Planting churches in New England, USA
By Gary Reiff
During my teenage years in the 1980s, my greatest fear was that I would lead a “casual” Christian life. Although I desired to live 100 percent for Christ, I certainly did not start out with a vision to plant churches. Those seeds were planted when I went with a team to Peru, South America during the summer between my junior and senior years of college.
While working with South America Mission church planters in the jungle areas of Peru, a missionary couple shared their struggles in leaving all their friends and relatives behind and living in a remote village that required a 24-hour boat ride. These stories impacted me. While there, I read a book that inspired me to think about church planting.
Those seeds lay dormant until I was twenty-nine years old. In the intervening years, I had attained my college degree, married Bonnie, began a career and we had our first child. My wife and I were elders at a church in West Haven, Connecticut. Revival was happening, people were coming to Christ, churches were growing. . . . During this time, my wife had a dream that we were to move to western Massachusetts to lead a church plant. It caught me by surprise, but we prayed about it and visited the area. God confirmed numerous times that this was His call for us.
Nonetheless, it was a big decision to quit my job and move more than an hour’s drive from our friends.
Our former church had a really good worship team and great teaching from many well-known prophetic and inspirational speakers. We expected to pattern the church plant likewise and provide an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit could move freely. That first year, our church grew from about fifteen people to around thirty-five, and then something happened. A church near us broke up and our gathering instantly doubled in size. Many of these new people were talented musicians. We gave them time to connect with us (three months) before they became part of our worship team. We also started having conferences with well-known speakers just like we had had at our former church. It seemed as if we were moving toward our destination; however, the way was not smooth and many changes needed to be made.
The first thing I learned was that people join a church for many reasons. We had come to identify ourselves as the prophetic, conference-style church in the region. When the nearby church fell apart, those members were also connected to the same prophetic, conference stream that we were a part of. I often visited their church, and I knew the leaders. They naturally gravitated to us when they needed another place to go. Our values of freedom, passionate worship, and the presence of the Holy Spirit were quickly embraced, but our church had become much more than that.
The small group of believers who made up our church met in small groups and connected relationally. I assumed new members would embrace these values, but many of them did not. Up to this point, I had never really connected my career in engineering to my work as pastor, but it hit me how the same things I enjoyed about engineering—designing and creating—were actually the same things I enjoyed about church ministry. I saw a need for common vision, common values and a church leadership that knew their calling and responsibilities.
This desire is what sparked an interest in DOVE and eventually led to us becoming a partner church of DOVE. I found helpful resources in DOVE including the Biblical Foundations Series. Our leadership team attended DOVE International Leadership Conferences held annually at Sandy Cove. Those conferences and other DOVE events helped strengthen and encouraged our team.
We have since released that Massachusetts to church to others to lead, and are currently planting house churches in New Hampshire.
From that first experience in church planting, the most important thing we learned is to keep it simple and focus on the things that matter most. In that first church plant, our leadership team ended up conducting three or more church meetings every week. We soon discovered that so many church meetings left us without much energy to reach out to neighbors and non-church friends. Today, we limit our church meetings to one per week. This enables members to become involved in non-church related activities where they can reach out and live their Christian life in the world.
Another essential truth we learned is to build the church around the gifts and callings of the people, rather than the needs of the church. In church ministry there is always a balance between the needs of the church and the gifts or interests of the people. I believe people burn out because they are doing something that they are not called to do and are put in roles that do not edify them. Although it’s been said, “a good way to start someone out in ministry is to have them clean the bathrooms,” I disagree. I understand the point that we often need to do jobs that we don’t like. That helps us grow and tests our loyalty. But why not build the church around the gifts and callings of the people God has already given us? Keeping the church in the house and dividing up the house church ministry roles helps balance the needs of the church. Our desire is to get everyone involved. Different people host, teach and share testimonies each week—which allows everyone to get involved.
In all we are doing, we don’t strive to be casual Christians but to live wholeheartedly every day of the week for God. That requires using our talents and gifts for His glory.