An Increase in Satellite Campuses and Unconventional Meeting Spaces
It’s opening weekend for the latest superhero movie in Vancouver (B.C.). Bucket of popcorn and 3D glasses in hand, three enthusiastic fans slip into the theater early, hoping to get a good seat. To their surprise, there aren’t previews on the screen in front of them but a group of people standing in line to take bread and wine.
Welcome to the world of church planting.
Members of the Tapestry (Christian Reformed) Church planted its Marpole campus for encounters like the one with these three superhero fans—to meet people at one of contemporary culture’s focal points. After all, people probably wouldn’t accidently walk into Tapestry’s main campus, which meets in a traditional church building.
“We are in a nexus when it comes to contemporary life in the city of Vancouver,” said Jesse Pals, Tapestry Marpole’s lead pastor, referring to the way his church serves as a bridge to the community. “We meet in a hub of an entertainment complex. People are coming throughout the day to eat popcorn and participate in pop culture in the same place where we’re worshiping Jesus.”
Many church plants across North America are taking similar approaches, some as satellite campuses like the Tapestry and others as single church plants. Wherever they are meeting—be it a movie theatre, art gallery, or a hotel—they are ministering where people are instead of expecting new believers to walk into a church building.
This response is necessary in a world that is filled with people who are increasingly post-Christian, explained Kevin Schutte, who serves as the mission-shaped congregations leader for Resonate Global Mission.
Schutte works to address the fact that being a Christian isn't the default for people in North America anymore. In some places, this isn't a new problem—there's an entire generation that has never had any experience with the church. In other places, post-Christianity is just beginning as people drift out the back door of churches in early adulthood. Schutte said that all Christian Reformed churches need to be prepared to live with this new reality.
“I don't think church planting is changing because we want to do something different, but because of broad cultural shifts,” said Schutte. “In today's culture, the kind of church plant a neighborhood needs depends on the neighborhood. So Resonate works with church planters to discover what God is up to in each place, which allows the church to fit its community.”
These “variety of forms” might be taking communion before the Avengers movie, roasting coffee for the neighborhood to enjoy, or some other expression of Christ’s love. What these churches all share is an attempt to answer a common question—what does it mean to live out the gospel as a church in this context?
God Has Long-Term Plans for Short-Term Plants
The majority of Christian Reformed church plants Resonate has worked with over the past decade are still serving their communities. In fact, 144 churches planted in the last 10 years are thriving. However, sometimes the call to plant a church turns out to be temporary and the church folds after a few years. In these situations, church planters have found that even when a church stops meeting, their efforts have not been in vain.
One planter who recently discovered this is Pete Armstrong of Dwell, a church planted in the bustling world of New York City. Dwell sought to help people take a deep breath and find community in the body of Christ. After many challenges that come with being located in the center of a city, leaders at Dwell made the difficult decision to close their doors after six years of ministry. They held their final service in December 2016.
“Obviously this isn’t what I was hoping God would do,” said Armstrong. “But now, [several] months later, I can laugh about presuming God’s will and say I have more joy in ministry than ever before, and I see clearly how God used the church plant.”
Some of the ways God used the church plant were evident at the church’s final service.
People who had moved away traveled back for the day. Members from all of Dwell’s six years shared testimonies of how Jesus worked in their life through their time at Dwell. Fittingly, Armstrong preached using the popular Broadway story “Hamilton” to illustrate hope in death.
“Our identity is in Christ and our hope is in the gospel,” said Armstrong. “I think we need that message the most when it seems like our dream has died. The gospel became more real to me through this experience.”
Many of the people involved at Dwell have continued to serve the community where it was located. Others have moved away and shared with Armstrong how they are serving Christ in places like Singapore, the Netherlands, and China.
The lessons Armstrong learned at Dwell aren’t going to waste. Today he serves at Parklane CRC (Portland, Ore.) and also as a local mission leader with Resonate Global Mission.
“I felt like I messed up and failed, but that’s not how Jesus treats us,” added Armstrong. “Now I get to serve other people and help the CRC be even stronger in mission and that feels great.”
Church Plants Should Respond to the Neighborhood’s Needs
Another church planter who has had experience planting multiple churches is Jeff Heerspink. Heerspink and his wife, Beth, are currently serving at at F Street Neighborhood Church in Lincoln, Neb.
True to its name, members of this three-year-old church plant make it their goal to serve the neighborhood around them—a neighborhood where 88 percent of students at the nearest elementary school qualify for free or reduced lunch and 72 percent are minorities. These figures include Alexis and Taylor (names changed), two sisters who have been coming to the church for about two years.
Beth Heerspink has gotten to know Alexis and Taylor over the years, as well as their mother, Marsa. For these two sisters, getting a meal can be one of their biggest challenges, especially in the summer when school does not provide lunch and their mother is away at work.
“If they want something to eat, they usually have to find some peanut butter and put it on a piece of bread or cook up some ramen,” said Beth, explaining that the children lack skills to cook other meals on their own. “Or they buy chips and donuts with the food stamp card their mom gives them.”
It’s not that Alexis and Taylor are abandoned, but poverty and an unfair justice system have caused their family to slip through the cracks. Marsa is a refugee from Egypt who has had a hard time keeping a regular job because of unreliable childcare and transportation. She cannot afford a stable place to live for her family, much less the legal fees she needs to combat false child support claims. Even though these things are beyond her control, she is not eligible for childcare subsidies until she can pay the legal fees. This leaves the children on their own in the summer, including at meal times.
After meeting children like Alexis and Taylor, members of the church decided to try a new ministry. With a community engagement grant from Resonate Global Mission, the church began a cooking class that taught children like Alexis and Taylor how to saute vegetables and shred chicken as well as food safety and what it means to gather as a “family” around a table and pray before meals. After each class, the children get to eat the healthy meal they have prepared.
“Alexis and Taylor loved trying new foods they had never had before, from fettuccini Alfredo to Tater Tot casserole to homemade spaghetti sauce and pizzas,” added Beth.
As Alexis and Taylor continue to learn new cooking skills and stories from the Bible, the Heerspinks see this as one way the church can be the hands and feet of Christ and introduce others to the gospel.
"Meeting with the kids really gives you a glimpse of the neighborhood,” said Jeff. “As you work with them, you get to know the parents. As you work with the parents through other programs you get to know the kids.”
People like Alexis, Taylor, and Marsa exist in every community. If your church wants help in reaching out to them, consult the table for a list of resources to help get you started.
The CRC Is Planting and Renewing in Exciting Ways
Kevin Schutte refers to the cooking class at F Street and similar programs as “gospel entry points” for members of the community.
“Successful church plants are engaging the neighborhood where they’re at,” said Schutte. “This tends to be more initially focused on community service. So Sunday morning worship becomes an expression but not an entry point for new members of the church.”
At Synod 2017, representatives discussed declining CRC membership with the resolve to “reverse the trend through church renewal and planting” (Overture 11). This is also something leaders at Resonate are passionate about addressing. They are excited to work with congregations and classes on reversing the trend.
Whether a church is considering a new plant or wants to renew itself, thinking about your church’s gospel entry points is a great place to start, said Schutte. He added that these entry points all have one important ingredient—an emphasis on people, not programs.
“The non-churchgoer in our culture isn’t going to be attracted to a ‘nicer’ facility or ‘better’ worship band,” said Schutte. “Instead they are going to become engaged at an individual, communal level.”
Resources for Church Planting and Renewal
Calvin Seminary’s Renewal Lab A two-year renewal journey for the purpose of developing intentional missional congregations that make more and better disciples who transform lives and communities for Christ.
Worship Ministries Webinars Many of the webinars offered by the CRC’s Worship Ministries serve to renew churches in their worship planning. Specifically, “How the Heart of God Shapes our Worship” discusses how the identity of the people who gather for worship should shape our planning.
Healthy Church The Healthy Church process, carried out over a 6-9 month period, provides an accurate picture and broad ownership for strengths that can be celebrated and continued, along with challenges that need to be addressed.
Church Juice A website from Back to God Ministries’ReFrame Media where church leaders can learn how to intentionally engage their congregations and communities in meaningful ways. Here you’ll find free resources to help you refine your church’s communication tools.
crcna.org/Ignite These grants encourage and enable new ministry innovation and initiatives by providing seed money and other resources to support new ministries for a short time until they can sustain themselves through their own support or through an agency, ministry, church, or classis.
Resonate Global Mission Staff: Resonate partners with parent churches and regional classes who want to plant churches in their area. From recruitment and assessment to mentoring and training, Resonate can walk alongside and provide support as churches are planted throughout the US and Canada.
Resonate Global Mission Grants: Through Resonate, church planters can get connected to coaching and training that help them grow as pastors and leaders. Additionally, church plants who partner with Resonate have access to grant funding for everything from equipment to community engagement. These grants are a vital way that Resonate continues to plant more new Christian Reformed Churches every year.