Every eye in the room was focused on Tamara as she began to share her story, “I’ve had my life threatened twice. There are people there who are very angry, and I’m there to break through the barrier with the love of Jesus Christ…When I say, ‘Grab my hand’ to someone who is struggling emotionally or spiritually, it’s not just my hand they are grabbing. They are grabbing a hand with the full weight of the presbytery behind them; they are grabbing the weight of the full PC(USA) churches behind them because it is your prayers, it is your support that this hand uses when I grab every desperate and lost hand out there.”
In mid-March, Tamara John–Presbytery Evangelist at Hope for Life Chapel RV Ministry in Huntington Beach–and I were given a distinct honor. We were invited by NEXT Church to give a testimony at their annual conference about our presbytery’s journey of starting “New Missional Communities.” That is what our Revised Mission Plan calls them now, which is kind of a hybrid term for people familiar with the Fresh Expressions and 1001 New Worshipping Communities movements.
Whatever you call these communities, we have found that it takes a whole bunch of differently-gifted people dreaming together, and believing together, and partnering together to start and sustain these fresh expressions of church.
Tamara and over 30 other leaders from our presbytery have been to multiple Fresh Expressions and 1001 conferences over the past six years. The first thing we’ve learned is how important something called “the mixed economy” is.
That’s just a fancy way of saying how important the partnership is between the established church and the new missional communities that you are trying to start. It’s mutually life-giving to both of them.
A volunteer from an established church, St Peter’s By-the-Sea Presbyterian Church, in partnership with Tamara says, “We love having the opportunity to come alongside the RV ministry and support what Tamara and Lou are doing. Whether bringing breakfast goodies for Saturday morning prayer or the fixings for a great BBQ, it gives us the chance to join in sharing God’s love and light with the residents of the park. We’re so pleased to be God’s hands and feet.”
The first phrase of our Presbytery’s vision statement “is to be a community of flourishing congregations,” and one essential characteristic of being flourishing is giving birth to new communities.
For centuries, it was “normal” for congregations to start new congregations. They would commission apostolically-gifted people to go to the next town over and start a new community over there. I’m not sure when that stopped being normal, but we’re trying to bring it back into vogue in our presbytery.
The idea is to gather these discerners on a regular basis so we, as their wider community, can help fan the flames of their passion and assist them with assessments, training, and coaching as they follow God’s call to start something new.
Some of them turn out to be church starters, and others end up starting movements that don’t look anything like a traditional congregation but still look very much like the kingdom of God.
A line in my job description tasks me to do something daring as your presbytery co-executive. It charges me to work with the Presbytery Council to “to align, adapt and eliminate structures and systems to achieve the flexibility and collaboration required to adapt to changing circumstances.” That’s written right in my job description and it’s written all over our presbytery’s mission plan as well.
So one of the key elements of my job, as I see it, is to make it as easy as possible to run disciplined experiments and to learn from them.
But here’s something we’ve learned along the way. Sometimes the machinery of a presbytery can seem so overwhelming it feels like an overstuffed backpack. I’m old enough to remember hiking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with one of those canvas backpacks that had steel frames. The backpack itself was so heavy I didn’t want to put anything more in it!
Then, just a couple of years ago, my daughter was planning a trip to Europe with a friend, and she asked if I would go to REI to help her choose a backpack for her trip. I couldn’t believe how lightweight they were. I can’t even tell you the type of material they used for the frame; it could have been graphite for all I know. And the cloth; it was super lightweight and yet it was as strong as Kevlar.
I think presbyteries need to be that way. We need to be the super lightweight and strong backpacks that are able to supply pioneer leaders with what they need when they need it, even before they know that God is calling them to start a new church. Then, when they are interested in organizing a congregation we have steps for that as well.
NEXT Church’s mission is to spark imaginations, connect congregations, and offer a distinctively Presbyterian witness to Jesus Christ.
I like that mission because it starts with imagination—that God is up to doing something new in our midst. But I also like it for another reason. I like that it honors who we are as Presbyterians by saying that our distinctive witness is worth investing in.
In Tamara’s and my testimony about starting New Missional Communities, Tamara received a rousing ovation for sharing her story. Tamara said, “I want to thank all of you. Tom talked about the ‘mixed economy.’ What that means is that we pioneers cannot do this work without the established church. We cannot. Being out there on the front lines is not easy, even though I’m called to be there.”
As I reflect on Tamara’s and my experience at NEXT Church, I’m honored to be a member of a presbytery that is modeling what it looks like to launch pioneer leaders into ministry. And, as Easter draws near, I give thanks for leaders like Tamara who demonstrate every day what it looks like to live “all in” for our Risen Lord.