Darcy, Ellison and I went on vacation last week. We visited the ‘Granite State’, New Hampshire! The only thing I really knew about New Hampshire before we got there was that it was probably pretty rural and it was the state that libertarians were trying to take over…or something like that. We stayed with some friends in a town called Swanzey. I had never heard of it before (of course) and it’s right outside of another town I had never heard of called Keene. It’s beautiful country up there. We love being out in nature so it was the perfect getaway for us.
(Darcy and Ellison playing in a lake)
One of the things that I was struck by in New Hampshire was how different the culture is there. We stayed in a small town but the people weren’t friendly. I don’t mean that the people were mean. They waved as they drove their cars but no one really spoke face-to-face. I concluded that it was their way of showing respect — they just leave people alone. They think no one wants to be “bothered”. My friend Sheila whom we stayed with agreed. She said that no one is rude but everyone is private. There are several colleges in the area of Keene, New Hampshire. Sheila is a Christian and was hoping to find a church that’s evangelistic. Especially a church that’s evangelistic to the colleges in the area. She visited a church and asked if they had any outreach to the campuses. They told her that New Hampshire is not a good place to do outreach on campuses because it’s so heavily populated by people who aren’t Christian. It was the least religious state last year in fact. I was more than a little surprised to hear that was the stance of a church but maybe I shouldn’t have been considering many churches focus on maintenance of what is rather than reaching out for what and who’s next. I’ve been part of a church focused on multiplying cells and congregations for over three years now. I take it for granted that Circle of Hope has decided to take the Great Commission so literally.
(This was at the Cathedral of the Pines. New Hampshire is certainly filled with the glory of God.)
Before my cell met last night, Andew (my cell host) and I got together to talk and pray. Praying with other Jesus followers is one of my favorite things to do. It’s very intimate and sacred to pray in the Holy Spirit with others. At one point in his praying, Andrew said, “I thank you Jesus for bringing your kingdom to the earth. And I thank you that you expanded that kingdom. You expanded it so much that it finally reached me…” Wow. What a profound revelation. He’s right. The kingdom expanded from that tiny band of misfits called the disciples to the ends of the earth. The part of the revelation that challenged and encouraged me is that the kingdom expansion only comes through God’s people. It comes through people who receive the Great Commission no matter how rocky the soil. That inspired me to keep spreading the seeds that I’ve been given. The kingdom has to keep growing. And I’m thankful for that. Keep expanding your kingdom through us, Lord.
I get inspiration from many sources to do the work of church planting and I was reminded of one of my favorite reasons to plant last night: Shrinking Philadelphia!
(Our metro! I want everyone on this map to meet Circle of Hope. NBD.)
I don’t literally want to shrink Philly of course because I love the sprawling expanses of our city — even the places I don’t normally go or haven’t been to yet. What I mean is that every time we plant a cell, or congregation, we discover that we’re more connected to the people around us than we realized. We discover that this city is just a village on a large scale. I’m from a small town so I’m all for shrinking this metro area of six million down to village size.
A few months ago, Julie and I went on a prayer walk in East Falls. We were praying to meet some people in that neighborhood and make some connections there. It turns out that now I have a cell right on one of the streets where we prayed. Prayer changes things.
Last night, my new cell host, Breezy, came to the cell leader training. She’s in the bottom right of the picture above. In case you don’t know, the cell leaders and hosts get together monthly to encourage each other in leading cells and welcoming new people into our cells. As soon as we sat down, I saw Breezy wave at someone across the room. It was her classmate Grace from college. Shrinking. Then we broke off into pairs to talk about who we’re thinking about inviting to our cells. Breezy got paired with my cousin Bethany who’s also a cell leader. Bethany mentioned a name that she wanted to invite. Breezy said, “I know this is weird but I think I know her.” It turns out they have a mutual friend. Breezy and Bethany met for the first time last night, mind you. Love it! Let’s shrink Philly together! We’re doing that tonight in my cell! I’d love to see you there: email@example.com.
Last week I had dinner with a bunch of people who are newly connecting to Circle of Hope on Ridge Ave. The snow had cramped our plans the week before so we rescheduled, and this time I was late trying to find parking. We met up at Han Dynasty in Manayunk. By the time I got to the restaurant, I took the last seat at the table – party of eight. After my apologies, someone laughingly described the scene as the awkward blind date – where you have to make sure you are at the right table before you sit down because you’ve never met the person you are coming to meet. As the common denominator, it would’ve been really cool if I had actually been there on time to make introductions!
But it seems they got right to it. The whole point of the night was to make connections and get to know each other. I realized that all these great people had come to different Sunday meetings with us but they didn’t know each other. I was hoping that if we got in the room together, the shared experience and new relationships would draw people together and expand the community we already have going (and good dumplings can only help!). I had told them there are probably things each of them are figuring out about how to follow Jesus at this point in their lives that might be useful to share with each other. We never actually got to that conversation, but there is still time. Jesus was among us as we laughed about each other’s memories of the most fun we’ve had. Epic sledding, roommate parties, meaningful work, spontaneous adventures…We had quite an array of stories. And we shared each other’s joy at the re-telling of them.
Since we decided to share entrees family-style, it didn’t take long for the food to disappear. None of us seemed ready to go so we ordered round two and kept talking. It was fun to be together and even more fun to leave with ideas for the future. I stood out on the sidewalk, in the cold with the last two to go. They were asking me about what is next for the congregation on Ridge Ave. How many cells do we have now? Where do they meet? Will we stay at St. Timothy’s? What about a thrift store up here? It was exciting to dream with them. Our congregation will keep changing as more people join us in forming a community of Jesus followers that welcomes the next person with the opportunity to explore and express God’s love in our northwest neighborhoods.
By the time we were done talking, it was after 10pm and we couldn’t find an ice cream shop that was still open, so we went home to bed. Next time… Ridge Ave Custard and Cakes Creamery, anyone?
The picture above is how it feels to church plant with Julie and the rest of the Northwest crew! Tomorrow is March 28. March 28 is a VERY important date in my life. On March 28, 2015 Darcy and I were married. It was a wonderful day. We’ve journeyed a long way since then. I’ll give more details about that a little later in this post. One year prior was a pretty important day as well. Especially in hindsight. Ben White asked me to be his cell apprentice for a new cell that he was starting in Grays Ferry.
I don’t think I knew much about Ben or Circle of Hope for that matter. We met at Cedar Park Cafe in West Philly. He probably paid for lunch because I was VERY broke at the time. I don’t remember much else of what was said but I do remember Ben saying, “I wanted to discuss a small ministry opportunity with you.” Subsequently, Ben told me that he used those churchy words because he knew that I was a self-described “old school, gutbucket, backwoods, old-timey Negro black Pentecostal.” (Message me if you know what that means. We should be friends if you do.) It worked. Those exact words had been “spoken over me” as a prophecy by a minister in a prophetic meeting in 2012. This minister said that I would be going to school and at “this next level of schooling, there would come a small ministry opportunity.” I moved to Philadelphia in 2014 for seminary. When Ben said those words, I immediately said yes. I was convinced that this was the path God had for me. When we’re pursuing God, things seem to just come together like that.
Last night after our Sunday Meeting, the cell leaders of Ridge Avenue got together to talk about our congregation as a whole. We started the meeting by talking about our journeys through Lent. I told the group that I cut out podcasts and YouTube for Lent and that it has just created some much needed quiet space. I was telling them how I have been saying, “This is it” repeatedly out loud and almost out of my control. The words just come out of my mouth involuntarily. If I’m being honest, I’ll often have something that I repeat a lot to myself that seems kind of involuntary. In prayer, I finally realized that it was a confession to God. “This is it. THIS is God’s good plan for me.” Ya see, I’m still catching up with the fact that in three years, I started seminary, got engaged and married (all within seven months), bought a house in Southwest Philly, began my lifelong dream to pastor (literally I was five years old when I started “play-preaching” with my cousins in ‘Cousin Conventions’), and my wife gave birth to our big handsome son named Ellison Samuel Stafford. Like I said, things come together when we’re on this path with Jesus. The same could be said of the newest cell in the Northwest.
A little over a month ago, my new friend Hannah White came to a Sunday Meeting for the first time. She lives in Manayunk so she was looking for a cell in either Roxborough or Manayunk. Some words came out involuntarily when I talked to her, “I’m starting a cell in Roxborough in three weeks! How cool!” There it goes again. Looking back, I wondered whether I was lying or the Holy Spirit just spoke through me when I otherwise wouldn’t have known what to say. Was it a lie or a prophecy? Judge not. I’m paying attention to those involuntary utterances more and more though. I really wasn’t starting a cell in Roxborough but I said that I was because I wanted her in a cell and she wanted to be in one too. So after I told her that, I got to work on putting one together. I asked a few people if they wanted to join and then met some new people. I asked Megan whom I met in November to be my cell apprentice. She said yes right away. She told me that she discussed me asking her to be my apprentice with her roommate. They were befuddled that I would ask someone I barely knew. Her roommate said, “I know you’re awesome but how does he know that?!” Just like the larger community, I get moved by the Holy Spirit, dream it, say it and then build. I’m excited for this new cell and for the continued journey as we plant this congregation in Northwest Philadelphia. We now have EIGHT cells! To my fellow Northwest church planters, just say it and do it! I think it works sometimes. We meet on Sunday evenings at 5PM at 5720 Ridge Avenue. Email me for more details about this journey: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you all meet Kenny on Sunday at our meeting? He was playing drums for us! Well, actually, he was playing his cajon, which worked well with Raleigh on guitar and singing with Sarah. It was a small team but they sounded great.
I am so thankful that Kenny jumped in to help us. He is regularly a part of our congregation that meets on North Broad St., but he joined us on Ridge Ave because we needed a drummer this week. What a gift to be a part a whole movement of cells and congregations across Philadelphia and South Jersey. We have people backing us up when we need it! As a new congregation, we are still forming and we don’t have everything all worked out. After putting out a local call for help, Raleigh looked to our musicians across congregations.
There are no casting calls or auditions around here – we just expect people to express their gifts, talents, art and worship, and we grow into better leaders, lovers and worshipers as we do that. I know people among us who got connected simply because we needed them! That is a demonstration of how we do things around here. We are not vetting people to see if they meet a prescribed set of requirements. We are not putting on an impressive show or a performance to be viewed. We are creating an environment where people can connect with God and each other and live in to their life of faith in community, working out what it means to be who they are in Christ and give what they’ve got.
Thanks, Kenny, for responding to the need. I look forward to meeting the next drummer in the northwest who wants to help us do this (I know Raleigh does too!).
I met a few today…
We made a quick connection over laughing at ourselves in a public space and then we started chatting. In our short conversation, this spunky, full-time student and employee made an impression on me. We talked about what each of us does for work and I gave her a quick summary of Circle of Hope and our new congregation. Her interest was piqued. She had never heard of a cell church and was attracted to the idea. I told her we are still new and are looking for people who want to do this with us. She said she would come check it out. I wondered out loud how she would fit it in to her full schedule. She laughed and said she would make time, admitting that she fights boredom and believes there needs to be more good in the world. Neither she or I are waiting on the government to fix things. We have work to do. I got her number and she got mine.
This afternoon I met two more people at the rec center where my kids go to afterschool. I went over to say hi to Kim, who was chatting with someone and Kim introduced me as her pastor. I learned that Kim’s friend is basically stepping up to do the job of about 4 people in order to care for a whole lot of kids in Philadelphia who are trying to get an education. And with all that, was at the rec center with someone else’s kids! She and her husband (who joined the conversation) were genuinely interested in what Kim and I are doing as we start a new congregation. They already had ideas about future possibilities for the congregation and a ton of connections in the northwest. I invited them to join us on Sunday, hoping they might feel inspired to share more of their ideas and connections with us.
We are still growing this congregation! Five months in and we are doing great. But in some ways we are just getting rolling. We won’t really know who we are until we find the next partners to join us. We started this congregation so that we could ‘expand the surface area’ to connect with more people who are looking for hope and willing to be a part of a community that expresses hope in practical ways. I am excited about finding more great people who will shape the character of this congregation and help us express our life in Christ, at this time, in this place.
Come do what you love, with us. We need you! Are you a drummer? Like hosting or tech? You don’t have to be a professional around here. We are who we are, and we appreciate that each person has something to contribute.
Are you are a student doing cool stuff that could help expand our creativity? Or social action?
Do you organize the sledding parties when the snow comes? (Come on, not everyone hates it.)
Are you a business person? Urban farmer? Yo-Yo expert? (Fair warning: We have a national competitor among us).
Help us find you! Shoot me an email so we can connect. email@example.com Jerome and I would love to take you out for coffee. See?
On Sunday at our meeting on 5720 Ridge Avenue, I gave a talk about a man Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda. The story is told in John 5. The man was physically disabled in some way and wanted to be healed. He hung around the Pool of Bethesda because the belief at that time was that an angel would go to the Pool of Bethesda and “stir” up the waters.
When Jesus met the man, he asked him if he wanted to be healed. The man didn’t say yes. Not because he didn’t want to be healed but because he felt he needed to explain his problem to Jesus. He responded that he did not have any way to put himself into the water. That was how he expected to be healed. He was convinced that getting into the pool was the only way that he could be healed. It’s a pretty common thought pattern. For years, many of us have thought that the way to be healed and feel whole was to pull ourselves up with our bootstraps or numb ourselves from reality. There are self-help gurus and books, belief in our civil religion, and of course the ever present belief in consumerism as a way to fix all ills. Jesus told the man to get up and healed him on the spot. The man was one of many that Jesus healed. No questions asked. The man didn’t even get Jesus’ name as it’s told in the passage that when people asked him who healed him he didn’t know.
One of my favorite aspects of this story is that Jesus shatters the myth of a zero-sum approach to life. The man was so focused on this one method of healing where only one person could be healed at a time. That one person would have to push someone out of the way, be the least lame or maybe, just maybe a friend would happen to be there to put him in the water. Jesus’s life was about healing everyone who would accept it. I think of our cells that way. They are unconventional ways of people being healed. All at the same time and together. It is also completely unconventional for a group of people who may not know each other well to make time to meet face-to-face once a week. On top of that, the group as a whole but especially the hosts welcome strangers into their homes and hearts. Remember that we live in a culture where it’s considered rude if you don’t send warning texts to your friends that you’re going to drop by. I think we all have been waiting at the pool at some point in our lives. We don’t have to though. Jesus invites us to a new reality. Our cells meet throughout the week in various neighborhoods in the Northwest. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect.