Chris Naylor Sheehan, Paul Ham and other attendees loved their church so much that they left. Well, that’s not totally accurate. The truth is, the church loved and trusted them so much, it sent them home.
It wasn’t deconstruction that drove their departure. Quite the opposite: these Minnesota disciples, part of a team led by campus pastor Dan Hays, desired to bring the gospel to their own community.
For several years, Sheehan said more than a hundred people from the Westonka area drove to the Chanhassen campus of Westwood Community Church in nearby Excelsior. For them, she said, getting to worship meant going over, around and between lakes, not to mention hills and dales.
During the last few years, Ham and his family gathered with other Mound-Westonka families in a small group. They wanted to grow in the Lord while deepening their friendships.
“We all just started getting this idea of, why don’t we go to the mother church since Westwood has a vision for planting churches?” Ham said. “I found myself trying to work all the time for a church to support communities other than the one I lived in.”
The group made a case for the leadership of Westwood to consider a new campus, Sheehan said. Leaders approved their request, and the church began looking for a pastor to lead the new team in starting a congregation.
Dan Hays answered the call. As he, his wife, Jenny, and three children settled into Minnetrista, they began building relationships with those no longer committed to a church. The ultimate goal, he said, is drawing them in and helping them grow in their faith.
It’s God who gives the growth
Even without a pastor, and even when COVID-19 threw their plans into chaos, the core team didn’t ease up on what they believed God was calling them to do.
“We became a church a year before we became a campus,” Sheehan said. “We did service in the community. We got to talk about Westwood and Westonka and how the Lord is working in the community.”
The new church west of the Twin Cities collaborated to plant a community garden. All produce grown there goes to The Westonka Food Shelf, a community pantry for people in need.
“It creates food dignity for people who can’t afford fresh food,” Sheehan said. “A community garden gives you an amazing platform to witness to others about Jesus.”
Other community outreaches include delivering for Meals on Wheels, hosting a Thanksgiving meal and singing Christmas carols. In addition, the team also cleaned up a community center and volunteered its time to the nonprofit Western Communities Action Network.
“Launching the church hasn’t been a matter of following some kind of formula and being successful,” Hays said. “We’ve seen his hand in what we’ve been doing, and we’ve seen him do powerful things.”
This church elevates lifestyle above programs
Instead of being formulaic, Hays said his fellow church planters are cultivating a way of life to be and love like Jesus. They want to display Jesus to their community, a mash-up of small town and suburban elements.
“That is really timely in our cultural moment,” he said. “There are a lot of churches that, parts of their doctrine may look really good, but their love is not beautiful.”
Hays has learned the residents of the six towns near Minnetonka Lake are less likely to attend church than many other villages around the Twin Cities. In his own life, the Wisconsin native said he once lived in a “religious fog,” where he was familiar with church practices but not with Jesus.
“Looking back now, I realize that I was lost in the fog of religion,” he said. “The number that would associate with the Christian religion is pretty high. They’re just not engaged with it.”
Moreover, many people went into a COVID hibernation, isolating themselves from church and people and watching services online or spiritually disengaging altogether. That, combined with other habits and tendencies, can shape the spiritual landscape of an individual or an entire community.
“They’ve seen religion but not the power of God,” he added. “They haven’t had a personal encounter with Jesus.”
Nevertheless, the core team feels hopeful about the new church, which sits in close proximity to where they go to school or work, and enjoy the parks, lakes and bike trails.
“People are fully caught up on sports and activities, but the faith piece is lagging behind,” Hays said. “We see that as an opportunity.”
One reason for his conviction, Hays explained, is people’s lack of peace, rest and overall quality of life.
“That just shows me that they’re missing a key part of really walking that full life with Jesus,” Hays said. “If your overall countenance is filled with stress and a lack of peace, that’s concerning to me. I want that person to experience more.”
What can one Christian do?
Paul Ham and Chris Naylor-Sheehan desire great things for families in the Mound-Westonka area. Since the beginning, they’ve been thinking about their neighbors and the youth of their community.
Hays has as well, even before he moved to Minnetrista to lead the core team. In his own life, Hays has seen what a difference it makes when one family member comes to Christ.
His older brother was the first Christian in his family, a transformation that began when Hays was 10 or 11. Within a generation, Hays said his entire family came to faith.
“That’s the hope for a spiritual miracle that I long to see play out over and over again,” he said of his neighbors. “They’re one person away from their whole family having this encounter with the Lord.”
Hays is excited about his new church because a new congregation is one of the best ways for people to discover that the Lord is the giver of life.
“I’m always going to have a deep heart for the person that’s on the outside,” he said. “That’s where I come from. I never count anyone out because I saw the miracle happen in my own family.”
Making grace available on the lake and the land
Such a miraculous encounter appeals more and more to people in this community that eases into cornfields as you head west. This area west of the Twin Cities is just about as much lake as land.
There are multimillion-dollar houses on the lake, modest summer cabins and low-income people who need help with everyday burdens. The families there are white and blue-collar, both outwardly fine and inwardly fallen yet benefiting from the same grace.
For example, a family experiencing foster care was among the hundreds of people Hays said the new church had befriended. In the last two months, he said the church has loved and cared for this family, creating an eagerness in them to build relationships and come to worship.
“This is why we’re here,” he said. “This is where we’re launching a campus here to be in the lives of people.”
He and others left their church so more people could find fellowship with Christ and his people. Their motivation is becoming a reality: several weeks ago, the Easter egg hunt Westwood organized drew 250 kids and 300 parents.
“I’ve been raising my kids in this community, and we’ve never had an event like that in town,” he said. “It was a great precursor of things to come.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.