The Challenge Of Planting A Church During COVID-19 | Matt Lytikainen

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Matt is a church planter and speaks into the challenges and the wins that they’ve had planting during COVID-19

Podcast Transcription


Jason Hamrock: Well, today, I’m talking with Matt from Miles Square Church in New Jersey. Now Matt’s a church planter, he just planted this church a year ago. And what a time to be planting a church, during this season of COVID, and Matt speaks into the challenges and the wins that he’s had. So, hope you enjoy.

Jason Hamrock: How do you say your last name?

Matt Lytikainen: Lytikainen, like land of kanon, but lit of kanon.

Jason Hamrock: Lytikainen. Okay, all right, Lytikainen

Jason Hamrock: All right. Well, I’ll get started, and then we’ll go from there.

Matt Lytikainen: All right, sounds great.

Jason Hamrock: Well, hey, Matt, thanks for joining us on the podcast. Glad to have you here today. How are you doing?

Matt Lytikainen: I am doing well. Thank you, Jason. Thanks for having me on.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah. Yeah. So, Miles Square Church is your church you get to serve. Tell me a little bit about your history, what you’ve guys been doing, and get us up to date on that.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, absolutely. So Miles Square Church is a new church plant in Hoboken, New Jersey. Which if you’re not familiar with the Jersey locale, we are basically across the river from Manhattan. So we can see the Empire State Building, One World Trade, all that stuff. So we are right there in the midst of it all, New York City metro area, and Hoboken is kind of like a bedroom community of Manhattan. A lot of people live here in Hoboken, but will work in the city. Of course, until, that was true until the pandemic hit. But we’ll get to that, I’m sure. So we started a ministry here. I was ordained a pastor in 2017. We got out here, church planting was my first placement or call as a pastor, and so we were…For those of us who are familiar with church planting language, we’re just like, we’re parachute plant. We just kind of came in, didn’t know a soul. I had a coach who had planted a church before in our denomination, and he’s like, I’ll get you equipped. But I had, I remember just getting a sheet of paper, I think it might have just been an email with a bunch of numbers on it. Just like, hey, give these folks a call, they live in Hoboken, see if there is any connection. So we just built the community from the ground up, quite literally.

Matt Lytikainen: And so it was 2019, we launched in October. We were doing weekly services in a movie theater chain local to us, and then did that for six months. And then March 15th was the first time we met online, moved everything overnight to do a livestream kind of thing, and then here we are doing micro-church in August. So it kind of launched in one calendar year, three times. It’s been exciting.

Jason Hamrock: I bet that’s created some challenges, huh?

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, that would be understating, it’s been a really challenging year, easy to try and put the spin on it. Like I would love to say, like it’s been great, we’ve been having no problems, no issues, we’re growing tremendously. Like no, it’s not that. I mean, it’s not ponies and rainbows, this is real hard stuff. The pandemic’s been difficult for all of us, and we’re no exception.

Jason Hamrock: So somebody out there that’s thinking about planting a church now that we’re, I mean, we’re hopefully past, a little bit past this crisis. Although I know COVID is going to be for a long time, but, you know, the shock is over, and it’s like a new reality. So a pastor out there is thinking about planting a church, what advice do you to give them?

Matt Lytikainen: Do not tread lightly, this is not for the faint of heart, it really isn’t, and every single context is different. Where I’m coming from is going to be different than if you were to plant in the Midwest, or plant in the Bible Belt, or plant out in the West Coast. You know, it’s just, it’s a different animal no matter where you go. But truly, if God’s called you, if God is leading you, then he’s leading you. If you’re in it, if you’re married and your spouse is in it, and people around you are saying, like, you know, we think you’ve got this. Even if you don’t feel equipped, you’re not ready, I mean, that was my story. I didn’t feel ready, I didn’t feel…I just went to seminary for four years, and it was like, let’s go to church plant. Like I did know what that meant. I mean, I just knew that, statistically speaking, it was the most effective way to reach unchurched and unchristian people. And I was like, I want to do that. And I just said, I want help, please help me. And so on the way, God sent people. So if that’s you, if God has sent people into your life, if you yourself felt the call, like I just want to introduce people to Jesus, then, yeah, pursue it. It’s hard, but it’s…what does Paul say in First Timothy? He says, it’s a noble calling, a beautiful call. [speaking Greek]. Yeah.

Jason Hamrock: So give me a couple of examples where God is showing up big time for you.

Matt Lytikainen: Well, you know, I think it’s just been in, I think in the brokenness in, and in the valleys of the shadow of death. And that’s church planting, no matter what’s happening, whether it’s a pandemic or not, I mean it’s like peaks and valleys. You’re just like peak, all of these people showed up at this event, or we’re just having a great sermon series and people are responding well. Whatever it is there’s some sort of external metric that just makes you feel like playing the drums, this is awesome I love it. And then there’s the times where it’s like, as a friend of mine who planted a church out in Queens, he says, planting a church is like throwing a birthday party for yourself every week and then hoping who, wondering who’s going to come. And I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s so true, bro. I just, you can feel really low. It’s like, well, attendance was not what I wanted, twenty three people in the room. That is not what I wanted today, but that’s what happens. And so he’s showing up in the midst of that, and showing up in the midst of things that you would never expect.

Matt Lytikainen: Which is kind of where this micro-church thing kind of came into being. Is that one of my, another pastor who I speak with on a regular basis, he’s looking at doing a similar model to what we’re doing. And it’s kind of like, it seems like this pandemic kind of took out the queen, as it were. It made us free ourselves up from thinking that the Sunday service, this corporate experience, was the end all be all. And it really freed us to start thinking, well, what if we could do church really differently? And there was never really any room for that, right, in a pre-pandemic world, but now it’s like, well, there’s a lot of different ways we could do this. How could we do it? And so I think that God has shown up even in the midst of this crisis, and he said, you can still be church, you can still be my church, and be my witnesses, and be on mission, even now. And it’s to seeing those little movements of people toward faith right now in this crisis, people who are asking lots of great questions, people who have been helped and then are drawing nearer to Christ in the midst of crisis. And seeing that as a pastor was so, I mean, it’s like that’s why I’m here, you know, I’m here to see that happen.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, really rewarding. So talk to us about this concept of what you are as a church, you said a micro-church.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah. So micro-church, a quick definition is. Just essentially a small group of people that meets on Sundays, and they go together. There is a video, that’s not like across the board, but for what we do, we create a video. And my wife is our worship director, I’m pastor, and so we put together a nice service that you can watch on YouTube by yourself. But we make it highly interactive, and so it’s a song in the beginning, there’s a scripture reading you do together, and then the sermon is just a sermon. But instead of having like a straight through monologue, it’s more of a dialogue where that prompted the pause with your group, discuss the question, and there’s like, that’s like three times you pause in the sermon. And so you kind of get to wrestle with the concept, wrestle with what’s being preached and what’s being taught, and then at the end of the day, you’re able to pray together as a small group, and you’ve got church right there. And you’re also, some of us meet online and zoom, and others of us meet in person, and so there’s a very rich community aspect as well. And where it came out of was just like anybody else, I think probably we were thinking we were launching, we launched just like anyone else did church planting wise. We launched a corporate service, it was every single Sunday, there was set up, there was tear down. All those volunteer roles, hospitality, the whole nine yards, and did that for six straight months like I said.

Matt Lytikainen: And then we got in the pandemic, and then as we got into a nice rhythm, we were getting in the middle of the summer. Like we need to think about a plan, like how do we get back to what we were doing? And so we said that we would do a phase two, it was going to be this kind of small group, kind of group watching experience, so that we could have that piece of community. That was a big lesson of this pandemic for me, is like community is not an optional or a tertiary consideration, like this is a big deal. So that’s a big part of what it means to be church, and so I said, okay, let’s do that. It got to be time to start looking at this, and I just kind of pulled a term that I had heard, micro-church, just kind of pulled it out of the air, it’s like let’s just call them micro-churches. So we start planting for this August thing, and I’m researching and putting this together, we put together this experience, we’re very happy with it. We started August, the first weekend in August, and carried through four weeks. And what I noticed, Jason, was just like people are responding so well, there’s like community, people are coming together, really rich conversation. And I know any pastor out there will know exactly what I’m talking about, I’d be like someone who comes to you after the service shaking your hand like, oh, pastor, that was a great sermon. Like, Oh, really, you know, you want to say, well, what grabbed you? Like I don’t, I don’t know. Then you’re like, okay, well, I hope that maybe it’ll come to you later.

Matt Lytikainen: So there’s like this, I think there’s so much of this kind of, we don’t have a lot of time to digest things, you don’t have a lot of time to process through information. So we’re getting so much information is thrown at us all the time, and I think that church is symptomatic of that. We have like a sermon, might be a dynamite sermon, might have impacted their heart. It mattered to them in the moment, but then I don’t remember after, where are we going to eat, you know, thinking about brunch. And so what I noticed is like as I connected with people and my leaders, like, how did things go? And they’re just telling me, like, I loved it when you said this, and we had this great conversation about that. And just, it was like that, and I’m like, this is good. People, it sounds like people are being discipled right now, that’s what I would, that’s what I’d like to see.

Matt Lytikainen: And so that really got me excited, got me really looking into where did I find this church, this micro-church idea, where did it come from? And so I looked into the Tampa Underground, which is an micro-church network, and also the Kansas City underground, both places that you can look at. And just really was captured by what they were describing, and really feeling. They really, they hit a nerve whenever they would talk about the Sunday morning experience. So if you think about Sunday mornings, and this is no, I did the same thing, there’s a lot of energy that’s expended to create a Sunday morning worship experience. If you have one service, or if you have five services, whatever. If you have fifty people, or five thousand people, it’s still a lot a lot of work. And there’s set up, there’s tear down, there’s you got to make the coffee, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. And there’s just, you’re getting your volunteers together, you’re trying to make phone calls, someone drops out, you’ve got to get another person. It’s like, it’s this, I mean, hours, hours, 10, 15 hours goes into just creating an event every single week. It’s like, what if you could do it a little different? Where it’s not this big event, you just met in a group? And like Acts 2:42, they met together in homes, they looked at the apostle’s teaching, devoted themselves to themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the prayers, the breaking of the bread, and that was the most primitive form of church. Right?

Jason Hamrock: Yeah.

Matt Lytikainen: And I mean, if you would look at that, and you’re like, well, that’s not really church. It’s like that was a church, that was biblical, right? So I just looked at that, and that’s what they were challenging us in this book. Brian Sanders, who wrote the book, he started the Tampa Underground Movement with a group of friends with similar mindsets. And it’s kind of what is your minimal ecclesiology? What do you really have to have to be a church? And they had to find that a certain way, and I thought that was just so captivating. And so church, rather than building or like a place you go, but more a churchist movement. Church as community, church as a being, or an organism that is continuously growing. It’s more virulent, I think, kind of being that way.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, so it’s somewhere between a weekend church and small group, it’s like this idea…I really love the idea of the idea of where you’re creating the message, you’re creating the interactive questions, and so it is interactive. Where most churches are doing online church, where it’s like you have a worship song, and then a moment, and then offering, and then you have the sermon, and the end with the song, and see you next week. You know, you’re actually taking it much deeper, which I really love, because you can reach anybody, anywhere. And they can get together Monday night, Sunday morning, Wednesday, whenever. Right? They can do this any time they really want, if you think about it. And I love the idea and the concept, is you can navigate and bring a group of people along, right, and they connect. It’s a really cool thing. Have you, you’ve seen a lot of momentum from this, is this going to be the plant for the next foreseeable future?

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah. I said to our church, this is what we’re doing, we’re going to go with this for another, for a year, just kind of give it a shot. We weren’t tied down to anything, we didn’t have a lease, we didn’t have any kind of built culture. So we’re just kind of, we feel a lot of freedom to just kind of roll with it, and I feel like this is the direction God was leading us. And I do feel that it’s a lot of freedom, initially we just said like Sundays at 10 a.m, like try and meet then. But then right away there is some kind of, like couldn’t we meet a little later in the morning. Yeah, I guess you can meet a little later in the morning. And now having a conversation with somebody just this past week is like, yeah, so here’s what we have planned, would you be interested in joining? I’m trying to get another micro-church fired up with a member of our congregation, who’s wanting to take the lead on a little micro-church. And this one woman, who I thought could be a great fit for that group. I was talking to her, and she says, Sunday mornings are pretty tough. Because she’s a photographer, her schedule is very, very tight. People, and especially at an unchurched and progressively post Christian culture, especially in the Northeast, like that’s when people want to get their photos taken. They want to do their engagement photos, or their family photos, or their headshots, and it’s like Sunday morning, that’s a great time. Right. So she’s like, she’s got to say yes, that’s her income, so. But she wants to grow in her faith, and so, like, we could be at eight o’clock, why not? Sunday afternoon, Monday night, or whatever, so there is a lot more lateral freedom that I’ve been opening myself up to gradually as well. The most important thing is just setting a time, so you actually do it, you know?

Jason Hamrock: Right, right. Yeah, it seems like you could, because if you create the, you’re creating the environment, the online environment, it can happen any time, really. But is that, are you try to keep it structured to a specific time.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah. So, I mean that it can happen at any time. And the important thing is, it’s like, hey, the video’s online, you can watch it anytime you want to. And then it’s just like, it’s just like, oh yeah. I’ll get to that. Right? That is why the livestream aspect of any church is so important, it’s like it happens at 10:00, it’s going to be rebroadcast at 6:00. Okay, I’ve got to show up, you’ve got to be there if you want to really experience it. You know, in the back of your mind, I’m not going to make it, this isn’t going to happen. Really, it’s really not, if doesn’t happen this weekend, it’s not going to happen. So [inaudible] at that time. But at the end of the day, if you set that time, it’s going to happen, and you get to have community time. And that’s the nice thing, is like that was the shift for me because I’m sure somebody out there will resonate with this. Like as a pastor, you didn’t sign up to preach to a camera. You love…They like to have the room, you like to have the reaction, and looking at people’s faces. And maybe if you’re meeting in person right now, you’re looking at people’s masked faces, and saying this is weird, this is still kind of strange. And I haven’t had that experience yet, but, you know, I kind of get the best of both worlds. You get the live stream, we record it, we make it real nice post production and stuff, and then broadcast it, put it on YouTube, and then you get to watch it.

Matt Lytikainen: I watch myself with others, and we have conversation. And one family that is with us, they have their girls, I have a daughter who is two and a half, and they play. We have a children’s moment a little bit, we just use the Jesus story out of the Bible, and ask some questions about the story and have a nice moment there. But it’s just this like, it’s kind of messy, maybe a little chaotic at times, but we’re still able to have a conversation, still able to worship, and be together and hear God’s word. And it’s a really precious time, and that’s something I look forward to every single week. Whereas, I know that I was fatigued doing live stream, and so I’m telling you it’s been a very positive shift for me personally, and emotionally as well.

Jason Hamrock: So then as you’re doing that, what are you doing then the rest of your week? You’re making relationships, and meeting with people, or what’s that look like?

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, that’s great, so that’s been a big question mark. And I think for all of us, it’s like, how do we be on a mission? How do you evangelize when people don’t want to breathe your air, and get close to you? And there’s not a lot of social events that are being created. And what I found helpful is in the past, in the before times, I would just go to an event that was happening. Scheduled, not a thing that we were putting on, but I’d just kind of show up, hope to make some conversations and connections happen, and then see where we landed, and that was kind of gradually how I built the community. So we’ve done in the early part, we did online connection events, we had an online happy hour. We had a board game night, that we used like some apps that you could do, like Ticket To Ride, and some other board games that you can do that are online using the App Store. Other ideas, we did a salsa lesson, a friend of mine is a professional dancer, so he gave us a nice lesson. So all these things we did to like, just bring people together for like some social connection and maybe like from that, invite them deeper into a relationship with Jesus or at the church.

Matt Lytikainen: So we have had, since things opened up more, we’ve been really happy to be in person. And now cases are rising back up, and so we’re kind of moving back into online. It’s like it’s kind of bouncing back and forth, it’s like ping pong. But this the Saturday, we had a nice event. We have done some monthly ministry at Hoboken Housing Authority, low income housing, and we’ve built some great relationships with one particular section of the housing buildings. And we had a Halloween party there, just invited both buildings down, lots of families came, there was a costume contest, we provided the food. And so everything’s like kind of CDC safe, we have masks on, grab and go food, not allowed touching. But it was it was a really positive time, really, really cool. And it’s just because of that effort, there’s actually a micro-church that is meeting there as well. So, yeah, we have been, it’s actually been, quite honestly, a bit of a question mark in terms of how we continue to meet new people. I think these opportunities have provided some avenues for that, but just trying different things to see what works.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, yeah. I can imagine that, that’s a little bit hard to do, even though you really want to meet people in their in their felt need moments. Right? And create environments or events to bring people together, that’s a little bit of a challenge with the social distancing and the, you know, the rules and things that you have to kind of follow. But as those hopefully lighten up, then that probably gives you some new ideas, and some hope for how you can get people together to have events to meet more new people.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, the thing about the pandemic that has been good, which is probably not something you hear in the same sentence very often, is, you know, I don’t think a lot of us were thinking we could have an outreach event on Zoom, and I don’t think we can do the Alpha course online, i don’t think we can do this dance lesson. You can do a lot of these things online, and potentially, as I noticed, engage more people. Or people that had not come, and I noticed this last week, is people who hadn’t come to anything in ages, no social events, I hadn’t seen him in a long time, they came to the online events. And there’s actually some trade offs, some people who came to the in-person stuff before, didn’t really come on to the online event. So you get…But in a post-COVID world will be able to do both, and I think expand our reach. And so I think there will be more opportunities for sure, and especially as things start opening up, and people will start wanting to host events, and get togethers, and networking, and things like that. Those are great spaces for pastors and missional people to just step into, and build relationships, because that’s what people are there to do. So you can just get right in on what they’re there to do, to accomplish your own purposes.

Jason Hamrock: Okay. So what are a couple of resources that pastors that are wanting to plant a church, thinking about it, where would you send them?

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, one, I would definitely recommend, it’s a [inaudible], but it is excellent, it is Timothy Keller’s Center Church. It literally looks like a textbook, because it is, they have released three volumes that make it more like, like maybe a bite size portions. They are like three books, that are divided into three sections, so that you can look up, Timothy Keller’s Center Church.

Matt Lytikainen: And then there is another book, I believe it’s called The Top Ten Mistakes New Starts Make, and that’s just been a very helpful book to to look at and relook at as I’ve been putting it together. Oh, yeah, so yeah, that is Ten Most Common Mistakes Made By New Church Starts, by Jim Griffith and Bill Easum.

Matt Lytikainen: And then the other one is just, the thing that’s been so helpful to me in this time of reorganizing and figuring out what are we going to do, is always returning to my why, and my mission, and our values. And so, Church Unique by Will Mancini is indispensable. I would highly recommend it, not just to any church planter, but any church pastor. Yeah.

Jason Hamrock: Good. Good. What, so you’ve been working with with us for a little bit, how’s that been going?

Matt Lytikainen: That’s been going well. I mean just seeing the numbers on our website tick up from in the couple hundreds to a couple of thousand, it’s been definitely nice. I think people have. there have been a couple folks who’ve dropped in to our services as a result of that. And just general, the thing that’s challenging for the church, is that especially one that doesn’t have a building, and even one that does have a building, it’s just like, awareness. Like we are here, we are in your town, and not a lot of people know that, or oftentimes get those confused. Like, oh, yeah, I’ve been to your church, they meet in that place. And like that’s not us, but I appreciate the thought. So just getting ourselves established, and get in front of people, and visualize in front of people. And I think a great thing I was talking to you guys about was just getting those campaigns set, I can’t remember what they’re called at the present moment, but just those landing pages where people who have questions that are burning on their heart, I want to know about when is Jesus coming back. I get a lot of those questions on the website just recently, because of the campaigns that are running. And when people have questions, and they want to have answers. And then they have churches that they can turn to, and that has been bearing fruit. And I’m excited for what will happen when we get that third campaign up and running for ourselves, seeing the fruit that might be born from that building connection and relationship with those folks.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, well said. Yeah, we’re excited about that as well. I mean that’s something we see all the time, there’s so much search traffic out there of people that are, they’re either really, really desperate because they’re looking for answers, they’re not really looking for a church, but they are hungry. They’re trying to fix their marriage, or overcome an addiction, or it’s recovering from a divorce, or grief, or finances, or fear, anxiety, all the stuff that is going on in our world and in their own world, and they’re looking for solutions, and we have it. We know what the answer is, and we know who He is, but it’s getting getting relevant content on your website that will look at you and say, oh, you must be an authority on the subject matter, this is a good place for us to drive an ad to. So we’re excited about that partnership with your church, and all the churches we work with. Because that becomes kind of a, that’s a really cool thing where we can connect somebody locally that’s looking for help, and now they see you.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, definitely. And I think there has been a lot of fruit from that, there’s been…I actually just spoke to someone this morning, as a matter of fact, who, exactly what you said, COVID was really hard on them. They lived, I think one of the Carolinas, they have family in Staten Island. They have, it’s not a great situation growing up, this person just had a bad relationship. It was abusive, kind of emotional verbal abuse in the home, and now they’re back. And it’s really an unideal situation, and neither her or husband have a job, they’re looking for work, they need work, and they need a life. And they’re just like help, right? And you know that if we can’t help, at least we can point to someone else who can we can, we can point the local resources. And on top of that, we can point them to Jesus, and say, hey, come and join us. This is a place that we want to wrestle, and ask questions, and be in community, in the highs and the lows. What she was describing was definitely a low, so hopefully the Holy Spirit’s at work in that. I know he is.

Jason Hamrock: That’s great. Well, Matt, thank you for your time and your insight. Man, you’ve got a really cool thing going on, and, you know, you’re helping people, you’re connecting with people, and that’s what you wanted to do, and that’s what your mission is about. And it’s really cool to see you create this space in your area, where you’re trying something new, and I just pray that God blesses that tremendously.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, thanks a lot, Jason, it’s a pleasure talking with you now.

Jason Hamrock: Yeah, all right, well take care.

Matt Lytikainen: Yeah, take care.

Jason Hamrock: Well, Matt, thank you so much for your insight. You know, if you’re a church planter out there, or you’re wanting to play in a church, Matt brings a lot of insight, doesn’t he? He brings a lot of ideas to the table, and I really appreciate him recommending some resources for you to read.

Jason Hamrock: Here’s a couple of takeaways. Number one is, Matt is using the Google Ad Grant, Google is one of his largest donors, that’s giving money in terms of search traffic. We’re delivering all kinds of clicks to his website, and just because he doesn’t have a physical address, he has an online address, he has an online space, and he’s connecting with people all around him courtesy of Google. And we’re helping him in that space, and we’d love to help you in that space as well. If you’re a church plant, then you’ve got your church established. Maybe you’ve had to pull back and get out of the school because of COVID, or you can’t meet your theater, but you still have an online presence, and so we can talk to you about how to grow that online church. And if you’re wanting to establish that, then you’ve got to go get your 501c3 non-profit status, and then we can talk about what it means to use the Google Ad Grant.

Jason Hamrock: If you do have a physical location, maybe someday Matt will have a physical location, then local SEO is such an important component, an important tool to your growth. it establishes your presence in Google, and so we can talk about that as well.

Jason Hamrock: So, Matt, we’re cheering you on, we’re praying for you buddy. And we hope this micro-church thing just takes off, and you plant lots of these and reach thousands upon thousands of people. We pray that God blesses you, and it sounds like you’re on to something pretty cool, so way to go. All right, everybody, until next time, God bless. We’ll talk to you soon.

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