Branden uprooted his family to plant a church in NYC. Here he tells his story of the struggles and solutions he encountered during launch, while learning about God's provisions along the way.
Name: Branden Petersen
Role: Lead Pastor
Church: Resurrection Life Church
Location: New York City
Launch Date: Spring 2017
What's your story?
My wife, Jenn, and I grew up in Iowa. We studied music at the University of Northern Iowa, got married, and took jobs at Sent Church in Dallas. We served there for 17 years in worship ministry and as executive pastor. That was our story before New York.
How did New York enter the picture?
In spring 2015, a series of events pointed our gaze toward New York City. We felt God saying, “Your time in Texas is done. I have something for you in NYC.”
We had no idea what that meant. We weren’t thinking about church planting—we just had a feeling we were supposed to be in NYC. Jenn looked at NYU grad programs and we prayed for direction.
I emailed Dr. Karl Eastlack saying, “Hey, there’s an off-chance that we might be in NYC for a couple years. Could you see us doing anything in ministry?” Karl’s a district superintendent for our denomination, so I figured he’d be busy sermon-prepping or traveling to guest-preach. But literally 5 minutes later, he emailed me back, saying, “Can you call me now?”
When he picked up the phone, he said, “Branden, I’m not surprised you’re calling. Have you ever thought about church planting?”
He told us there was another pastor who was interested in planting in Manhattan. Karl asked us if we’d consider joining the team.Jenn and I were thrilled. She could lead worship and I could serve as executive pastor.
What was your decision-making process like?
It was a pretty quick process for us. The conversation with Karl was in early February 2015, and we took our “decision trip” to NYC in late April. We prayer-walked the neighborhoods, met with other church planters to learn more about living in the city, and prayed to see if this was really what God was asking us to do.
We met with 6 different church planters. They gave us advice about bringing our kids to the city, looking at schools, and finding training. That’s how we got connected with Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s church planting program, City-to-City. We met with the director and applied for the next year.
So, at the end of that trip, we sat down with Karl, told him we were in, and asked to get connected with the lead pastor of our launch team. Karl just found out that the other pastor couldn’t launch for another 5 years. He looked at us and said, “So, you guys are it. Are you ready to do this?”
We said, “No, we’re not ready to do this, but we know God’s moving in our hearts and giving us hearts for the city. As we pray about it and read Scripture, we feel like He’s confirming that this is the direction He wants us to go.”
Wow, plot twist. Was that a jarring realization?
It wasn’t jarring as much as it was, in some ways, confirming. As we met with church planters, we felt this increasing sense that God was preparing us for more than supporting a launch team. When Karl told us we’d be leading the church, it was pretty confirming.
In June 2015, we started fundraising. We weren’t sure if we’d make it to New York by the fall.
It was a really faith-building time in our lives. We had to trust in God for everything—we had no idea how things were going to go.
What was your fundraising goal?
Our first-year goal was over $200,000, just to be able to get here, live in the city for a year, and get the kids in school. It was pretty steep. We didn’t think we’d get here by fall 2015 with that goal, but people were really generous. Our district, the Penn-Jersey District of the Wesleyan Church, and our home church were both major supporters.
We were probably halfway funded after that. It was a huge blessing. We still had $100,000 to raise in a short time, which was a pretty daunting task.
Daunting task indeed. How’d you tackle fundraising?
I had as many as 6 or 7 meetings, daily, for about a month. We just sat down [with potential supporters], shared what God was doing, and explained our first year would be completely funded from the outside. We asked if they’d be on our support team and give.
We ran across a book called The God Ask. The concept is that it’s actually God who asks for support, not us. It’s God who does the work.
While we were still on staff at Sent Church, our pastor said, “Let us start doing your jobs. That way, we can ask you questions while you’re still here, and you’ll be freed up to meet with people for fundraising. We’ll pay your salary; go fundraise. We want you to be fully funded by the time you go.”
We were fully funded for year one in 45 days.
That was the beginning of August. We sold our house, sold everything we owned—just to be able to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in NYC.
August 25th, 2015, we moved up and began our “zero year.” For our first year in New York, we took the posture of learners, not actively planting, but actively learning about our new city.
We got developed deeper connections with City-to-City, a church planting program through Redeemer Presbyterian. I was in a one-year Fellows program with 5 other guys. We met as a group weekly and once monthly with Tim Keller, studying various aspects of ministry. We learned about city contextualization, gospel-centered ministry, church-planting in general, things that derail church plants, etc. It’s a fairly comprehensive program—it felt like being in seminary.
Preparing for Launch
In Spring 2016, we started meeting with our launch team. We gathered weekly, praying and asking questions like What does it mean to be a church in the city? What should our vision be for the city? What does God feel about the city? How does He feel about people in the city? How can we be a church for the good—for the flourishing of the city?
We connected with our launch team by diving into the community. We hang out at coffee shops and community events, strike up conversations with people, and eventually those conversations lead to our plant. It’s amazing how many people are like, “Oh really, tell me about that!” We have a few people in our apartment complex, some with church backgrounds and some without, who’ve grown interested in what we’re doing and the Gospel.
We hope at least half of our Launch Team and attendees will be brand new Christians or even pre-Christians. One of our musicians on our worship team doesn’t have a church background at all. We got to know each other, had him over for dinner, and then said, “Hey, we’re starting a band for our church. Want to join?” He jumped right in.
We launched our website after spending a few months in “self-discovery.” We asked questions like What’s our vision? What’s our mission? How do we want to say things? How can we best express ministry in the city? After we settled on a vision/mission and felt ready to go public, our website went live, and we set up Kindrid Smart Giving.
We’re having monthly “preview services” until we officially launch. Our Launch Team help make these happen. Once we launch, the “Launch Team” will fill volunteer and staff roles in permanent ministries (ex. children’s ministry, worship team, etc).
We had our first preview service this past September. It was a marathon—it’s amazing how much you need to actually do church and get all the logistics together. When you’re starting all this from scratch, it’s a lot of work.
How are you going to continue engaging your pre-launch supporters, even after you launch?
You have to tell stories about what the resources are actually accomplishing. We send our supporters monthly newsletters and we update a private Facebook page. For example, we’d share about a Launch Team member with no church background, but they’re excited that we’re for the city. We share stories with people to encourage them not to grow weary in doing good.
What’s your giving philosophy?
Personally, we went through a period when we were in deep debt. We wanted to be generous, but our debt hindered our generosity. We worked our way out of debt early on in our marriage so we could be generous the way God’s been generous to us.
People want to be generous, but they have no margin in their lives. Just as we need to encourage them to be generous, we need to teach them to be good stewards of their money. God’s given them money to steward—it’s their responsibility to be generous with it, but they can’t if they’re in debt.
How do you teach about giving?
Money is very close to your heart. Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is. If you cling to money, examine your heart.
God was generous to us in sending His Son. When he asks us to be generous with our money, it’s not for His sake. He doesn’t need the money! It’s for your own sake.
During offering in our Preview Services, we’re definitely doing teaching on giving. We just pull out Scripture and have a “mini-sermon.” We teach people that things in this world can really keep us in bondage, but if we’re willing to hold them with an open hand and be generous with them, God can use us. We’ll continue that practice weekly when we launch as well.
Since we’re hoping a large portion of our people will be new to the Church, being intentional on teaching giving principles is going to be huge. People are asking how they can possibly manage their debt, afford living in New York City, and be generous to their church. We’ve got to be intentional in teaching about God’s heart for giving to connect the dots for people.
Do you have any advice for fellow church planters?
Learn your community. Learn their fears, hopes, dreams, and desires. What is it that people are giving their lives for? What are they looking to for fulfillment? What is their purpose for existing?
When everything they’re chasing after leaves them empty, people open up to the Gospel message. That’s what we’ve seen in New York City. It’s so high-pressure. It puts people in a state of disorientation. When you’re in that state of disorientation, you tend to be more open to what will actually fulfill your longing.
People think they’re coming to the city to make it in their industry. But, a year into it, they’re discouraged, they don’t know up from down, and they’re wondering: Will I ever make it? What am I giving my life to? That environment tends to make people more open.
Everyone’s searching for something. It’s Jesus they’re searching after; they just don’t know it yet.
How can we be praying for you?
Pray for us financially. Launch season is really expensive. It feels like we’re paying for things right and left—there are just so many things to buy! We’ve had a couple churches partner with us recently, which is awesome.
Pray that we have an evangelistic harvest this fall. Ask God to connect us with people in our neighborhood who are open to the Gospel, but just aren’t there yet.
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