How this Minneapolis Church Became a Business
The story of three shifts that transformed our church into a new business
By: Tim Schuster
We started Midtown Church Project in 2012. We gathered to engage in the never-ending conversation about what it means to follow Jesus. That should have been our first sign, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
We chose south Minneapolis. The spring rolls at Pham’s Deli fit any budget and most diets, which was ideal, because alongside pastoring the new church, I also worked as a part-time life insurance salesman making less than minimum wage. Our church was trying something new. Like many urban church planters, it was really difficult to raise money from institutional sources.
Instead of organizing worship services (large group karaoke) we gathered together using Open Space Technology, which is a misnomer because the participants co-create and pursue the agenda together. We chose this tool because of its emphasis on face-to-face and meaningful conversation, a precondition for human growth and development.
The guiding principle of Open Space is the Law of Two Feet: “If you are in a conversation, and you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet," the rule says, "and find a conversation where you can – or start your own group.” Imagine, then, a room of participants gathered in small groups – but it’s self-organizing, so individual members are changing tables to cross-pollinate insights from table-to-table. This method invites participants to take ownership of their experience, which creates an eco-system of freedom, choice, and growth.
In other words, our leaders did not entertain, enlighten, or call the shots. Not only are people capable of planning their own backyard bar-be-cues (some churches operate like country clubs with employees who organize social activities), they are capable of capable of taking initiative to pursue their own growth. We also need to be able to opt-out of conversations and situations where someone is rudely pontificating. We encouraged taking an active role in our growth by asking better questions about the deepest, most profound topics, including science, art, technology, power, sex, and money.
This is what Jesus did.
All of this worked until it didn’t. We didn’t realize it, but this was a cocoon for what would give birth to new wings. Over the course of the next three years, we were witness to three significant shifts that resulted in our church community being transformed into a business.
Shift #1: From Starting a Revolution to Joining One
Actually, everything was going quite well. People were gathering, participating, and taking ownership of their experience. But the revolution we expected to start just didn’t happen. We weren’t shaking things up like we thought we could. Lurking below the surface was a different question, which, of course, emerged from within our community. Looking back, we shouldn’t be surprised, we founded the damn thing on questions, questions, and more questions.
But this question had a different flavor. And it had an energy that surged through a direct circuit to the hairs on the back of my neck: “I understand how we are gathering, but I don’t understand why. In other words, what are we doing to add value to our city?”
If our church disappeared, would our city miss us?
In reflecting, the difference between starting a revolution and joining a revolution was the game changer. What we’ve discovered is what many have discovered before us. We were searching for a local, embodied expression of a revolution that has been underway for thousands of years. That shift is what this story is about. Out of courage and curiosity, many are asking The Mission Question: What is already happening missionally in our community and how can we join in that? We tend to find what we look for.
When explaining our challenges to a mentor, he suggested that someone should host a friendraiser for us. That was a new concept. Just what is a “friendraiser” and how it is different than a fundraiser? (We would have been interested in either, to be clear.)
Well, simply a group of people learn about your vision and mission, including the challenges, and then they are invited to share some insights, feedback, and ideas for us. If they choose, use their two feet, they might get involved in the future.
We liked it, but it didn’t help us add value to our city. That is, until we flipped it around.
Shift #2: From Pursing Success to Helping Others Pursue Success
We invited our friend, Sara, founder of an after-school choir ensemble in an under-resourced part of St. Paul, to be our experiment. We asked her if we could host and facilitate a friendraiser for her project.
Sara is part of a growing segment of courageous leaders who are responding to the dream of starting something new that makes a difference. Whether founding non-profits, starting small businesses, planting churches, or initiating social ventures, their energy is contagious. If you haven’t come across this yet, you are missing out. We call it founder energy.
To pull off this first friendraiser, Sara invited some of her supporters and could-be supporters. We invited “our” people, too. Together our two groups learned about her vision, sought to understand her challenges, and then got into groups (with the Law of Two Feet) and offered new ideas. Imagine a large brainstorming event with post it notes, food, laughter, and new connections. We sprayed a 9-foot wide nylon sticky wall with repositionable adhesive and we challenged ourselves to fill it up with new ideas, thoughts, connections, and encouraging words for Sara’s project. 100's of ideas. After the event, our team formatted the ideas into an eBook for her and the team.
We didn’t ask anyone for their money – just their ideas – because it was a friendraiser and not a fundraiser. (Too many friendraiser events are disguises for fundraisers, so here’s a shout out to all those who host friendraisers and refrain from asking for money. We’re with you. Also, we love fundraising, especially when it's relational and authentic).
What was the result of the Friendraiser? Someone at the event, let’s call him Drew, because that’s his name, suggested that her students try to sing the National Anthem at a professional sporting event in town. Sara said she doesn’t like sports that much, but she was starting a kid’s choir – and in addition to an unforgettable experience for the students – it would be great exposure for her new program. Sound logic (pun-intended).
Long story short: Less than a year later they sang the national anthem at a professional sports game. And when the Super Bowl came to town in 2018, Sara’s student choir sang America the Beautiful and we could see them on T.V.! Good things happen when people come together around good causes. Sara likes sports a little more now.
But how does sharing ideas with non-profit founders add value to our city?
What We’ve Discovered
Bringing people together to brainstorm for a founder and her new mission-driven organization not only produces ideas, but it also produces engagement. It builds ownership. It’s a natural and authentic way of helping people discern whether or not they want to get involved with the project as a volunteer, donor, or brand ambassador.
We felt compelled to experiment again. And again. What started as an experiment has turned into a way of cultivating a meaningful presence in our beloved city of Minneapolis. With each event we hosted, we watched our email list grow, but more importantly, these friendraiser events break down silos and build bridges across groups, tribes, and faiths.
It’s personal, too. To brainstorm ideas on behalf of someone who has devoted significant energy to improving their community and changing lives is simply transformative. We earn the right to bear witness for a moment to the pain of their mission, something that builds immense empathy and humility. It breaks our heart for a world in need of healing, simultaneously producing hope because of the divine and sacred activity of those who are at work in our cities. We feel like we are watching local missions be re-invented because nothing less than the transformation of self is at stake, too.
When more founders and groups started to ask for a Friendraiser, we formed a waiting list and designed a simple application process. It seems the application only encouraged more interest. Non-profit founders, artists, impact ventures, and small business leaders have raised their hand to say they are interested in an event for their project or organization. The waiting list has grown. It helps we do it all for free and cover the costs of the event.
Shift #3: Sharing the Opportunity
Training churches and faith communities how to host and facilitate an event we were calling the Friendraiser was not in the five year vision. As it turns out, though, a few of our pastor friends liked the idea of getting a team trained to host and facilitate. We are now training and supporting church plants, missional communities, and churches who want to revitalize their local missions and community outreach.
Many church leaders are less interested in giving small, hands-off grants to non-profits and are far more interested in engaging with the challenges and opportunities of missional activities already happening in their city. The fact they are paying for a training to in turn be generous inspires us immensely.
We now call it Popup Think Tank because we tried to trademark “Friendraiser” and learned it’s already trademarked by a consulting group in Cincinnati. We love the energy of the new name. It’s only appropriate that the name was generated by a pastor when brainstorming at a training event.
As we listened to the essence of the organization, asking it what it wanted to become, we discerned more and more that the entity we were creating was not a church, per se. I know “listening to the essence of the organization” sounds mystical and new agey, but it’s actually deeply human and is part of what it means to be reinventing organizations for this new and changing world we find ourselves navigating.
CONCLUSION: Church VS Business
Two quick points on church vs. business. 1) The way that the IRS defines a church entity feels much different than the New Testament’s vision of a redemptive, subversive, and reconciling movement of Jesus followers called to enter into the transformation of their cities. 2) In the 21st century we are witnessing a new breed of businesses who not only want to sustain a profit, but also make a difference (social enterprises, impact ventures, general benefit corporations, and B Corp Certifications among them).
After a year of wrestling and discerning, the Midtown Church Board of Elders blessed the dissolving of the church entity, I resigned as pastor, and we gave away thousands of dollars to our Friendraiser alumni). Subsequently, The Midtown Company, LLC was formed and now offers Popup Think Tank.
That is how a church becomes a business. And, yes, we still use the Law of Two Feet.
Tim Schuster is former Pastor of Midtown Church and the Founder of Popup Think Tank, a social business that builds communities around difference makers. He also serves as a team member with Thrivent Church Solutions based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.