A little over eight years ago, a few of us began to plant an outpost for Christ in the far western suburb of Oswego, Chicago. We literally started without a plan and believed our reputation would be enough of a brand to bring people to the facility. We had the arrogant idea the rest of the area churches had failed in reaching the community. After all, less than 20 percent of the people were attending a faith community and only one church had any real growth in the area in the last 10 years. We weren’t all that original. We followed the church planting formula given at so many of the church planting conferences and in 16 months launched a new church in the middle of a cornfield. Over three hundred showed up on launch day. One year later, we had land, more parking and a great Sunday morning product. Yes. I said product.
It was a weekly production that took a lot of resources so people could come pick up their spirituality on a Sunday morning and drive off. We were the latest brand people were talking about. However, some of us had begun to sense something wasn’t right. I’ll never forget reading my first missional book and bringing the concept to the church lead team hearing: “Yes, it’s exciting but you can be missional and small. Or you can be attractional, encouraging and make it large.” The point was clear. The leadership may deride the current state of affairs in the church but we’re not ready to change anything other than offer a better product than everyone else.
A few years later, the entire launch team would disappear. The early adopters would be replaced by more institutional people. The old church ways would be implemented and coordinated, and the Sunday morning ritual sterilized. The church would still champion the idea of being a missional church in two locations. However, the church planting truth that whatever you do to bring them into the facility must be maintained or they will leave as fast as they came had begun. Today, the second site is less than half its launch size and the first location, which once stood over 800 in attendance, has fallen by two-thirds.
We believed in the church but thought there must be a better way.
We refused to accept the status quo and we believed the American Christian church of our fathers was crumbling. If we are to address what is working in our culture, the phenomenon of 12-step recovery has made its mark. A loosely based denomination of sorts with outposts in every town in America where the format to enlightenment comes with a simple process: admit, commit, submit and practice small group community. The simplicity is stunning and culminates in spiritual awakenings.
Equipped with this information, a love for sharing the gospel and willingness to not sit idle, a group of us formed a ministry for those people who are “Done”—with what we call church in America, “None”—claiming no religious preference when asked, and “Undone”—drowning in life by their actions or the actions of others. The concept is simple and encompasses the best of all great movements and heralds back to the original movement of Jesus. We are seeking to discover a life worth living that truly offers a foretaste of heaven. We call this movement Renew. Renew is founded on the vision that to discover a life worth living, you must first be in relationship with both God and others. Once either relationship begins, the authentic and compassionate nature of human beings fosters a greater understanding of the world around us.
Everything we do at Renew is about fostering growing relationships. Renew groups gather on a weeknight for a dinner and discussion and childcare is usually provided. We gather around a table to eat because it lowers the barrier to interaction with others. The experience is also about diffusing the tension of the world and infusing an everyday topic with a spiritual twist through the intersection of a spiritual and physical consideration. We offer music, art and a story to help everyone begin to think more critically before we break out into smaller affinity discussion groups. It is a collection of many individuals and theologies. We have seen all types of people and viewpoints. We have laughed, cried, argued and even agreed to disagree. The process has been life giving. We have wondered about those first Christians as we discussed the differences between Christian thought, the human condition and culture bias.
The final component is service. We encourage everyone who comes to a Renew meeting to serve somewhere. It could be the neighbor down the block, the local mission or another not-for-profit. We recognize God works in these areas every day. He fosters our relationship with Him in these times and helps us to continue the expansion of our relationships, so others might discover a life through living as well.
While we admitted some church expressions are thriving, many are only the result of transfer growth of those who are discontent. While the “cool” factor may bring them in, we know there’s not a fog machine, a strobe light, a celebrity pastor or a worship band that can reverse the decline.
The time has come for a wholesale change.
Rev Robert “Bob” Butler is a pastor, a new ministry pioneer and a church planter. He leads a Renew Missional Expression and missionary outpost called the “The Center” in Chicago.