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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Interview with Steve Sudworth

Special update: I wrote a book for churches to give to first-time guests. It’s had a huge impact at bringing more people back as second-time guests and adding them into the church community. Get the Kindle version of Unforgettable: Your purpose in Christ here and the print version from Those outside the USA may need to order print copies from,, or
I had the privilege of interviewing Steve Sudworth who planted a church in Chicago back in 2004. Steve relates to New Covenant Ministries International and his church is just shy of gathering 100 each week. It was a real joy to learn from Steve's experience and to catch his passion for the church. You can use the interface on the right to listen to the most recent podcast or download the audio of our phone conversation.
Matt: Steve, when you first planted a Church in the City how did you go about meeting people and making new contacts?
Steve: Before we planted in May 2004, my wife and I came out a few days before just to see what God was saying about the city.  One of the key prophetic words that God had given us was about the need to build community, to build family.  So arriving here, May 2004, we gave every intention and every effort to be building from our home, having people in our home...anyone who would give us the time of day would look at us for longer than 5 seconds we would try to build a relationship.  

As those relations grew we had as many people in our home as possible.  In the states it has been much harder to get people into our home than it was back in South Africa.  You first have to build that relationship of trust before they are willing to come into your home.  So, we had about 3-4 people we knew in the city when we arrived. So, we worked with that group first at building relationship and trust and then encouraged them to bring people into our home and little by little we grew. So, building relationships and community were absolutely key.  

Before we came out here, we spent and hour or so with one of the guys who leads New Covenant, and we asked him the question, "what advice can you give us?" and he said "when you plant a church you are not going to be the greatest preacher, you are not going to have the greatest facility.  But one thing you need to do, and you can do, is to love people with all of your heart." We have really tried to embrace that-to love people fully and graciously and to express the love of Christ through our relationship with them.
Matt: In terms of you getting out there, building relationship, what would be your take on the spiritual climate in Chicago? How hungry are people for the gospel in the city?
Steve: Coming from South Africa, which even thought nation is struggling, the church in SA is incredibly strong.  Someone sneezes and 3 people get saved.  So, coming here it has been a real change to what we have been used to.  I feel over the last 3 years my eyes have been open to this incredible religious spirit that rests over this city.  There is a strong understanding of Christ, but Jesus is not a person who demands all of our worship.  There is a reluctance to give oneself fully and wholly to Jesus.  The issue of religion is the biggest thing we have faced. 

When we meet people and tell them what we do, their response is "what? Chicago needs another church?" I think that just summarizes the general attitude that resides over this city.  We believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit and in a city like Chicago...I am really intentional about building relationships with other pastors and it is just hard to find spiritual churches in the heart of the city, there are some in the suburbs.  There is just not an openness to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Matt: Have you found that people with a Christian background reject the Holy Spirit or embraced the Holy Spirit?
Steve: There has been both.  We believe that every person who comes into the community God has chosen to be apart of us for a season.  Certainly those who God has added, though they may struggle with the HS there is a sense of them wanting to embrace him.  We have a church that only a handful of the core leaders have grown up in a spiritual environment.  About 90% of our church has never had that experience, so we have very patiently, fearfully and wisely walking alongside of people.  Not expecting them to run before they can walk.  However, we have had people who have joined us and are excited about a new church experience, and then 2 or 3 months after they have been there they begin to realize where we stand on different issues and they find reason to move on.  So, there have been discouragements and temptations to dilute the truth. But we want to build, unashamedly, what the Bible teaches.
Matt: Where abouts in Chicago are you gathering from and what are those people like?
Steve: We are drawing people from a cross section of the city.  We were originally located in Lincoln Park, which is Caucasian, middle to upper income.  We weren't fitting into that community very well and drawing people from the North, West and South, and even having people coming from Indiana, which is a bit of a drive. We moved to Bucktown, and being more centrally located we have been able to draw more people from different parts of the city.  We really have not gone for a specific neighborhood or area of Chicago, but have felt that God wanted us to reach the whole city.  We want to draw people from North, South, East and West.  So, the neighborhood of Bucktown represents us better. 

As far as struggles, the majority of our church is between the ages of 22-38...we probably have an equal number of singles and marrieds.  The struggles have to do with marriage, jobs, relationships, family, not wanting to conform to the world, struggles like that are quite common.  I have a real heart for men in this city, and men in this nation.  And one of our biggest desires, as a leadership team, is to raise up a generation of men who are passionate and who are leading with intention.  Generally, men are rather passive, especially in this city. That is one of the struggles we are taking on right now.
Matt: Steve, where has a lot of your growth come from? Fresh converts? People moving in? Transfers?
Steve: Probably it is an even mix between transfers from more conservative church and new commitments or people who have back-slidden and made a decision to once again serve God.  In terms of advertising, we have not done much, not to much marketing.  We have really trusted to use word of mouth, encouraging people to bring friends and family.  We believe in outreach and marketing but in planting finances are tight and we also wanted to make sure we established a DNA of personal outreach versus relying on marketing.  Not so say we won't use it in future, but we are not focusing on it now.  As we move to events and series, we will use it but for now we are using word of mouth and inviting friends and family.
Matt: How has the church changed since you started in 2004?      
Steve: I think the church has changed, not to put over emphasis on this but there has been a significant change in the church as the Lord has changed my wife and I and the gifting and calling on our lives.  Especially, as we have felt a resolve to build on the principles we know to be Biblical, the church has taken on a new flavor. About a year and a half after we went through a season of real intimidation as to who we were and what we were called to be.  I realized that we were compromising on values that we believe are true and right.  So, as we have come through that and gained confidence in who we are, the church has really responded and that has been an incredibly exciting moment.  We have learned some lessons, we aren't saying we have arrived, but we have a much clearer sense of who we are and what God has called us to. We are not striving for the worlds view of in numbers and things, those are not driving us and I think that is a good thing 
Matt: As far as a Sunday morning, what type of setup do you have?
Steve: 8.30 the worship team gathers to setup, we have various small groups that take turns hosting with drinks, snacks, and literature and they also arrive at 8.30.  9.30 the leaders gather with the small group and we pray for the meeting, 9.45 we are there to great people, about 10am we have worship.  Generally the worship team prepares 4-5 songs, but we really try to give room to the HS to lead us.  There have been times when the worship goes on for an hour so the teaching is shorter, and there have been times where we have felt the worship time needs to be shorter because the HS wants to use the teaching time to really minister to people. So, we try to be flexible as we can. 

We encourage contributions, through the elders to help them.  If there are opportunities for ministry, we may pause for 10 min to do that.  Announcements are after the worship...we teach for about 40 min and we always try to work into the teaching the truth of the gospel.  At the end of every meeting we invite people to become Christians and always make prayer available and encourage people to hang out after the meeting. 
Matt: What is the leadership structure?  How does your staff look?
Steve: I work full time, employed by the church.  We do have an administrative assistant, who works 2 1/2 days a week.  She is the only other salaried person who works for the church.  The leadership team consists of myself and two other men who are elders.  And then we have a team of elders, we believe in an eldership team lead church, who I have the responsibility to lead the team, but the entire team leads the church.  We are all married, so our wives, while they are not ordained or pastors, they are involved in leadership decisions and meetings to bring in their  perspectives.  

We have a team of deacons, not in the traditional sense, but anointed men and women of God gifted to preach, prophecy, evangelism, whatever their gifting may be.  We have 3 couples who are deacons and we are about to release a single lady onto our deacon team.  So, those are the offices in our local church.  As a local church we relate to a Ephesians 4 ministry team called  New Covenant Ministries International.   That is a team of apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers who are invited through relationship that we as an eldership have developed, they don't come in as hierarchy but come to partner with the local elders to bring gifting and ministry, as it says in Ephesians 4,"so the saints can do the work of service and bring us to maturity."
Matt: How do you go about raising up leaders, identifying elders, do you have a system, or material or is more organic?
Steve: We have tried to incorporate both formal and informal. The informal would be having people in our home, especially if we feel like God has his hand on a couple we would spend more time with them, asking them probing questions. Getting a sense of where they are at, challenging them in areas of character, getting a sense of what is in their heart.  And then we have formal training as well.  I try to get together once a quarter with potential leaders to envisions them about where the church is going, find out what is going on in their lives, hear some testimonies. 

We also have a time of training which is broken into four areas.  We have leadership training from the Old Testament, leadership training from the new Testament, Leadership examples from The life of Paul and the life of Jesus.  As the time is right, and we invite people to come along, we make it clear that we are not asking them to become leaders we are just preparing them for what God is taking them it no, but the timing of that has to be worked out with God.  So, they know even though they are going through leadership training that does not mean they will be set in as leaders.  

Those we feel God is raising up as deacons or elders, from that group we will take them away and spend some time teaching on 'what is a deacon,' 'what is an elder,' 'what do they do,'...every time we get an Ephesians 4 ministry in we would set aside time for them to spend time with existing leaders and potential leaders.  We ask their perspective as well...who do they see sticking out from the crowd, who would they consider for leadership.  We ask them to give us some perspective on that as well.  And when we travel, if there are opportunities for us to minister in other churches, we try and bring potential leaders along with us. Because going on adventures together is a great way of building leadership.
Matt: My wife and I will be moving to Chicago to plant a church and we are praying about where we are supposed to be.  We feel like we are to be in the city. We feel that we want to be close to a university.  We have one year old and expecting another in late January. Taking those factors into consideration, what insight would you give in terms of choosing a place to live? Combined with that, what advice would you give us if you could do things over?
Steve:  To answer your first question, the trendy spots would be Lincoln Park and DePaul University, that is obviously an area with lots of young people and young families.  Lincoln Park and Lakeview would be that way.  For us, and the types of people we were drawing (gathering more of diverse group), that was not a good fit for us.  There are a lot of Caucasians, between the ages of 20-30.  There is another great community that is much more diverse which is further north.  Loyola University has a branch in the North, still in the city, the neighborhood is Andersonville/Uptown.  There is the medical district and UIC which is just to the south of the city.  That neighborhood is 10 years it would be a great place to plant, but there are not to many families there yet.  Those are the 3 that come to mind.  

In regards to advice or perspective, I think I really like what you are doing as far as taking time to look around, getting to know the city.  My wife and I arrived and our two young kids, not knowing anyone, and there was a lot of pressure to make something happen quite quickly.  That is part of the reason why it took us so long to find out who we were and what God has called us too.  We learned a lot on the fly, not that I regret that because we have learned so much and God had a particular purpose in that. 

But, I love what you are doing-taking time to learn the city and what it is God is calling you to, how you are gifted, where you fit best.  If I could do things over, I would ask for 6 months of salaried support so I could just live in the city, get to know the city, the pulse of the city.  I think as soon as you move here, get around the city as much as you can. Get to concerts, get to events, go exploring, spend time with people who have lived here for 20,30,40 years, be a student of the city.  As we have done that over the years we feel like we are just now grasping the heart of the city.  I feel what you are doing right now is outstanding.
Matt: Steve, thank you so much.  I have learned so much during this short time I have had with you, I really appreciate it.  


1 comment:

Shane said...

Awesome interview. I could feel their journey leaping off the screen. This is the kind of stuff church planters (and prospective church planters) need to read. I'll be linking it.