After 50 Years, a New Generation of Young Leaders Spurs Urban Church Planting in the Mid-Atlantic States
By Tim Cole
One of the seminal events on the timeline of the Restoration Movement occurred 50 years ago. Although tensions had been brewing for decades with their conservative counterpart, the more progressive wing of our tribe formally adopted a denominational design and officially changed their name to Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1969.
In urban areas, which typically espouse a more liberal stance on theological issues, a significant portion of downtown churches aligned with this newly formed denomination. Their impressive buildings, often with massive, oversized white columns, came to personify the “social gospel,” which one of my preachers derisively described as “heavy on grace, thin on theology.”
As a result, the influence and impact of independent Christian churches and churches of Christ were relegated primarily to their historical core of country churches and to the emerging number of suburban churches that were moving out and away from what was perceived as the centers of liberalism downtown. Our urban influence would remain effectively dormant for decades.
Compounding that lack of presence in our cities was the relentless urbanization of the American population. When Alexander Campbell and other founding fathers synergized a movement in the early 1800s, fewer than 2 in 5 Americans lived in the city. By comparison, the most recent U.S. Census data revealed for the first time more than 4 in 5 Americans live in urban areas. The need for presence and influence in urban settings has never been greater.
Over the past decade, many of our evangelizing associations have experienced a significant uptick in urban church planting. God is raising up a whole generation of young pastors and leaders with a newfound heart for the city. Their life verse for urban reengagement rises from Jeremiah 29:7; “Seek the welfare of the city” was appropriated as a mission statement by Tim Keller and his Redeemer churches in New York City.
Waypoint Church Partners has undertaken several urban church-planting projects during this same season. Waypoint provides strategic services to Christian churches and leaders across the Mid-Atlantic region and creates partnerships among them to plant new churches. New lessons are being realized with each urban project. Each plant has a feel and flair of its own, but the common thread for all of them is their vision and value for community engagement coupled with a strong foundation of biblical teaching about the kingdom of God—in other words, “Heavy on grace, thick on theology.”
For each of these churches, their connection to the community is both obvious and essential to their presence there.
Area 10 Church
Area 10 Church launched 11 years ago in the museum district of historic downtown Richmond, Virginia. The church worships in the grand old Byrd Theatre, circa 1928, a Virginia historic landmark. Prior to launch, the church opened a commercial venture two doors down called Cartwheels & Coffee, a parent-supervised play place serving barista-made coffee coupled with an indoor play facility for toddlers. Cartwheels quickly became a meet-up hub for local moms.
In an effort to establish a more permanent presence in the community, Area 10 recently purchased and renovated an adjacent old building that serves as a commercial community gathering space. They now host staff retreats, corporate meetings, book signings, art shows, concerts, auction fund-raisers, and more.
Restore Christian Church
Restore Christian Church launched seven years ago in Silver Spring, Maryland, inside the Capital Beltway of Washington, DC. Silver Spring ranks as one of the 10 most diverse communities in the United States. Restore began worshipping in a concert venue and then a commercial co-working space, before landing at their current venue, an old Episcopal church building in the heart of their downtown community.
Four years in, Restore leased a store-front property and opened a commercial co-working space, popular in urban areas. Customers purchase daily or weekly subscriptions to use the property during daytime hours for work and meetings. Their facility has hosted a Saturday morning, pro bono legal clinic, a Sunday worship venue for an ethnic congregation, and ministry to refugees from Central and South America.
Collective Christian Church
Before Collective Christian Church launched two years ago in downtown Frederick, Maryland, they established a partnership with the local rescue mission. Groups of volunteers would regularly staff their events and worship services. Four of the men from the mission eventually joined their launch team, arriving early to set up in the school where Collective meets. Within six months after launch, all four had been baptized.
The trust built through Collective’s service led the Rescue Mission to form a new mentorship program between them and the church. Men who graduate out of the mission are paired with men from the church who serve as Christian mentors during that time of transition.
Encounter Christian Church
Encounter Christian Church began two years ago in Columbia Heights, the most racially diverse borough within the District of Columbia. Encounter originally launched in the historic GALA Theatre, the epicenter of the community, before moving to the atrium of District Bridges, a local nonprofit organization with a mission to enrich neighborhood vitality by bridging community engagement and economic development.
partnered with District Bridges prior to their public launch and collaborated
on events such as the community Easter egg hunt, block parties, and
neighborhood movie nights. The church-planting wife (a term we’ve begun using
to recognize the wife’s contribution to the project) was eventually invited to
join District Bridges’ board of directors.
Mountainside Community Church
Mountainside Community Church launched last year in a movie theatre in Boone, North Carolina, before moving to a downtown location in a local bar. A surprising partnership with the bar allows them to host a community school for mentoring and arts which they have established; the school meets during the bar’s off hours. The community school provides high-quality training in art and life skills at an affordable cost. A growing array of instruction features songwriting, guitar, art, drama, sewing, crochet, and other disciplines for local children.
Even church plants that ultimately moved from their urban locations featured strong community connections during their season within their city. For example, Venture Church, which began in an old downtown YMCA, eventually renovated an old tobacco warehouse space in the emerging river district in Danville, Virginia. From the outset, Venture became a primary provider of volunteers for the city’s annual River District Festival. The church planter eventually became part of the planning team for the city’s largest community event and was named Danville’s favorite pastor.
Another example is Crossings Church, which met in a gritty indie concert venue in downtown Roanoke, Virginia. They partnered with the city as part of the latter’s court-ordered, 24-month intensive recovery program. Participants became members of Crossing’s setup crew. Those who successfully completed the program could have their jail time reduced.
Though neither Venture nor Crossings, nor some others, exist today, the connections they had to their community serve as a model for others.
Lessons learned and strides made over the past decade by these new churches and others to reengage their cities through urban church planting are establishing a foothold for more churches to be planted in the decades to come. These no doubt will be faith communities with both strong community connections coupled with relevant biblical teaching—“heavy on grace, thick on theology.”
Tim Cole is a two-time church planter in Virginia who serves as executive director of Waypoint Church Partners. Tim and his wife, Lisa, have also helped to plant churches in Ukraine and France. Tim loves to train and coach church planters to realize their God-given vision to launch a healthy new church.
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— SIDEBAR —
Virginia, Seedbed for a Movement
Though a significant proportion of Christian churches and churches of Christ are located in America’s heartland, some of the earliest seeds of our movement were planted in Virginia.
In 1792, a preacher named James O’Kelly led a group of Methodist churches in Virginia to leave their denomination to form a new group originally called “Republican Methodists.” The “republican” moniker they adopted indicated their value for local autonomy over denominational control.
Two years later, in 1794, the group’s leaders decided to drop their denominational name altogether and simply call their congregations “Christian.”
Roadside marker K236 stands along Route 10 in rural Surry, Virginia, near Williamsburg. Titled, “Organization of the Christian Church,” it commemorates this historic moment. The remains of the original foundation of the “Old Lebanon Church” sit nearby, likely the first church in America to be named, or renamed, a “Christian church.”
A hundred miles west is Cool Spring Christian Church in rural Lunenburg, Virginia. Restoration Movement historians recognize that this is likely the originating location of “The Lunenburg Letter” made famous in Alexander Campbell’s reply to it in the Millennial Harbinger (unfortunately all the church’s records were lost in a fire in the early 1900s). A sister presumably from here started a spirited exchange over immersion and “who is a Christian?” . . . especially with regard to those in denominational churches. The Cool Spring Church was founded as a denominational church in 1775, making it likely the oldest surviving congregation in our family of churches.