When Dr. Eric Mason first felt the call to plant churches nearly 14 years ago, he envisioned  himself as a kind of itinerant preacher. “I wanted to model my work after the Apostle Paul’s by planting a church, spending two or three years getting it up and running, and then moving on to plant another.”

After the pastor, author, and board member for the Acts 29 church-planting network landed in inner-city Philadelphia, he changed his mind about that model. “I found that with inner-city ministry, you have to be in it for the long haul because these are extremely relational communities. When you’re actively involved in an inner-city neighborhood, you develop a ‘trust capital’ that provides a pipeline for ministry. Building that trust takes time. People aren’t going to connect with a brand.”

Planning and Praying

Six years passed between the time Mason received his call to plant churches and the day the doors to Epiphany Fellowship opened. During that time, Mason worked with several pastors who trained and mentored him. “Dr. Tony Evans and the elders at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship helped me develop an understanding of urban ministry and how to engage in church-based, kingdom-driven ministry. I gained a lot of experience in youth ministry, inner-city, outer-city, and prison ministry, as well as city-wide evangelism. When we moved from Dallas to Houston, I served as a pastor for Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, and for two years, Dr. D. Z. Cofield mentored me. I preached multiple services, conducted funerals, led a prison worship program, and began to understand what it really meant to pastor people.”

Mason’s training didn’t prepare him for everything, but it did set him on the right path. Today he has advice for would-be church planters: “The greater the cultural shock, the longer it’s going to take you to adjust and begin to minister in that new context. If you have the opportunity, train in a compatible area so you don’t have to deal with a learning curve that’s off the charts.”

Mason also suggests, “As you pray for your future church, don’t neglect to pray about spiritual warfare. Jesus said the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church, but that means there will be attempts on the life of the Church. In that light, you have to be deeply involved in spiritual formation. You need to have a deep sense of the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. He nurtures you and strengthens you to put on the whole armor of God so that you can engage the city.”

Church Planting

When Mason planted Epiphany Fellowship, he wanted to develop a regional church that would add to what God was already doing in Philadelphia and around the world. “We knew that churches had been involved here for a long time, so we didn’t want to come in arrogantly, without an understanding of the work that had been done before.”
Even so, Mason faced some unique challenges. “After being on staff at three megachurches, I had to adjust from an unlimited budget to pioneering something. I went from having everything I needed to working out of our spare bedroom.”

Mason also began to understand the value of a long-term commitment to his new community. “The inner city is based on a social capital. ... When someone transitions out of ministry in the community, it impacts the momentum of the work there.”

Mason works to disciple other leaders, training some to work in their church and some to go out and plant more churches. “Paul explains to the Corinthians, ‘We don’t preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Cor 4:5). In light of that, I wanted to expand our bandwidth.” Mason seeks to develop new leaders and expand the church’s influence beyond a single neighborhood. “It was a tough transition. Many inner-city churches become a mission place that people come to versus a mission-sending agency. We wanted Epiphany Fellowship to become a kingdom agency that doesn’t just use resources, but breathes life into the kingdom.”

People Are Not Projects

Perhaps because of the leadership lessons he has learned, Mason warns against seeing a church community solely as a mission field, without the interaction that comes from doing life together. He encourages church planters to consider their churches as “a place that you love and engage, where you can seek the peace of the city and its welfare, because in it you find your welfare. You’re not just helping those people; God is using the ministry to sanctify you, as well as to reach people in the neighborhood. Treating people like a project comes from stereotyping, versus meeting and connecting with people and learning what’s actually going on in the community. We need to lovingly engage in meeting the most pressing needs rather than creating a toxic charity.”

“Jesus didn’t view Israel as a project. He looked over Jerusalem, and he talked about it from a heart perspective: ‘How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’ (Matt 23:37). Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘I became your father through the gospel’ (1 Cor 4:15). There’s a sense of love, compassion, and a desire to see Christ formed in the people versus just a man working through a checklist.”

Bible Study—From Frustration to Familiarity

For his personal devotions, Mason says he reads extensively, noting “observation, interpretation, application, and correlation” as he reads through passages. “Phrases, idioms, and words jump out at me. I’ll underline as I read, then refer to an illustrated background text like Zondervan’s or IVP’s resources. That steady diet of reading Scripture means I don’t come to any text cold turkey when it’s time for sermon prep. So when I begin my interpretation process in sermon writing, it flows out of the familiarity I already have with the passage.”

“I ask questions—who’s talking? Who are they talking to? How are they interacting with others? Those basic Bible study methods are in Howard Hendricks’ Living by the Book. If you use those questions often, they really become a part of you. As an example, I was reading recently in 1 Peter. I asked a lot of questions about the author and thought about his interactions with Jesus, the Great Commission, and how he’s living out the Great Commission. Then, I went to look at the teachings of Jesus and connect them to Peter’s writing.”

Prayer is also central to Mason’s devotional process. “I pray that Scripture will give up its jewels. That constant prayer has been central to this very formative process. Of course, this is a process that has evolved over 20 years of ministry, education, and life in Christ. I did start off very, very frustrated. But I had a dependence on the Holy Spirit, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to a robust biblical diet. I found myself spending hours in God’s Word, familiarizing myself with the stories and developing a love for Scripture.”

PSALM 119 WAS AN EARLY MODEL FOR ME OF DEVELOPING A LOVE AFFAIR WITH GOD BY DEVELOPING A LOVE AFFAIR WITH HIS WORD. AND THAT NEEDS TO BE THE FOUNDATION OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD—THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD, THROUGH A CONNECTION WITH JESUS CHRIST THROUGH THE GOSPEL. THAT’S HOW IT BEGAN, AND I’M PRAYING THAT’S HOW IT CONTINUES.

When Mason advises people who struggle to feel like they connect with God in their quiet times, he tells them to keep reading Scripture regularly. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that every Bible study or devotional time should have a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment—angels playing harps, a sense of peace around you, and you’re in tears. But the steady diet is what’s important. When you approach Scripture, you read first for what you don’t know at all. Second, you read it for what’s going on in your life and study it for application. Finally, you read it for future needs. When you read the Bible regularly, you begin to lock away truths that you can recall when you need encouragement.”

Biblical Literacy and Discipleship

Mason’s steady diet of Scripture has found a corollary in his congregation—a church that is hungry for the Bible. “The desire for biblical literacy has increased, and people are especially calling for it in their leadership because they want to be equipped, based on Ephesians 4—‘so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ ”  (Eph 4:14–15).

“We engage people in a significant number of both organized and organic ways, helping them to become biblically literate. Our College Connect groups minister to hundreds of college students and young adults. We also encourage people to study theology. We’re starting a theological studies program here at Epiphany Fellowship and another for Malawi in Africa.”

Mason works through the Bible during Wednesday night services: “We’re looking at how Christ is portrayed in every book.” Perhaps even more important than official church events, Mason wants to focus on personal interactions. This emphasis on discipleship creates a motivation for learning from Scripture: “People begin to develop relationships with others when they want to see them grow from spiritual empathy to spiritual maturity.”

In his early years as a believer, Mason says Hebrews 6 was formative in his desire for biblical understanding—and he hopes to pass this to his congregation: “‘Let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God’ (Heb 6:1). This is what Christians really need to learn when they first become believers—the elementary doctrine. Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 3:1–3 when he addresses the faith issues of the Corinthians. You see in these passages a bit of nondivisive eschatology. There’s sociology, there’s Christology, and there’s the centrality of the gospel message.”

Thriving in the Inner City

One of Mason’s biggest challenges in inner-city church planting is simply finding advice and encouragement from people who have worked under similar conditions. “When we planted Epiphany Fellowship, we didn’t have many models. There are plenty of established churches in the inner city, and church planters working in upwardly mobile, suburban, or rural areas. But we had trouble finding anything that matched what we were doing and the communities we were working with.”

As Epiphany Fellowship grew, other church planters working in inner-city or urban mission environments started to contact Mason and his team. “We started getting calls from people all over the world wanting to learn how to do what we were doing. For a while people would come and spend a week with our church staff to learn and serve, but eventually the demand became too much.”

That’s when Mason and his team developed Thriving, an urban missions collaborative that focuses on leadership development, discipleship, and mission training for men and women who also desire to serve inner-city communities. “We’re not here to be the model for everyone else, but God has graced us to speak and serve the body of Christ in this particular way.” To that end, Thriving holds an annual leadership summit for urban church leaders and planters. Thriving also offers internships and church planting residencies for ministers who feel called to plant churches.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

Jessi Strong is senior writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com.

“We’ve done everything from planting churches to creating events in an effort to develop people’s biblical knowledge and their practice of the gospel. Right now we’ve planted or are in the middle of planting churches in Germantown, Camden, Atlanta, and Raleigh. We also have plans to send churches to Brooklyn and Los Angeles in the next few years. We’re providing resources for hundreds of leaders globally to help them do what God has ordained them to do.”

Mason cites Paul’s words in Romans 15 as his inspiration and passion for church planting: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’ (Rom 15:20–21). We want to raise up leaders who are passionate about going to the forgotten places to minister where it is difficult—to places that are in need of the gospel.”