Planting in a Transient City

After 4 years in Boston, during which we [by God’s grace, of course!] planted 1 Russian church (GCB) and 1 American church (Mosaic Boston) with 2 separate congregations, I can honestly say the greatest and most unexpected challenge to our church planting efforts has been the transience of Boston. It’s no secret that Boston is one of America’s most transient cities. The Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey shows that 10.0% of Boston’s population lived in another city the year before (compare to both DC and Manhatten 9.1%).

When you analyze the data for 25-34 year olds—the prime ages of migration—the numbers are much higher: 14% for Boston (16.9% for Dc and 14.6% for Manhattan). Our churches’ average age is 27.

So if you take Boston’s population as being around 625,000, you’re looking at a change in population of over 60,000 each year. If you factor in all the college/grad students in the 100+ colleges and universities in the metropolitan area and their 250,000+ students, the effect of the transience is amplified significantly. Think of it this way: 35% of Boston’s population has a shelf life of four years or so. Boston has a proverbial revolving door on the front. For many, Boston is just a stepping-stone or launching pad to a career; it’s a temporary home for urban nomads.

As you can imagine, Boston’s overwhelming transience brings with it a plethora of problems for ministry, in general, and church planting, in particular. Church planting in Boston is like shooting at a moving target.

If you’re planning to plant a church in a transient area, brace yourself for the following ways transience will impact your ministry. Transience will impact your evangelistic efforts, your leadership team, and your overall church morale.

  1. 1.    Transience impacts Evangelism.

The transience has a direct impact on evangelism in the seculr North East. As Jim Wideman, the Executive Director of the Baptist Convention of New England, puts it, “almost 90% of New Englanders receive Christ based on established relationships, and over 70% of them take more than a year to make that decision.” So you can just imagine the heartbreak of pouring into a person, seeing them come to the brink of meeting Jesus, only to move away because their program has ended or job has relocated them.

Thus, never forget the big picture. Ultimately, it’s not about you; it’s not about your church. Ultimately, it’s about God’s Kingdom expanding. Thank God for the privilege of being used by God to do some pre-conversion discipleship to help prepare a heart to turn to Jesus.

In order to offset the impact transience will have on your evangelistic efforts, continue to lead your church to be outward focused. Continue to preach/teach/explain the Gospel every chance you get, since you don’t know how much longer you’ll have these people. Create ways to systematically do evangelism on a continual basis. One of the ways we leading our church in this is running an “Alpha” course every two months which walks people through the basics of Christianity.

Moreover, from a pragmatic perspective, your church needs to become as “sticky” as possible. If someone attends one of your services, what are the systems you have in place to make sure they get plugged in immediately? Your welcome ministry must be robust. Your follow-up system must be flawless. Your community groups must be inviting.

  1. 2.    Transience impacts Leadership.

One of the most heartbreaking experiences as a church planter in a transient city is saying goodbye to a key person whom you have groomed for leadership through countless hours of painstaking labor. You’ve poured into people and now they go elsewhere and some other church reaps the benefits of all your hard work. It hurts losing veteran leaders, and if you don’t have someone to replace them immediately, the burden they carried is added to your weary shoulders.

In order to offset the impact transience will have on your leadership team, create a clear leadership development pipeline. We’re doing this through a four-stage discipleship and leadership development course. We make the onramp to serving and giving as short and convenient as possible. Since transience will force you to put new people in leadership positions much more quickly than you might like, make sure you have a clear process of identifying, recruiting, vetting, training, and empowering leaders.

At Mosaic and GCB we’re always calling people to service. We tell people if they’ve come two weeks in a row, Mosaic/GCB is your church and you need to pull your weight. We’re constantly working hard to make sure the priesthood of all believers is a reality at our churches. We’re constantly calling people to commitment and loyalty, as embodied by giving and serving, even if they are at our churches for a short season.

Also, cheer up: yes, key people do leave; however, key people will come.

  1. 3.    Transience impacts Morale

The cycle of welcoming new people to the church, developing relationships with them, caring for them, serving them, loving them, and then seeing them leave can be heartbreaking and has the potential to deflate morale amongst the core people who are in Boston for the long run. I’ve seen truly loving people become much more guarded in how quickly they build relationships and love people. Thus, we’re constantly finding ourselves reminding people that Jesus didn’t guard his heart from loving us, but loves us recklessly. We must love in the same way.

Moreover, people can grow discouraged by the constant ebbs and flows in attendance at services and community groups. In order to offset the impact transience will have on your church’s morale you must redefine “success.” If Boston were not as transient as it is, our churches would be at least twice (maybe three to four times) larger than they are now. We lose about 30% of our people annually, thus to grow, we need to offset the people we lost, plus some more.  We must constantly remind ourselves that our success isn’t measure by our seating capacity, but by our sending capacity. Each person who moves away from Boston after we’ve discipled them leaves as a missionary of God. If this is where the Lord has called you, then “fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).

Finally, pastor, you must commit to your transient city for the long-haul. I find myself constantly telling our people that Boston is my favorite city in the world, and, Lord willing, I plan on being buried here. You must communicate to your people that you're an anchor in the choppy waters of transience, which sends waves of people, and takes other waves away. Reflect our immutable God by not changing your resolve and love for your city and call your people to do the same. Moreover, call your people to reconsider their priorities in life. Call them to stop chasing the idol of large living space; call them to stop chasing the idol of convenience and easy living; call them to stop chasing comfort and start chasing Christ. Continuously cast a vision of God’s heart for the city. Call them to stop chasing the American dream, and start chasing God’s dream by planting their lives in the city.

Jan

Jan Vezikov is the Lead Pastor of Mosaic Boston. He moved to Boston in July, 2009 with his little ladies to tell people about Jesus and gather people into a community of faith called a church. Jan was born in Estonia, but grew up in the great state of Rhode Island. He graduated with a triple major in International Relations, Business Economics, and Slavic Studies from Brown University, in Providence, RI. He holds an MDiv from SEBTS and is currently pursuing a Th.M. at Gordon Conwell. Jan and his wife Tanya have two girls.