If At First You Don’t Succeed…

When I moved to San Francisco, I brought with me 15 years of experience, a lot of enthusiasm, and all of my Southern California church planting strategies, methodologies and paradigms. For the first decade, hardly anything I tried actually worked, but every few years there was a breakthrough.

The first was when I heard a speaker say that ours was a harvesting oriented denomination in the midst of an unseeded generation. Most of the church planting strategies we tried were aimed at harvesting low-lying fruit. Our mailings, advertising, and so forth were effective at reaching the most reachable, but we were raping the land without replenishing it with new evangelistic seed. So many people actually believed that nothing good could ever come out of the San Francisco Bay Area, that few were attempting to reach it in a way that sustains church planting. Re-seeding for generationally sustainable evangelism was critical.

The second breakthrough happened when I discovered that I was more missionary than church planter.  While church planters are usually expected to produce immediate results, strong numbers, and a pattern of success, missionaries relish the opportunity to embrace the challenge of what is difficult, while praying, working and planning towards long term effectiveness. My family decided that we were married to this place, and that God had entrusted us with a missionary role.

Third, I remember the day when I realized I had discovered the language of San Francisco. A friend and I were at a café discussing the Kingdom of God when a young woman broke into our conversation. “What are you talking about? It’s beautiful… like Eminem!” she exclaimed. Inside we laughed, hardly imagining the rapper as beautiful, but the lesson was clear. There had been a language breakthrough. We were also beginning to understand how important the aesthetics of spirituality are to people in San Francisco.

A huge lesson came as we began to engage Luke 10:2 prayer: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Hundreds of people in the San Francisco Bay Area set their cell phones for 10:02 a.m. and began to pray this daily. Within the first week we saw clear results.

Finally, we learned the lesson of sowing seed widely and watching to see what God would bring forth. From this, four church planting priorities emerged, with the potential that these approaches could be combined in any one church.

  1. Antioch: Develop strong sending base-churches (Acts 13:1-3)
  2. Acts 2: Multiply small missional communities (Acts 2:42)
  3. Athens: Reaching least reached people groups (Acts 22:17-23)
  4. Amos: Starting churches around ministries of social justice and compassion (Amos 5:22-24)

These are further fleshed out on the website bayareachurchplanting.com, if you would like to explore them further. Fifteen years later, I am still learning what it means to start churches in the Bay Area, it is still a challenge, and I am still a missionary.