Tag Archives: church planter

The Challenge of Planting a Church in NYC – Part 1

Now that my wife and I have been involved in church planting in NYC for almost 3 years (while living in the city for 15), we’ve had a chance to reflect on a lot of the unique challenges of planting a church in NYC.

As cliche as this sounds, God’s truly worked miracles for us to be where we are, especially as I reflect on my own folly and the other dynamics that make planting a church in NYC difficult.

Here are some reflections on the challenge of planting a church in NYC:

Everyone wants to live in NYC nowadays.

Everyone wants to live in NYC nowadays.

Challenge 1: Planting a Church and the Cost of Living in a Neighborhood 

Um, I don’t think I have to comment further on the exorbitant cost of living in NYC, but I’ll comment on what’s ideal for church planters in NYC and how it’s immensely difficult to meet that ideal.

What’s ideal for church planters is to live in the neighborhood in which you’re planting.

There seems to be a new wave of literature celebrating a parish approach to planting – one that is incarnational, neighborhood-based, and local.  I’ve found these books and perspectives to be quite helpful for ministry, especially in NYC where there are so many unique neighborhoods.

The idea of incarnational ministry is not a new one by any means, as heroes such as John Perkins and others from Christian Community Development urged Christians to live in the neighborhoods in which they were doing ministry long ago.

In my observation, the difference between Perkins and the newer voices engaged in an incarnational approach to ministry is that Perkins was advocating for Christians to move and settle into neighborhoods that no one wanted to move into.  

Back when Perkins and others were writing, people (and Christians) were fleeing the city.  John Perkins and Ray Bakke were prophetic voices in their call for Christians to root themselves in neighborhoods while the vast majority of people were leaving.

This reminds me of what Rodney Stark wrote about in the early church, when in counter-cultural fashion, Christians stayed in the cities when plagues hit in order to serve the needs of the sick and needy.

Today, it’s en vogue in church planting world to advocate living in the neighborhood in which you’re planting a church, especially if you’re an urban minister.

Of course this ideal, but I think the call to live in the urban neighborhood in which one is doing ministry has grown less prophetic and less realistic in our day and age.

1) Less Prophetic (in Christian-speak, I mean less counter-cultural)

The call is less prophetic than Perkins and Bakke and others because of urbanization and gentrification.

As a church planter if I say, “I want to plant a church in Midtown East (where our Midtown church gathers on Sundays) and I want to put down roots there to be an incarnational presence”, I’d be making a sensible and ideal statement of “moving into the neighborhood” (as Eugene Petersen translates John 1:14).

The thing is, in today’s day and age, the whole world wants to move into Midtown Manhattan. My statement above wouldn’t be all that prophetic.  Moreover, only the .001% actually get to live in Midtown Manhattan.

Please don’t misunderstand, the urge to do incarnational/neighborhood ministry is biblical and ideal.  

deeply desire for all of our pastors and church planters to live in the neighborhood in which they’re planting.  

Moreover, I want to lead a church in Midtown because I love and cherish Manhattanites (yes, especially the .001%).

However, doing urban ministry this way is not quite as prophetic a call as it once was because saying “I love this neighborhood in NYC” or “I want to put down roots in this neighborhood in NYC” is a statement that I hear from Non-Christians in equal proportion.

In NYC in particular, I’d love to hear church planters talk about moving into neighborhoods and starting churches in places like East New York or Corona Queens as much as I hear folks talking about starting churches in Manhattan or gentrified areas of the five boroughs.

I should add though, there are plenty of churches and pastors serving and living in places like East New York & Corona Queens – they’re mostly the platform-less, servant hearted immigrant and ethnic Pastors who are truly living out their prophetic call in neighborhoods that aren’t quite cool enough yet for the .001%.

The above section may sound like a critique, but I have to share that every church we’ve planted is located in a gentrifying, up-and-coming neighborhood (Astoria/LIC, Roosevelt Island, Midtown East, & Nassau County).

I personally live on Roosevelt Island in what locals on the Island jokingly call “the rich part of town”.

I’m simply making an observation (and a self-critique) of the call to incarnational ministry I’m hearing in church planting circles nowadays, and I want us to also be part of a prophetic call to go where people generally don’t want to go.

2) Less Realistic

There are so many native New Yorkers who wish they bought brownstones in Park Slope 20 years ago.

Or better yet, Williamsburg.

The challenge of planting a church in NYC is that the ideal is to live in the neighborhood in which you’re planting, but if you want to plant a church anywhere in Manhattan, most parts of Brooklyn, growing parts of Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island, the cost of living is unbelievably high.

And if one wants to plant a missional, incarnational church (the two buzzwords that are most ideal for church planters today), the onramp toward financial sustainability is truly a miracle.

Unless a church planter has access to significant funding (either through fundraising or personal wealth), the feasibility of living in a neighborhood can be unrealistic in the long run.

Some have spoken of the merits of bi-vocational planting, but bi-vocational church planting is increasingly difficult in a place like NYC, especially if my money-earning vocation is one that can net a hefty salary but also demand the kind of time and energy for me to net that salary.

Hence, I think it’s often unrealistic for church planters/pastors to live in the neighborhood in which they’re planting.

We should aim for living in the neighborhood (and I truly covet those who are able to do this), but I’m not sure how long-term and sustainable this can be for a family that is interested in being in NYC for the long run.

Conclusion

In conclusion to this point, if you can live in the neighborhood in which you’re planting a church and 1) have the financial means to do so and 2) your family feels called and 3) can be there for the long run, then by all means, do it!

However, if 1, 2, and 3 are not feasible, then do whatever you can to live in a neighborhood that fulfills all three of the above, and build a sense of Christ-centered community and family on mission amongst people in the city (hopefully near where you live, but it doesn’t have to be this way), and be part of what God is doing in this great city.

So if you’re thinking of planting a church in NYC, it’s okay if you don’t live in the neighborhood.  It’ll be okay.  I promise.  It can be done.

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Asian American Church Planters

A few months ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and in a moment of simple honesty he told me, “Drew, I have to admit, I thought you were going to fail as a church planter.  It’s amazing what God has done, but I thought for sure you were going to fail.”

He added, “It’s nothing personal, but the church plant statistics are brutal.  Moreover, they’re even more brutal for Asian-Americans.”

Ouch.

As harsh as those words sound, I actually wasn’t offended, because I don’t think Hope would exist anything short of a miracle.  Moreover, many have reiterated the high stakes of church planting at various times over the year.  I’m well aware of the dire statistics when it comes to churches that survive, let alone thrive.

I was surprised though, when my friend mentioned statistics for Asian Americans.  I didn’t even know they kept statistics (and I didn’t bother to ask where the statistics came from).

As I’ve been reflecting on the past year where God has graciously allowed us to make it through year one (with plans to help start another church on Roosevelt Island led by a remarkable guy named Dan Sadlier in 2014 – shameless plug for your support), I realize there have been many Asian-American church planters who have paved the way for people like myself.

I’d like to highlight some of these folks here as a way of recognizing their influence on me, as well as to encourage other Asian Americans who may be considering a call into church planting, or many who are just starting out.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means – these are just friends of mine OR people whom I’ve met through different connections in the city or in other cities.

Caveat #1: This list is woefully narrow as these planters are all Far East Asian and male, mostly because these are the folks I’ve connected with (and many of whom are in the Evangelical Covenant Church, the denomination I am proud to be part of).  I’m certain there are many SouthEast Asian and South Asian brothers and sisters and Far East sisters I’m missing because of my limited social network.  Feel free to comment with other great Asian American church planters you know or have heard of.

Caveat #2: Language of “success” and “failure” when it comes to church planting can sometimes be disturbing, and really worth another blog post.  Usually success is associated with size and longevity, and for what it’s worth, I don’t know the size of most of these churches listed and I personally don’t like calling churches that have closed a failure because I know Hope is benefitting from the immense spiritual investment of church plants that have since closed.  These churches are listed because they’re people I know about or because there has been sustained fruitfulness (I can define in another blog post what fruitfulness might look like, although I’d just be stealing from Keller’s Center Church) that has allowed me to follow them from across the country for a few years.

Caveat #3: I’m sure all the planters would admit that these congregations have been fruitful despite their shortcomings.  It’s easy to learn this as a church planter.

Moreover, it also becomes obvious to a church planter how so much of what happens is due to great leaders aside from the planter, another easy lesson I’ve learned as so much of Hope’s “success” is due to so many others.

And so here are some Asian American church planters whom I’m happy to highlight:

1) Dave Choi – Dave planted and pastors Church of the Beloved in Chicago.  They’re just about as young/old as we are, and God has done amazing things in birthing this mulit-ethnic church that’s already in two locations.  I remember different phone conversations we had as we were both about to embark on starting churches, and it’s amazing to see what God has done a few months later.  I love Dave and he actually preached an awesome message at Hope a couple of Sundays ago.

2) Peter Ong – Peter planted and pastors King’s Cross Church in nearby Flushing, NY.  They’re just about as young/old as we are (a few weeks after us), and Peter is one of the best leaders/communicators I know.  We both made it through one year, and it’s been a privilege to share ups and downs with a brother so close to us regionally.  Along with Dave, I also remember different meetups when we talked about the dream of starting churches, and I’m so excited for him and the King’s Cross community.

3) Peter Ahn – Peter planted and pastors Metro Community Church in Fort Lee, NJ.  Peter was one of the early encouragers for me to give church planting a go (over a Korean soondooboo lunch), and I couldn’t be more grateful for his counsel those pre-church planting days.  Peter and Metro are some of the godfathers of ECC (our denomination) church planting in the NYC area, and although it’s funny to call such a young church “godfather”, they’ve really established themselves as a large, growing church that’s making a significant impact in NJ, NYC, and beyond.

4)  Ryan Kwon – I’ve never personally met Ryan, but I had a chance to connect with him over the phone a couple of years ago and he planted and pastors Resonate Church, a church that’s absolutely blowing up in Fremont, CA.  They’re a multicultural church that continues to serve Fremont and reach many for Christ, and Ryan’s story of planting the church is pretty cool to hear.

5) Kevin Haah – I briefly met Kevin once after visiting New City, the church he planted in downtown LA.  New City is one of the most ethnically and socio-economically diverse churches I’ve ever visited, and I love that my friends love being part of that community.

6) Eugene Cho – I briefly met Eugene earlier this year, but I’ve followed him online for awhile and he’s been such a pioneer in planting Quest, founding One Day’s Wages, and writing a great blog and twitter feed.  He’s really inspired me and many others from afar, and on top of it all, his love for Seattle sports is awesome.  Awesome and misguided.

7) Dave Gibbons – What can I say about Dave?  He planted Newsong in the 90s and they’ve been a church that’s influenced so many other churches throughout the years.  Dave’s been a great model of church leadership and championing the dreams of others.  Dave’s half Korean and I’ll count him as Asian American because the brotha looks Korean as heck.

8) Peter Sung – Peter planted Highrock in Boston (Dave Swaim is now the pastor and I have mad respect for this man) and Queenswest in Long Island City back in the day, and now he pastors a church in the Seattle area.  Peter has helped plant many other churches in his prior role with the ECC as Director of Church Planting.  I actually got approved for church planting at an assessment that Peter led, and his wisdom and counsel are words that I still refer to from time to time.

9) Daniel Lee – I met Daniel through different functions in New York City, and he planted Compass Fellowship in the Upper Westside.  I’ve loved the interactions I’ve had with Daniel and I admire his leadership and wisdom.

10) John Teter – John is the new Church Planting Team Leader for the ECC, and he planted and pastors Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, CA.  I’ve heard awesome things about the church, which is remarkably diverse and has been a real model for urban ministry for me.  I’m not sure if John is Asian but the brotha looks Asian.

11) James Yim – James planted and pastors Living Way Community Church of Los Angeles, and he’s one of my earliest mentors.  I love this man and much of my formation as a teenager came through him.  Love this man.

12) Soong-Chan Rah – Soong-Chan is now a scholar/writer/professor, but he also planted and pastored Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a church that I’ve loved following through the years (Larry Kim is now the pastor and someone I greatly respect).  Soong-Chan really paved the way in creating a church community that valued social justice and multiethnic ministry.  Ever since attending seminary in the Boston area and hearing of Soong-Chan, I’ve learned so much from him.

13)  Ted Law – Ted planted Access in Houston, and Tina and I had a chance to visit once a couple of years ago.  One of Tina’s college friends goes there, and we really loved the vibe when we visited.  It’s been cool to run into Ted at various ECC functions.

14)  Dan Hyun – Dan and I have only corresponded over social media, but I’m really excited for him and Village Church in Baltimore as they just celebrated 5 years.  They’re a multi-cultural church and I’ve heard so many great things about Dan, and although we’re not related, I wish we were.

15) Duke Kwon – I knew Duke from seminary, and he’s an extremely bright, winsome, and thoughtful pastor/preacher.  I have great respect for him and I remember when he was starting out in planting Grace Meridian Hill.  I hope to visit sometime I’m in the DC area!

——-

I’m sure there are countless others to add to this list (Dj Chuang could probably add a few, I imagine), but I wanted to say thanks to these folks for paving the way.  And if you have a chance to check out any of these churches, do so!

Feel free to add more Asian American Planters in the comments below.  Some of the people that I’ve never met personally but hear good things about through different channels include Peter Hong in Chicago, Bruce Yi in the Upper Westside, Gideon Tsang in Austin, & Stephen Um in Boston.

Reflections on Exponential 2012: Sifted

I’m in Orlando for the Exponential Conference, which is a gathering for church planters from all over the country.  I’m here with a group of planters from the Evangelical Covenant Church & the East Coast Conference, a group of fellow pastors and leaders who are becoming family to me.

I didn’t know what to expect when I got here, but in short, I’ve had an unbelievable time.

I ain’t gonna lie, I’ve been crying non-stop like a baby.

Something about this conference has touched me deeply, and I’d like to think that something has forever changed in me as a person.  Well, I hope.

The conference theme is “Sifted”, a word taken from Luke 22 where it talks of Satan sifting Peter (this is what Jesus tells him).  Each of the main sessions here have addressed some sort of “sifting” that church planters go through.  I’ve been wrecked by all the messages and talks I’ve had with other church planters here.  Wrecked.

———————

Before I share some reflections, here is some information about me as a church planter: A team of us are planting Hope Church NYC in Astoria, NY, a western part of Queens.  We began launch team (core group) gatherings in January, and we’re just coming off of our first preview service which was on Sunday, April 22nd.  Our grand opening as a church will be sometime in the Fall.

My wife Tina and I also celebrated the birth of our first child on Tuesday, January 31st.  We’re planting a church that mirrors the age of our first child.  In other words, there are two newborns in our lives.

With this said, here are some reflections from this conference:

1) Church Planting is Hard… Really Hard – Every main session – from Wayne Cordiero to Jud Wilhite, to church planting spousal teams that have shared, to the Hybels family sharing – has stressed the ways in which church planting has been the hardest thing these folks have ever done.

Each speaker has shared with surprising honesty and vulnerability, something I’m not used to at some of these larger gatherings.

Whether they’re stories of marital & family pain, physical ailment, leadership quandaries, or criticism, the presentations have gone past the fluff and really pinpointed the kinds of emotions and challenges that church planters face.

– They’ve spoken of the fears of starting something new and not knowing if it will succeed.

– They’ve spoken of the stress on family life that is practically unavoidable.

– They’ve shared about the criticism that has come from unexpected places.

– They’ve shared about the disappointment and messiness that inevitably comes with church planting.

There have been stories from other planters that have confirmed all of these struggles – planters who are persevering through terminal cancer, church conflict, & marital strife.

There came a moment, maybe halfway through the first session with Wayne Cordiero when he was really spilling his guts out, when I came to a couple of startling realizations:

– I am a church planter.

– Church planting is really hard.  Really hard.

Hence, the weepy mess.

Each session has been an exhortation toward faith, perseverance, integrity, dependence, obedience, and hope.

I’ve spent a lot of time weeping, repenting, and praying the past couple of days.  Church planting might very well be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

2) “In Ministry You’re Going to Disappoint Someone, Try Not to Make it Your Kids” & “When your Time at Your Church is Done, You Will Only Have Your Ultimate Small Group (your family) to Return to” – Lynne & Bill Hybels shared this with the audience in a powerful interview with the Hybels clan (Bill, Lynn, and their adult kids Todd & Shana).

I could hear the anguish in Lynne and Bill as they shared of the struggle in those early years of parenting and planting a church.

And yet, I could also hear the love and joy that Todd & Shana shared about having the family that they do.

Todd said, “I would love for my future family (Todd is single) to be just like the one I grew up in.”

As a son of a vocational minister (albeit my father entered vocational ministry when I was a teen), I wept through most of the interview.

Needless to say, Tina and David have been on my mind in a special way this week.  And I’ve vowed to giving my best to them.  I do so with much repentance and fear, knowing I could only do this with God’s strength.

3) I Love the Evangelical Covenant Church & The East Coast Conference – Sure, it’s an imperfect group of pastors and leaders, but I’ve been so blessed by my time with these fellow pastors and leaders.

Each night we return to the rooms we’re renting and eat, drink, tell stories, laugh, cry, pray, and laugh some more.

I’m so grateful for the support of fellow pastors, our church planting director Jason Condon, and our district superintendent Howard Burgoyne.

4) “It Feels a Lot Like Faith” – This quote comes from my good friend Dave Choi, a fellow church planter of a great church called Church of the Beloved in Chicago.

I asked him how planting has been going, as he’s been a little ahead of me in the process.  He said, “it feels a lot like faith.”

I can so relate to what he’s saying.

Church planting requires such tremendous faith.  There are so many unknowns about it, and it requires a level of dependence on God that I don’t think I’ve been asked to have before.

5)  I love, love, love the people of Hope Church NYC – I couldn’t have asked for a better team of people to roll with.  Their support, love, and friendship have been unbelievable.

It’s with great fear and reverence I echo the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait.”

For what, you ask?

To go through one of the hardest endeavors of our lives…

…so that we can say, “Only God could do that.”

Let’s do this.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” – Hebrews 11:1

The Tensions of Church Planting

Edit: We just had our first preview service this past Sunday!  I love our team!  Alas, I’ll save that for another post while I finish this one…

This post comes after reading this excellent piece, which I highly recommend.

This Sunday, Hope Church NYC hosts our first public worship gathering.

A lot of effort is going into this Sunday, and after a moment of pause this morning, I realize there are some tensions I’m carrying as we move into this stage of the planting process.  Here are some of them.

1)  Numbers don’t matter… right?  One of the biggest reasons I wanted to plant a church was so that we could be a people where relationships mattered more than the Sundays, and that these relationships would be where God met us most powerfully.

In many ways, this value of relationships goes against the grain of growing large numerically too quickly.

And yet, there’s this nagging thing in me that thinks God is MOST likely to show up if the room is packed.

But if the room is packed, many visitors will likely be overlooked and our volunteers might be over-extended.

Tension.

I think as Evangelicals, the phrase “God showed up!” can often be synonymous with “We had our largest attendance ever!”.

I think I’ve been around church world long enough to know that numbers don’t tell the whole story.  They tell a story, and quite honestly a very helpful one when the numbers increase at a healthy pace.  However, numbers aren’t the entire story.

But can God show up if the room is not packed?

Well, if the focus is on relationships, then the answer is yes.

Hence, the question that we’ve been wrestling with as a leadership team – how can our Sundays facilitate more authentic relationships?

2)  Six Days Versus Sunday – There’s a lot of planning going into Sunday.  There are many logistical concerns… and I’m also preaching a sermon!

It’s easy for most of my time to go into the few hours on Sunday.

But some questions I’m asking myself Monday-Saturday are:

– Are you investing in transforming relationships?

– Are you loving your family well?

– Are you being a witness of Christ’s death and resurrection to those you see and meet Monday-Saturday?

3) Staying True to Values Versus Following the Trends – I have a great advisory team at Hope that’s challenged me on this frequently.  There’s so much literature on church planting, and I’m even attending the Exponential Conference next week.

All this means I’m full of great ideas, usually taken from the latest thing I’m reading or the most recent speaker or coach I’ve listened to.

At some point, I have to remember that being a pastor is context-specific, and a great idea doesn’t mean it’s a great idea for Hope.

4) A Journey for God Versus a Journey To God – It’s so easy to get caught up in tasks in church planting.  There are people to call, things to organize, events to plan – all of which, in my mind, I’m doing for God.

I’ve found in vocational ministry that I fall into a bad place when my journey for God doesn’t necessarily lead me to God.

A common prayer that I’ve said lately, influenced by the words of my mentor Ken Shigematsu, is “Lord, may my journey for you be a journey to you.”

May that be the prayer of us all –

“Lord, may my journey for you be a journey to you.” 

I believe this is an apt prayer for us all.

Amen and amen.

Advice for Church Planters

Today I was asked by some seminary students what advice I’d give to church planters.

After thinking about that question some more, I’ve listed five adages below that help keep me centered through the task of planting Hope Church NYC.

I imagine some people can relate to these, whether you’re a church planter or not.

*Each adage has a Bible verse italicized which I think captures the essence of each saying, I think. 

1.  Pray.  Now. (Psalm 27)

The two words go together for me.  I have to remember that above all else, God is the author and perfecter of my faith.  Prayer is the most obvious byproduct of remembering this truth.

As a church planter, it’s convenient for me to forget about God because there’s so much to do and there’s an insufferable feeling that it’s all on my shoulders.

Well, it’s not.  God’s ultimately in control.

The word “Now” is added because prayer is often the easiest thing to push to the back of my to-do list.

Perhaps there are some more urgent things to do as a church planter – but nothing more important.

Hence I need to pray.  Now.  Not Later.

2.  One Day at a Time (Matthew 6:34)

I alluded to this in a previous post, but this saying is extremely helpful for me.

I so want Hope to instantaneously be what I envision.

Too bad life doesn’t work that way.

Tina laughs at me when I ask her when she thinks we should add another service.

We’ve barely started laying the groundwork for the first, she reminds me.

How was the Great Wall Built?  One brick at a time.

3.  “Go, Sit in Your Cell, and Your Cell will Teach You Everything– A Saying by A Desert Father (Phil 4:11-13)

I’ve read/heard this phrase a few times over the years, and it comes from the Desert Fathers.

The saying could mean a lot of things, including the need for silence, solitude, and “think” space.

The way I take the phrase is to focus on what God’s given me to do, instead of peering out over the horizon at what everyone else is doing.

I’ve noticed that when I fall into the comparison trap, I lose sight of what God’s called me and our church to do.

I can get so concerned with other church plants or the latest trends in church world that I lose sight of our church and our community.

There are so many God moments that I might miss out on because I’m so enamored with what’s happening over there.

Meanwhile, all that’s happening right in front of me is quite sacred and beautiful.

4.  “What is This Life if, Full of Care, We Have No Time to Stand and Stare” – WH Davies (Exodus 20:8)

With all the stresses and tasks of church planting, it’s easy to feel miserable.  That is, if I don’t take the time to “stand and stare”.

For me, this means Sabbath-keeping and other disciplines that give me space to experience joy and pleasure.

This saying has been especially helpful since we have a newborn.  Although we look forward to getting out of these first twelve weeks with David (our son), Tina and I have been consciously enjoying this stage of our son’s life.

He’s such an adorable little guy, and it’d be so easy for me to miss out on precious moments with our son because I’m so caught up in the tasks I need to complete.

Sometimes as church planters we can sacrifice the wrong things for the sake of mission, as if it’s an honor to be a miserable church planter.

I’d much rather be a joyful church planter (who gets miserable sometimes).

5. Love God, Love People (Matthew 22:36-40) – ‘Nuff said.

Is there any advice you’ve found helpful as a church planter or entrepreneur?