Rob Kelly is the President and founder of For Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their mission is to unite the church and transform the city. Rob’s story is not unlike others we have heard. He was a pastor for 13 years and began to have a burden for the lack of unity among the faith community in his city.
Rob is also a fantastic teacher! So, everyone will want to get their notebooks and pens out because we just enrolled in City Gospel Movements 101.
Stephanie: Before we dive in, I would love for you to give us some backstory. What was the “Why?”, after 13 years of being a pastor, that you began to have a burden for your city?
Rob: I was experiencing a depth of division of the Church that didn’t align with what you would read in Scripture. I think if you want to get to the why or who I am, I believe that the greatest declaration of the Gospel is seen and experienced in the unity of the Church. I believe Jesus is ridiculously clear on this point. It’s not just in John 17, but culminates in John 17 when he prays:
“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
This oneness is also a conversion. I have had multiple conversions, subsequent to my conversion to Christ. I’m not a heretic, I understand there’s only one true conversion in Christ, but I truly came to this deep belief that this Oneness we share in Christ does drive everything. This led to another conversion, which is part of my “why.” It is that I believe God has placed His Church, His people as redemptive change agents in cities to redeem cities. As Jeremiah says, “to seek the shalom of the city”, to transform lives, to transform communities through the Gospel. This drives me.
As a pastor, who was experiencing this division, I began to wonder, “What would our city look like in 5, 10, 20 years, if even the pastors in our city loved each other the way Jesus calls us to? How would the silos in our city break down? What would the fruit of that oneness look like if lived out through congregations seeing it lived out and living it out together?”
It’s very exciting, it gets me up in the morning. I love what I do, and I believe in it.
S: I would love for you to share some of the foundation truths and best practices you have. I know you have some deep theological understandings of unity and a model for a unified approach to city transformation. Can you just walk us through that ideation and creation of thinking?
R: I think it starts with, again, not looking to endeavor into Christ’s mission without looking at the theology that unearths everything that you’re doing. If Jesus was right, and if the unity of His Church is the greatest declaration of the Gospel, what does our division declare? I would argue it’s the inverse truth, it’s what’s preventing the Gospel from advancing most effectively in cities. The question then becomes, “What does the Church divide over?” Because before you go into battle you have to name your enemy.
Historically, the Church would divide over a secondary theology, like you sprinkle, or you dunk in baptisms. If someone is high church or low church, or Calvinist. It’s tied to preference, language, culture and other things. Recently, you see the Church dividing over Christian ethics as well. These issues the Church has divided over historically, but where we can disagree on a lot of those issues the Church can agree on mission. Where you can disagree on your view on, the end times, or the gifts of the Spirit, I think we can agree that lost people need to be found, hungry people need to be fed, the hopeless need to experience the hope of Jesus. Mission is a great way to unite.
It is also important to recognize that we are already One. We talk about it at For Charlotte, we exist to unite the Church to transform our city. Technically, we don’t unite the Church, the Holy Spirit already did that. We are already One. The theology is that, when you meet people from other churches or other denominations, state an incredible truth, you’re going to spend eternity with that person. You will be perfectly united to God and each other in a fully redeemed city. As the Scripture says, “in the new Jerusalem”. It’s because of the Gospel that this will happen. If the Gospel unites everything in the world and the evil one divides, that means the Church is the only institution in the world that can show the world what a fully reconciled humanity looks like.
These are fundamental theological truths, that we are already One, and if you want to live that Oneness out, as Paul would say in Ephesians, “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” We already have the unity of the Spirit. You’re called to maintain it. The best way to do that, that we see through Scripture is to live it out on mission together, as God’s redemptive Kingdom agents. To love God, to love people, to make disciples, to serve the least of these and to seek the shalom of the city which God has placed you in, are important theological foundations.
As we seek to bring, not just the full Church but individual, small seed churches together, we didn’t want to create theological barriers. Instead of creating a strict theological doctoral statement, we have three values that I like to say are inherently doctoral.
- We come together and deeply value the centrality of the Gospel. You put Jesus in the middle and that’s the heart of what unities us. We are united in the person of Jesus. This is the Good News! God has loved us perfectly, through the life that bare through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- We believe in the unity of the Church. There are not 1,000 churches in Charlotte, there’s One Church and many beautiful expressions of that church.
- We come together around Christ’s mission for the transformation of cities.
When you are thinking of Jesus, the unity of the Church, and His mission in the city, you can come together around those deeply held values. I’ve met with over 600 pastors in our city over the past six or seven years, I’ll ask them in almost every meeting with a new pastor these three questions:
- Do you love Jesus? – I have never gotten a no there.
- Do you love Charlotte? – Yes.
- Do you believe Jesus can transform Charlotte through the unity of his Church? – Yes
If you get three yes’, then we can play together. At the end of the day, I don’t really care if he sprinkles or he dunks, if he has a high church or a low church. We can partner together as One unified Body of Christ to redeem the city that God’s placed us in, and to be God’s redemptive agents. Those theological truths really drive everything. You don’t want to jump past those before getting to the how, because this is really the why.
Now, the how is where we start to spend a lot of time. You talked about the approach that we have, for a long time we were just trying to get pastors in rooms together and see what would happen. About 5 or 6 years ago, I began to study church history and social sciences. I began digging into entrepreneurship and a lot of other disciplines, even technology. What I found that really blew me away, and what I call my third conversion; if union was first and city was second. My third conversion was the idea of platforms. If you want to live out the Oneness that you have, I always say there’s a trajectory to the unity we have, it’s union, to relational unity to operational unity. If you want to have operational unity in a city you need an operating system. You need an ecosystem that allows the Church to work collaboratively in a shared space, like a city.
I have found that platform theory and platform models are the most effective ecosystem tools. Platforms in and of themselves are an operating system. Unfortunately, from my experience in most cities, definitely in mine, is the way churches operate together. It is deeply broken because there is a deeply divided system. We began to study this model, to build it and what we find when you really dig into platforms is that it is the most disruptive, business, and social model the world will ever know. I use disruptive not in a negative sense but in a positive sense.
Think about it this way, Facebook is the largest distributor of media in the world, but they don’t employ one journalist. They’re a platform. Airbnb, the largest distributor of rooms in the world, they don’t own a room. Uber, largest distributor of rides, they don’t own a car, they are all platforms. What do platforms do? They create connection to bring people together and they lead to co-creation. You want to create spaces where the Church can come together and co-create and innovate on mission together collaboratively.
The cool thing about this is as I have studied platform theory in depth, what I have found is that Jesus is the greatest platform architect the world has ever known. We have a modern contemporary word in platform theory that describes how Jesus built the Kingdom to advance. I can go into that in greater detail, a little bit more in future questions. But I wanted to lay out that we have a very clear model as we approach bringing the Church together in our city.
S: Let’s talk a little bit about decentralized networks. For so many years you’ve been working on creating these networks in the city that would potentially use the idea of platforms and platform unity. Tell me about your ideas around a decentralized network and why do you think that works in a city context?
R: This is strong fundamental missiological principles and important theology. You have heard people ask in real estate” what’s the first rule of real estate?” and the answer is location, location, location. The first rule of mission is context, context, context. If you want to live out a robust theology of place you begin with the understanding that God is working through His Church. He is working through His redemptive change agents in whatever locality He has placed them into most effectively contextualize the Gospel. There can be transformation, whether it be individual, societal, or transformation in a set locality. God places leaders within His Church in each locality to help shepherd, guide and lead the body of Christ to most contextualize the Gospel.
When you understand how platforms operate, they really do change the way you see ministry. One of the conversions that you can experience is the conversion of the Church mindset to a Kingdom mindset. With platforms there’s a lot of paradigm shifts you have to go through, for instance, to get directly to your point Stephanie, when you think of platform models vs. a traditional ministry model, you move from a centralized to a more democratized mentality. This means there is often a push or pull in the Church towards hierarchy, towards centralization, towards building things up. Platforms acknowledge that believers are sent. Jesus says in John 20:
“Again, Jesus said, ‘… As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”
We’re called to model Jesus’s incarnational model of mission, where he really stepped down into the world, into our context to be the ultimate redeemer. As His redemptive agents we’re called to do the same.
Another massive platform paradigm shift is from control to influence in the world. The Church is so used to trying to build things up. It’s almost like this field of dreams model, they build it and they will come. It’s this idea of hierarchy and where platforms actually represent and inverse hierarchy of the Kingdom. We worship a Lord that did not come to be served, but to serve and gave his life as a ransom for the many. If you want to be first in the Kingdom of God, you’re going to be last. If you want to live, you actually have to die to yourself. This is the inverse hierarchy that we are shown in the Scriptures.
Next, a paradigm shift is from a competing to a collaborating model in mission. This is just reflected throughout the Scriptures. John 17 talks about this oneness that were called to. John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another…by this the world will know.” Do a keyword study on the Scripture on all of the passages of the Bible that refer to one another. It will blow your mind how much were called to come together as One unified Body of Christ, to live out what God has called us to.
There is another massive paradigm shift, that is so important to this idea of decentralization. There is a shift from a scarcity mindset to what I call a ubiquity mindset. Scarcity meaning, there is a limited amount of time left, money, resources or space. What this does is creates a competition model within the Church. When the reality is, somehow the evil one has convinced us that we, as local churches are in competition; when in reality he’s our competition.
The ubiquity mentality tells us that God has given us everything that we need and the more that we add, the more people, the more churches, the more time, the more resources, the more passion, the better. It creates this theology of abundance. God’s placed everything in your city, that your city needs to contextualize the Gospel, to see the transformation were called to.
These are just massive shifts, and I use the language of conversion. I don’t know what other English word reflects the power of the experience that you go through. When I say conversion, it means when you step into this new paradigm you can’t go back.
S: It’s too great a shift.
R: It’s a massive paradigm shift. What we have basically done is take in the disruptive nature of platforms and we’ve began applying them to the mission of Christ for the transformation of our city. You say my title is CEO of For Charlotte, my title should actually be platform architect. But no one actually knows what that means. What we try to do is architect different types of platforms that bring the Church together, to be the Church, to go together to connect, so they can co-create on mission together.
Our model is Applied Platform Theory and we have 5 platforms that I run. We have a network platform in Charlotte, where we develop networks of pastors that meet regularly. We just launched our 15th network, with about 210 churches. Of those networks combined, 10 of them are based on geography. Pastors are meeting in local geographies around out city. Then, 5 are around affinity issues; like church planting, foster care, and prayer. We have a Latino pastor’s care network. We have a research/resource information platform where we bring churches together and do a lot of research to create opportunities for churches to learn the needs of the city so they can contextualize the Gospel. We also have a neutral convening platform, where we are a neutral convener for the Church.I like to say that everyone owns it, and no one owns it. It’s a safe space where we have gatherings, some big, and some small. It is where the Church can come together to co-create on mission.
We also do initiatives, we have an initiative collaborative platform. For instance, right now we are going into our third week, of a three-week city-wide unified sermon series on the Art of Neighboring. We have about 100 churches reaching 60,000 people, that are equipping their congregations to live out the thing that Jesus said was most important, to love their neighbor. It’s really exciting to have just over 100 churches participating in that. Finally, we have a technology platform. Which is a tool that helps churches, nonprofits, schools etc. partner and collaborate on mission in our city. You can see it can be done. We’ve taken those principles, applying them in real time and learning from success and failure, and adapting as we go.
S: I’m really curious about the 15th network you just launched because you started with only one. Walk us through what those early days were like, having these kinds of conversations with people. If you’ve had 600 conversations with pastors over the years, was it finding those people that were on your same team and thinking the same way you were in the beginning?
R: I think you start by having a lot of coffee and lunches with a lot of people. I found I was starting to meet with a lot of other pastors in the city and I was very pleasantly surprised that there were a lot of other pastors that were not okay with the status quo. That was really encouraging to me.
At the time I was 30-31 years old, and I had been in ministry almost a decade at that point and I was realizing I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career working in these silos and working divided in the city. We began to talk, and in the beginning, we were just trying to get pastors in rooms together. We didn’t have a model, we just wanted to see what would happen. What I learned later on is you study the diffusion of innovation, or some people call it the innovation adoption curve. I think it’s deeply theological.
S: Please explain this for people who aren’t familiar with it.
R: if you’ve ever seen a standard bell curve and you understand standard deviations, you know if you go all the way to the left, at the very small part of the bell curve is two and a half percent. In the innovation adoption curve that two and a half percent are the innovators. They are the people that want to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and they don’t care what it is yet. It doesn’t need to be defined. As you begin this approach in cities, you want to find the people that buy into the why, before there is a what.
S: Or how.
R: That is really important. The how comes way later, I’ll get to that. Why is actually the key, these are the people that you open up their chest and see John 17 written on their heart. Those are the people you begin to find, and they say, “I can’t do this the same way either.” They are converted, they have converted, and they are not okay with going back. And guess what? They start having conversations with people too. Once you get two and a half percent of those people, you start moving into what are called early adopters. Thirteen and a half percent of your city are the early adopters. I know that sounds weird, but I promise you the numbers are right.
In the early adoption phase this is when you begin to define what it is. We said we are a mission network because we didn’t know what else to call it. We were a network of churches trying to do mission together, to build relationship, to trust together, and to break down silos together. We started defining it and we had a network that had been loosely going for years and we found a couple others that had been loosely going. When we launched, we actually had 3 not 1, because we connected networks. The leaders of all those networks, which were also innovators we just hadn’t connected yet. We all connected and then all of a sudden you had something to build off of. You had multiple people, pounding the pavement, having coffee and lunches, and having those conversations.
The cool thing is once you surpass 16%, 2 ½ innovators and 13 1/2% early adopters, and that’s the great chasm. That’s where people write books on the tipping point. Once you break 16% of the churches in your city, sit back, and watch what the Lord does. I promise you it’s a beautiful thing. You’ll start experiencing things called network effects. When you break past the 16% that’s when you have to truly define “how”, you’re doing what you’re doing. For us, there’s roughly 1,000 small seed churches in the city, again only one church, but 1,000 small seed. When we hit 160 churches participating in networks it was the most amazing thing to start a movement happening. It was like holding the tiger by the tail, because cool things started going on in the city. In the early adoption phase, we started doing much larger gatherings, started producing some research projects and initiatives that we had done.
There were breakthrough moments that brought us to this level of scale in the city. This takes a lot of time, intentionality, a tremendous amount of prayer, and it has to be within God’s timing and favor in your city. We’re just blessed to be apart of it. One of the things you learn after meeting so many people in the city is finding pockets of people in the city that had been praying that God would do something like this in our city for generations. Here we’re reaping the benefit of generations of people praying for that. It’s such a blessing to be a part of and to see some of the fruit God’s people have been praying for.
S: Rob, What Kept you going in those early Days? And how would you encourage those that are listening, who are on the front end of this thing to keep going?
R: I would say first and foremost, I definitely had the blessing for me of being a true believer. And I hope that doesn’t come across wrong. I really deeply believed what Jesus prayed for, His final words. I believe they are a clarity statement, for The Great Commission. In the Church we always talk about having a Great Commission, and every church talks about going to make disciples. Jesus told us exactly how though in John 13:34-35:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
And in John 17:23,
“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’
It’s a clarity statement, and I believe it. That wakes me up in the morning, because, there was a ton of discouragement, but do you believe? I would just ask do you believe that? And second, are you willing to play the long game? This is not instant gratification work. Kevin’s right, there are times of discouragement and times you will be let down.
I say that because the pastors that I serve and help connect in our city are my friends and I love them, and they love me. I have great relationships in the city, and what I see is many of them are burning out. They are in a system that is broken, they are hurting, and many of the pastors in our cities are on functional burnout, like you say someone is a functional alcoholic. They are functional burnouts, and because I love them, I see the brokenness and it doesn’t have to be that way. At the same time, and maybe this is something I hesitate to say in public, but I had to change my expectations of churches and pastors. Like if you expect them to all get to where you are right now, you’re going to get let down a lot. It’s just going to take a lot of time. This is why we’re not called in ministry to success, but to faithfulness.
If you’re willing to be faithful for the long run, there’s a Godly satisfaction that you can experience, along the way through difficult times and you will have them. That’s one thing that this life is sure to have, there’s promise that there will be suffering and difficult times. But if you believe and you’re willing to play the long game and you deeply love the people you’re serving; I think God can use that.
S: Rob, What are you dreaming about and what do you see as your role in what God wants to do in this work?
R: I’m definitely in the long game. I’m 41 years old and I hope I’m doing this when I’m 71. I just think this is a blast. For me, it’s the idea of going both deep and wide. I think healthy networks grow by definition. For depth one of the areas we want to grow in the future is research. We spent a lot of time doing a lot of research in our city and produce an annual book called The State of the City Report.
We do a lot of research along the way. One of the areas we’re moving into is how do we do data well? How do we do information well? Oftentimes, there’s a decision-making deficit, on how churches approach mission. They will approach mission based on biblical convictions which is good, it’s always good to love someone. But they don’t always base their decisions on actual need. The question is how do you help marry biblical conviction with actual need? That’s where contextualization really matters.
We started producing this report book and what I found is most churches don’t do data at all. I would want move churches from data-less to data informed and moved from data informed to data- driven. In the sense of how we not just use it, but value it and co-create it together. We have a number of projects we’re starting to build and work on. We have full time staff now, that are pouring into this area of helping the Church in our city to use and value data. We want them to approach mission as a unified body of Christ.
That’s a real driving force and we will live that out through the networks that we have helped served here in Charlotte. Through that too, we are creating different technologies, platforms and resources to refine those processes’ over time. I think deep and wide really are connected, if you go deeper it will allow you to go wide healthier.
I have a really amazing board and they are even asking the question “What does Kingdom look like?” and “Are there things we are doing in Charlotte that could help other cities?” Both myself and other board members are starting to serve in that space as well. We will see where the Lord leads in the future, but it’s exciting. We want to be faithful to what God is doing right now in Charlotte and go deep which will hopefully allow us to go wide in a healthier way.
Rob mentioned the State of the City document. You can find it here.
If you are interested int what Rob is saying and want to gather pastors together to have them listen to this podcast and infuse that energy and enthusiasm, do it. Pull people in, and I know Rob is willing to come and I know his schedule is busy, but this is his passion.