When Rev. David Norman started feeling drawn to church planting years ago, his initial plan was to get to know the community through “caskets, coffee and causes,” participating in funerals, meeting in cafes for conversation and getting behind other good community organizations in their good works.
His church planting call came after many years of pastoring in established churches. While serving in Eastern New York, the Northeast District began to emphasize the importance of church planting, bringing Rev. Dr. Keith Loy (senior pastor of Celebrate Community Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) into town in June 2017 to talk about Celebrate’s approach to planting contextualized churches.
That interaction represented a stirring in Rev. Norman’s sense of pastoral vocation. “I told the district superintendent, ‘Whatever this guy’s doing, I want to be part of it,’” recalled Rev. Norman. “Shortly after, I went on vacation to Grand Junction, Colorado, and felt a need to be part of church planting. I got in contact with Keith Loy, and asked what it would take to be part of the planting movement, and he said, ‘Someone would probably have to live out here with us.’”
Having already ministered in established churches, this departure represented a tremendous life change for the Norman family; but after a time of prayer and discernment — and waking up in the middle of the night, with a clear urge to pray and listen — their family’s call was clarified.
“A Tuesday morning, I went to breakfast with a group of Wesleyan pastors in my town, and told them I felt God was calling me to church plant,” recalled Rev. Norman. “And so on the way back from breakfast, I called a realtor and started the process of listing my house, and then got back into my office and found that very morning, I had received an email from Keith Loy, saying, ‘Have you thought about what I said to you about moving out here?’”
Rev. Norman had; and he and his family moved to Sioux Falls, where Rev. Norman took a job as a resident pastor at Celebrate, learning their model of church multiplication, and walking away with the aforementioned plan for a church plant in Mankato, Minnesota, based on “caskets, coffee and causes.”
Then the pandemic hit; coffee shops were closed, funerals in Minnesota were limited to 12 people, and service opportunities were less and less open for collaboration and relationship-building. After talking with others in The Wesleyan Church, Rev. Norman reached out to Immigrant Connection Founder and Director Rev. Zach Szmara, who invited him to a Bible study that walked participants through the integral connection between the people of God and the work of justice for the strangers in our midst. So, Rev. Norman began the process toward planting an Immigrant Connection site along with their Mankato congregation.
Shortly after the nearby murder of George Floyd, Rev. Norman responded to an invitation from General Superintendent Wayne Schmidt to come to Minneapolis for a prayer walk, which changed something unexpected: his view on the interaction between faith and justice.
As Rev. Norman reflects on his attitude towards faith and justice, he now admits that much of his prior belief system was a confusion of political identity and Christian identity; and that confusion led him to speak harshly about people who did not think and vote as he did. Rev. Norman remembered how God refined his disposition during their prayer walk around Minneapolis and especially the memorial to George Floyd.
“I could feel the struggle inside of me about the political beliefs and how much I think this is ridiculous … and the Lord said to me, ‘You can’t talk about politics the way you have thus far and reach these people. This is not for somebody else to reach, I want you to reach them. But you cannot continue to think and talk about people who disagree with you as you are right now.’”
But even as doors for their congregation closed, doors for their Immigrant Connection work opened. This has continued to be a theme for Rev. Norman, as he notices that his work with Immigrant Connection offers him the opportunity to learn new ways for the church to be the church in Mankato.
“The immigration work has become a bridge into a part of the community that I would not have been able to meet with if I was leading with pastoral positions,” Rev. Norman posited. “I still have a high opinion of Scripture … the Bible is number one … and yet the fact that when I introduce myself, my title is Immigrant Connection at Celebrate Church which allows me to get into doors and places that I would never be able to be in at this season of our society.”
Their Immigrant Connection work in Mankato continues to flourish in helping others new to the United States with care and connection. Local newspapers have written news articles spotlighting the important stories of new opportunities God is writing through their work.
“God calls his people repeatedly throughout Scripture to love and welcome immigrants — this is what defines us and sets us apart,” said Rev. Szmara. “More and more churches across the country are answering this call and joining the work of Immigrant Connection. We focus on increasing access to high-quality, low-cost immigration legal services. Churches like Celebrate are offering vital services and extending tangible love and welcome to immigrants, and these actions result in profound transformation. Not only do immigrant families find pathways to greater stability and security but pastors and churches are transformed as they journey with immigrants. In fact, whole neighborhoods and communities are transformed when authentic relationships are cultivated along the welcome journey.”
Though Celebrate Church Mankato does not gather yet (formally) for a worship service, their weekly fellowship meals offer space for reflection, prayer and focus on their mission:
- welcome without conditions,
- worship without walls,
- Word without compromise.
These are not only for their core team but are on the wall of the space where the team does Immigrant Connection work.
“The Muslims I serve see that sign on the wall; the Sikhs see that sign on the wall, and we LOVE each other,” said Rev. Norman. “I don’t know another mechanism that would possibly have made such a bond in the community that I otherwise would never have had.”
That spirit of hospitality and good work are both crucial ingredients to Celebrate’s way of forming a church around humble service to the community.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.