In the summer of 1997, I left a small town in Eastern Kentucky to head to the Northern suburbs of Chicago. In preparation for my adventure, I bought new clothes – some really nice ‘dress’ clothes. I was heading to one of the most affluent counties in America – what my grandfather referred to as ‘the big city’. I thought the fancy clothes would help me fit in.
My mission for the next seven months was to serve as an intern to a church planter named Phil. Phil had planted Northwest Church eight years earlier, and was in the process of planting another church with Northwest playing the role of mother church.
I was 20 years old, and I had zero experience with church planting. In fact, when I interviewed for the internship, it was the first time I had heard about church planting in an up close and personal way. Growing up in Kentucky in the 80’s and 90’s, there were plenty of churches, but the only new churches were due to splits from existing ones, not actual new starts/plants.
Northwest was a legitimate, intentional new start and Phil was the real deal as far as church planters go. He had been charged to start a church in the northwest suburbs using only unchurched people. And, by the grace of God and lots of determination, he did it. When I arrived at Northwest in 1997, it was averaging around 175 people and 90% of them were involved in a ministry. It was a seeker sensitive service, meeting in a local school. Everything the church owned fit in a van and trailer. This van would pull up at the school on Sunday morning and men and women would unload and begin to assemble ‘the church’.
This was a new world. The churches I had experienced up to that point in my life were asking one primary question: What do we do to get by from week to week? This one question played out in a variety of ways such as: What is happening this week in the service? With the youth ministry? With the kids? These were questions of survival, not questions of advancement, growth and multiplication. But the driving question at this church planting church was: How do we advance the kingdom of God in and around this community?
The difference in the questions made the church plant a different animal altogether – in ethos, strategy and results. This church plant was intentionally built to reflect and grow the Kingdom of God. Change was the only constant thing at Northwest. The church knew that in order to share the Good News in their community, they had to be stretched as individuals and a church. The people were deeply engaged – holding ownership in all areas of ministry. The pastor was the leader, but he was not alone. He had a lead team that met once a month for at least 5 hours, setting the pace for the church, guarding the DNA of being a Kingdom-minded church planting church. That summer, at least 20 members were leaving Northwest to go with Phil as he started the next church. They were willing to ‘lose’ people for the sake of the mission of God.
This new reality did not fit my perceptions of what ‘the church’ was at this point in my life. My clothes, by the way, did not help me fit in. They did quite the opposite. On my first Sunday at Northwest I was paired with one of the volunteers. He looked at me, in my new dress slacks, pressed white shirt, fancy tie and shiny shoes and with smirk, dryly said, “You must be the new intern.” As church began, it quickly became apparent that everyone knew I was the intern because it was a hot and muggy day and most people were wearing shorts and t-shirts. The very thing I thought would help me fit in -my clothes – did the opposite.
When I arrived, I did not have context for this new world of church planting, but the excitement, the passion and the energy of this life changed me. It changed the way I saw the church and its place within God’s mission on earth. It gave me permission to start new things – new churches, new experiences, new studies, new initiatives and new conversations. It helped me to see what it looked like to lead with bravery, arm in arm with other leaders, into places that were unknown and uncertain. It awakened in me the need for change.
I did need a change for this adventure. I needed to change the questions I was asking and the pursuit of those answers provided me with my true ‘new clothes’. No shiny shoes required.