Last week, I asked Nick Laparra several questions about the transition from Mars Hill Bellevue to Bellevue Soma (or Soma Bellvue). Laparra just emailed to say that many of those questions have been answered in an open letter, which I am reproducing here. Jeff Vanderstelt, the Soma pastor tapped to possibly take on the preaching duties at Bellevue, wrote on the Soma website:
In light of the recent announcement that I am considering replanting a new church out of Mars Hill Bellevue which will cease to exist on December 31, 2014, it seemed wise and helpful to further introduce myself.
I have been in pastoral ministry for nearly 25 years and have a passion to see Jesus at work through the church, which is His body, in every sphere of life. I believe God has called me to cast this vision for the church as well as equip the church to fulfill it. I believe the church is much more than an event on Sunday or a group of leaders who run programs for people to attend. The church is God’s people, saved by God’s power, filled by God’s presence, for His purposes in all of life. And the leaders God gives to the church exist to serve and equip the church to live this out everyday of the week.
I began as a pastor in student ministry equipping students for everyday life. I then joined Bill Clem, who planted Doxa Church in West Seattle, which was part of the Acts 29 Network. The elders of Doxa sent me out to plant Soma in Tacoma where we were assessed and Soma Tacoma became part of the Acts 29 Network. For the past 10 years, I have been equipping all ages as part of Soma Tacoma’s leadership team. In the past, I served in the role of Vice President for Acts 29 and more recently as part of the Acts 29 Board over the Northwest. Presently, I have stepped away from board leadership and moved to an advisory role.
The Biblical letter to the church in Ephesus significantly shaped Soma’s vision with Ephesians 1:22-23 leading us to our ‘Soma’ name: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body [Greek: soma], the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We believe God wants to fill Tacoma, and every place for that matter, with the presence of Jesus through His body [soma] the church so that every man, woman, and child has a daily encounter with Jesus. We knew this could not happen through large group gatherings only, so we trained our people to live in community, on mission, in smaller groups called missional communities. As a missional community people learn together how to love one another like family, serve Jesus by serving others, and share Jesus verbally to others with the hope that they also would come to love and follow Jesus. It is not just an inward facing group but one that deliberately faces outward to a neighborhood or specific group of people who don’t yet know the love of Jesus personally.
As we equipped people to live on mission together, based upon God’s Word, out of love for Jesus and empowered by his Spirit, more groups were started and the church continued to grow. Eventually we found ourselves helping other leaders around the country and the world to plant new churches or transition existing ones to greater faithfulness to Jesus’ mission. This led to the beginning of the Soma Family of Churches in 2010. The Soma Family is a group of independently governed churches committed to a common vision of seeing Jesus work through His body in every place and every day through missional communities. We share similar doctrinal distinctives as well as common convictions regarding equipping the church for mission. We also believe every church should be led and governed locally by a plurality of elders who humbly lead and serve by example amongst their community. Though we are not legally bound to one another, we commit relationally to love one another like family.
Many have asked why I would consider replanting a church in Bellevue, especially in light of the brokenness and pain that has taken place in the existing church. The answer I have continued to share is that I really love Jesus and His church, and my heart is deeply broken over what has taken place. Everything in my flesh tells me to run the other way. However, Jesus has led Jayne, my wife of 22 years, our children, our local elders (many of whom have been praying for Mars Hill for years), and over 60 leaders from our church to see this as our brothers and sisters whom Jesus died for and whom we are called to love. We are all in agreement on this. Jesus has clearly directed us through his word (Romans 15:1-13 and Isaiah 61), through dreams, and through many wise counselors to seriously consider replanting a new church. One of my responses to a leader from Bellevue who incredulously asked why I would ever consider coming was this, “When God calls you to do something you just know. You just know! And when you know, you have to obey or you will not be able to sleep at night.”
Part of our ongoing process of discernment involved our local Soma Tacoma elders spending a night in prayer and waiting to receive counsel, concerns, and key questions from God that they in turn presented before Jayne and me. I had informed them that I would not consider this if they did not unanimously affirm it. They returned with over 30 very specific questions and concerns, some of which we answered in our next meeting together. A key question, among many, during this time was whether I truly had a heart for the people there. In response I shared that I wept over these brothers and sisters every time I prayed for the church there, “Yes, I have a huge heart for these people! And I don’t know how to explain it apart from God’s work in me.”
Many other questions and concerns could only be addressed by the Bellevue elders. So Jayne and I, along with two Soma elders, met with the elders from Bellevue. During that time the rest of the questions and concerns were addressed. One of the key points of clarification was that this new church be a genuine replant – a new start – with new vision, methodology, different staffing if needed, and a willingness from all the elders to resign if necessary. I also shared that I would want this new church plant to eventually become part of the Soma Family of Churches, which we all agreed could not happen immediately. These elders have humbly agreed to all these points. They want to do whatever is needed to see the people of the church shepherded and led well moving forward. We also made it clear that I would not be considered a part of Mars Hill in any way. In light of all that has transpired, we agreed that since many people have been deeply hurt, there is still a need for ongoing repentance, reconciliation, and restoration.
Since that meeting, we met with over 60 of our leaders from Soma Tacoma who affirmed God’s call to consider this new ministry. I also met with other leaders from the Mars Hill Bellevue and Sammamish churches, interacted with members of the body during their family meeting on November 23rd, and shared my story and vision for a new church during the 4 PM gathering.
As we continue in this process of discernment I am making myself available to members of the Bellevue and Sammamish churches, as well as Soma Tacoma. I also intend to meet with the greater Eastside pastors and leaders as well as receive ongoing counsel from leaders from around the country. We are not planning on making this decision in isolation or without the support and affirmation of the Bellevue and Sammamish church families. We hope to have clarity on this decision by December 14th, making an announcement no later than December 21st.
In everything we do moving forward, I want us to operate with dependency on the Spirit, openness and transparency, mutual submission, and with a constant posture of humility. As a result, I hope this leads to a new church that partners with other churches and other leaders in the community. In this new church, Jesus must be the only man lifted up, and I trust that as He is, by the grace of God, healing, reconciliation, and restoration will take place.
Please pray for us as we consider this together. And if the Lord should so lead us to replant a new church, pray for healing, for wisdom for establishing a new leadership culture, and above all else that we keep Jesus at the top of the org chart and humbly serve Him well on the Eastside.
Vanderstelt said the Bellevue elders were willing to resign but did not say if they intend to, and, to my knowledge, they haven’t.
My question about transparency was not addressed directly. I noted to Laparra that the amount of money spent on missions, and the disposition of Mark Driscoll and Sutton Turner is unknown to the members who are being asked to give money. Members don’t know if their money is going to help start the new Soma church or if it is going to pay severances. I asked if Soma would require more transparency at Mars Hill Bellevue. Other the word “transparency”being used, there is nothing specific in this letter. In my opinion, every day this information remains hidden is a day that the new boss seems a little more like the old boss.
I suspect this letter will sound very Mars Hillsy to many. That may or may not mean anything problematic but as one who did not know the language before a year ago, I can recognize it here. I do think this line must have been written with Mark Driscoll in mind: ” In this new church, Jesus must be the only man lifted up, and I trust that as He is, by the grace of God, healing, reconciliation, and restoration will take place.”