Belonging before believing

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BARRANQUILLA, Colombia (Mennonite Mission Network) — “Shout from the mountain tops!” Isaiah urges the Israelites to praise God (Isaiah 42:11b).

But in the mountains of Europe, early Mennonites fleeing religious persecution were known as the “quiet in the land.” They were a private people, quietly passing on their faith and values to each generation; by the way they lived their life.

Today, however, many Mennonites are speaking up about their faith: in Colombia, in the United States, and many places in between.

As the church diversifies, a variety of church planting models have been introduced. But in all models, relationships are the cornerstone.

Amanda and Gamaliel Falla, mission workers in Colombia, have been planting churches for 27 years. When the Fallas moved to Colombia’s coastal region of Barranquilla in 2002, there was not a single Mennonite church.

Today there are six.

“God has given us the gift of planting churches and developing leaders,” Amanda Falla said.

The Fallas' Steps to Church Planting

  1. Formation of Friendships
  2. Discipleship training
  3. Leadership training
  4. Bless to Serve 

The evidence of that gift can be found in the results of the Fallas' ministry. Arriving in Barranquilla, the Fallas immediately began building relationships for their first church plant. Within three months, a church of 15 people regularly met for worship. Over the next three years, the church blessed others who then went out and started two more churches.

The Fallas, who work with the Colombian Mennonite Church and Mennonite Mission Network have recognized a common process in each experience:

1. Church planting begins with a conversation. When the Fallas start a church, they begin by visiting others and forming friendships. These people tell their friends, and one by one, the word spreads.

2. Once the group is formed, regular attendees need to be discipled and mentored. The Fallas actively seek out those people to mentor them.

3. Then, the mentees are trained for leadership within their church.

4. Finally, the church blesses the leaders to serve: within the surrounding community or another part of Colombia. When a service opportunity arises, the church holds a commissioning service. The congregation is informed about the service opportunity and in response, they pray for the newly formed leader.

Mauricio Chenlo, the Mennonite Church USA denominational minister of church planting has developed a similar, but less strategic view of church planting in his 30 years of ministry.

In the past, Chenlo said, church plant models have been as calculated as business models. Once seminary assessments, budgets and support systems were in place, the church planter was given the green light. But that is changing. Chet Miller-Eshleman and his wife, Holly, sat in a small house church in Colombia, contemplating future plans. Their service assignment would end soon, and their family would move back to the United States. Where would they go? What would they do? Miller-Eshleman didn’t know.

During the service, Miller-Eshleman recalled God speaking to his heart and mind. Miller-Eshleman felt led to return to Ohio, plant a church and from that church would come other churches.

Was that really God’s will for the Miller-Eshleman family? Miller-Eshleman wasn’t sure. In the midst of his doubts, he walked outside in the fresh air, and asked God for confirmation.

Outside, Miller-Eshleman noticed an unusually tall, broad Colombian. This man was guiding his son on a bike down the street; his massive hand on the boy’s shoulder.

The natural thing for the man to do would be to release his hand,” thought Miller-Eshleman.

But the man did not.

Less than 72 hours later, a pastor at Walnut Creek (Ohio) Mennonite Church, called Miller-Eshleman and asked him to come help plant a church.

Miller-Eshleman took these two instances as confirmation that God would walk beside him and his family as they planted a church in Ohio. And like the boy on the bicycle, God’s hand would guide them.

Three years later, Miller-Eshleman and his family began Life Bridge Community Church, in Dover, Ohio, in his living room. Now, the church meets in Dover’s town square, where 75 people attend weekly. “Most of the church planters I know are individuals who simply happen to have a passion for seeing new communities of believers emerge,” said Chenlo.

Chet Miller-Eshleman has that passion. Miller-Eshleman and his family spent four years in Colombia, with Mennonite Central Committee. He worked in conflict transformation and accompanied Colombian Mennonite pastors in their work. When his family returned from Colombia, they returned with a vision of church planting.

That vision evolved into Life Bridge Community Church, in Dover, Ohio. With much persistence, prayer and a love for people, what started as a home Bible study now welcomes 75 people each Sunday to a church building in Dover’s town square.

The secret? Relationships.

Mennonite Church USA seeks to model the biblical framework for evangelism: “belonging before believing,” writes Chenlo in the Barnabas Report, which explores church planting in the United States. It also emphasizes the importance of accepting and including the surrounding community.

Echoing Mennonite Church USA and the Fallas, Miller-Eshleman said that church planting begins with friendships and grows by loving people. He believes that church planting should “continuously call people to Jesus, to new family and friends.”

According to Chenlo, building community is the best way to connect with the younger generations. Chenlo speaks from experience when he says, “Most younger people I know have a thirst and hunger for authentic, non-judging relationships. Values and theology are important, but belonging comes first.”

In this manner, people are reaching out in natural ways, through relationships.

In Graham, N.C., a church plant is led by a young couple with children. Their relationships and most of their outreach efforts, target families with children.

A middle-aged couple in Mountain Lake, Minn., is ministering to the local Hispanic population through the natural connections established by a medical practice.

As a result of this emphasis on relationships, there were128 church plants with ties to Mennonite Church USA in 2009.

Contributed by Kelsey Shue MMN