“We don’t plant churches. We don’t plant worship services. We plant ourselves.” So says the Rev. Jim Milley, associate pastor for outreach and equipping at La Cañada Presbyterian Church and founder of Bridges, an organization that seeks to do just that.
Bridges, founded in March 2010, nurtures those who will be leaders in Christ-following communities. Its vision, “100 new Christ-centered communities in the greater Los Angeles area, 1,000 on the West Coast,” might seem daunting to some. But not to Milley. His vision, and the mission for Bridges, is to provide support for leaders wanting to start new worshipping communities, especially among those who would not normally want anything to do with church.
“We don’t bring the gospel — we dig for the gospel,” Milley said.
The difference is that the gospel is already ‘there.’ The work is not in bringing, but in uncovering and discovering how God is already at work in a particular community, Milley said.
“If you ask me what is the gospel, I could tell you and use words, but those words aren’t going to mean anything to the people you are living among. You’ve got to listen to them talk and find their words for what the gospel is,” he said.
“We plant ourselves, we dig for the gospel and we water the community,” said Milley. “We don’t want our leaders to invite people to come to church — first we want to find a way to bless the community.”
Missionaries don’t arrive in a place and immediately say, “Please come to my program on Sunday,” said Milley, who served as a mission co-worker in Ethiopia with his wife for five years. Rather, they say, “May I be a part of you? How can I contribute? How can I help make your community a better community?”
Milley and his wife returned to the United States as, ‘reluctant missionaries,’ having to leave Ethiopia due to family health issues.
“So, God planted us back here — but it was the Ethiopians who trained us how to act like missionaries,” he said.
Being planted is a key part of that.
“Where you choose to hang out or do your laundry or go to eat — those are all missionary choices,” Milley said. “You’ve got to move there, live there and then make choices about where you spend your time every day — it’s not just where should I go shopping, but you are choosing where to do ministry today.”
Presbyterians, Milley pointed out, are already ‘planted’ in America.
“They are already living and working among people, but they think that to be a missionary they have to go to Africa.”
It was precisely in going to Africa that these ideas of being planted locally began to grow in Milley.
“God has planted people, and if we embrace that opportunity, God may use us to do things we may not even imagine,” he said.
“At times in the past, because the U.S. has been more Christian than not, we could start with a worship service and invite people because they grew up in it and knew what it was,” Milley said. “But 70 percent of Americans are choosing not to participate in our worship services right now.”
“It is God who works in people’s lives, and then as people respond to what God has done, that is when you begin to gather them for discipleship. You don’t gather them primarily to a worship service,” said Milley. The worship service will come later, once “God has messed with enough of the community that they have a group who wants to worship.”
Milley is quick to point out that this is not an indictment upon the existing, traditional church.
“We are doing a great job for the 30 percent of people who are currently attending,” he said. “We really believe that what the church is currently doing is good — this isn’t an either or proposition.
“I think that Presbyterians have a lot to offer. Bridges just provides a channel through which that energy and those resources can be expressed,” said Milley.
Bridges, though an independent non-profit, is the creation of La Cañada Presbyterian and is in a covenant relationship with the Presbytery of San Fernando.
The use of the term ‘Christ-following communities’ rather than ‘church’ is an intentional one.
“At the beginning we used the word church and immediately people would think big money and lots of staff,” Milley said. “When you are dealing with facilities and educated clergy you are talking about a cost structure that most Americans can no longer afford.”
“It is possible to be used by God to start Christ-centered communities without actually getting grants from anybody,” said Milley. “That is what God is doing all around the world.”
His hope is that Bridges may be one of those tools that God is using.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.