Every year, there’s a movement of thousands of pastors starting new churches — they call them church plants. It’s a world remarkably parallel to the tech industry, with incubators, growth metrics and, well, angel investors. One of these pastors, Watson Jones III, has dreams of starting a bustling new church in North Philly. But first, he has to figure out how to get people to show up. Watson might have the most difficult task of any founder in America: Convincing people who don’t know -- or even believe -- in God to change their minds and join his church.

Reporter Eric Mennel tells the story of this young church plant in a new multi-part series from StartUp. Listen now to the first episode.

To find a list of our sponsors and show-related promo codes, go to gimlet.media/OurAdvertisers


00:00:00this episode of startup is brought to you by synchrony your business is always working for to success whether it's your first big win are realizing a dream you had for years synchrony has a promotional financing payment technologies and retail insights to help businesses realize their ambitions find out
00:00:17more at synchrony dot com that synchrony dot com in the beginning god created the heavens and the earth soon after god created animals and then us and we give them names like ocelot in kookaburra then we created Philadelphia and we decided college Philly we filled with bowling alleys
00:00:38and dentists offices one of those dentist retired last year and he sold his building to a church when the church decided to give away free meals to the neighborhood one Saturday I was there standing outside with my microphone and a guy from across the street walked up to
00:00:54me Haggard but the cigarette in one hand and a burnt out voice and he asked me what's going on adds to their %HESITATION their new church and they've got like a giveaway so these are like chicken dinners the whole cabinet there I think progress that free but in
00:01:14there by the way rather nice to meet you actually reporter is doing a story about the chairs yes that okay yeah that tell you yeah we want to take some doing a long story about these guys they their new church and sister about what it's like to start
00:01:32with and this reporting on them are you a church goer was less anyway extraction there yeah by just a stop gun how much less time it's been about a year since I've gone what is that going stop yeah I get that two guys standing in front of a
00:02:15church who won't go in it's a real problem for Christianity the percentage of people who say they're going to church continues to drop in the US for the last few decades and to try to solve this problem to save the faith a movement of pastors mostly in evangelicals
00:02:30are turning to the part of America perhaps most obsessed with growth Silicon Valley every year thousands of pastors start new churches from scratch they call them church plants and what has arisen as a world remarkably parallel to the tech industry with investors and incubators and growth metrics but
00:02:51for Jesus they're a mogul like pastors who have grown small churches into mega churches with congregations in the tens of thousands they go on book tours they give Ted talks and they appear on the many church planting podcasts you're listening to the S. you are sorry you must
00:03:08always you're listening to the new churches dot com Q. and a pop music their angel investors it's perhaps the most ironic use of that phrase ever mega churches will donate tens of thousands of dollars a year to help get a new church off the ground and the same
00:03:25way tech companies are obsessed with their origin stories getting their starting garages church plants have their own origin stories getting their start in well over two decades ago my wife Amy and I started life church in what was then a little two car garage as of the date
00:03:43our church bits in many different locations this is a start up show about what it's really like to start something new Aymeric metal for the past six months I've been hanging out in this world the church planting world longtime listeners of the show might recognize me from earlier
00:04:05seasons on the guy who came out to his boss on this podcast came out as a Christian I've attended church plants I've stopped attending church plants will talk about why a little later it's a world of hovered around the edges of the for a long time so for
00:04:19the next several weeks we're gonna watch as one new church tries to grow tries to attract new believers it might be the most difficult task of any founder in America convincing someone who doesn't know or even believe in god to change their mind to join your church which
00:04:41brings me to Watson Jones the third I kind of grew up sort of rough you know Smokin illegal substances wasn't doing so well in school and I have friends you know who who will gain bang heart I was just a little young Doug Watson is thirty four balls
00:04:59with thick rimmed glasses he grew up on the south side of Chicago and he had this really powerful moment when he was fourteen years old he was watching the story on the news about a kid who was running drugs the kid got caught and had to turn his
00:05:11friends in as something about that like scared me to the core I just called on the lord I got on my knees and was like Jesus I need to change me and it felt like something happened I just felt new so new that he decided to give his
00:05:27life to god he wanted to start a church so he did all the things you do to become a pastor he went to seminary worked as a youth minister at the church and he had a real gift for preaching this is from one of his early sermons when
00:05:39he was still in training look one up on the south side of Chicago my Daddy was teaching me how to ride a bike your principal walked alongside you while you ride the bike and I remember we were going down the street and I saw some girls on the
00:05:50port au yeah you know when you see them girls on the porch you gotta get it together KTLK how you appear to hold your hand yeah you gotta you gotta straighten up and fly right I said Daddy gets a hands off the handlebars may not got this some
00:06:03of us are busy slapping Jesus his hands off the handlebars of our line there are many of us that are sitting here today Watson wanted to start a church but not the kind of church he grew up around old a little stodgy people in suits singing hymns he
00:06:18wanted the church for the people most in need of the love he felt when he was saved as a teenager people who were a little rough like him so I really wanted to engage people who Jesus would engage Jesus was willing to be associate with prostitutes and with
00:06:37tax collectors which you might equate them to your average drug dealer because that's how people felt about at least people who you know were not a part of a church they sometimes an afterthought so we had this vision for a new kind of church yet to get for
00:06:51preaching but he still had a lot of questions about how to start a church then in twenty thirteen a twenty nine year old wants and decided to go to this conference that was all about how to start and grow new churches it was in Orlando Florida and was
00:07:06called exponential it's at a massive mega church in a safe way to may sit five thousand people that were there were at least four thousand in Rome and and all of them wanted to start a church starting a church or somewhere in that spectrum some of what I
00:07:28was seeing was so new to me so different they wear skinny jeans and a look real cool and I felt like it might background we still wear suits and I felt like people in those conferences we're talking about things that helped relate with people who are not used
00:07:46to going to church I felt like you know they were on the cutting edge fundamentally what these people were doing was disrupting the evangelical Christian church then metrics and management tools books on marketing and finance it was all aimed at reaching exactly the people Watson wanted to reach
00:08:03nonbelievers Watson was in I believe that the only people who are affected for church planters and the rest of the churches that they need to close or they need to adapt to Allah that but there was another thing about the church planting movement that caught Watson's attention another
00:08:24parallel to Silicon Valley I saw a lot of white people you know I'd be the only black in the room because it wasn't really a black thing more than it was a white evangelical thing people often use the phrase evangelical to mean conservative Christian but in reality there
00:08:41are many evangelical churches and one of the most basic distinctions is between the white evangelical church and the black evangelical church historically the black evangelical church has focused more on building up its existing churches well recently the white evangelical church has been very focused on creating new churches
00:09:01church plants Watson occupied this interesting middle space in the evangelical church I felt like more black people needed to be trying to start churches to you weren't dissuaded by seeing that you were in fact invigorated by saying that I was I saw myself practically dancing between two lines
00:09:23between the white church and the black church I dance in the black church because it was my identity but dance an evangelical world because that's where a lot of financial partners were just like in the tech world new churches need start up capital and most coveted source of
00:09:40that capital is the mega church a well established church with thousands of members who view it as their mission to launch new successful churches landing a mega church can sometimes get you in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars so Watson worked out a business plan and I
00:09:55mean that a literal business plan a clear idea that he could pitch to raise money part one of the pitch location Watson landed at church planting residency in Philadelphia a year and a half long gig where he would apprentice under a successful church planter a guy named Eric
00:10:12Mason so Philly at what's part two of the pitch a big hacked to save money during the ramp up face scrap the building I said man churches spent too much time focusing on a building and they put so much money into a building figure they can meet in
00:10:29the coffee shop or a bookstore or something even his living room and finally part three of the patch a business partner in the upcoming TV picture myself this point okay ready this is AJ Smith on this white kid with dreadlocks although down my back with a scraggly beard
00:10:48wearing but moccasins with holes in them handset have been patched up a million times flannels with ripped up ages thirty one years old now and like Watson he'd also been training to plant a church in the inner city this is at a church across the river from Philly
00:11:01in Camden New Jersey and and Eric Mason actually suggested in two of me Eric Mason again as the pastor in Philly that Watson was apprenticing under a Eric Mason said man you should you should talk to AJ and I was like well you know I don't know why
00:11:16not he does it at the time and he was that he was he was a dude who had dreadlocks he wasn't like a a neat dresser I don't know more about that he just kinda has its own earthy vibe to AJ if a good day for him is
00:11:31to go sit in the mountains and just sit there by himself that's a good day for him that's kind of how you dressed but he was a nice guy so I I said I would look into it and when he looked into it he realized AJ actually brought
00:11:44a lot more than just worn out moccasins to the table aged grown up in a church plant watching it grow to more than a thousand people he'd gone to seminary he'd run a homeless ministry once you got past the drug box AJ seemed like a great number two
00:11:57guy I really believe strongly in like submitting to African American leadership if you're in a like a largely minority setting or minority leadership in some ways like I said I love the idea of like I'm gonna be in inner city on plant churches when we spend sometime like
00:12:10under you and just like helping you do your thing talk to my wife for like yeah I like it let's do it prayed about it and we felt like it was what the law one it can be called restoration church Watson didn't have the direct connections to mega
00:12:25churches that might help fund restoration but he'd heard about some people who did a church planting network called orchard group they help connect church plants with well established churches that have a lot of money mostly in the south and Midwest orchard group is very selective of the thousands
00:12:40of people planting churches every year the network will only support three or four and your Watson applied he was one of them they connected into a few churches that agreed to give twenty or thirty thousand dollars a year for three years three years because the data show if
00:12:55a church plant isn't sustainable after three years it will likely never be sustainable and nobody wants to sink their money into a failing church and so in April twenty fourteen but about a hundred thousand dollars in capital for the first year the countdown started once in an aging
00:13:11needed to get this church off the ground to attract enough people to become self sustaining at first they just wanted people to come to a weekly Bible study of Watson's home so they tried to drum up interest the old fashioned way throughout reach on the streets in the
00:13:25neighborhood early on man me and AJ were out on the corners passing out coffee free coffee on bus stops the make signs we go to like the community days we'd go to you know volunteer elementary schools we were going out on at least twice a week we passed
00:13:42out water we would have our team standing on crowded corners and hot summer we were handing out hello class of people this is Leah Smith ages wife and I think we put a little message on the love of god blow you away so corny song corny but we
00:14:01were trying to get people one of the like anything could happen at any moment we met up on a people a lot of people we prayed for and prayed with a lot of people invited a lot of people over the course of just a few months their conversations
00:14:17with hundreds of people and occasionally some of them would take down Watson's dress and show up to the Bible study Watson told us we were the first family to commit this is Tim while back he and his wife had been burned before at largely white evangelical churches and
00:14:31so when they heard Watson's vision for restoration they were excited we told him one Saturday afternoon before an out reach that we wanted to be a part of restoration of a restoration was doing we had interest from all kind of people people who didn't go to church people
00:14:46did go to church were very interested in us because we day we looked different any like this they liked our spirit for the most part people are very receptive need not say very respectful of the ministry what we're trying to do a very appreciative but it didn't translate
00:15:00the goal has always been to reach non believers to get them in the door and help them in these spiritual in tangible ways but the people showing up for the most part were already church people they were coming from other churches I think in retrospect will probably heard
00:15:15us is the thing to bring them to was a Bible study in my house the first thing that asked me is is where is your church all well we meet at my house and one lady told me she said you guys are cold you call me when you
00:15:29get a church the people in the your city in your neighborhood does not understand church apart from a building a preacher a choir or praise team and something that looks like a church service especially I think among black people the more out of the box album guy you
00:15:49are the less likely you are to be trusted that was really a gut check to us because that was our that was planned a and we weren't really sure plan B. was plan it was like the outrageous yeah I mean we were going to be the people who
00:16:03were out there on the streets pastors were very much present with the people and that's how we'll grow the church that didn't work might not I think people have been to church I think people have done church and I think people don't have great experiences with church and
00:16:26because of that I think the last thing people want to do is waste a day in their mind of what we can come to church I think they respect and I think they were genuinely appreciate it for the most part they see or out they're not trying to
00:16:38get money from them or anything like that that we are intentions are good in their minds but now I mean I love which are doing but you know okay maybe I'll come by sometime thing coming to church they've been to church their their uncle started a church twenty
00:16:53years ago they had to go to sit through three hours on Sunday morning couldn't wait to get out of there it could lead to their eighteen and they'd have to go to church anymore after the break can MailChimp help save your soul this episode of startup is brought
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00:19:09you can read all about the ways Hoover's moving forward by going to Hoover dot com slash moving forward again that Hoover dot com slash moving forward welcome back once in an aging were not having much luck growing their Bible study throughout reaches by January twenty fifteen about eight
00:19:30months and only about thirty people were coming to make this thing real and sustainable they needed to make a big change they decided to move from doing a Bible study at Watson's to holding a regular weekly service on Sunday mornings anomaly that they were going to move into
00:19:47a building they want to pick a space that didn't carry any of the negative connotations and baggage of a typical church their first attempt was a banquet hall it was maybe a bit of an over correction we went to this place called temptations and we went to temptation
00:20:03it's called temptations yeah yeah we yeah we made our kind of jokes about that the first time we went there they just had to trash everywhere and we had to like Kleenex stuff up here we use and bras and open bottles and we are literally like bronze yeah
00:20:21yeah we saw two browsers on the floor they tried to preview services there a sort of beta test of the church before realizing it was not a good fit so next they went to an elementary school cafeteria that's where they would hold their first ever regular Sunday service
00:20:38in the church planting world it's called launch Sunday and it's a huge deal for a church plant a sort of flag on the moon moment saying we are here to stay they put out the word on Facebook on flyers they told friends and family and then they prayed
00:20:53were you nervous before very very nervous yes I was going through your mind what if no one comes why would they come in now what about what do I tell these donors who gave a lot of money to this and what will I tell my wife will lead
00:21:13to my family all that man you may be seated in the presence of the lord Watson look up on the morning of March twenty second twenty fifteen it'd been a year since he first brought AJ on board he put on his brown corduroy pants blue patterned shirt and
00:21:28a white cardigan and at eleven AM he stepped up to the podium in front of more than one hundred cafeteria chairs and started to pray we won at the end of the day lower for you to smile and for you to be so far that we looked at
00:21:42the launch look like how many people were there coming together and I think it might have been a hundred fifty maybe more now yeah that must have been huge that must've felt really great you did I cried actually you know I'm not really a public crier but I
00:21:59cried that day really yeah I think the lord is saying to us that there is no perfect church but he has called in perfect people to sit by the beggar who has the bring it he has a sit com as your as your perfect self but he's called
00:22:15dysfunctional messed up people to come together under the banner of Jesus Christ so let me not even after the sermon AJ stood up to pray he walked up front turned around and you could see that the room was packed they make we give the lord praise more time
00:22:30for his word going for this morning and then we match that we actually with standing room it is standing room back limply maxed out and it was like okay this is this is great so when I saw those people always like okay like this is this going to
00:22:43be like a regular touch typing see you next week Leah Smith again ages wife I wasn't thinking about it at the time Eric I wasn't thinking about church planting it kind of starts moaning groaning grown any girl I wasn't anticipating that in the weeks to follow number so
00:23:02drops so so harshly the next week only about sixty people showed up fewer than half the launch in the next week about the same maybe even a little fewer it turns out a lot of the people who packed the church that very first week or friends and family
00:23:24people already committed to other churches but came out once to show support and a lot of neighborhoods doesn't actually take that many people to keep a church a float fifty or sixty people can be enough if those fifty or sixty people are in a position to give substantially
00:23:39to the church one of the biggest hurdles for Watson was that he was intentionally trying to grow a church in an area with a much lower income base fifty or sixty people giving from an income of fifty KA year is very different than fifty or sixty people giving
00:23:53from an income of twenty KA year or less there were a few families that restoration who were able to give at pretty high levels but the vision was that this church would be a home for people who could not do that that's why getting the numbers up was
00:24:07so important for the next year so they try new tactics more direct forms of networking we would have invite carts and we would say listen you how many of you know a friend that isn't a part of a church let's invite them to church on this day we
00:24:23had a model MailChimp when we had like big parties like a Christmas party we would email them out and we would see who read them very few people would even open up occasionally some people would come they'd visit for a week maybe two and they just never they
00:24:39would never come back all these people would visit like why wouldn't they say I don't know I don't know and a lot of the times I thought it was something about me maybe I'm doing something wrong maybe I'm missing something this is not happening because you just not
00:24:59a great leader but you're not a great preacher or you're not a great whatever whatever whatever is in the I don't know yeah I don't know there were periods over the next year where attendance was so low one person told me it felt like the band is playing
00:25:13for itself the heart is stretches for Watson summer months summer months always felt that way summer months is when everybody in Philadelphia went to the store you know or everybody travel and so attendance wise man it felt like someone took a scalpel to cut massive chunks off the
00:25:33church those periods were extremely deflating I'm me day wear dark moments sometimes I would battle depression most preachers tend to take Monday off because you tend to be more prone to depression on a Monday because Sunday you expand soul much of yourself you know you preaching and you're
00:25:57talking to people you counseling people you have meetings and all that stuff but for church planter in an urban church struggling to move this thing it was exponentially worse you're tired too busy you're lonely you're burned out I would wonder was this god or was this meet did
00:26:19god really coming to Philly or did he not and it's not like when work gets hard everything else lets up Watson and his wife left most of their family back in Chicago in order to plant this church and so when they face their own complicated family stuff it
00:26:34can be really hard we had a miscarriage before my third child and that was very painful and we had a diagnosis of autism on my first job out in in that same period last are the church like all of that was a lot of trauma and I think
00:26:49it probably eventually made me wonder is my time up it was may twenty seventeen it had been three years of trying to grow the church and what's in the contract back home to Chicago disease family that we can was mother's day we can actually and my mother it
00:27:06was the first time I've been with her on a mother's day for some years like five years it was so special you know and I just started to feel like man if the if I could not let go back I wouldn't go back I loved my church deeply
00:27:22but I started to feel like the lord was saying this time Susser I I talked to my wife about it and my wife said to me you know Watson I I've been feeling the same way and then one Sunday morning last October Watson got up in front of
00:27:37the congregation of restoration and he gave a sermon that seemed like he was preparing them for the road ahead this is the part in your life where you can not find your way you don't know to go last you don't know to go right you don't know who
00:27:49to call you don't know where to go this is the in between time and in between times according to the biblical narratives have the albeit the ability to either make you or they can break you after the service he had all the member stay for a meeting at
00:28:04which point he said he was officially stepping down and that he be going home to Chicago with his family taking over the church AJ my first on my first reaction was no like no no ages wife Leah you're not %HESITATION me majority African American church you white now
00:28:25it's not like Leah had never seen a white man in a black church Leia's mother is black but her father is white he's also a pastor and he served a majority black congregations while she was growing up it's just that AJ is a really really white AJ he's
00:28:44not like submerged in black culture is I mean the man loves hiking say that black people love hiking but I mean as a rule has wants to hike the Appalachian Trail okay so he's he's he's different in a way and I'm like I've often wondered he's leading this
00:29:05predominately black churches the shoes weird to me and I felt a little bit self conscious about it and still do Watson on the other hand felt good about his decision AJ had been at the church from its beginning from its inception everybody else came after him they all
00:29:24knew him now I had several people who I could have called easily to to take that over but I felt that they wouldn't have had any connection with them and so I said man I think AJ was the best fit for that reason I have so many securities
00:29:40Mike watt well about being a white guy and he did I really have a vision to ever really have a planned my god I have a bachelor's in by by the masters of divinity I've been an intern resident and you know well known church plants I some of
00:29:55the best coaches and known and you know it in a day I don't know how to grow a church what's a move back to Chicago and he took over another church one that is one hundred and thirty eight years old with hundreds of members is the furthest thing
00:30:11from a church plant he preaches in a suit now and so nine months ago AJ Smith became the white lead pastor of a predominantly black church in northeast Philly right before Watson left they finish the process of purchasing a new building their own building when they bought from
00:30:28retiring dentist it's a new site and new pastor who despite his self doubt is trying to step up we're kind of starting over I wiped our vision our mission our values and we write a new mission vision and values statements really yeah we're here in this neighborhood that
00:30:46we lose under served has massive needs has a huge population who are disconnected from god were disconnected from the church and we got to go out here and say like we believe this is true we're really gonna get bald with the stuff from what from a practical standpoint
00:31:02like you know we're not so sexy anymore because her three year old churches being replanted it's people don't want to throw their money at us like they do new churches so we have to grow the old fashion way like what does that mean like logistically like how much
00:31:15do you need to grow I mean we need to double the size we absolutely double size here no doubt about it we absolutely need to double in size with this since either real or not they that wait upon the lord in an in between seasons they that wait
00:31:32upon the lord to show what will find strength in him they that wait on the lord in times of confusion will find his presence and peace is there anybody here to find yourself in an in between time what you're calling on god to be your friend where you're
00:31:48needing god to be your help it is in those in between times that you find out that he has a purpose the Bible is full of stories of people caught in the in between times the Israelite spent forty years wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt not knowing
00:32:06what came next Jesus himself spent forty days alone in the wilderness before starting his ministry Jonah was eaten by a whale into hang on its stomach for a few days before figuring out his next move AJ Leah and the congregation of restoration said firmly in that tradition in
00:32:23the in between it's a scary place to be when you believe to your very core that another person's life and salvation are on the line what else is there to do but give it everything you've got coming up on the next several weeks of start up I jumped
00:33:01over the bus seat behind me and I just like left and right left or right just pounded on top this kid back just went nuts on and like I'm not even there I mean I did I saw red I snapped screamed AJ and he just sort of blacked
00:33:13out he had started this phenomenal drug business he had people working for him dealing drugs like dozens and he has gone on to play an amazing church I'm looking for a win in life to be honest I think that other meeting of blue for which should you be
00:33:34instantly shooting the ministry like I should just go back to my old job forget this seminar is fun but this isn't for me it was it was produced by Simone Pauline and look Malone Angelina Moshe Bruce Wallace and Sindhu nine awesome and done our senior producer is Lawrence
00:33:49Silverman editing by Lulu Miller serwis arson and Lisa Pollock Peter Leonard mix the episode music by Haley shot and Peter Leonard for full music credits visit our website gimlet media dot com slash start at special thanks to IRA glass Neil drumming and now the melody Aymeric mental if
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