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.
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.