Eileen and Mike and I were away at the New Wilmington Mission Conference last week. During the conference, I found myself explaining the story of The Upper Room a dozen times, and I realized something about how we tell our story. I always start by sharing how Mike and I began praying in the fall of 2007, asking God whether either of us was called to church-planting. Then I share how we prayer-walked different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and then how we landed in Squirrel Hill and began dreaming up the vision for Upper Room.
At this point, the story could go two ways: Option 1 is how I usually tell the story: We gathered a group of people who said they want to be the team starting this church with us and spent the fall of 2008 in Bible study, prayer, and book study with them. Together we decided that in January 2009 that we would start Sunday evening house church worship services. After three months, we ran out of space in my house and moved to Botany Hall of Phipps Conservatory, where we meet at 7:00 pm on Sunday evenings. The end.
Option 2: We gathered a group of people who said they want to be the team starting this church with us and spent the fall of 2008 in Bible study, prayer, and book study with them. During this time one of our members began teaching ESL for a Iraqi woman living in our neighborhood. A number of our members partnered with Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministry to befriend international students, mostly from China, who live in our neighborhood. We planned a music festival in a nearby park, partnering with Urban Impact to have almost 100 kids from local youth groups participating in service and prayer activities during the festival. We support numerous mission opportunities, including a local couple working for InterVarsity, a young woman teaching English in southeast Asia, and someone in training with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Oh, and we started worship gatherings as a house church in January, but then moved to a different place in April. And did I mention that we’re only a handful of people?
Option 1, which is what I usually lapse into, tells the story of the “church” from the perspective of a building. It reflects the culture’s assumption not only that church is a building (as opposed to a group of people) but that the purpose of church is only to get together on Sundays for a worship service (as opposed to participating in God’s mission of redeeming the world). Option 2, the better option which I began using at the conference last week, tells the story from the perspective of mission, focusing on what we’re doing in the world and in our neighborhood. It reflects the assumptions that a church is a community of people and that the purpose of that community is to bear witness to God’s Kingdom within the world.
If we chose Option 2 more often, I think we might be surprised at the results. Which is more attractive when inviting people to church: telling them about our worship space, or telling them about the exciting things we’re doing as a community? What effect would it have if more established churches described themselves by means of their mission activities rather than their buildings? How can describing our life as a new church development in these terms help change the way the institutional church measures success and progress in ministry?