by Lon Gregg
Several years ago, our Denver Rescue Mission CEO off-handedly challenged us with a church-planting model of reaching our community. While our Mission is known for the “Jesus Saves” neon sign lighting the way to our overnight shelter, the boss’s challenge is leading to a paradigm shift in our mission strategy. Rather than counting on the draw of the services we provide, we need to unbolt the “Jesus Saves” message from the bricks and mortar, and become a sending, not just an inviting, agency.
This article is a kind of diary of our efforts to take the free grace message beyond our walls. At this point, we’re still in the fledgling stages, but we’ve learned some things that may help others with similar free-grace ambitions. I hope it’s an encouragement!
CHURCH PLANTING MOVEMENTS
Our ministry is blessed in that critical members of our 175 staff have come to know that “Jesus Saves” means “He gives eternal life to those who believe Him for it.” But a strategy for sending the message of eternal life to the homeless and needy in our northern Colorado urban areas was not so obvious. Our boss’s suggestion of “Church Planting Movements” (CPMs), a successful third-world approach, intrigued us; could a “mission-field” model possibly be adapted to North American urban work also? Some emphases of CPM suggested themselves for our mission:1
a. Large scale prayer. Inner-city ministries already run on a shoestring and a prayer, so this was down our alley!
b. Poor/needy are the target population.
c. Evangelizing through discipling. Our needy friends thirst for life-change first of all.
d. Obedience-based discipleship. The mostly unchurched converts of urban outreach, unfamiliar with program-based discipleship, actually think Jesus meant people to do what He said!
e. Discovery Bible study. When needy folks find the truth for themselves through inductive study, a movement can run on continued on p. 4 CHURCH PLANTING the converts-no professionals needed!
f. The “person of peace.” This is a concept found in Matt 10:13 and Luke 10:6. It refers to a seeker who is open to the truth, as illustrated by Zacchaeus, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, Lydia, and the Philippian jailer, among others. The message moves among Spirit-prepared individuals. Missionaries need not be daunted by the chaos of many urban situations.
g. Rudimentary churches. “Street” converts don’t fit the culture of American church life, and dedicated buildings are out of the question, so informal but fully scriptural meetings (“tenement” churches) are a natural.2
h. Concern for material needs.
i. “Utilize only indigenous church planters and local lay leaders to launch and lead new churches.” New converts make the best spokespeople, so the message spreads from within the community.
j. “Train new leaders to regularly plant new churches as a normal part of being a church.” The “missional” imperative gives purpose to an otherwise aimless street life.
As applied by a sister rescue mission, a CPM-like approach is showing measurable results in San Jose and San Francisco,3 so we’re on board.
THE GRACE MESSAGE IN THE INNER CITY
One objection we’ve heard to a “third-world” approach is that American cities are already evangelized. But the concept of eternal life as a gift that cannot be lost is brand-new to many, if not most, of our audience. We have a bona fide mission field for this good news, and people have converted to the distinct gospel message of free grace. Because the message is unknown the fields are truly white.
But not only is grace “brand-new,” it is also perfectly suited to inner-city settings like ours. We deal with notorious sinners, where free grace is the only hope!
A DISCIPLESHIP MOVEMENT MORPHING INTO CHURCHES
In line with the Great Commission, we make disciples. But disciples make churches, so we are coaching our folks toward “life group” gatherings of people who embrace the message of eternal life. These groups form around a Gospel of John Discovery Bible study, a set of simple but poignant messages emphasizing the gift of life and Jesus as its Guarantor (John 4:10). Materials with this emphasis are sparse, so we have developed our own.
The cycle of growth we envision, and are now beginning to see, is as follows:
a. A community outreach (e.g., food or literature distribution) helps identify “persons of peace.”
b. Through Discovery Bible studies, these interested people develop into disciples and leaders of life groups.
c. Life groups may come to see themselves as simple churches on the model of Acts 2:42.
d. Cooperating with their birthing groups, these Acts 2:42 assemblies repeat the cycle, fostering more church-plant growth.
RESULTS SO FAR
We are in the first stages of this process. During recent months, our staff and converts have catalyzed eight Discovery studies, with about 35 in attendance and 10 new believers (one baptism) resulting. Several of the studies may be approaching Life Group status. No churches have formed to date.
Several of the groups are among Asian refugees. One of the first groups took off when prayer for the son of a refugee participant resulted in a dramatic health change (to date, what appears to be a permanent healing). No one was more surprised than our Presbyterian staffer who did the praying! We’re learning to expect remarkable hints of God at work, particularly among these refugees.
SOME EARLY LESSONS:
a. Pray large. Part of the reason our first groups launched so quickly is that God answers prayer for the growth of free grace.
b. Plan well. When our first groups started, we had to run to keep up with them. We lost some opportunities because we weren’t fully prepared for what would happen.
c. Expect results. Free grace is like a light coming on to both unchurched and “evangelicalized” hearers alike. God blesses this message.
To be continued …
1. This list both quotes and is adapted from http:/ jcityteam.org/internationaljchurch-planting/essential-elements.php
2. See “Evidence for a First-Century ‘Tenement Church’,” JOTGES (Spring 2011), pp. 99-116.
3. See www.cityteam.org/update.