Church planting is challenging under the best of circumstances. We expect our work to be met with certain trials, such as insufficient resources, slow starts, or perhaps even dangerous contexts. But the coronavirus is a trial unique to our time. We’re being forced to navigate largely uncharted waters.
How does this time of self-isolation affect newer church plants? How do we pastor churches living in societal exile? What happens to the command to go make disciples when our going is severely limited?
With me on the podcast today to discuss church planting in uncertain times is Travis Cunningham. Travis is a planter out of The Village Church in Texas, and is the pastor of preaching and vision at Story Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Listen to this episode of Churches Planting Churches.
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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.
Church planting is challenging work under the best of circumstances. Planting a church during a global pandemic is an obstacle that no one saw coming, but everyone is having to overcome. We expect our work to be met with certain trials such as insufficient resources, slow starts, or perhaps even dangerous context, but the coronavirus is an unexpected trial unique to our time. We’re being forced to navigate largely unchartered waters.
How does our new reality of staying at home and isolating ourselves affect newer church plants? How do we pastor churches living in societal exile? What happens to the command to go make disciples when the only place we can go right now is to the grocery store?
With me on the podcast today to discuss church planting in these uncertain times is Travis Cunningham. Travis is a church planter out of the Village Church in Texas, and as the pastor preaching and vision as story church in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Travis and his wife Katie have two kids. Travis, welcome to the podcast.
Travis Cunningham: Hey, Tony. Thanks for having me. Let me just say Rancho, Cucamonga, best name in all of Acts 29.
Tony: I was about to ask you how bad I’ve just butchered your name. So I got it, man. I like it. So RC, Story Church in RC, California it’s good to see you, man. Travis and I connected on a coaching cohort that I did a couple of years ago right before he was about to start this church, Story Church. And so it’s been really cool for me to see him go from kind of a being there at the Village Church and being in that cohort to launching a church. And I asked Trav to come on for a number of reasons. I’ve wanted to have him come on because, you know, we wanna talk to church planters in various seasons of the church planting experience.
So, you know, we get a lot of guys who are experienced, and they planted their church 10 plus years ago or whatever. And they have a lot to teach us, but I also love to get guys who were really new in the church planting world because they also have a lot to teach us. For those of us who planted our church several years ago, we’re still trying to train and equip and send more church planters. So the more stories that I can hear from guys who were right in the trenches of the early days, the better I can be equipped to equip our guys. And I know they love hearing stories of guys who were just in the first couple of years of a church plant. So I wanted to have travel and for that reason, but also we are in the middle at the moment in this recording of the coronavirus pandemic.
I am in North Carolina where we are set to have a stay-at-home order put in place later today. And I understand in California that was put in place, you know, long before ours was. And so I wanna talk to Travis a little bit about that. So we’re gonna talk about church planting in general and church planting in relation to this crisis in particular. So Trav, why don’t you just get us started by telling the listeners about yourself, how you came to faith and how you got out there to California?
Travis: Yeah, man. So my story is one of a lot of the years of the Lord pursuing me faithfully and having a ton of patients with me. And so my folks raised us going to church each and every weekend. And through a lot of pursuit of that and a lot of prayer from my mom, the Lord continued just kinda, you know, in the Luther way, the hound of heaven. He kept chasing me, chasing me down each and every week. And yet at a very early age, the church we went to, I’m sure the gospel was preached, I’m sure Jesus was proclaimed, but all I really remember is that the pastor had an obsession with the in times. And I heard Revelation every week. And so as a six-year-old, Revelation can be terrifying. And so I wrote Jesus off pretty early in my life.
And so from there, I just decided to pursue the things of this world, became super ambitious, super competitive, and my main goal in life was just to win at whatever I could win at. And so as I moved towards high school, I began to throw myself into grades to keep my parents happy and threw myself into sports to keep my friends and my peers happy. And as you know when you do the math there with grades and sports, you become really cool and really popular in high school. And I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but Scott Sauls says, cool wins high school, but kindness wins life. And so I won high school. I truly won high school and I don’t need to highlight all of the sin that comes with winning and being cool in high school. There’s no point in highlighting that, but rather the Lord’s endurance of me and pursuit of me in the midst of the sand.
And so right around mid-high school, my family transitioned churches to a new church in town. It was a new church, new to us, I should say. And the pastor there preached Jesus, and him crucified for the forgiveness of our sins. And my best friend came to faith the summer before our senior year of high school and he began evangelizing me. And that same summer I came to faith as well. And so right before my senior year of high school, the Lord just kind of turned my life upside down and finally saved me in the grace of God, was so sweet to my ears. And then really from there, that church did a great job of discipling us.
Now, now fun little fact about that church is it’s a church that to this day I could never serve at because we disagree on secondary issues. They’re Pentecostal, they’re egalitarian, they’re Armenian. But, man, I got saved there and the Lord pursued me there. And so he continued to faithfully grind away and mature me during my time at that church.
Tony: And so walk us through how you met your bride and into the church plant.
Travis: Yeah. So my wife was a local Bible college student here in town and she had to get her internship hours at that church I became a believer at. And so I came on staff there and she came on staff there and that’s how we met late in college. So they formally called me to ministry when I was about 20 or 21. And that kind of turned my life around. At that point, I was at Cal State Fullerton pursuing broadcast journalism. I wanted to be the next Stuart Scott, the next Dan Patrick, you know, those names.
And yet they called me to ministry and it really wasn’t a hesitation. I said yes to that and went into that. So when she came on staff, that’s where we met. And my wife is born and raised in Indiana. She’s a Hoosier. So I’ll do a little side note here. “Hoosiers” is the greatest sports movie of all time and there’s really no debate about that. I have to say that whenever I can. She moved throughout Indiana about 13 times through high school. And then when she came to California, she saw me, a guy that was born and raised in the town we’re planting in, one elementary school, one junior high, one high school, one college. We lived in two houses that were about a mile and a half apart from each other. And she saw this guy with a ton of security and a ton of stability. We got married in three months later, we’re packing up a Penske truck and we’re moving 18 hours North to Portland, Oregon.
So at that point I had known I wanted to plant a church, but I knew I didn’t have the training to plant a church. So we went to Western seminary where I pursued my Mdiv, came on staff at a little church there in South Portland, and she found a job at Multnomah University. We spent about a little over a year in Portland and my wife became kind of a different person as a result of the weather of the Pacific Northwest. She had some deep seasonal effective disorder. So our elders there counseled us to spend a season praying and pursuing options in climates that were agreeable with my wife’s temperament. So we did and we knew a guy down in Dallas, Texas, my friend, Greg, and he brought us out to Texas where we spent just over five years.
And the last three and a half years there, I was on staff at the Village Church doing groups ministry there. Now they brought me on knowing that eventually I wanted to be shot back out West to plant a church with my people, my family, my friends. The South wasn’t for me. And I knew the West was. It’s my people. And so I spent three and a half years there. The last year I was on staff there, the elders just continue to train and affirm that this was the time to go. This was a time to go plant. I was ready.
And so we spent the last about 10 months there at the village gathering a core team and fundraising for the eventual church plant. And then on January 24th of 2019, we packed up the Penske again, and we drove 20 hours, almost entirely on the 10 freeway, most of it in Texas, and landed back in Southern California in Rancho, Cucamonga to begin the work of planting Story Church.
Tony: Awesome. Now when was your launch date?
Travis: Our launch date was October 6th of 2019. So we’re about as a recording a little over five months in.
Tony: Wow. Awesome, man. And now I know I was talking to my wife yesterday about one of the things I love about Travis is he reminds me of a couple of the guys we’ve had at our church who are extremely gifted and likable. They can build a team good theologically, but it has a real humble learning disposition. So just soaking up information, training, equipping, you can hear it there in his story. I just think that it’s very important to point out that the hard work and a posture of humility are really two of the essential ingredients when it comes to pastoring, planting a church.
And I’m interested, in particular, Travis, about your time at the Village. Help us with maybe what you were taught how you were taught. For those of us who are trying to do residential programs and for those thinking about it or those in it what should they be expecting and what should they be pursuing? Talk to us about your experience there.
Travis: Yeah. I wish we could record for a couple hours on this topic, but I’ll try and keep it succinct. The Village was a great place for me because like I said, I was born and raised just wanting to win, wanting to be competitive, wanting to be ambitious. And the elders there and the team I was on, the group’s team there just beat it into my brain with a lot of effort that I’m a son before I’m a pastor, a son of God before I’m a pastor. I’m Katie’s husband before I’m a pastor. I’m Peyton and Owen’s dad before I’m a pastor. There might be a lot of people out there that call me pastor, but there’s only two people that call me dad and one person that calls me husband. And so they trained me in the pursuit of the Lord before the actual work of ministry.
And that was incredible. And then beyond that, all the tools necessary to plant and pastor a church, the Village just gave me a massive playground to play on. They let me test out some skills. They let me refine some things. They let me fall flat on my face in some areas that I am not gifted at and I’m not good at. And so really the team, I was on group’s team, we did a lot of pastoral care. We did a lot of counseling. And they hired me at 25, which was a big mistake on their part to throw me into a lot of pastoral counseling. And, you know, I say that with a grin. But that really matured me as a pastor. They allowed me to preach. And then Matt as ascending church pastor just extended some credibility to me that I didn’t earn or deserve his words and his backing of me.
So the DNA and the history of the Village alongside Matt’s affirmation led to the congregation there trusting me with giving to our church and then with people actually upgrading their lives and moving West with us. And we also just wanna highlight, we have a second sending church here in California called Foothill Church with Pastor Chris Lewis and his team. And Chris brought us on, our team on, for about nine months. And that guy is just one of the hidden gyms here in Acts 29, if you don’t know who Chris is. He’s one of my favorite preachers, one of my favorite expositors, incredible leader.
And as the second I got on staff, he’s given me one to two sermons a month in rotation. He’s given me a hunting license with the congregation there. They’re writing checks to us that are just unbelievable. The support we’ve had from our sending churches. And it’s not just in the launch phase. We continue to be coached by them, cared for by them, packages from them, phone calls, check-ins, all the whole nine yards. So what we know is we have two incredible sending churches behind us that are gonna do everything they can within their power to ensure the success of Story Church.
Tony: That’s beautiful, man. Beautiful. Now, in terms of where you guys are at now, so you, you’re about four months in. Talk to us about up to the coronavirus and then we’ll get into the crisis that we’re in right now.
Travis: Yeah. So we had our first interest meeting, prayer meeting on February 2nd of 2019 and then from there we just did a lot of prayer, a lot of meals together, and a lot of local mission in our town. And then in the summer of 2019, we launched a Sunday night gathering where we intentionally made it kind of prohibitive to people jumping on board. I mean, it was ugly, it was janky and it was boring. There was one night actually where I walked through our entire statement of faith and constitution as a church because we wanted our core team to know what they were getting in on.
So we spent about three months doing that and gathering a core team as a group. And really, we live in an area that’s kind of theologically-starved, a lot of really good churches doing good work in our town and we applaud them and we’re on board with them, but there’s not a lot of robust biblical teaching around us. And so when we planted our flag and said that’s what we’re gonna be about, really, a lot of people jumped on board with that.
So we launched on October 6th publicly with somewhere around 200 people in attendance and we expected week two we’d have that vacuum effect and we’d be back down below 100 or so. And really, it’s just kind of an up into the right to this point. So we’re somewhere around 300 or so in weekly attendance, about four or five months in right now. And what we’ve done is we’ve just pursued a few simple things as a church. We’re gonna preach the word, we’re gonna pursue community, we’re gonna pray, and we’re going to live on mission. And really that’s just about it for our church.
Tony: Love it, man. And so the secret is not that you can do the Matt Chandler hand gestures, right? It’s the simple things you’re trying to do well.
Travis: You know, it’s weird. As I absorbed those by osmosis, and people have me, when I preach, they hear and see Matt and I’m like, you know what? He’s unique. I’m not Matt. Let’s not say that.
Tony: I’m gonna say you’re the true and better Matt, man.
Travis: Does he listen to this?
Tony: I don’t know. He should. He’s the president, right?
Travis: That’s right.
Tony: He does because…well, I don’t know if he listened to all of them, but…
Travis: I do.
Tony: So now we’re in the crisis. What’s it like, man? Four months into a church plant and all of a sudden you can’t get out of the house, right?
Travis: That’s right. We’ve got a shelter in place sort of a lockdown. We’re hearing rumors of martial law come into California within the next few days. And so where we’re at right now is about a week into this shelter in place. And so, you know, what’s unique for us as a new church plant is five months in, is we kind of had some instability, anyways. That’s what new church plants have. And so this isn’t all that different from what we were experiencing outside of, we can’t be in the flesh with people.
And so a lot of the challenges we were facing in terms of questioning our finances, questioning our leadership team, questioning how to develop those leaders, questioning how do we reach our city, how do we send more churches? Thinking along those terms, we’re still there and we’re still asking those strategic questions. Now, we’re just asking them in a different type of way. So it’s been encouraging to see that our ecclesiology has survived this and not only has it survived this, it’s kind of thrived within this coronavirus. And with the great gift of technology that God’s given us, we can still pursue all the things we want to pursue just in a different way.
Now, some of the unique challenges of entering into coronavirus is as a new church, we don’t have the policies or the finances in place to help people from a benevolence fund. We just don’t have that. And really right now our church is not scared of or anxious over the virus itself. What we’re kind of getting ready for is that the real crisis is gonna come 6, 8, 9, 12 months from now when we experienced the aftereffects of the economy here in Southern California. And our church is located in a wealthy suburb of LA.
And so we have a lot of business owners, we have a lot of corporate executives, and the amount of people who are facing financial insecurity for the first time in their lives. And then also carrying the burden of having to lay people off and endanger people’s incomes, it’s just creating kind of an emotional weight that we would love to pastor people through that flesh, in the flesh. You know, giving hugs, laying hands, praying for them. But now we’re having to do it over phone calls in Zoom. So it just creates some disconnects, some discombobulation. And I think more than anything, everyone’s just really disoriented. This thing hit us really fast, so people don’t know what to think.
So one of the phrases I’m trying to use with our church constantly is when we don’t know what to think, we know how to think. Our emotions don’t govern us. We have anxiety, we have fear, we have panic, and that’s okay. God created our emotions. But the truth of his word is what governs those emotions. And so we must filter those through the church or through the truth of God’s word that we don’t need to be full of fear or anxiety. We can be full of peace and hope and joy. Even if we don’t know it’s going to be okay in the long-term, we know we’re gonna be okay in the long-term because we are in Christ.
Tony: That’s good, man. So what are you helping your people think about these days? What are you teaching? How are you teaching? How are you getting the word out?
Travis: Yeah, so we’re still continuing… We’re taking a three-pronged approach. So we’re still continuing our weekly gathering. We’re just doing it digitally now. Everything is the same. Singing, preaching, praying, walking through a book of the Bible. So we’re still doing that. It’s getting to our people via YouTube premiere and then we’re doing Zoom, home group gatherings. We’ve got nine home groups across our city. And then we’re doing every other week prayer meetings via Zoom as a church as well. So we’re still doing all of that.
And what I’m trying to do in my teaching is beat a few different drums. The first drum I’m trying to beat is that the creator creation distinction and divide is painfully obvious to all of us. I think for the first time in my age group, we’re all 30 and below. So 9/11, we were in fourth, fifth, sixth grade. During the recession, we were mid to late high school. And so this is really an incident that my age group has not faced as adults with mortgages and kids and things like that.
And so I’m trying to beat the drum that God is the creator. He is in control. He is sovereign. He’s not surprised by this. He’s not wringing His hands and trying to figure this out. And we are weak and needy and fragile out of control, but God is still good. And this is the time precisely at which we must run to Him because he is not like us. So I’m trying to beat that drum.
The second drum I’m trying to beat is that this is an incredible gospel opportunity that we may never have again. People are becoming aware of their hopelessness, of the fragility of trusting and finances, of the frailness, the brittleness of pursuing the systems of this world as education systems, as hospital systems. As financial institutions are crumbling around us, people are seeing the church is standing strong because Jesus’s promised is still true, that this is his church and he’s building it. And so we have a great hope right now as a people, and we can be hope dealers in our city. Where people are full of confusion, we can provide them with answers about who God is and what He’s done in Christ. When people are confused, we can bring clarity to them. Where they’re lacking joy, we can show them that we have an enduring joy in the midst of suffering.
And then the final drum that I’m just trying to beat with our people is now is a time to be a people of service in our communities and really in a hyperlocal way like the early church. We are confined to our few houses in our neighborhoods. So now’s the time to knock on doors, be out in the front, but, you know, a proper distance between people. But, man, let’s have conversations with our neighbors. Let’s pursue them. Let’s love them, let’s pray with and for them.
Tony: That’s excellent, man. That’s excellent. So in terms of that theological clarity that you’re trying to bring, are you walking through a certain book of the Bible, a text, a Psalm, you just feeling it out week by week?
Travis: Yeah, so we finished out the book of Colossians. That’s what we launched with, and we’re getting ready to jump into Exodus when we get to gather again. In the, in between, at first, we thought this was just gonna be two weeks. Now it’s looking like it’s gonna be eight to 10. We started a series that we’re calling “The Gospel in Weird Times.” And so what I’m doing is looking through the different fruit of the spirit and hitting each one of those every week. So I’ve hit hope so far. I’ve hit peace. I’ve hit joy. And what we’re gonna begin hitting going forward is what are Christian postures in pandemics. And really it looks like the fruit of the spirit displayed in our lives. So what does gentleness look like? What does patience look like? What does perseverance look like in the midst of this?
Tony: Excellent, man. Walk us through your day right now in the middle of this pandemic. That’s a question I’m asking a lot of pastors. What are you guys doing?
Travis: Yeah, well if you got some answers for me, I’ll take it. The first thing I’ll say is it’s a lot of screen time and I feel like my eyes are gonna disintegrate by the end of this.
Tony: For real. Yes. I’m so sick of Zoom calls already, man.
Travis: Yes. Man. But Hey, if you put some money in them, they’re a publicly traded stock, you’ll find some return on that. Man, honestly, it’s slowed down the work of ministry for me in some really good ways, like most church planters, myself and my family, we run really hard. And being forced to stop being forced to homeschool our kids, being forced to not be allowed to go out to restaurants, go on dates and have coffees and those kinds of things has forced a slowness that, I think, it’s Dallas Willard that says, “Hurry is the enemy of the soul.” And I’ve discovered that I’ve rushed a lot in my pastoral ministry. I’ve been on the run in so many ways that I’ve kind of neglected the state of my soul.
So honestly, a lot of the pastoral ministry I’m doing right now is pastoral ministry on myself and my family figuring out how to care for myself. A lot outside of that, a lot of phone calls with my church, a lot of Zoom calls, a lot of teaching. We’re sending out every other day or so devotionals to our church. We’re trying to connect with them via newsletter and phone calls. And so that’s really what it looks like. And what’s interesting is that’s a lot of what the work looks like before the pandemic. Now, it’s just done on technology. And so just doing a lot of heart and soul work with myself, my wife and my family. And then also just faithfully checking in on our congregation and seeing how they’re doing.
Tony: Yeah. That’s good, man. That’s good. Last question, Trav. How would you encourage church planters out there today? You’ve got five minutes to say something to a church planter.
Travis: Well, you know, I’ll take the encouragement from the experienced guys. I’m not that guy. But just as a new guy, maybe to some guys that are on the front end of this and/or getting ready to launch in the middle of this, I think one of the things I’ve had to guard my heart from in this time is not falling into the comparison trap. So I don’t have the bandwidth. And our church doesn’t have the resources of our sending churches to do what they’re doing in this time. But that’s not what our people are expecting of us. They want good pastoral care and they want good teaching. And that’s just about it. It doesn’t matter how it looks or how it comes to them.
So fight the comparison trap. I think this is another time that we can lean into the unity of the global church. So it was just a fun story. We had a guy in our first digital gathering profess faith in Jesus, but he lives on the other side of LA from us. Well Luddington’s church is out there. So we connected him with Luddington’s church. He’s getting some counseling, getting prep for baptism. They’re getting plugged in there. And so this is a time where God’s global church gets to shine. So lean into that and trust that keep on trusting Jesus through this. One read I would recommend that I went through again is ”Life Together” by Bonhoeffer. It takes on a really unique perspective in this season where we in the North American church have taken the gathering and community as kind of something that we should have, not as a gift from God. So when you have your gathering again, man, it is a delight, not a duty. What is the purpose of that? Why are we gathering? How are we glorifying God in this? How are we encouraging one another? So when you throw your resources into your gathering, just remember this is not something that we just get to expect from God, but it’s a gift from God for us to steward really well.
And then the final thing, one of the quotes that’s been rolling around in my brain quite a bit lately comes from ”The Office.” Andy Bernard says, “You don’t know, you’re in the good old days until you leave them.” And we’re looking back on how sweet God has been to us and we’re trying to capture those things, be thankful for those things, and allow that to increase our trust that we’re gonna come out on the other side of this looking differently. But that’s okay. God’s still in control and he’s taking care of us.
Tony: That’s good, Trav. Travis Cunningham, you know, you’ve encouraged us in the gospel. You’ve encouraged us by thinking about the privilege that we have of being in community about the responsibility we have of caring for the church and about our mission to our neighbors and in these weird times. And so, man, I just I thank you for being on the podcast. If the listeners want to check you out online, where can they go?
Travis: Yeah, you can visit our website, our storychurch.com. I’m not overly active on social media, but if you wanna find me on Twitter, on @tcunn19. And so follow me there and I’d love to connect and chat with anyone. We’ve got a little free time on our hands, so let’s connect, pray for, and encourage one another.
Tony: And we have extra free time because opening day did not happen today.
Travis: Man, I’m ready to see that. Beautiful Mike Trout swing. He’s going 40, 40 this year.
Tony: Yeah, he is probably the best player in our lifetime. That is debatable, but maybe not.
Travis: It might be Griffey if he stayed healthy, but we love us some Trout.
Tony: That’s good, man. Trav, thanks, brother. May the Lord bless you during the season.
Travis: Hey, Tony, love you, man. Thank you.