Upstart Church

Monday, 20 August, 2012

A brief encounter with a coffee shop owner changed the way Greg LeMaster thinks about church.

Greg learned the coffee shop was struggling to make a profit and wanted to help. So he asked if the space might be used for an 'upstart church' on Sunday mornings. Without hesitating, the shop owner offered him a key to the building.

Greg has worshipped at Graceland Baptist Church - just west of Richmond, Virginia - for 20 years; the last five as the church's part-time minister of outreach. With a weekly attendance of 250, churched families who move to the area almost always move their church membership to Graceland as well.

Upstart Church - groupBut Greg is now helping the Graceland congregation to see things differently, going outside the walls of their building to the people not reached by any church.

Greg started the process by asking a few people from his congregation to begin meeting in coffee shops. They in turn were to invite friends who would normally meet them for coffee but not for church. The format for the group remained the same:

  1. catch up with one another;
  2. a short reading and reflection from the Scriptures;
  3. a conversation about the Scriptures and how it applies to our daily life;
  4. prayers for the group members and for the people in the place where they are meeting.

Greg has also been delighted by what has become a regular get-together for people from around the world. It started a couple of years ago when Greg and the associate pastor at Graceland arranged an outreach event at a Richmond apartment block. They organised some games and handed out ice lollies to the children while a team of visiting, Spanish-speaking missionaries shared a brief message with the people living there. Not only did they encounter Spanish speakers but they also met people of many different nationalities with some from Latin America, Jamaica, Sudan, Nigeria and the Congo (DRC). To their amazement, 15 of the residents became Christians.

Upstart - familyThis 'one-off' event has become a weekly gathering. Every Friday afternoon, a small group of people, some of whom first met at the original event, get together for church. They meet on Friday, because they (like 30% of people in the US) work on Sundays. 

This has connected Graceland, a predominately Anglo congregation, with Colonial Place Christian Church, a mainly international congregation in neighbouring Henrico County. Greg says,

You know it's a move of the Spirit, when all of these informal partnerships start to spread. A few months ago, we did not know any internationals. Now, we're doing church together.

This group is beginning to function as a church in its own right. They regularly share the Lord's Supper together and collect a weekly offering.

Greg's son Daniel is autistic and while Graceland is a welcoming place for him, he wanted a place where his son could be as expressive as he needs to be. So Greg started a group in his living room using the same the four-step pattern as in the coffee shop and apartment block. Several other families, uncomfortable about bringing their own special needs children to a traditional church, soon joined.

Upstart - pair

On most Sundays, Greg and his family go to an early service at Graceland and then return home where they are joined by a group of 12 to 14 others for Joy Church. It's a place where parents can share their joys and concerns – and where their kids are free to praise the Lord as they are comfortable. At Joy Church, an outburst is a welcomed part of worship.

Greg comments,

All the groups that we have started are foundationally set to be church. Some people may get confused with what they consider outreach because they have grown-up in traditional church from a very young age. However, the truth is that each is a church and has the DNA (Divine Truth, Nurturing Relationships, and Apostolic Mission).

As far as pressure to bring these into the 'real church' is concerned, I think that it may exist to some degree but the truth is these churches function by themselves. I have no problem that some people elect to get additionally involved in what they may perceive to be 'real church'.

I think this complements the ministry of Graceland Baptist as we together desire to disciple and direct folks towards a deep life in Christ. I feel that people at Graceland are beginning to see that we must engage the culture as we can no longer attract the culture into the church. We simply must take church (us) to them in fresh expressions.