By Adam Feldman
Historic Ellicott City, Md., is an eclectic mixture of cafes, bars, antique shops, tattoo parlors and a smorgasbord of alternatives in spirituality. Every week Ellicott City’s Main Street undergoes a personality metamorphosis as weekday townies and college students give way to weekend affluent tourists, who then give way to nightlife bar hoppers, tarot card readers and New Age practitioners. Starting a Gospel-centered church in this area is tough, to say the least.
About one year ago I received an invitation to write an article for BaptistLIFE on my experience planting Metanoia Church on Main Street. I declined. Here is why: three years into planting, Metanoia was still relying on outside support and had a whopping attendance of two dozen angst-ridden 20 and 30 year olds. I was plagued by the thought: “What in the world do I have to offer anyone on the subject of church planting?” My personal experience in church planting is just not glamorous. If you find yourself working hard to start a church in a tough area and you are not experiencing the growth promised in all the books and training you received, perhaps you can relate. At least you will find a friend with a common experience. Without sermonizing or spiritualizing too much, here is what I am learning along the way.
First, it is very important to be known. My wife and I, along with my brother and two others, started Metanoia with hopes of planting a—buzzword alert—“missional” church. We read lots of blogs—er, books—and still had no idea how to start a missional church. One thing we knew about missional churches: they were filled with believers who are known by people outside of the church. When that happens, Jesus and His Bride are known in the broader community.
To kick start Metanoia, I worked part-time as a barista at a local coffee shop—one of the best ministry decisions that I ever made. Before I was known as a pastor, I was known as a person. The strange thing is that as people antagonistic toward Christians and the church got to know me, they began calling me their pastor! I knew that I was known in the community when I got a call from a pre-believer while she was with her dying grandfather. She called asking me to suggest passages of Scripture for her to read in the Bible that I had given her. Be known.
Secondly, be prepared to adapt your initial planting vision and strategy as God matures your church; otherwise you will end up going crazy or will kill the plant. Adapting is a lesson in listening to God and following in obedience—your personal sanctification is on the line. (Sorry—I spiritualized.) For me this happened one summer night when my neighbors who grew up Buddhist in Asia sat on my back porch and asked me point blank: “Will you teach us the Bible?” Now, they were not in our “target group,” but they did live across the street. What was I supposed to say, “Sorry, but you aren’t in our target group?” We baptized them the following summer. Adapt or you will miss the blessing of God on your ministry.
Here is another piece of advice: the metrics for gauging success in most church growth and church planting books out there are not “one-size-fits-all”—especially for missional and incarnational churches. If you evaluate your personal success as a planter based on average attendance alone, you will fall into a fog of disappointment deeper than the sum of what all purple-wearing folk felt after the Ravens-Steelers playoff game last season.
Let me use a story to illustrate this. Year three started and we still had not hit that coveted church planting thirty-five-person bump. The slow growth rate we experienced is exactly what we should have expected. We never advertised (still do not), never had a “launch service,” and never held big, crowd-gathering events. We cold-started with five people, volunteered at annual city events and trusted God to work solely along significant relational lines. In my head I knew this meant a long path of slow but significant growth, yet in the middle of it I felt like an utter failure.
The neat thing: every guest at a Metanoia experience already knows someone else. The result: people stick around! We regularly baptize new believers and every twelve months we double in size. Whatever your ministry philosophy is, you better figure out how to determine success in your paradigm. I adopted a definition of success from Ken Sorrell, a friend of mine who works for the International Mission Board: “Success is consistently doing the right things and leaving the rest to the Lord of the Harvest.”
Just over a month ago, we learned that in late July the location for our worship gatherings of almost three years would abruptly come to an end, due to the owners’ desire to renovate the building. Time to adapt again. Time to embrace success in terms of transformed lives. And being known? Has that happened as we’ve hoped?
Last week as we were negotiating on a new meeting space, my brother and I encountered another local business owner as we were concluding our meeting. She introduced us to her husband by name and said, “Main Street could not pull off the annual Fall Festival or Midnight Madness without the army of volunteers their church provides.” This is what makes all the prayer, blood, sweat and tears worth it.
Don’t throw in the towel: use it to wash more feet.
Adam Feldman is the Church Planter and Lead Pastor of Metanoia Church in Ellicott City, Maryland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.