Welcoming the de-churched, the broken, the homeless and the unbeliever, City Church seeks to be a place of acceptance and belonging, believing that Christ’s love has transformative power.
The story of City Church began 4 years ago in conversations among people at St. Andrews in Mt. Pleasant who had developed a heart for downtown Charleston. Although many Gospel-centered churches existed in the area, a large number of the downtown population was unchurched or de-churched and were not being reached by the established churches, who’s colonial buildings were equated by some with empty religion. St. Andrews had a vision of reaching this population by providing a space that felt inviting and safe while still being spiritually challenging. Although they did not want church to be “easy,” they did want it to be easy to walk into. Todd Simonis, in youth ministry at St. Andrews and already working with young people in the downtown area, was asked to lead the core of young people that would be the planting team of this new endeavor- City Church.
Downtown Charleston is a young, transient community with many of its members “inoculated with the Gospel” and de-churched because of past experiences. Because of the difficulty in drawing this population to worship, it was important to the mission of City Church to have a unique, non-traditional building. They found this in the renowned Music Farm, an iconic and popular music venue in Charleston that hosts major acts almost every night of the week. To Todd’s surprise, the Music Farm was very open to renting to them. After a series of preliminary meetings with the core team, the church officially launched in October 2010, a service that brought in 52 people, and their work has not stopped growing since.
City Church began with a specific vision of ministry that rests on four basic values: everyone takes part in Life-groups; everyone serves in the church; everyone gives financially; and everyone invites people. All of this is pursued while emphasizing a culture of welcome, inviting people into a knowledge of God and into the full life that follows. City Church focuses on active members and has set a standard of mutual responsibility: no one in the community only consumes, but everyone serves. Todd explains “we’re happy for someone who identifies as an atheist to serve in an area like the coffee team. First, you’re invited to belong.” It is in this environment, as people become part of a greater whole that is set on loving and serving others, that people have come to belief in Christ. And then through belief in Christ behavior is changed as well.
A bartender at the Music Farm, who often cleaned the bar on Saturday nights for City Church’s Sunday meetings, eventually came to check out the church: he became a believer and was baptized. Another Music Farm employee, who was being paid by City Church to run sound, also came to faith and he and his fiancée are soon to be married by Todd. Todd loves to recount these miraculous stories of God transforming lives in downtown Charleston, remembering God’s faithfulness in the midst of a challenging ministry.
As part of reaching out to the demographic of the area, City Church is learning to serve the large homeless population as well. One of the first things they learned was that many homeless are so by choice. This discovery opened up new questions about how to support, encourage, and help this population, so City Church became involved with a local ministry already serving this community. Each week, they work with this ministry to set out picnic blankets where homeless men and women come to eat. A trained volunteer sits at each blanket so that as people come to be fed, they are also receiving relationship with friends who are learning their names and their lives. These relationships allow City Church to love the homeless in Charleston and many attend their Sunday services, serve and take part in their community.
Not settling simply for relationship, City Church has developed a process to strategically come alongside many in the homeless population to bring about transformation in their lives. The leaders within the church ask each person to come up with a 6-month goal, and then they help in tangible ways as the individual works towards that goal, giving some direction and communal support. This real-time relationship and functional support has brought great change in the lives of many. Todd remembers God’s powerful presence and recounts the importance of their work in the stories of people like Nino and Tim, who came to faith and were actively involved at City Church. While rehabilitating from alcoholism, reconciling with family and getting back on their feet, both died suddenly–Nino from a heart attack, and Tim in an auto accident. Even in the midst of these tragedies, there has been deep joy in seeing Christ’s love change their lives and the lives of those around them, and solace in knowing they are now with God. These homeless men found a home with City Church and ultimately in the one of the rooms Jesus went to prepare for them.
Four years after being planted, City Church is at about 500 attendees, mostly comprised of young people and members of the homeless community. The Anglican liturgy is well received as it provides a sense of connectivity to something bigger than themselves. Life-groups are the central place of connecting, relationship, growth, and ministry. On the importance of these groups, Todd remarks: “It’s typically in living rooms that people’s lives are changed.” These groups have become so popular that there are currently not enough Life-groups to accommodate the number of people interested in them and the church continues to pray for leaders.
Because of Charleston’s high rate of transience, City Church also sees itself as a sending church. People are constantly being transformed, grown, and sent forth releasing the work that God is doing in the lives of people at City Church to other cities as well.
City Church has recently commissioned 30 people to begin St. Andrew’s Park Circle, a church plant in North Charleston, and anticipates planting more churches in Charleston and beyond as opportunity arises. This beautiful, courageous community provides an inspiring picture of what it looks like to plant a church that truly loves the people of its city and brings the transforming of the Gospel to bear in powerful ways.