“Have you thought about church planting?” Dr. Stan Granberg asked as we sat at Starbucks and shared ministry stories. I had just finished a conversation with Kip McKean of the Portland International Church of Christ (ICOC) an hour earlier at the same table. I was converted in 1984 while at the University of Missouri by a campus ministry that eventually became what was later known as the Boston or Discipling movement. I developed a friendship with Kip while he was in Portland since I knew that, if it had not been for his conversion and training ministers, I may have never met Jesus. Kip had me speak at some of their ICOC events and I worked with them to counsel people and reach Portland people for Jesus. While neither of us totally agreed on each other’s methods of outreach, one thing remained—I owed my zeal for outreach to them and had spent many years trying to motivate people to embrace the call to share their faith and make Christians in their communities. Jesus was alive in my life and I saw him change the lives of others for many years.

While talking with Stan, I admitted that reaching people was only possible with a fully committed leadership and church. This could only happen with strong, passionate men and women who would witness the resurrection of Jesus not just in their words, but in their lives. I shared with Stan that since my conversion reaching people and bringing others from the highways and byways was sometimes met with joy and other times criticism. “Ron, the only way to do this is to reach new people with new churches…” he said as he interrupted my rambling. I agreed with him.

That year I had been reading church growth, missional, and emerging movement literature. I agreed with what was written—not just because it sounded good—but because I knew many, many people who were unchurched. We weren’t reaching them, not because they rejected Jesus, but because we had isolated ourselves from our neighbors, communities, and common people. Our love for Jesus had become a selfish love, rather than a contagious love.
What I knew about church planting was that it typically was a movement of rogue preachers who struck out on faith and many times left discouraged, burned out, and emotionally distant from their wives and children. Stan said that the research, and the work of Kairos [ed note: Stan Granberg’s church-planting ministry], proved that with training and support, church planting was a much healthier ministry than in the past.

However, this was not for me—I thought. I was a published author, preached at a large church, taught at Cascade College and an Evangelical Seminary, was involved in community leadership, had three sons, and was receiving a comfortable salary. I was 43 years old and thought that coasting was what I needed to do until I retired. “Lori won’t go for it,” I responded. “Why don’t you ask her, pray about it, and let’s talk in a few weeks?” Stan responded. The Holy Spirit continued to work and open our eyes.

Lori immediately said this is what we needed to do. My 7th-grade son said it was what we needed to do. Stan was right, and we began the journey to church planting.

Seven years later Agape Church of Christ has grown from 15 people to over 120 and has helped launch two new churches in Portland. We have also become a strong presence in Portland’s homeless, sex industry and trafficking, abuse agencies as well as a service to public schools. We’ve witnessed men and women turn from addictions, complacency, and other struggles through the power of Jesus. We have witnessed the unchurched come and offer their lives to Jesus and we have witnessed people brought up in a Christian home who decided to “give church one last chance.” We’ve rejoiced at young people marrying, giving birth, and becoming solid leaders in their jobs. We’ve grieved the loss of people as well and suffered as a community. In my 27+ years of ministry Lori and I have never felt more alive in the Spirit, nor have we felt such usefulness in the empire of Jesus. We have also never felt a vision from God so clearly as we have these past 7 years. Currently Agape’s goal is to plant 40 churches by 2020. We do not believe we are the only church, we simply want to send out “reinforcements” in a world where Satan is gaining ground and the church is overwhelmed with ministry.

People have asked us what it will take to plant new churches in the Northwest. Here are some of my thoughts:

  1. We moved to Portland from a small town in Missouri. Even there we worked with bus kids, low income families, and suffering people. The church where we served grew when Christians went out in the community to reach others. While the culture is quite different we realize that people are the same everywhere. People are in God’s image and they need and want love, relationship, acceptance, and hope in their lives. Jesus offers all of these. Churches that will thrive in the Northwest will believe that people matter and that being without hope is something that should be addressed by any church. They will also be full of Christians who care about people enough to help them.
  2. Once I shared with my neighbor that we needed to have a block party (we have lived there 15 years). She said with a smile, “You say that every year, why don’t you stop *****ing about it and do something?” She was right. I prayed the next day and confessed I was not a good minister to my neighborhood. Since then our potluck parties have brought 40-50 neighbors for the past 5 years and we have been in many homes praying with people. It had to begin with me. The research continually told me that if the church was to grow it had to begin with me as a preacher. My wife Lori is as passionate about helping people as I have been and we work as a team. When ministers stand before their church and present the message of Jesus people ask, “Are they doing this work?” We will never grow healthy churches in the Northwest (or any place in this world) if we have public speakers for preachers. The church needs leaders who are doing the work and can inspire others to follow. If elders, teachers, and other leaders in churches do not become “friends of sinners and tax collectors” then people wont see Jesus (because Jesus was a friend to the marginalized). They also must encourage and support ministers who are trying to model this type of ministry. Growing churches in the Northwest must have ministers and other leaders who live among the people and bring them Jesus.
  3. Churches that grow in the Northwest encourage members to be among unchurched, lost, and/or sinful people. Too often we spend so much time at church activities that we cannot engage those in our schools, place of employment, or neighborhood because we “don’t have time for them.” When Allyn Bradley began connecting in the Rockwood community of SE Portland, while preparing to launch the Rockwood campus, he heard many stories of how churches were neglecting that local community. People felt that Christians were unconcerned with the poverty, crime, sex addictions, and issues that this community faced. As the Bradley’s began to work in the community people responded that God had sent a church to help people, not curse them.
  4. A church in the Northwest must be theologically strong. Having a doctorate in ministry has opened many doors for me to explore as we take the Gospel to a culture wrestling with social justice, salvation, and sin. This has in turn forced me back to the text not only to study, but to write and develop theological methods to reach people and disciple our people to see their ministry from a Biblical and social perspective. Agape members know that we offer breakfast on Sunday mornings not just to have snacks, but because Paul challenges the Corinthian Christians of neglecting those in their assembly who have not eaten and are expected to take communion on an empty stomach (1 Cor 11). Since many who come to Agape are homeless we want to make sure that they are provide for so that worship becomes a safe place for them to have relationship and glorify God. Our members understand that breakfast is a theological issue for us, not just a nice thing to do.

These are some of my thoughts as we look back over Jesus’ work at Agape Church of Christ as well as my family’s life the past seven years. As we move forward we know that these four points will continue to provide guidance as the church navigates a changing culture to do what Jesus has taught us to do in our communities.

Decline & Renewal, 20: Ron Clark Guest Column