I didn’t get it.
Years ago, when I was a parish pastor, I first heard about a group of CLB pastors in my area that were passionate about planting CLB churches in cities.
I remember not understanding why they were driven to start city churches. Why so focused on cities? I didn’t get it.
The first reason I didn’t get it was because I grew up in the woods. I grew up in a rural community—and I loved it. It was a small, quiet community where everyone knew everyone, it wasn’t on the way to anywhere, and it was surrounded by trees. As a Boy Scout in a small town, I gained a love for camping and the outdoors. Big cities were a foreign place to me. I visited occasionally but I didn’t understand them, and I was always happy to get back home.
I also didn’t get it because I didn’t fully understand why church planting mattered. This one is pretty funny to think about, especially considering that I now oversee the CLB’s church planting mission. But it’s true—I didn’t fully understand why it was important to start new churches. I thought there were plenty of churches everywhere and that they had room for more people. I didn’t get it. Even though I literally grew up in a church plant and experienced all its growth stages, from gathering in homes, to setting up chairs in our rented auditorium, to sheet rocking the facility we eventually built, and eventually serving there as a pastor. Even though in my college years I watched my uncle plant a church and came to help canvas neighborhoods. Friends from seminary remind me that this was a subject I thought was important, but over time as a pastor that faded from memory. I didn’t get it. Maybe it’s fairer to say that I didn’t understand how important it was, and I didn’t understand why it was important to plant a church in a place that I didn’t understand—like a city.
I didn’t get it.
So, when these pastor friends of mine started getting serious about city church planting, I had to find out more. I asked if I could meet with them to pick their brains about what they were doing and they happily agreed. Leading up to the visit I remember thinking that perhaps during our time together I could talk some sense into them.
We met in a pizza shop in New York City. Little did I know that God would be working on my heart and mind even before I met them. I rode a metro rail from Connecticut into the city. After driving to the train station, I arrived in a small Connecticut city that was far bigger than where I grew up or currently lived. The train was full of people heading to the city, and with each stop more people got on. I was in growing awe of just how many people were in the train car with me, but the heart-stopping moment was when the train arrived at Grand Central Station. The moment I exited my car onto the platform, I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of people. Perhaps thousands. My eyes couldn’t believe it. The Holy Spirit was changing something in my heart—teaching me why he wanted new churches in places I didn’t understand: because people were here.
As I took each step through the station and the city, my heart for this place I didn’t understand was changing from “I don’t get this place” to “there are so many people here, and God loves each one of them.” Since then, I’ve learned that where the most people are—in major cities like New York—the church is the most absent. These population centers have the fewest churches per capita—nowhere near sufficient numbers to reach everyone.
By the time I arrived for the meeting God had already been knocking down my arrogant presumptions and misconceptions, and I showed up a bit quieted by the lessons from the train station. As my friends talked about their vision for church planting, I went from skeptic to supporter. They shared why church planting mattered, why the CLB needed to church plant, and why they felt it was important to plant churches in cities. I was moved, and I learned how important new churches are for a network of churches. I learned why cities are a difficult but important place in which to plant.
A couple of years later I formally joined their team—then known as Fifth Act Church Planting—now re-branded as 1902 Church Planting. I joined up just as they were planting Epiphany Lutheran Church—the first new CLB church in an urban center in 80 years. Epiphany closed its doors during COVID, but people came to faith through it, lives of Christians were changed through it, and their passion for church planting was shared by others throughout the CLB. The churches of New England, now getting ready to plant in Boston with Kristian and Mary Anderson, learned many lessons from the experience of these pioneering New York pastors, as did I.
As these fellow pastors taught me the importance of starting new churches I was also completing a doctorate in church and parachurch executive leadership—learning how to lead Christian ministries. The more I learned and studied through those years, the more my heart moved towards understanding why so many established churches struggled. I made this my area of study for the thesis project, and I came to understand that we Christians in North America are truly missionaries called to join God in his mission to redeem and restore people to him right here in our home countries. Making God’s mission the heart of our churches’ ministry—not a time-permitting side project—was what revitalized struggling churches. The more I came to understand this call to the local mission field, the more I realized how truly important it is to start new churches.
I started to pay more attention to church planting, I got personally involved, as did my church. I saw God’s love for people who didn’t have churches that could communicate the gospel in their own cultural context—not just in New York City, but in the cities and towns of Connecticut, and even in my own neighborhood. And now, serving in my role with North American Mission, I’m energized as I meet CLB people across the continent who have a growing passion and calling for launching new churches in towns and cities of all sizes. God is calling us to engage in this mission field where he has placed us, and he is mobilizing his people.
I didn’t get it…but I’m starting to.
Ryan Nilsen - Associate Director of North American Mission