By Doug Talley
Ministry is challenging. If you are a pastor or lay leader, you know that. Church planting is challenging on steroids. Starting a church from scratch, gathering people, developing leaders, developing finances, developing and casting a vision, launching. All of those pieces are critical aspects of planting a church and can be overwhelming. Imagine launching a church and then being hit with a worldwide pandemic that lasts longer than 18 months. Launching once is enough to exhaust a planter and her or his family, much less twice in less than two years.
That’s what United City Church, led by planter Josh Wagner, was facing. In June Tom Planck, Indiana Ministries Director of Church Multiplication, and I met with Josh to process where he and his family were. After several conversations and prayer, we all agreed that relaunching United City Church was not the right move. Pastor Josh has already met with the remaining people of UCC to talk about the journey, to celebrate some incredible things that God had done, and to address the future of UCC. Pastor Josh puts it in his own words:
“If you can do anything else, do that instead.”
“Church planting is not for the faint of heart.”
“This is going to be the hardest thing you ever do.”
So, to say Nonni and I were warned about the challenges of planting a church would be an understatement. And while we did not really know what we were getting ourselves into, we knew that it would take a lot out of us. But we did it. We launched a brand-new church in October of 2018 on the northeast side of Indianapolis. Our newly formed community was called United City Church.
Our heartbeat was to welcome all people with radical hospitality and to be a church that looked like the city we live in: diverse. We were actually doing it. We started to gain traction in our Sunday services, averaging around 70 people (low weeks 50 and high weeks 90-100). More importantly to us, our church was over 20% people of color. This technically made us a multiethnic church. Additionally, we had seen about a dozen people make commitments to follow Jesus and many more were growing in their faith.
At the beginning of 2020, our staff and leaders were asking big questions about who we really wanted to be going forward. After a little over a year in, we were asking what needed to change in order for us to be the church God desired. We outlined several very tangible objectives to help us hone our mission and begin what we called “United City 2.0.”
Then there was a pandemic.
At first it was a welcomed break. But it got old very quickly. And worse, the shutdown decimated all the momentum we had. The roots of a year and a half old church do not run very deep. And while there was still a solid core of people, many drifted away. We started back in person in August in a large home from a brand-new family (they came the week before the shutdown). Worshiping together after five months was so refreshing. These gatherings were usually about 25-35 people, and there was so much joy and hope.
COVID allowed us the space to assess everything about our church and our model of ministry. This was both liberating and exhausting. We asked questions like: should we be a network of house churches? Or should Sundays be a training ground to launch people into missional living? Or should we launch public gatherings in a bar or restaurant? How do we actually disciple people so that we look more like Jesus?
All of these are excellent and important questions. Near the end of May 2021, all of these questions made Nonni and I realize that we were starting over from scratch. We were back to where we were three years ago, except without the momentum and excitement of a new church. We had a small group of people, many with young kids (and multiple core volunteers with newborns). As Nonni and I took a prayerful assessment of the energy and leadership that it would take to re-launch our church in this post-pandemic season, we felt that we didn’t have the capacity to do this. To launch a church again (twice in three years) and remain emotionally and spiritually healthy seemed very unlikely. Nonni and I believe we would have burned out and had a lot of relational tension. We now have five awesome kids, from 9 to 1, and we’d be trying to re-launch a church with some incredible, but largely worn-out friends.
We had no sense that the Lord was asking us to continue. We asked him to renew the passion and energy if he wanted us to keep going. He didn’t. We asked him to give us a clear sign that he wanted us to continue (like he’d done in the past). He didn’t.
Through these last few weeks, the LORD has given total peace and assurance, and we know that we are listening to his voice and being obedient.
Vocational ministry is incredibly difficult, no matter what the scenario. But church planting seems to carry a different weight. The amount of energy, sacrifice, and burden is great. Case in point: four days after my wife gave birth to our fifth child, she was serving in kids ministry, helping to tear-down the kid’s spaces. Nonni scheduled plenty of people, but three volunteers got sick that week, so she stepped in. That’s the kind of burden you feel.
We love the local church, and we love church plants. We are so grateful for all who believed in us and supported us in all the many ways. We especially want to express our gratitude to Doug Talley and Tom Planck and everyone at Indiana Ministries (Cindy and Jenene for keeping our books). Doug believed in us and encouraged us; we will never forget that. And to Curt Walters for his mentorship and open posture. And to Crosspoint and Life Pointe for their consistent financial investment. Thank you.
United City will likely morph into a house church that will still be connected to the Church of God. Nonni and I aren’t sure what’s next for us. We’re not leaving vocational ministry and have no plan to leave Indianapolis.
I know this decision was really difficult for Josh and Nonni. I admire them for assessing their situation and asking for God’s clear direction about whether to restart or not and then making the tough call. Sure, there is disappointment when a new church doesn’t make it. But there are still lives that are changed for eternity. And I am certain that has happened.
Josh and Nonni, thank you for stepping out in faith to plant United City Church. Though this endeavor has not ended the way any of us expected or hoped, you were faithful to God’s call. Lives have been changed because of the ministry of UCC. And I know this experience has grown you both in ways that God will use for decades to come. Indiana Ministries loves you and are praying for God’s continued guidance.