The Beginning —
Easily one of Portland’s most desirable neighborhoods, the Pearl District is home to some of the city’s best-known chefs and restaurants, world class art galleries, and vibrant shops and boutiques. Located in the heart of downtown, businesses ranging from finance and real estate to renowned advertising agencies and software firms can be found here, nestled among family-friendly parks that attract visitors and locals, many of whom call the neighborhood’s iconic residential buildings home. Formerly a neglected corridor of abandoned warehouses and railways, the Pearl District has earned a worldwide reputation for urban renaissance.
On the surface, the culture of the Pearl is quite indifferent to the gospel; at the heart of it is outright resistance, if not open hostility to Christianity. In reality, the Pearl should be ground zero of the collision of cultures between church and city, yet for that very reason, it may very well earn a reputation for another kind of urban renaissance: a new church planting movement known as the Urban Initiative. With God’s help, it will be just that.
We lead a great church, Portland Christian Center, within minutes from the Pearl District. We are a church that has been in existence for almost 100 years and full of generous, open-hearted and loving followers of Christ. Realizing the gifts and talents we had within our body, we began to pray a dangerous prayer, “Lord, help us to be the greatest conduit of the great commission the world has ever seen.”
We didn’t pray that courageous prayer because we thought we were so great, we prayed that prayer because we knew God was that great and He abounds in love for His people, especially those who do not know Him. It wasn’t long after that prayer our heart began to pound for our city in ways we had not known. And, we began to look for new ways to reach a city we love so much.
As founders of Petros Network, we had witnessed explosive growth of the church in the developing world and we began to ask God how that strategy might work here in the USA. When we met Mark and Traci Seger, we knew instantly there was something special about them and about the strategy God was birthing in their hearts. We begin to collaborate together and asked God to help us to create a “new thing.”
We invite you to meet Mark and Tracy Seger, Cultural Architects of the Urban Initiative.
Their responses reveal the heart and soul of the creative Urban Initiative strategy:
Question: What is your pastoral background?
I (Mark) went as a missionary to Ireland. It was there that I met and married Tracy. After some time, we sensed the Lord leading us to return to the United States to serve as pastors on a church staff. I didn’t realize it at the time, but apparently God was calling us to return to our sending nation to become missionaries in what had become an unreached context.
Question: Why did you choose Portland for a missional church plant?
Once we understood that God was calling us to plant an incarnational community in a needy city, we began to ask where. Portland was one of a few cities that was on our radar. By a process of prayerful elimination, we identified Portland as the place of our calling.
It may seem unusual, but one of the things that attracted us to Portland was it was where we fit—and it fit us. The city was large, but not too large. It was a progressive city with young families. It had a European feel to us—important to Tracy as an Irish-European and me as a former missionary to Europe. By European, we mean a more community feel; people have to share things in common; they communicate—people have to talk to each other. There was a cool vibe to it, a lot of green space was valued, it proudly self-identified as “weird” (Portland’s unofficial motto: Keep Portland Weird).
Portland’s pace of life was a little slower, its values were more organic than manufactured; there was a community vibe of sharing; it was “chill”; education was valued; there was a felt sense of relational community. Likewise, the cost of living was an issue. It was more affordable than other metropolitan areas on the east and west coasts. We knew a ministry family from Portland, so that was one connection that contributed to us looking seriously at the City of Roses, as it is known.
Mostly, though, it was a Word from the Holy Spirit, who whispered to us during our prayer investigation, “I am going to breathe life into Portland. Do you want to be a part of that?” The Lord spoke to me (Tracy) as I was walking the neighborhoods of Portland, overwhelmed with how to reach this unreached city, and the Lord said, “I am not asking you to love an entire city, just love people that I bring across your path. As they say about my home country, ‘Ireland will be won over a cup of tea,’ so Portland will be won over a cup of coffee.”
Question: Why did you choose the Pearl District in Portland as the site for a church plant?
There was an opening in a housing development—a high rise apartment. The city government had passed an ordinance that even in high-end areas like the Pearl District, housing for lower income families had to be provided, making it affordable for even people like us on a missionary budget.
It was truly a miracle, a story too long to describe here, that a housing opportunity at an unbelievably low price materialized. A nice apartment in a very expensive part of Portland landed in our lap—a divine appointment.
The idea of a church plant was pushed forward when an ex-pastor, who has now “come out” as gay, worked as an administrator of a community center in one of the Pearl’s “vertical neighborhoods”; he asked if we would consider launching a missional approach in a community center in the building the Lord had opened up for us, the Ramona. Apparently, a lady of some means had left money for a community center, but her request for the center was that it would include a “faith” element to it. Our friend tempted us with this “prophetic” tidbit, “You are a fulfillment of Mrs. Zimmerman’s vision.” How could we resist that?
So we decided to follow the old bromide, “bloom where you are planted.” We began to realize that we were being called to pastor the community where we lived (we call it our vertical neighborhood; which houses approximately 400 residents) rather than to import a church from the outside.
This was on the heels of the launch of a church using a traditional model in another part of Portland. We had imported a team to help us there, but after six months, only six people had visited us—a poor return on missional investment. On top of that, a ministry associate on our team “split” our church to do his own thing. We had failed—miserably; we were church planters with nothing to show for it except our spiritual bruises.
Question: Why The Urban Initiative?
We came to the realization that pastoring is a unique calling if it is a bigger congregation, but many people could oversee a singular neighborhood of smaller numbers. So why not start a new movement of smaller communities of faith using the many gifts that already exist within local bodies? We could train them to be missionaries to their own neighborhoods at very little cost, with no need for a building, and without the need for seminary trained pastors who require very large church planting budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
We started observing this approach outside of our own tribe, the Assemblies of God; others denominations were beginning to do what we were envisioning. They were planting within their neighborhood—neighborhood-centric faith gatherings. This was a resource friendly way to launch churches. We didn’t need $250,000 budget; we didn’t need to secure an expensive building; we didn’t need seminary educated pastors; what we did need was to raise up and equip people with a missional calling for evangelism, shepherding, compassion and hospitality.
We knew it needed to be non-traditional in Portland. To reach this unique city—one that is proudly unaffiliated to any particular religion and indifferent to Christianity—a church would need to look like the neighborhood it was in. That fit very nicely with our missionary training; it would be an “indigenous” work.
When faith gatherings were held, it would be in a community/relational style, not a lecture/preaching format from a platform or from behind a pulpit. We learned that Portlanders want to “have a conversation” about what they are hearing, so this kind of “church” would need to make a way for people to engage in the moment. People were suspicious of “organized” church, so we would have to overcome that barrier. In the most unreached, non-churched city in America, trust is a huge issue. So are other issues, such as justice, gay rights, the environment, freedom of expression, etc. We would need to build—or rebuild—trust.
Our church would be incarnational—we would have to embed ourselves in the community to love the community and to ultimately win over the community. We would have to pay strict attention to indigeneity—it would need to look like it fit in Portland, and specifically, in the Pearl. We have been at it seven long years—out of necessity, it is a slow cook—but it is now bearing fruit. We are using a weekly community dinner approach to gather people for “fellowship”, and are now running around sixty people at those relational gatherings. We are building trust by being real people—by being their neighbors.
Question: How is the church culture in conflict with the Portland/Pearl conflict?
Christianity—which in the minds of Portlanders refers to Christians and Christian ministers—is perceived as hateful, uncaring, against gays, racist and the source of widespread unfairness in the world. We have found that they need to belong before they will believe our Christ. In a strange, upside-down sort of way, we are making disciples before we are getting converts.
One testimony captures our challenge well: Akira came to visit our faith gathering. She told us that when she had investigated us, she had heard that “you are the good kind of Christians.” Apparently, we are not “those” kinds of Christians.
Incarnational love is what we have believed to be true about our God. We have been taught that this kind of love is to characterize us as his children, sent to tell his story in the world. In being urban missionaries in the Pearl, we now have to actually incarnate love in action every day of our lives if we are to connect as believers with our unbelieving neighbors.
Question: What does the Urban Initiative look like?
Urban Initiative is discipleship, plain and simple. We are constantly showing people how Jesus would live if he were in our shoes. Like Jesus, we are doing life in close proximity with our neighbors so that discipleship happens organically rather than programmatically. Now while that might imply passivity, it is a discipleship that is deliberately intentional and strategic.
Our hope is that the Urban Initiative will be a church planting model for communities and neighborhoods in any context. The values are transferable. Churches can impact their hostile, unreached communities neighborhood by neighborhood (in our case, vertical community by vertical community), by imbedding urban missionaries. This is truly an indigenous movement.
Starting with a small group of followers who will live out authentic faith, we believe we can reclaim Christianity for America’s cities. We invite people into relationship with us, let them see Christ in our attitudes and actions (we don’t wear our “churchianity” on our sleeves, but neither do we try to hide that we are Christian ministers), earn their trust, incarnate love, gather them into organized fellowship events, then as the door to deeper conversation opens, we have faith conversations with them.
Question: What are the opportunities before you?
Multiplication potential is huge because urban church plants are scalable to the situation—as we have said already, you don’t need huge budgets and seminary trained pastors and expensive buildings. In our case, the Pearl has plenty of vertical communities. We have now launched a UMI community dinner in a neighboring complex, and our first outreach garnered 45 guests.
Question: What are the barriers?
In a word, finding leaders. Opportunities abound—just look at a neighborhood and there you will see an opportunity. But as Jesus said, while the harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few. Finding called, passionate, and mission-specific church planters is our biggest need—and challenge. This is where we need other churches and pastors to get behind us, challenging and equipping their flock to consider being missionaries to their next door neighbors. If they work with us, we can give them the training and the pathway to be an urban missionary.
Question: What do the metrics of success look like for the Urban Initiative?
We believe that in four to five years, we will have launched twenty missional initiatives. As of today, we have launched two neighborhood centered faith gatherings. Our ultimate goal would be to start a movement—a new way of doing church planting in a missional context in unreached America.