While on my usual running route back in the Fall of 2015, I had an unusual encounter when God stopped me in my tracks.
As I often ran while worshipping to my favorite music, heart overflowing with joy, life full of purpose and eternal hope, it was gut-wrenching to look at the homes I was passing that represented lives of many who live without hope in Jesus- what a contrast I was to them as I ran only a few yards from their doorsteps.
As I jogged the familiar trails and streets, I often prayed for the community, for people to know Jesus, for them to come to my church, for the Holy Spirit to move, and my prayers often moved me to tears. I genuinely wanted people to come to my church and for their lives to change for God’s glory, but this one particular run was different. God interrupted my earnest prayers, and he turned the focus straight to me… and my run suddenly slowed to a walk. I stopped, and leaned into what God was speaking to my heart out of His truth I had absorbed after years of being in church, and yet still lacked faithful action in this area.
God’s loving yet stinging conviction captivated my heart in a new way, and I got the sense that the way I had carefully constructed my Christian life (although well meaning and Biblically-minded) wasn’t quite right.
My prayers turned from general and outward, to extremely personal and inward. God wanted me to move with the same two feet I was running with towards people on behalf of Him, to reach across chasms that were actually only driveways wide, and He wanted it all to occur outside the walls of my church building.
I already had a well formed idea of what the church is supposed to be. I knew that we, the adopted sons and daughters of God, are the body of Christ, not a formal church building. Anytime we gather in unity under the banner of Jesus (just like the early church did), we are a living expression of the body of Christ. I knew that committing to a larger expression of the church is biblical and healthy, but I started to realize it may not be the best way for non-believers to be introduced to Jesus. It’s probably better to help them establish roots within the family of God by first connecting and reaching out to them in friendship, and coming alongside them and discipling them and showing them the ropes, not by formally signing up for discipleship at the church desk (something they don’t even know they need yet).
Being the family of God and welcoming a new member should look more like a real family, like an older sister who would drop her busy life to come over and show a younger sister how to bake, or a big brother who’d come alongside his little bro to show him how to take care of the lawn, this is how the family of God should make disciples, in truth and love, as we go about everyday life on mission for Jesus.
I think this is what Jesus had in mind when He said go make disciples, which in the Greek, the word “go” actually means “as you are going,” not just when you go to church. We are the church, but we have to grasp this truth before we can actually be the church all the time. As we go to T-Ball practice or frequent our favorite coffee spot we should be on mission for Jesus, and it is an identity shift to realize the church isn’t a building, it’s a group of people, it’s you and me. I can be the church everywhere I go, I don’t have to go to a church building to live out my identity in Jesus
At the time of this particular run, I was very busy with my church and the relationships there, it consumed most of my time and energy, which at the time I thought was a good thing. I had a leadership position that required a lot, and we hosted and led a small group in our home on a weekly basis, however our group wasn’t open to new people, it was meant for discipleship, not evangelism, and this structure was a denominational decision. Our western church has so neatly separated and compartmentalized the two, so I’m not criticizing this well meaning church. Overall, I was so busy building up the church that it left little time to go and be the church in a broken world, in ways that I saw Jesus doing when He was on earth, and as it is so clearly outlined in scripture.
Where was the space in my busy Christian life for not-yet-believing people to fit in, let alone be sought after? How would the broken and marginalized, those not yet familiar with how to disguise their spiritual brokenness with neat clothes or religious jargon fit in at my church that ran more like a corporation? As a church, we were expecting people to walk in and relate on our terms, on our particular flavor of evangelical Christianity, and we were so busy building our brand that we didn’t have time to talk to, let alone intentionally seek after the very people Jesus came to die for. We thought surely they would just waltz in and thank us, applaud us even for our music and welcome bag. Something felt broken about the western church, not just my church, and the Holy Spirit wouldn’t lift His finger from my heart about it.
As our dear small group neared one year of meeting for very in-depth discipleship, one that was solely focused on personal spiritual growth, it just wasn’t sitting right with my husband and I, amongst other things as we held them up against the lens of scripture. The intentional focus of small groups was only about us, only about our spiritual growth, and without a mission, without an outward focus to our meeting time, it became unhealthy.
While sharing our faith with others was definitely something we talked about, and sought after on our “own” time, it wasn’t something we were doing together. It wasn’t part of our community together, it wasn’t part of the structure of our neatly outlined church and it certainly wasn’t something we were growing in individually or corporately. Sharing the gospel was something sort of hanging out there in the never ending list of things I should do better as a Christian, or for the “super Christians” only. If it was meant for every believer to do, certainly it would be embedded in the fabric of our church culture and structure, but it wasn’t.
So God got me thinking, what if investing in the lives of people who didn’t know Jesus was the mission that we the church oriented our very personal, day-in and day-out lives around- not just getting someone to come to a church building, “outreach” event, or the bi-annual Gospel message, all things we would likely not be receptive to if on the receiving end. Nobody likes to feel like the “us” in the “us and them” equation, but anyone would receive a genuine invitation into a loving community which they don’t yet know is the family of God.
What if the way we were brought into the church wasn’t through a famous pastor, hence being made to believe all people need to come to faith and be sustained and “fed” by one pastor only, but what if we took seriously our call to make disciples wherever we frequently go, inviting those people back into our faith family, and then introducing them to Jesus and eventually the pastor and greater Body? I bet these sort of people will make great disciple makers themselves someday!
We started to realize the root problem to many fruit issues was a lack of Gospel-centrality in our church. When the Gospel is seen only as the first step as a Christian, as the the abc’s of faith, instead of the a-z of the faith, as Tim Keller says, a great church that preaches the Bible and has all the right functions so quickly turns to a legalistic, religious institution rooted in fear and obligation, instead of one rooted in the good news of Jesus that produces freedom and joyful obedience. When we know deep down that we are loved and forgiven, it radically transforms our relationship with God and others. If we don’t know we are fully loved and forgiven, we become judgmental, despairing or striving to earn our worth through religion. The longer we know Jesus, the more aware of our sin we become, and the larger the cross becomes in our lives. To live any other way, is to shrink the cross.
With the Gospel at the center and the shared need for Jesus, whether we are a believer or not, everyone is on the same plane, its us down here and the “them” is God at the top, who reached down to rescue us through Jesus. But when we make it a ladder- accept the gospel and then climb to the top of “spiritual maturity” we create an us and them equation, with us at the top, and others perpetually climbing behind us, or at the bottom. We unintentionally breed spiritual pride and we lose the ability to relate with people who are drowning in the darkness apart from Christ, because we forget who our Savior was, and it wasn’t ourselves, it was and always will be Jesus. We forget that he didn’t just need to save us a little bit, or only for our sins before Christ, that we are actually pretty good people and Jesus is just the icing on the cake. No! We all require a complete rescue from our hopeless state. There is no merit for anything great we do, nothing too bad to separate us from his grace- not before Christ or after we have faith in Him, we continually need Jesus everyday just as much as anyone. When we get this right, everything about our hearts, lives and churches change.
After spending 2 years heavily involved at a church we knew we probably couldn’t stay in even from the get-go, we made an extremely difficult decision to leave in early 2016. God didn’t waste any part of this season, we learned and grew tremendously through it, although painful. We spent many months prior to leaving pouring over the Word and prayer, studying Jesus’ life in the gospels and the NT church, talking with our pastor numerous times, which gave us peace and confidence in our decision to finally leave and look for a gospel-centered church. For sake of clarity and focus in telling this story, lack of gospel-centrality was just one of the reasons God called us on, but in hindsight I think it was the root of the other reasons- the good news of Jesus was not being shared in a life giving way.
When we were first looking into our now current church, I was pouring over their website, and tears streamed down my face as I watched a short video on their website describing their “Small Groups” which they instead called Missional Communities. It put to words and gave real life images of the very things the Holy Spirit had been impressing on my heart for months. Believers invited non-believers into their homes and they did life together. The believers radically reoriented their lives around doing life with these people, and they became family. I could hardly believe it. You can watch the video here: What Does Missional Community Look Like?
God was working in me a paradigm shift of faith and the church, and it was scary but also extremely exciting. I had recently named a church membership program at my last church, “Be the Church” which involved serving only within the formal church gathering, but God was taking my small vision for “Be The Church” and turning it into a lifestyle that occurred 95% of the time outside of formal church gatherings, and it coincided so much more with what being a Christian was vs. what a Christian does on a Sunday.
In the summer of 2016, after prayerfully searching the area churches, we committed to our new church, the one with the video that still makes me cry. It was just down the street from our house, which excited us as we thought about living out missional community for the first time. Our new church was pursuing exactly what we had been praying for; a Gospel-Centered church that was missionally minded. I couldn’t believe this existed, that the very things coming out of the pastor’s mouth were things I had prayed to no end for in our previous, well meaning church. Turns out this pastor had come only a year before we got there from another state, and was in the process of shepherding our existing congregation back towards the Gospel, again and again. His gospel-centered preaching style is something I would have previously judged, but I soon came to see that when our three point exegetical sermons don’t end with Jesus’ fulfillment in that promise or principle, it borders on moralism, self-help and do better religion- Jesus is the only one who makes the difference in our relating to God, and living for His glory- for every promise finds its yes in Jesus! (2 Cor. 1:20)
While we were transitioning out and then into our new church, I picked up a commentary to deepen my study of Galatians that I had been in for about 9 months, it was ‘Galatians for You’, by Tim Keller and some of his other works, and they all confirmed what I had been seeing in scripture regarding gospel centrality, and it continued to help give me confidence in new found convictions and shifts about life and faith. Bonus was that our new pastor was also obsessed with Tim Keller and cited him often, marveling at his hard to find gospel-centeredness.
I began to writing an online blog series on Galatians about how the gospel changes everything and how it was radically altering my life, even after becoming a believer a little later in life in high school, one who had formal ministry training and lots of ministry experience. I wrote up my outline and got a new blog domain. How could I have missed the centrality of the Gospel to every aspect of life? Every passage in the bible? Things like freedom in Christ started to make sense to me for the first time in my life. As Tim Keller says, it was like dynamite- and its explosion in my heart and life was something I couldn’t contain.
But God quickly reoriented my Galatians blog idea to a face-to-face ministry idea. Things were starting to come together even though I couldn’t see it yet. He impressed on me the importance of the local church, as I had previously gained such a conviction and heart for through the study of Acts and the book of Ephesians, specifically helping give me the idea for that “Be the Church” name in my last church. I felt God speaking to me to go and gather women away from their computer screens, away from the loneliness that social media’s over-connectedness can create.
With the missional community video I had seen in mind, I started to get the confidence to start a Women’s Group, but I was scared. In the meantime, I joined a neighborhood moms club in my community and got on the board as the membership VP to meet more of my neighbors and start to reorient my life in a missional way. I needed to make space for these women in my life. In my new church my pastor was also saying go, go start a Women’s Ministry, but I was just starting to get to know people there and felt inadequate and scared.
Then God provided two women who I had just met at church who also had a heart for women, and they helped initially talk with me about the group and solidify my thoughts. Neither of them were as burdened for it, but they gave me the confidence to write up the mission and vision statements, which I added to the brand new Facebook group. I learned a lot from them, and I’m so grateful they were there to help this get started. These two women that I thought I needed dwindled fast, but for God ordained reasons as they were called away to other things, and I was left to lead this alone. I share this to point out how God was in this group’s inception from the beginning, and always will be, bringing and taking people at his appointed time- my role was and is to pray constantly and make myself faithfully available to Him and His mission to seek and save the lost.
I cannot stress the labor of prayer that is necessary for a group like this to bear true spiritual fruit. Before we launched, I realized this, sensing the scope of my influence in my own strength and effort being very small, and I reached out to about 15 friends and mentors to be praying over this group, and many of them still check in with me about it to this day. Our ministries have to be grounded by the Word, built with prayer, and fueled by the Holy Spirit to bear fruit for His glory.
When we first launched our missional community, Agape Moms, in October 2016 at a local park, we were a mixed group of 7 women, about half attended my church, and the other half weren’t connected anywhere. I could hardly believe how God wove together this group so perfectly. We all shared common struggles with anxiety and worry, while some were believers and some not yet, we spoke of how Jesus was the remedy to our problems as we poured over a study of Galatians, and the Gospel led by Tim Keller’s, ‘Galatians for You’ book, the same book that helped heal me from my past church experience and the pride and legalism of my own heart.
Other aspects of our missional community were prayer cards and sharing our Jesus-Centered stories, which shifts the subject of our testimonies from us, and what we did, to Jesus, and what He did. As we began to see lives radically changing, we got to hear about it through their stories that were Jesus-focused, instead of self-focused, and so did the other women who were coming. What God was doing was something I had never seen, evangelism and discipleship naturally mixed, a shared vulnerability around our sin problem and equal need for Jesus to continually rescue us- and this is what created a missional community amongst us. I was astonished, humbled and aware of how much I had finally gotten out of the way to let God move.
Of course the enemy was not a fan of what was happening when the women of Agape Moms gathered in the local parks across our neighborhood. In November 2016, when I was 23 weeks pregnant, I fell and severely injured my foot, ripping all of the ligaments from toe to knee. I couldn’t walk or drive for weeks, and this compromised my ability to lead and even carry my big coffee pot that I brought each week. The group started to fizzle. But then what was bad turned worse when we discovered the fall caused a leak in my water bag, and I was hospitalized indefinitely at 27 weeks to keep baby Lucy safe. Besides the life of my baby being threatened and my family’s life being in complete chaos without me home, my largest concern was Agape Moms coming to an end- we had so much momentum and what God was doing was truly incredible. I was so discouraged, but I never stopped praying. A lot of people were praying, and God chose to stop my leaking water, reverse my dilated cervix and the doctors orders of weeks in the hospital were reduced to only a couple days, and I was discharged and allowed to go back home. What a whirlwind, and what a completely amazing miracle! The doctors said they had never seen that happen before, and friends that prayed with and for us through this ordeal still call Lucy our miracle baby! And she is the sweetest soul I have ever met, our Lucy Grace.
In the weeks now approaching Christmas, I experienced lots of preterm labor and fear surrounding Lucy’s life, and unfortunately the women in Agape Moms were not comfortable meeting without me, which killed me. Long story short, the group went on an extended break, but I never stopped praying, believing and imagining what God wanted to do through his missional community we called Agape Moms.
Then February 2017 came and I was in my last month of pregnancy, the time when you usually hibernate at home, but I found myself standing on the stage of our church relaunching Agape Moms, when only two women were still wanting to come. God continually convicted me to keep going, even if there was only one woman. One of these women, by the way, was not connected to any church or place of faith except Agape Moms. I saw her life radically transformed through our study of Galatians, it was absolutely incredible! She was raised in an extremely legalistic church as a child, and was still unpacking that baggage in her life, until now that she was pregnant with her first baby and recently married, looking to reconnect. To this day, she is the most committed and passionate member in our group. She was the inspiration for me to keep going, even if the group remained very small, it was still worth it. Women were hearing the Gospel and it was changing all of us, whether we were raised in church, burned by it, or had never stepped foot in it- the radical truth of the good news of Jesus was exploding in our hearts and lives.
That Sunday when I invited women to join Agape Moms at my church, we gathered three more women who were brand new to our church, and found their place in the Body by connecting with us. In one day our size doubled from 3 to 6. We continued on with them and finished the Galatians study.
In April 2016, we went to launch our next gospel-centered book called The Gospel-Centered Parent, and we gathered a few more women, more than doubling the group again.
Many came through word of mouth invitation and also intentional Missional social media posts where they saw their friends tagged, and wanted something more organic, more relational than other groups or just being lost in a large church. God was doing something and I think the Holy Spirit drew women to us in His timing as we shared about what He was doing amongst us. It wasn’t in our marketing, or plan- it was the evidence of God at work that drew people, doused in countless prayers by me and others.
As we headed into our third study in July 2017, things were really taking off as more women and children joined, and so multiplying our group in half was becoming a likely necessity. As we neared 25 plus women and even more kids, I prayed even harder for a co-leader and wisdom for a location change.
God raised up the same woman who first came as my new friend through my first ever missional social media post. She received unconditional love and support as a new mom, and her life was continually being transformed by the gospel that she just had to tell others about Jesus and agape moms. As God radically transformed her life, He used her to transform others. After a year, God did the coolest thing and raised her up my much prayed for co-leader! She was part of my fall Agape Missional Community training in 2017 of both mamas both locally and around the country. She seamlessly transitioned as my co-leader, and specifically took over the roles of being a second discussion group leader and missional lead. This should encourage anyone who feels they can’t start without a co-leader, you can, God will raise them up!
Beginning fall 2017, we also since moved our gathering to my church building, which I was very resistant to do since we’d no longer be in a missional location, but the building is used for many community events and so it is working. This was after a summer of allowing women to host in their homes, which also fostered shared leadership after a season of meeting in parks. Meeting at the church is currently a season of shepherding all the women God is bringing each week as well as raising up more shared leadership, before multiplying out again and getting back into the community.
We’ve seen God do so many neat things, from supporting many mamas who had new babies, rallying around a dear friend of mine and agape mama who had a massive stroke, and continuing to watch God bring new moms each week as we remained in gospel-centered studies. God also raised up more shared leadership to take on aspects of our family that I had been eager to give away and to build the ownership within our family. We added an amazing third discussion group leader and many other roles too.
Since the spring of 2017, women from across the country have continually messaged me about Agape Moms and wondering how they might start something similar in their community. For months, God has been asking me to pray bigger regarding Agape Moms and I didn’t know what He meant until now. It seems clear that God’s vision all along, unknown to me, was for this missional community vision for women would expand beyond my local expression, and that the challenging journey He has taken me on was not in vain. And the challenging journeys he takes us all on are never in vain when left in His hands!
I share the story of Agape Moms because it’s so easy to look at Agape Moms now and be tempted to copy the basic functions of the group, or forget what a God-breathed group it is, as well as not being aware of the challenges that you will likely face as I did. There will be spiritual opposition! You may have to relaunch it! You will have to readjust things like locations and feel like you never entirely know what God is doing, which will continually push you to your knees to pray. The deep conviction of the Word and empowering of the Spirit has to be what fuels you, not simply a new concept like Agape Moms or your specific leadership role. And guard your heart from pride- you know God is leading your heart and actions when it calls you to lay down yourself and your pride, again and again.
(Our hashtag and mantra is Bring your mess)
I created an informal Agape Missional Communities FB Group and you tube videos to help train both local women and word of mouth connections across the country who saw Agape Moms growing on social media, and wanted to be part of it. A larger scale website is currently under construction.
The vision for Agape Moms is to be an extension of your larger church, a lifestyle for you, and that each one would eventually help plug women back into the larger body of Christ, your local church. The design for Agape Moms is to meet in missional locations (parks, homes, playplaces, coffee spots, etc) somewhere beyond the four walls of your church building- on common ground. Find a place where it’s not intimidating for women to come grow in the Gospel and then later get plugged into the larger, fuller expression of the Body of Christ, as laid out in the New Testament. You are their bridge to Jesus and the church, and so meeting them in places that are familiar and comfortable for them and their children is an important aspect.
As Agape Moms continued to grow, more leaders were raised up and we continued to have new moms every week. God burdened me to launch Agape Family Worship night to help connect the dads of Agape Moms, some of which didn’t know Jesus, and to simply gather in the way the early church did once a month. It was an incredible season, and I especially loved how we included the kids in the worship and meals time since we are all part of God’s family!
My husband received a much anticipated and prayed for promotion which transferred us from FL to Seattle in April of 2018, halting my Agape Moms, Agape Family and Agape Women’s Ministries as the women’s director at my church. This was heartbreaking but also full of so much peace. You can read more about that here https://lauradileonardi.com/2018/03/20/moredisciples/
While I am still currently praying with and mentoring from afar my amazing co-leader who seamlessly took over as the new Agape Moms leader, my wonderful season of in-person Agape Ministry has currently come to a halt. God has redirected me to currently be working on launching a website to help train more Agape Moms leaders and groups, and I am eager to see where God would lead me to invest next, which very well may be another Agape Moms once we move into our new home this fall. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that He is in control and He certainly has a plan in moving our family here!
*If you would like to learn more about Agape Moms, visit Agape Moms Online