Jon Tyson, lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church, and his team had a vision for planting a church in New York City. The only problem? They didn’t know New York. Their strategy was based on a model that worked in Orlando—and they soon found taking church out of context doesn’t work. After five years in NYC, their approach has changed considerably, and they’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a church with a sense of place.
What was it like to transplant a dream born in Orlando to NYC?
We started with an outsider’s perspective, so a lot of our thinking was really uninformed. Our very naive thinking was, “We did this in Orlando, we can do this in New York.” And that couldn’t have been further from the truth. So we went through a really difficult process that looked something like this: we planted with overconfidence, based on strong ministry success; then coming to terms with what the city is and our inability to be effective in reaching people in the city; a deep, existential crisis that we had no idea what we were doing and we were probably the wrong people to do it; a sense of humility and repentance, saying, “Dear God, who did we think we were that we could do anything like this in a city this big?”; a process of deep unlearning and relearning where we had to ask the question, what is a New Yorker? How can the Gospel challenge and comfort a New Yorker?; a process of rebuilding based on the things we had learned that cost us relationships, cost us people who were part of our community who weren’t able to make those changes because they hadn’t fully settled into the city yet; a process of gaining some initial momentum; and then an obsession with being relevant (“Hey, pay attention, we’re like you”). We went from relevance to trying to reach people through contextualization. Contextualization says: “We are actually one of you. We’re not trying to reach you, we are you.” And then past the point of contextualization to having contextualized friends: “We want the Kingdom of God to have your allegiance. So now we actually don’t care what you think of us again, but it’s not based on arrogance, it’s based on confidence in Jesus and the Gospel.”
When you’re planting a church, how much is wet cement, and how much is concrete?
What is concrete is the Gospel, alright? What is concrete is God’s self-imposed limits: your personality, the state of your marriage. There are real boundaries in place, and those things cannot be violated and your soul prosper. So there are personal things and core theological fundamental. Everything else has to be up for grabs. Our church to this day doesn’t do a style of worship I particularly like. But I know it is absolutely the worship that enables a New Yorker to encounter God in their heart and have the best possible time without freaking out a non-Christian. The best thing you can do is come in really humble and throw all your plans out the window and just learn. You have to distrust most of your instincts, and it is a very rare person who can not only distrust their instincts, but then build contrary to them if needed. So the way to avoid that pain is just move and live in the city and feel its pains in your soul so you can effectively speak to them, rather than coming in and trying to do something.
How long does it take for someone to become part of where they move to?
In New York, seven years. New Yorkers will tell you, if you’ve been here seven years, you’re a New Yorker. If you’ve been here 10 years, you’ve got as much authority as anybody. I’ve been here five years, and I’ve been here longer than most people I meet, which blows my mind. It’s different in every city, and in some places it doesn’t even matter; people don’t care where you’re from. But when there’s places that have a strong identifying mark to them, longevity is simply the key. If you’re from Orlando and you come to New York and you’ve been there a year, what can you tell a New Yorker about how to live specifically within the context of the city and follow Jesus? The longer you’re there, the more skillful you get as a pastor because literally you’re preaching to yourself, where at first you’re just preaching ideas.
What did that unlearning look like?
I’d only ever worked in megachurches. So I had all of these megachurch instincts and they were really unhelpful for church planting. I didn’t have a staff I could hide behind, I didn’t have great programs I could batch people through. I just had my wife and some lame Bible study in our apartment. So my mentality was, let’s get the programs up and running. And that sort of thing didn’t work—I didn’t have any of the New York particulars.* A lot of it was music, a lot of it was preaching—like, a lot of my sermons were sentimental in nature. A lot of my thought process wasn’t intellectual enough; it was literally sloppy thinking, and educated people would call me on it all the time. I didn’t have a robust theology of justice and the poor. So all of my stuff was not incarnational, it was just dramatic. Musically, we had to reconfigure what style works. We finally joined the church calendar and became liturgical, because most people were coming out of a Catholic or Episcopal background. We could redeem it with something they were familiar with and yet give it new meaning, and they actually got a little joy out of it.
When will you know you are impacting New York?
I don’t think anybody can ever know that. As long as we’re being faithful in what we feel called to do and we’re seeing people’s lives changed and we’re impacting how they live their lives in the city, that’s plenty for us. So we’re seeing tons of that and we love it. It’s incredibly motivating and it brings us great joy, so we try and focus on that.