By Valerie Loner 10T
There’s a reason we call it “church planting.” Starting a new congregation and cultivating seeds have a lot in common. Tilling the soil, watering and fertilizing, and providing just the right light have their counterparts in learning the community, meeting needs, and providing just the right atmosphere. And just as growing a lush garden takes a special touch, so does planting a new church.
Timothy Lloyd 10T never knew he had a green thumb.
His latent talent became apparent only the last three years, as he’s tilled, watered, and fertilized Eastside Church, the United Methodist church plant he pastors in east Atlanta. Now averaging 145 in worship each Sunday, Eastside is a thriving, growing congregation—and Lloyd is becoming a seasoned gardener.
Even before Candler, Lloyd and his wife, Elisabeth, felt a call to start a church. The couple moved to Atlanta from Indiana so that Tim could attend seminary. While at Candler, he did his second year of contextual education at Clairmont Presbyterian Church, where his role was to start a contemporary service for young adults—an assignment that made his call to be a church planter even clearer.
In January 2011, he was appointed to start a new United Methodist church in Atlanta. The church initially took the name “Oakhurst” from the surrounding neighborhood, but leaders soon discovered the name didn't fully reflect the congregation. "We realized that we were drawing people from a much broader spectrum," Lloyd explains, so the congregation changed its name to Eastside in January 2013.
The Eastside vibe is lively, and the worship atmosphere eclectic. You might hear Charles Wesley hymns played on the banjo, drink fair trade coffee, or watch one of several artists in the church paint during the service. Members help lead worship, and there are a few songwriters in the congregation. You'll also find traditional elements: The church says the Apostles’ Creed after every baptism and celebrates Communion every Sunday.
The casual and energetic mood is intentional, says Lloyd, who saw the need for an in-town congregation that reached the unchurched. "The goal was to express the Methodist faith in a way that was indigenous to metro Atlanta," he says. "It's an interesting juxtaposition between holiness and down-to-earth."
Lloyd is in good company among a growing number of Candler alums who have heard the call to launch new communities of faith.
For Susannah Davis 95T, that call came over cups of coffee—thousands of them. When she bought a coffee shop in the Kirkwood community of Atlanta in 2006, Davis wasn't sure what was going to grow out of the shop, but soon it was the epicenter of a developing faith community formed by those who came in seeking more than just a good cup of joe. The first worship service was held on Christmas Eve of 2006, with monthly services beginning in 2007 and weekly services in 2008.
New things keep brewing at Kirkwood United Church of Christ, which has moved several times to accommodate the growing congregation. Whether they've met in the coffee shop, a community center, or their present location in a rented storefront, Davis has learned that new churches are in a constant state of change.
"With a new church start, God is always doing a new thing, and so are we," she says, adding that the church is still forming its identity. "We are, and we are becoming. The community is becoming."
Right now, the congregation is becoming too large for its current worship space, and success is leading to some tough decisions. They are considering adding another worship service, but there is a fear that a second service will tear them apart. While Davis isn't clear on what the congregation will do, she is certain that God has a plan for them. "Whatever it is, we'll figure it out together. We're trusting that."
Trusting God's plan—particularly when it's still a mystery—is an integral but nerve-wracking part of the church-planting process. Just ask Wade Langer 09T. Two weeks after the United Methodist pastor received a call saying he was being appointed to start a new church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornadoes devastated the city and surrounding area, leaving an 80-mile path of destruction and killing more than 60 people. He spent nine months trying to figure out what Tuscaloosa was pre- and post-tornado.
"I didn't know either one," he says. "It wasn't a time to start a church. It was a time to rebuild. It was a time to learn."
His education came through an exhausting period of relentless investigation and study. He remembers going to Starbucks at 6:30 a.m. to talk with residents before visiting the chamber of commerce and area businesses to get to know as many people as possible.
"Those nine months were the hardest I ever had in ministry, maybe the hardest in my life," he recalls. He went to school principals, fire stations, and other places and offered to be their chaplain.
“It was a frustrating time. I kept thinking, ‘I'm doing a lot of things, but I'm not doing the one thing I was sent here to do,’" he adds.
Toward the end of those nine months, Langer saw a Facebook post about an upcoming trip to Israel led by The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, a 20,000-member congregation that began as a church plant in 1990. Langer went on the trip with more than 80 people from Church of the Resurrection, including some who were original members.
While on the trip, Langer was in a literal and metaphorical desert and found himself praying, "God, I have no idea what you're doing in my life." On Ash Wednesday he went to bed in a hotel by the Sea of Galilee, and woke up at 3:00 a.m. knowing that he had to start a church on the Sunday following the first anniversary of the tornadoes.
That's when things became clearer: “Maybe God wants to start this church as a path to resurrection and revival after the biggest devastation this city has ever seen.”
On the first Sunday, 120 people came to what became known as The Capstone United Methodist Church. Langer led monthly services that summer and began weekly worship in September 2012. He's since created a partnership with the nearby Wesley Fellowship at the University of Alabama that allows the church to use Wesley's sound equipment and also helps them reach students.
Telling college students about Christ is part of Carlos Jones's 10T story as well, but he didn't plan to make the church his career. As a strong safety at Tennessee State University, Jones had the potential to play in the National Football League (NFL), but while serving as the president of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he heard a lecture by a visiting Candler professor and decided to apply to the school and see what happened. He got his Candler acceptance letter two days before an NFL scouting event, and he opted for Candler.
Now Jones leads The Way Interdenominational Church in Sugar Land, Tex., which is surprising to him since he didn't intend to be a church planter. After graduating from Candler, Jones returned home to Texas and started having a Bible study with some of his friends on the Gospel of Luke. Each week, the group gathered at Jones's parents' house. The group that began with 10 or 11 participants swelled to between 35 and 40. So in September of 2010, Jones began leading a worship service, also at his parents' home.
The church, which now meets in commercial space, averages 70 in worship each week. But Jones doesn’t focus on weekly attendance. "My main mission and my goal is to help as many people as I can spiritually and physically," he says. "I'm not really concerned about how many members we bring in. Our main focus is helping people."
The challenges of starting a new congregation are as varied as those who start them, but some seem universal.
One is loneliness. "Early on, it's you and your family," Lloyd shares. "There's nobody. Trying to explain your vision for a church, sometimes people roll their eyes."
Davis agrees. "Those first three years, I would get there and think, 'I'm going to be the only one here today.'"
Another challenge is discipling people. "The majority of our folks hadn't been involved in a church before Eastside," says Lloyd, who is excited about the eight small groups that have formed. "They don't know how to be church. You have to teach them."
Then there's the fatigue that comes from trying to do it all and do it right the first time. Everything is new, says Davis, and it can be exhausting when everything is being done for the first time. There are no routines, except perhaps setting up and taking down the worship space each week.
"You don't have a staff in the beginning," Lloyd points out. "You wear every hat."
And, of course, finances are notoriously tight. Church planters often have to teach people about the theology of giving.
The challenges in church planting seem so daunting that one almost wonders why anyone would undertake it. But those who have thrived in the experience say the rewards are found in seeing lives transformed. Some of these transformations are dramatic and some are subtle, but the impact on lives is still very deep, Lloyd notes.
And some of the deepest transformations happen in the church planter’s own life.
"My faith in God has grown tremendously," says Davis. "My trust in God has grown tremendously. My love for God has grown tremendously. It's nothing that we can accomplish on our own. It's the power and presence of God in this place."
Valerie Loner 10T is pastor of Rush Chapel UMC near Rome, Ga., which recently celebrated its 175th anniversary, complete with dinner on the grounds and an article in the local paper.