By Ricardo Cardenas, Calvary Commerce City
Commerce City, Colorado is not known for its scenic views. We do have the mountains to look at in the west, but our views are impeded by a monstrous oil refinery and the smog of our heavily industrial community.
Recently, however, I’ve been praising God for the gift of a special vista that’s become a part of my life as a church planter here. Every Sunday when I stand up to preach, I have the pleasure of looking not just at the faces in our congregation, but through one of the sanctuary windows I can also see across the street to the place where I spend 40 hours every week at work: our local public library.
At Calvary Commerce City, our planting model has been intentionally bi-vocational, but I’d be lying if I told you that this was the vision I had for ministry years ago as I pursued the call to plant a church. Back then, in fact, being bi-vocational, in my view, was more like second-tier ministry; the “JV squad” of pastoring. An unfortunate necessity for some, but really just a starting place until one could jump up into “real ministry.”
I now realize that I was completely mistaken in this view. I am aware, however, that there are many who perhaps have the same reservations about this type of ministry. And even though this is a path that we stumbled onto, I think more planters could benefit by considering this model for church planting. Though many more could be provided, here are just a few reasons why.
Before jumping into the practical considerations, I think it’s important to consider biblical evidence. Many would agree with the assertion that the apostle Paul was the greatest church planter in church history. And yet, interestingly, when it comes to our common practices and strategies for planting today, we can often overlook what was a key piece of his planting strategy: being bi-vocational. Paul intentionally chose to work and provide for himself as a tent maker, in order to not be a burden to many of the churches and communities to which he was ministering (1 Thess. 2:9, Acts 18:3). If the greatest church planter in history saw this as a valuable way to do ministry, perhaps it is worth considering in our contexts today.
“Many would agree with the assertion that the apostle Paul was the greatest church planter in church history. And yet, interestingly, when it comes to our common practices and strategies for planting today, we can often overlook what was a key piece of his planting strategy: being bi-vocational.”
Connections to Community and Non-Christians
Working in the neighborhood that you are planting in provides connections in the community that are difficult to build otherwise. In fact, one of the unexpected joys of being bi-vocational has been the opportunity to build friendships with coworkers and others who do not identify as Christians. Over time, this has forced me to sharpen and refine my beliefs, and also to grow in my ability to communicate my faith in a way that is winsome and appealing to others. While I’m not perfect at this, it’s provided an opportunity that every planter prays for, daily interaction with non-Christians to share my faith with. This is a difficult experience to replicate for even the most intentional full-time planter.
Resources for Long-Term Stability
One challenge for many new churches is to figure out how they will fund their ministry as well as pay a pastor’s full-time salary. This is intensified when planting in urban, low-income communities like ours.
The blessing of bi-vocational ministry is that my family’s financial well-being is not tied to the financial life of our church. Ultimately, this means that both my family and our church are more financially secure. Since our young church does not have to worry about how to pay my salary, we are able to put the vast majority of the money we do have toward ministry in our community.
Not only is this a blessing to free up these resources, but it also provides a level of long-term stability as we plant, since we do not have to worry about the pressure of becoming financially self-sustaining within a certain window of time. This is a pressure that many planters face early on, but when avoided, we are free to serve faithfully, while trusting God to give the increase in his timing.
Bi-vocational church planting isn’t a silver bullet for “successful” church planting. In fact, many would argue that it complicates the planting process more than it helps. But even if it may not be the right path for every planter, I believe that it is a strategy that far more planters would benefit from considering as we seek to make Jesus non-ignorable in Colorado and to the ends of the earth.