with typical forms of “servant evangelism.” We will hand out granola bars along with an invite card to the church. We host a free block party and give them our flyers. We put up our church banner to let everyone know all we did in the community. Then we go back to our church and watch our own highlight reel. I am not saying that this is wrong, but would we be willing to do all of this if we could not hand out any cards or church flyers? What if we could not put up any of our banners? What if… we didn’t get any credit? Ultimately, it is not about whether we get credit for the service or not that really matters. What matters, is if receiving credit is more important to us than the actual act of service itself. We must continually check our hearts to be sure that our service is not just a different take on church marketing.
Disciple making is messy: In many churches, disciple making involves a curriculum, a classroom, and a sign up sheet in the lobby. Christians interested in growing or learning about a certain aspect of their faith sign up for a discipleship course and then come to church for 6-12 weeks absorbing the materials in the course. At the end of the curriculum series, the church puts out a few more clipboards for a whole new round of discipleship. In our context, discipleship happens much differently. In January, I asked a guy we had been reaching out to if he would be willing to meet with me once a week to go through the Scriptures together and talk about life as a follower of Jesus. I shared with him my desire to see him go through this process with someone else in the future. He was interested, but intimidated, yet he agreed to give it a shot. I repeated this process with two other guys and began meeting weekly with these guys individually. Each week, we would go through the SOAP (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer) Bible study together and share insights and discoveries. Some days, a person would miss the bus, sleep in, or schedule another meeting during our normal time together. Yet, we persevered and after a couple of months of intentional, individual focus, they agreed to come together into one faith coaching group so that I could begin the process with a couple of other guys I had met. These guys have meshed and even invited 2 other guys they work with to join them. Now, they are praying about beginning to personally disciple others in the months ahead. In this journey, there have been starts and stops, ups and downs, successes and disappointments, but slowly, the kingdom is advancing through these men.
Ten months in and things haven’t gone according to plan. I still hold my breath every Sunday morning waiting to see who will show up to our pre-launch gatherings. However, what is happening now is in some ways much closer to our original vision than what we had planned. God is creating a beautifully diverse family at Essential Church. In our small family, we have Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and potentially a few Asian attenders. We have spiritually mature believers and interested unbelievers. We have families, couples and singles. There are young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. We are seeing a high level of commitment in service. Disciples are making disciples. People in the community are hearing about us. I had one local leader tell me a few weeks ago that we were, in his opinion, “one of the most influential churches in Bellevue.” It hasn’t been pretty and it definitely hasn’t been easy, but something is happening in our midst. Do we have a plan? Yes, but it is much more organic and fluid than ever before. We will continue to do strategic outreach events and preview services, but we are keeping service, disciple-making and prayer out front. Will it work? Only God knows… and that’s just what makes it so special. To put a twist on the old A-Team quote, “I love it when His plan comes together!”
Warren Mainard is a native of greater Seattle. His journey has taken him all over the United States, but it is his heart for the Pacific Northwest that has drawn him back to Bellevue. He and his wife Leah have been married for 15 years and have two beautiful children. Warren has a passion for young people, families, and those that feel like they are on the outside looking in. Warren's message is filled with hope and inspiration that a life devoted to Jesus is essential to joy, meaning, and purpose.