By Helen Gibson
Each season, the StartUp podcast tells the stories of people who are stepping out of their comfort zones and trying something new.
Through narrative storytelling techniques, interviews, and natural sound, the podcast introduces its listeners to passionate, entrepreneurial types who are working to launch new businesses or build brands from scratch.
This season, podcast listeners are introduced to AJ Smith, the lead pastor of a church plant in northern Philadelphia — and with that, they’re exposed to the world of church planting.
Alex Blumberg, a former National Public Radio producer, founded the documentary podcast from Gimlet Media. StartUp still maintains deep connections to NRP’s popular radio show and podcast This American Life, which previewed this season on their own show.
“Every year, thousands of pastors start new churches from scratch,” host Eric Mennel says of church planting on the first episode. “And what has arisen is a world remarkably parallel to the tech industry, with investors and incubators and growth indicators — but for Jesus.”
Mennel spends much of the rest of the episode describing the growing movement of evangelical church planting. He describes it as a way evangelical churches are trying to reach new people and slow the masses of people leaving the church
In this regard, previous Lifeway Research has shown the movement to be successful — a 2015 study showed that new Protestant churches are being started in the U.S. at a faster rate than old ones are being closed. It also found that a significant portion of people who attended those churches — 42 percent of those worshipping at churches launched since 2008 — had never attended church before or hadn’t in many years.
Church planting may sound like a foreign concept to StartUp listeners who aren’t directly connected to the evangelical church, but Mennel himself is no stranger to the idea. On the first episode, he describes himself as a Christian, saying he “came out” to his boss as a believer on a previous podcast episode.
He says he’s even attended — and stopped attending — church plants in the past.
“Having gone to a church plant myself and having grown up in the church more generally, I knew how entrepreneurial a process getting a church off the ground could be, so I thought that in and of itself was enough to kind of fit within the StartUp framework,” Mennel says.
While the season is focused on the church planting efforts of AJ and his wife, Leah Smith, Mennel is quick to admit that it’s not just a podcast about churches; he says it’s primarily a podcast about innovation and storytelling.
“AJ could have been starting a hot dog stand,” Mennel said with a laugh, “But if he’s interesting and there’s something interesting about the hot dog stand, well, maybe we’ll do that story.”
But AJ is not starting a hot dog stand; he’s trying to convince the people living in his neighborhood to give Jesus a chance. And that, Mennel says, “might be the most difficult task of any founder in America — convincing someone who doesn’t know or even believe in God to change their mind, to join your church.”
Why tell the story of church planters?
Mennel says he and his team had considered producing a story on a church for a couple years, but the idea resurfaced earlier this year. When it did, he started reaching out to various pastors and church leaders and eventually found AJ, who was in the midst of trying to build and grow Restoration Church.
Restoration Church was at an interesting spot in its timeline. A couple years old at that point, it needed to become self-sustaining, and it needed to do so quickly if it was going to survive.
“There is a very financial reality to making a church work, and there is an economic part of it,” Mennel says. “You need to pay the bills. You need to pay your staff. People need health insurance.”
However, Mennel says he was also interested in exploring the tension of what Restoration Church represents as an evangelical church in America.
“I just knew the word ‘evangelical’ was such a loaded word in American culture and politics right now,” Mennel says. “It’s to the point of obscurity, almost. It had become almost unclear what it means. It had just been caught up in a lot of talk about the power of the evangelical church and the place of evangelicals in American culture. It was big and confusing and weird, and I was just curious, what does it look like to try to build something new with that brand right now in America? It just seemed so complicated.”
Through the season, the show takes an honest look at what it takes to start a church, following AJ and other characters through the highs and the very-real lows of church planting.
It’s an intimate journey, and along the way, listeners start to hear Mennel evaluating his own faith and beliefs as well.
“I didn’t think my own faith experience would necessarily be a part of the story,” Mennel says later, reflecting on the season. “… I very much approached this story like I would any other piece of journalism I’ve ever worked on,” Mennel said.
But, as the show progressed and AJ and Mennel start discussing controversial topics and thought-provoking ideas, Mennel starts to open up himself.
“It is so much a personal story,” Mennel says of this season of StartUp. “It is about AJ and his family and their persons and not just some big, meta, 3-minute news story on where churches stand. It’s so much about personality that it sort of felt like it’s a little silly not to share some of my personal beliefs on that stuff.
“I guess my personal experience has been I tend to trust reporters who are a little more transparent about where they’re coming from, and so that’s what I try to do in my interviews.”
In all, Mennel says he’s received a “surprisingly positive” response from this season of StartUp.
“I know the church is such a touchy subject,” Mennel said. “I think I expected a little more pushback than what we’ve gotten.”
However, the positive comments have come from a wide range of people, he says — everyone from pastors and church planters to people who’ve been hurt by the church and non-believers.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people who are in the church and pastors who are really excited about it, who really identify with it, church planters who really identify, but also just people who have left the church because they feel like they’ve been hurt by the church, and they’ve gotten a lot out of it too in terms of hearing some of their concerns highlighted in different ways,” Mennel says.
“And even I’ve had a couple people email me who are like, ‘I’m an atheist, I’ve never gone to church, I was really skeptical of this, but it’s been a nice depiction of a certain part of American culture.’”
Perhaps this is because on this season, Mennel and the Startup team intentionally try to show a complete picture of what it’s like to start an evangelical church.
“Church can be a very messy place, and it can also be a very good place for your family,” Mennel says.
“I think part of the reason the response has been so positive is just like, I think this story — and the place where AJ and his family are, and the place where the church is, and how they fit into the bigger religious narrative in America right now — is complicated.”
Learn more about this season of StartUp here.
HELEN GIBSON (@_HelenGibson_) is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.