Rev. Bill Poland reported on New Faith Communities for the Annual Conference Session on Saturday. Poland spoke in his new role as Director of New Communities of Faith, part of the Healthy Conference Initiative (HCI) piece of the Conference's Strategic Priorities.
Poland is working with Rev. Dr. Jaye Johnson as the new Director of Congregational Excellence, and Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck, the new Director of Clergy & Leadership Excellence.
“We’re working to build a team that will continue to move us forward in our Strategic priorities of Directing our Resources toward our goals of Equipping ourselves and others as Transformational Leaders to the end of Creating World-Transforming Communities of Faith,” he said. “I am blessed to be part of a team with such gifted leaders.”
Poland defined New Communities of Faith as “New Worshipping Communities started to grow faith in new people and Disciple them in the way of Jesus.”
These new people are those not currently participating in the ministry of the church, he said. They are younger, more ethnically diverse, and will not easily fit into the preferences of many of existing churches.
“We must figure out a way to become more like them so that we all might become more like Jesus,” he said. “This is key. It is not about just tweaking our current worship services; it is about creating new places for new people. It is about finding ways to go to them, not expecting them to come to us.”
“It is about being with them, not expecting them to be with us,” added Poland. “It is about raising up new and younger leaders.”
This will require relearning things from the past, said Poland, and living them out in ways that are, as yet, unknown.
“Our goal is to come alongside leaders, lay and clergy, who are feeling God’s call to reach out to new people and live with them in God’s Reign,” he said.
The new team is working with Parish Development, Poland said, to form a new strategy for helping existing Communities of Faith establish New Communities of Faith.
This counters the past when significant financial and leadership resources were put into planting new churches. This did bear fruit, explained Poland. With this approach in the 1990’s, it saw the only rise in average Conference worship attendance in 50 years.
“But they were expensive, leader dependent, and most proved to be not sustainable,” Poland recalled. “There are of course notable exceptions, like Walnut Hills in Urbandale, Christ Community in Marion, and Oakwood in Pleasant Hill. But, going forward we need to shift our emphasis, based around what we learn in the world around us.”
He drew a comparison with an analogy on the difference between rabbits and elephants.
Detailing the lengthy gestation, weaning and reproductive maturity phases for elephants, Poland made the point that while elephants are majestic creatures who are also the largest land animal on the planet—they are also endangered.
Conversely, rabbits have expanded to almost every part of the world, with larger-sized and more frequent litters. The gestation period for rabbits is very brief, they are weaned, mature and reproduce sooner. They are adaptable and have moved into just about every ecosystem on Earth, Poland explained. Bunnies are known for their being able to “Multiply.”
“So, what would it look like if we adopted a strategy that is more invested in something like “Bunnies” and more sparingly invested in “Elephants”?” he asked.
“Let’s start at the beginning, New Communities of Faith must be part of a larger plan of creating defined pathways for creating Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” said Poland. “New Faith Communities are started to Disciple New People. They are the means and not the end.”
Continuing in the comparison between rabbits and elephants, Poland asked, “How many of you could raise an elephant in your backyard? How many of you could create space for a rabbit hutch?"
He told Annual Conference Session attendees about the team’s first strategy involving beginning a new worship service for new people.
Work is underway to establish grants for congregations and leaders that want to begin new worship services designed and executed to reach new people, Poland explained. These might not be in current church buildings or in every town.
“Where might the Holy Spirit be calling you to engage with new neighbors?” Poland asked.
He shared that an initial workshop lead by three churches from the Southwest District had launched new worship events for people who were not in those three churches.
The Casey church started a service on Wednesday evenings, he said, Manning has an additional recovery-based service called the Source of Recovery, and Greenfield added an additional service on Sunday morning.
Additional churches in Wilton and Clarion are preparing to do the same, he explained.
“And Asbury and St. Paul’s in Cedar Rapids, along with Broadway in Council Bluff are examples of our congregations that have intentionally reached out to include our immigrant sisters and brothers who come from different cultures and speak different languages,” said Poland. “All with the goal of basing these services on the needs of new people.”
After detailing a few possible approaches to New Communities of Faith involving listening and service with people who are not yet members of the church, and also employing new church locations, Poland said that being present in communities is what matters.
“We must learn a new way to be present,” he said. “Our focus on maintaining our separate congregational identities has hindered us in our mission to reach out to new people.”
A multi-site ministry is a new expression of the old practice of the Circuit Rider, he explained, which was to raise people up as leaders.
“We are working to reclaim that image of being present in multiple sites while sharing leadership, ministries, and a DNA of outreach, advocacy, social witness, and justice that give evidence of our life in Jesus Christ,” Poland said.
Working with Parish Development, Poland said, the new team will establish larger grants for equipment, leadership development, and deployment to assist existing communities of faith in establishing new communities of faith, including multi-site ministry.
“I believe this will be our most effective strategy to focus on, connecting our resources, and in shared mission reaching into our communities to establish new communities of faith,” he said. “Looking to 'bunnies' to reach and multiply disciples of Jesus.”
It will occasionally make more sense to do a “parachute drop” for what will be the most resource intensive New Communities of Faith, said Poland, likening these larger investments to elephants, needed when there is a growing population, but no ready partners.
“The strategies I have shared with you will continue to adapt and change as we make mistakes,” Poland stated, “and we will make mistakes, and learn.”
“Why should we invest in New Communities of Faith?” asked Poland in conclusion. “Well, the first reason is that Jesus told us to. We know it as the Great Commission."
“It is where our mission comes from,” he added. “In Matthew 28:18-20, it says, Jesus came near and spoke to them, 'I've received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.'"
“Isn’t that good to know, Jesus is with us in this work?” Poland asked the crowd. “With us when we go out. With us when we fail and when we succeed. It is the work Jesus has entrusted us to do. To go to all people.”
We have a Great Commission and a Great Commandment, said Poland.
He continued in quoting Christ, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
“We live in a divided and broken world,” said Poland. “A divided and broken country, a divided and broken church.”
“At our core, we believe the remedy is the healing love of God made known in Jesus Christ," he continued. “It is the most powerful force in the universe. We are grounded in our all-encompassing love of God. And in God’s love for us, and for all people. It makes all the difference”.
Poland shared that he knew this from personal experience, not having grown up in the church, but rather having been “loved into it.”
He recounted how in 2014 the Conference’s Ministry Cabinet worked with Parish Development to prioritize five New Communities of Faith. These were Pueblo De Dios in the South Central District, Thrive and a congregation for the South Sudanese in the Central District, Fe Y Esperanza in the Southwest District, and the African National Ministry and International French Fellowship in the East Central District.
“These are all places where people have been welcomed, loved, and grown in Christ,” Poland noted. “Real people making a real difference. We are better because of them. We know more about the love of God, because of them. They are difference makers. But there are still others. In your communities.”
“Your love of God and others will make all the difference,” he entreated the Conference. “Will you love enough to go from your likes and your preferences to love others as Jesus loves them, as Jesus loves you? Will you see them as Jesus sees them? As beloved? As worth having a relationship with? As worth going out of your way to go to? Will you love? Will you give? Will you be a difference maker?”