How does a team start a new church from scratch? What does street-level missions look like? If we wanted to start a new H2O Church at, say, Youngstown State University (45 minutes east of Kent), where exactly would we start?
There are a variety of ways to answer these questions. But I believe that one of the most essential practices might be something I call the 4 “I”s of Cultivating an Area for God’s Movement.
The 4 “I”s can feel uncomfortable at times, kind of like a bespectacled kid on the school playground being called “Four Eyes.” But it’s the way we see. The way we find a path forward. And if we can live out these 4 “I”s with casual confidence, the whole world opens up in front of us.
I first developed a version of this framework when I was living and leading ministry initiatives in Amsterdam. A short-term missions trip to Stockholm last May reminded me of the practice. So this semester, I’ve been practicing these 4 “I”s with a student-intern from Kent blazing new trails through the Aspen Project at Youngstown State — and I’ve been freshly encouraged by the potential for missions embedded within these 4 “I”s.
Prayer is the starting point for any work of God. It’s not just something to do until the “real work” of ministry gets started. It is ministry work. We are practicing the presence of God in a given space. We’re spiritually soaking the ground, like spring rains preparing the fields new life to sprout up. At YSU, we regularly start by walking around campus, praying out loud and under our breath. We ask for God to guide us to the people He’s prepared for the Gospel. Yesterday, we spent 45 minutes at an art gallery on campus, asking God to prepare our thoughts for how He might use us throughout the afternoon. I seriously think it may have been the most strategic ministry work we did all day.
After we pray — and as we pray — we look for little openings to initiate with other people in our path. It could be very direct, like saying that we’re trying to start spiritual conversations with people at Youngstown State and explicitly asking if someone would be willing to share their views with us. Two weeks ago, when I was with our student-intern in Youngstown, we saw a guy who was sitting by himself at the Chick-Fil-A on campus, and we asked if we could join him for lunch. Yesterday, our most fruitful spiritual conversation started by asking a guy if he’d be willing to take a picture of us standing next to the Youngstown State University seal. These moments of initiation don’t have to be innovative. They just have to break the status quo. Whatever it takes, we just want to initiate with others in the hopes that we will find someone who’s ready to talk.
My favorite part of the 4 “I”s is when the conversation proceeds past small talk and gets to a true place of face-to-face interaction. When we invited ourselves to that lunch at Chick-Fil-A two weeks ago, we got to know John by starting with small talk. We drilled down to deeper layers of conversation by making him feel like the most interesting person in the world. We asked him questions — and follow-up questions — about himself. And by the end of our lunch, he seemed genuinely pleased to let us pray for him. After the photo op at the YSU seal yesterday afternoon, we introduced ourselves to Dan. Then we spent almost an hour in surprisingly-meaningful interaction. We talked about his relationship, his career ambitions, his musical passions… and also the Gospel. When Initiation leads to Interaction, it seems that God can take things in almost any direction. It’s fun.
If our Interaction goes well, we might get a chance to extend an Invitation. Maybe it’s an invitation to a follow-up conversation. Or perhaps we could bring our new friend along to an event organized by Christian friends in the area. Ideally, we would get to extend an invitation for the person to follow Jesus. But the most important thing is to keep moving things forward. Our conversation with Dan by the University seal went so well we exchanged phone numbers. So next time I’m on campus, I’ll invite him to meet up for deeper conversation. If conversation keeps flowing as well as it did yesterday, I’ll extend other invitations as well. We don’t know where God will take any given relationship, but we trust that He will guide us.
The 4 “I”s are not high-percentage ministry. It can be vulnerable and awkward. But God uses such a process again and again to sow seeds of the Gospel. Galatians 6:9 says, “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”