But one thing is common: launching a new place of worship is difficult. It’s especially difficult in the middle of a global health crisis, when gathering in an intimate space with fellow congregants is made next to impossible. So why would someone take this leap of faith?
As a military spouse who’s been previously stationed overseas, Pastor Jennifer Moreno has a personal understanding of life away from one’s faith community. She started Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic to not only provide worship services for families like hers, but to help other congregations connect with one another through technology, such as pre-recorded videos and Facebook Live. Pastor Jenn hopes that her emerging collective will be an example to others of how to keep in touch with members located out of town, out of state, or even across the world.
“It’s building-less and borderless,” she says in a recent video call with New Church Ministry, “because we need that right now even more than ever.”
Kesh ‘Oved Faith Ministries also strives to create a sense of belonging for those who have become socially isolated during the past year. After an interruption from the household’s pet parrot Yoshi, whom Pastor Jenn refers to as her associate pastor, she stresses that we have to recognize mental illness and how COVID-19 has exacerbated it, particularly through the restriction of outdoor hobbies and pastimes that would contribute to better mental health.
“It’s really important that we check in on each other,” Pastor Jenn says. “And make sure that we’re all okay.”
The people of Kesh ‘Oved, which is Hebrew for ‘lost sheep,’ do just that in Zoom meetings called BYOBB (Bring Your Own Bible and Beverage) where they drink coffee and talk about what’s going on, whether they’re joining from South Korea, Japan, or Germany. If they do happen to be in Pastor Jenn’s town of Riverview, Florida, and it’s safe to do so, members will eat a meal with each other.
“We all connect,” she emphasizes, “and ensure that we have relationship with one another.”
Pastor Jenn hasn’t been with her own parents, who live in Amarillo, Texas, because they are elderly, homebound, and she doesn’t want them, nor her, to get sick.
While Kesh ‘Oved is a virtual church plant, she makes sure that local residents become familiar with it too. Pastor Jenn’s car is adorned with a chalice and as a Door Dash driver, she puts her business card in with every meal that she delivers, every load of groceries that she does through Walmart.
“I do that because I want people to know we’re here,” Kesh ‘Oved’s minister shares, “and that we give of ourselves, time, and talents to help those that can’t get out right now.”
For Pastor Jenn, her work in ministry is about more than just bringing together Riverview’s Disciples. It’s about promoting the denomination’s mission and vision of being a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. After all, she sees the Church as a safe space for her – the region provided her support during the launch process and New Church Ministry provided her educational opportunities through Leadership Academy.
“When everything’s falling apart and it doesn’t look like it’s going right, New Church Ministry’s there,” Pastor Jenn says. “Knowing that we have such a good foundation, it’s the perfect time for everybody to try to plant something new.”
And she doesn’t just mean new churches. Pastor Jenn believes that throughout our lives, we’ve all been given seeds of wisdom, love, grace, and mercy. When somebody took us to church as a child, the seed of prayer was planted, helping us grow and mature into who we are today. To her, everyone has the chance to spread the seeds we’ve received through the people that we come in contact with every day, even complete strangers. If someone’s struggling, we can plant a seed of compassion by giving them a smile or expressing our gratitude for their service. The Holy Spirit will water that seed throughout the day, which will germinate, and grow into something fresh. But there’s a difference between a positive seed like that, and a negative one, and we have a choice to make between which one we scatter. Pastor Jenn makes the case for treating workers in the service industry with more care, say if they got a customer’s order incorrect or delivered it to the wrong address.
“We need positivity,” she says. “We need to know that we’re all in this together.”
Throughout our call with Pastor Jenn, she spoke with calm self-assurance, even when the doorbell was ringing in the background or her dog barked. When we asked her where this confidence comes from, Pastor Jenn said it was due to her work as a pastor at another congregation in Winter Haven, Florida, and the experience she gained as a leader for Family Readiness groups within the army. She also credits the support she’s received from friends, one of whom serves on Pastor Jenn’s team as the Music and Worship Director, and the owner of Ms. T’s Soaps N Such, who was inspired to make different colored bars of soap for Kesh ‘Oved, all in the shape of sheep. (Kesh ‘Oved’s catchphrase is “Finding lost sheep everywhere!”)
“We are all looking for comfort and security,” she says. “I started Kesh ‘Oved so that anybody could reach me at any time and know that they’re not alone.”
Pastor Jenn then asks her daughter, who had just recently returned from school, to get her a “Lamby.” When she returns, Pastor Jenn holds up a rainbow lamb. On the bottom of the soap it says, “God loves ewe, no matter what.” People who have become regulars of the church receive a “Lamby” from her that has been prayed over. This way they know that they are loved, they are thought of, they’re missed.
“No matter how dirty we are,” says Pastor Jenn. “Jesus Christ cleans us and has made us clean for God.”
And she wants Disciples to know that they can be supporters of the new church movement too. Money is an important issue in church planting. Often, church leaders initially operate with little to no funds. All of the startup costs that Pastor Jenn has spent so far have come out of her own personal finances, despite her husband’s misgivings, because she felt the need to do so.
“Give cheerfully, because when you do so, you’re not just touching the general church or region,” Pastor Jenn says. “You’re touching all of those new churches.”
As we wrap up our conversation, we ask what the future holds for Kesh ‘Oved.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” laughs Pastor Jenn. “Whether it’s the bird landing on my head, the dog barking, or my kid running through.”
On a serious note, a nearby Colombian café has offered her the use of their facilities for Bible studies and different kinds of worship services. Pastor Jenn looks forward to that, and to watching her baby, as she calls Kesh ‘Oved, flourish.
“If you take that leap of faith and do what God is calling you to do,” she concludes, “the blessings will overflow.”
You can support new faith communities like Pastor Jenn’s by making a gift to the Pentecost Offering, collected in most congregations on May 16 and May 23. Half of the gifts go to New Church Ministry to train, equip, assist and multiply leaders, and the other half stays in regional ministries to support local new church development.
On a Sunday afternoon in early December, Rev. Foster Frimpong, the founder of Co-Heirs with Christ Missions in Lexington, KY, was ordained while participants looked on over Zoom.
This would be an unorthodox way of conducting such a process in any other year, but for 2020, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and still marked a milestone for the Ghanaian pastor.
Immigrating in 2009, Rev. Foster was initially unsure of what to do with his life. His eagerness to carry out God’s work was not shared by the company he kept at the time, so-called “prosperity preachers” who exploited their congregants. Even when Rev. Foster brought attention to this, he became, in his words, “like the only pebble on the beach,” unable to see any good in the Gospel of prosperity. This led him to doubt himself.
“However, as I sought the Lord’s guidance in prayers, the Holy Spirit used this Psalm to instruct me,” recalls Rev. Foster. “I followed and settled down.”
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
And God was silent for a while.
Over the next few years, Rev. Foster felt a strong calling to join the Seventh Day Adventist church but was eventually drawn to the Disciples.
“I immediately wanted to be a part of [the church] because it fits with what I grew up believing,” he says.
On August 19th through the 21st, 2020, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) convened a New Church Summit to strategize about the future of the Disciples’ New Church Movement over the coming decade in light of current realities and next normals. This three-day virtual event was hosted by Pastor Terrell L McTyer, Minister of New Church Strategies with New Church Ministry (NCM), and Erick D. ‘Rick’ Reisinger, President of Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF). Summit attendees included nearly 90 general ministry leaders, regional ministers, regional new church team leaders, church planters, seminary leaders, and representatives from various demographic and church planting initiatives.
After welcoming those assembled, Pastor Terrell introduced General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens who opened the Summit with scripture and prayer. She quoted from Isaiah 43:19 saying, in part, “I am doing a new thing” and urged all attendees to move beyond the familiar, citing the need of the Church to re-imagine itself.
“Now is the time to pivot and evolve,” she said, “to insure the New Church Movement remains a denomination-wide tool that all Disciples can connect with to support new faith communities.”
Terri then referenced the Preamble of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), before stating that “Hope” (for the Summit) “is on fire as long as there is openness to what God is saying.”
Following Terri, Rick Reisinger presented a brief history of the Disciples of Christ starting with the Stone-Campbell Movement and showing how strength of mission defined our denomination.
“The DOC started as a new church movement,“ he explained. “From 1832 to 1929, we were planting hundreds of new churches a year and continued to do so until the stock market crash.”
In 1902 alone, 300 new congregations were formed. During the Great Depression, however, very few congregations were started. Activity picked up, though, following World War II and remained steady through the mid-60s. Since then, several summit-like gatherings have been held to re-energize, and set goals for, the new church movement, including the 1980 ‘consultation’ which set a goal of 100 new congregations over the next ten years with a third of those being churches of color. Under the leadership of Jim Powell, 128 congregations were formed with just under a third being of color. In 2000, another summit was held which resulted in the 2020 Vision and the goal of planting 1,000 new churches by this year, 2020.
“We exceeded that goal,” Rick noted, “but we’re now in a completely different time and need to find new ways to be ministry to the community.”
Terrell noted the success of the 2020 Vision and the 1,049 faith communities that have been formed or have affiliated with the DOC over the last 20 years with about a third of these being racially or ethnically diverse.
“It appears that we’ve become the family of choice for our many newly affiliated congregations,” he said, “thanks to our dedication to God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.”
He noted that there was much about the 2020 Vision that had to do with denominational survival and projected congregational loss.
“Now is the time,” he said, “to push the new church movement from survival to service, from comfort to courage. Now is the time to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through our actions, to serve all people, and to make Disciples.”
Keynote speaker for the event was Mark DeYmaz, author of DISRUPTION: Repurposing The Church To Redeem the Community, whose basic assertion is that we need to do church differently to remain relevant. He noted that the first question any church planter is asked when looking for support is “Who’s your target audience?” Historically, this approach has led to homogenous churches with non-diverse congregations. He said the real question should be, “How can we be multi-cultural?” Why? Because the greater your diversity, the greater your community influence and the more likely your sustainability. This way your church is connected to more groups, more causes, and more influencers beyond its walls. DeYmaz asserted that disruption is a structural shift of the church; that spiritual church is not just a spiritual entity. It is a model of reconciliation and a reflection of the community’s composition that promotes peace.
He used as a model of a community-transforming church a three-legged stool. DeYmaz used the image of a three-legged stool to model a community-transforming church. One leg represents the SPIRITUAL. It is coached by the Senior Pastor and supported through tithes and offerings. The second leg is the SOCIAL, which is coached by an Executive Director and supported through grants and donations. And, the third leg is the FINANCIAL which is coached by a Chief Executive Officer and supported through a for-profit enterprise. In this way, the church achieves sustainability and is able to leverage its assets to bless the community, spread the gospel, and teach Jesus.
After a break, Yaw Kyeremating (a.k.a. King Yaw), a Ghanaian spoken-word artist, performed an original composition illustrating for the summit diversity in culture, in age and thought. Then, Rodney Cooper, PhD., made a presentation on Cultural Intelligence. Dr. Cooper is a Clinical Psychologist, Consultant and Certified Facilitator for Mosaix Global Network, of which Mark DeYmaz is president. Summit participants were asked to fill out a cultural intelligence survey prior to the gathering, and Dr. Cooper presented the results to the group, reflecting the cultural intelligence of this body of DOC leadership. Prior to doing so, he noted that cross-cultural competency is considered the fourth most desirable business skill needed for the future and that, by the year 2044, only half of the U.S. population will be Caucasian.
Cultural Intelligence (CQ), as explained by Dr. Cooper, is based on these four key quadrants: CQ Drive, which reflects the level of interest; CQ Knowledge, or knowing how cultures are different or alike; CQ Strategy, or one’s ability to adapt when dealing with members of other cultures; and, CQ Action, or one’s willingness to adapt. In all quadrants, the group attending the Summit scored well above the average of those who have taken the survey (150,000+ in 167 countries), with CQ Drive being the highest at 82% and CQ Knowledge being the lowest at 57%. Specific group characteristics Dr. Cooper cited include a tendency toward collectivism, or the valuing of group goals and relationships, over individualism; uncertainty avoidance through planning and predicting rather than flexibility and adaptability; cooperative and collaborative behaviors over competitive, assertive behaviors: and, a preference for long time orientation over short.
Following another break, Peter Wernett of MissionInsite by ACS Technologies spoke on the benefits of big data available from the community demographic analysis tools his organization provides to churches, denominations, and faith-based nonprofits. Big data can be analyzed for insights to aid organizational decision-making. It also provides on-going discovery. For churches, that can mean finding a new area where they are likely to grow or where current members will be more comfortable worshipping. Wernett asserted that religious big data innovators believe big data is essential to their ministry, that it provides faster and/or greater missional results, and that church leadership and budget rely on and are tied to, big data discoveries.
The second day of the Summit started with a presentation by Mark DeYmaz and Terrell called Disruption & TEAM Review. The purpose of this presentation was to prepare attendees to break into separate groups and develop their own ‘huddle pitches’ just as disruptors do when seeking support for their initiatives. Mr. Deymaz again focused on information from his book, pointing out that successful church planters are, by their nature, disruptors. He also advised would-be disruptors/church planters that in the 21st century demonstration, not proclamation, will build churches. In other words, show your good works. He then laid out the four steps needed to sell a vision or plan a pitch compelling enough to attract support. They are:
• Identify the problem you’re trying to solve.
• Present what you’d do to solve it.
• Detail the features and benefits of your solution.
• Ask for support in specific terms.
Terrell followed by describing the T.E.A.M. concept used to support church planters by New Church Ministry. It identifies what leaders of the new church movement need to succeed. They need to be Trained, Equipped, Assisted, and Multiplied.
These four needs were paired with the three legs of the Disruption stool to assign topics to the break-out groups around which each would develop their two-minute pitch. There were twelve groups in all, and the various topics included Training & Spiritual, Equipping & Social, Assisting & Financial, and Multiplying & Social. After an hour to prepare, and a thirty-minute break, each group presented its ‘huddle pitch’ followed by three minutes of Q and A.
Another half-hour break followed before Rick Reisinger returned for a presentation on funding. He started by explaining that DCEF, the general ministry that houses NCM, helps congregations and other organizations with their capital needs through loans, capital fundraising, and building planning.
Funding NCM itself, however, is a complex issue because it requires connecting general ministries, regions, congregations, and leaders. Furthermore, general ministries participate in different ways. In particular, Christian Church Foundation works with individuals and congregations on providing funds to new churches as old ones close.
Rick went on to explain how funds have been and are being raised by other expressions of the church, and what’s in the future. This included a call for Disciples Mission Fund giving to be instilled into the DNA of new congregations to support the mission of the whole church.
Rick moved on to discuss how the need for buildings is changing. He introduced DCEF’s pilot program, which facilitates the transfer of a building previously owned by a congregation that is closing, usually to the region. Its results can be seen in the Glendale Mission and Ministry Center.
Rick closed out his presentation by mentioning congregations that are creating space by launching their own nonprofit organizations, such as Missiongathering Charlotte, which bought a building, using the sanctuary for themselves and leasing office space to local nonprofits. He encouraged general ministries and regions to be creative in how they work with new churches to generate income.
“How do we create a theological and ethical ‘culture’ where buildings are not ‘our’ asset, but an asset for the good of God’s work in the world?”
The last workshop of the day, presented by NCM Associate Minister Rev. Dr. Jose Martinez, was on competitive analysis, standardization, and best practices through the lens of starting new churches before and after the pandemic of 2020. He started with the history of church planting after 9/11, which experienced a boom as the model shifted from denominations to networks, and a new theological undergirding was developed.
Jose went on to break down the ten models of church planting networks recognized before COVID-19, which ranged from collaborative to regional and urban to rural and their various strategies. Jose said that overall, this methodology, which included identifying potential planters, sponsoring churches, and coaching was very successful.
The next part of the presentation saw Jose discussing 2020 as a pivot year due to the coronavirus pandemic. He explored strategies that are currently being utilized, what church planters are saying, and what to keep in mind which echoed Rick’s earlier call to get creative.
Jose then looked at what’s been taking place in culture this past year because of the current global health crisis that will continue to affect people’s lives and the practice of church planting.
He ended the presentation by talking about the next steps that Disciples can take after the pandemic, urging them to change the metrics, adopt new mental models, and develop a process of hybridity where new models of church planting can grow.
Regional representatives and others participating in the chat continued the conversation about metrics, sharing what they’ve each learned about defining metrics within one’s context and vision/mission and letting data tell a story instead of assigning a passing or failing grade. As one participant noted,
“God says, ‘Well done good and faithful servant,’ not ‘well done good and successful servant.’”
Terrell opened the third and last day of the Summit explaining the purpose and process for the Implementation Strategizing unconference of the morning. An ‘unConference’ is an informal gathering of collaborators/participants who set the agenda for an event focused on discussion.
“We’re going to decide on our topics now for the discussion groups that follow,” he explained. “We’ll follow the rule of two feet, meaning you can go in and out of different conversation huddles, but we’re trying to get to a place of strategic thinking.”
It was impressed on participants that every conversation should arrive at a goal. Also, that this exercise was seeking the contributions of ‘butterflies’ (those moving easily from conversation to conversation) rather than ‘bulldogs (individuals dominating group conversation).
The subjects developed during Topic Brainstorming included:
What does church look like after COVID-19?
How do we make church cross-generational?
How can we build sustainable new churches?
How can dying churches help plant new churches?
How do we make all congregations immigrant-welcoming?
How do we recruit for and assess new churches?
How do we make regional new church teams stronger?
How do we build multi-diverse, inclusive congregations?
As in day two of the Summit, the strategy huddles had an hour to prepare, discussing their topics in detail, and arriving at their recommended goals. Unlike in day two, these huddles were not followed by pitches. Instead, participants elected to submit their discussion notes and goals to New Church Ministry for consideration and documentation.
Following a break, Terrell identified eight tactical teams that would implement new church movement strategies related to the list of topics developed during brainstorming. All participants were asked to sign up for two teams to continue working on the evolution of the new church movement post-summit. The tactical teams include:
Near the conclusion of the Summit, DCEF President Rick Reisinger thanked all attendees for the three days of time, effort, and ideas they contributed to the future of the new church movement.
“My hope is that we can expand our collaboration in making Disciples in the world,” he said. “I look forward to a re-imagined and energized new church movement.”
Terrell then closed the Summit with an impassioned plea for all to actively participate in the Multiply Movement. Quoting Mark 9:23, he said, “all things are possible to him that believes.” He then referenced the Great Commission and our denomination’s charge to ‘go and make Disciples.’
“That is in our DNA. It’s who we are as Disciples,” he said. “Every member of a congregation is responsible for making disciples, not just the pastor. In fact, some believe you’re not a disciple, until you’ve made a disciple.”
Recalling the goal he set forth at the 2019 General Assembly of making 1,000,000 new disciples by 2030, Terrell noted that while that’s a big number some feel it’s not big enough. Jose Martinez agreed, noting that five years ago 57,000,000 Americans were religiously unaffiliated.
“Surely, that number is even bigger now,” he noted. “So, maybe we should be setting the bar higher.”
To make a million or more new disciples over the next ten years one thing is certain: a covenantal direction for the New Church Movement relevant to current realities and next normals is a must. The New Church Summit, with its three days of presentations, strategy huddles and pitch exercises, was just the first step.
The New Church Ministry team met Rev. Debbie Griffin, the Senior Minister of Downtown Disciples, last summer at General Assembly (GA). Since the pastor’s congregation is based in Des Moines, IA, it offered worship services, hosted pre-assembly activities for general ministries, prepared a meal for regional ministers, and chaired the local GA mission committee.
All of that as a new church planted in 2015.
To celebrate the culmination of the 2020 Vision goal to form 1,000 congregations within the first two decades of the 21st Century, we spoke with Rev. Debbie about Downtown Disciples.
I was about to give up on the Church. I love many things about it. I was raised in the Disciples Church. I love the faith. I love the stories of Jesus. But I was really frustrated that some folks within the Church were really challenging progressive theology. I just felt like the Church wasn’t being the inclusive, boundary-breaking, justice-loving presence of Christ in the world. I thought I would just go work in the nonprofit sector. I secured a position with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa when I was called by the Region to consider a small congregation that needed a short-term interim minister. I started serving that church full of beautiful people and they really changed me. They were doing such great ministry, in western Iowa of all places, which is very conservative. This small church of faithful people was doing amazing work in the love of Christ. They had two queer women in leadership positions. They were serving a home-cooked meal to more than 100 people every Wednesday night, no questions asked, opening their doors and not pressuring people to be church in a certain way. A diverse group of people came for many reasons. Relationships were built. It was just organic, and it was ministry. They gave me hope for the Church. I thought to myself, “If this can happen in western Iowa, it can certainly happen in downtown Des Moines.” I thought, “there must be more people like me, who love Jesus and miss faith community, but whose theology is too progressive for most people.” So, I laid out a vision of starting as an LGBTQ+-affirming book club. We started with a book called SavingJesus From the Church by Robin Myers, who’s a UCC pastor. People came! We read one book, and then we read another book. Then we started serving meals at the homeless shelter down the street. Then we walked in the Pride Parade. Then we started doing a variety of other activities, going to our city council about policing and racial profiling. Pretty soon someone said, “When are we going to worship?” That’s when I knew we had a church.
The Pentecost Offering allows local Disciples to support new church plants like yours, across the United States and Canada. What does the Pentecost Offering mean to you as a church planter?
We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Pentecost Offering. Downtown Disciples wouldn’t have had a place to worship that worked for us. We needed to be in a neutral place, because we’re reaching out to people who’ve been wounded and excluded from church. Also, we wanted to be in an urban setting. That costs money. Plus, we needed a full-time pastor to make this work. The Upper Midwest Region has been exceptionally supportive of us. Ultimately, they set out a three-year plan of sustainability for us. And the other people in our Region have been just as supportive of this amazing ministry.
The 2020 Vision prioritized forming 1,000 congregations in 1,000 different ways. What is the “way” your faith community demonstrates that diversity?
We didn’t start with worship. When we did decide to start worshiping, we were clear that we didn’t want to do so in a typical church building. At Pentecost, we’ll be five years old, and we’ve had three worship locations: a community center, a loft-type space above a music venue, and now a bakery. We also started out with worship on Sunday nights. Then as we grew, we added a Sunday morning worship. We also have a podcast called Like Micah, because our mission is Micah 6:8 – “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” We tell stories of our faith. We like to say we’re nimble, and we respond to the needs of the community. Most of our people were not coming to us through worship. They were coming to us at the wine bar when we were having Word Up Wednesdays. They were coming to us for Bible Geeks on Tuesday mornings at the local hip coffee shop. We were meeting up at a laundromat where we would just do random acts of kindness and hang out and be there with children’s books and food and quarters. People found us at other places that were easier entry points, and then once they could trust us, they would move to worship.
How would you define the progressive Christianity you promote?
We spell it out in our website. People who have been wounded or excluded by the church, need to know who you are. I’m specifically referring to LGBTQ+ people. They have gone to churches that say they’re welcoming, until you want to marry your beloved; or you want to be a leader in the church; or you want to attend seminary. So, when we say progressive, we mean LGBTQ+-affirming; we proclaim Black Lives Matter; we are curious about other faiths. We do not condemn or judge others, because Jesus calls us not to do that. And we are passionate about social justice.
What role do new faith communities have in the church?
They are the heartbeat of the church right now. I know that in the Upper Midwest Region, other Disciples churches that identify as traditional look to us. Oftentimes people worry the new churches are going to “replace” the traditional churches. I don’t see it that way. I see that we can be an outreach for traditional churches who see in us something that they love, but they can’t be right now. So, we become an outreach of their ministry. We currently have one church in the Upper Midwest Region that supports us financially. They send us part of their outreach budget. They send us a check every quarter because they can identify that we can do some things that they can’t do right now. I think we’re the hope for, not only people who have been excluded and wounded by church, but for traditional church people who see in us an opportunity to partner and extend their ministry.
Do you have any advice for people looking to plant a church?
What God is doing in new church is different in every single place. What worked for Downtown Disciples was unique to what God was doing here and is doing here in our time and our place. New church planting here is not the cookie-cutter for other new churches anywhere else. Still, some things are true for all church plants. I would say, don’t do it alone; listen to the Spirit and to the people who you’ve gathered. We wouldn’t be who we are without the people who gathered with us, allowing the Spirit to work through them.
How is your congregation responding to the coronavirus?
We worship and gather virtually. We share what type of bread we are breaking together in our homes during communion. We raised $1,000 for PPE, donating those funds to our local hospitals that need life-saving equipment. We continue to deliver supplies to our homeless neighbors, wearing face masks, gloves, and staying at a safe distance. We write cards to our friends who are isolated. We cook and deliver meals, flowers, and groceries to members who are quarantined or at high risk. In summary, we are still a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world. The Spirit still calls and empowers us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together.”
New faith communities like Downtown Disciples are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of the offering supports New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders. Half supports local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift through your congregation or the DMF website. This Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.
The city sits just north of a men’s prison, and is one of the areas in which formerly incarcerated individuals are released. South Pomona struggles with gang violence and drug abuse.
None of that was a deal-breaker for Rev. Al Lopez, the congregation’s Lead Pastor. He felt called to plant a new church where folks could be themselves and still belong.
In this New Church Ministry interview he shares how UrbanMission reframes church in the 21st Century.
What is UrbanMission?
We are a church without walls. We have several ministries that are interconnected and interdependent… plus we get together and worship.
In our Open Table gatherings, people from all walks of life create a sense of belonging and provide a free meal.
Rev. Nora Jacob, our Restorative Justice Minister, goes inside Chino State Prison every week and facilitates several groups. She also heads up the Reentry Coalition, which assists, and provides a place for, people coming out of incarceration.
In 2014, we founded UrbanMission Community Partners (a non-profit organization) with a vision and purpose that really aligns with that of the church, although it’s an independent entity.
So UrbanMission has been kind of like a seed planter. UrbanMission Community Partners takes those seeds and helps them grow.
What was the impetus for you to plant UrbanMission?
A few years before starting seminary, my theology began to change. As it expanded from the faith that I had grown up with, I found myself feeling less and less part of my community because of our different insights and interpretations of scripture. There’s a very dualistic way of understanding who’s in and who’s out.
When I received the call to start a church, I began meeting with Rev. Dr. Felix Villanueva, the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC, Conference minister. I indicated I felt the call to plant a church, but one where I belonged. I couldn’t find a community that I felt a part of, where I could be myself. The Southern California Nevada Conference really offered me the opportunity.
They essentially handed me the keys once we looked at the property. A congregation there had closed. Rev. Villanueva said, “You do what you feel God is calling you to do and just keep reporting to us. You’re part of our staff.” They’ve given us the freedom to really pursue this the way that we feel led.
I am Mexican American. I’ve learned in being part of the immigrant community that you don’t look at what you don’t have. You look at what you do have and make the best of it.
I had: an empty building, no people, no connections to the (local) community. So, I started looking at communities where I had connections.
I had just started seminary at Claremont School of Theology. I was meeting people who were passionate about several issues that overlapped with (the neighborhood’s) needs. (We discovered) an organic fit.
I happened to know Rev. Jacob through other regional work. She started our prison ministry.
I was introduced to Rev. Stephen Patten by the Disciples Seminary Foundation. Steven is our Community Wellness Minister, and in his role, he addresses drug abuse in our community.
My main focus is the Sunday morning congregation.
The three of us approach this planting of a new church as a team.
This collaborative leadership model is one other new churches use. How has it helped you be successful?
Our congregation is in a community that’s financially challenged. So, we knew going into this that we needed to approach church planting in a very entrepreneurial way. We were not going to be looking at the income from the Sunday morning gatherings as the main revenue in order to sustain the ministry and all the other work that we do. That shapes our understanding of leadership and what each individual contributes.
We recently had our very first church council meeting. It’s made up of people who had previously come to UrbanMission that had never even attended church, or had never been part of church leadership, or were against the thought of church. We’re playing into their strengths.
It has been a learning curve, especially because this past year was particularly difficult for me on a personal level. I haven’t been able to do the kind of training that I wanted to do. But that’s the wonderful thing about church. When you empower people, they take the ball and run with it.
So, they each bring their gifts — that has made us successful. The impact we’re having in our community has gone above and beyond what I ever thought possible.
How do you measure that impact?
We use some traditional metrics, such as: How many families are being fed? How many community groups are we housing in our Community Wellness Center? The more life-changing (measure) for me has been, how many lives have been transformed?
This woman showed up at one of the nonprofit’s art shows, where we highlight art created by people who were formerly incarcerated. This woman looked very familiar. Eventually, Nora pulled me aside and said, “You need to hear her story.”
We had her on camera sharing that she actually was one of our guests on Sundays. She was houseless and dealing with addiction, so the only reason why she was coming was because she was invited with no strings attached. Just welcomed. She took that and went from there, little by little. Now she is a counselor working with people that are still on the street. She’s completely turned her life around. She came back just to show her gratitude.
She said: “This is where my life changed because of the way that you greeted me and what you were providing.”
Our first moderator is the very first person that I met when I started in Pomona. When he found out that I was a pastor, he said, “I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t trust pastors.” We spent about six months developing a relationship over coffee, over food, over imagining what could happen in that place. Eventually he told me, “I want to be the first member of your congregation.”
He went from having some really serious legal issues that prevented him from working, to becoming a contractor, to owning his own company. He’s been very successful at it, giving great prices to a lot of our congregations in the area. His company was hired to remodel the Conference offices.
All of that from a conversation that started with us being vulnerable with each other. Me saying, “Hey, I need help. I don’t know anything about property,” and him saying, “I don’t trust church. Here are all the things I don’t like about church.” And me saying, “Hey, here are all of the things that I don’t like about church, either. A lot of them match up. How can we change that?”
Do you feel like being a hybrid church has helped you folks do ministry?
Both denominations have wonderful things going for them, and they both have their unique challenges. I think for those of us who are somewhere in between the Millennials and the Gen-Xers, we have the ability to be part of both worlds, speak both languages – think in both ways. It gives us freedom to not be shackled by some of the things that would hold others back.
Case in point, I was asked, “What about baptism? What about communion?” Those two happened to be some of the contentious areas between both denominations. At that point, baptism was far into the future. But I said we will teach what both bodies believe, and then we will leave that up to the person to decide.
Having the congregation be in community with other churches both within our denomination and outside helps them see the way that they’ve been growing up in their faith with us. Sometimes a congregation from a well-to-do area will drop off donations. In the conversations after, one of our people will say, “Did you notice that they kept saying that they’re helping us?” It’s a very transactional way of doing mission work. They are able to tell the difference between the way that we approach it and the way that some other churches do.
How is UrbanMission responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our leadership struggled to find an appropriate response that would honor our commitment to our community, while also ensuring the safety of our volunteers. We decided to continue supporting our community via an “Outdoor Open Table.” This includes distributing dinner in to-go containers and limiting contact as much as possible. Our food pantry continues to work with our partners to provide emergency food services during this time.
What do you see in UrbanMission’s future?
We’re just about to start talking with both denominations about the UrbanMission Training Center. We have learned lessons that can help a lot of churches, both established and new churches, even nonprofits. Several of us are trained coaches now, so we would do some coaching. And that’s actually really transformed the way I approach ministry, by just asking deep questions and just doing a lot of listening. It’s very much walking with, instead of trying to lead. I think that’s one of the things that the Church really needs to own.
Is there anything you want to add?
The importance of vulnerability. I mean, we follow a man that, depending on where your Christology is, made himself, time after time, vulnerable with those that he was with. It’s something that we’re trying to emulate. I think that has been part of UrbanMission’s success. We don’t see ourselves as an institution, but as part of a community.
UrbanMission, and the 1,034+ new churches–and counting–that have formed or become affiliated with the Disciples since 2001, are supported by the Pentecost Offering. Half of this Special Day Offering is used by New Church Ministry to coach and train new church leaders, and the other half is used by local Regions to sustain new churches. Join us in celebrating the 2020 Vision by making a gift online or through your congregation when this Special Day Offering is received on May 31 and June 7.