A new friend recently contacted me via the Austin Mustard Seed website. What he read about our church community resonated with his own hopes, so he asked to hear more of our story. It was meaningful and motivating for me to recapture it. While pieces of my story have been shared on this blog, I’m not sure I’ve ever put it all together, so I thought I’d offer my response to him here as well.
I did student ministry in a large church in the Phoenix area for about 11 years. I enjoyed it, and saw many great things happen. Like you, I noticed that the best things happened in ongoing relationship, in the home groups we created for the students or on trips and retreats where there was a burst of proximity to each other. In time, I noticed that many of our former students were no longer connecting with what was happening in churches, even though Phoenix has a number of good churches. But these former students were still passionate about their relationship with Jesus. This caught my attention…and my soul.
Through a series of events, I was drawn into church planting about five years ago. We ended up joining another friend from our church in Arizona to plant a church up in metro Seattle. We went knowing we would be sent out in a few years to plant again. It was a blessing to be part of that, and it was a bit of a testing ground for me to try out church planting. It was a traditionally modeled church plant in terms of moving into the community, advertising, and launching a weekend service after about six months there. We wanted to have a very relational focus and and lots of community engagement. I think we did pretty well, though the weekend service still took up a lot of our energy and resources. Some beautiful things happened in our time there, and I very much love that church and the time we had there, but it also helped me to see that church plant model was not true to who we felt we needed to be.
We had long considered Austin as an option, even before we moved to Seattle. As we started thinking about where to form a new church community, we began to focus here. We anticipated moving here about 18 months before it happened. As I talked to church planting organizations and denominations, it slowly became clear that most of them wouldn’t get what we were trying to be. There have been enough churches successfully launched with that hard start style, that this has become the norm. The expectation is that a church should gather as many as it can as early as possible so that it can be self supporting with a few years. This model still works pretty well, but most of the time in fast growing suburbs. And I’ve seen it work in urban centers…once or twice per city I think. Once one or two churches have launched in the central part of a city, all of the “low hanging fruit” (I dislike that phrase even as I type it) has been gathered. But some times, I’ve seen it also mean a church isn’t true to itself. I’ve visited too many church plants where a stage centered production with sound, lights, and a monologue was put on for well less than 50 people. And I’ve ached…if there are 25 people, give me a few couches, and let’s discuss our way through the text, rather than just let me talk at them with an outline with blanks for them to fill in.
Somewhere along the line in the last few years, I grabbed a hold of the idea of living not as church planters, but as missionaries. (Not my own idea, but probably most influenced by Lesslie Newbigin.) Rather than try to move in and launch a church, we felt like we were best suited to live as missionaries in a city. (Sure I could be a part of another church and do this, but I can’t imagine not shaping a church community…it’s central to who God made me to be.) What would we do if we were to move to Bangkok or Amsterdam? We wouldn’t just drop 20k postcards in the mail. We would engage relationally, and let the church form around those relationships. So, it’s with that mindset that we came to Austin. We’ve raised some support, but it’s not quite as sexy as a big launch, so I work part-time for the church and do other work on the side. And thankful for it. I’d rather work bivocationally than not be true to who we feel we are called to be. I’ve brushed off some old design skills (always done design work in churches I’ve been in, and did some freelance several years ago) to try to help make ends meet.
As far as the church, I have dreams and ideas, but more than anything, we want to be a church formed by the Spirit and the culture of Austin. Right now, we are basically a small group/house church, but we have no intention of being just that. Ideally, I would love to become a hybrid of a house church network and a traditional model. I envision meeting in house churches every other Sunday, and gathering as a larger community on alternating weeks. It seems like that is the best way to emphasize the focus we want to have on smaller communities, especially as midweek groups present a challenge for so many. But I also think there is a need to gather in a larger community as well, to be reminded we are part of something bigger. To be honest, I don’t really know if this kind of format will work, but we’re not there yet anyway!
I’m not sure how to label us. Many in the “organic church” movement (at least in my experience) have found their way there out of skepticism, or even cynicism. We just don’t fit that, I don’t think. I am compelled by hope…hope that the Gospel is truly good news, and a community centered in the Gospel will partner with God as an agent of restoration, regardless of the form that church takes. This hope in the Gospel, and a shared missional impulse, gives us common ground with churches of different shapes and sizes and I’m glad to partner with them and celebrate what they do, both in a local Austin network (plantR.org) and in a national network (ecclesianet.org).