Having been part of two different church plants, Tyler and Lis Smith, members at Grace+Peace, saw their mindset shift from thinking about what a church offers them to how they can actively participate in building the church community. “In a church plant, it’s not ‘What kind of small groups do you have?’ It’s, ‘You want a small group? Go start one.’ Our mindset shifted from consumer to participant, from a passive approach to active participation,” says Tyler.
The Smith’s experience with church plants started in New Jersey where they found a close-knit community and numerous ways to serve. Before that, Tyler and Lis were mostly surrounded by Christians or people who were at least open to Christianity. In New Jersey, this wasn’t the case. “The churches were smaller up there and more intimate because the surrounding community was fairly anti-Christian, unlike the Bible Belt,” says Tyler. “Believers felt a need for the support of their local church.”
As they considered what the Church really is when it isn’t defined by a building or organized programs, they saw their neighbors differently and began wondering how they could spread the gospel. They began praying for their unbelieving neighbors in New Jersey.
In both church plants, the Smiths have clearly seen God at work in the lives of the people He brings through the doors. They’ve also watched God meet tangible needs that larger, established churches might not feel as keenly. “We sat in a room listing the ten things we needed to start a church, butwe didn’t have any of them,” remembers Tyler. “So we prayed for those specific things, and in random ways, God answered those prayers and met those needs.”
One thing Tyler and Lis especially appreciate about Grace+Peace is that they receive biblical teaching with solid theology while also getting to serve and reach out to non-believers. There is a necessary balance between service and being served, between outreach and being taught. “Benjie unpacks Reformed theology in the new members’ class and Sunday School, and he finds the balance between reaching unbelievers and feeding the flock.”
All church planters will tell you that with the joys come struggles. “You become so invested in the people that are coming, so if they leave, you feel it more in a church of 10 families than in a church of 500 members,” says Tyler.
Being part of a church plant also means that there are abundant needs, sometimes overwhelmingly so. “At our church plant in New Jersey, I went early to set up, and Lis would get our boys ready for church. Then, she would lead children’s worship while I handled the sound board. We never sat in worship together. Thankfully, Grace+Peace has enough people to go around, so it hasn’t been quite that way here. There’s a beauty in the work, in the messiness of getting up early on Sunday mornings to go unstack chairs and set up for church.”
Lis agreed, saying sometimes the all-hands-on-deck mentality at a church plant can be tiring, but they wouldn’t trade it for anything. “One of the greatest joys of being part of a church plant is when people who aren’t strong believers become curious about the gospel. It’s a cool experience for me, who had mostly been surrounded by believers, to pray for them and see the Church grow.”
Located in Ooltewah, TN, Grace+Peace reflects the local community. “There’s one spot in Ooltewah where a Porsche dealership shares a parking lot with Tractor Supply Co., a depiction of affluence and blue collar that coexist in Ooltewah. At Grace+Peace, all are welcome; all are equal. You can walk in with overalls and sandals on if you want.”
Ooltewah is booming, thanks to a Volkswagen plant, Amazon offices, and other businesses. The growing community is ripe for evangelism, and we need churches to reach those communities as new families and unchurched people settle there. The Smith’s are thankful to be a part of that mission. “It’s been constructive to our own spiritual journey, and there is so much joy in the work.”