We are moving to Southern Illinois five weeks from today. Only five weeks! I can’t tell you how excited we are.
We’ve already shared that the Lord has led us to plant a network of house churches. Our focus is on the proclamation of the gospel, discipleship, hospitality and reconciliation in the neighborhoods. At some point, I also want to share more about the vision God’s given us for the multiplication of the model. But as the date approaches, I’ve been reflecting on how God led us specifically to the neighborhood we’re moving to. Did I mention it’s only five weeks away!?!
The “Neighborhood” Part of a Neighborhood Church
Think about where you live. Mentally draw a circle (or a square, a rhombicosidodecahedron, or whatever shape you need to) around all the people that live and work and play within say 1.5 miles of your living room. That’s how far you can walk in a half hour.
Your family is your primary mission field. But this group of people … the ones within 30 minute’s walk … they are your second mission field. Jesus would consider everyone to be your neighbor, even your enemies (Luke 10:25-37), and obviously I agree. But the folks inside the rhombicosidodecahedronhave (last time, I promise) are your actual, physical, living-on-the-same-street, invite-them-to-the-BBQ-because-you-walked-your-dog-past-their-driveway-while-they-were-washing-the-car neighbors. How many folks do you figure are in your half hour radius? In a subdivision like the one we’re moving to, maybe hundreds? In an apartment complex or a crowded city block, maybe even thousands? In a small rural community, maybe it’s only 20 or 30? The point is that someday we will stand before the Lord, and He’s going to ask us how well we loved them.
The Project SOIL team has spent a lot of time talking about intentionally loving our neighbors. We want to love them like Jesus does. In fact, we want to be like Him! I once heard a story about a missionary who had died. But when another missionary showed up years later and described Jesus, everyone insisted they’d already met Him … because they thought the new guy was describing the long-deceased missionary who had come before him.
We want to be like that in our new neighborhood!
So we are taking Jesus at His word when He commands us to love your neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39), to proclaim to them the availability of true freedom and radical restoration (Isa 61), to tell them the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near (Matt 4:17), to teach them what Jesus has taught us about life in all its fullness (Matt 28:18-20; c.f. John 10:10), to share our lives with them (1 Thes 2:8) and to be agents of reconciliation among them (2 Cor 5:20). To us, this means taking His call to the mission field of the neighborhood very seriously.
How did this become a church planting strategy?
From the very beginning, I felt God would be sending four families (including ours) to partner together to plant this church. Since I’ve long dreamed about moving into a neighborhood with other Christians to be intentional missionaries there, a church planting model that married these two ideas clicked into place pretty effortlessly. God would uproot four families from wherever they were, and send them to intentionally move in to a single neighborhood. We’d spread out across the neighborhood, so that the 1.5 mile circles overlap, and simply be the church in the midst of all those people. We’d live “holy, righteous and blameless lives” among them (1 Thes 2:10), love them well, invite them into our lives, break bread together, and walk toward Jesus … inviting every willing soul to come with us! That’s the plan! That’s our particular “living out” of Jesus’ mission to all His followers.
It could be yours as well.
How did you actually end up in a specific neighborhood?
Great question. Short answer is: a lot of prayer and intentionality. But here are some details…
Locating a Region in which to Plant
First, I’m from the St. Louis Metro East area. My parents, who still live in the area, are getting older, and my wife and I always thought that in the absence of a specific call from the Lord to pastor somewhere else, we’d return to the area to be near and support them.
Secondly, Southern Illinois has almost no EFCA churches (our denomination). That’s not going to work for us at all. 😀
Third, there are many churches in the area, but very few that…
- Are filled with people who know Jesus and walk with Him by the power of His Spirit
- Live as if the Scriptures are in fact the immutable, authoritative word of God
- Intentionally live on mission, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven
- Serve and love people well, focusing on Christian hospitality
- Function under the authority of denominational leadership and a plurality of elders
We consider all these to be vital aspects of a healthy church, and because there seem to be few places that excel in these five areas, the Metro East area seemed to be an excellent place to plant.
Fourth, there is a lot of need in the area. Gangs, drugs and racial tension have been on the rise and spreading for decades. The economy is weaker than anyone would like. And many (for these and other reasons) live daily in a lack of hope. If this doesn’t describe a desperate need for healing and resurrection power, I don’t know what does!
Lastly, we prayed … a lot! We talked to people we trust … a lot! I started seminary thinking I’d be a professor someday. I finished seminary last Friday, 6 years later, and over that time we spent hundreds of hours praying, reading and talking with trusted advisors about where and how to serve the Lord. The reality is that there are no microwave solutions to life. If you want to hear from the Lord, you have to spent time with Him in prayer, studying His word, and ruminating with His people (including dead ones who walked with Him long ago and wrote about the journey). I just don’t think there’s any other way to navigate tough decisions. Certainly, this process is no exception.
Locating a City in which to Plant
Okay, you got a general idea about where in the world to land. Then what? How did you narrow it down to O’Fallon, IL?
Well, again, a lot of prayer.
And then we literally got out a map, pulled up Google, did research, and started drawing circles around towns toward which we felt God could possibly lead us. We looked at a bunch of different towns. We had to develop the willingness to live anywhere – not just where we’d settle if we were looking for a great place to indulge the flesh – which means we had to wrestle with that in prayer. And we had to focus on the ministry possibilities of each place, not what we liked or what would make us comfortable.
We ended up with 6-7 different possibilities, and then we literally started visiting them. We drove down Main Streets. We prayed our way through neighborhoods. We looked up information on schools and social services. We researched the churches already in those towns.
And we just kept asking God to give us a sense of where we were supposed to be.
We ruled out a few towns as too far away from the city (St. Louis), because we intend that all our pastors will be bi-vocational … which means that they will work in the marketplace as well as be ministers of the gospel.
But primarily, we just kept praying and exploring until one “felt right.”
Locating a Neighborhood in which to Plant
Okay, then, how’d you narrow it down to a specific neighborhood?
No, wait. Let me guess… Prayer?
Yup! You got it. And I’m seriously not trying to be trite. I’m amazed at how many years I spent thinking I should be able to hear from the Lord without actually taking the time to ask Him what He thought and then really listen for the answer. And it took even longer to figure out that God almost always uses other people to do His best work in my life … like helping me to discern the answers to these kinds of hard questions.
(Parenthetically, you catch the implication of that, right? This means He’s doing His best work in someone else’s life right now through YOU. Or, at least, that’s the plan. Are you participating in it? But I digress…)
In part to assist in our “choose a town” exercise above, but mostly focused on picking the right neighborhood, we made a list of the qualities we though a neighborhood should have in order to be an optimal mission field. I’m not at all saying that you have to use this list, but this is the we felt led to do…
List 1: What makes the best neighborhood mission field?
The ideal neighborhood mission field would be:
- Fairly dense. We wanted a subdivision with a lot of people in it, so we ruled out small isolated neighborhoods or places where there was too much space between houses.
- Fairly diverse, both economically and racially. Ideally, we would live in a place where lots of different kinds of people live, because a) Jesus loves all different kinds of people and they all need Him, b) we need to learn to love people who are different from us, and c) different people make theology and the gathering of God’s people deeper and richer for everyone. This also makes it possible for all four of the initial planting families to be able to afford to live in the same neighborhood.
- Near a commercial zone. We wanted to be somewhat close to schools, stores and restaurants where members of the church will do life work. We want to build an ecosystem of overlapping areas of life (e.g. school, work, social, etc).
- Near the city/work. Again, we wanted reasonable commutes, so that church members will spend the majority of their time on mission, not driving between places. (Note: One important factor in commute type is distance from your house to the nearest expressway onramp; don’t underestimate how significant that is.)
Locating a House in which to Live and Minister
Lastly, we wanted to buy a house (vs renting) for a lot of reasons that are beyond the scope of this blog post. In any event, our philosophy in buying a house is that it’s a lot like dating. We made another list of “deal makers” and “deal breakers,” decided with the Lord that everything else was up to Him, and then started comparing neighborhoods full of houses to our list. In fact, we made (or tried to make) monthly trips down to the target area, with the other planting families where possible, to “do recon” (what we called it). For us, our make-break list focused on how well our new home would serve Jesus’ mission of neighborhood discipleship and hospitality.
List 2: What makes the best place to live?
Here are some things we considered…
- Big common spaces. We are planning to have up to 30 members of the church assemble in our home, so we needed space.
- Big kitchen and space for multiple tables. Fellowship feasts are gonna be huge!
- Finished basement. Again, people gather in these places. That’s where ministry happens.
- Five bedrooms. One for my wife and I. One for our son. One for guests. One for Jeff’s office. And one for the student that will be staying with us each year as a post-seminary resident to train under us about missional community and neighborhood church.
- Three car garage. Cars, Jeff’s shop, extra storage, and tables during parties go in the garage. So we need space.
- Parking. Have to be able to have a bunch of cars in the driveway or on the street.
- Lots of sunshine coming in throughout the day. My wife is solar powered.
- Fenced in back yard. We have a beloved pooch. In fact, we’re getting another one because puppies are great conversation starters. In general, walking your dog is an excellent way to meet and strike up conversations with neighbors.
- Manageable mortgage. Going into overwhelming debt for just the right house was not an option, nor do we believe that honors the Lord. We have very strict rules about how much we give and how much income we allow our lifestyle to require. Otherwise, you can end up working for your lifestyle, not for the Lord, and that doesn’t work.
There were other things we considered, but I think those are the big ones.
What about churches already in the target area?
Are you kidding?! We love the church!
Here’s the deal… This isn’t a competition. If a church is really a church – as in, Jesus by His Spirit is present in and among His people as they gather together – then we see them as ministry partners. And let’s face it, there could be a bible-believing, Christ-proclaiming group of Christians meeting on every single street corner in Illinois, and there would still be millions of lost people needing someone to walk with them toward the Lord.
And if a group of people meets somewhere they call “church” but don’t really take Jesus seriously or believe the Scriptures or think that the mission matters, then we love them too. Maybe we can help them grow.
We thank God for the way He has led us in this process. All the way, our Savior leads [us]! And we are so anxious to be moved in and meeting our new neighbors. Five weeks. We can’t wait.