Reshaping the Church

The Underground Network: Church as a verb

Posted May 22, 2024

by Margaret Fipps

Members of Pulley’s micro church meet for part of their four hours of community life together. Photo provided by Lucas Pulley

To most, the word “Church” is a noun, a physical building or meeting place. To Underground Network, a decentralized network of micro churches around the world, “Church” is a verb.

“The Church, in its simplest form, is anywhere where there is an extended spiritual family committed to the leadership of Jesus and pursuing some piece of the mission of God in the world,” said Lucas Pulley, executive director of Underground Network movement in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Pulley leads a micro church in the Tampa Bay housing projects and also manages a platform of services for Underground Network to provide resources for micro churches.

Pulley accepted Christ a month before coming to college, he said. As he got involved in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry, he saw a clear model for what church looked like in the lives of believers.

“That campus ministry was focused on helping every student be trained in how to share their faith, how to make disciples and even how to plant these little witnessing communities inside of every dorm on campus,” Pulley said. “That was most of my Christian experience because I was a fresh follower of Jesus. It was like, ‘Oh, this is what it means to be Christian.’ That made total sense reading the New Testament and how the early church lived.”

When encouraged to join a local church outside of InterVarsity’s community, Pulley said he noticed traditions that felt alien to the way he lived out his faith on campus.

“Early in my faith, I was just like, ‘What's going on here?” Pulley said. “I show up at this Sunday morning spaceship, and we all just sit here and listen to a thing and then we go on about our lives Monday through Saturday. We're all just, like, watching people do ministry — that are paid professionals — but none of us in the room are encouraged to do ministry.”

Photo provided by Lucas Pulley

During his senior year of college, Pulley’s ministry life became much more than a Sunday commitment. He said he served in multiple ministries every day of the week, from a soup kitchen to a discovery Bible study, even a DIY ukulele ministry.

“We just had this mess of ministry happening, but we didn't have the language of the micro church,” Pulley said.

Then, Pulley said he connected with Underground Network, which equips mission-minded followers of Christ to reach their local contexts, fellowshipping in small micro churches, according to their website.

When someone now asks Pulley to come to his micro church, he said they often get more than they bargained for. His micro church follows a “five, four, three, two, one” rule of life.

Five days a week, they engage in personal time in Scripture. Four hours a week, they share life, meeting for meals and spending quality time with one another. Three hours a week, they minister in their community. Twice a month, they meet in small groups to confess their sins and keep each other accountable. Once a month, they host a large community outreach event as a whole group.

“If somebody were to come to me and say, ‘Can I come to your micro church?’ I don't immediately know how to answer that question,” Pulley said. “We have this life rhythm together, and are you saying ‘yes’ to all of it? Typically that's not what people do.”

Photo provided by Lucas Pulley

Disentangling from legacy models of the church takes time, Pulley said. It is like untangling a large skein of yarn; there are many knots along the way and patterns that are ingrained in people’s minds.

A leader’s first instinct with the word “micro” is to simply shrink down the essence of a typical church service to make it a smaller version of the institutional church.

“They just do a sermon and a couple of songs and communion, but in a living room,” Pulley said. “That's maybe the worst option out of all the options available—to just keep doing the same thing but just in the smaller space.”

The next string to pull is shifting from an event-based church to a rhythm-based church, Pulley said. He is not talking about music but life patterns.

“There's a whole lot that the life of the church needs to attend to; they can't fit in one meeting a week for two hours,” Pulley said. “What we need to do is create together a communally agreed upon rule of life that contains probably a few different connected moments in the life of the community throughout the week.”

This rule of life emphasizes missional living, or as Pulley calls it, “incarnational servanthood,”

“We want to go about ministry in the same way that God went about ministry to us,” Pulley said. “He put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. It's not like, come to our thing, and then we sort of walk you through programs. We come to you; we invade in your life.”

Members of Pulley’s micro church often serve a neighbor each month by doing yard work or house repairs. Photo provided by Lucas Pulley

Incarnational servanthood looks different from person to person, wherever they are embedded in their community. Pulley said one couple leads Bible studies in their Crossfit gym and are de facto chaplains for those athletes, another couple begins conversations over niche board games and Pulley’s wife uses her homeschool co-op to connect with local parents. Pulley said a Christian’s calling begins at the moment they become a believer.

“Your conversion is your commission,” Pulley said. “Occasionally, God might narrow that and say, ‘I want you to live out Kingdom expansion, but among this city, this block, this neighborhood, this floor of your apartment complex, this soccer league that you're a part of — I want you to live for that people.’”

The idea of receiving a calling from the Lord can feel shrouded in mystery, but Pulley said Underground Network comes alongside Christians to understand their mission through events called “Calling Lab.” They base their calling language on Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

“Part of how we can discern that is looking at ‘how was I made, as an artwork, as a masterpiece, as a creative one?’” Pulley said.

They begin these Calling Labs by unpacking each person’s unique gifts, spiritual and otherwise, as well as their life history that might speak to a certain group of people, Pulley said. After grasping each of those pieces of their life, participants open their hands to the Lord.

“You take all this fresh insight about who you are, and then, you take all that data into a prayer retreat and say, ‘Lord, my life belongs to you,’” Pulley said.

When Pulley dedicated his life to Christ all those years ago, he said he saw differences between the church of the Bible and the legacy models of the church presented to him. Now, he and Underground Network engage their community not just in a church but as the Church.

Margaret Fipps is a junior Journalism student at Cedarville University and the editor-in-chief of Cedars Magazine. As a journalist, she wants to revive beautiful writing with a purpose: to engage communities in conversations with each other. As a former pastor's kid, she deeply cares for the church and loves seeing Jesus proclaimed through his bride.