5 years. We’ve been at work here in DC for more than 5 years, trying to start a new Quaker community.
We’ve learned so much.
For better or for worse, most of what we’ve learned has been what not to do. Church planting is way harder than Faith and I ever imagined. In retrospect, it’s obvious that we did almost everything wrong from the beginning: No institutional support, no funding, no mother church, no experienced mentors, no strategy. Just a freshly minted Master of Divinity degree and a heavy dose of can-do attitude.
Many bumps along the road and several iterations later, we’ve actually accomplished quite a lot in our naïve attempts at faithfulness. We have put down roots in our city, gaining a large network of friendships and many useful working relationships. We founded the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, a national network of disciples who are wrestling with what it means to be radical followers of Jesus in 21st-century America. We’re learning what it means to live our lives primarily in the post-churched reality that most of our peers call home, making discipleship relevant outside of the Sunday-morning routine.
Despite all this learning, there’s still no Jesus-centered Quaker community to speak of in the DC metro area. The Friends of Jesus here are very small and scattered, and although we still hold Bible studies and gather for mutual support, we’ve accepted that for the time being we really don’t have the critical mass to be a worshiping community.
This is sad for me, but it’s also a relief. We’ve struggled for a long time to kick-start a Jesus-centered Quaker congregation here in DC. We’ve burned ourselves out several times. The lows have been pretty low. And after the second or third time of losing all joy in the process, it’s time to take an extended step back.
Despite all the setbacks, my main question is still, what’s next? We’ve learned and developed so much over the course of the last 5 years. I personally feel better prepared than ever for whatever work God calls me to. Amazingly, I still believe that God is calling me to the work of laying the foundation of new communities in Jesus. As hard as the last half decade has been, there’s still this sense of conviction and passion that won’t let me go; there’s a fire within me for building up the body of Christ, nurturing leaders who can grow and shepherd new communities.
That being said, there’s no way I want to repeat the process we’ve attempted so far. Stepping out into this kind of ministry with no mother church and virtually no institutional support is madness. We owe it to ourselves and to God to do what it takes to make sure we’re well-supported before we strike out again. There’s a reason that most church plants start off with a sizable core, not just one couple trying to gather a community by themselves. They’re wiser than we were.
This presents us with a dilemma. The reason that we tried to start a church with virtually no outside support in the first place is that we were (and are) unaware of any existing Quaker network that could have walked with us in this mission. There’s no Jesus-centered Quaker church in the DC metro area that could have nurtured us. As far as I know, our tiny little missional community is the only Christian Quaker presence in the region.
After several valiant (if foolhardy) attempts to plant Quaker church in our city, it seems probable that I have been unrealistic in my unwillingness to go outside of the Quaker family for support and guidance in the process of starting a new congregation. For a long time, I was committed to seeing our church plant be wholly Quaker in its origins and support, but now I wonder: Was that wise?
What if Quakers just aren’t capable of planting churches anymore? Perhaps the Religious Society of Friends, broadly speaking, simply doesn’t have the body mass to lend its strength to new efforts like ours. Could it be that the only way for Friends of Jesus to come to life is through integration and collaboration with other, more robust and mission-oriented communities, beyond the Quaker fold?
One thing is for sure: I’m not willing to allow Quaker brand loyalty to get in the way of faithfulness. If God is still calling me to participate in the work of founding new communities of disciples, I have to respond, even if it means moving beyond where the broader Quaker family is able to go right now. I have no doubt that God will raise up from these stones children for Abraham, if necessary.
What do you think? Am I missing something here? Are there places where Quakers are doing really vibrant work in planting new churches and missional communities? Are there existing projects that we could be partnering with? Or is it time for us to broaden our horizons and be more proactive in joining with other Christian groups that also feel called to develop communities of radical discipleship to Jesus?