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Urban church planters sow amid complex demographics

BOSTON (BP) — Boston church planting catalyst Joe Souza has developed a unique strategy for working in the city: prayer driving.

As a lifelong urbanite and an urban church planter in Rio de Janeiro, Orlando and now Boston, Souza frequently ponders how to reach the vast numbers of distinctive city dwellers, many of whom have radically different lifestyles from the average Christian.

“I pray, I cry and I ask God in desperation: Father, do something here that these people may understand that You are God,” said Souza, who also is pastor of Celebration Church in Boston’s historic Charlestown neighborhood.

Souza is not alone. Dozens of church planters have answered God’s call in recent years to spread the Gospel in New England cities such as Boston.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the growth of urban city dwellers is outpacing the growth of the general population.(1) The southernmost New England states are following this trend — and actually have higher than average rates of urban dwellers — with 88 percent of Connecticut’s population living in urban areas while the figure rises to more than 90 percent in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.(2)

Learning on the job

Gary Knighton, a former youth pastor, first connected with urban church plant Faith Fellowship when some University of Hartford students invited him to visit after an evangelism conference in 2014. As a native of Bloomfield, Conn., a few minutes outside Hartford, Knighton provided a New Englander’s perspective on reaching the lost, as well as a wealth of connections with local believers who could advise the new church plant.

“I ended up becoming kind of their indigenous guru because I’ve been here for so long,” Knighton said. “I kind of knew the spiritual climate and spiritual resources available.”

Despite his familiarity with New England, Knighton had spent more time in the suburbs than the city. While transitioning to an urban area, he learned on the job through reading books, connecting with experienced leaders and taking on increased responsibility, starting as community outreach pastor, then becoming Faith Fellowship’s executive pastor and now lead pastor.

But most importantly, he grew by learning a new level of dependence on God. Knighton frequently finds himself praying, “Lord, help me to drop my preferences in order to reach the people group [urbanites] You want me to reach.”

Souza, meanwhile, had years of experience in church planting but had never lived in New England before coming to Boston to help First Brazilian Baptist Church plant a new church. He spent his first 18 months in Boston learning the culture, developing a strategy and talking with other church planters and leaders.

During that time, God changed his plans about the new church plant. Originally intended to be an outreach to Brazilians, God impressed on Souza and other leaders that “if we were just to target the Brazilian population, we would be missing a huge chunk of the population in our own backyard.”

Out of this conviction, Souza planted Celebration Church, an English-speaking church with a Brazilian flair that reaches many second-generation immigrants and Brazilian/American couples.

This Spirit-led direction illustrates what many believe — a period of time dedicated to settling into the community and praying over plans is one of the most foundational elements of preparing to plant a church.

David Butler, the North American Mission Board’s Send City missionary in Boston, noted that demographics and onsite exegesis are helpful but have limits.

“It’s absolutely essential to live in the community for at least a year,” Butler said. “Living with and becoming a part of the fabric of a community or neighborhood allows you to go beyond knowing about to knowing personally.”

Millennials & the ‘forgotten’

Both Knighton and Souza described two key segments in urban church plants: millennials and the “highly forgotten” people.

As pastor of a church plant located on a university campus and volunteer chaplain at the University of Hartford, Knighton frequently interacts with college students and millennials, which has altered his perspective about ministry.

“Millennials, there’s 100 different things pulling at their attention. Church is [only] one of the things they do, and not the most important thing,” Knighton said.

This view of church as one of many things is now prevalent even among Christians, and it has caused Knighton to develop a more relational, less program-based approach to ministry as he learns “to lead from the pew more than the pulpit.”

“They need people who are older to pour into their lives,” Knighton said, describing millennials’ unique needs, such as mentors to help them learn life skills, deal with struggles like depression and simply spend time with them.

This type of discipleship requires a significant investment of time outside of scheduled church events, an approach that is different from the way the church operated in past years. After growing up in an environment focused on church activities, Knighton has had to re-learn how to minister to people.

“I kind of had to model things in my life that weren’t modeled for me,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum are the “highly forgotten,” as Souza describes them.

“I spend time with people who are homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps. That comes with being an urban church planter,” Souza said. “It’s a different world. You have to come up with alternate ways to preach the Gospel.”

God has blessed Celebration Church with opportunities to reach out to people such as prostitutes and gang members who are often overlooked by many in the church. Although some Christians might feel reluctant to spend time with them, Souza notes that this is exactly what Jesus did — and He is still in the business of changing the lives of those who seem hopeless.

One example is a current church member, Tommy (name changed), who was once heavily involved in a gang. After meeting a Christian who was sharing the Gospel on the street, Tommy had an encounter with Jesus which led to a radical conversion and life change. Today he is invested in reaching out to others on the streets, and the church is “rallying around” Tommy, others like him and this type of ministry.

Knighton agreed that church planters must be prepared to work with people who don’t live a pretty life, noting that, for many, “normality is skewed.”

“You can’t be afraid to engage with certain types of people,” Knighton said. “You can’t be afraid of a mess. You’ve got to meet people where they are.”

A previous job as a counselor for parolees proved most helpful in preparing Knighton to work with broken urbanites. Even those who are not struggling with drugs, alcohol and crime have felt needs that many suburbanites can’t relate to, like employment, medical awareness and education. These needs, Knighton said, give urban church planters distinct opportunities to engage with the community holistically.

Souza added that urban church planters must be in different parts of the city at different times of day to reach the most people.

“It’s definitely important to understand the vibe of the city during office hours and during off hours,” he said. “For someone to be successful in urban church planting, they need to understand the uniqueness of ministry around the clock, in a sense.”

Opportunities to engage people with the Gospel don’t always happen at convenient times or in traditional places, Souza said, noting, “It may not be a Sunday morning meeting; it may be a meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Following God, not trends

Butler agreed that meeting people where they are is one of the most important mindsets an urban church planter can cultivate.

“The apologetic for church planting in any urban setting, but especially Boston, is authenticity,” Butler said. The goal of church planting is “to love the people and build bridges of grace strong enough to bear the weight of truth.”

While a plethora of books and articles have been published on church planting, and such information can often be helpful, Knighton advises planters to find their own style of leading — one that is natural for their personality and fits within their broader context. He also advised church planters to counter pressure to get “too fancy, too fast.”

“Unfortunately, there’s this growing model of trying to start big on the first Sunday,” Knighton said. “You need to start with what you can sustain and go from there.”

Souza mentioned the possibility that, with the increased attention church planting has received in recent years, a pastor could feel attracted to church planting not out of obedience to God but out of ambition or trendiness, which can lead to selfishness and pride.

“The greatest thing that I’ve learned is we can’t get credit for this. It’s really God at work,” Souza said. “He can even use a messed-up Brazilian from Rio de Janeiro in a church planting movement.”

When Souza first moved to Massachusetts in the early 2000s, 87 percent of church plants in greater Boston were folding within two to four years. In fact, when Souza was asked to become the church planting catalyst for the area, it was by default — he was the only local church planter at that time who had successfully launched.

But in the past few years, God has been doing something amazing in New England through church plants — more than 115 churches in the Baptist Convention of New England have been planted since 2010, and today’s plants are surviving at a rate of 90 percent and even reproducing.

“Churches younger than five years are starting other churches,” Souza said. He believes God is working through planters who cultivate humility, a spirit of teamwork and a sense of community with other pastors and planters.

Souza acknowledged that it’s easy to be pulled apart or develop a “Lone Ranger mentality,” but as Christ teaches in John 17, “our unity is the best message for the world to know that Jesus is Messiah.”

And ultimately, all the glory goes to God.

“The more that I understand the challenge [is] to not only plant a church but survive and thrive, the more I know that I’m not able to do this … which means God is the sustainer,” Souza said. “It’s the sense that I’m totally impotent to do something about this … but God can choose someone like me to be a part of what He’s doing in Boston, which is something phenomenal. I can’t ever get over it.”