By Chris Travis
“I think this is what church is supposed to be like,” a young actor said to me. Between us were two empty bowls of chili. I smiled.
We cracked jokes about the diversity of our group of 20 people. It looked like we had hired models to make our group look as perfectly diverse as possible. There was a white couple with three daughters; a Dominican single mother with two young children; a couple in their 60s who had been married for decades; an African-American woman; a Korean woman and her New York-native husband who was a firefighter and a lawyer; a Dominican restaurateur who was also a single parent and brought his teenage son along; an engaged couple; my wife and myself; and a few young, single professionals, like the actor sitting across from me.
Every Sunday we cram ourselves into a Manhattan apartment to wrestle with the Scripture, pray for one another, celebrate Communion together, and share a big meal. Many Sundays we serve together. People come to these cozy gatherings hungry—for friendship, for the Lord, for prayer—and leave full. Literally. We have introduced dozens of New Yorkers to Skyline Chili, a favorite from our hometown of Cincinnati!
By planting these faith families, we have introduced dozens of New Yorkers to Jesus.
It started when 14 people sensed an invitation from God to start a new church in Upper Manhattan, one of the many places in our nation desperate for new, healthy churches. On our first Sunday together, we gathered school supplies to deliver as a gift to a public school. We had no idea how God would bless our efforts to serve our neighbors in this way. A brief video shows the rest of that story (https://vimeo.com/48883654).
Before long, as more people joined in, we started running out of plates and forks and chairs. We started a second group. That turned out to be a key strategic decision: this new church would grow by multiplying groups. But we wanted to stay connected and encourage one another, so we rented a public school and gathered both groups together monthly for a service.
Even more people got involved, and we started a third group. We started holding services every other week, so now we’re in a somewhat unusual rhythm of alternating our home groups and teaching services each Sunday. This might change in the future—we might have services more frequently, or maybe even less. We are going to watch, and pray, and apply wisdom.
I suppose our home groups look different from other church gatherings, but we didn’t set out to be different. We set out to plant a church in much the same way that so many others have before us, by applying the Scripture to our context. We hoped to learn from those who have gone before us and also follow the Holy Spirit who guides us now. When you do that, sometimes it results in doing things differently, and I suppose it has with us. But that’s not how it feels.
It feels like we’re getting back to something.
Faith Families on Mission
That something is the model—and the mission—of the very first church described in Acts 2.
After Christ arose and returned to Heaven, God sent his Spirit on the apostles with a rushing wind that sounded like a freight train. They spoke in different languages to the international crowd of worshippers gathered in Jerusalem for the great festival of Pentecost. When Peter delivered what is perhaps the first Christian sermon, many were cut to the heart by the truth that Jesus is the Messiah. They asked, “What must we do?”
Some 3,000 people responded to Peter’s call to repent and be baptized. They received forgiveness for sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit—the very Spirit who only moments before came upon Peter and the rest.
Three thousand people. The first megachurch in history. What would these first believers do with so many? How would they organize things? What sort of church would they build?
We might have expected them to meet every day in the temple courts. Large, public gatherings—of course, that’s a great way to disciple so many. But as the new church grew bigger, it also grew smaller.
Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
These thousands of new believers met in one another’s homes. They were devoted to fellowship and the breaking of bread—to sharing meals. Please don’t miss the importance of this vital Scripture. Devoted is a strong word. These new Christians didn’t just learn the apostles’ teaching or say the prayers—they were devoted to it. The first church was devoted to Christian friendship and to sharing meals, as they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching and to prayers. They were devoted to God, and devoted to one another.
And they were on a mission. They sold what they had to take care of those in need, “and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). Read through the rest of Acts and there is no mistaking the simple fact they were on a mission. They shared the good news, started churches, healed people, and wrote the New Testament. The work of the Holy Spirit continued with each new generation of believers, starting orphanages and hospitals and universities and churches.
Today Christ followers bring relief and good news to victims of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, help rescue people from modern-day slavery, and plant churches in remote places, in sprawling suburbs, and within the concrete canyons of Manhattan.
In my role as a church planter with Orchard Group in New York City, I’m in a position to observe a variety of models for reaching and discipling people. The church I lead in the gritty neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan is organized around faith families of 20 to 30 people who are on a mission together. We’re about as healthy as you can expect from a bunch of sinful people who are saved by grace. Most people looking in from the outside would conclude we are missional church.
My management team is made up of representatives from some of the largest churches in our fellowship: Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, Kentucky), Traders Point Christian Church (Indianapolis, Indiana), Westside Christian Church (Springfield, Illinois), LifeSpring Christian Church (Cincinnati, Ohio), and Compass Christian Church and The Hills Church of Christ (both of Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas). These fine churches are also about as healthy as we can expect to find. I’ve benefitted immensely from the wisdom of these godly men who are attempting, just as I am, to interpret and apply the Scripture in their contexts. Most people looking in from the outside would conclude these are attractional churches.
Of course, most people would be wrong.
Our new, little church is both. We are missional in that we attempt to go to people instead of simply expecting they will come to us. But I like to think our services and our home groups are very attractive. More and more people are getting involved. We plan our gatherings with seekers, skeptics, and brand-new believers in mind.
These large churches with extremely attractive services are also intensely missional. They mobilize people to go and do all sorts of kingdom work in all sorts of dark places in their cities and in our world. Everyday Christian Church is just one of the hundreds of missions they produce.
Churches certainly lean in one direction or the other in their strategy for reaching people. If you take a whole kingdom view, this is desirable. We are all parts of one body. It makes sense for different expressions of the kingdom to specialize. I think we’d agree the kingdom needs to translate the Bible into all languages. Everyday Church certainly cannot do that, and it would be foolish for us to try. We all have our part to play.
I suppose it’s possible for churches to lean too far in one direction or the other. I can imagine attractional churches that are truly hollow—churches that nurture consumers instead of disciples, that are all entertainment and no substance, all big events and no relationships. I don’t know churches like that, though.
What I sometimes see are people who make shallow judgments about churches on scant evidence. Someone visits a Sunday event or trolls a megachurch’s website and concludes (because of the size of its building, quality of its videos, or whatever) that crowds and snazzy gatherings are all the church cares about.
If you take the time to get to know a church, the difference it is making, all the ways it is serving, reaching, and discipling all sorts of different people, you find out it is much more missional than you initially thought.
And as I attempt to bring the whole counsel of Scripture to bear on this important topic, I cannot find support for being one to the exclusion of the other. Paul taught the church in Corinth not only to be aware of unbelievers, but actually to organize their gatherings in such a way as to make it possible for unbelievers to understand what was happening (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). On the other hand, there’s no denying the missional emphasis of the New Testament believers. They took Jesus’ instruction to go very seriously.
Is Missional Working?
In my church’s first year, we baptized a young, Dominican-American woman who grew up in New York City. A year later, we baptized seven more New Yorkers. As I write this, a young student has just decided to be baptized. We’re scheduling meetings with two other adults who said they’re ready. There are perhaps a dozen more who seem to be ready, and we’ll be looking for chances to speak with them about it.
And we’re discipling people. One of the people we baptized last year is now leading one of our home groups. Another is teaching our math-tutoring program for local students. Another started a prayer team. Another leads the hospitality team at our teaching services.
Is the missional approach working? Well, of course, it is. So is the attractional approach. God administers the various forms of his grace through people, not methods (1 Peter 4:10).
It’s important to resist the temptation to focus exclusively on any particular strategy, or to overreact to the weaknesses of another and dismiss what God does through it. If we do, we risk becoming a caricature of the church, instead of the complex, beautiful, multifaceted body of Christ we find described for us in Scripture.
Chris Travis is pastor of Everyday Christian Church, a new church plant in Manhattan, New York.