Canoeing the Mountains
After fifteen difficult months of travel, they had made it. Lewis and Clark had reached the spring that began the Missouri River, that great river they had been following since they crossed the Mississippi and began their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.
For over three hundred years before Lewis and Clark arrived at this spot, explorers from numerous nations had assumed that just beyond the headwaters of the Missouri were the headwaters to the Columbia River, and with it, a route to the Pacific. Indeed, this was the entire purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition—to determine the best way to connect the Missouri and the Columbia, thus connecting east and west, Atlantic and Pacific. To accomplish this goal, the expedition had invested heavily in their canoes—big, sturdy things that could carry all the supplies and people needed to make their trek from the Mississippi to the Pacific as manageable as possible.
Meriwether Lewis himself had written about his belief that when they reached the springs that fed the Missouri, he and his men would walk up a hill, look down across perhaps a half-day portage, and then simply set their canoes in the Columbia and set off for the Pacific Ocean. All they needed to do was crest the hill, find the steam, and coast to the finish line.
Lewis and Clark could not have been more disappointed.
What they actually discovered was that three hundred years of geographical assumptions were completely and utterly wrong. For when they reached the top of the hill and looked out, they saw not the Columbia River, but the Rocky Mountains. Stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, one set of peaks after another: tall, dangerous, and imposing. In other words, Lewis and Clark didn’t see anything like what they expected to see—and not at all what they were trained or prepared for.
And in that moment, Lewis and Clark were faced with a choice: should they turn back, or should they press on? They were equipped with canoes; before them lay mountains. And in the words of one of their companions, “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” No one would blame them if they turned back; no one would think less of them if they needed to regroup and try again later. Should they take the safe bet? Or should they venture into the unknown, into uncharted territory that was even more dangerous and uncertain than they had originally thought?
Of course, there are museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark across the United States precisely because they didn’t turn back. We know the names Meriwether Lewis and William Clark because they embraced the path before them and forged ahead, into the unknown, even though the path was very different than they originally expected. In the words of Tod Bolsinger, Lewis and Clark canoed the mountains: they adapted, they learned new skills, and they completed their mission, even though the circumstances of that mission changed. It’s a fitting description for many aspects of reality right now. But it’s particularly fitting for planting a church during a pandemic.
Planting During a Pandemic
I’ve written previously about church planting here at Conciliar Post, what it is and why it’s important, and even shared some of my church plant’s working projects on things like leadership in the church. But, as I’ve taken to saying, that was “before the dark times.” Church planting, like exploring, is difficult under the best of circumstances and 2020 is not the best of circumstances. With the arrival of COVID, much of life was thrown into chaos. The seemingly inevitable became problematic and dangerous. The best-laid plans were disrupted, and “uncertainty” became the watchword for “these unprecedented times.”1
Like so many other ventures, COVID forced us to consider the wisdom and viability of trying to launch a startup church at a time when nothing seems to be starting up. In the spring and summer, we wrestled with all manner of questions about the uncertainty of the future, the realities of the virus, social perceptions, and logistics. How does one build community, reach the lost, and pay the bills while under quarantine? What would happen if a staff member or key volunteer gets sick (or worse)? What might happen if church becomes a super-spreader event? Would pressing on distract people from the gospel? Would being open drive people away rather than inviting them in? With so many gathering spaces closed, where will we meet? Without the benefit of face-to-face team building, will anyone still plant with us? These are but some of the questions we faced and wrestled with.
As we sought to answer these questions for our plant (or, at least get as close to answering them as possible), we relied on a number of voices. Foremost were conversations with our leadership team and the leadership team from our planting church. We also were in consistent communication with our church planting network, which helped give us insights into how different leaders and churches were creatively tackling some of the concerns we were facing. Finally, there was the value of experience. From late May until August, I was serving as an associate pastor at our planting church, where I was on the frontlines of doing church during a pandemic. In combination with lots of prayer, these conversations and experiences gave us the grounding to make some critical decisions.
Most significantly, we made the decision to move our plant from a movie theater to a storefront. Rather than leaving the week-to-week fate of church meetings in the hands of a distant corporation, we moved to lease some local space in a local shopping center. This enabled us to work directly with St. Louis County on adhering to COVID restrictions, rather than some intermediary who may or may not include additional restrictions. Such a space would also allow us to host other meetings throughout the week, including the filming of online services in the event of another shutdown. Of course, this shift of venue resulted in a cascade of other changes.
No longer could we need to plan for a portable church that would pack into our trailer every Sunday morning. Instead, we needed to sell our trailer, find chairs, and acquire all the other accoutrements necessary for a semi-permanent church space. This required plenty of adjustments to our preparations. As one example, when you’re meeting temporarily in a movie theater, you don’t have to worry about where your toilet paper comes from and if you have enough trash cans; but when you’re the tenant in a space, those mundane things are a little more important. We also had to make some changes to our service schedule (we have two services instead of one in order to facilitate space-friendly seating arrangements) and our launch timeline. We had hoped to launch on September 13. But because of all these COVID-induced changes, we were forced to move our launch all the way back to September 20.
At this point, it’s natural to ask why. Why are we planting in a pandemic? Why have we jumped through so many hoops in order to launch this Fall? It would have been far safer organizationally, financially, and personally to remain in our comfortable and well-resourced planting church until things settle down. So why did we press on toward planting?
Because people still need Jesus.
Studies have consistently shown that church plants are one of the best ways to reach people who don’t know Jesus with the good news of the kingdom of God. The fact that people still need to encounter and be transformed by Jesus hasn’t changed because of this pandemic (or any other obstacle). The Church still has a mandate to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19-20). Our mission has not changed—only the circumstances in which we work.
All of the reasons that we needed church plants in 2019 also apply in 2020; only the need for churches to reach their communities is greater. More innovation is required to survive and thrive. More churches have plateaued or are in decline. People are still hurting and in need of safe communities, perhaps now more than any other time in recent history. Loneliness, anxiety, depression, isolation, and self-harm were epidemics before COVID and they’re only getting worse. People crave authentic connection and community—even more so after they’ve been in social isolation for long periods of time. The world is decidedly not normal—but the Church can still be a place of relative normalcy, a place where we can be reminded of the goodness and hope of the Gospel that we so desperately need when things are not normal.
Canoeing the Mountains
Fear, sickness, hatred, racism, division, malice, and anxiety may seem to guide much of our world right now, but that’s not the whole story. What better time to bring people the hope of light and life eternal in Jesus Christ than in the midst of this present darkness?
God has given us the task of planting a church. And God has provided an amazing team and the resources to carry that task out. We can be confident that God will be faithful to carry through to completion what He has started. Yes, things have changed. No, things are decidedly not easy. But the world needs Jesus. Our nation needs Jesus. Our city needs Jesus. That’s always true. But it’s especially true right now.
And so, we move forward. The future is yet uncertain; there’s still much that’s up in the air. We’re only in our seventh official week right now. All signs have been promising so far, but only God knows the future. All we can do is trust and hope in Him. Well, that—and we can continue to canoe the mountains.
1 I say this tongue-in-cheek: the only things truly unprecedented about this global pandemic is that we can dissect it on social media faster than it can spread and that modern medicine continues to perform miracles right before our eyes to save perhaps millions of human lives from our fragility and stubbornness.