“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:1,4).
Our journey to plant a church called North End Collective just outside the city of Atlanta, GA began late in the summer of 2018.
I was coming up on my 20th year in full time ministry, and I had been thinking about what it would look like if the church were less tethered to a physical location and more embedded in the actual neighborhoods of its city. This would require a significant shift in the way I had led and served churches over the past 20 years. It was something that was both exciting and terrifying all at the same time!
So, after months of prayer and countless conversations with a trusted circle of friends and mentors, my wife and I stepped away from a loving congregation in the summer of 2019 that blessed us in our pursuit to start this kind of church.
In the fall of 2019 we began inviting those in our city to join our launch team – a relatively small group of people who are committed to helping get our church up and running. We had believed all along that if God was calling us to plant, then he would be calling others to join us. We just didn’t know who they were yet! We did not take a single person with us from our previous church, so you can imagine our excitement after we began inviting neighbors and friends to join us, that some of them actually started saying, Yes!
We spent those early days and months prayerfully asking God how we could best love this city and then attempting to faithfully respond in obedience by making plans and developing a strategy for how North End Collective would go about doing that work.
Then, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, COVID-19 came along and upended all of our plans. Our entire launch sequence had to be scratched. What had seemed so clear a year ago, would suddenly become shrouded in a fog of uncertainty so dense we could barely make out the silhouette of our not-yet-church. It all felt so fragile, and if I’m completely honest, so unattainable in that moment.
We weren’t experiencing the Great Persecution like those in the early church, but we were experiencing the Great Pandemic – and with it, a significant disruption in how most people thought about “church.” Any hopes of consolidating the church’s gathering and activity into a single place fueled by a list of programs was DOA!
But here’s the surprising thing (for some of you) – we actually came to celebrate that! Yes, many of our plans had to be altered, but our overall vision was still in tact.
In the earliest days of our planning, our imagination had been stoked by two ideas. The first idea came from working through the Book of Acts together and paying special attention to the ways in which those early Jesus followers lived out Jesus’s mission starting first in Jerusalem. That is, before they took the Gospel to the nations, they started in their own neighborhood. Then we couldn’t help but notice how the church throughout Acts, even though it was being broken apart and scattered about all over the Empire into smaller and more local expressions, did not lose any of its power or influence. Instead, the church’s influence seemed to only increase!
Something about being small actually served to increase their impact.
The second idea came from several women and men, all who were leading churches in the United States, that revolved less around a place or a program and more around their people and their sense of passion. These churches were already doing incredible things that had informed many of our plans for North End Collective because their missional ecclesiology, and their less-centralized model of church, had allowed for them to effectively navigate many of the challenges that come in a post-Christian culture.
What we began to see was that the pandemic not only gave us greater permission to press more deeply into this way of being the church, but we discovered it was also increasing the imagination of those in our city to do the same.
From March 15, 2020 – the day thousands of churches closed their doors to December 2020 – at the height of the “second wave” we launched 3 Missional Communities (with a 4th getting ready to launch next month), saw real life transformation taking place, actively worked to mend broken hearts in our community, fed many who were hungry, started a weekly digital worship gathering, and then launched an outdoor once-a-month in-person worship gathering. And then, we actually grew by 112%. We had no building or program sheet, but we did have a church full of people passionate about being on everyday mission right where they lived.
Here’s the best part of it. We are just one such example. I could tell you story after story of churches all over this country who are innovating in small and similar ways.
So many people are hand-wringing these days about the future of the church. Many of those leading churches fear the future is not bright – that the church will be smaller, less powerful, and therefore less effective in the days ahead. I read earlier today that 1 in 5 churches will close due to the pandemic.
Or maybe, just maybe, we will be able to look back on the Great Pandemic of 2020 and see it was only the beginning of a new chapter for the North American Church. One that begins to envision a smaller way forward. That while some larger churches shrank in size or closed their doors, other churches were planted and birthed out of this Pandemic.
Perhaps, much like Jesus’ parable of the seed that fell into the earth and died, for every 1 church that closes in this country, many smaller ones will be born.
Taylor Hammett, February 2021