What's a First Church?

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Most of the churches I’ve led had “First Church” in their name. All were over 80 years in age when I arrived, so the word First had long ago ceased to have any missional meaning. Originally, the name represented the fact that the congregation was the first of its kind in the relevant city, but time and the fact that the Second church had not arrived made the name a bit confusing.

Conversations would often come up about whether we should change the name.

“After all, Pastor," someone would say, “it has been 80 years since we were First, isn’t it time to choose a name that people can identify with?”

As the churches grew and new people came to faith, the distance between the original name and what was happening in the local church seemed to widen. Nevertheless, I’ve never officially led a process to change the name of a church.

Please don’t think I think it would have been wrong. I just never did it. I will admit, the name of churches being planted around us did make more strategic sense and were far more understandable by outsiders. In addition, having First in the name made it tougher to get on a T-shirt or a sign, so a change could certainly be argued for communication's sake. Shortly after I left my previous assignment, the leaders changed the name and it was a great move. The church has since continued to grow and pioneer new things and it’s wonderful. I love it! 

At my current assignment, Chicago First Church of the Nazarene, the name thing has come up a few times. Leaders questioned whether keeping First in the title made sense. “What’s First got to do with anything?” was a question I heard more than once. For a few, it was even a question of pride. "What does the Bible say, Pastor, about those who want to be first?" The discussion made some folks wonder if we'd built an anti-Biblical theme into our title.

I was also confronted with the fact that our name is “Chicago First” when we’ve been located in Lemont, Illinois for over 40 years. This one was easier to address. While I recognized the incongruence, our commitment to multiply in Chicago from Lemont made the word “Chicago” okay in my book. It's a reminder of where our story began, and where we needed to return to in ministry, if we are to not abandon our post. Having First in our name didn't appear to be strategic or relevant, but all of that changed this last week.

Our movement held it’s General Assembly and I had the chance to hear a panel discussion of church planters and leaders on the issue of reaching lost people.  My friend Kevin Jack (he’s awesome by the way) was a member of the panel and said something that exploded in my heart.

He said, “Instead of trying to be somebody’s next church, why don’t we give ourselves to being someone’s first church.” And it hit me.

Wait? What?

Instead of trying to be somebody’s NEXT church, why don’t we give ourselves to becoming somebody’s FIRST church.

There it was. I have never had a statement so articulate what my wife and I and the four congregations we’ve worked with were trying to accomplish than that one.

Our goal is to see the people who haven’t had a first church yet, have one. Our prayer is to create an environment so Spirit filled, unconditionally loving, missional-minded, and on fire for Jesus, that those who come never get over it. 

The growing majority of our population who make up the “nones” or “dones” in our culture, (who have NEVER experienced the Body of Christ or whose experiences have caused them to be done with the Body of Christ), are the people God has called us to reach and why we exist. By the way, the number of “nones” in our culture is at an all time high. How did this happen in a country where we have had so much freedom and so many resources to accomplish our mission? I would suggest one of the issues is we began to attempt to become someone’s next instead of someone’s first church. I don’t think we meant to, we just did and have had a hard time stopping.

The questions you will ask trying to welcome outsiders are different than those if you’re attempting to attract insiders. The Gospel stays the same, but everything else is on the table. How you reach them is different. They are in different places than insiders. They have different questions and priorities than insiders. They speak a different language, listen to different music, and have different opinions than insiders. They may vote differently. Grew up hearing different stories. Have a vastly different view of the church, the Bible, the clergy, Christians, and as a result…Jesus.

Church outsiders have never taken the steps church insiders took, before they even remember taking them. Things we’ve never questioned; they will wrestle with.

Not everyone will enjoy a church designed to be someone’s first church. I’ve led four of them and “enjoy” is not always a good description of what it felt like.  Occasionally when people left the church because they wanted to go to a place that played the music they liked, preached sermons they liked, and had events they liked, I wanted to go with them. After all, a church for Brian will have more blues music and much longer sermons. Really long sermons. But, making Brian comfortable is not the mission of the church. The church doesn't belong to Brian. Brian belongs to the church. In each of our assignments, we’ve seen lost people found by Jesus and God’s people slaughter the fatted calf in celebration.

I listened just last night to a new Christian pray publicly for the first time. She thanked God for her friend who had taught her to pray by praying in front of her in a Life Group. We are Maria's first church and Allie is her first Christian friend. How cool is that?

Mission work is hard work. That’s why Jesus told us we would have a cross in the game, but it’s worth it!

So at Chicago First Church of the Nazarene, we're most likely keeping the name for a while. Our T-shirts will be less interesting, but our core values just found a new trumpet.

Here’s to all you out there, whatever your church name is, that are committed to becoming someone’s first church. May God bless and encourage you! Keep the faith! Finish the race! Fight the fight! It’s worth it. 

"Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ." (Ephesians 2:11-13)