I Didn't Get It

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

Why We Start New Churches

I’m excited to start contributing articles to the CLB Forge Blog. As the Associate Director of North American Mission my primary responsibility is to oversee our church planting efforts. God has a place for the Church of the Lutheran Brethren (CLB) on the mission field of North America and engaging in this calls for us to rapidly increase our church planting activities right now and for the years to come.

The people of the CLB are a missionary people—we became a church body over a century ago in an effort to send missionaries across the globe. Today we have that same missionary heart, and we are called to turn to the mission field where God has already placed us: North America.

If you’ve been in one of the many churches with empty pews and plenty of room for more people, you may ask: Why do we need to start new churches? Why not focus on filling the ones we have? I have heard that question many times. In fact, I’m passionate about strengthening established churches: My doctorate focused on church and parachurch executive leadership and my thesis was all about church vitality. I ran a consulting ministry prior to accepting the call to serve the CLB and I’ve worked alongside a number of established churches to help them enhance their ministry effectiveness. The established church is very important, and yet, we must start new churches for a number of reasons:

  1. New churches are more likely to reach the unsaved. 60-80% of new members in a church plant were not a part of a church beforehand, while in established churches, 80-90% of new members are transfers from other churches. Church plants are often very engaged in the making of new disciples and focus on communicating the gospel in a way that connects to the community.
  2. More churches are needed. Across the U.S., about 4,500 new churches are started every year. However, because about 4,000 churches close every year, that means that the Christian church would need to plant an additional 2,000 churches every year just to keep up with population growth, not to mention reaching an increasing percentage of the population. We need more churches!
  3. New churches reach new groups of people. Church plants have a unique way of connecting into different sub-cultures, ethnic groups, and parts of the community that established churches aren’t geared to reach. New churches are built to be mission outposts that learn the needs, values, and languages of the community, and then serve and speak the gospel in a way that those groups can understand. Last century, the CLB saw tremendous growth by reaching groups of immigrants in coastal cities like Seattle and New York. Those immigrants needed a church that spoke their language and understood their culture, and new CLB churches provided that.
  4. No single congregation lasts forever. I have yet to identify a single congregation that has existed since the time of the early church. That means that all churches have a lifespan and at some point their mission is fulfilled and they close. It’s hard to think about that happening to your home church, and yet it has always been this way. If you look at the founding of the CLB, which was started in 1900, of the five congregations that started the denomination, only one remains open. It’s painful to watch a church that you love experience these latter life stages, but I believe that God created congregations to be this way in part so that it would always be necessary to make new disciples. Over time, the legacy of the CLB and the legacy of individual congregations will rest with the new churches that are started.

God has a place for us on the North American mission field. We will continue to strengthen established churches, but we will plant new churches as well, with the goal of planting more and more churches. As I write for this blog in the months to come, I plan to share with you my vision for CLB church planting, the strategy that we’re implementing to fulfill that vision, and best of all—stories from our church plants where teams of CLB people have boots on the ground in the front lines of our mission efforts.

Ryan Nilsen - Associate Director of North American Mission


“Why Plant Churches?,” Tim Keller, Redeemer City to City, January 1, 2002. https://redeemercitytocity.com/articles-stories/why-plant-churches

The Church of the Lutheran Brethren 1900-1975: A Believer’s Fellowship—A Lutheran Alternative, J. H. Levang, (1980: Faith and Fellowship Press).

The American Church in Crisis, David T. Olson, (2008: Zondervan).