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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chicago Church Planter Mark Willis Interview

Here is my latest interview with Mark Willis, a church planter in Chicago. He moved to Chicago in June and just planted a church a couple of months ago. He is 25, he has works with all types of Christian groups and coaches church planters. Please use the interface on the right to listen to the audio or download the mp3 file.

Matt: First question, how did you get involved in church planting?

Mark: I went to college in Texas, Abilene Christian University, and went through their graduate school of theology, which is sort of their seminary there. One of the tracts that I chose was the Missions Residency for North America. That was in addition to the Master's in Divinity that I got, so it was a specific tract that they let me study with. So, it was sort of a residency, in terms of a medical residency where students are actually doing church planting and doing mission work while they are learning about it, along side mentors and coaches.  

I guess I got involved in church planting in the practical day in, day out experience of what it looked like and felt like and they joys and pains of all that.  The good part was that I had some friends, teachers and mentors to pick me up when I fell.  I had a few scraped knees through the process but really enjoyed it. 

Matt: What is it about Chicago that drew you to start a church there?

Mark: Well, I felt drawn to Chicago.  And I use that word (drawn) specifically because there was no specific call to Chicago from God.  A lot of people say "well, I felt called to this, or called to that," but we kind of walked backwards into it.  We felt drawn by God to Chicago to plant a church.  It was a remarkable series of events that told us this is where we were going to end up going.  It started with us just circling a bunch of cities on a map and asking God to give us some direction.  One by one he started taking cities off the list. 

We had a few things we were looking for-we wanted a global city, a place where the world was coming and being sent from.  We wanted a post-Christian and metropolitan area  where we could spread the gospel in a post modern area, because that is sort of my bend and our passion.  My wife is a portrait artist, so we were also looking for a city with a portrait market.  

Matt:  Which Chicago neighborhood are you in and how did you go about selecting that?

Mark:  We new it would be north somewhere, we loved the neighborhoods along the red line (Chicago transportation system.)   So we ended up choosing Evanston, due to some renting snaphoos that happened. So, we almost ended up here by accident.  We knew we wanted to be near a Christian group here called the Reva Place Fellowship, they are connected with the Mennonite group here in the US.  Part of our vision for church planting is networking with other families of Jesus that believe in a redemptive community, common work and social justice.  Reva Place really embodies those things and have a track record for commitment to the Chicagoland area.  We moved here without full intention of staying here in this neighborhood forever but we wanted to get to know and experience the Reva Place Fellowship and learn more about what it means to be an intentional Christian community.   

Matt: So, you are living in Evanston.  Is that where you are actually planting right now? 

Mark:  Yeah, that is part of our vision, not to see just a church plant but to see the whole region churched.  So we intentionally picked a place that was not at the center of all the commotion.  We didn't want to be the hub of everything.  And all ready there are little groups of Christians popping up in different areas. 

Part of our vision is to  partner with those networks and leaders. Like this afternoon,  I am going to go to the Greenhouse Church Planters Conference, which is a place where you can connect with other organic church planters and regardless of denominational lines you can help serve each other, find ways to collaborate-work together on projects, you know common worship, or service projects for the city.  Part of the reason we chose Evanston is because we knew we would be moving all over the city helping little communities. We have one in Hyde Park that just started a month and a half ago, a little house church there. There is another one in Albany Park that is mostly made up of Somalian refugees.  There is one in Logan Square that is mostly artists and poets.  There is another on the west side that is almost all Hispanic and working class.  

So these groups are very different and our intention in not to try and lump these groups together and make them look like us, but to give them the tools they need to be a vibrant family of Jesus in their neighborhood.  

Matt: Now, how did you identify and get involved with these groups?

Mark: It seems that is has happened differently every time.  The one we are directly involved with is in Hyde Park.  We got connected through a friend, through a friend, through a friend.  So just through indirect, natural relations that we have.  She is a Christian and she has a lot of non Christian friends who are working with her in a very low income public school, here in Chicago. Her desire is to share the gospel with her co-workers, other teachers.  To do it, we feel that sharing the gospel happens in community and as community-that the best evangelism is done in a family of faith verses one person handing out tracts to another.  So, we are directly related to the church in Hyde Park and we have discovered the other ones along the way. 

The big question now is how do we all relate and work together, because it is important that we do not become isolated.  This may bring up a totally different point here, but I think there is some health in small group centered church planting but I think it can get unhealthy if we refuse to allow those groups to mingle and work together.  

Matt:  How did you get people to help you/ is there any type of team that is helping you with that?

Mark: That is a good question and I would recommend a team for those who are looking to plant a church.  In this model, I would not recommend a large, parachute style 20-person team, but I would recommend at least 2 couples-6 couples at the most.  We have 2 couples on the north side and 2 couples on the south side and we meet together once a week.  My wife and I moved here by ourselves and that has been the hardest thing in all of this.  The good news is we have a couple moving here in January and another in the summertime.  So we feel like we are laying the ground work, just planting some simple seeds.  My recommendation would be to do it a little different than we did it.  

Matt:  How are you connecting with non-believers and what are you bringing them into in terms of someone who is interested in the gospel and they are coming along in their faith, what does that look like? 

Mark: Our hope is that we are sending Christians to non-believers.  That these simple churches find there way into their space.  So, rather than inviting some people we met at a bar to our house, lets start regularly attending this bar, and being salt and light in that context.  So that is kinda our mission that we live by. 

You know, we believe that each house church should have a mission that they live by, whether it be teachers, a pub, dance hall, a coffee shop, skaters, or the elderly,  whatever it is, that is the planting process for each house church.  But to say all of that, we are attracting people with an attractive gospel  and so we are asking ourselves constantly what makes the good news good.

The gospel is about reconciliation between God and man and man and man, the gospel is about peace, forgiveness and cleansing.  So we are trying to do that attracts non believers.  We have been inviting them over for a dinner party, the teachers in Hyde Park, and asking them out for coffee. Last weekend we went up to a apple orchard and just spent the day out there with them and just got the chance to share life for a bit.  

Matt:  How do you effectively communicate the gospel to people?

Mark:  I think a big piece of this is to let it be a community that preaches the gospel.  One of the things we've talked about is taking a piece of the gospel and finding a way to communicate that in our lives.  Kind of carnate that to the city of Chicago, to the world.  So, lets say it is peace making, how could we embody peace making?  So, we might stop buying coffee that wasn't fair trade, or maybe we are an advocate for spousal abuse.  At the end of it we hold a coffee night where we invite non believers into a discussion about what it was like for us to embody that piece of the gospel. That is one of the ideas we have had for doing communal evangelism.

Matt:  What is the format right now for what you are doing?

Mark:  It is still evolving.  On the micro level we have a life-transformation group model where we meet together for accountability and prayer.  That is where discipleship and teaching takes place.  We have the women in the house church meet together and the men in the house church meet together.  The key there is that these are brothers and sisters that will be fighting for my heart, they will be helping me through the hard part.  On a mezzo level, we get together once a week, share a meal, pray for each other, share about the week, and talk about it.  We talk strategy for what we feel called to.

Right now our house church is going through some major healing and it is amazing to see what God is doing.  We worship, do art, poetry, kind of depends on the group. On the macro level we have plans for this, this is starting in June,  but we will start to network with other groups in the city.  As we plant more house churches we will hopefully find a way to bring these groups together for worship festivals, kind of a weekend long party.  Maybe there is line dancing, or a big banquet table, similar to the Jewish festivals...that is sort of a long answer...

Matt: How many salvations have you seen or baptisms?  What are your goals?  You talked about these girls groups/guys groups, what kind of numbers are you looking at and how do you know when to multiply a group?

Mark:  We have an idea that this is going to be bigger than just our little group which speaks of the kingdom, which I think is good to instill into every Christian. God is doing something much bigger than what we can see.  As far as our cutoff point...I think it will depend on the specific group. Once it gets beyond 15 it becomes more difficult to have true honest, deep relationships. So, we tell people once the group gets between 12-20 people to start thinking about what the next steps are. Once a group gets to that size a group will start to taper off in their desire to bring in new people anyway, so that is when we start asking people to ask the Lord if they have a burden to do this elsewhere. I am speaking more from my training in my residency here. Almost always when we approach people with this question, there is normally 1-2 that are already thinking that way. So, instead of dividing the groups we ask them to discern in the Spirit who is the 1-2 people to go and start another group, to send out. 

As far as salvations and baptisms, like you said it is a new group, so we have not seen any of that yet in our time so far.  We are working alongside a few non Christians with the Hyde Park group. With the refugee network, the Hispanic network and the poet network, I could not give you specific numbers on those because we are not directly tied to those groups. As far as I can tell every group has about 70% Christian and 30% non Christian.  Our hope it through time and gospel sharing we will see more people come to Christ.  

Matt:  How do you divide your time during the week? 

Mark:  Right now, it is busier because I have picked up a seasonal job to pay some extra expenses and then I have another part time job that I work throughout the year.  I do have some support from individuals and the church planting organization that focuses on the Chicagoland area.  So my time is pretty fluid.  It is in the afternoons and evenings when I really focus on the church plant.

One thing that has been helpful is I have been taking days to walk through different neighborhoods. I feel that every church planter should take some time to do this, where they are fully immersed in the mission field in another context. Chicago is amazing for this. It is none as the "city of neighborhoods" and is made up of about 200 different communities. So, I have this city map on my wall and then go to it. I travel public transit, eat lunch there, and just try and discover what people's needs are. Another big piece of how I spend my time is creating training tools for other church planters. One of those is Pray for Chicago Project. It is using wikipedia style technology and allows people to prayer walk through different parts of Chicago. So, I guess half/half. Half the time I am doing things on my own and the other half is working on website development. 

Matt:  In your groups do you speak every week, do you have a traditional sermon, or is it more of a discussion format?

Mark:  I would say the majority is dialogue.  Sometimes we go through a specific topic and one person decides they are going to research that topic.  Right now it has been more dialogue.

Matt: What would be your advice to me?

Mark:  Don't put the model before the maker.  There are pluses and minuses to every model.  I don't know what your dreams are, but I would say to every church planter to not put your passion for church planting before your intimacy with Father.  Without that deep rooted intimacy you are up the creek without the paddle.  I am talking from experience.  It is easy to forget about what is truly important.  

Matt:  Well, thanks so much Mark.  I really appreciate your time. 

Checkout Mark's site:

1 comment:

St Charles, Il said...

I invite you to visit PrayTheLoop.Info. God Bless.