In a small Northwest Indiana town, nestled against the south shore beaches of Lake Michigan, at the far reaches of suburban Chicago, the rich, dark soil is remarkably fertile.
You are never more than five minutes from a field where the corn is head high in August or the soybeans seem to stretch on for miles. The beautifully cultivated land makes you believe anything could grow here with enough patience and work. However, it is not a place where you would expect to find innovative ways of growing the kingdom of God.
On a Friday night in Chesterton you can still find the town gathered at an actual drive-in movie theater, getting a frosty mug of root beer at the local fast food joint, or sitting on the bleachers at the high school football game. So how did a Nazarene Church in Chesterton, of all places, go from being a tiny congregation to a community driven with a missional zeal that has led it into unexpected places?
Growing in the Soil of Failure
The innovations that have taken root and grown so unexpectedly at Duneland Community Church have done so in the surprisingly fertile soil of failure. Originally planted by lay leaders from a larger Nazarene church in Gary, Indiana, Chesterton Church of the Nazarene was a small family outpost. Much like the town of Chesterton, which is easily dismissed as just another exit off two major interstates that roll through town, this church was unnoticed. It was hidden away in this quiet town filled with steel workers, farmers, and commuters. The church gathered in a small, white, clapboard building each week without much happening.
Fifty years saw eighteen pastoral changes and little growth. Then, the core group of families that made up Chesterton Church of the Nazarene decided to take a big risk.
Working with a new pastor, the district, and some consultants, they decided to become something new. Within 18 months the church had a new name (Duneland Community Church), had sold its building, and moved into a local school. They reshaped their worship service and adopted a new vision focused on reaching out to those the church had forgotten or lost along the way. This was a huge leap of faith.
The next 10 years were filled with amazing breakthroughs and some of the most painful moments a church can experience. After having risked so much, this season of rebirth taught the church valuable lessons, especially through their failures.
At this point in Duneland’s history, God story. When we arrived, we found a church that appeared to have very little appealing about it. There was no building. There was no staff. There was little money, and the church was significantly in debt. There were, however, a few vital ingredients that would serve the church in its revitalization.
Key Ingredients to Rebirth
First, there were faithful people who survived everything the church had experienced, from its rebirth to its rapid climb and demise. You can do a lot with people who are that committed. Second, there was a vision to be a kind of church that was more focused on what happened outside its building than on what happened inside of it. Third, there was desperation. This is one of the essential ingredients to cultivate a fertile soil of innovation. With everything they had been through, the people of Duneland were willing to try just about anything to see a harvest for the Kingdom. Armed with desperation and a sense of calling, we embarked on a journey none of us had ever been on before, and none of us were quite sure where it would lead.
Today, Duneland is experiencing surprising Kingdom innovation. We are deeply engaged in the fight against human trafficking both internationally and locally. We are known for our partnership with Free the Girls, a non-profit that provides jobs for survivors of sex trafficking around the globe. God also led us to start “Just Love,” which ministers to women caught in the sex industry.
Recently, over 30 percent of our church ran the Chicago marathon and raised $100,000 to provide clean water in Africa. We planted a worshiping community in a local mobile home park. Internationally, we helped build wells in Haiti and are supporting the Village of Hope in Bangladesh. These new aspects of our ministry have helped us become a training and sending church where young pastors, especially women, can flourish. We couldn’t imagine any of these things when we began the process of renovating our church culture.
Where did the breakthroughs come from? They began with a deep commitment to building a culture of leadership development, empowering everyday leaders and giving them permission to fail. Long-term leadership development was costly, because it meant we didn’t have energy for other approaches that may have brought quicker short-term growth.
Rather than trying to hire “professionals” to lead mission, we focus on training everyday leaders to become missionaries in the world around them. As a result of this investment, all of the successful ministries we have started are led by people who have learned to answer two questions: “What is God saying to me?” and “What am I going to do about it?”
Another major focus has been on slowing down and getting healthy. If our leaders aren’t healthy, emotionally mature, and practicing rhythms of rest, they won’t be able to build sustainable ministries. We have learned to practice Sabbath as a community, and we build our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms around rest. There is deep trust and accountability built into our community, so that we can lovingly shape one another toward greater health.
Perhaps nothing has helped us thrive quite as much as failure. For all the incredible ministries we have seen take root in our church, far more failed to survive. We have quite a list of local and international partnerships and ministry attempts that have not lasted. By giving our people permission to dream and fail, however, we have seen the most surprising and wonderful fruit of the Kingdom grow in our church.