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Monday, April 28, 2008

Interview with a Kansas City Church Planter

Today I interviewed Jason Allen of LifeConnectionChurch in Kansas City. Jason launched the church in February this year and has some great pointers to share with us about his calling and the process he's going through. You can listen to the podcast using the player on the right. You can also download the mp3 file here or read below.

Matt: Jason, briefly tell me a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are?

Jason: I grew up in Southern Missouri, in a little town called West Plain, for those who don't know, which would be just about everybody, its South East of Springfield -- out in the middle of nowhere. I grew up in a typical family. We were irreligious, we didn't even go to church for Easter or Christmas. My parents divorced when I was in High School. I was the kid who had lots of questions about spiritual things but at the same time was living a lifestyle that was running away from God. I had convictions that their was a God who existed but it didn't make much difference to my life. I became good a drinking and picking up girls.

I did have this other side where I was very inquisitive about spiritual things, asking lots of questions. It was really kinda weird that I was even concerned about that stuff. A guy helped me walk through some of those questions. Not many took my questions seriously. I can't say that I remember tones of his answers but what I remember is that he took the time and took it seriously. God used that to get my attention. That was THE thing that was instrumental in me coming to Christ.

Matt: That's awesome, you just gave me your testimony!

Jason: Yeah, that is pretty important to me in your question. That is what sparked an interest in campus ministry. My last 7-8 years since graduating has been in collegiate ministry. The environment of having people openly ask you questions and searching for direction in life. The collegiate population is doing that. A lot of times I had Christian friends who were very sceptical of the academic environment and even anti state school, which was the environment where I felt I fit the best. I found people more like myself, wrestling with questions in life and trying to self-medicate and having very little success along the way.

Matt: How did you get to the decision of starting a new church?

Jason: It was definitely a long process. It started about 7 years ago when church planting first came on my radar. I was like a lot of young 20 somethings, and I was a guy, very immature, extremely arrogant, extremely over confident in my own abilities.

Matt: I cannot relate to what you are saying at all!

Jason: Yeah, I know, you probably have a friend right?

Matt: Yeah, I know a guy!

Jason: So, I had this vague discontent with church stuff. It didn't fit with the people I was around. They weren't interested in this antiquated institution. Church planting popped on my radar and it was weird! It didn't look like any kind of church meeting I'd ever experienced. The kind of stories I was hearing about changed lives and then learning about the strategy of church planting. The statistics that are indicating that if you want to reach people with the gospel you want to plant churches it takes far fewer people for every single conversion in a church plant than an existing church. Those kind of things started at least to peek my curiosity.

I often struggled through motivation because I was extremely immature, God had given enough Grace for me to realize that to try to start a church because you are ticked off is not the place to go. I continually wrestled with what is driving this desire to think that we might need to start a church? Is it just being disgruntled and not being able to exist in an existing church? Is it thinking that we are better than other people and so we can do this far better than the church down the street can? But, overtime I started to see a shift. Even after wrestling through the motivation I could see that God was calling us to personally take part in church planting. We have always done what we can to point students in the direction of church planting. I'd always tried to get students connected with church plants when they graduate. Or with opportunities during the summer to do internships.

About 2 years ago my wife and I invited some people in the process with us. Community is really important to us, especially in decision making. If the people that know me well come back and say church planting isn't right for you guys then I'd need to take that seriously. Along the way we continued to have validation from people. There came a point where we made a decision to launch a new church.

Matt: During your college ministry did your desire to see students being involved in church planting increase a desire for it yourself?

Jason: Yes. I don't want to over evaluate what we did. We hadn't developed a pipeline where people where leaving the ministry and starting churches but we would say "Hey, you are graduating and moving to St. Louis, I know a church plant in St. Louis you could get involved with". I don't want to be grandeur in what we accomplished. But, we did in our experience at the University of Central Missouri, in the last year and a half of my time there we started The Campus Church Network. It was more of a house church model, or a dorm/apartment model, where we were tying to spark something organically.

In a campus like that there seemed to be some correlation between that and the church planting movement around the world. But it is not taking root in the US, although we thought if there is an opportunity anywhere it might be on the college campus. We experimented with trying to start a few campus churches and see those multiply. We didn't see the results the like in other parts of the world, thousands being baptized, but we did have some cool stories and saw some people encounter Christ that would have never done so otherwise.

Matt: Do you have students involved in the new church?

Jason: Yeah, in my mind it's obvious that when starting a church you are beginning with your relational network. If you think about recruiting it's who you know. For us the last 8 years of our life has been student work so on the one side our team that began, accept for a couple of them, were all a part of ministry with us along the way. And that is the large reason that our average age right now is 24, and we are not huge, it's not like we have 5,000 people. Our reason for it is because of our experience with ministry. We are close enough to the University of Central Missouri that we have people who are involved even on a limited week to week basis as well UCM is regional and so a lot of people who are there are Kansas City people. So we are going to have maybe ten people this summer who will be coming back home and are planning on getting involved.

Matt: Give me some basic details about the church. Were you planted out, who are you affiliated with?

Jason: The spearheading of the church planting process really began with us. Our primary sponsoring church is First Baptist Church of Warrensburg. They did not initiate the process but we said we want to start a church. They have been THE key church in helping us get to where we are at right now. Their support has been invaluable. With that we are connected in the network of the Southern Baptist Convention. I get questions like "Why SBC? Why no be independent?" To be honest with you I think that part of it has been knowing myself, my own tendencies towards pride. Thinking that I am self sufficient. I didn't want to become the ruggedly independent church "Look at us, look at what we can accomplish on our own, without you!" I see that a lot. Not every independent church is like that. We wanted to be able community. It exists at a network level. Where SBC is like any family. You've got the weird uncle, and they look at me and think I am like the weird cousin.

Too often people are intrigued by the ideal of community but when the rubber meets the road and relationships get ugly and messy we want to jet and I wonder how often that plays a part into people doing church hoping. Someone upset me here, and instead of doing the hard work of community and living life together and dealing with hurt together. Network wise, this has been what we know. I have not always been a part of SBC life. But, I was for the last 7-8 years. I don't think you just walk out on a family just because there is something better down the road.

Matt: Why Kansas City?

Jason: We love Kansas City. My wife grew up in this area. When we first got married we lived here for a few years before we moved to Warrensburg. We love the city. It's great. We understand it, it makes sense to us culturally, so in some way the "why" really was a short missiological leap. We knew what it was like to live here. We know the personality. In one way will require less work. Not that it's easy, but it would be different if we headed to New York City or Boston.

Also, tied with that, Kansas City is strategic for this region. 53-58% of the 2 million metropolitan population are in no worshipping community. 1.2 million. If we think about the opportunity to affect this entire region the Kansas City makes a lot of sense. We are specifically in Independence, the eastern side of Kansas City. As you know it is a weird combination of suburbs and townships. It's a different kind of city. Independence is one of the largest cities geographically. There is over a 110,000 in population. Up until this last fall we had 6-7 school districts in Independence.

It seemed strategic that in Independence we can influence students who will end up going to school in other places.

Matt: Give me a step by step process on how you started the church? From the initial group to going public?

Jason: It's been about a year and a half that we started quietly recruiting people which happened very relationally. We went to people who had graduated from the ministry we had been a part of and where getting ready to graduate from University and just opened the invitation to come with us. We didn't see tones of people from that. We landed in June 2007 with 16 people on the launch team. For good or ill we have not had any churches who have had people interested in coming. We began a Sunday night gathering where the first half was a bible study where we looked at our core DNA of the early church and tracked it through the scriptures. We talked about the implication of living out mission here in the city. What does it look like to be in community. Truth, beauty and generosity: what does all that look like? What does it mean for us?

The second part of the Sunday night gathering was planning and preparation. It began as preparation for ministry events. Last summer we hosted a couple of block parties and some kids camps in neighborhoods. We had some mixed results in terms of how beneficial they were. But, we were trying to make connection with people in the neighborhood. Along the way that planning and preparation shifted from events to structure. Like what is a Sunday more system going to look like? In the fall of last year we started a monthly preview service which essentially was a Sunday morning worship experience. Everything that we were going to do once we launched happened on that Sunday. So there was music, teaching, kids ministry. From that we built some momentum and exposure in the community. It was something we were able to invite people to. We have people involved right now who came to preview services.

Matt: How did the community around you respond to advertisements of a new church in the area?

Jason: Again we saw mixed results. We found that the Sunday night gatherings, after inviting people to those, we realized that there was an oddness to it, like it's not really church. Even people who have never been to church have this idea of going to church on Sunday mornings. That's what we are finding. It helped us because we had a Sunday experience that we could invite people to. People came to the morning previews who would never have come to the Sunday night bible study. We didn't see a huge turn out. The largest one was about 80 adults.

At the same time we had organic marketing. Passing out packs of gum at the shopping center I am sitting at right now. We had a sticker on there that said: Life Connection Sneak preview service. We didn't have the money nor the ability to do a mass mailer at that point. We had some good return on that investment. People came and gave us some very positive feedback. We tried to communicate very intentionally that we need all kinds of church to reach all kinds of people. We are not here thinking that we are better than any other churches. There is a church right down the street from the school we meet at that is running 1500 attendance on the weekend. God is doing some pretty cool stuff there. What we say is that we are different. Not better or worse, but different. Because of that we are seeing the kinds of people connecting who appreciate that difference.

We've seen about 20 people who prior to LifeConnection never attended Church before. We have people coming who are not even believers, they come religiously. We have to remind ourselves that we have people coming on a Sunday who would not otherwise be in church.

Matt: What was the time period in which you went public?

Jason: February 10, 2008, the week after Superbowl we launch, just a few months ago, with a crowd
of 133 adults. Right now we are hovering around 60-70 adults. We are really just trying to learn. We had a ministry team meeting last night and we were asking what we needed to do to gain momentum for the summer. Knowing what I know from other experiences in church planting that the first summer is horrendous. Actually, this summer is an opportunity for ministry not just to make it through. We are trying to experiment and see what fits in our context.

Matt: What have been the most challenging aspects of starting a church?

Jason: Primarily it is having appropriate expectations. I have a tendency to dream big so to gain traction and momentum has been hard. For others that's not hard. I have a friend across town who is killing it. We looked like a glorified bible study compared to them.

Trying to refocus our sense of expectation because when you do the research you find out that those who start with the right expectations are still around in 5 years. Those who end up closing shop trace it back to not meeting expectations. Another hard thing is in comparing ourselves to others. Why are we not seeing the results that guy is seeing in that other city? Why is it that lots of churches are supporting them, we are in one of the biggest denominations in the world, and with very little support even in our own city. That reveals more of my own heart than anything else.

Matt: How do you keep yourself walking strong with God?

Jason: Spending time with God and being able to process with people. Community is more than just an ideal for us. We say that all of life and mission happens in the context of the community. Being able to have time alone to just process on my own can be helpful to revitalize.

Matt: What would be your advice, ideas or tips for me when I plant a church?

Jason: Firstly, having a deep commitment to the gospel and to gospel transformation. The thing that I hang my hope on right now is that it's the gospel that changes lives and not our programs or our slick techniques. But if we want to see deep rooted change happen in the city it is going to come about because the gospel is taking root. I think for me that is where it has to begin. If its just about really wanting a church where people don't feel condemned, or really wanting a church that is not program driven, then it's going to fail because it is not tied to a deep commitment of gospel transformation.

Secondly, it's having a deep commitment to the process of planting because its just too freaking hard to go into it thinking this could be a good idea. If we don't have an I'm going to do whatever it takes attitude it's going to be too easy to pack it in.

Thirdly, on the practical side we found that utilizing preview services was really beneficial to us. We want to become a church planting church. I have experienced so many people who have come to me and said you need to do it the way we are doing it. I don't want to get to the place where we are dictating what you should do, but with that said, the preview services were invaluable to our experience. Looking back we would have shifted it a little bit. We did them for 4 months and probably should have shortened that time frame. In October when we had our first one, the thought that we would be having meetings every week after that is a scary proposition. All the stuff that went wrong! We would of had to have worked it out for the next Sunday, but we had an entire month to work through it. Part of it for us is that we are all very green. I was never on a church staff I was never invited into leadership in the church and so the thought of leading in a church setting in a lot of ways I am inexperienced.

Matt: Jason, thank you so much for your time. Really really appreciate it.


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