Starting a new faith community from scratch means you have to find people who want to be part of your new church. I know this may sound obvious. It may be obvious, but it’s certainly not easy.
When God calls you to do this you might say to yourself, “Well, I’ve got one person—me.” Then you talk to your spouse and say, “I think God is calling me to start a new church.”
When she says, “I’m in,” you might go to your twelve-year-old daughter and tell her God is calling Mom and Dad to plant a new church. She says, “Cool, I’m in!” and you think, “Wow, we are now the fastest growing church I’ve ever heard of. We just tripled in size in three minutes!”
New church planters are constantly asking the question, where are all the people going to come from?
The easy approach might be to find a bunch of Christians who are less than fully satisfied with their own church and get them to join yours. But is this really the point of church planting? Hardly.
When I felt called to plant a church, I had a burden to reach the outsider, the unconvinced, the hurting—the ones with a huge need for God and don’t even realize it. But the next question was, how would we reach those people? It seemed a bit arrogant to assume that just because I started a church, they would start flooding through the doors.
The first thing I realized was that to have a shot at reaching people who don’t know Jesus, I would have to do something revolutionary: I would have to meet them. As much as I would have liked to think that as soon as I preached the word, crowds would fall to their knees, receive Christ, and become faithful followers as well as faithful churchgoers—I was pretty sure it wouldn’t work that way. That’s not to say that people don’t come to Christ through the preaching of the word, but in the Gospels Jesus got into people’s lives—he got to know them, spent time with them, and built relationships.
So how could we do that? When I told my wife, Valerie, that I sensed God calling me to plant a church, her first response was “Totally!” Her second response was, “We need to start a Meetup group.”
I had no idea what Meetup was. Being the entrepreneurial one in our family, Valerie had been going to Meetup groups for months. I soon learned that Meetup is the world’s largest network of local groups. It is an online information portal for those who are tired of sitting behind a computer all day and want to meet other people face-to-face. Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize a local group or find one of the thousands that already exist. Folks can sign up for groups organized for socializing, business networking, or simply developing new interests together. More than 9,000 Meetup groups gather in local communities in 180 countries each day.
The idea for Meetup came in the wake of 9/11, when one of the co-founders wondered if the tragedy could help bring people together in a lasting way. They wanted to use the Internet to get off the Internet and grow local communities. The belief is that people can change the world by organizing into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference. When I heard that, I thought, “Hey! They stole our mission!”
So Valerie and I started a Meetup group in October 2012 called the South Denver Social Club. We held our first event the day after Thanksgiving, and we called it “burn off the turkey game night.”
It was a bit nerve-wracking. We had no idea if anyone would show up, or what kind of people might come. In fact, Val’s mom responded with panic when she found out we were hosting the event in our home. But we sensed that God was in this, and we decided to go for it and see what God would do. In addition, Val’s experience with business networking and Meetup meant she knew that many people in Meetup had several things in common—they tended to be personable and friendly, successful in their careers, and in many cases, lonely.
That night thirty complete strangers showed up at our house to eat, play games, and hang out. We gave everyone a name tag and gathered in a circle in our living room. We all introduced ourselves and asked anyone who had ever broken a bone to share the story. Before we knew it, everyone was talking and getting to know each other.
Arjun was at that first meeting. That night he noticed my bookshelves, and we started to talk about authors we liked. Three months later at the next Meetup event at our house he showed up with a book. Handing it to me he said, “This made a significant impact on me in the third grade. It was a powerful read, and I think you might really like it.” The book was Run Baby Run, written by former Mau-Mau gang member Nicky Cruz. It was an original paperback copyright from the early 1970s. At the time Arjun had no idea I was a pastor.
Born in India, Arjun lived there until his family moved to the East Coast of the United States when he was twelve. Like many people we encounter in Meetup, he woke up one day, quit his job, and moved to Denver. He had never been to Colorado before. When we met him, he had recently divorced and had a four-year-old son. He had been involved in a couple of Meetup groups of parents who organized play dates for their kids. Somehow he found ours and decided to show up.
A couple months after giving me that book, Arjun invited me to dinner with a few close friends. As we sat down at his dining room table, one of his guests looked at the amazing spread of food and asked if we could say a prayer of thanks for the meal. Sitting at the head of the table Arjun replied, “We’re in luck. We have someone who is qualified to do that. Casey, would you say a prayer for us?” So I gave thanks to God for the meal. We all shared a wonderful time of great food and constant laughing.
Finally at the end of the meal, one of Arjun’s guests said to me, “Casey, Arjun tells us that you are starting a new church.”
Before I could get a word out, Arjun interrupted. “Wait! Before he says anything I want to tell you that this is unlike any church you’ve ever experienced. It is more like a community of people who genuinely love each other and talk about things that are really important. I want all of you to know that I am going to be part of this, and I think you all should seriously consider being part of it too.” I thought, “Wow, that’s quite the endorsement. I’d better keep my mouth shut—anything I say now will just mess this up.”
This is unlike any church you’ve ever experienced. It is more like a community of people who genuinely love each other.
It was clear that God was using Arjun to build our new church.
Over the next few months, Arjun kept coming to Meetup events, and our conversations about life and God continued. He talked about how painful his divorce had been and how it had been the absolute low point of his life. He told me about his family, who were culturally Hindu but not especially orthodox. And he told me that when he was eighteen, his two best friends (who were brothers) became Christians. They had moved away and then moved back after they were Christians, and in them he saw firsthand the transformation Christ can make in a person’s life.
On August 3, our church held our first baptism service at a nearby reservoir. The only person who planned to be baptized was our daughter, Madison. After a short sermon, I asked Madison why she wanted to be baptized and she talked about how she came to faith in Jesus Christ. I then had the awesome privilege of baptizing our daughter.
That’s when the miracle happened. When Madison and I came up out of the water, I felt compelled to ask if any of the twenty-five or so folks from our community wanted to be baptized.
All of the sudden, Arjun whipped off his sunglasses and said, “I’ll do it!” We walked into the water, and I asked Arjun, “Do you believe that Jesus died for you?” He said, “Yes.” With the assistance of another community member, I baptized Arjun. He was our first “invert.”
We called our church Inversion Community—a name that I truly believe came from God. In the Gospels Jesus was always subverting the system. He was a rebel, a revolutionary. The life and teachings of Jesus flipped everything on its head. The last will be first. The weak will be strong.
People expected Jesus to be a militant Messiah who would overthrow the Roman government. Instead, he told them to love their enemies. Then he had the audacity to flip death upside down and rise from the dead!
We started Inversion because we believed that people lack a safe place to explore faith and doubt within community. We sensed there were lots of people in our area who were longing for a place where people are welcome, whatever their story, questions, doubts, or struggles. We needed a place to explore Jesus and his teachings without the added Christian baggage that often comes with it—in other words, a “religionless Christianity” as Bonhoffer said it.
Like the rest of us, Arjun still wrestles with life’s troubles, yet he is growing in his faith. He is learning to trust Jesus with his struggles, and he loves not only Inversion Community but the Covenant as well. He gets it.
Our Meetup group now has more than 1,000 members. We host parties, happy hours, bowling nights, and events to feed the homeless. At first, Val and I hosted all the events, but now members of Inversion’s core leadership team are co-organizers of the group. They understand the mission and organize events around some of their own interests. For instance, one of our team members is into hiking, so he organizes the hiking Meetup events with the South Denver Social Club. We average an event a week, and because we share the hosting responsibilities with the co-organizers, Val and I don’t have to attend all the events.
Happy hours and bowling nights became a safe place for our unchurched friends to explore questions of faith.
The beauty has been that our core team sees themselves as missional “salespeople.” Often one of them will tell someone about Inversion, saying, “You know Casey, right? Well, he’s the pastor,” and the other person will say, “What? No way!”
From the beginning we were adamant about avoiding any semblance of a bait and switch with the Meetup members. As we got to know individuals at our events, we would ask, “What kind of work do you do?” If they expressed no interest in spiritual things we dropped the subject of church and made sure they knew we were interested in building friendship—no matter what.
But if we sensed an interest, we might talk about our vision at Inversion. If they asked for more information, of course we responded. It’s all very natural and organic, and we have found that many folks are amazingly receptive when we honestly share our heart about this new faith community.
Now most of our church is comprised of people we met through Meetup, many of whom previously had little or no active church life. We have people from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds—Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon, pagan.
In his book Religion in the Secular City, Harvey Cox included a chapter called “The Great Inversion” where he wrote, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an amazingly prescient man. Sitting in his Gestapo cell and aware that his days were numbered, he also knew that the kind of theology he had grown up with would no longer do. ‘I have discovered,’ he wrote, just a few weeks before his execution, ‘that only living fully in the world can we learn to have faith.’ ”
One reason I am thankful to be planting with the Covenant is that we get this. Because of our inclusive and non-dogmatic approach, the Covenant is uniquely positioned to thrive in our “post-everything” culture as we start new churches. Companionship makes for good evangelism. This is something we Covenanters have always understood. In our context we have learned that people don’t decide on faith—they discover it. I am thankful that God has used us to meet up with people who need him. And I’m convinced that the theology some of us have grown up with will “no longer do.” Future generations may talk about this period of church history as a reawakening to a new kind of theology—incarnational mission. May God continue to use unique and creative ways to reach those he is desperate to reach, using us as his broken vessels to start churches and to turn the world upside down.
Casey Franklin is lead pastor of Inversion Covenant Church in Denver, Colorado. He’s fascinated by the ongoing intersection between culture and faith, and he has a heart for those not interested in church, either because they never were, or because they have dropped out for one reason or another. He loves anything chocolate.