By Jeff Brumley
The space Susan Rogers calls her main office is pretty artsy for a Baptist pastor. It’s adorned with the paintings of local artists and furnished with comfy couches, high-top tables and free Wi-Fi. It even has a staffed coffee bar and dessert counter.
It even comes with a name: Three Layers Café, a popular hangout gathering in the gritty Jacksonville neighborhood of Springfield.
“I’m much more comfortable here than I am in offices,” Rogers, 38, said there recently, sipping her coffee. “I would always come here to sit, write and dream.”
Those dreams have become The Well at Springfield, a new church start begun in March 2011 by Rogers with the help of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida and Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
Its biblically evocative name and urban setting also place The Well on the forefront of the rapidly growing, and constantly changing, “missional” church movement. It consists of hundreds of mostly small (and often tiny) hyper-local churches from across the theological spectrum. They seek to make the gospel culturally relevant and to meet the social and physical needs in their communities.
Drawing the unchurched
They also tend to share an aversion to owning or erecting buildings, a trait that’s attractive to the unchurched and those disaffected by formal Christianity, said David King, missional congregations assistant for CBF.
“If they see steeples, they have some preconceptions,” King said. “They are more willing to go into someone’s home or a coffee shop to talk about spiritual issues.”
King said CBF and other denominational leaders are seeing a corresponding interest in church starting and planting among younger seminarians. Seminaries are responding. More coursework is being offered in church starting and church planting degree programs are coming online.
“It’s becoming contagious,” King said.
Relationships over theology
Josiah Monks can testify to that. The young father, his wife and infant son drive from Orange Park, Fla., to attend services at The Well near downtown Jacksonville.
While others worshiped on Palm Sunday, Monks prepared his son’s milk bottle and reflected on why he comes 25 miles to worship. Occasionally, he glanced at the children having sword fights with palm branches in the back of the room with him.
“I grew up with a disdain for theology,” he said, adding he attended conservative non-denominational churches and once attended a Southern Baptist Bible college. “For me and my wife, relationships and really loving people are what matter, not theology and words.”
‘Not reinventing the wheel’
Rogers said she and other core team members from The Well have been focused on building those relationships more than they have figuring out worship and management styles.
Rogers is a 2008 graduate of McAfee School of Theology and served as a youth minister and an associate pastor at Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta. But she was also a Jacksonville native with a calling to plant churches and knew the Springfield area needed help.
So she returned and began interviewing shopkeepers, bar tenders, real estate agents, homeowners, pedestrians and others. She asked about their needs and those of the community.
As a result, The Well has connected with existing non-profits and churches already providing literacy, mentoring and other services. Rogers keeps her main office at Three Layers to help stay connected.
The idea isn’t to presume the church comes into an area with all the answers, but is open to listening. “There’s no need for us to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
‘People want to be the church’
Missional churches that survive more than the average two or three years are those who take Rogers’ approach, said Kathy Escobar, a Denver-area church starter, missional church consultant and author.
“These crazy little missional communities that are not trying to be all things to all people and exist without a ton of financial support will be more sustainable,” said Escobar, author of Down We Go: Living into the Wild Ways of Jesus.
Her own church, The Refuge, has survived a decade using that approach.
“I think there are more people who want to be the church and not just go to church,” Escobar said.
Being missional forces church planters to think like overseas missionaries, said Steve Knight, co-founder of a Disciples of Christ missional church in Gastonia, N.C., and a leader of Transform, a 1,300-member network of missional church starters and ministers around the world.
Like those who take the gospel to foreign lands, missional church planters must see faith and worship from different perspectives, said Knight, who also leads the missional church planting and training program of the Disciples of Christ.
“We’re asking what is God doing and how can we participate?” Knight said. “It’s shaping how they think and do church.”
The movement also has emerged from non-denominational, mainline and evangelical groups. Yet few common denominators can be found among them.
“There’s a lot of different ways it can look because it’s contextual,” Knight said.
‘Not marketing ourselves’
The way it looks at the Well in Springfield is still evolving. “We’ve been figuring it out as we go,” Rogers said of a congregation of about 30-35 on Sundays.
It began with Thursday night potluck dinners in March 2011, widened to monthly Sunday morning services in October and on Palm Sunday launched its weekly worship program.
What it didn’t do was develop a logo, launch a branding campaign and hold a major opening with balloons and e-mail blasts.
“We have not marketed ourselves,” Rogers said. “I don’t want to attract people who are just looking for the next, hip, cool place.”
Baptist ‘not the main identity’
They’re meeting in rented meeting space on North Main Street, the neighborhood’s main drag and cultural dividing line. The room is adorned with paintings by local artists and comes equipped with a large screen on which lyrics and Scriptures can be displayed.
Music provided by a keyboardist was contemporary on Palm Sunday, but may be more traditional on other mornings.
Rogers said the goal is to keep to the church calendar at The Well, which reflects her own roots. The congregation was also encouraged to observe Lent.
But she isn’t drawing a lot of attention to The Well’s Baptist connections.
“We’re not trying to keep it a secret but we also don’t want to make that our main identity,” she said.
‘Fine with CBF affiliation’
And that’s fine with church member Nathan Hamm, 31, who grew up a self-described fundamentalist in mostly non-denominational churches. After The Well’s Palm Sunday service, he pointed to people helping break down chairs who were Catholic and other faiths. “My wife was Episcopalian,” he said.
“I’m fine with the CBF affiliation, but I would have been fine if they weren’t Baptists,” he said, “as long as those connections are there.”