They love the creation, but don’t know the Creator
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
Denver may have the best reasons you could ever give God for overlooking church.
First, there are the mountains in all four seasons. In the winter, there’s a good chance for fresh powder. So, you’ve got to get on the slopes.
Then, in the spring, bluebells and lupines bloom into beautiful life. At higher elevations, flowers are lively and bright well into August.
In the fall, golden yellow quaking aspens glow while narrow leaf cottonwoods turn colorful. But cold weather in the forecast may cut short the leaf-peeping so a weekend trip is a must.
Every year, Denver gets 300 days of sunshine. For those nine weeks of the year when the sun isn’t shining, the weather on Sundays is probably still nice enough. What’s one more Sunday?
However, if it happens to be raining on a Sunday, or too hot or too cold, fret not. There is the Denver Broncos. And the Denver Nuggets. There’s the Colorado Avalanche and the Colorado Rockies. Not the mountains; this time, it’s the baseball team.
“In one day, we can be downtown at a basketball game and up in the mountains snowboarding,” said Mitch Lynn. The Denver native started Center Church Lakewood, a Converge Rocky Mountain church to love the people living there.
The largest city in Colorado offers its citizens coffee shops, craft beer and the standard American diversions like streaming TV or social media. Plus, of course, people work, sleep and eat. Religious researchers often recognize Colorado’s capital for how few people regularly worship in a church on Sunday morning.
“People live for the weekend. They might be hustling and working hard but it’s hustling and working hard to buy the cabin up in the woods or buy the new kayak,” Lynn said.
Denver is a changing city, not just a growing one
Until the last decade or so, the city was full of people whose families went back to the state’s earliest days. Families with such roots can even get a pioneer license plate, reflecting how their “family helped build this state,” Lynn said.
Of course, those pioneer descendants haven’t left. But Denver has become a “transplant” town. Thousands of people from the east coast, California and Texas have moved to Denver in the last five years.
Many who have committed to the life of Center Church are Hispanic plus there’s a diverse mix of original Coloradans and transplants. The state was originally more Republican in its politics, but the number of registered Democrats has increased since the Democratic National Convention came in 2008.
Although Denver, and Colorado in general, are less-religious places, Lynn sees again and again there are plenty of opportunities to make disciples. One reason is people are open to spiritual and philosophical questions.
“There’s a sense of spiritual curiosity, which I love,” he said. “Most people are open to talking about Jesus. They’re not open to talking about religion or church.”
Center Church Lakewood’s core identity is the people who love their neighbors, not the programs or activities connected to the organization.
“Most people aren’t into a program,” he said of Denver residents.
Lynn responded, in part, by being co-vocational. Not only does that better fit Denver’s culture for how a church interacts with the community, but Center Church can dedicate 40 percent of its budget to service through the missional communities.
Why embrace missional communities?
Pat Barnes and his wife, Winnie, are on Center Church’s core team. They’ve known Lynn since he was the youth pastor at a church the Barnes attended years ago. For the Barnes, small groups during the week were good for discipleship and fellowship. But obedient, gospel-inspired service seldom happened through the groups.
However, Pat Barnes said Lynn’s vision for the missional communities is fundamental to Center Church and a faithful expression of the gospel in action.
“The absolute, no-kidding focus of our missional communities is making an impact,” he said. “Mitch gives a lot of permission to do well in Jesus’ name.”
Center Church does more than give permission, Barnes explained. Each of the four missional communities gets $2000 for loving their neighbors however they see fit.
For example, that could be buying a refrigerator for a single mom. But, Lynn added, the group of believers should also pray for her, be her friend, help her with parenting or support her in learning to budget.
Several years ago, Barnes learned how far Christians can be from loving their neighbors. He said it was easy to think of metaphorical neighbors, but hard to connect Jesus’ teaching to real people.
At the time, Barnes’ church was one of 30 in the Denver area studying the same book about loving neighbors. The book challenged the readers to know three neighbors across the street, three neighbors behind their house and the neighbor on each side.
“Ninety-five percent of the people from 30 churches in the area couldn’t name their neighbors in the nine closest houses,” he said. “Mitch wants us to actually know the neighbors who live next door and be involved in their lives to make a difference. You can’t help someone if you don’t know their needs.”
Getting people to ‘church’ isn’t exactly the goal
As the core team worked on all the learning and legwork involved in starting a church, deciding how and why people would gather was the central concern. Lynn learned that equipping and mobilizing believers in missional communities was the best approach for Denver. So, Center Church started missional communities six months ago.
“We’ve just seen people who are attracted to our model of church that have never stepped foot in church,” Lynn said. “Not even for a funeral. Not even for a wedding. They’ve never experienced church.”
So far, two people have chosen Christ as Lord through missional communities in Denver. However, the first Sunday worship service for Center Church didn’t happen until September 19, 2021.
“We’ve seen people far from church or hurt by church and they come in and see that it’s not about the organization,” Lynn said. “It’s about knowing Jesus. We don’t want to be a Sunday-centric model of church. Those work great but that’s not our gifting and that’s not our call.”
After completing Converge’s two-day assessment for church planters and being approved to plant, Lynn was listening to the book of Acts. Through those descriptions about the early church, Lynn reflected on God’s unique identity and purpose for an entirely new group of people.
“What would it look like to just get together to study the word of God together, take communion together and do the things a church does?” he wondered. “Because of the indwelling of the Spirit [in Christians’ hearts], we are little centers of worship going out. The mission is mobile.”
Can loving Colorado and church coexist?
The mountains and macchiatos, the flowers and the football games supply plenty of motivation to be anywhere but church. Barnes has met many people who say they can intimately worship God on a 14er, the common term for 14,000-foot-tall mountains. He loves the state’s beauty as well.
“God makes me compete with God because he created all these beautiful mountains,” Barnes said about inviting friends to Sunday worship. “What they miss and what they’re not considering is God has called us to community and to use our gifts for the good of the community.”
When Lynn can, he makes time for hiking in the wild beauty all around. Green Mountain Park west of Denver is a natural choice for many of his hikes.
“It’s super close and it’s an easy trail,” he said. “Head up to the top and you can overlook all of Lakewood. Turn and you see the mountains. It’s that experience of the best of both worlds.”
From the top of Green Mountain, Lynn remembers all the reasons you could give someone to consider church for the first time.
“There’s so many people here who don’t know Jesus,” he said. “That experience happens on the mountaintop, in traffic, whenever I see a crowd of people. God, who’s the next one that we can talk to?”
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.