Church Planting—Slightly Preferable to Unemployment

Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime,
but middle-class suburbs are incubators of
apathy and delirium.

Cyril Connolly

By the spring of 2003 I was tired. Really tired. I was working forty hours a week as a manager for an insurance company. This involved talking to unhappy customers who cared a little too much about replacing their cell phones as well as supervising entry-level employees who were either impregnating or hitting one another. I was also taking a full load of classes at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, driving back and forth from work to school a couple of times each day.

Every morning I was in the office by 6:30. Every evening, at the close of the workday, my wife Karen would meet me in the parking lot of my office building to hand over the baby. She then went to work as a nurse at the local hospital's emergency room, while I headed home to study. Add in renovations and repairs on a hundred-year-old house, and not much time was left for sleep.

Want to Be a Guinea Pig?

So when my former pastor from Capitol Hill Baptist, Mark Dever, called one morning and asked me to meet him that day on the seminary campus, I felt reluctant. I was happy to meet with Mark, but doing so meant staying late at work. It also meant skipping my fifteen-minute afternoon nap, which was often the only thing lying between me and the abyss. But Mark has boundary issues and a way of getting what he wants, so later that day I chugged a jumbo-sized cup of gas station coffee and slumped down on a bench outside the seminary library, waiting for him to arrive.

When he did, we started with a few moments of chitchat, but he turned to business pretty quickly. Capitol Hill Baptist was growing out of its meeting space, he said, and the cost of making significant renovations to their old building was exorbitant. The elders of the church had decided to implement a strategy to plant churches in the surrounding suburbs. Mark was here to float a trial balloon: would I be interested in returning to DC after seminary to be CHBC's guinea pig church planter?

I would eventually say yes, of course. Mark is a made man in the Reformed Mafia. He has a giant Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals logo tattooed on his back. He has J. I. Packer's home phone number in his contact list under "Jim P." You don't say no to a guy like this.

But even if it wasn't Mark who was asking, the last seven years in the cell phone insurance biz left me willing to take a job as an assistant manager at Wendy's, the fast-food hamburger chain. In fact, I had tried, and they turned me down, but that's a tale for a different book. Since many of my seminary friends had spent three years and thousands of dollars on classes but were struggling to find a full-time ministry opportunity, I wasn't about to forfeit an opportunity like this. So I told him that I would talk to Karen, who I didn't think would be excited about moving, and get back to him.

Planting for Hipsters

I had already received a few other offers to plant churches, but I had turned them down. I had never thought of myself as a church planter. Seminarians often talk about church planting as if it requires an indelible mark on the soul. "Are you a church planter?" they ask in hushed tones. The truly gifted men can recall thoughts of planting from their time in their mother's womb. I, on the other hand, had checked my soul twice but never found any indelible marks, at least not of that kind.

Still, several organizations had approached me about planting churches in the trendy part of the city where all of the wealthy young professionals live and drink. The idea, I think, was that I would be the tattooed pastor in the punk rock band T-shirt with a church full of twenty-somethings, all of whom wore plastic black eyeglasses. We would meet in a warehouse on Tuesday nights, followed by a trip to the local brew-house. Good theology. Loud music. Maybe a trendy church name taken from a Greek or Latin word that will sound cool for five or six years.

Can you see the picture? Let's face it—it would have been a lot of fun. I could have met cool people and done some good ministry.

But it seemed like a really bad way to build a church.

Don't get me wrong—I can see how such a scenario presents an effective way to draw a crowd. People favor people who favor them. They favor goods and services tailored to their tastes and how they want to perceive themselves. Niche marketing works. So plant a church that gives off an intelligent, slightly rebellious, funny, hipster vibe, and you will attract pre-wealthy twenty-somethings, since that's how they want to feel about themselves. If you do it artfully, you may attract lots of them. Hopefully you'll be able to help those twenty-somethings you've attracted: lead them to Christ, teach them a lot about Jesus, equip people to care for the city. I'm not knocking it. That would be great! But...

I don't think you would have a very healthy church. The Bible seems to assume that a church will express diversity in age. As just one example, think of Paul's instructions to his protégé Titus:

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:1-6)

Here Paul has instructions for the old men (be temperate and worthy of respect) and the young men (be self-controlled). He even has things for the old women to teach the young women about how to be godly wives and mothers! It's hard to see how that happens if everyone in the church is the same age, right? Are the twenty-seven-year-olds supposed to teach the twenty-two-year-olds how to be godly at that stage of their life? I don't know about you, but I was pretty pathetic when I was twenty-seven (full disclosure: I'm still pretty pathetic).

In fact, if you look at what the Bible says on this subject, you'll see that one of the glories of the gospel is that it reconciles people that could never be reconciled without it. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes the glorious display of God's wisdom in the church as different kinds of people come together (specifically, Jews and Gentiles). In John 13:35, Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his disciples because of our love for each other. But if we only hang out with people who are the same age, who like the same kind of music, and who share our taste and politics and preferences, how are we any different from the world? Doesn't every non-Christian you've ever known hang out with people who are just like him or her (Matt. 5:47)?

Love in the church should be at least partly inexplicable to the world. The elderly ladies at Capitol Hill Baptist who, in 1995, invited the guy with the stupid hair and safety pins in his face to their homes for lunch after church—they were displaying the riches of God's wisdom to the watching world. When a church looks diverse on the outside, it's often because the gospel is central. That's why you want to see churches filled with political liberals and conservatives, people wearing jeans and three-piece suits, men and women with white and brown and black skin, Christians old and young, friends tattooed and tattoo-deficient, and so on. Churches that aim at just one demographic ultimately work against that show of God's wisdom.

Don't say "Homogeneous Unit Principle"; say "Contextualize"

Not many books or church leaders these days speak anymore about the homogeneous unit principle—appealing to one homogeneous group of people. Somewhere in the 1980s or 1990s church growth writers stopped using the phrase because they had heard enough complaining about it being biblically problematic. Still, they needed some way to target particular groups, so they began to speak in terms of "contextualization"—adapting yourself to a context. I don't want to totally knock the good people-sensitivities involved with contextualizing, but the evangelical fascination with the topic makes me wonder if it's just an updated version of the homogeneous unit principle: Pick your social demographic and appeal ... I mean, contextualize to them.

When we start churches intentionally designed to appeal to a certain kind of person, we fail to heed the biblical mandate to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22). It seems like many churches want to embrace the first phrase without the second. We want to become all things to some people. The problem is, becoming all things to some people—say, by rocking the tattoos and turning up the music—often keeps us from reaching all kinds of people. After all, wooing one demographic (for example, urban young people) often means alienating others (such as older people or foreigners).

It seems to me that Paul in 1 Corinthians 9 wasn't saying that he would mimic the people he was trying to reach, you know, with a ripped tunic and Doc Marten sandals. He was trying instead to remove unnecessary offense whenever possible. He wasn't telling them to sport goatees—he was telling them not to flaunt their Christian freedom in everyone's faces. He was encouraging the church to be sensitive to surrounding cultures, yes, but by being sacrificial in its love, willing to give up things it might not have preferred to give up. To this day, I enjoy punk rock. I could flaunt the tatts and plant a punk rock church that took its musical cues from Stiff Little Fingers and its attitude from the Clash. But how would this show love for the elderly women in my neighborhood, the same kind of elderly women who welcomed me to Capitol Hill Baptist? It seems like we should intentionally plant churches that will, as much as possible, welcome and engage people who are different and diverse with respect to age, gender, personality, and nationality.

But this hardly ever happens! According to one study, only 5 percent of Protestant congregations in America are multiracial churches (defined as a church with an ethnic mix where no more than 80 percent of the congregation is of one dominant group). Let that sink in for a second. If you are planting a church in a rural county where 99 percent of the population belongs to one ethnic group, I can understand why your church is mono-ethnic. But if we're starting churches in cities and growing suburbs, locations with great diversity, shouldn't our churches reflect that diversity? It could be that our efforts to "engage the culture" have pigeonholed us into reaching only one culture group.

Perhaps you're thinking, But young people simply won't go to churches where the music is not tailored to them. That may be partly true, but it's only true insofar as they've been in churches with no biblical vision for reaching all people. But what if pastors everywhere decided to stop capitulating to consumeristic demands? What if pastors taught church members to lay down their rights for the sake of people who are different? Pastor, are you afraid that if you try doing this, you might lose some of your market share?

So then, what should characterize a church plant that wants to reach people from all kinds of backgrounds? Well, it obviously needs to show intentional love to people from different cultures. People from other cultures will know pretty quickly whether they are welcomed or merely tolerated as a curiosity. In our church we try to be intentional about having members from other cultures involved in leading our corporate gatherings, whether through prayer, Bible reading, singing, or preaching. In addition 40 percent of our elder board is comprised of non-white non-Americans (and that's not including the lawyers, who should perhaps be their own ethnic group).

Also, the way that we order our gatherings can impact the way international believers feel. Many of the brothers and sisters in our congregation from other cultures were attracted by how similar our services are to the ones in their home countries. The music is different, sure. The way people dress is different, of course. Our services may be quieter or louder than what they're accustomed to. But Christians gathered in churches in Thailand, in South Africa, in Niger, in Guatemala all do the same things: they pray, sing, read the Bible, and listen to the Word being preached. The more we focus on doing those things, the more "at home" international brothers and sisters feel. The more we import movies and drama and pop culture into the church, the more specific and targeted our gatherings feel, and the less comfortable these brothers and sisters feel.

Now, I am not saying there can be no diversity in trendy churches. You can point to large homogeneous-unit-pursuing churches that are wonderfully diverse. That makes sense, because when the gospel is clearly taught, there should be that cross-cultural unity. But I do think that their diversity has occurred despite their pursuit of the homogeneous unit principle. Thank God, the gospel can triumph over all kinds of pastoral stupidity, including mine. Still, as we think about planting churches, we need to look for ways to cultivate diversity rather than pursuing homogeneity.

Dying to Self with Porsches and McMansions

Anyhow, sorry for the interruption. The preacher emerged. Let's get back to our story. Capitol Hill Baptist was inviting me to plant the kind of church I wanted to plant, but there was one thing about their offer that I didn't like: they wanted me to plant a church in the Washington DC suburbs of Northern Virginia, which in many ways is wealthy and sterile like the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up. Growing up in the land of Range Rovers and Saabs had turned me into a punk rocker. What might living there permanently do to me? To make matters worse, the county where they wanted to plant, Loudoun County, has the highest median household income of any county in America—over $107,000 per year. Fairfax County, next door, is in second place.

This wasn't where I had envisioned myself working. Maybe I wanted to go somewhere that looked more like me. I don't like the suburbs—I'm a city guy at heart. And Karen was raised nine thousand feet up in the Rocky Mountains. The suburbs struck us as combining the worst of the city (crowded and ugly) with the worst of the mountains (nothing going on, no arts and culture, little diversity). We had always told ourselves that we would go anyplace the Lord called us, even China, just not to the ranch house in the suburbs. We wanted to serve in a place where people were needy, where there was community rather than endless McMansions. So Loudoun County, with its malls and shopping centers, didn't fit our passions. In fact, a Ferrari/Porsche/ Lamborghini dealership sits just across the street from where I'm sitting right now. No joke.

But I'm pretty sure Jesus said something somewhere about picking up your cross in order to follow him. As far as crosses go, this one was pretty minor.

And I do think that too many church planters get bogged down with a clear burden for a specific place. I mean, maybe God did give you a burden for a certain geographical area. If so, far be it from me to tell you otherwise. But I know a lot of guys who say they have a "burden" when in reality what they have is a "personal preference" or "a level of comfort" with a certain location. So they reject all kinds of gospel opportunities because it doesn't fit with their "burden." But if God gives you an opportunity to plant a church in a place that has either Christians who need a church to proclaim the gospel to them or non-Christians who need a church to proclaim the gospel to them, you should think long and hard about it, even if it's not in a location you would prefer.

So even though Karen and I didn't want to live in the suburbs, we began to pray about it. I was a little excited about the opportunity of planting through Capitol Hill Baptist, but I struggled with feelings of guilt over the fact that we would not be going to a more challenging location. After all, urban ministry, in my mind, has always seemed more hard-core. There are opportunities in the city to help needy people, to bring the gospel to bear on broken families, to bring the gospel of reconciliation where ethnic tension exists. In my mind, urban pastors are like the Navy Seals. They can hold their heads high at union meetings. But in the suburbs, you have BMWs doing the Chik-fil-A drive-through and then pulling anonymously into the garage with an electric opener. Ministry here is like joining the Coast Guard. It counts as military service, but you can't brag to your friends about it.

One day I was whining to one of my Westminster professors, Manny Ortiz, about whether I should plant a church in the suburbs. Dr. Ortiz has forgotten more about church planting than I will ever know, and he's planted many churches among the poor and needy. I figured that he would be sympathetic to my feelings. After he listened to me complain, he spoke words that seem obvious in retrospect, but which I had entirely missed. He said, "Wherever there are rich people, there are poor people mowing their lawns and painting their houses. Go and find them if you want to help poor people." I was immediately convinced that I should shut up and go where the Lord was obviously calling us.

But I wasn't sure that Karen would be interested. After all, there were plenty of reasons to stay in Philadelphia: We were glad to be living near family. We had good friends. We were plugged in at our church. We were about to have another baby. We enjoyed the neighborhood in which we lived. And we were just finishing the process of gutting and redoing our house. We could probably have found a job at a local church that would pay the bills and give me experience in pastoral ministry. It didn't make a lot of sense to move at that time.

But as we prayed, the Lord made it clear that we should go. Karen, believe it or not, has the gift of knowing what we should do. I'm not sure where that falls on the map of spiritual gifts in Paul's letters, but there are times when God speaks to Karen (not audibly, or so she says) and just tells her what's going to happen. I can tell when God has spoken to her because she gets a settled conviction in her voice. This is a really useful gift to have (or to be married to), so I've learned to recognize and listen to it. When she came home one day and said, "I was praying, and I'm convinced that we have to go to DC," I knew what had happened. Before she was tentative and hesitant; now we were both clear. We were going to DC.