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This week, Exponential is on a blog tour featuring several of the leaders speaking at the upcomingExponential West conference (Oct. 7-10)—where we’ll be talking about the vital need for planting and growing multi-ethnic churches that can make disciples who reach an ever-changing multicultural world. NewThing will be in full force at Exponential West, (Matt Larson, my brother, Jon Ferguson, and I will be leading the Pre-Conference Intensive “Reproducing at All Levels” and NewThing leaders will be teaching a number of workshops. If you haven’t already registered for the conference or on the fence thinking about it, I encourage you to make the time. There’s really no other conference experience like it. There’s still time to register. Sign up today before Sept. 30 when the price goes up.

Today, church planter and planting coach Kevin Haah visits my blog. Kevin is the leader of 5-year-old New City Church LA and the LA Church Planting Movement, which is working with Stadia to a church each of the 119 Los Angeles neighborhoods. I’m encouraged when I see other networks around the country planting churches to reach people far from God, but especially in the West. In this guest interview, Kevin talks about planting New City Church and what’s happening as a result of churches coming together through the LA Church Planting Movement. I’m learning so much from these planters in the West. I think you will, too.

Kevin, tell us about your call to plant a church.

For a long time, I felt a sense of God’s call into pastoral ministry but didn’t really have a corresponding desire to heed that call. After college, when I was trying to decide whether I should go to law school or seminary, my parents who were faithful yet financially minded Christians, pitched this to me: “If you enter into ministry and change your mind later, that will not glorify God; but, if you pursue law and decide later to enter into ministry, that will glorify God. So, if you aren’t sure, why don’t you go to law school?” The logic resonated with me, and so, I chose law school.

After law school, my life consisted of big firms, trying to make partner, and generating business. It was about eight years into practicing law that my parents made a tearful confession. They said that God convicted them that they had wrongly discouraged me from going into ministry, and that they had been repenting. My mom said, “If you still have a sense of call into ministry, we want to fully encourage you to pursue it.”

Of course, I had taken full responsibility for my own decisions, but their encouragement made a big impact on me. Two more years passed, and I made partner at my firm. But I felt a renewed sense of calling into full-time pastoral ministry. God gave me a deep and abiding passion for the lost. After about eight months of prayer and discernment, my wife Grace and I decided that I should leave law and pursue full-time ministry.

How did you decide to plant a church in downtown Los Angeles?

I was working at a Korean church when I got a phone call from an anonymous caller who ultimately asked me, “What are you doing to reach out to all of the new residents of downtown LA?” We had a
polite conversation. But, for some reason, this question started to resonate in my soul. I began asking myself the same question. Until then, I had never seriously considered what was going on in downtown L.A. I started to Yahoo clip (Google was not as big then) all articles related to downtown L.A. development, and discovered that there was a major boom going on.

Soon afterwards, at a dinner (with about 40 people in the room), I was talking and suddenly stopped and asked the group, “What if we planted a multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic church in downtown that reaches out to both the Skid Row residents and the new loft dwellers?” Absolute silence. “Yeah, but that would never work…”  I said, quickly trying to recover. Everyone, including me, laughed and went on. I shoved the idea to the back of my head, but it never left.

From time to time when I shared the idea, I started to tear up. That’s when Grace and I decided that maybe God was trying to tell us something, so we started to pray about it. Fast-forward a few years. There was a senior pastor transition where I was serving. After the new senior pastor was installed, I felt that it was time to explore the possibility of church planting in downtown.

Did you have any idea how to plant a church?

No idea! I had never been a part of a church plant or even seen a church plant happen. When someone forwarded me an email about the Exponential conference n Orlando, Grace and I felt like we should go and learn. When we went, we discovered a whole world of church planters. We learned about the importance of assessment, coaching, launch teams, training and a lot of the best practices of church planting. I started devouring information and books about church planting.

Five years later, New City Church LA has grown into a vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic church with no dominant ethnic group. About one-third come from the Skid Row recovery community, one-third from downtown lofts, and one third from outside of downtown.

Looking back, what first steps would you say were integral to getting New City Church LA and LA Church Planting Movement to where they are today?

Assessment. Several books I read argued that one of the most common reasons for church plant failure was that the planter was not qualified, but no one had assessed him or her beforehand. Grace and I wanted to make sure we had what it took to be multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic church planters? It was a rigorous process of evaluation. At the end, we were given the highest recommendation to be lead planters and encouraged to pursue our vision of planting a multiethnic, multi-socioeconomic church in downtown L.A. Grace and I began to openly envision a church in downtown. I remember after our assessment that both of us had tears streaming down our cheeks as we prayed and saw a church coming together.

Also, core group development. The recruitment of the first 20 people was an amazing journey of God’s providence and guidance, right from the beginning. They were about as diverse as our church is now. Although I had specifically intended to recruit a core team that represented the diversity of downtown L.A., I frankly wondered how it was going to happen. But God had divine appointments in mind and that plan began to unfold. For example, I remember bumping into a Latino friend I had not seen for a long time, and felt led to share the vision with him and invite him. He said he had felt that God was going to lead him to something but had not figured out what it was. He told me later that he couldn’t sleep that night because he was so excited about the vision.

As people joined, we met together on Sunday evenings getting to know each other, talking about the whys and the how’s of church planting. We also spent this time coming up with a name, vision/mission statement, and core values of the church.

How did you start to meet the community?

During the core group development process and continuing into the first year of the church, our core team members spent many hours in downtown just talking to whomever we could, asking if they would participate in a survey. We learned so much by just hanging out and listening to people. It was amazing how willing some people were to give their opinions on what they thought of church, why they didn’t go to church, and what kind of church they might be interesting in going to.

We also spent a significant amount of time prayer-walking through downtown, taking the time to notice every building, every business, every corner, and every person. I was very familiar with Skid Row, but I wanted to make sure I got to know the loft dwellers as well. We met with existing pastors and community leaders and asked them for their wisdom. We went to neighborhood council meetings to get a feel for the neighborhood issues. We devoured the downtown demographic studies Our goal was to be a neighborhood church for downtown.

So the LA Church Planting Movement vision of planting a church in every LA neighborhood is an extension of what New City Church LA has done?

From the beginning, the vision of New City was to start a church planting movement in Los Angeles. Our vision was not to be a megachurch for the entire city. We wanted to be a church for downtown Los Angeles. We want to be a neighborhood church, to love, reach, serve and make an impact on the neighborhood. But, our vision is for the entire city.

Los Angeles is composed of 119 distinct neighborhoods, ranging from about 10,000 to over 200,000 people in each of these neighborhoods. More people live in Los Angeles than in 43 states of America. If you count the neighborhoods in the cities near Los Angeles, it’s more than 200 neighborhoods. Most people don’t say they are from LA unless they are outside of LA. Instead, they identify with a certain neighborhood: Downtown, Koreatown, Silver Lake, Westlake, Boyle Heights, etc. Many of these urban neighborhoods have churches with great buildings but also with a significant decline in membership. When the neighborhood demographics shifted, the churches didn’t change along with them. So, we see many churches with fewer than 50 elderly people who are of a different ethnic group than the neighborhood the building is in.

Also, there are churches that have a certain demographic focus—Korean, Armenian, Ethiopian, Latino, Black, etc. They are often not focused on being a church for the neighborhood, but are just located in that neighborhood, and if they do reach out, they reach out to their segment throughout the city. All of these churches may be necessary, but there are very few churches that bring people together that serve the neighborhood they are located in. That’s our vision—to plant more churches that are gospel-centered, bringing the various people in their neighborhood together, and not only sharing the gospel but also being the gospel to that community by serving the community. We are convinced that Los Angeles needs more gospel-centered churches to reach the many people living in so many different neighborhoods here in our city. Our vision is to plant a gospel-centered, grace-based church in each of the 119 neighborhoods in Los Angeles where spiritually convinced and unconvinced people will experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ. For every church we plant in Los Angeles, we will plant one with the global poor via out partnership with Compassion International.

How is the LA Church Planting Movement working toward this vision?

To accomplish this goal, we are currently partnering with Stadia, which has a 94% success rate with the churches they coach. Stadia has committed to put in $60,000 per every church plant with LA CPM. God has blessed this vision. So far, we have put together over 18 churches of various different denominations (Presbyterian, Foursquare, Congregational, non-denominational, etc.) that are committed to the vision and are willing to fund the church plants.

It has been awesome to see how God has brought churches of all denominations together to start a church planting movement here in Los Angeles. I love being a part of it! Tom Hughes, lead pastor of Christian Assembly LA, is a co-catalyst with LA Church Planting Movement. He’s been so integral. Churches like Christian Assembly that are committed to seeing Los Angeles become the greatest city for Christ are coming together because they know that no one local congregation can grow large enough to reach Los Angeles alone. We believe something powerful can happen when local churches begin to unite for a cause greater than themselves.

How many churches do you hope to plant each year?

Early this year, we saw the launch of two new churches as well as two with the global poor. And we recently saw a third neighborhood church launch—all three with money raised by the LA Church Planting Movement. We are on our way to raising the money needed to plant the fourth and fifth churches. Our goal is to plant two to three churches per year for the first couple of years, and to plant four to five churches every year thereafter.

We believe the power of the gospel can actually bring people together. What if we became a movement that brings people together in a way people have not seen before. We often cite Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 17:20-21): “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in my, Father and I am in you.  And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”

For a list of Kevin’s workshops at Exponential West, check out the conference mobile site here.

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