Tag Archives: mission

Why Five Congregations?: It is more than a strategy

Becoming part of any organization, from a corporation to a little league can be very confusing for a while — a church, especially Circle of Hope,  is not that different. You can walk into all our meeting places, except Ridge Ave, when no one is there and any number of people who come in will ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me about the same time and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Most of you meetings are on Sunday night?” Once the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit. They predictably said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in five congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). People need a lot of Jesus doorways in different forms.

  • We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us.
  • We are slaves to our own understanding; we need reconnected to what is beyond us.
  • We are sinful and broken; it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored.

We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are five congregations in one church.

More directly, we have a great purpose and we are doing the best we can to live up to it. The Bible gives us a mission statement for our family business. It guides us. People call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The essence of the Lords’ plan for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. We have planned our life together to do what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are five congregations because it is an practical, radical, attractive strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way we can imagine. We’re trying “to get to” making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. It is at least possible that Jesus uses billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, charismatic talking heads on big screens and all that to call together disciples. But his main strategy is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now — and showing that in a way that can touch our hearts and minds, face to face. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

So our strategy is to go with Jesus on this, he is the way. His way is our way. He is the truth and the life; we want people to get to God and their true selves through his work. We also presume that you will hear and feel the great commission and be a follower who connects with others who will eventually follow the Lord you follow. You love God and you love them so you find ways to makes a connection just like God found a way to connect to you. If you don’t care about that, we are mostly out of business, because that is what our family business is.

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. And if you look at Jesus and the twelve disciples, that’s basically what he did, too. So we had one, then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and watching them live or them die on their own spiritual strength. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

South Broad was the first congregation that formed (at 10th and Locust, then Broad and Washington). It drew from the entire region. We have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton Pike also has a very wide region — all of South Jersey. North Broad also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. Our newest congregation on Ridge Ave tries to attend to all the Northwest. We used to have congregations in G’town and Frankford, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, South Broad has about 130 adults after sending people off to the Northwest last year. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 50 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

There are a lot of practical reasons for having multiple congregations instead of one big one, but our best reasons are about making disciples. We have a strategy for making authentic disciples of Jesus in the megalopolis. See if you think we are making the right decision.

Being one church in four congregations allows us to be big and small

We are as small as a cell, and as big as the whole church; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the constituency.

In terms of congregations, since that is theme of this post, we like the congregations to be relatively small. I say relatively because most churches in the United States are smaller than our typical size. Even though you see all those megachurches on TV, most churches are between 70-100 people. They are a big cell group with a very energetic leader, the pastor. It takes multiple leaders and multiple cells not to be a 100 person church; we think having multiple cells is more expansive. So for us, small means about 200, which is about the number social scientists say an interested member of a social group can hope to connect with in some meaningful way, like remembering names. We like to be face to face. Jesus had twelve, then the 70 and then there were 150 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It was personal.

But there are also advantages of scale, being five congregations in one church. In larger groups, one person or one clique has a tough time dominating, so there can be multiple centers of leadership and accountability. That’s why we like to have two Sunday meetings, so it is built into us that there are more people than just the ones who are in the room. One of the biggest advantages of scale is sharing resources. Circle of Hope has a common fund, so if one congregation has less money than they need, the others can help. We have one mutuality fund, so we can distribute it where there is most need. We have a common set of compassion teams that we all share. We have the covenant list and share list that are fruitful places to contact a lot of people. We draw from the whole network for our Leadership Team. Our pastors are not singular, but are a team, so they have less psychological issues with isolation and get a lot of stimulation.

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be complex and simple, old and new

We are as complex as a network of cells, teams, businesses and events that have grown over time and as simple as the next new relationship we make.

On the complex side, it might be quite daunting to think that one congregation could come up with Circle Thrift and other good businesses. I am sure we would still have big ideas, but more complexity takes more time and staff and organization.

At the same time, we are quite simple. Our pastors do not run the one big church all day; they are mainly local pastors. We hope you feel like you can call up and talk to your pastor. I have a new friend with a 2000 person church in Delaware. People are on a three-month waiting list to get on his schedule, and he is their pastor. We want to know and be known, and that includes our leaders.

Being big and small also allows us to be old and new. At a Love Feast several years ago Gwen overheard someone saying, “Welcome to the covenant. I joined in three months ago.” So she chimed in, “Yes, welcome. I joined in 16 years ago.” Hiving off new congregations helps us stay new and attentive. Being a long-lasting network helps us have continuity and stabilizing lore.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be in a neighborhood and also city/region-wide

We are fully part of our neighborhood and fully part of our whole city and region.

A few years ago we started naming our congregations after their addresses. We’re all identified with neighborhoods; our region likes things local. You may not do this, but quite a few people over the years have signed in on the welcome list as “Tony from 12th and Mifflin,” or some such address. We want to actually live, as congregations, in our neighborhoods. It is true we have cells in all sorts of neighborhoods, but the congregation has a home, too, in its neighborhood, and we like to think we are a vital part of it.

On the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, because our region’s neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside my door, was a demarcation line for 50-60 years until that began to break down lately. We thought it would be a good representation of Jesus to be in different neighborhoods, but actually be one church. We did not want to give in to the arbitrary dividing lines that keep people apart.  We even decided to cross the river, and that was no small deal. Tons of people work every day in Philly and cross the bridge, but when they think about doing that to be one church and it seems like a big deal. We like to push the boundaries of what seems possible.

It does not make any difference how we are structured if no one cares about the family business. It would break a lot of hearts if we actually did it, but I and the leaders are pretty much content to let the whole thing die if no one applies themselves to working the strategy. I think I should trust your passion to run the business, just like Jesus trusted his first disciples. You have to want the Lord, have the purpose, and do the strategy, or it is all just a lot of talk.

People do not move into eternity with mere talk. They need to make a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. For many people, each of us is the only Jesus-is-my-way kind of Christian they have ever met. It is not an easy business to be in, but it is our family business. I am doing my best to tend it with you.

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear

I am not sure how it happened. But I realized early on that loneliness and my sense of isolation as a Christian had a lot to do with my infantile sense of being the center of the universe and unattended by those upon whom I was dependent. Later on I met God through Jesus Christ and I realized I was mistaken. In him is life. When I am alone I am actually alone with God. This experience completely changed my life. But it did not change without a process, like Lent. Thank God the season will be here again, soon.

Lent is a fruitful wilderness

Lent grows people who know they are one with God in their isolation and can act out of that oneness, even when they feel lonely. We know about many examples of people with the spiritual capacity to listen in the wilderness and then and act out of the oneness with God they find there, especially to speak what needs to be said to people who need to hear.

I offered a few stories about this to North Broad in December. Let me revisit two, starting with my own experience of the wind in the wilderness in my splendid and disturbing isolation one summer.

Palmdale without Palmdale

Back in the day, when I was in my early thirties, I spent a few retreat times alone in the Franciscan Spirituality Center outside Palmdale CA. Retreating made me a little strange, but I learned to love my wilderness experiences, especially in the desert. I love the desert. I have often met God there. The monks would give me the room of a visiting monk, which was pretty nice compared to the other rooms. I was often there all alone. It was a splendid kind of isolation.

One time I drove out to the center and I just felt terrible. I think I was having some kind of marriage issue. I think my close friendships were in a mess. And I was in a general thirtysomething angst fog. I got to my room and collapsed on my knees next to the bed. I felt blank. It felt like I needed to force myself to stay there on my knees, since I was on retreat and all. But I had no prayers. Not even “Help.”

After a few minutes I began to relax and felt so tired. I lay my head on the bed. Almost immediately I felt a little breeze. I looked over and the window was open a crack — for fresh air from some thoughtful Franciscan. I instinctively laid my head back down on my praying hands, and there was the wind. Dry desert wind gently blew over me until I began to feel it filling me and blowing through me, moving my feelings and reminding me that the Spirit of God was with me.

It was the beginning of a significant retreat. I went away with a marriage change to effect. And I went back with a direction: get beyond yourself and give my word to people. I experienced for myself a pattern often recounted in the Bible. The word of God comes to someone in the “wilderness.” Then the word of God comes through someone as they speak it with passion, authority and courage (although sometimes reluctantly). This all results in the person having a real relationship with the Word of God, Jesus, himself in a deeper and more satisfying, if often trying, way.

Over and over God meets people in their wilderness

Throughout the history of the church, we see again and again how God finds these out-of-place individuals, a bit wild like John the Baptist, nervous like Gideon, incapable feeling like Moses, scared like Peter. They are all thrust into the wilderness in one way or another, receive the word, bring it, and change their world in significant ways. We aspire to be those people. That’s why we remember them in our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body blog.

On November 18 we admired Odo of Cluny (a French way to spell Otto). It is a high-minded name, usually for the upper classes. It means “possessor of wealth.” The Cluny region in France, where he ended up, has always been a little hotbed of edgy Christianity. Today Cluny is about twenty minutes from Taize (whose music we sing), not far from Citeaux (home of Bernard of Claivaux), and Lake Geneva (where John Calvin built his community).

When Odo, was a young priest in Tours, he read The Rule of St. Benedict for himself for the first time. He was stunned. He realized he was not much of a Christian. He decided to leave his home town and become a Benedictine monk. You can imagine how this made him a little strange. In 909 he went to Beaume, a monastery (unlike many) where the Benedictine rule was strictly observed, and Abbot Berno received him into the community.

That same year, Berno started a new monastery at Cluny in Burgundy. He established it on the pattern of Beaume, insisting on a rigorous application of the Benedictine rule, which, to be honest, is not that rigorous compared to other rules, so you can see how lax and lifeless communities can get (note to self). In 927, Odo succeeded Berno as Cluny’s abbot and spread its influence to monasteries all over Europe. It turned out to be a huge influence, probably one of the most amazing movements of the Spirit you have never heard about.

Odo went to existing monastic communities and talked them into returning to the original pattern of the Benedictine rule of prayer, manual labor, and community life under the direction of a spiritual father. Imagine how hard it is to get our congregations to change how they do stuff. He was a change agent when he came to visit. Under his influence, monasteries chose more worthy abbots, cultivated a more committed spiritual life, and restored the depth of their daily worship. Odo helped lay the foundation for a renewal movement that went on for 200 years and reformed more than a thousand monastic communities. Those communities transformed the religious and political life of Europe.

The word of God came to Odo in the wilderness of his nominal Christianity. Then the word of God came through Odo as he spoke it with passion, authority and courage — so much so that he started a revival and became a peacemaker between warring kings. All this because the word of God, himself, the risen Jesus came to him to get his mission started.

Where do you think the Spirit is leading now?

The same Spirit that moved thirtysomething me, Odo, and others brought us together as Circle of Hope. The word of God came to us in Philadelphia, in the wilderness of postmodernity and vacuous expressions of the church.

Those strange people at Tenth and Locust

That Spirit also isolated us in ways. While we might seem normal to us, the reforms we instituted make us loved and resented in the BIC. A man is flying in from Kentucky to consult with us this month because he thinks he is as strange as us. But our bishops are never sure we are really team players. We don’t get along with Trump Christians, we deploy women pastors. We welcome gay people, accept cohabiting people as married. We listen instead of fighting and think reconciliation is more important than being right. We love psychotherapy. We believe black lives matter. We abhor war and suspect guns. We love immigrants. We talk about Jesus all the time to liberals and celebrate Lent with our spiritual ancestors. We practice contemplative prayer and don’t put men or anyone else at the top of a pyramidical structure. It goes on.

We are ambitious. We might go to your monastery tell you what God showed us. We might follow a radical rule of life together right in your backyard. So we might get as isolated like Moses, feared like Odo of Cluny. That might be Lent for many of us – receiving the wind of suffering, struggle, change, and reform that often isolates the reformers while they are bringing people together in Christ.

What is the word that Jesus wants to get out there now? — any new mouthpieces being grown up in the wilderness around here? I know there are. Do not let anyone shut you up. Tell the truth no matter what it costs. Love your hearers even if they don’t understand you right off. Give them what they need even if they throw it back in your face. The message is old. It came as a variation in the 900s and 1980s. But it always has a unique slant. What are you feeling? What does the wind of the Spirit blow into your mind and heart? Trust it!

During Lent we deliberately open ourselves to the disruption of death and resurrection. The discipline season leads us to the end of ourselves so we can rise again. We become isolated so we can be joined with God and others in a new way. As we have repeatedly experienced, through our times in the wilderness we end up being the vehicles for the Spirit, who come with a word from Jesus uniquely tailored to the needy world of today. What an honor! No matter where the wind of the Spirit blows me, I am always honored to feel it at all.

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The Great Commission: Facing threats to fulfilling it

My last seminar at the Mennonite World Conference was one my friend told me I needed to attend, since it was by Wes Furlong, pastor of an unusually large Mennonite Church in Florida. I was eager to see how the Anabaptists were trying to come to the megachurch picnic.

final tent meeting in the Farm Show Complex
final tent meeting in the Farm Show Complex

I was disappointed because Furlong did not show up. The replacement said he was still with his family after his vacation and felt it was better to stay with them. This was ironic, since part of his material included  asking a good-hearted skeptic to tell you what your church is like after they attend a meeting for the first time. I was the good-hearted skeptic at his meeting this time. Not showing up made a big impression. Come to find out Furlong has gone to quarter time at the church and started hiring himself out as a consultant and as one of the architects of the new splinter-group Evana. When I googled him, the first thing that came up was Wes Frulong.com. He’s his own brand.

There is a lot I learned from my seminar experience, but let’s give the material his substitute offered some respect. He wanted to explore how Anabaptist assets can serve the cause of fulfilling the Great Commission.  This is always a good topic of discussion. We do well to think about it because, I think, Circle of Hope and BIC assets are deep, but they are often poorly delivered in service to the cause. In the case of the BIC, I think the assets are well described, but the organization has been talking about itself for a decade or so instead of mobilizing for action. The BIC has hired a lot of Wes Furlong types to get ourselves going, but the denominational culture has become even less about our historic or actual assets, it seems to me.

The teacher talked about three things that are special threats to Anabaptist types if they want to fulfill the Great Commission. These are threats to most other churches, as well.

1) The original vision of a founding pastor/formation team or of a denomination tends to move toward institutionalization. The goal line might be clear and the way to get there might even be clear, but the requirements of the institution are too distracting to make enough good plays to get the ball over the line. To get anywhere, the homeostasis needs to be disrupted, but the system is designed to preserve itself.

2) Fear of authority. The baby boomers are in charge and they have taught their children to be even more suspicious of anyone in charge than they are. Unless you are an especially skillful or charismatic person, a leader in the church spends a lot of time figuring out who is in charge at a given moment and making all their many bosses happy. They never succeed in making everyone happy so they are on a hamster wheel of failure until they burn out. Nothing can be mobilized.

3) The lack of clarity between modality and sodality. This is about being a people and being a mission. Obviously we should be both: a missional community. But often the modality (the church as a means to the end) is more important than the sodality (that singular cause for which the church exists). Churches get on the bus and then decide where to go rather than being invited onto a bus that is already scheduled for a destination. We end up with a covenant to confab rather than convert.

In the face of these threats to meeting the Lord’s goal, what must be done?

1) Trust the Holy Spirit to start a movement. You can’t do anything right enough to make the plant grow, but you can prepare the soil, sow, and till.

2) Understand that a lot of it depends on the hearts of the leaders. If they don’t want to go where Jesus is going and they can’t bear the rejection they will bear when they go with him, there is not going to be enough passion to sustain mission (like enough of THE Passion).

3) Our perception of ourselves in Christ will probably need to change. The teacher gave a metaphor of the Mennonites (and I think the BIC have this disease a bit) as being the quiet people of the land because they have the tongue-screw still applied from their days of being quieted by persecution. It is hard to get the assets on the road if you can’t talk about them. People are worried about how the gospel is communicated but that can’t be the main concern; we should know who we are and let the communication be contextual and variable.

4) The organization will need to change to facilitate the goal, not vice versa. The Cape Christian church went to local officials and other neighbors and asked what big need in their area was going unmet. They found out that it had to do with families, especially foster children. They took on the task. They built a new building that included a splash park. Soon families were coming to their church after going to the splash park. What’s more, they got committed to fostering and ended up responsible for 50-60% of the foster family placements in their city of 175,000 people. Their goal changed everything.

What does it take to help people know Jesus and become fully-functioning members of the body of Christ — not abstractly, but in our location? Serious answers to that question could arrive at serious goals that are worth our lives – the lives Jesus gave us to live, not to waste while we aspire to live in some more-perfect future – like the future when some renowned presenter shows up to encourage you to show up.

Patrick had nerve — redux

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him,

  • we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working.
  • we keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered.
  • we get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with
  • we undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing

We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Continue reading Patrick had nerve — redux

Brigid Day — celebrating great women of faith

February 1 is always a great day to celebrate great women of faith. Thank God for Brigid and for you!

Here are some pieces from the past that celebrate Brigid of Ireland and women like her of today.

2009 — Today Is Saint Brigid’s Day

2014 — Nineteen Flame-tending Women to Start

Patrick had nerve

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him, we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working. We keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered. We get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with. We undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing. We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Continue reading Patrick had nerve

Planning: Let the Lord Make your Radical Steps Solid

We are about ready to distribute a spiffy, hard-copy version of our 2013 Map this weekend. We take our planning seriously. We set goals and (to our surprise!) tend to meet them. But don’t get us wrong. We don’t have a very deep commitment to strategic planning, as it is commonly practiced (as in, I don’t really understand the following chart).strategic plan chart

Some Christians actually think that if your church is not involved in some strategic plan you are being unbiblical. One article from the venerable Christianity Today said, not long ago, there is a mandate for strategic thinking in the Bible and they quoted Proverbs 16:9 as their proof: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” I think they were interpreting that to mean, “If we plan, the Lord will make the plans happen” (Marshall, n.d.). But I think the proverb more likely teaches: “You can plan all you want, but if the Lord does not make your steps solid, your plans will come to nothing.”

The latter interpretation is more in line with how we map out the year. I admit, some of us wish we were much more adept at working together like a well-oiled machine according to a sensible, trackable, strategic plan. But we are not that adept. For instance, the pastors, have a 3-4 hour meeting every week that’s full of strategizing. But it is so long because a good hour of it, at least, is always devoted to sharing our hearts and developing one another. There is entirely too much laughter to allow for adept project management! We just can’t stop the love to make progress. Progress ends up “happening” in spite of our plans, sometimes.

How planning really works

That kind of planning for God to show up seems to be how Paul’s missions strategy really worked. If you want to talk about biblical strategizing, check out how the premier, most successful, strategist in the Bible worked out his plan. In the view of 21st century strategic planners, who take their cues from corporations, people say Paul focused on the major cities of the Mediterranean basin as his target for world evangelization and carefully worked out a well-considered plot to infiltrate the whole area. Well, I’m not sure about that. He got to the major cities, most of them, that’s true. But it seems like his strategy amounted, mostly, to taking the next opportunity that presented itself and then sticking with it until he, most of the time, got thrown out of town.

The Gangites River. Nearby, a marker commemorates the first baptism in Europe.
The Gangites River. Nearby, a marker commemorates the first baptism in Europe.

Take Philippi, for instance, this was Paul’s first stop on his leap into Europe, a leap occasioned by a vision in the night. Philippi was an important city which Augustus had refounded as a Roman colony and where he settled Italian colonists and veterans of the Praetorian cohort. Acts 16:13 reports that there was a Jewish synagogue (proseuchë, “place of prayer,” is a designation for Jewish meeting places) by the river Gangites, about a mile west of the city center. That’s where Paul met Lydia and things got going. But up-and-coming Amphipolis, which would have been the next port of call for Paul’s ship, probably would have been a more strategic place to start. Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lord and Savior of the world in Philippi risked hostile reactions from the beginning, since its citizens were staunch worshipers of the emperor and of his deified ancestors. A series of coins minted in Philippi shows on one side the head of the emperor Augustus with the inscription “the Augustan colony of Julian Philippi on the command of Augustus”; the reverse side depicts a statue of Augustus on a pedestal being crowned by Julius Caesar, with the inscription “Augustus, son of the Divine, for the Divine Julius” (Schnabel, 2007). The Philippians were pretty hard-core.

While Luke reports in some detail the conversion of Lydia, a God-fearing woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor who lived in Philippi and attended the synagogue (Acts 16:13-15), he focuses his history of the mission in the city on the opposition instigated by locals who initiated legal proceedings against Paul and Silas before the magistrates, which landed them in prison (Acts 16:16-40). The missionaries were accused of causing disturbances in the city and of “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21). This is where Paul’s strategy led him to get started on Europe.

We plan like Paul

It looks like God established Paul’s steps right to Philippi, good strategic thinking notwithstanding. Paul had his general orders to take the gospel to the gentiles, but it looks like he didn’t overly care how that happened. We are doing a similar piece of strategizing this year. One of our network goals starts with the general idea of who we need to be. We know that “We are incarnations of Jesus in our neighborhoods. We want to be people who are known for bringing the hope and justice of Jesus to the streets.” That’s a given. But we don’t mind how many different ways that happens.

We have an idea for how we can carry out our vision this year. So we have charged “our Coordinating Groups to connect with people and partnerships who already bless our neighborhoods.” We don’t really know exactly how these groups of cells will meet this goal, although I hear that a couple already have some good ideas. Our Map offers an assortment of suggestions for how we might meet our need by working on the goal: We could connect and partner with people among us who work with agencies in our neighborhoods. We could partner with other churches, agencies, and allies. We could mobilize the resources of the church to bless our neighbors.

The suggestions are purposely general, because we want the Lord to establish our steps. We want people to listen to the Spirit and to one another and to risk taking the opportunities they are given. We don’t need to be slaves to the strategic plan, fitting ourselves into holes predesigned by some piece of paper. We know what God wants us to do, and we trust that the Lord will work out the specifics. We are sure that our plans and agreements can only help in the process, but we certainly make them flexible enough to take our best shot when it is provided. If we fail, or get thrown out of town, that might make things even better! Read Paul’s letter to the Philippians from prison in Rome and you’ll understand his idea of strategy even better!

This one comes with references!
Schnabel, E. E. (2007). Paul’s urban strategies : Jerusalem to Crete. Stone-Campbell Journal, 10(2), 231-260.
Marshall, M. (n.d.) Is strategic planning biblical?: Looking at leaders from scripture. Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/articles/2003/le-031112a.html?start=2

Why Four Congregations?

Becoming a part of Circle of Hope can be very confusing. I suppose that is true of any church or organization – it is also true of us. I have had any number of people come into our room at Broad and Washington when the people aren’t there and ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Your meetings are on Sunday night?” Actually all this happened when the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit last summer. They said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in four congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us. We are slaves to our own understanding and we need a reconnection to what is beyond us. We are sinful and broken, and it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored. We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are four congregations in one church.

More directly, we have the purpose statement for the family business that guides us. They call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The essence of the Lords’ strategy for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. Our structure is a strategy for doing what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are four congregations for the purposes of strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way. We’re trying to get to making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. I think Jesus might use billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, and all that to call together disciples. But his main means is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

So our strategy is to go with Jesus on this, he is the way. His way is our way. He is the truth and the life; we want people to get to God and their true selves through his work. We also presume that you will hear and feel the great commission and be a follower who connects with others who will eventually follow the Lord you follow. You love God and you love them so you find ways to makes a connection just like God found a way to connect to you. If you don’t care about that, we are mostly out of business, because that is what our family business is.

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. Then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and having them die. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

Broad and Washington was the first congregation that formed, so we have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton and Crescent has a very wide, region, too, all of South Jersey. Broad and Dauphin also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. We used to have congregations in the Northwest and Northeast, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, Broad and Washington has about 180 adults, in the congregation. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 40 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

There are a lot of practical reasons for having multiple congregations instead of one big one, but our best reasons are about making disciples. We have a strategy for making authentic disciples of Jesus in the megalopolis. See if you think we are making the right decision.

Being one church in four congregations allows us to be big and small

We are as small as a cell, and as big as the network; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the church.

In terms of congregations, since that is the question, we like the congregations to be relatively small. I say relatively because most churches in the United States are smaller than our typical size. Even though you see all those megachurches on TV, most churches are between 70-100 people. They are a big cell group with a very energetic leader, the pastor. It takes multiple leaders and multiple cells not to be a 100 person church; we think having multiple cells is more expansive. So for us, small means about 200, which is about the number social scientists say an interested member of a social group can hope to connect with in some meaningful way, like remembering names. We like to be face to face. Jesus had twelve, then the 70 and then there were 150 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It was personal.

But there are advantages of scale, being four congregations in one church. In larger groups, one person or one clique has a tough time dominating, so there can be multiple centers of leadership and accountability. That’s why we like to have two PMs, so it is built into us that there are more people than just the ones who are in the room. One of the biggest advantages of scale is sharing resources. Circle of Hope has a common fund, so if one congregation has less money than they need the others can help. We have one compassion fund, so we can distribute it where there is most need. We have a common set of compassion teams that we all share. We have the dialogue list that is a fruitful place to contact a lot of people. We draw from the whole network for our Leadership Team. Our pastors are not singular, but are a team, so they have less psychological issues with isolation and get a lot of stimulation.

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

Being four congregations as one church allows us to be complex and simple, old and new

We are as complex as a network of cells, teams, businesses and events that have grown over time and as simple as the next new relationship we make.

On the complex side, it might be quite daunting to think that one congregation could come up with the Thrift Stores and the Good Business consortium. I am sure we would still have big ideas, but more complexity takes more time and staff and organization.

At the same time, we are quite simple. I am not running the one big church all day, so I am a local pastor. We hope you feel like you can call up and talk to your pastor. I have a new friend with a 2000 person church in Delaware. People are on a three-month waiting list to get on his schedule, and he is their pastor. We want to know and be known, and that includes me.

It also allows us to be old and new. At the Love Feast in July Gwen overheard someone saying “Welcome to the covenant. I joined in three months ago.” So she chimed in, “Yes, welcome. I joined in 16 years ago.” Hiving off new congregations helps us stay new and attentive. Being a long-lasting network helps us have continuity and stabilizing lore.

Being four congregations as one church allows us to be neighborhood and city-wide, region-wide

We are fully part of our neighborhood and fully part of our whole city and region.

A few years ago we started naming our congregations after their corners, Philly style. Philly is a city of neighborhoods; our region likes things local. You may not do this, but quite a few people over the years have signed in on the welcome list as “Tony from 12th and Mifflin,” or some such address. We want to actually live, as congregations, in our neighborhoods. It is true we have cells in all sorts of neighborhoods, but the congregation has a home, too, in its neighborhood, and we like to think we are a vital part of it.

But, on the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, especially in Philly. Because Philly neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct; they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside out door, was a demarcation line for 50-60 years until that began to break down lately. We thought it would be a good representation of Jesus to be in different neighborhoods, but actually be one church. We did not want to give in to the arbitrary dividing lines that keep people apart.  We even decided to cross the river, and that was no small deal. Tons of people work every day in Philly and cross the bridge, but do that for something like being the church and it seems big. We like to push the boundaries of what seems possible.

It does not make any difference how we are structured if no one cares about the family business. It would break a lot of hearts if we actually did it, but I and the leaders are pretty much content to let the whole thing die if no one applies themselves to working the strategy. I think I should trust your passion to run the business, just like Jesus trusted his first disciples. You have to want the Lord, want the church, want the strategy, or it is all just a lot of talk.

People do not move into eternity with mere talk. They need to make a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. For many people, each of us is the only Jesus-is-my-way kind of Christian they have ever met. It is not an easy business to be in, but it is our family business. I am doing my best to tend it with you.