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“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
He stands outside looking in. He folds his arms over each other, narrows his eyes, and wrinkles up his forehead under his hair dripping wet. He’s been in the field working. All day. He’s tanned and dirty, but nothing can cover up his markings of devotion, yet there he is standing outside hostile and seething.
Inside no one stands. Only frenzy resides there. I imagine those inside with arms extended, eyes wildly alive, while their entire bodies, their senses, immerse themselves in delight bordering on indulgence. One, in particular, disheveled and dirty but clothed in regal robes, looks strangely out of place. Nothing, it would seem, can hide his scarred-over wounds of unfaithfulness, but there he is inside dancing around and delighted.
This is the story of brothers, of sons, of sorrow and scandal and it wraps up a series of tales told by Jesus in Luke 15. One brother is inside, the other out. One is filled with resentment, the other resplendent. Brothers or not, this story has less to do with blood and all the more to do with orienting Jesus’ audience toward the kinship found in this good news – the Kingdom of God has come to all.
It’s hard, when at the end of the story, not to lose sight of the chapter’s opening words,
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
It was this protest – a protest from those who refused to come in – the dissent from those who would not engage the sinner – that prompted this story of brothers in the first place. We focus on so many things when talking about the story of The Lost or Prodigal son that we often neglect to remember Jesus is dining with the lost sons and daughters of Israel while narrating this grand tale. We forget further still that Jesus is acting out this story before the very people cast as those who have worked their entire lives on the Father’s behalf, yet cannot stand to come in to be in the presence of the lost-now-found.
Jesus eats with sinners. That is, Jesus engages with sinners in a deeply intimate social-cultural function. He does not ignore or condemn them in this moment. He does not invite them to church synagogue, nor does he meet them at a coffee house for an informal Bible Torah study. Jesus, instead of asking them to come and find him, presumably has gone to them – into their home – to eat – with sinners in order that he might call them to be saints, or better yet, sons and daughters.
All the while, the “faithful” refuse to enter.
Jesus has not left them unattended. If you believe that the end of the story is told with the beginning in mind, then he does not leave the Pharisees to stand alone, nor does he reason that they should necessarily know better.
He calls the Pharisees in as well.
Jesus has not only pursued the sinner; he has gone to the door’s threshold with outstretched hand and pleaded, as it were, for the saintly son to come in as well.
The irony here is poignant. How could it go unnoticed? Those who have pursued God their entire lives won’t come any closer. Those who have run from God for sometime now won’t leave Jesus’ side.
God pursues us – saint and sinner alike to gather around the same table.
The door is open, the table set, and your seat saved. The only question is, are you in or are you out?
I’ve loved the water as long as I can remember. Seriously. My oldest memories involve me swimming in my grandmother’s pool, jumping off the high dive at the local swimming hole for the first time, body surfing in the waters off the Gulf Coast, and jumping off my friends second story roof into his five foot swimming pool over and over again that one day we were supposed to be in school.
Then, there was this time, we had my birthday party at my grandmother’s pool, and this friend of mine started drowning. I just remember hearing a loud commotion of people talking loudly, and then someone screaming that she was going under. My grandmother, decked out in her high-waisted solid white pants suite and white high heels (It was the 80’s), jumped in without hesitation and she saved Leslie.
Water is profoundly powerful and scary. It preserves life and it takes life, and we can never be sure which one it will be.
It turns out, water is also a central character in God story. It appears in the first verses of Genesis as God’s spirit hovers over those primordial waters, hemming them in, as the Psalmist would put it, and then storing the waters in jars, as it were, on the shelves of the heavens. God creates the world in and through water – taking this ancient symbol for chaos – and bringing about something good and lively out of that which was dark and messy.
God renews the world in and through water – using the power of water to cleanse and bring about new life upon the earth in the days of Noah, washing the earth clean of every thought and action that stood against God’s desired and designed way of living in the world.
God rescues the children of Israel in and through water – meeting them in the depths of the Red Sea, making a way of safe passage on their way to a new land, and entrusting to them a new way of living after coming out of those waters. They are no longer enslaved to the old land and the old way of living and they are no longer ruled by the taskmasters of Egypt. No, God’s people have been set free to “enslave” themselves to God’s freeing reign.
As the pages turn throughout Scripture, water continues to be a source for sustaining life and continues to serve as a meeting place between us and God. The New Testament wraps up all of God’s past dealings with humans and water in the rich practice of baptism. Water is profoundly powerful and scary, especially so in baptism.
As it would turn out, baptism, like all experiences with water, preserves life and it takes life and we can be sure that when we come to the waters to meet God it will be both/and, not either/or.
God longs to preserve and take life in and through the water’s of baptism. Perhaps this is what Paul has in mind when he talks to those who have already been baptized – You died. You were buried. AND You were raised to new life.
God, it would seem, wants to take your old life away from you, in exchange for something better…something new.
Remember, before baptism became a doctrine of the church, or a point of debate between various tribes, it was a point of decision in the life of the disciple that would lead them to lean as fully into the kingdom of God as possible, and trust that the Holy Spirit would take them to places they could not go and do things they could not do on their own.
When we come to the water, we trust even today that God meets us there, and in meeting us there God continues to Create, Renew, and Rescue all that would come.