Finding Your Way Back to God
As the door closed, his chest tightened with anxiety. These Friday mornings had been difficult for Will, and this first Friday in February was no different. He struggled to leave his son Pierce with his ex-wife for the weekend. He turned around, walked back onto Gay Street, looked up – and saw a banner for a new church in town. Huh, he thought. Popping into the local coffee shop, Fenn’s, a young man in a beanie gave him an invitation to that new church, Project 938, and told him that that very same church was buying his coffee this morning. “Ok, they got me. I’ll try it.”
Two days later, Will drove to the local middle school, of all places, and tried church for the first time in a long time. He had grown up Catholic and it meant a lot to his family, but he had left the church and had lingering questions. He enjoyed the music and the message at Project 938, and decided he would come back even before they sang the Philadelphia Eagles fight song at the end of the service. (Oh yeah, the home team won their first Super Bowl ever that night—a big deal in those parts!)
Will came back to Project 938 with his son Pierce, and months later, he came to church with five one-gallon bottles of water. They were celebrating baptisms that day and the church needed people to bring water to fill the baptism tub they placed outside the school. After sharing his own story, Will got in the tub and celebrated with Pierce and his new church family, Project 938, how God changed his life forever.
Kirsten moved to the area after grad school, pretty excited to live with her boyfriend. They met at Virginia Tech in a master’s program for soil engineering. Though she grew up thirty minutes away, she knew she was a bit disconnected relationally. Shortly thereafter, they received an invitation through the mail to try out a new church. The new church was really close to their apartment. They came on week one and got involved right away. Evan started pulling the trailer, they started hanging out with others from the church, and later that summer Kirsten was baptized at the end-of-the-summer picnic. For kicks, Evan’s parents came in from Kentucky and schooled everyone, winning the corn hole tournament.
Kirsten and Evan joined a pilot group for a new spiritual journey called Rooted. This was Kirsten’s first experience in a small group and the first one in a long time for Evan. He grew up in church, but with Project 938, they had both found their way back to God.
Finding your way back to God
Will and Kirsten both live in the town where Project 938 planted that Super Bowl morning of 2018 – West Chester, Pennsylvania. The home of West Chester University and 17,000 students, it is often the home of young college graduates trying on or avoiding the experience of full adulthood. For some, it is the place where divorced men or women find smaller unit housing and learn to be single again. Many others are either getting their starter home or their step-down home because they want to be a part of this beautiful, walkable community that was once voted America’s best downtown.
Yet, before 2018, there had not been a new church in West Chester in ten years. Church planting had become cool in New York City, had experienced success in cities like Baltimore and Washington DC, even had experienced a quiet revival in Boston – but Philly, not so much. In 2016, when I began the journey of planting a church, I began calling different church planting organizations that set up booths at conferences. I heard a similar refrain from each of them. “In New York City, there is a movement going on. In Baltimore and DC, we have this great network. In Philly, well…”
I was pretty convinced that God was calling us to plant a church. I brought a friend to the Exponential Conference in Washington, DC and met Justin Moxley from Stadia. He told me about the suite of services Stadia offers church planters. (I said later, “He had me at project manager…”)
Using those services to start a new church called Project 938 has helped people just like Will and Kirsten find their way back to God. It is not an original mission statement, but it fit for us at Project 938. When I was working on a name, I struggled thinking through the list of top baby church names of 2016. Though I respected the heartbeat of those names, none of them felt genuine for our context. 938 was this thing that I did every time I needed volunteers in ministry. I would pray at 9:38 – and it refers to the scripture address in Matthew where Jesus envision his disciples saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:38)
So, what started out a prayer initiative that we branded to raise funds, we couldn’t get away from. When I went back to the passage and looked at it, I saw a story that I believe captures Jesus’ dream for the church. The broader passage speaks of crowds pressing in on Jesus. Jesus though sees them harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. They needed shepherding. They needed humans to care for their human problems. And it says, “He had compassion.” This gave us the conviction that Jesus wants us and every church to be an extension of his love and grace into our community – for us, namely, West Chester, PA.
But that is not the only reason that we chose a different kind of church name. Kirsten and Will have great stories, but they represent the outliers in a very de-churched region of the world. Most of the people who have grew up with church have walked away because their church was irrelevant at best and, unfortunately, abusive at worst. Those who never experienced church have a picture in their head of what church is and they have already rejected it.
Project 938 got its name because we want to get people’s attention and give them hope that church can be different than the one they may have already given up on.
We believe that church can be different because we have experienced it to be different ourselves. Many of our core participants met one another through a program called Celebrate Recovery. Doing the twelve steps together, our team had no illusions about our own righteousness, nor did we have time to go back to church as normal.
In an environment like Celebrate Recovery, safety is everything, vulnerability is the cost of admission, and hope is found for anyone ready to find it. We wanted to bring that secret sauce into our new church and see how it would play out. We are still figuring that out, but we have built it into our strategy.
We feel called to empower leaders to create safe, transforming, missional environments where people can know and love Jesus Christ. Safe, because people in our community need safety in order to find their way back to God. Whether they are unchurched or de-churched, divorced or brand new to the area, people come with their guard up or they have already made their decision about what church is. Transforming, because we trust God to change lives through Scripture. Missional, because we want our church to always be others-centered. Sunday morning is not a destination, it’s a sending-off point.
I met Jesse at our co-working space where our office is located. He is a member, too, and we were hanging out, sharing coffee. He heard about our church and communicated quickly about his agnosticism and a few other thoughts. I mentioned how I thought Jesus would agree with him. After spending some time together, he realized it was safe enough for him to share that he is trying to build a business, but that he had to move back to care for his parents while he also is a care giver for his ill wife. Who is caring for Jesse? We believe that Jesus has sent us to be an extension of Jesus’ love and grace for people like him, Will and Kirsten.
I did not grow up in the church, but I came to faith through Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Delaware. I wanted others to hear about Christ, so I pointed my life for ministry and met Kathleen along the way. I had a few almost church plants, but ended up starting my journey in my 40’s, feeling like the old guy out there. I am grateful for the experience because it is the hardest thing I have ever done. But it is also been the most rewarding thing I have ever done.
I love the Philly region and have lived here all of my life. I feel called to serve a movement to repopulate this region with healthy, biblical, reproducing churches. I will do this for as long as God allows – or until they tell me it’s time to get a job as an usher at Lincoln Financial Field. I love the work God has called me to in West Chester, and I believe that there is nothing more important for the advancement of the Kingdom of God right now than church planting.
Marc grew up in South Jersey, near the Pine Barrens. His dad sold beer and his mom ran the Miss Burlington County Scholarship Pageant. He was confirmed in the church of his family’s heritage but never went back. God became real to him when he was in college at the University of Delaware. He knew he wanted to talk to people about Jesus, but didn’t know how. He received a Masters of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary, then later completed a Doctor of Ministry from Biblical Theological Seminary. All while serving for sixteen years for two special churches, Church of the Saviour in Wayne, and Willowdale Chapel in Kennett Square. Each of them is a partner in planting Project 938.
Marc and Kathleen met in college, were married and off to seminary for a life of adventure in ministry together. Along the way, they became parents to Kelsey, Hannah, and Samuel who are the coolest kids in the world. Kathleen is from DC and though she is still quite sentimental about the Redskins, has joined Marc in devotion to Philly sports. “We love our teams and love to talk about our teams just like we love our kids and love to talk about our kids.”
Planting a church has been in their hearts for twenty years. Marc describes his particular calling in life to give himself to a vision to “repopulate our region with new, Biblical, healthy loving churches. We love the local church and we believe it is the best hope in this world to demonstrate the love of Christ.”