I’m a pretty active guy. Can’t sit still. Always on the go. So, I love preaching Genesis 12:1 and Matthew 28:19! These verses provide the most concise sermon title, which just happens to double as the application: “GO!” After all, God commanded Abraham to ‘pack up and get moving’ and Jesus commanded all of us to ‘shake off our tendency to settle and move on’, right? Our assumption is that we’ll flourish when we move. So you can imagine the surprise when we felt like God was saying “Don’t go!”
Our story was somewhat typical. Plant a church in a rented junior high school. Move equipment in and out every weekend for five years before gathering enough resources to purchase a building in a part of town where the property was cheap. Spend a year of volunteer labour renovating a 30 year old door factory into a church. Move in. Outgrow the space. Plan on building a bigger building!
This is where life became a bit more complicated for us.
We were now a 14 year old church that was making an impact in the community. We were mowing lawns, replacing roofs, cleaning up the streets, distributing food, partying in the park, caring for the vulnerable and under-resourced and living out the gospel in our community. However, there were no old buildings or vacant lots that would accommodate the new 1000-1200 seat auditorium we thought we needed. So, we began looking outside of our community, in the suburbs where the land is plentiful and the parking lots are big.
That’s when we heard “Don’t go!”
Our response was more of a protest. “Fine! We’ll stay. But how are we supposed to grow? There is no property big enough to accommodate us!”
Over the next few years we stumbled on two short phrases that would radically change our perspective and form the launching pad for a novel approach to growing a church.
The first rolled off the lips of Larry Osborne, lead pastor of North Coast Church in San Diego: “Leaders like it big, but people like it small!” Something leapt inside of us when we first heard this statement. Not only did it seem to resonate with truth, but it also gave us permission to start looking for smaller venues rather than one large one.
The second phrase came out of our study of Acts 2:42 and was captured in just two words: “More small.” This grammatically awkward little phrase formed the battle cry for our church. We would grow and expand our influence by becoming ‘more small’.
Armed with a new perspective on church expansion we looked at our community with some fresh eyes. To our surprise, we found 28,000 sq ft of potential ministry space available to us in two old buildings sitting less than a block away! One was a 100 year old fire hall and the other a 6000 sq ft warehouse.
It’s been a long journey and we’re still in the ‘experimental phase’, but two months ago we became a church with six worship communities in three worship venues all within a block of each other. Each worship community currently runs between 80 and 400 people, but for the first time in years we have empty seats with room to invite friends and grow. Best of all, we’re watching as people are connecting better because of these strategically smaller worship environments.
There is no doubt that staying has been much more demanding than it would have been for us to go! We’ve had to think harder, plan better (which we’re not very good at!) and keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing a lot more. Thankfully, we’ve stumbled on a third little mantra that fuels our resolve: “Do hard things!”
When faced with a challenge, we experienced just how easy it is to default to conventional church wisdom and just how unconventional some of God’s answers can be.