There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to church planting. The context in which we plant churches influences the missional strategies we employ to maximize our disciple-making efforts. We wisely consider an area’s demographic and cultural narrative when determining how to love our neighbors.
Urban church planting has unique challenges and opportunities. The church planter may face challenges of crime, poverty, high cost of living, traffic, transiency, difficulty of finding a meeting place, and more. We plant churches in cities because God loves people. And there are a lot of people in cities who need the good news.
Typically, we have seasoned church planters tell us their stories on the podcast. Today, I’m excited to have a newer planter talk about his church-planting journey in an urban context. Adam Muhtaseb is a Maryland native who, after completing an MDiv, returned to plant Redemption City Church in Baltimore. He’s married to Sherrie, and they’re raising two sons together.
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Tony Merida: Welcome to “Churches Planting Churches,” a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to church planting. The context in which we plant churches influences the missional strategies we employ to maximize our disciple-making efforts. We wisely consider an area’s demographic and cultural narrative when determining how to love our neighbors. Urban church planting has unique challenges and opportunities. The church planter may face the challenges of crime, poverty, the high cost of living, traffic, transiency, the difficulty of finding a meeting place for the church and more. We plant churches in cities because God loves people. And there are a lot of people in cities who need the good news. Typically, we have seasoned church planters to tell us their stories on the podcast. Today, I’m excited to have a new planter with us to talk about his church planting journey in an urban context. Adam Muhtaseb is a Maryland native and after completing an MDiv degree, he returned to Plant Redemption City Church in Baltimore. He’s married to Sherrie and they’re raising two sons together.
Welcome to the podcast, Adam.
Adam Muhtaseb: Thanks, Tony. It’s good to be with you.
Tony: So we need to begin this interview with a full disclosure, and that is Adam and I have been…we’ve been friends for a good while now. We had the privilege of sending him and a team out of IDC to plant Redemption City in Baltimore. And Adam was particularly close to me and still is, but traveled with me. I introduced him to many things and took him many places, and now it’s just great to see this young church thriving and have you on the podcast. We have had, you know, younger church planters on the podcast before, but you guys are really young in it, and I think that’s helpful for our listeners to, you know, hearing from broad range of church planters. Many are trying to do what you’re doing right now and many of us remember those early days really well with great fondness as well as many other emotions. So I want you to tell your story of how the work is going at Redemption City. But before you do that, tell the listeners a little bit of your story, how you came to faith, a bit about your family.
Adam: Yeah. Well, it’s an honor to be with you. I don’t know anyone who’s had more of an impact on my life and my ministry than you. So it’s cool to chat with you. My story is a bit unique as far as church planters go, I guess. I grew up in a Muslim family. My dad is originally from Palestine and immigrated to Jordan when he was young and grew up in Jordan and then came to the United States when he was in his 20s and married my mom, who’s white. And a fun fact, my grandfather, my dad’s dad had four wives. Yeah, crazy, I know. My dad has like 30 brothers and 10 sisters. Yeah, I cannot imagine being that busy with that many wives.
Tony: For real.
Adam: I try to tell my wife it was a family tradition, but she wasn’t having it.
Tony: Yeah, man. You probably wouldn’t be on the podcast if that were true.
Adam: Yeah, probably not. Yeah, he had like an Egyptian life, you know, like a wife in Jordan, a wife in Palestine. Anyway, crazy stuff. I grew up in Germantown, Maryland, in Montgomery County, outside DC, and grew up following the five pillars of Islam. The basic tenet of Islam is earn your way to heaven, have more good deeds on the scale than bad deeds and you get in. So I went to the mosque every Friday, you know, all the whole drill, praying five times a day, etc. And my parents were divorced. My mom started dating a guy named Rick and Rick was going to like the seeker-sensitive church, brought my mom and I, and I heard the gospel for the first time at like 12 years old, after having grown up in like workspace religion my whole life. And I just was blown away by the gospel. Like, “Wait a second, you’re telling me that I just receive what’s already been done by Jesus, I don’t have to do anything? Like there’s no, you know, to-do list?” And it just blew me away. And like 12 years old, I received the gospel. My mom and I actually received it together after watching the Jesus film on the same day.
So God’s grace that I’m even a Christian. And then my dad afterwards, he was incredibly disappointed. like many Muslim families are when their kids become Christians, and he abandoned me. He left the country. I didn’t talk to him for 10 years. He said I was a horrible son. So I followed Jesus, you know, from 12 years old to about 20 in college, but it’s what a Bonhoeffer would call cheap grace, not a lot of discipleship, not a lot of Lordship of Jesus in my life. Went to college and tried the party scene, was doing all the wrong things and then I actually started reading the Bible. A guy invited me to his house and just went through the Scriptures. And we went through 1 John. And no one had ever really just gone through the Bible with me and taught it, like what it actually says in a way I can understand. And I’m…a reading of 1 John, “If anyone claims to love God but doesn’t do what he says, that person’s a liar.” And I remember just like the Holy Spirit hitting me like did God just call me a liar? Because I ain’t doing anything in this book. I claim to love Jesus, but I’m not following him.
And then from there I just went [inaudible 00:06:03], like reading the Bible nonstop. Philippians 1:21 was huge for me, “Live is Christ, die is gain.” And then from there, I just dove headfirst into ministry, life completely changed. Went to India for like five weeks just to serve the poor at Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Like that kind of like crazy stuff just because I wanted to be like Jesus, I wanted follow him in every area of my life. And that quickly led me into church planting because I saw that’s what Paul did with his life, thought that’s what Christians do, they plant churches. They, you know, evangelize, impart voices. And that led me to Southeastern Seminary, which led me to Imago Dei, which led me to you, which then we got sent out to plant Redemption City Church about two years ago.
Tony: And when you came to visit Southeastern, I was preaching in a Preview Day, right?
Tony: And I think you’ve mentioned before, you were surprised that I was the preaching professor because I didn’t look like a preaching professor. Right? What do you mean by that?
Adam: Exactly. Well, I saw tattoos. No offense, I kind of expected like some pasty white dude with glasses, you know, like 60s, preaching, like, kind of a dryer sermon. I see a guy with a beard and tattoos quoting like old-school hip hop. And I’m like, “Who is this guy?” But I remember like, that was so big for me because hearing you preach at chapel, at a seminary. And I remember leading that sermon and telling my wife, “I wanna be able to do with that guy just did because he just explained what the text said in a way that made sense, but in a way that was so relevant to my life and now I love Jesus more. And in some ways, I realized how broken I am, but then I have so much confidence and faith in what Christ has already done and it’s bringing me to do what the text said and I just remember leaving that thinking like, “Okay, I’m coming here to learn from that guy.” And by God’s grace, that’s what happened.
Tony: Yeah, man. Well, I’m quoting Run-D.M.C. to start the sermon off this Sunday. So that trend continues.
Adam: Nice. We need to update your quotes, bro. Wait, like we need to get some like Drake in there. You know, maybe some Jay Z.
Tony: No. It’s the old stuff, man. It’s the old stuff. That’s where the magic is. We got to have the shell toe Adidas, yeah. Occasionally, I’ll bring the new stuff in, but that’s usually through my kids that I learn about all that.
Adam: I quoted Halsey last week in my sermon.
Tony: Oh, yeah?
Adam: Yeah. That was fun.
Tony: Now, tell the listeners about your church. I’ve had the privilege of preaching there two or three times and look forward to going back this year and I just love what’s happening. So give us an update.
Adam: Yeah. So we’re in Baltimore City, in a neighborhood called Canton. We left Imago Dei. We were sent from Imago Dei with 10 people and we started meeting in a living room in… It was like August of 2017, I believe. Launched public services March of 2018. And we’ve just steadily grown since we started in the living room and now we’re starting to get some momentum, added some staff, run out of space. About to do two services.
Tony: I saw your Instagram account. It was packed Sunday. How many did you guys have in there?
Adam: It was 183 people, which we were not… We were like bringing out broken chairs. Like there’s a lot of people standing in the back. And it’s pretty unheard of for Baltimore City for that kind of growth. And I’m as surprised as everybody else. It’s not me. It’s nothing like anything and genius that we’d done.
Tony: Yeah. It’s a hard place, right? Take the listeners there. What’s your context like?
Adam: Sure. Canton, the neighborhood we’re in is packed with people. There’s 14,000 people in half a square mile radius. So you’ve got like row homes upon row homes upon row homes with like three to five people in each row home. So there’s so many people. And Baltimore is just known as a hard place to plant churches. I’ve had multiple guys told me over 100 people in Baltimore is a megachurch because of the transience, because of the spiritual darkness. In our neighborhood alone, there have been three guys that have tried to plant and it just couldn’t get off the ground.
So I remember before we planted, I’m like, “I don’t know if we should do this, hon,” to my wife because I don’t see how this is gonna get off the ground. It hasn’t worked like two or three times before us. So, yeah. Really, the heart of our church is to just be centered on the gospel and just preach the Scriptures, and it’s all we’ve done. And we found like, guess what? The gospel still works. You just preach it clearly, in a way people can understand, bringing in culture and their context and just go verse by verse through the Bible, and like people just keep coming and bringing their friends and they stay and they want to know what the Bible says. It’s crazy. Like that’s our ingenious strategy, teach the Bible and preach the gospel every week. And it still works, in 21st century, in a post-Christian context.
Tony: Amen. It’s just brilliant. Man, it’s beautiful. A lot of these folks that are coming in have never heard the word expository, probably, but they know you’re just working through the text and they’re just eating it up.
Adam: Yeah. Exactly. I think the temptation is to meet a felt need in your preaching, which is helpful at times. We do that every now and then, but God gave us this work, you know, that we would call the verbal plenary method, that God used authors and their personalities to speak His truth. And if it’s really God’s word, why not trust Him, that it’s sufficient to meet the needs of people? And so, obviously, you have to do the hard work of understanding the text well and connecting it with the audience, bridging the gap, as preaching books would say.
But the punch is so much more powerful when you get your points front and straight from the text, like, “Wow, that is literally what it says, isn’t it?” And people come hungry every week just like, “I wanna hear what the word says.” And I like what Deborah says, like when you do more topical, you limit your teaching to what you already know, but when you preach God’s word verse by verse, you’re just expounding what God has already said and bring it to bear on people’s lives. And we found it works.
Tony: Yeah. Now, obviously, the teaching component’s been huge. I know you guys have also done a lot of stuff outside the kind of church walls, as it were. Neighbor love. What’s that look like in Baltimore? What have you guys been doing?
Adam: Sure. I mean, the big phrase I use is ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality. And I got that from somebody else somewhere. But really, the heart of it is like… This is a big thing that I’ve found, is so many church planters that I know and I’ve talked to don’t know what a church is. They think it’s starting a service. I think I’ve heard you call it like the “if you build it, they will come”-type model of church planting. Like if you just put on a great show, people will come. Problem is in an urban post-Christian context, no one’s looking for a service. And so, neighbor love, for us, and the way we reach people is by meeting needs, by loving them where they are, and then the biggest commodity in our neighborhood, the biggest need is community. People are just looking for friends they can hang out with and enjoy. And is there a better community than the local church, where you’re fully loved, fully accepted by the gospel, but then also the hard truths are spoken to you in a gentle way?
And so, really, we’ve just told our people like create an environment of community and use the things in your calendar that you’re already doing and infuse it with gospel intentionality. So like on your calendar, if you play basketball, if you use the gospel into your basketball time, invite somebody into your gospel community when you’re playing basketball with them, “Hey, come hang out with us on Wednesday nights.” Or share the gospel with them after the game. The restaurants you frequent, bring invite cards, and invite the waiter and give them a good tip. It’s really just, we wanna…as Deborah said this, create a compelling community and the community is actually what draws people.
We have people in each other’s homes all the time and infusing gospel intentionality to everything they do, and that’s led to a lot of the growth. And then they come hear the word on Sunday and they’re convicted and they wanna hear more about this gospel. Like, “Wait, I receive perfect salvation and righteousness just by believing? That’s crazy.” And people keep coming to hear that.
Tony: That’s good news, yeah. And you use basketball, and that’s a real-life example for you, right? Because you wanna be a basketball player and you play a lot.
Adam: You said, I wanna be a basketball player?
Tony: No, you still got game. I know you have some game.
Adam: Yeah. No, I’m very average. As good as like a half Middle Eastern guy can be at basketball, that’s how good I am.
Tony: I’m pretty sure that’s offensive, Adam.
Adam: Is it? Well, I’m half Middle Eastern so I can say that. Actually…
Tony: I’m quoting my friend, Onay [SP]. Onay who always said, anything I say, he loves to come back with, “I’m pretty sure that’s offensive, Tony.”
Adam: No. Dude, Arabs love basketball. They love the NBA. They’re just not good at it.
Tony: That’s great, man. So when you’re talking about 160-ish people, 180 people, is that what you said? And approaching two years now, in an urban Baltimore with no gimmicks, and just neighbor love, and preaching the gospel, what are you guys looking at now into the future? You said, perhaps two services, but you also got a building opportunity, right? What’s that about?
Adam: Yeah. I mean, one of the biggest challenges in urban church planting is finding space. I mean, that’s pretty much every church planter’s challenge. But in an urban context, it’s very expensive and very small. So that’s one big thing. We actually just had a planning meeting today about our 90-day goals for the next three months or so. Really, what we’re heading, two services because we’re running out of space. We need to grow more groups because our groups are packed. We have 6 groups with like 25 people in each of them. We have more people coming to groups than they do on Sundays. It’s like 112% of our Sunday attendance is involved in a gospel community. Like I said, we’re big on community, doing life together.
So we got to expand the infrastructure to care for all these people and we need to add more elders. I’m training three guys to hopefully onboard under our elder team. And yeah, we wanna get some brick and mortar, so we have some, you know, long-term stake into the city. And we really wanna increase our orphan care ministry. There are 1400 kids in foster care in Baltimore City right now, which I’m just not okay with. They’re housing kids in hospitals because they ran out of room in foster homes. Like mental facilities, kids are staying there, and they don’t have mental problems. They just ran out of space. So I mean, I want our church to lead out in the orphan care, social justice. Things like diversity, we wanna increase our… There’s a huge divide in Baltimore City. Neighborhoods are segregated by race often. Like, you know, Canton, my neighborhood is mostly white, and this is rooted in redlining, historic racist practices in Baltimore City that have created a disparity of income and a disparity of like public education and healthcare. Like there’s so many historic problems in Baltimore that have trickled down to today and we wanna start at least fighting some of these systemic issues and partner with churches that have already been in Baltimore who are already doing good work to help create a new city in Baltimore. It’s already great, but, you know, God’s bringing a new city, a new heaven, so we want to help people go there.
Tony: That’s awesome, man. So when you get prepared to do urban church planting, you have certain things in your mind, right? Certain perhaps apologetic philosophies, ways of reaching neighbors, etc. But from your experience, how does the reality of urban church planting differ from your study of it? As a lot of people listening to this podcast are preparing to do the kind of thing you’re doing, they’re young, they’re zealous, they love Christ, what’s your experience been like in that regard?
Adam: Sorry. Studiying church planting versus doing church planting is kind of like studying firefighting versus doing firefighting. Once you’re in the flames, it’s like a whole different ball game. Like, you know about the crime in urban church planting, but it’s all another thing to be like at the gym and my wife calls me and says there was a murder next door, 10 feet away from our house. And, you know, the police knock on our door and ask for our camera footage. It’s one thing to know about the transience in urban church planting. You know, like people say something like 25% of your church will turn over every year, if not more. It’s a whole another thing to like feel it, like here’s this friend that I really like and love, but their med school program is ending and they’re gone. And I poured three years into them or two years into them and they’re gone. That hurts.
When you’re actually doing it, it’s just a lot harder than reading about it. And we did a vision Sunday a couple of weeks ago and I just talked about some of the challenges we have faced and we will face in urban church planting. Like logistical challenges are so much…so difficult, buildings, things like that. So there are a lot of people who come and go, who are excited at first and then leave, and that kind of deflates the balloon, I guess you could say. And then I found like satanic attack in urban church planting is crazy. Like all of my friends who have planted churches have had serious health problems the first year or two, or their kids have had health problems, just like attack, after attack, after attack.
So I always tell people, if you wanna plant a church, don’t do it unless you’re ready for your life to be ruined. Like the quality and the ease of your life is just gonna get wrecked. You’re just gonna be tired all the time, you’re gonna often feel tempted to be discouraged all the time. You’re gonna feel alone frequently and you’re just gonna have challenge after challenge. So the utmost importance is that you are close with Jesus, that you’re just walking with him and following his Spirit every single day and just enjoying him. And the gospel isn’t stale, it’s like fresh and I’m still weeping and I’m still laughing. And it’s still new to me that… You have to have those core foundations and able to endure in this. I’m two years in, so I’m not, you know, I’m not a model of endurance, but…
Tony: Yeah. What are you doing to keep some good rhythms now, two years in, in terms of rest and recreation, and so on, family?
Adam: Well, I wasn’t year one and I was getting wrecked. My wife was suffering because you just feel so much pressure. Like the funding is gonna run out. You know, you have a time clock ticking, people come and go, and you feel like you have to work, work, work to keep them, new people. So much need, so you just get tired easy. So I wasn’t taking a day off. I wasn’t vacationing, and I had older brothers who just spoke in my life and saying like, “Adam, you wanna do this for 40 years, not 2.” And I was like, “That’s a good point.”
So I actually started setting rhythms like Monday, entire day is off. Friday is family day, take two days off a week. And I just try and have fun. Like I play basketball. I like watching documentaries on Netflix and regular shows like “The Office.” Just to have fun. I’ll hang out with other church planting friends and just chill, smoke cigars on my rooftop deck. Hang out with my wife, take her on dates. Just enjoy each other, play board games. Yeah. Taking a long view has really helped because I would have burned down if I kept that first-year pace.
Tony: Yeah. I got a text message yesterday from a church planter that’s about two years in as well and he described to me how he felt on Mondays and how he just…he collapsed, he said at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, he was so tired every week. And then Monday, he just had no energy and he said, “What advice do you have?” And I said, “Welcome to the pastorate.”
Adam: That’s right.
Tony: I don’t know if that was the best advice. I’m gonna hopefully talk to him later. I’ve been doing it since, well, for 16-plus years now, and I’ve been drained every Monday since I’ve been a pastor and it’s not…I’m not crying about it, you know? It’s just part of the job. And I think you do learn how to be productive when you’re tired, you learn when you need to rest. You know, building these rhythms that you’re describing are so important. Everybody’s different, you know. I think preaching is particularly exhausting in my own opinion. So I think it’s important, what you’re describing there, taking the long view. We do wanna do this for 40 years by God’s grace. And we need to remember that church planters are people too. You know, we’re not machines. We need the same things our people need. We need community, we need recreation. We need love. We need to enjoy life. Ecclesiastes, I find, is a really relevant book for church planting as we’re preaching through it, just how to enjoy the small things in life, this life under the sun. And it’s really easy just to get in machine mode, and production mode, and achievement mode, and just destroy ourselves.
Adam: I completely agree. I think a lot of it too is a mindset thing because church planters are entrepreneurial. They’re leaders, usually. They should be. And it’s easy to get in the mindset of, “I have to work to create the production.” And it’s worth working through your theology of prayer and your theology of God’s sovereignty and God’s role in building the church because you’re gonna be so much more tired if the pressure’s on you.
Tony: That’s good, man. That’s good.
Adam: Which I had to learn the first year, “I’m just gonna kill myself if I keep thinking, like how this conversation goes with this person who’s not really committed, but coming, it’s all on me. It’s not on God.” You may not think about it, but it could be intrinsic in the way you’re approaching it. And so, after a year….like after six months in, I just really had to like, “Okay, I need to pray more. I’m not praying enough. I’m not trusting God enough. I trust myself way too much here.” So.
Tony: That’s good. That’s good, man. Hey, last question. What would you like… Let’s think resources, resources that’s helped you…it may be in regard to this issue here of rest and rhythms, but other resources for church planters. Again, I’m thinking of the guys who are aspiring to church planting or maybe pastors who have guys in residencies. You know, you came through our world at IDC, but you’ve also been blessed and helped by a number of other people outside of my context. So any resources that you’d recommend?
Adam: Yeah. Pretty much anything you gave me is what I’d recommend. I took your church planting class and I did your residency. So you gave me most of the books that I lean on. “Center Church” by Tim Keller is a must-read. And you probably gonna hear that one often from people who planted churches, just gonna help you learn what it means to build your church on the gospel. The gospel is the only thing that can carry the weight of what the church is all about. You can’t build your church on evangelism, you can’t put your church on discipleship, you can’t build your church on having healthy marriages. You build a church on the message of the gospel and those things flow from that. That was huge for me. “Total Church” by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester was big on like the church needs to be a community where everyone is sharing the gospel and inviting people into our lives. It’s not a service, it’s not an event. It’s not a building, it’s a people.
Another big one was “Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches” by John Hammett. That was key because you need to know what a church is if you’re gonna start and build one. That was big for me. “Preaching” by Tim Keller, just engaging lost context and skeptics in your preaching. A ton of book, man. “Imperfect Pastor” by Zack Eswine was a good, like, you know, trusting God’s sovereignty and prayer-type book.
But honestly, books are key. I would say mentors and coaches are the best resource you can have. And don’t trust one person to be your fix-all mentor because no one has the knowledge, or the expertise, or the wisdom to carry the weight of all the information you need in your church planting journey. Find like seven people that you go to, to lean on. Like you’re my theology and preaching guy and any big thing, I’ll come to you. But I don’t go to you for administration. I don’t go to you for…
Tony: Really don’t.
Adam: I go to Matt Sigmon for administration, I go to Brian Laughlin [SP] in leadership in administration. I go to Greg Sincere [SP] for counseling and leadership. I go to Dan for Baltimore City information. Like I got seven different people in my Rolodex for seven different things, because they’re all experts in that specific topic. And so, have a ton of people you’ve asked and regularly meet with to seek counsel for, because it’s impossible for you to know everything you need to know. I don’t know a thing about real estate or building, so how am I supposed to buy a building and like make a good real estate deal and do the construction? I need people to help me. So I got mentors to help me with that, you know? So find good mentors, find a good network to be a part of, [inaudible 00:28:36] and learn from them. Be really teachable. That’s the number one thing, like be always willing to learn and grow. And we can rest in the gospel, even if we don’t measure up, even if we don’t know something, it’s okay because Jesus was perfect for us. So have some humility and learn from a lot of people.
Tony: Amen. That’s so good, man. That’s so good, especially just the whole principle there that you’re sharing about teachability. It’s a word for all of us, not just guys who are starting to plant and those who are, you know, two years in like Adam. But we’re all lifelong learners. Reminded of Ecclesiastes 4:13, “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.” So many examples, especially in the book of Kings, of kings who started well and ended terribly. And I don’t wanna be the guy who no longer knows how to take advice. So let’s be humble. Let’s be teachable. That’s a necessity if we’re gonna be faithful leaders.
So, Adam, thank you for reminding us of that, and many more things here, brother. Lots to be encouraged about. If you’re listening to the podcast, lift Adam up today and pray for Redemption City Church in Baltimore. Thanks for being on the podcast, brother.
Adam: It’s an honor, man. Thankful to talk with a guy who has such an influence in my life. Love you big time.
Tony: Thanks, brother.