ERIC: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. Soon after, God created animals… and then us. And we gave the animals names, like “ocelot” and “kookaburra.” Then we created Philadelphia and we decided to call it Philly, and we filled it with bowling alleys and dentist’s offices. One of those dentists retired last year… and he sold his building to a church.
ERIC: And when the church decided to give away free meals to the neighborhood one Saturday, I was there, standing outside with my microphone. And a guy from across the street walked up to me, haggard with a cigarette in one hand and a burnt out voice, and he asked me … what’s going on?
GUY: What do you guys got going on?
ERIC: Oh. So they’re a new church and they’ve got like a giveaway so these are chicken dinners.
GUY: Oh really? Cool.
ERIC: Yeah you can probably just go ask, they’re free. they’re giving them away.
GUY: Oh ha ha
ERIC: My name’s Eric, by the way.
ERIC: Rob, nice to meet you. I’m a reporter doing a story about the church.
GUY: You recording now?
GUY: Oh my God. You got anymore crack for sale? What are you going to do with the tape?
ERIC: So I’m doing a long story about these guys. They’re a new church and it’s a story about what it’s like to start a new church.
GUY: You’re not part of it?
ERIC: No. I’m just reporting on them.
ERIC: Are you a church goer?
GUY: Not really. I used to be. I was Catholic.
ERIC: When was the last time you went?
GUY: To church? 30 years.
ERIC: Yeah. Why’d you stop?
GUY: Just stopped going. When’s the last time you went to church?
ERIC: It’s been about a year. Why’d you stop going?
GUY: I don’t know. Just stopped. Other things to do, you know.
ERIC: Yeah. I get that.
ERIC: Two guys, standing in front of a church, who won’t go in… it’s a real problem for Christianity. The percentage of people who say they’re going to church continues to drop in the US, for the last few decades. And to try and solve this problem, to save the faith … a movement of pastors, mostly evangelicals, are turning to the part of America perhaps most obsessed with growth… Silicon Valley.
ERIC: Every year, thousands of pastors start new churches, from scratch… They call them church plants. And what has arisen is a world remarkably parallel to the tech industry … with investors and incubators and growth metrics … but, for Jesus. There are mogul-like pastors who have grown small churches into mega churches, with congregations in the tens of thousands … They go on book tours, they give Ted Talks… and they appear on the many, church planting podcasts…
CHURCH PLANTING PODCAST: You’re listening to - yes you are - you messed up my intro - that’s my job. I’m the fun man you’re the straight man. You’re listening to the new churches dot come podcast. We need theme music.
ERIC: There are angel investors (it’s perhaps the most un-ironic use of that phrase ever)-- Mega churches who will donate tens of thousands of dollars a year to help get a new church off the ground. And… the same way tech companies are obsessed with their origin stories… getting their start in garages… Church plants have their own origin stories… getting their start in… well…
CHURCH PLANTER: Over two decades ago, my wife Amy and I started life church in what was a two car garage. As of today, our church meets in many different locations in cities across the united states…
ERIC: This is StartUp, the show about what it’s really like to start something new. I’m Eric Mennel. For the past six months I’ve been hanging out in this world … the church planting world. Longtime listeners of the show might recognize me from earlier seasons … I’m the guy who came out to his boss on this podcast … came out as a Christian. I’ve attended church plants, I’ve stopped attending church plants … we’ll talk about why a little later … It’s a world I’ve hovered around the edges of for a long time. So, for the next several weeks, we’re gonna watch as one new church tries to grow… tries to attract new believers. It might be the most difficult task of any founder in America … convincing someone who doesn’t know or even believe in God… to change their mind… to join your church. Which brings me to Watson Jones the third.
WATSON: I kind of grew up sort of rough, you know, smokin’ illegal substances, wasn’t doing so well in school and i had friends who were gang-banging hard, I was just a little young thug.
ERIC: Watson is 34. Bald, with thick-rimmed glasses. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago. And he had this really powerful moment when he was 14 years old, he was watching this story on the news about a kid who was running drugs. The kid got caught, and had to turn his friends in…
WATSON: And something about that scared me to the core. I just called on the lord and was like Jesus I need you to change me. And it felt like something happened. I just felt new.
ERIC: So new, that he decided to give his life to God. He wanted to start a church. So he did all the things you do to become a pastor… he went to seminary, worked as a youth minister at a church… And he had a real gift for preaching… this is from one of his early sermons, when he was still in training.
SERMON: I remember when I was a shorty in Chicago… and my daddy was teaching me to ride a bike… your parents ever walked alongside of you when you ride a bike? And I remember going down the street and I saw some girls on the porch. Oh yeah, you know when you see them girls on the porch you gotta get it together. Can’t have your parent holding your hand there. You gotta straighten up and fly right. I said, Daddy, get your hand off the handlebars, I got this. some of us are busy slapping Jesus’s hands off the handlebars of our life…
ERIC: Watson wanted to start a church, but not the kind of church he grew up around… old, a little stodgy … people in suits, singing hymns. He wanted a church for the people most in need of the love he felt … when he was saved as a teenager. People who were a little rough, like him.
WATSON: So I really wanted to engage people who Jesus would engage. Jesus was willing to be associated with prostitutes and tax collectors who you might equate to your average drug dealer because that’s how people felt about them at the time. People who were not part of a church. They sometimes are an afterthought.
ERIC: So he had this vision for a new kind of church. He had a gift for preaching… But he still had a lot of questions about how to start a church. Then, in 2013, a 29-year-old Watson decided to go to this conference that was all about how to start and grow new churches. It was in Orlando, Florida, and it was called Exponential.
WATSON: It's at a massive mega church. In a sanctuary that may sit five thousand people. there were at least 4,000 in the room and all of them wanted to start a church or were starting a church or somewhere in that spectrum.
WATSON: Some of what I was seeing was so new to me, so different. They were wearing skinny jeans and they look real cool and you know and I felt like in my background we still wearing suits. And I felt like people in those conferences were talking about things that helped relate with people who are not used to going to church. I felt like, you know, they were on the cutting edge.
ERIC: Fundamentally … what these people were doing … was disrupting the evangelical christian church. They had metrics and management tools. Books on marketing and finance. And it was all aimed at reaching exactly the people Watson wanted to reach … non-believers. Watson was in.
WATSON: I believed that the only people who are effective were Church Planters and the rest of these churches that they need to close or they need to adapt to all of that.
ERIC: But there was another thing about the church planting movement that caught Watson’s attention … another parallel to silicon valley.
WATSON: I saw a lot of white people, you know, I'd be the only black in the room because it wasn't really a black thing more than it was a white Evangelical thing.
ERIC: People often use the phrase “Evangelical” to mean conservative Christian. But, in reality, there are many evangelical churches, and one of the most basic distinctions is between the white evangelical church, and the black evangelical church. Historically, the black evangelical church has focused more on building up its existing churches ... while recently, the white evangelical church has been very focused on creating new churches. Church plants. Watson occupied this interesting middle space in the evangelical church
WATSON: I felt like more black people needed to to be trying to start churches too.
ERIC: you weren't dissuaded by seeing that, you were in fact invigorated by seeing that.
WATSON: I was… I saw myself practically… dancing between two lines. between the white church and the black church. I danced in the black church because it was my identity. But I danced in the evangelical world because it’s where a lot of financial partners were.
ERIC: Just like in the tech world, new churches need startup capital. And the most coveted source of that capital… is the megachurch… a well established church with thousands of members, who view it as their mission to launch new, successful churches. Landing a megachurch, can sometimes get you in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars… So Watson worked out a business plan. And I mean that… a literal business plan. A clear idea he could pitch to raise that money. Part 1 of the pitch: Location.
ERIC: Watson landed a church planting residency in Philadelphia, a year and a half-long gig where he would apprentice under a successful church planter, a guy named Eric Mason. So, Philly it was. Part 2 of the pitch: a big hack to save money during the ramp-up phase... scrap the building.
WATSON: I said man churches spend too much time focusing on a building and they put so much money into a building.
ERIC: He figured they could meet in a coffee shop, or a bookstore or something … even his living room. And finally, part 3 of the pitch... A business partner.
AJ: no no ok, I’m gonna give you a picture of myself at this point. Are you ready?
ERIC: This is AJ Smith.
AJ: I’m this white kid with dreadlocks down my back. A scraggly beard. Wearing like moccasins with holes in them. Pants that had been patched up a million times. Flannels ripped up.
ERIC: AJ’s 31 years old now, and like Watson, he’d also been training to plant a church in the inner city... This was at a church across the river from Philly in Camden New Jersey.
WATSON: and Eric Mason actually suggested him to me.
ERIC: Eric Mason, again, is the pastor in Philly that Watson was apprenticing under.
WATSON: Eric Mason said man, you should you should talk to AJ. And I was like, well, you know, I don't know.
ERIC: Why not?
WATSON: At the time man. He was he was a dude who had dreadlocks. He wasn't like a neat dresser.
ERIC: Say more about that.
WATSON: He just kind of has his own earthy vibe to him. Now, AJ, if a good day for him is to go sit in the mountains and just sit there by himself. That's a good day for him. That's kind of how he dressed. But he was a nice guy. So I said I would look into it ...
ERIC: And when he looked into it, he realized AJ actually brought a lot more than just worn out moccasins to the table. AJ had grown up in a church plant... watching it grow to more than a thousand people. He’d gone to seminary. He’d run a homeless ministry. Once you got past the dreadlocks, AJ seemed like a great number two guy.
AJ: I really believe strongly in like submitting to African-American leadership, if you're into like a largely minority setting or minority leadership . So I’m this white guy and I’m like, man. I love the idea of like I want to be an inner-city. I was like, Let me spend some time like under you and just like helping you do your thing... talked with my wife, we’re like yeah Let's do it.
WATSON: prayed about it and we felt like it was what the Lord wanted.
AJ: It's going to be called Restoration Church.
ERIC: Watson didn’t have the direct connections to megachurches that might help fund Restoration… But he’d heard about some people who did … a church planting network called Orchard Group. They help connect church plants with established churches that have a lot of money. Mostly in the south, and midwest. Orchard Group is very selective… of the thousands of people planting churches every year, the network will only support three or four… And the year Watson applied, he was one of them. They connected him to a few churches that agreed to give 20 or 30 thousand dollars a year for three years. Three years because, the data show, if a church plant isn’t sustainable after three years, it will likely never be sustainable. And nobody wants to sink their money into a failing church. And so, in April 2014… with about 100 thousand dollars in capital for the first year… the countdown started…
ERIC: Watson and AJ needed to get this church off the ground… to attract enough people to be self-sustaining. At first they just wanted people to come to a weekly bible study at Watson’s home. So they tried to drum up interest the old fashion way. Through outreach on the streets, in the neighborhood.
WATSON: early on man, ha. Me and AJ were out on Corners passing out coffee, free coffee on bus stops.
AJ: We made signs, we’d go out to community days, we’d go to volunteer at elementary schools. We were goin out at least twice a week.
WATSON: We passed out water. We would have our team standing on crowded Corners in the hot summer
LEAH: We were handing out blow pops to people. Ha ha..
ERIC: This is Leah Smith, AJ’s wife.
LEAH: And I think we put a little message on them, “let the love of god blow you away.” So corny. Soooo corny. But we were trying to get people. You kind of felt like anything could happen at any moment. And we met a ton of people. A lot of people. we prayed for and prayed with a lot of people invited a lot of people.
ERIC: Over the course of just a few months they had conversations with hundreds of people… And, occasionally, some of them would take down Watson’s address, and show up to the bible study.
TIM: Watson told us we were the first family to commit.
ERIC: This is Tim Wellbeck. He and his wife had been burned before a largely white evangelical churches … And so when they heard Watson’s vision for Restoration…they were excited.
TIM: We told him one saturday afternoon before an outreach that we wanted to be a part of restoration and what restoration was doing.
WATSON: we had interest from all kinds of people. people who didn't go to church people who did go to church, were very interested in us because we we looked different and they liked us they liked our spirit
AJ: For the most part people were very respectful of the ministry. Very appreciative...but it didn’t translate.
ERIC: The goal had always been to reach non-believers... to get them in the door, and help them in these spiritual and tangible ways.… But the people showing up, for the most part, were already church people… coming from other churches…
WATSON: I think in retrospect what probably hurt us is the thing to bring them to was a Bible study at my house…. The first thing that people asked me is is where's your church? Oh, well we meet at my house and one lady told me. She said you guys are CULT. You call me when you get a church. the people in the city and your neighborhood does not understand Church apart from a building a preacher a choir or praise team and something that looks like a church service period especially I think among black people the more out-of-the-box or avant-garde you are, the less likely you are to be trusted.
AJ: That was really, really a gut check to us, because that was plan A. And we weren’t really sure what plan b was.
ERIC: Plan A was the outreaches.
AJ: Yeah we’re going to be out in the streets. Pastors who are present with the people. That’s how we’ll grow the church. And that didn’t work.
ERIC: Hmmm. Why not?
AJ: Sigh. I think people have been to church, I think people have done church and i think people… don’t have great experiences with church. And because of that I think the last thing people want to do is waste a day, in their mind, of their weekend coming to church.
AJ: I think they respect it and they genuinely appreciate it for the most part. They see we’re not out there to get money. Our intentions are good in their minds. But… nah, I mean I love you all are doing but, you know, maybe I’ll come by sometime. They aint coming to church. They’ve been to church. There uncle started a church 20 years ago and they had to go sit through three hours on a sunday morning, couldn’t wait to get out of there. Couldn’t wait until they were 18 and didn’t have to go to church anymore.
ERIC: After the break… can Mailchimp help you save a soul?
ERIC: Welcome back... Watson and AJ were not having much luck growing their bible study through outreaches. By January 2015… about 8 months in… only about 30 people were coming… To make this thing real, and sustainable… they needed to make a big change…. they needed move from doing a bible study at Watson’s, to holding a regular, weekly service, on Sunday mornings. Not only that… They were going to move into a building. They wanted to pick a space that didn’t carry any of the negative connotations and baggage of a typical church. Their first attempt was a banquet hall… it was maybe a bit of an overcorrection.
AJ: We went to this place called Temptations.
ERIC: It’s called Temptations?
AJ: Yeah we made a lot of jokes about that… But the first time we went there they just had trash everywhere. And we had to clean that stuff up. Hair weaves and bras and open bottles and we had to clean that stuff up.
ERIC: Wait there were literally bras?
WATSON: Yeah! Yeah! We saw two bras on the floor.
ERIC: They tried two preview services there… a sort of beta test of the church, before realizing it was not a good fit. So, next they went to an elementary school cafeteria. That’s where they would hold their first ever regular Sunday service … In the church planting world, it’s called “Launch Sunday.” And it’s a huge deal for a church plant. A sort of flag on the moon moment, saying “We are here to stay.” They put out the word on facebook, on flyers... told friends and family… and then... they prayed.
ERIC: Were you nervous before?
WATSON: Very yeah, very nervous. Yes.
ERIC: What was going through your mind?
WATSON: What if no one comes why would they come? what do I what do I tell these donors who gave a lot of money to this? And what will I tell my wife? what will tell my family? all of that.
SERMON: Music... may you be seated..
ERIC: Watson woke up on the morning of March 22nd, 2015. It had been a year since he first brought AJ on board… He put on his brown corduroy pants, a blue patterned shirt and a white cardigan… and at 11 AM, he stepped up to the podium, in front of more than 100 cafeteria chairs… and he started to pray.
SERMON: we want at the end of the day Lord for you to smile and for you to be pleased
ERIC: what did the launch look like? How many people were there?
WATSON: I think it might have been maybe 150. Maybe.
ERIC: That must have been huge, that must have felt really great.
WATSON: It did. I cried, actually, you know, and I'm not really a public crier, but I cried that day.
LEAH: ha ha ha. Yeah….
SERMON: i think the lord is saying to us that there is no perfect church. But he has called imperfect people to sit by the beggar who has the bread. He hasn’t said come as your perfect self, but he has called dysfunctional, messed-up people to come together under the banner of jesus christ.
ERIC: After the sermon AJ stood up to pray. He walked up front, turned around… and he could see it The room was packed.
SERMON: clapping… Amen can we give the lord praise… clapping
AJ: Yeah we maxed out. This is great.
LEAH: when I saw all those people I was like, OK this is going to be like a regular church. See you next week.
ERIC: Leah Smith again. AJ’s wife.
LEAH: I wasn’t thinking about it at the time Eric… grow and you grow... I wasn’t anticipating that in the weeks to follow, numbers would drop so harshly.
ERIC: The next week… only about 60 people showed up. Fewer than half the launch. Then the next week… about the same, maybe even a little fewer. It turns out… a lot of the people who’d packed the church that first week... were friends and family… people already committed to other churches, but who came once to show support. In a lot of neighborhoods, it doesn’t actually take that many people to keep a church afloat. 50 or 60 people can be enough… if those 50 or 60 people are are in a position to give substantially to the church. One of the biggest hurdles for Watson was that he was intentionally trying to grow a church in an area with a much lower income base. 50 or 60 people giving from an income of 50k a year is very different than 50 or 60 people giving from an income of 20k a year… or less. There were a few families at Restoration who could give at pretty high levels… But the vision was that this church would be a home for people who could not do that. That’s why getting the numbers up was so important. For the next year or so, they tried new tactics… more direct forms of networking.
WATSON: We would have invite cards and say listen -- how many of you know a friend that isn’t a part of a church, let’s invite them to church on this day. We had them all on Mailchimp. When we had big parties like a christmas party we would mail them out and see who open them. Very few people even read them
ERIC: Occasionally, some people would come. Visit for a week… maybe two.
ERIC: And they would never come back. All these people would visit, why wouldn’t they stay?
WATSON: I don’t know. I don’t know. A lot of the times I felt it was something about me. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I’m missing something. This is not happening because you’re not a great leader or your not a great preacher. You’re not a great whatever whatever whatevers. I don’t know…
ERIC: There were periods over the next year where attendance was so low… One person told me it felt like the band was playing for itself… The hardest stretches for Watson?
WATSON: Summer months. Summer months always felt that way. Summer months is when everybody in Philadelphia went to the shore or everybody traveled. And so attendance wise, it felt like somebody took a scalpel and cut massive chunks off the church. Those periods were extremely deflating I mean they were dark moments.
WATSON: Sometimes I would battle depression. Most preachers tend to take monday off because you tend to be more prone to depression on a Monday. On sunday you expend so much of yourself. You’re preaching you're talking to people all that other stuff. But for a church planter in and urban church struggling to move this thing, it was exponentially worse. You're tired you’re lonely. you're burnt out. I would wonder is this God or was this me? Did God call me to Philly or did he not?
ERIC: And it’s not like when work gets hard, everything else lets up… Watson and his wife left most of their family back in Chicago in order to plant this church… And so when they faced their own complicated family stuff … it could be really hard.
WATSON: We had a miscarriage before my third child and that was very painful. We had a diagnosis of autism on my first child in that same period while starting to church. Like all of that was a lot of trauma and I think it probably eventually made me wonder is my time up?
ERIC: It was May 2017… it had been three years of trying to grow the church… and Watson took a trip back home to Chicago to see his family.
WATSON: That weekend was Mother's Day weekend actually and my mother it was the first time I had been with her on a Mother's Day for some years like five years. It was so special, you know. And I just started to feel like man. If if I could not let go back. I wouldn't go back. I loved my church deeply but I started to feel like the Lord was saying it's time. So I start I talked to my wife about it. And my wife said to me, you know, why tonight I've been feeling the same way.
ERIC: And then… one Sunday morning last October… Watson got up in front of the congregation of Restoration. And he gave a sermon that seemed like he was preparing them for the road ahead…
SERMON: This is the part in your life when you cannot find your way you don’t know to go left you dont know to go right you don’t know who to call, you don’t know where to go. this is the in-between times. in-between times according to the biblical narrative have the ability to make you or to break you.
ERIC: After the service, he had all the members stay for a meeting. At which point he said he was officially stepping down, and that he’d be going home to Chicago with his family. Taking over the church… AJ.
LEAH: And my first reaction was no. No. No.
AJ’s wife, Leah.
LEAH: no you’re not! I mean majority african american church. You’re white.
ERIC: Now, it’s not like Leah had never seen a white man in a black church. Leah’s mother is black, but her father is white… he’s also a pastor. And he served in majority black congregations while she was growing up. It’s just that AJ… is really… really… white.
LEAH: AJ is not like submerged in black culture. He’s just not. The man loves hiking. Not to say black people don’t love hiking. AJ wants to hike the Appalachian Trail, ok!? SO, he’s different in this way. And I’ve often thought, this is just weird. I felt a little self conscious about it. And still do.
ERIC: Watson, on the other hand, felt good about his decision…
WATSON: AJ had been in the church since its beginning, from its inception. Everybody else came after him, and they all knew him. I had several people i could have called easily to take it over,- but i felt they wouldn’t have had any connection to them. And so I thought he was the best fit for that reason.
AJ: I had so many insecurities
ERIC: like what
AJ: well about being a white guy. you know now did I really have a vision that I really have. A plan… I have a Bachelors in Bible. I have a masters of divinity. I've been in intern and resident and you know well-known Church plants. I some of the best coaches known at least in our networks and it's like, um, You know at the end of day, I don't know how to grow a church.
ERIC: Watson moved back to Chicago and took over another church… one that is 138 years old with hundreds of members … the farthest thing from a church plant. He preaches in a suit now. And so 9 months ago, AJ Smith became the white lead pastor of a predominantly black church in Northeast Philly. Right before Watson left, they finished the process of purchasing a new building … their own building… one they bought from a retiring dentist. It’s a new site... A new pastor… who despite his self doubt… is trying to step up…
AJ: We're kind of starting over. I wiped our vision our mission our values and we wrote new Mission Vision and value statements.
AJ: Yeah, we’re here in this neighborhood that we believe is underserved, that has massive needs huge population who are disconnected from god, who are disconnected from the church and we got to go out here and say like we believe this is true and we're really going to get bold with this stuff. From a, from a practical standpoint like, you know, we're not so sexy anymore because we're three year old church that's being replanted. Its... people don't want to throw their money at us. Like they do new churches, So we have to grow the way the old-fashioned way
ERIC: So, What is that like logistically? Like how much do you need to grow?
AJ: I mean we need to double in size! We absolutely need double sizes here.
AJ: no doubt about it. We absolutely need to double in size. Um, this thing's either real or its not.
SERMON: They that wait on the Lord in an in between season, they that wait for the lord to show up will find strength in him, they that wait on the lord in times of confusion will find his presence and peace… is there anybody here that finds yourself in an in between time? Where you’re calling on god to be your friend. Where you’re needing god to be your help. It is in those in between times that you find out that he has a purpose.
ERIC: The bible is full of stories of people caught in the in-between times. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt … not knowing what came next. Jesus himself spent 40 days alone in the wilderness before starting his ministry. Jonah was eaten by a whale… he had to hang out in its stomach for a few days before figuring out his next move. AJ, Leah, and the congregation of Restoration sit firmly in that tradition… in the inbetween. It’s a scary place to be… But when you believe to your very core that another person’s life and salvation are on the line… What else is there to do … but give it everything you’ve got?
ERIC: Coming up, on the next several weeks of StartUp....
TAPE: I jumped over the bus seat behind me… and I just left and right left and right I just went nuts… i saw red, i snapped.
TAPE: and I screamed AJ! And he just sorta blacked out.
TAPE: he had started this phenomenal drug business…
TAPE: I’m lookin for a win in life…to be honest with you...
TAPE: dunno what I’m doing I shouldn’t be a pastor, forget this, seminary isn’t for me.
This episode was produced by Simone Polanen <<po-LAH-nin>>, Luke Malone, Angelina Mosher, Bruce Wallace, and Sindhu Gnanasambandan <<Nya nuh sum bun done>> .... Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Editing by Lulu Miller, Sara Sarasohn and Lisa Pollak ... Peter Leonard mixed the episode. Music by Haley Shaw and Peter Leonard. For full music credits, visit our website, GimletMedia.com/startup.
Special thanks to Ira Glass, Neil Drumming and Alvin Melathe.
I’m Eric Mennel. If you aren’t already subscribed to StartUp (how are you even listening to this!?) go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you use.
Find out more about the show at GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup. Thanks for listening.