The general trend in urban areas is that as the density of the population goes up, the presence of the church goes down. Many groups including the Urban Island Project, Stadia, Mission 1618, and Acts 29 are trying to increase the presence of the church in some of the most densely populated parts of the Twin Cities through church planting.
For our Urban Church Planting Q & A series, we interview pioneer church planters who, having firmly planted churches in urban areas of the Twin Cities, look back and share their wisdom and reflections. Here we interview Chris Wachter, Lead Pastor at Hiawatha Church in South Minneapolis.
1. Why is urban church planting in the Twin Cities important?
CW: Generally, like anywhere, there are dead people here in need of a resurrection. In our area, people are becoming more spiritual these days, but in all the wrong ways; opting for forms of religious moralism or – the other end of the spectrum – neo-paganism or particular forms of earth worship.
On another level, urban church planting presents a unique opportunity to the Twin Cities church. The “return flight” phenomenon has been in full force for many years; i.e., people moving back into the city rather than fleeing to the suburbs. The city is also the center of cultural influence in the metro area. It’s more likely that the city will influence the suburbs/rural than the other way around.
2. Do you have a church planting model you followed or resources you found beneficial regarding the unique goal of church planting in an urban setting?
CW: A couple things come to mind.
1) We planted with the intent to be a neighborhood church. Although we believe neighborhood churches today are different than they were pre-automobile and pre-computer, we still see a strong value for geographical proximity in our area of Minneapolis. The Twin Cities wins awards for “most bike-able city” all the time it seems, and people move into the city not to escape people obviously. So in general we have felt the benefit of encouraging our people to buy homes in the area, live around the same people for the next 20 years, pointing them to Jesus and inviting them to church. Some drive in, and that’s fine. We never turn people away. But we still are relentless in our focus on our particular corner of the city and encourage people to buy in as much as possible. Our name, “Hiawatha Church” helps get at this. It signifies our intent to serve our community. There are theological reasons we chose it as well (read more about our name).
2) We planted with the intent to plant other churches. We knew we were never going to be a huge congregation in a land-locked church building on a city corner of South Minneapolis. So, for this (and many other reasons) knew that we wanted to send out parts of our church regularly to plant churches elsewhere.
3) We planted with the intent to have “conservative theology and a liberal culture” (one of our taglines, at least among leadership). We preach 45-50 minute sermons off of the premise that God actually speaks to us during that time. We are creedal Christians, and past that, Reformed in our understanding of grace and salvation. In other areas of theology we are what many would consider “very conservative.” But we also have a very casual and free culture – what some might deem “liberal.” For us, the gospel informs both – it informs a certain Christ-centered reading of the Bible and understanding of our lives, and at the same time it informs an approach to life that’s very free; i.e., less ascetic than other strands of Christianity might be. Also, we push heavily the contrast between grace and works, so we’re calling people to “stop doing” and “start believing” over and over again – to rest rather than work – which, again, can seem very strange to both conservatives and liberals. But we’ve seen it attract all kinds, as they see that Jesus invites us to himself rather than to good works alone.
4) We planted with the intent to have an apolitical ethos. For us this means we push the Kingdom of God over any type of earthly political agenda. We’ve found that this attracts extremely liberal and extremely conservative types, and many of them end up loving each other in Christ (not even aware that outside of the church they would be hated enemies of each other).
3. Did you find it necessary for your church to be “different” in order to find its identity and/or contrast it with established churches in the area?
CW: Aside from #2 above, not really. We visited a number of churches in the area we were going to plant, for the purpose of networking, learning about what God was already up to in our area, and how we might play a part. So we knew how we were going to be different, but our intent from the beginning was not to give an alternative option of church to the people of South Minneapolis. Rather, we wanted to simply be the church. We wanted to be biblical in our approach. Old, not new. With this said, however, we did find that incorporating things like 90-100 minute services, a robust preaching ministry, communal approaches to evangelism, and clearly-stated gospel-centrality in all that we did, was in fact new to people (even though it was “old” in the sense that it’s been done in true, biblical churches for 2,000 years).
To put it another way, we’ve found that doing church in an urban setting affords us the opportunity to be a little more “duct tape” in how we gather and do life together. We’re not trying to do things in a new way, or a trendy way, or an “excellent” way, but an authentic, simple, biblical way. And people resonate with that.
4. How did you deal with the ebb and flow of growth patterns in the early years, and when and how did you feel your church was sustainable?
CW: I think we felt sustainable about 5 years in or so, whenever we got past the annual ritual of being on the brink of not paying staff because things were so bad financially. In terms of growth, we started with a launch team of 25, grew to around 45-50 pretty much right away, then hovered there for a while. But looking at our charts, we have grown every year at least a little bit. I don’t think we’ve ever had a year of decline. But, again, no major explosive growth either. We liked it that way.
I started part-time, and I brought along another friend/pastor with me (who also worked part-time), so we were a full-time equivalent. Soon, the church could support us both full-time, but we had to make due for a few years, whether that was with some support-raising or having our wives work, or both.
In regard to “ebb and flow,” that’s a raw truth to church planting in a major, transient city like Minneapolis. People move in, then they move out. It’s hard. But it’s true almost everywhere. We got through that by realizing that people didn’t belong to us. They belonged to God. We prayed. We pastored faithfully. And we trusted God with them when they left. God invariably brought new people to us to start the cycle all over again.
5. What is the loneliest part of church planting? How did you find community?
CW: Being a lead pastor is a very lonely job. I didn’t realize that at first, but soon found out. Part of what helped me avoid some of the more extreme forms of loneliness that a lot of planters get is that I planted with a friend and teammate. But, I still wrestled with loneliness because I was the main point person in the church, carrying certain burdens that even my associate didn’t. Things “rubber-banded” to me that didn’t to anyone else. There was a special type of criticism that I faced as well from the get-go that I never had before in ministry.
Community: I had a good sense of community with my associate, and soon thereafter a team of elders who helped me lead the church on a pastoral level. But I also had to find community with other lead pastor types outside of our church – those men who knew exactly what I was going through and who I could confess sin to and ask for help to.
6. What are some of the challenges of planting a church in an urban setting? How did you get to know and become familiar with the community you planted in?
CW: My wife and I moved into the neighborhood before we planted in it, which really helped us get a better sense for what type of person lived here, what they valued, and how we were going to speak to those values from a Christianly perspective.
Challenges: Honestly, I feel really at home here in the city. It would be a much bigger challenge to plant outside the city in a rural or suburban area. But I suppose some of the urban challenges were: facing a particular kind of godlessness and spiritual darkness that I never did growing up in the suburbs.
Chris Wachter is the Lead Pastor at Hiawatha Church, Minneapolis