Two months ago, I moved back home to NH from eight years of studying and serving in CA. And four weeks ago, a small group of us launched a brand new church (Grace Church of Dover) in one of the most secular regions of our country. This church plant was the culmination of two years of prayer, planning, special providence, and personal relationships.
Leading up to the launch, we met as a core team for five weeks to pray and plan. Since then we’ve “enjoyed” the challenges of church planting together. The Sunday after our launch we had to return to the home because the floors of the gym we met in needed to be finished. Talk about a loss of momentum! The next week, we were thrilled to be back in our meting space, but it was the hottest, most humid day of the summer (and the gym had no air conditioning). Talk about being uncomfortable! Also, with summer comes lots of vacations and therefore low attendance, which is much more noticeable in a small church. Talk about dispiriting! And on top of all this, in our short time together, we’ve already experienced a host of heart-wrenching trials among our body.
We intentionally did not have a grand, supermarket opening with a social media campaign or flyers sent out to the community. We desire for our church’s growth to be organic and relationally driven from its foundation. We don’t have an elaborate business model or an innovative marketing strategy. We don’t know what we will look like in six months, a year, or five years from now. As expected, we don’t have a rapidly growing body. What we do have is greater. We have an urgent need and we have an ardent passion to stand in the gap. In this early stage of the church, I believe that culture eats strategy and maturity beats momentum. We have opportunity and providence. We have God’s mission and God’s means. Therefore, we are content with a simple, small, and strategic approach to church planting.
Our Simple Approach
We’ve made it our ambition at Grace Church to establish a Gospel culture where God’s Word is preached, Christ is glorified, and people feel they are fully known and fully loved. We aren’t program-driven; we’re people-driven. The time for program will come—and come soon—but our current priority is knowing, developing, maturing, and unifying our people. This kind of culture starts from the top down, so a lot of my time has been spent casting vision, managing expectations, and getting to know new people at breakfast, welcoming them into my home, and joining them in their homes. It has been a full two months.
As I’ve looked across the landscape of churches and spoken to many believers, I’ve found that many Christians in this region are forced to choose between being fed and being known. There are churches that prioritize doctrine to the deemphasis of excellent program and relationships. And there are other churches that prioritize program and relationships at the expense of deep doctrine. Worse, many churches have allowed partisan politics and secular theory into their churches which only breeds division. This creates a culture where sheep wander. Since my return, upon asking people in the community where they go to church, they invariably respond with, “I have been going to. . ,” rather than, “I go to . . .” I have observed that NH is full of wounded, wandering, hurt, and hungry sheep—lambs untended without shepherds and without true community.
What I discovered at my sending church in CA was a more healthy and holistic ministry model that transcends this false dilemma and holds onto both truth and love equally. After all, Jesus commanded Peter to both feed his sheep and tend his lambs (John 21). Deep relationships are the best soil for deep discipleship. We desire to replicate this vibrant, Gospel culture where others can thrive in a community where whole disciples are formed by the whole counsel of God.
In our home meetings, we defined success. I made it clear that we will choose not to measure success according to the world’s standards—by visible, tangible, numerical, or monetary metrics. We define success biblically measuring it by our faithfulness to know and do God’s will (Joshua 1; Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17). We desire to grow together in a our knowledge of, affections for, and commitment to Christ. That is something to boast about (Jeremiah 9:24). That is success. So, we have been uniting our people through our core values—the Gospel, the sufficiency of Scripture, the purity of the body, our shared mission, leadership by shepherding leaders, and the sovereignty of God. We believe as Hudson Taylor once said, “Depend on it. God’s work done in God’s way never lacks God’s supply.”
As David Wells has pointed out, “It’s very easy to build churches in which seeker congregate; it is very hard to build churches in which biblical faith is maturing into genuine discipleship.” We are committed to building this solid foundation so that when organic, exponential growth comes, we will be prepared for it. Anyone can manufacture activity and momentum, but you can’t mass-produce maturing disciples. As Edith Schaeffer once wrote about L’Abri: “Whether we be large or small, widely known or less widely known, our prayer has been simply to fulfil God’s purpose faithfully.” We’re not attempting to hurt other ministries’ effectiveness or show them how it’s done. We’re here to be faithful and effective. We have a long-term mindset that sees our potential, but doesn’t rush to it.
Our Small Body
A friend and fellow church planter warned me early on in the process, “Prepare to have your heart broken.” What he meant was that many people who seem committed to planting with you will change their mind. He was right and I appreciated the heads up. Many people didn’t join our team who planned to. Families who desired to move and plant with us didn’t. Some have left since we launched. Others still haven’t joined us yet for various reasons. And that’s okay. We hope they eventually can. Yet, like Francis and Edith Schaeffer, since the beginning of our planning, we have prayed that God would bring the people of his choice to us. Like Gideon and his 300, I am confident in the team we have. We are small, but mighty. I would take a small, committed, maturing, serving team over a crowd of spectators. We are preparing our team of useful ministers.
Before we launched, I had to manage expectations. I knew that we’d have a lot of support on our launch day. I anticipated an initial large attendance, yet knew that it would significantly drop in the following weeks. And I was right. On our launch Sunday, we had 78 people! This was so encouraging, especially for a brand new church in a hard-soiled, secular region. But the following Sunday—back in the home—we had 41 people, almost half. Was I discouraged? No. Don’t get me wrong, I want to grow. There’s no badge of honor in being small. We long for numerical growth and are even praying for it. it is a sign of life and health. Yet at this point in our church—5 weeks in—being small has its advantages. Our people feel known, loved, and cared for. They are growing, maturing, and serving together. We don’t want to outgrow our own effectiveness. Rather we want to prepare for the future when God does bring more people to worship with us, preferably new believers.
The small body that we do have is multi-generational. We have singles, newly marrieds, young marrieds with little children, middle-aged couples with teens, empty-nesters, grandparents, widows and widowers. We have newer believers, seasoned saints, and experienced leaders. Each person is a vital part of our body. And even greater, we are all spread out in the cities and towns of Strafford County. It is a beautiful thing. We are side by side in the trenches—all-hands-on-deck—learning to work together, serve together, care for one another. And we hope that our love for one another will spill over into the community just as the love which the Persons of the Trinity had for one another eternally before the foundation of the world spilled over into God’s creation.
Our Strategic Mission
Tim Keller recently pointed out that there has never been a revival in a secular, post-Christian society. New England is the most unchurched region of our country. With less than 3% of the population being Evangelical Christian, it technically qualifies as an unreached people group. People don’t like to hear that term because it makes us sound like savages. It doesn’t mean we are uncivilized; it means that we are unevangelized. Yet it gets even more complicated when you realize that we do have a robust, theological history. It’s not technically unreached for the Gospel has been here. It is post-Christian. Christianity is no longer an acceptable worldview. It’s no longer a part of our social imaginary. It’s not even in our plausibility structure. There’s no longer any social capital to be had from identifying as a Christian. To make things worse, most people have a general understanding of our Gospel heritage and are therefore inoculated against it. This is a unique challenge.
My years in CA were very beneficial. I received much ministry training and experience, lifelong relationships, the investment and support of a sending church, and two daughters from the L.A. County foster care system. Yet during these years, my passion for New England never waned. One of the greatest blessing that I received outside of New England was a new perspective. Being away helped me see home as a mission field and helped me to approach church planting with a pioneer missionary mindset—one that is more holistic, expectant, and strategic.
Strafford County, where we planted, has three cities and ten towns—133,000 people altogether with the majority of them in the Tri-City area of Dover, Somersworth, and Rochester. Therefore, according to the statistics, there are about 129,000 people in the surrounding area who do not know Christ. And to further complicate the challenge, the community here is very hard to break into and the culture very challenging to learn. I’ve seen many pastors—and their families—with good intentions and ambitions struggle here for years before eventually leaving. A team joined me from CA—three families and one young man eager to go into the ministry. The three families—including mine—are native New Englanders who know the culture we’re breaking into and the culture we’re trying to create. We also have many personal connections which go back 30 years. Connections are everything here in New England and are proving so useful already.
Together, with the rest of our team, we seek to commit ourselves to missional living, integrated lives, and thoughtful engagement with the people in our community. We desire to be a body of believers who live above the secular/sacred divide and see ourselves everywhere and always as Christ’s ambassadors—a displaced people, but not a misplaced people: a people on mission. Just as we’ve started a brand new church, we are hopeful for brand new faith and brand new new disciples. We are hopeful and expectant believing that where God is opening doors of opportunity, he has already begun tilling the soil there. We all have unbelieving family, neighbors, co-workers, and people we rub shoulders with the lost every single day that we are praying for. Confidence for our mission is not found within ourselves or in more favorable circumstances without. Confidence comes from the promises of Christ. The Great Commission is buttressed by the assurance of Christ’s power and presence with us on our mission (Matthew 28). Pioneer missionary, William Carey once wrote, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” And our strategic approach is also his: “We must plan and plod as well as pray.”
Tim Keller’s full quote gives us hope. He said, “There has never been a fast-growing revival in a secular, post-Christian society. But every great new thing is unprecedented—until it happens.” We are dependent and expectant, but not in a hurry. This truth-and-love, Gospel culture of deep discipleship and deep doctrine that we aim for cannot be fast-tracked without bypassing the slow and hard, foundational work that needs to be done. So we keep our hands to the plow and our heads up, expectant and dependent on Jesus—the chief builder and cornerstone, the author and perfecter of faith. David Brainerd wrote in his diary, “To the eye of reason, everything that respects the conversion of the [lost] is as dark as midnight; and yet I cannot but hope in God for the accomplishment of something glorious among them.” We are not discouraged by how simple and small our church is and might remain. Rather, we press on and await something glorious, maybe even something unprecedented, in God’s timing.