Reshaping the Church

Planting a seed of faith

Posted September 03, 2021

by T.H. Lawrence

Being a church planter is a calling, but it’s also a challenge.

Just ask Won Kwak.

Kwak planted a church bi-vocationally, then planted again as a full-time vocational planter and led that church for nearly 11 years before he was called to serve as the Send City Missionary in October 2019. He is a non-staff pastor at a church plant in downtown Brooklyn called Mission City Church NYC.

Send Network, based in New York City, was established to support the church planting movement and provides many resources to successfully plant a church. The process of church planting is when a new local Christian church is being established. It’s not to be confused with church development, where a new service, new worship center or fresh expression is created as part of a congregation that is already established.

Some tips on church planting, according to Christianity Today, include keeping a high learning agility, going slow to go fast, establishing a Launch Team instead of a Core Group and transparency.

Kwak, 50, said it’s an arduous process but ultimately very rewarding.

“Staffing obstacles, location/venue obstacles … church planting is a very, very, very hard endeavor,” he told Koinesune. “I planted bi-vocationally, but also as a full-time vocational planter. And in both instances, it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

“It was hard for my family. And so, there are many obstacles — spiritual, emotional, physical, intellectual, relational obstacles that you face in a church plant,” Kwak said. “And as a church plant develops and grows and matures, there's a new set of obstacles that are faced. Let's say the Lord blesses you, and you hit the 50-person mark ... a 50-plus person church or church plant needs to be led differently from a 20-person core group team.

“And then when you hit 125 people, and you start having kids and different age groups of kids … that growth presents an excellent challenge, but nevertheless, it's a challenge that you need to navigate and address as a church planter. Systems and processes have to be implemented.”

Kwak said the planter's spiritual life, spiritual well-being, marriage, family life all have to be healthy.

“They have to be cared for. Loneliness, getting burnt out, these are things that need to be addressed,” he said.

But Kwak said it’s all worthwhile. The mission he undertook is one that has a heavy burden but also an awesome opportunity.

“The goal of our church plants is to introduce the nations of North America to the hope of Jesus. And by the nations, I mean, all the people groups and ethnicities, and generations, and all the different cultures,” he said. “We are surrounded today by things that promise to make our lives better, but all of that ultimately leaves us feeling empty. But Jesus offers abundant life and our prayer is that more people will discover that. Christians are called by God into local communities of faith, local expressions of the universal Church.

“The message of the gospel makes much of Jesus. And we believe that it inherently leads to multiplication, as local churches are called to start new churches.”

Doing it in New York City just magnifies the issues and potential downfalls, Kwak admits. But, it is still a wonderful experience.

“In a place like New York City, the temptations of the world come at us in all kinds of ways. Wealth, fame, education, reputation … as Frank Sinatra says, ‘If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere,’” he said. “People come to New York with this dream to make it big, because if you make it big in New York City, you're making it big on a scale that is unparalleled. It is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest city, in the world,” Kwak said. “New York City is congested, costly, and hard to navigate. All those challenges compound upon one another and make living situations, and gathering situations even — especially in this pandemic — very difficult for church planters. The types of challenges that church planters face in New York City are not experienced in most other parts of North America.”

But he said it's completely unique. There are other large, congested, costly cities that exist in North America.

“Spiritually speaking, there is a post-Christian ethos in New York City — where some people are just not open to anything having to do with Christ,” Kwak said. “The exclusivity of the Christian message of the gospel is not as welcomed here. But it’s the love for people, regardless of their views on Christianity, that drive you to continue in this effort, even when it’s tough and even when people don’t seem interested.”

He said assisting someone on the road to complete acceptance of faith, helping them become a disciple, is a powerful experience.

“It means to faithfully share the gospel message, to be praying for those who have not yet discovered what it is to know God personally through his son, Jesus,” Kwak said. “Disciples are those who have been reborn through Christ. They are followers of Christ. Once we are His followers, we become God's mouthpiece. ‘Faith comes through hearing and hearing by the word of God.’ [Romans 10:17] We are the mouthpieces, the vessels, the hands and feet of God. And it is through us that he makes more disciples.”

Maranatha Grace Fort Lee Church, Won’s church plant that began in 2010. This photo was taken a few years later.

The Send Network

Across the continent, Send Network plants churches everywhere for everyone with a particular focus on 33 communities with highly concentrated and diverse populations lacking churches. New York City is one of those communities.

It is the church planting arm of the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Since 2010, Southern Baptists have started — or “planted” — more than 8,200 new churches across North America. Those churches started since 2010 make up more than 18% of all churches across the Southern Baptist Convention.

  • SBC church plants see 37% more baptisms per attendee than more established SBC churches.
  • About 60% of the SBC churches planted in 2020 were ethnic or multiethnic congregations.
  • 80% of SBC church plants continue to thrive four years after being started.

“Send Network is a family — it's a network — but it’s a family of like-minded churches throughout North America that understand that God's work is done more effectively, more efficiently, more powerfully, together. We're better together than alone,” Kwak said.

Send Network is the Great Commission missions arm of the North American Mission Board. It is a growing, multiplying network of churches that embraces the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, is diverse in its philosophies and its methodologies, yet is single-minded in its treasuring and transmission of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he said.

“Send New York City is one of the strategic focus cities that Send Network has established. It's a city where there is a very low ratio of churches to people,” Kwak said. “Send New York City is a microcosm of Send Network. We're a team of church-planting leaders, specialists, and pastors who train and equip people to reach this city. We care for church planters and their families, and we coach them and grow them in their leadership.”

There are teams like this — churches and missionaries cooperating to start new churches — in cities and towns across North America, from New York City to Baltimore to Philadelphia to Boston to Chicago, Toronto, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and many more.

Send Network on the national scale provides resources that are rich and really on the cutting edge of church planting, missiology, philosophy and strategy. Send Network provides Send NYC with those resources and links us with other Send Cities.

“We learn from each other, pray for one another, and support each other,” Kwak said.

He was born in Seoul, Korea, but his family immigrated to America when he was just a few months old in 1971.

“We moved straight to the town I grew up in — Rutherford, New Jersey, about a mile away from East Rutherford, which was the home of Giants Stadium, which is now MetLife Stadium. They housed the Jets and the Giants,” he said. “But I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, and now I'm a rabid Rutgers University Scarlet Knight fan, which keeps me very humble because they're pretty atrocious with most sports. But we're hoping to see a revival, and already it's happening in basketball … but we're hoping Greg Schiano can bring us back to our glory days in football, which were very short-lived.”

He grew up a second-generation Korean-American and a second-generation church planter and Southern Baptist.

“My father planted a Southern Baptist church, an immigrant church back in the late 1970s in Flushing, Queens, and then moved that church over to New Jersey,” Kwak said. “So I kind of grew up Southern Baptist, even before I was a Christian. Once I was found by the Lord, I did my theological studies at Southern Seminary and finished at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee (although I never stepped foot on the campus, and did everything through online correspondence).

“I became a Southern Baptist by conviction and I really cherish the rich tradition and history that we have — one that is by no means perfect. We've repented of a lot of our history and we will continue to repent moving forward. But what a blessing it is to be a part of our great fellowship of churches.”

The Kwak family/provided photo

He and his wife, Diane, have been married for 22 years and have five "Kwaklings" — which is how they affectionately refer to their children: Madelyn Joy, Naomi Ruth — “who went on to be with the Lord some years ago,” Kwak said — and Bethany Hope, Owen Lucas and Jordan Aeneas.

Church planters are privileged to serve in their role, he said. It’s one he cherishes, despite the demands and pressures.

“Whether you're the lead planter or a church planting team member, or church planter's wife, you are involved in the birth of a community of faith where the lost will be found and where those who are young will be grown to maturity, and where all will be used by God to participate and lead out in his gospel work,” Kwak said. “When it happens through church planting, it's an experience that I would say you don't experience in an established church. Maybe I'm just a little bit too biased towards church planting and church plants, but I don't think so.

“Church planting matters because people matter to God, and we are focused on restoring people’s relationship with God,” he said. “Church planting can also bring new energy to other churches in the surrounding community, as the churches work to reach their neighbors together — encouraging each other to greater faithfulness and love for their community.”