Reconciled to Place: Church Planting as a Form of Holy Listening

— Rebecca Sumner —

I think that being reconciled to your place is being reconciled to God. I believe this because here’s the mind altering reality: God lives in your place.

Estranged From Place

Everett, WALike many good movements in God’s reconciling Kingdom, this piece begins with confession. I am a prodigal to my hometown. The minute I graduated highschool with the two free years of college my city, Everett, WA, gave me by way of the Running Start program, I took my inheritance and fled to Seattle.

For fifteen years I didn’t look back. I didn’t even admit to being from Everett. If someone asked, I said I was from Seattle, believing this to be a more posh heritage. I wouldn’t have said I was a prodigal in need of reconciliation. But on the other side of my exodus, I realize I was arrogantly estranged from my place. And in my arrogant estrangement from my place, truthfully, I was estranged from place in general and thereby at least a little bit estranged from the God who lives in place.

Rediscovering Home

Twelve years later, when I felt the voice of God calling me home I assumed, surely, God means Seattle. Like Jonah on his way to a place he wasn’t called: God waylaid me in Portland not for three days but three years. (Also, I met and married my husband in those three years. So not exactly like the belly of a whale). Until finally, I was ready to truly come home (newly covenanted with best partner in love and work I could hope for). And when I did, I found that home is a place that will steal your breath and tingle your spine with beauty, community, and potential. (I even started a twitter hashtag #youshouldmovetoeverettwa. Seriously – be reconciled to your place, but also: #youshouldmovetoeverettwa).

Fifteen years after leaving, I was ready to come home because, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, I learned some things while I wandered. Primarily, I learned three things:

  1. The value of being reconciled to place.
  2. That the first step to reconciliation – and to church planting – is to listen. And then, the second step is to listen some more. And
  3. I learned that God was living in Everett all along and being reconciled to my place is being reconciled to God. And so, I was ready to return home as a church planter.

Church Planter, Transplanter, or Cultivator?

But those two words – church planter – feel a bit problematic in this narrative of listening, reconciliation, and the God who lives in place. Without wanting to dedicate much time addressing the sins of church past (we all know we are standing on the shoulders of human beings seeking after Jesus who did some beautiful things and some things that were harmful, whether that was their intention or not) it’s hard to talk about church planting in 2015 without talking about the difficult inheritance that comes along with the those two words: church planter.

Join Rebecca at this year's Inhabit Conference!

Join Rebecca at this year’s Inhabit Conference!

I think there is a new incarnation – or possibly an ancient incarnation – of church planting that is taking seriously the agricultural heritage of the language of planting churches: listening to the land and collaborating with all the pieces of place that make a thing grow in health – or not. There seems to be a newness (or possibly a blessed renewed oldness) in church planting. But, we still have a history with that word.

In many cases I’d like to suggest that church planters in the 20th century could have been better described as church transplanters. There was a mentality and practice of taking a particular way of being church that worked in one neighborhood – and even one city, state, region, country, or continent – and deciding it will work in another, moving there, procuring a building, and inviting new people to come to this new thing that is pretty close to the other thing that sent you from miles – or sometimes oceans – away.

So, fast forward to today: when I tell people that I am a returned prodigal in Everett, WA planting a church, the image that conjures in their minds is not someone who is listening with love and reconciliation in mind. The image, generally, is someone who returned Everett, WA with the expertise they gained in fifteen years of absence with the intent to bring a particular model of being church and transplant an already tall tree or at least a sapling into the soil of Everett. The prodigal returns home to make home more like some place else. Church planters have a reputation for bringing along their metaphorical tree or sapling, planting it in foreign soil like a colonial flag, and announcing: “God has arrived in this place. Now, let’s work toward making God’s presence visible in our lives.”

But here’s the thing: God has been here all along. God is already in my place and in yours. God is already visible. God neither wants nor needs our help in arriving somewhere or even becoming visible there. As the prophets show us: God can be a lion or a still soft wind at God’s whim, but God is everywhere. God already lives in your place. God’s the oldest, truest, and most influential Everett resident.

So, as I settle into Everett I am thinking of myself not as a church transplanter because a) I haven’t returned home with a tall tree or sapling, and b) I didn’t even bring seeds with me. I see myself as a church cultivator because the soil here in Everett is already luxuriant with seeds of church. Everett is already teeming with the presence of God. My church-planter’s role here is to playfully join in what God is up to and play a part in cultivating a distinctly Everett sapling that was springing up long before I arrived back home in Everett.

Labyrinth WalkSo, our practice of being church planters is to listen. We sit down for coffee with pastors, neighbors, grocers, students, baristas – anyone who is willing – and ask them what they hope for Everett and for church in Everett. We host a theology pub night where we ask and listen for thoughts on what God is up to in Everett or what is up to that we can join in. We take walks through pea patches with their founders and say: “Thank you so much. How can I help?” We are hosting labyrinth walks through our city, inviting us and others to listen for what God is up to, say thank you, and ask “How can we help?”

As we begin this new-but-already-in-progress work of church in Everett, we are listening to our neighbors. We are listening to the land. We are listening to the history of the land. We are listening to the stories of the people who lived on this land before people of European descent transplanted their cultures here. In that listening, I am falling in love with my once-estranged hometown. In that listening, I am being reconciled to my place. And being reconciled to our place is being reconciled to God, because God lives in our place.

Rebecca Joy SumnerRebecca Sumner lives in Everett, WA, where she is co-pastoring a new church community with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) along with her husband Luke. Together they are intently listening for what God is up to in Everett, how they can join, and what a welcoming and reconciling church presence in Everett might look like.

Rebecca is also involved in anchoring liturgy in neighborhood and is available for consulting around that. Prior to moving (back) to Everett, Rebecca was the Program Director for a national Quaker nonprofit and before that the pastor of a neighborhood based church plant in Sacramento, CA. When she’s not working on church planting, Rebecca loves walking around her neighborhood, DIY projects, mixed media artwork, and watching X-Files for it’s last few days up on Netflix. You can follow along with her at her blog.