Reshaping the Church

A new kind of church in a networked world

Posted August 01, 2023

by Noelle Harrison

Catalyst NW Volunteers - Photo courtesy of Shawn Mitchell

Who would have thought a cracked toilet would lead to a thriving discipleship ministry of outreach and love? Well, this broken appliance is what ultimately brought Catalyst ministry to life.

About 13 years ago, husband and wife Shawn and Marina Mitchell went from church planting in Portland, Oregon — a city known for its roses rather than religion — to catalyzing a network of individuals to fulfill Jesus’s ministry in Portland and beyond.

Shawn and Marina Mitchell - Photo courtesy of Shawn Mitchell

At the time, Shawn and Marina Mitchell ran a small home church. Their neighbor Jackie, who is elderly, disabled and lived alone, heard Shawn had construction experience and asked him to come by and take a look at her toilet. It had been broken for nine years.

Shawn Mitchell immediately saw the excessive leaking was a result of a crack in the porcelain. He said to Jackie, “I can fix that for you.” Eyes widened, she responded with surprise, “You can?”

Shawn Mitchell is a big fan of extreme home makeover shows on TV. To this day, he still enjoys home remodeling. So, he decided to go beyond the bowl and do an extreme home makeover for Jackie.

He gathered some people from his church community, and they began reparations. Not only did they switch out her toilet, but they also painted her kitchen, fixed her doorbell and organized crafts to do with Jackie while her house was being repaired.

Upon completion, Jackie walked around the house with tears of joy and gratitude. She was in awe — no one had ever done anything like that for her before.

“You guys have a church? You meet there every Sunday at your house? Can I come and visit?” she asked.

The following Sunday, they wheeled her over to their house church. They did their normal thing: had dinner, prayed and sang songs.

Jackie had never experienced anything like that. Eventually, she committed her life to Christ and received salvation — all because of a cracked toilet bowl.

After this experience, Shawn Mitchell was hooked. Although they had some success with church plants over the years, he felt this community outreach model of ministry was the missing piece to true and lasting discipleship. He knew if members of his church wanted to reach people outside of the faith, they needed to lead with works.

“We talk in terms of the gospel being like a coin that has two sides,” Shawn Mitchell said. “There are the works of the gospel and there are the words of the gospel, and they go hand in hand. I honestly don't think it works one without the other.”

His vision is for followers of Jesus to be valued for their character and generosity toward people in their communities by sharing God’s presence through transforming neighborhoods, equipping ordinary individuals to become vessels of Christ, and drawing people into the Kingdom.

“You put yourself out there and you meet needs,” Shawn Mitchell said. “You go and be Jesus in the community to people without Jesus. And they look at you and they're like, you're kind of weird. But if we look like everybody, then what's the point?”

Catalyst Partnerships NW volunteers are done with the day’s projects - Photo by Shawn Mitchell

Following their humble onset as a house church called “Simple Church” in 2007, Shawn and Marina Mitchell have supported and launched many ministry initiatives that emerged from a simple concept and a little obedience.

Since then, their “Simple Church” has grown to be not so simple and has transitioned through many names such as Catalyst Project, Catalyst Ministries, Catalyst NW and a few others. Their projects have benefitted many people, including elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners.

As the partnerships with churches, businesses and construction projects grew in size and scope, the established charity became known as Catalyst Partnerships. It was time to make this endeavor the official focus of their ministry.

In 2008, Shawn and Marina Mitchell decided to incorporate the public non-profit, Catalyst Partnerships, with Catalyst Ministries — resulting in two sister organizations that work together.

Over time, project requests other than construction were flowing in. A system of interconnected people and community projects and services was flourishing. Around 2018, they coined the name Catalyst Network.

Within Catalyst Network, their approach focuses on equipping and empowering ordinary people to live as missionaries, launching new ministries through discipleship and leadership development.

The result is a decentralized expression of the Church that revives its mission, multiplying the impact of the Church in the world.

When discussing the name “Catalyst,” Shawn Mitchell said, “Ultimately, Jesus is the catalyst. He is the one that sparks the kingdom of God and activates the Spirit of Christ working in us.”

“We're trying to catalyze the church with a granular approach, but not necessarily the church at large. I've spent enough time trying to do big things and be a big deal, but I've gotten my butt kicked because of it. I just want to be faithful in this one thing and leave the results to God,” Shawn continued.

“But ultimately, we want to catalyze believers in whatever way possible to live their lives for Jesus and so in a sense, it's really a discipleship ministry,” Shawn Mitchell said.

Shawn Mitchell explained back then, the church was called Catalyst Ministries. Their charity, a separate organization, is called Catalyst Partnerships. They partner with churches, businesses and whoever is willing to complete construction projects for those who need help.

Over time, they started getting more interest from other groups requesting coaching and resourcing. Shawn Mitchell understood construction was not for everyone.

Shawn and Marina Mitchell still do all the construction projects through Catalyst Partnerships, but the next idea is to grow fruit on other people’s branches by seeking those who love the Lord and aspire to be more than faithful Sunday-service attendees.

The goal is to support people that have the desire to branch out and who feel like they are called to start something new and unique outside of the conventional church. Shawn and Marina Mitchell assist with fundraising and work with partners to equip them to fulfill their individual callings.

Catalyst NW volunteers at a home construction project - Photo by Shawn Mitchell

When looking back, Shawn Mitchell said it wasn’t always easy. At times, he was juggling multiple jobs in and outside of ministry. During the seed-watering season, he spent years working overtime and struggling financially.

It took time, but God showed Himself to be faithful.

Today, Shawn Mitchell said he feels blessed to be surrounded by wonderful teams of people God has provided. He focuses much of his time on fundraising and working with partners, and he is always looking for new ways to pass the torch and “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” as Paul describes in Ephesians 4:12.

When asked what he would like to see accomplished in five years, Shawn responded, “I would love to see 10 ministries up and running that are all connected by a city-wide network serving different types of people. We could come together once a quarter to encourage each other and share stories.”

Reflecting upon Jackie’s story and the ministry’s humble beginnings, Shawn affirms that as we partner with Jesus in His work, the light of His values, behaviors and power reflects through us.

The goal is not to get non-Christians into church buildings but to push Christians to spread God’s light outside first.

As Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” The world is full of unfulfilled needs — some spiritual and some physical. How can we see something broken, be it a toilet, a business, or a marriage, and come together as disciples to put it back together again?

Let’s not only “do” church, let’s “be” the church.