Scan the most popular podcasts on iTunes, and you’ll find the usual suspects. Oprah, The New York Times, Serial, Malcolm Gladwell, and This American Life. And if you peruse the latest episodes of these top podcasts, you’ll see takes on current events, compelling stories from the past and present, and a profile on . . . church planting?
NPR’s This American Life recently ran a profile on church planting being told by another podcasting giant, Gimlet Media, on their show StartUp. From the ways of Silicon Valley, to pitching a billionaire, to naming a business, StartUp is a documentary series about the entrepreneurial life. And now they are telling the story of Restoration Church, a church plant in North Philadelphia.
Who would have thought, in our current cultural climate, that millions of people would be listening to a story of a church plant—produced by the same company making a podcast by actress Kristen Wiig? God works in mysterious ways.
Gimlet may not realize it, but they are spreading seeds of the gospel. And in this, we should rejoice.
I’m thankful to hear Eric Mennel, the host, explain the meaning behind Easter Sunday in Episode 3. I was thrilled to hear Doug Logan, Acts 29’s co-director of Church in Hard Places, talk about ministry centered on Jesus. Gimlet may not realize it, but they are spreading seeds of the gospel. And in this, we should rejoice (Phil. 1:18).
It’s encouraging to know that stories of gospel ministry are hitting people’s speakers and earbuds. StartUp has given us a gift in their podcast. After three episodes, I’m encouraged by the story being told. And I also wince as StartUp unfolds.
The story of Restoration Church is well told, engaging, and interesting. But the real strength? The episodes are real. Raw. Vulnerable. Honest.
The founding pastor, Watson Jones III, and the current lead pastor, AJ Smith, don’t act like superheroes. Far too often, you’ll hear tales of church planting that seem to come out of a comic book. Not so with these brothers. The podcast not only reveals the difficulties of planting a church—gathering people, finances, and so on—but it also highlights the personal struggles of planters and their families.
AJ opens up about his anxiety and fears as a child, and now as a church-planting pastor. Leah, AJ’s wife, confesses to finding too much of her identity in the church plant. These are the real struggles of real people. Other would-be church planters should listen to these episodes with antennas up. These will be your struggles, too.
Like AJ, and like me, you’ll have to battle the temptation to find your worth and acceptance in Sunday morning attendance. AJ shared that when the service starts on Sunday mornings, and he’s standing and singing on the front row, he refuses to look back. He doesn’t want to see how few people have come to the service.
I did the same thing at the beginning of our church plant. I couldn’t handle it. My identity was so fragile. I had put my hope in a church plant instead of the one who bought the church with his blood. And though I’m 10 years in, and now a church-planting church, if I’m not careful, I can misplace my hope all over again. Listen and learn. Watch out for the potholes of church planters.
Contextualization and Innovation
You see two lessons of contextualization and innovation in the example of Restoration Church. It’s true that a church is not the building. The church is the saints—brothers and sisters, pastors and deacons—the people of God. And while you could plant a church in the suburbs of Houston and begin meeting in someone’s house, that doesn’t work as well in places like North Philly.
Restoration Church contextualized their ministry back into a building. Every context will have different needs, assumptions, and difficulties. It’s the job of the planter to identify the uniqueness of his context and then learn how to faithfully do the ministry.
Before Easter weekend, Restoration Church went old-school: free frozen dinners. The neighborhood was invited to come by their building and enjoy a free meal. Though Restoration Church unleashed Facebook ads, hardly anyone came.
One lady did come by, but she didn’t see the ad on Facebook—her friend’s mother’s case manager saw the ad, took a picture of it on her phone, and texted it out to a group of people. A surprising providence. Eric Mennel said it best: “God’s gonna find people the algorithm can’t.”
As unclaimed dinners sat there, beginning to defrost, Restoration went old-school again: knocking on doors and handing the dinners to cars as they stopped at the red light in front of their building. Innovation isn’t always something new. Sometimes it’s creatively finding ways to serve, love, and spread the good news. Sometimes there’s no school like the old school.
Is StartUp Really About Church Planting?
If honesty is StartUp’s strength, focus is its biggest weakness. The episodes focus on planting a service, not a church. The focus is solely on growing the attendance and getting people in the building.
In reality, planting a church is much more than starting a weekly service. Yes, a Sunday service is a big part of any local church, but it’s not the only thing. I wish there was more emphasis on making disciples than filling a building. Maybe future episodes will explore these areas. I hope they do.
So much of the emphasis thus far is about the systems, strategies, and the similarities to starting a business in Silicon Valley. This emphasis left me groaning at the potential for the perpetuation of the old stereotypes: churches are no different from the world; they are run like a business; all they care about is numbers.
Maybe the editing is to blame. Maybe the intended audience—entrepreneurs—is the reason for this mistaken emphasis. Or, maybe the current state of church planting in the United States is to blame. Whatever it is, this is a gift for us to receive too. We should not miss it.
Let’s plant churches in such a way that we can’t be so easily compared to the business tactics of the world.
Let’s rewrite the narrative in our day. Let’s plant churches in such a way that we can’t be so easily compared to the business tactics of the world. Let’s make it clear we have some kind of extraterrestrial, heaven-wrought power on our side. As one well-known, modern theologian has helpfully taught: brothers, we are not professionals.
Metrics and strategies aren’t evil. Through God’s common grace churches can learn from the likes of those in Silicon Valley—whether it be systems relating to communication, planning, and/or assimilation.
But remember: systems can’t raise people from the dead. Strategies from the tech world can’t reconcile a marriage in the wake of adultery. Addictions won’t be crucified by angel investors. And eternity has nothing to do with equity.
Church planting is powered by someone off the grid, above the grid, and coming back to judge the living and the dead. Spreading the word of a blood-stained cross and empty tomb of Christ is our strategy.
God is the original entrepreneur.
God is the secret sauce in church planting. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6–7). God is the original entrepreneur. He started all of this up from nothing. Ex nihilo.
Sovereign grace is the underwriting strategy of every faithful church plant, whether it’s in Shawnee, Oklahoma, or Beirut, Lebanon. Silicon Valley’s got nothing on that.
As you listen to StartUp, remember, God’s gonna find, call, and resurrect people the algorithm can’t.