It’s About Time: The Greatest Barrier to Healthy Urban Church Planting
Spending Time with Jesus
Recently, I’ve been watching The Chosen TV series, which shows the lives of those chosen by Jesus to be His disciples and their lives with Him. It’s fascinating to watch this artistic interpretation of the New Testament narrative and the producer’s ideas about what the interactions between the followers of Christ might have looked like. There is always potential for controversy when you have an artistic interpretation which adds to the events recorded in Scripture, but, for the most part, we can appreciate the attention to detail and thought given to this attempt.
After a lifetime of reading the New Testament, I would consider myself quite familiar with the source material, yet it adds something to it when you see it acted out on the screen. One of the most striking aspects about watching these interactions is the sheer amount of time that Jesus spent with the disciples. I’m not talking about calendar time, as we all know that he had less than three years with most of them, but instead just how much time we are talking about when the Bible describes things like: “After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them” (John 3:22 NIV). In our instant society, where we fill every moment with sound and hurry, it is difficult to imagine the kind of long conversations that took place as Jesus traveled around with His disciples. Sometimes we forget that they were there for many of the miraculous events recorded in Scripture and would have benefited from the ultimately teachable moments those provided.
These disciples were men and women who had a background of learning about and worshipping Yahweh, yet Jesus took what must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of hours over those three years to build into their lives the truths that would sustain them after He was no longer on this earth. Many urban church planters can hardly get most of those they are discipling to regularly attend a one to two-hour weekly meeting in most megacities. We often find ourselves working with seekers and new believers who have no Biblical background and trying to lay a Biblical foundation. Meeting briefly once a week is like trying to build the Empire State Building out of Legos.
If you are like me, there is never enough time for anything in our busy big-city lives. Long commutes are the norm, which just makes long workdays even longer. Logistics are complicated in the city. Neighborhoods don’t connect with each other by public transportation, and traffic can make getting together at certain times impossible. Schedules can be quite varied, and many people don’t keep a regular daily work schedule that is compatible with preferred meeting times. It is normal to feel that time crunch as we strive to invest in the people who are foundational to church planting.
If the work of discipleship that is needed requires a great deal of time in order to build up healthy disciples and healthy churches, what are urban church planters or pastors to do? It can be very discouraging when they imagine the immensity of their task and try to imagine accomplishing it on such limited terms. Many church planters come from very traditional models that put a great deal of emphasis on the big weekly meeting, and it can be difficult to break out of this singular model. If life in your city is as busy as in most major cities in the world, the only solution is to be open to creative possibilities for making good use of the time we have and the time that people are available.
- An old adage in ministry says that we need to look for “FAT” people. This has nothing to do with their weight, but instead with three characteristics: Faithful, Available and Teachable. Whatever your strategy, and no matter how innovative an idea you might have, if these characteristics are not present in the people you are working with, you are probably wasting your time.
- Know your local culture. Sometimes it isn’t that people aren’t available. They just aren’t available at the same time or in the same way that we are used to. Some cultures are late-to-bed cultures. Some are early-to-rise. Some multitask well, and others are difficult to gather, but once they are there, they will stay all day. We will become more effective in our ministry as we adjust to the rhythm of the local culture. Some cultures are also seasonal, and what might be possible in the winter isn’t possible in the summer, or vice versa.
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Find out what others have done, and look around your city to see how people are gathered together regularly based on their common interests, passions, or community life.
- In the book of Acts, the church met in the temple courts and house to house (Acts 2:46), as well as in the marketplace (Acts 17:17), but it also discipled and trained leaders on the way (Paul’s various journeys). We shouldn’t narrowly define church life down to a meeting, but we should follow the models of Jesus and Paul and look to take people alongside us, joining them where they are and taking advantage of natural opportunities that occur in our busy lives.
- Technology – After a year-plus of Zoom meetings for everything, we have seen that using technology to solve some of our time problems is the most obvious solution, but depending on your context, it might not be the best one. Here are some creative uses of technology Urban church planters have applied:
- In a Southeast Asian megacity, a church planter identified video games as the preferred leisure activity for many of his new believers. He developed a Q&A Bible Study format based on all of them being on voice chat on the same video game. While they played, they discussed the passage and were able to give feedback and ask questions. In this context, it was normal for people to discuss all kinds of ideas while playing video games in this way.
- In a Central Asian megacity, many new believers were factory workers and only had limited time one day a week to meet together, which was also the only day they could spend time with their families. The church planter discovered that all these men woke up early to get ready and leave for work, before anyone in their house was up. He suggested a short daily devotion and prayer together every day before they left for work on a messaging app. Because these men were “FAT”, and because in their culture a communal action of doing a daily spiritual practice was normal, they agreed and it became the foundation for deep discipleship for their church, meeting together five to six times a week for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
- In one megacity context, several women wanted to get together for fellowship, but traveling to meet in person regularly was both too time consuming and expensive. Since they all cooked dinner about the same time every day, they decided to have a group video call in their kitchens so they could talk about their days, encourage one another, and pray together as they were busy with daily life. The willingness to open their normal lives up to one another not only gave them time together, but also reinforced the depth of their relationships as they shared more real-life situations as they happened.
These are just a few examples that might spur some ideas. How can you use technology to connect with people as they live their lives or in the natural gaps that exist in their schedules?
- Community Discipleship – How can urban church planters multiply their time for discipleship? Decentralized approaches are often favored in urban church planting, but it can be difficult to get moving and push forward when you are getting started with few mature believers. Here are a few examples of how people have worked around that:
- Anyone who has ever lived in a megacity knows that distance is always measured in time. How far the distance is not nearly as relevant as how long it takes to get there. One urban church planter wanted to facilitate small discipleship groups in the various neighborhoods that those families lived in, but it didn’t seem like anyone was really ready to lead a group. In this culture, the family unit is the core of society, and it made sense to move away from a centralized meeting to more extended family groups in neighborhoods. The church planter made the decision to spend time in each community with the family/community leaders – first meeting with them weekly for extended periods of time, then biweekly, and then monthly. This was a great time investment for the church planter upfront. But now each neighborhood church group is able to function mostly on their own, and they benefit from the majority of church life happening in their respective communities.
- In a Southeast Asian megacity, house groups allow for the church to gather several times a week in their neighborhoods with the larger church group meeting several times a year for extended training. Everyone is welcome to come to these larger trainings, but the leaders are asked to make sure they attend. The church planter/trainer visits the neighborhood groups periodically and is available to meet with the leaders as needed.
- In one Central Asian megacity, the church planter recognized that everyone is very busy, but the society shuts down for one month in the summer. They planned to have a two-week family camp every year during that time, which allowed for life-on-life and formal training that deepened the relationships and the spiritual development of the church, allowing them to leap forward in their development and lay a foundation for the rest of the year’s training. Over time, they added ongoing studies that the believers could do on their own and in smaller groups after they returned to the city.
Time is definitely a factor in urban church planting, and it can be very frustrating and disappointing as we try to engage and spend the necessary time to partner with Christ in seeing His Church grow in our cities. It is important to be flexible, look for the opportunities that naturally present themselves, and to spend as much time with “FAT” believers as possible. With God’s help and by His grace, even with a severe shortage of time, He will grow His Church.