By Jeff Christopherson
I really began to grow in my understanding of God’s kingdom in 2001 in Oakville, a suburb of Toronto, when we began to plant The Sanctuary church. We had a core team of four committed families and, learning from previous experiences in church planting, we had made the commitment to concentrate on building a launch team that reflected our audience—the lost of Oakville.
We began to initiate relationships with people through natural channels of business and neighborhood. We engaged in numerous ministry projects that put us face-to-face in relationship with other men and women who were curious about this “thing” we were starting. We spent six months cultivating relationships with people in order to develop the beginnings of trust.
Six months in we had a lot of friendships we’d developed at varying levels, who we believed trusted us—or at least trusted our intentions. We made our first withdrawal from that trust account when we asked if they would gather in a community center on a weekday evening. We explained that two things would take place. First, we would have a meal together. Second, I was going to ask one simple question. No one would be embarrassed or put on the spot. We valued and needed their thoughts.
We thought if everyone came whom we had spoken to we’d have around 60 adults that evening.
The evening came. Together we prepared a meal of lasagna, salad, bread, tea and coffee. We’d arranged eight round tables and prepared place settings. The investments of friendship and trust became evident as we watched single moms, divorced men, married couples, neighbors, our insurance broker, our realtor, our lawyer, people we had first met in ministry projects—all walk into the room. Sixty unchurched friends and acquaintances showed up.
They were all connected to one of our four core families but not to one another, so the conversation at tables was stilted in the beginning. That was about to change. It was now time for the second part of the evening—the question.
I stood and interrupted the various conversations, thanked them for coming and thanked them in advance for their valuable input. I explained that I was about to ask a question and would like each table to discuss the question and elect a spokesman to share their response.
Here was the question: “How would you describe your ideal spiritual community? What is important? What is not? What is significant? What is irrelevant? What does it do? What doesn’t it do? Paint a picture.”
It was pretty quiet in that room for the first seconds. Then one brave soul at a table ventured out, and then another. In no time at all the room was buzzing with animated conversation.
About 15 minutes into this exercise, I once again stood up and interrupted. It was time to report. I was nervous and excited all at once. I expected to gain some knowledge that would help us shape our future, but I was not expecting to hear what I was about to hear.
Unchurched person after unchurched person stood up and shared a picture of the ideal spiritual community. These were the three common themes:
• God would be important every day, not just one day.
• It would be a spiritual community that cared for the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of one another.
• It would be a spiritual community that met the needs of the greater community.
I stood there amazed as I heard these people with little to no Christian experience articulate an amazingly healthy theology of Christian community. God had created a longing in their hearts for an authentic worshipping community and had given them the words and pictures to describe it.
Now it was their turn to be amazed. These kingdom seekers who were able to articulate the longings of their hearts were dumbfounded to discover the Word of God had already described spiritual community in that same way.
God had already done the work. I invited these friends to join us in building this kind of spiritual community. It was not a difficult sell.
Over the next 12 months we baptized 52 of our new friends.
Over the next nine years, these friends would “give themselves away” nine more times, multiplying themselves into 10 congregations in the Toronto area.
Over the next nine years, these friends would give time and resources and leadership away to start two church planting organizations, which together have started numerous churches within our city.
We experienced the power of God in seeking His kingdom. It transformed a community and is continuing to transform a city. And here’s the thing. This power is not available only in Toronto or only to the select few. This power, first articulated by Christ in Acts 1:8, is given to all of us. The question is whether we’re willing to receive it by obedience to His calling.
My friend Dan experienced this firsthand as he wrestled with leading an existing church in our city.
The Kingdom Expander
Dan was pastor of a church with an impressive building strategically located on a busy thoroughfare in Toronto. The building stood as a monument of what had once been. Dan was called as senior pastor in hopes of “righting the ship” and bringing back the glory years. Dan was their dream come true.
Then Dan began to prepare God’s people for the mission. For perhaps the first time in its history, this white, middle-class church was about to reflect and be on mission in its community.
At first blush, it seemed that Dan had struck upon a winning idea—starting new congregations that would speak the heart language of the community. But many questions from significant stakeholders had yet to be answered. The apparent question behind all the other questions was: “How will all of this help us grow our church?”
There may have been a small amount of admiration for his intentions, but the silly plan would never see the light of day. Pastor Dan, who had a huge heart for the kingdom of God, had run face-first into the brick wall of church growth.
Every day he saw the sadness, hopelessness and desperation written on the faces of those with whom his church had no credibility. But his church didn’t budge.
With a deeply saddened heart, Dan tendered his resignation to the elders. It wasn’t a question of pride; it was a question of allegiance.
Nobody was happy. The elders presented Dan with a proposal and request all in one. The proposal was “don’t leave.” The request was “give us more time to sit with the idea of being missional.”
In a written statement to the elders, Dan prescribed the conditions of his continued leadership, which included initiating a first church plant within their community after 12 more months of congregational preparation.
One year later Dan called me and asked, “Would you be interested in having a conversation about starting a new church?” Another year had not adequately prepared the church to look outside its walls, so he’d made the pivotal decision to leave.
The problem is this. All too often we want to save ourselves, even from the very mission of God. All too easily our churches become human-centered organizations that are ill equipped for the eternal assignment of being salt and light. And should a church find itself functioning in this miserable state defined mostly by pragmatic, human-centered, strategic planning, it is in exceedingly dangerous territory.
What is the right decision for any church to consider: self-preservation or to extend the kingdom of God? If saving our lives means losing our lives, then what does it mean to save our institutions instead of seeking to expand God’s kingdom?
Spiritually healthy churches exist as a temporal tool that has the kingdom of God as its eternal goal. So when we choose to save our church instead of allowing God to use it how He pleases, our churches are reduced to sacred spaces dedicated to the dark arts of self-worship. Dead-end links on the great commission chain.
No doubt some would say that seasons of self-absorbed entrenchment are necessary for long-term sustainability. But what does it say of our ecclesiology? Is the greater good the survival of the institution?
As a church do we have seasons where we walk with God building His kingdom, but from time to time we take breaks to recover?
If Jesus is the Head of the body charged with the sole task of kingdom building, isn’t He capable of sustaining His body while marching on His mission?
I hope so.
What does a Kingdom-minded Church Look Like?
This brings me back to the story that began around plates of lasagna in an Oakville community center that has since turned into a spiritual community that knows its kingdom identity.
Most recently, the church adopted a socially disadvantaged area filled with single moms and newly arrived immigrants. Our people have learned to look for the “social fault lines” of an area, and in this case it was the future of children. Many couldn’t read with any proficiency and were bound for a life of frustration and perpetual poverty.
What started as summer children’s camps has turned into year-round Children’s Theatre where kids rehearse lines to dramas and perform those dramas several times a year. This has brought the people of The Sanctuary in contact with people who would never think of attending any church. The good news had authentic relational rails to travel on.
But to get to this point, we first have to wrestle with some key questions: Is our church looking for the social fault lines where felt needs can be met through gospel activity? Is our leadership seeing these as opportunities for internal church growth or as occasions for outward expansion and reproduction according to the needs of the community? If I drew a circle around where our church is located, who in that circle would be the least predisposed to ever darken the doors of our church? How could I best bring the good news to them in a way that they would understand and receive it? What would it require of us?
If The Sanctuary had started as a church that saw its own success and growth as the highest good, we would have squarely missed the point of why Jesus originated His church. We would, in essence, have planted a self-seeking organization that saw its interests as a superior value to Jesus’ kingdom itself.
As far as I am concerned, the temporal backslapping “atta-boys” will never sound as sweet as an eternal “well done” from my King. OM
Jeff Christopherson is a Canadian church planter and NAMB’s regional vice president for Canada and the Northeast.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC