Congregations go through seasons. Sometimes, something unique happens while waiting for spring.
I thought those parables about scattering seed, planting vineyards, and chasing sheep were as out of date and ancient as my childhood. I grew up in the country picking strawberries every summer for my dad. My uncles farmed corn, beans, and watermelon. I could run the baler as well as any of my cousins.
But I left that a long time ago. And when I entered the ministry, I somehow got the impression that these agricultural metaphors Jesus used just weren’t relevant anymore. In modern times we need new images—business, technology, science. I was wrong, though.
Some of those fundamentals of good farming are still important to planting or restarting a church.
We are an urban church of micro-congregations. Our church simply couldn’t continue its numerical decline and financial erosion. We were showing signs of new life in the youth who were attending. In fact, our church’s presence in the neighborhood for over 70 years was a testament to its commitment to ministry. But comparing our small congregation, sitting on the edge of downtown Dayton, financially, demographically, or missionally to other suburban and rural churches was poisonous. Our hopes and dreams were not living up to our reality. So we decided to name this season for what it was: winter.
Jesus said in John 12:24, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” We had to stop. Our land needed to rest. The cold and snow needed to do their job. We needed time to grieve our losses and to celebrate the harvests of the past so that we could anticipate a new season of life. We needed time to consider a new future guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We took three months to step back, close the church doors, and plan about the coming spring.
As our small group of leaders worked through the training materials so we could lay out our vision for the future, we committed ourselves to doing the next good thing. Whatever that good thing might be, we were prophetically challenged by Micah 6:8. Our call to our church, neighborhood, and world would be shaped by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
Our concept is a collective of congregations under one umbrella—a network consisting of the restarted congregation with church plants for more affinity groups. We want The Grace Collective to be a laboratory for congregational expressions and not stop doing the next good thing even if an expression doesn’t “succeed” or last forever.
The first step was to diversify our leadership group so they could reach a broader range of people. We started several congregations. Pastor Adrien Nkundimana joined us to begin work toward the Philadelphia Church of the Nazarene, a Central and West African congregation. We partnered with another church on our district to plant a “Reentry” group for former incarcerated individuals as they make the transition to life in the local community. Matthew’s Closet has served over 1,000 people in fewer than three years, because we have let it do what it was created to do—provide free clothing to folks in Dayton.
We strive to be a community where folks from various backgrounds and experiences may worship and fellowship together. We reduced our programming to fit our current resources and our current community.
The fact is seasons change. Neighborhoods change. Plans change. Congregations should be equipped with the wisdom and knowledge to celebrate and recognize them as opportunities for both planting and harvest. The Holy Spirit empowers people with courage and freedom to love and worship together because of our differences, to bear good fruit in season, and to embrace the grace each season of life gives.
Julia Roat-Abla is the lead pastor at The Grace Collective, a church of micro-congregations in the heart of Dayton, Ohio.