This must be my ship

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Trailhead Church sails with a mission

by Jeff Nikkel

When a Coast Guard search and rescue vessel leaves port, the stakes are high—life and death, actually—and the crew knows it. The crew may be a diverse bunch, and yet somehow their task—rescuing endangered people, providing for their initial medical needs and delivering them to safety—binds them together. The ship sails with a purpose, carries out its task and returns to port. Crewmembers make significant sacrifices and experience significant adversity, and yet they agree that the mission is worth giving their lives to.

Search and rescue vessels share the harbor with other ships, including cruise ships. A cruise is all about having a good time, and the voyage as well as the ship’s amenities are part of the vacation experience. The crew works hard to entertain the passengers and give them a good time. After all, these customers have paid a lot of money and want to be taken care of. The passengers seem to enjoy themselves, but after a week of going port-to-port, people are ready to get back to “real life.” And after the ship completes its circle, they do just that, a bit fatter than when they came.

I have nothing against cruise ships. In fact some day I hope to sail on one. But when it comes to doing church, I want to be part of a congregation that is focused on saving the lost rather than entertaining the found.

At Trailhead Church we certainly don’t have it all figured out. But I think that if our fledgling community of roughly 100 people has something to offer, it involves the importance of being focused on mission. What does it mean for a group of Jesus-followers to think and act like a church on a mission, or better yet, like a church of missionaries?

We believe that God is a missionary God, that he is actively working redemption locally and globally by drawing people to himself and that being redeemed is the absolute best thing that could happen to a person—and indirectly to a city. We believe that the church is God’s “Plan A” for reconciling lost people, that Jesus has called his followers to be missionaries and that following Jesus in this way magnifies God’s glory and increases our joy.

We believe that Trailhead exists “to help lost people find life in Jesus Christ.” Our approach is relational rather than programmatic, organic rather than top-down and incarnational—we go to people—rather than expecting people to come to us. We work hard to ensure that every position we create, every program we start and every dollar we spend clearly contributes to this mission.

We also believe that there is more than one way to be “lost” and alienated from God. For some, it’s by breaking all of God’s commands and charting one’s own course. For others, it’s by keeping all of God’s commands as a way to earn something from God and ultimately control him.

We envision, dream and work toward a three-fold vision: becoming 1) an authentic community 2) of healthy, growing people 3) living in the way of Jesus, each of which uniquely contributes toward being a people on mission. Here’s how this plays out for us.

Authentic community

We believe that the church is not a building or a set of programs. The church is a community of people following Jesus for the sake of others. Corporate worship gatherings are an important thing we do—but are not what we are. Trailhead consists of 13 small group communities that meet regularly, share meals, study and apply the Bible and do life deeply together, practicing the “one anothers” mandated in Scripture.

But if these small groups are the church—and they are—then ultimately these groups exist for the sake of those outside of Trailhead. We believe that we witness individually and corporately, as our small groups live out kingdom values of love, mercy, generosity, grace, compassion, justice, forgiveness, etc. We desire that our groups be as inclusive as possible, living attractive, Jesus-saturated lives under the noses of those who are far from the Lord, allowing our friends to see, smell and taste the kingdom.

What a joy it’s been to see many of our friends repent of their sin, put their hope in Jesus and begin following him as a result of God’s grace and their involvement in our neighborhood small group. We’re finding that creating authentic community helps us carry out our mission, and carrying out our mission helps create authentic community.

Healthy, growing people

We want to become increasingly like our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that all of life is sacred, which means that physical, relational, emotional, social and intellectual growth is spiritual growth. As we walk in relationship with Jesus, he makes us more whole/holy, changing us from the inside out into people who treasure him over all things. Then, we’re better able to love God and love others, which includes pointing them to Jesus.

God is transforming us in his image, not so that we can live happy, clappy lives but so that we can be his hands and his feet in a lost and broken city. And the incredible thing that we’re finding is that it works the other way too: Embracing our role as missionaries leads to growth. There’s something about following Jesus into risky, adventurous, “sweaty-palm” situations of mission that is essential to our growth.

Unfortunately, if we’re not willing to think beyond daily devotions, “going to church” and perhaps joining a small group, growth often doesn’t happen at all. Becoming more Christlike helps us carry out our mission, and carrying out our mission helps us become more Christ-like.

Living in the way of Jesus

We believe that following Jesus means embracing the posture of a servant. In Denver, where 90 percent of people are either un-churched or de-churched, we believe that we must roll up our sleeves and demonstrate to people that we care and that we want to be a blessing in our neighborhoods and in our city. One of the ways in which we do this is serving together as a church on the second Sunday of every month, which we see as merely a different form of corporate worship.

This commitment to service has been a “win-win-win-win” situation. Serving helps take the focus off of us; it demonstrates to cynical and suspicious neighbors that God and we really do care about homelessness, injustice, poverty, orphans, widows, etc. Service gives people an opportunity to use their gifts, and it serves as an incredible “front door” into the Trailhead community.

At our last service project, four families that we are getting to know joined us to make and serve sandwiches for several hundred homeless people. Each of them had a great experience and now know several other Trailhead families. So we’re finding that living in the way of Jesus helps us carry out our mission, and carrying out our mission is central to living in the way of Jesus.

We recently surveyed our congregation and found that a vast majority feel that they are experiencing deep, spiritual friendships at Trailhead; are growing spiritually; are serving within their area of giftedness. And they have said that the single most exciting thing about Trailhead is a clearly articulated and biblical mission and vision.

Although we’ve got miles to go, we’re seeing people who have no interest in religion meet Jesus and give their lives to him. Marriages are being reconciled. We’re seeing real needs in our city being met, all of which cause God to look like the treasure that he really is. I find no greater joy than in seeing friends find life in Jesus, and I look forward to the day that Trailhead reproduces itself by planting more gospel-centered, missionary churches here in Denver.

I don’t think any of us, in our heart of hearts, will give our lives to a “cruise ship” mission that is ultimately about ourselves. I know that I want to lead, serve and be led by a community that embraces a “search and rescue” mission that transcends my preferences and me and draws me into the grand story of redemption that God is telling and in which God is inviting us to play a part.

But becoming this kind of church involves more than tweaking our programming, having a “missions emphasis Sunday” or preaching a missions sermon series. It means backing up and honestly addressing questions like: Why does our church exist? How effectively are we carrying this out? What is so good about the Good News to me personally? When is the last time someone met Jesus and had his or her life turned upside down by God?

And the answers to these questions might require us to find the courage and conviction to chart a different course. While that course will be both risky and costly, it is the only mission to which I want to belong.

Jeff Nikkel is the church plant pastor at Trailhead Church, a new Mennonite Brethren church being planted in Denver’s south suburbs. Trailhead is a partnership between the Southern District Conference, a regional conference of the denomination, and Mission USA, the church planting and renewal ministry of U.S. Mennonite Brethren. 

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