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Boston-area church plant relaunches after facing challenges
K. Allan Blume, BR Editor
January 12, 2015

Boston-area church plant relaunches after facing challenges

Boston-area church plant relaunches after facing challenges
K. Allan Blume, BR Editor
January 12, 2015

Matt and Beth Chewning left Greensboro and moved their family to Beverly, Mass., a suburb of Boston, to plant a church from scratch in September 2010. After a month of meeting their neighbors and building friendships, 30 people gathered in a room to hear why the couple moved to Beverly. One month later another 40 Bostonians listened to Matt Chewning share the vision of a new church.

Netcast Church launched in the YMCA building Jan. 23, 2011, with 120 people.

One year later in February 2012 they moved to a middle school and continued to grow, reaching 350 in worship services by the end of the year. Rapid growth was the church’s pattern for three years.

Chewning, now the lead pastor, said, “We grew really quick, and when you grow really fast, that’s an awesome thing and really exciting, but you also have growing pains. Often with growth comes dysfunction and pain.”

At some point in the growth process the leadership team discovered there were some gaping holes in the ministry. “First, we didn’t really have a grasp of who we were, because we had grown so quickly in the beginning, and we had never really established an identity,” Chewning admitted.

“We didn’t have a mission statement. We didn’t have a values statement. We didn’t have anything.”

The church believed they were doing their very best to connect people in relationships, and Chewning said he faithfully preached the Bible and talked about Jesus. “That works easily when you are smaller,” he said. “But once you have a number of people that outnumbers your ability to minister, that organic process doesn’t work anymore. At the end of 2013 we realized that we were a pretty unhealthy group.”


Contributed photo

Matt and Beth Chewning, seen here with their four children, work with Netcast Church, a church plant in Beverly, Mass. Church leaders took 2014 to define their vision and focus on people’s relationship with Jesus.

Baptizing 60-70 new believers each year, Netcast looked good on the outside, but the pastors admitted that the leadership wasn’t multiplying itself. There was no leadership development process.

“Our goal was to try to put people into communities, but when you don’t have healthy leaders who are leading community, that community becomes unhealthy. We didn’t have a process to help our leaders. We were flying by the seat of our pants and throwing people into positions, just to try to keep up with the growth,” said Chewning.

At the end of 2013 about 550 people attended Netcast’s Sunday worship. The leadership team weighed the health of the church and chose to do the radically unthinkable – something you will not read in the church planting manual. “I realized that we needed to stop growing,” Chewning said. “We saw that we were either going to continue to assimilate people into a pretty unhealthy situation or we were going to have to slow down and work on getting healthy.”

The first step was to shut down the assimilation process. Sunday services continued as usual while the leaders evaluated the next steps. “We shut down our welcome team. We shut down our pathways into community groups. We shut everything down except some outreach ministries in the neighborhood,” he said. “We attempted to maintain status quo so that internally we could figure out how to get healthy.”

The leaders gave an analogy of their process. “Rather than trying to fix the airplane while it’s flying, let’s land the plane, fix it and take it back in the air again.”

The intense focus of 2014 was the health of believers and the health of the church. The church worked through the book of Ephesians. Chewning said Ephesians outlines what it looks like to be a healthy believer – both in doctrine and in practical living.

They brought in a church consultant and began to ask some hard questions. What does it look like to have a healthy family? What does unity look like? What does spiritual health look like? What does it look like for us to have a healthy organizational structure? What does it look like for us to have a healthy perspective on our finances?

The leaders asked, “Is [the ministry of the church] honoring the Lord? Is it making disciples? Is it multiplying healthy, committed disciples?”

“I feel like we learned a ton through that process,” Chewning concluded. “We accomplished the goal of growing by leaps and bounds in our health. We learned what it was to be healthy in our structure, our systems and in leadership. Now in 2015 we are better prepared to be healthy and make healthy disciples.”

It wasn’t easy, he added. “You can’t grow without pruning, but some people don’t want pruning. Some want to stay where they are. Some were not comfortable in new territory. We saw people in high-level positions leave. That made the year 2014 the most painful year we have had as a church. For me, my wife and our family, it was more painful than anything we have experienced.”

In September 2014 Netcast relaunched with a new structure, almost replanting the church. They look back on the process and excitedly say, “Hey, it worked!” They believe the people who call Netcast their home feel more connected to the ministry and more empowered as a result of the process.

“Going into a new year I feel like we’ve got an incredible team, an incredible staff, incredible mission, incredible vision, incredible strategy, incredible pathways – those things are good,” Chewning said. “Now let’s get back to those things the Lord used in the beginning – that complete dependency on the Lord, growing His church, praying that God will do what only God can do.”

Challenges of New England church planting

Like most church plants, Netcast worships in a rented facility, requiring volunteers who set up and take down chairs, sound equipment and everything required for child care each week. Since the church is using the same people to do so much work, “It exhausts people,” he said. “A permanent building will relieve some of the burnout of volunteers.”

Until the church is financially healthy a building could hinder its financial stability. Some prime facilities have been available, but required too many resources. The leaders have not seen “a green light from God” on the properties.

Because New England is only two percent evangelical Christian, “You’re starting at ground zero in every way possible,” Chewning explained. “We had a guy come to church for a baby dedication. I gave the parents a storybook Bible (The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones). He came up to me after the service and said, ‘Hey man, can I get one of those books?’

“I’m trying to figure out why this 40-year-old guy needs a Jesus Storybook Bible. I said, ‘Man, that’s a kid’s book, what do you want with that book?’ He said, ‘No I want the other book – the one you read from every week.’ The Bible? ‘Yes, that’s what I want.’”

The culture doesn’t have a disregard for scripture. “They don’t even know what it is,” Chewning said. “You’ve got to take a guy who doesn’t know what the Bible is, and attempt to see that person come to the knowledge of who Christ is – obviously by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then it takes time to see that person grow in the knowledge of Christ, have a thriving relationship with Him, and lead him to disciple others. That takes a lot of time.”

Church planting in SEND cities is a big challenge, according to Chewning. Planters have very few successful models in their context. “You can listen to the podcasts of these leadership gurus that want to tell you how to run your church and how to create a healthy culture in your church,” he said.

“But some of that is cultural and contextual. We don’t have healthy models of a thriving, gospel-centered, Bible-loving, Jesus-centered church plant structure where guys have done it well in New England. We’re having to write our own book. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a challenge because it takes longer, and there’s a lot more labor involved.”

Effective models in Dallas, Chicago and Raleigh may not work in Boston.

What are Netcast’s greatest needs?

Chewning identified the three greatest needs in the church planting process. First, there is a great need for more churches that will commit to a long-term partnership and listen before they attempt to do ministry with the new plant.

“I think the North American Mission Board (NAMB) is doing an incredible job of creating that awareness in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). We cannot do what we are doing without NAMB. The encouragement, the resources, the connectivity to [Baptist influencers] and churches around the country – we love NAMB, and we love the SBC. The more that we as church planters are seeing the SBC come along side of us, the more we are stirred to want to be part of the SBC and NAMB. And we don’t just want to be recipients of it, we want to be participants in it,” he added.

But church plants need SBC churches that understand that ministry in Boston might not look like ministry in their home church. “We need to build partnerships based on actual needs and not assumed needs; I might not need a missions team. There might be things we need to learn from you. Or maybe I’ve got it when it comes to leading the church, but I could use some encouragement on my soul,” he said.

“We’ve seen churches doing really incredible ministry in their community, and they want to bring that to Boston, but it doesn’t bridge over to our context. It just doesn’t work. So, it is important that they ask us what we need. We really want your help, but it will be awesome if you ask us some questions rather than trying to help us without first knowing what we need.”

Second, Netcast needs churches that are concerned about the health of the leaders of the church. “We need churches that see the big picture of the mission,” said Chewning. “That includes not only the people who are gathering in the new mission work, but also the church planter and his family. Don’t let the church planter get lost in the mission work. Pray for all of us, because this is challenging work.”

Third, Chewning pleads with fellow Baptists to grow in generosity toward the Cooperative Program (CP) and mission offerings. “Again, I will say that NAMB does an incredible job of supporting church planting. But there are a lot of churches that are not participating in CP or are marginal in their support. Every one of those pastors has preached, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is as well.’ Those pastors believe in the generosity of God, and that we are stewards rather than owners of the things we have.

“But it seems that a very small percentage lead their churches to practice these principles. We need pastors who will say to their churches, ‘For the sake of the gospel, we need to become less comfortable so that other churches can actually survive.’”

A church plant in New England may take seven years to be self-sustaining. Long-term commitments are needed. Planters in SEND cities like Boston are looking for partnering churches.

“I just want to be honest and make an impact on New England, and we can’t do it without talking honestly with our brothers and sisters in the SBC,” Chewning said.

(EDITOR'S NOTE – The BR interviewed Matt Chewning in 2012, and at that time, he had just launched Netcast. Read the story here.)