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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Interview with the Director of Church Planting for the Vineyard, Steve Nicholson

A couple of months ago I interviewed Steve Nicholson, who is the national director of church planting for the Vineyard. Steve is originally a church planter. He planted in Chicago and from that church there has been more than 17 other churches planted out.  Steve also does training globally with church leaders, so it was huge privilege to learn from him. Use the interface on the right to play the latest podcast or download the audio here.  

Matt: Steve, how do you express your wanderlust for church planting even though you are not planting churches yourself right now?

Steve: For me, mostly it goes into training and coaching church planters.  So I am pretty much always coaching and training church planters all the time. 

Matt: OK, so how does that look on a week to week basis?

Steve: We have phone conversations and exchange emails.  Usually, if I am coaching someone, I visit them from time to time. We start far ahead and keep going until they get the church up and running.

Matt: I see.  Now, have I got that number right about your church planting out 17 other churches? Is that correct?

Steve: I think that is right, yeah.

Matt: Have you been involved in all of those? 

Steve: Yes, to one degree or another, I have been involved in all of them.

Matt: How do you go about finding guys who are church planters and then training them to do so? 

Steve: For me, I tend to start fairly young.  So, with some guys I figure out that they are a church planter when they are still in high school. Even though they may not plant for another 10 years.  But you are looking for people who are leaders, who can articulate themselves, who know how to put a team together, who can break a vision down into steps which they can actually do.  You are looking for catalytic people who tend to start things and lead people everywhere they go.  A good church planter looks like a good business entrepreneur.

Matt: Do you find that you get a lot of guys from the business world who are interested in church planting?

Steve: Sometimes we do, later in life. They spend time in business and then feel like they are ready for a change. They always make good church planters.

Matt: Now, this is your main preoccupation, church planting.  What do you find yourself thinking about the most when it comes to church planting?

Steve: Just to clarify, I am still leading a church.  I spend most of my time leading on my on church. I do spend time thinking about church planting and the biggest default is still about finding the right people. There is a lot of knowledge out there about how to plant, certainly more than there was 30 years ago.  The steps to take our fairly clear.  There are plenty of places to plant.  The bottle neck is finding people to plant.  So, that is where most of my thoughts are.

Matt: What is your strategy for getting the DNA of church planting into the church that you are leading?

Steve: First of all, when you plant 17 churches it kind of gets into the DNA.  A lot of times you get it in the DNA by doing it.  Two, you have to build a church where people have a kingdom mentality, where people know that we are not just here for ourselves...we are not here to be religious consumers, we are here to build the Kingdom of God. When people get that mentality they are going to want to express that in some form.  The third thing, I think if you teach people to listen to the Holy Spirit, He calls them.  He puts it in them.

Matt: What are your plans for increasing your church planting efforts?  Is that in your thoughts? What are your plans for the next 5, 10 years for church planting?

Steve: Church planters are kind of like evangelists.  You know, if 100 people come to Christ an evangelist will celebrate for about 5 min and then they are thinking  I wish it was 1,000.  It is never enough.  The same can be for church planting, you know, it is never enough.  You always want more.  Like I said, I mostly try to make sure that I spot every potential planter I can and help them move in that direction.

Matt: What changes have you seen in the church planting scene?  Are there any concerns yo have about the church planting scene and how have you seen it evolve?

Steve: The thing I would say, no matter where you get it, the training is basically the same.  There are a few magic bullets that everyone has to do it doesn't matter what brand of church you are planting.  The only different situation would be, say a Catholic church moves into a new area where there is already 10,000 catholics and start a new parish...but for everyone is it pretty much looks the same.  It is a function of doing it.  

On the plus side, I think that there does not have to be as many failures as there was 30 years ago.  30 years ago there were many churches being planted and a lot of them did not survive.  Generally, the survival rate is higher than it was even though the general climate is more negative.  My main concern, is that once in a while you get people who don't want to do it the regular way, they want to skip stuff.  Or, they want to plant the "non-church" church.  "We want to plant a church, but we are not going to call it a church, it is not actually going to meet...etc."  Of course, you get nothing.  So, we have seen more of that in the last 5 years, which concerns me because it does not work.

Matt:  Have you seen much of that in the Chicago area?

Steve: No, I haven't. Part of it is that it is the mid-west.  Mid-westerners tend to be more conventional.

Matt: What is your vision for Chicago?  What is your heart for the city you are in?

Steve:  Well, we would like to have 50 Vineyard churches, which would be about the same as the Catholics and Lutherans. It is still pretty modest. Along the way, we want to be a friend and assistance to other churches.  Every once in a while we will help a church that is not planting a Vineyard church, but some other kind of church.  I am always happy to do that too.

Matt: Have you done much with the emerging, multi-site approach to churches?  What is your take on that and what is your experience of that?

Steve:  My take is that it is certainly a way of getting fast, short term results.  If you have a strong church with a lot of momentum and a very strong preacher, you can get a lot of things going very quickly by piping in the preaching and that produces fast, short term rewards. 

My concern is, what happens in 30 years when those guys are not around anymore.  My experience is that it takes many years of experience to train up mature pastors that are capable of leading a large organization.  It takes many years for someone to become a good preacher, and I am thinking that if these gifted people do the multi-site thing and do it all electronically themselves, where are people getting any experience and training.  My question is, "yeah this works now, but what will happen in 30 years when they are gone?"

Matt: My wife and I feel call to plant in Chicago.  Steve, if you were me...I have never planted, I'm 28, married, we will have 2 small kids when we move...where would be a strategic place, in terms of reaching the city, to land...where would you suggest?

Steve:  Usually, I tell people...number one-go somewhere where there are people like you. Unless you have a very strong missionary gifting you need to go to a place where there are people like you.  If you go to a more upper class, intellectual area, then you have to be that yourself.  On the converse, if you are more of an intellectual and you go to a blue-collar area, you will struggle.  The leader and the place need to match. 

Secondly, really big cities like Chicago are a lot harder than medium and smaller size cities.  It is much more difficult to be noticed.  Word-of-mouth does not help you in really big cities.  If you start a new church in a city of 200,000-500,000 and your church grows to 200-300, your church will be noticed.  You could have a church of 2,000 people in Chicago and nobody would know who you were.  You don't get noticed here until you have 10,000 or more people.  It is very hard to create this wide-spread public perception.  And you can't do it using advertising because it is very very expensive, no one has that kind of money.  It is a hard place.  

Thirdly, you need to know that Chicago functions like 3 different cities. There is Nothside, Southside and Westside.  People of one section generally know nothing about the other sections, and never go there at all.  They each have their own culture and ethos and that includes the suburbs.  Not only do you have north, south and west sides of the city, but also the suburbs, so you need to look into that and figure out where you would best fit.  Southside tends to be more blue collar and Westside tends to be more coorporate, middleclass, republican.  Northside tends to be more wealthy, more educated, more democratic, more young professionals.  So, you need to know that is how Chicago works.    

Matt: Do you find that in your church that you have a lot of fruit amongst students? 

Steve:  Yeah, we've always have had a lot of fruit amongst students.

Matt: What do you attribute that to?

Steve: Good music helps.  Our style of preaching appeals to students. Our leadership is more educated people. And then once you have some you get more. So, even though I've been doing this for 30 years and am 30 years older, our median age is still only 32.

Matt: What are some of the idols of Chicago?

Steve: Money is a biggie.  The whole city is really constructed of immigrants who came here to make a better life.  Chicago is very much the immigrant city, it still is and they are coming here to find money.

Matt: Have you had much fruit from other nationalities being added to the church?

Steve:  My church has people from around 35 different countries and is about 42% minority.  So we have a very divers church.

Matt: Do you find that you have leaders, church planters emerging from those people groups, or do you find that is a harder step to take?

Steve: We have some. We have leaders and some church planters also.

Matt: What are some of the contemporary approaches that you have found that help to connect the way people think to the gospel?

Steve:  One of the biggies is ministry to the poor.  People love being apart of giving to the poor.  You have to understand that I am a north side most of the people are democratic, most are more educated and professional and have more of a social consciousness.  SO, they love being apart of a church that is involved in reaching the poor.  I think, the other thing is just talking about spirituality in a non-religious fashion.  People want to experience spirituality.  They do not want religion, or rules.

Matt: On a personal level, what would be your encouragement to know we are on a church planting internship, we are in St. Louis, we are about half way through.  What would you encourage me to really focus on?

Steve: First and most importantly, you have to have your vision as clear as a bell.  You have to work out phrases and ways of describing your vision that you could communicate to someone in a coffee shop again, and again and again.  When church planters struggle, a lot of times it is because their vision is not very clear, or they have not worked it out, how to say it to someone.  Imagine yourself in different settings, describing what we are trying to do and get it worked out precisely.  Meeting someone in a coffee shop and they are asking, "why should I join you?" you have to be able to communicate clearly what the vision is to them .  

One guy I knew, he would start out every church service by saying, "this church started with a dream..." and then he would say something about what that dream was.  You have to be able to answer that question.  Secondly, I would say you always, always, always start with a team.  You need at least 12 people, min 10...but the bigger the team you have, the faster things can go.  But, don't take people who are going to need lots of hand holding.  People who need lots of attention from the pastor because they are not going to get it.  Thirdly, I would say include a prayer team. The Devil is not a sleeper.
Matt: When you say "prayer team" do you mean people locally, or do you mean something broader than that?

Steve: People who don't go on the church plant who pray for you regularly...because there is spiritual warfare.

Matt: Steve, I want to thank you for your time, it has been very beneficial.

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