Cutting-Edge Florida Church Network Rediscovers the Life of Mission

That leap of faith was immediately rewarded. The passion of the Filipino church planters in those slums was effervescent. Contagious. Their community emphasis, empowerment of women and seamless union of evangelism and social justice captivated the Americans. Brian’s energized by the memory. “‘Teach us everything,’ we’d ask them. ‘God, community, discipleship, evangelism, pastoral care, mission.’ During the day, we’d serve with them, in the humid nights we’d write furiously, capturing what we learned. All our core documents and philosophy for the Underground was born in the sweat of Manila.” And during those critical nine months, a 24-hour prayer cycle that included the original group of 50 covered the team’s work.

Those early days were full of prayer and listening—values that still shape Tampa Underground. Brian credits that early openness for much of what they did right. “We didn’t know what we were going to do—partly because we weren’t just trying to recruit people for my vision. In some sense, the best thing I did was not having a plan—not because I’m cavalier or ‘organic’—I’m not. I wanted a plan. But I was forced to stay open.”

Brian recalls sitting on a beach in the Philippines, racked with anxiety, trying to express a doctrinal statement. “It was too much pressure to pioneer everything. We were going to change everything we knew in terms of practice, so it was scary to think about expressing doctrine.” Gradually, he realized that simple, orthodox documents of the past—the Lausanne covenant, in particular, and the ancient creeds that precede it—were what they needed. And with the practices learned from their Filipino mentors, an idea for Tampa was taking shape.

Manila was healing them, too. “Our hardcore individualism was challenged,” Brian says. “We began to look more like Jesus—understanding a more comprehensive impression of the face of Christ.” Asian emphases of togetherness and honor checked many of their American assumptions. Their team tightened up. Anger may have helped send them out, but greater peace would return with them.

Before they left Manila, 40 of those first 50 names were able to join the core team for 10 days. Brian’s group shared what they had been learning. People were ecstatic—these principles and practices offered a way to live their values, to do something that strengthened Christ’s body instead of succumbing to frustration.

So, it was back to Tampa. With a plan.

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The idea was simple: an agile network of small communities dedicated to mission. The network, a nonprofit, would offer fellowship, finances, encouragement, coaching. Everything from accounting services to training resources. The “microchurches” empowered by it would flourish locally according to the call and vision of its leaders. They formally launched Tampa Underground in the fall of 2007.

“Rather than gather people, then try to convince them to go out and do something, we wanted to empower people already doing it. We didn’t want to count people, we wanted to count communities.” The first launch out of that 50 people was 16 ministries, many of which had existed for years, including several house churches.

Tampa Underground is an incubator, Brian says. A community of missional communities. “Our infrastructure exists to serve those communities,” he says. “We don’t spend a single dollar, run a single program, or do anything that does not serve the missional God through those people.” Ten years later, the fellowship contains 136 microchurches—some gatherings of 200 to 300 people—with sister movements in 10 cities in six countries. Each empowers the calling of local leaders.

Brian and his team help the microchurches start and thrive. “Free. No strings attached,” he continues. “Most people who are good with addicts aren’t good with spreadsheets. You need help with accounting or tax services? We’ll help you—even run your payroll and process donations. Media services—website and logos? Social media strategy? Graphic arts? Human resources? Liability issues? We handle those, too. Anything that could hold someone really good in the field back from their calling—we help. You can get busy doing what you need to do. A lot of people are just waiting for permission to live out their faith in service. We give them that. Then we back it up with practical support—mentoring and money.”

“It’s all in the name,” he continues. “We were destined to be the ‘Underground.’ I studied in London, and was inspired by their subway. It’s an incredible underground world that empowers the whole city above it. But it’s modest. I was moved—this whole beautiful city is run by a simple, invisible, network beneath it. That’s what we’ve done over the past 10 years—created a robust service platform for these small- to medium-sized ministries.”

And it’s all built on calling. “We help people discover and hone their sense of calling, but it’s that sense of being sent that we all need for this to work.” You can join an existing community, or start one. But you need to engage in mission.

“We create a structure that says, ‘You’re the most important thing—not the platform, preaching, music or building. Your work is the heart of the kingdom of God.’”

Paul J. Pastor
Paul J. Pastorhttp://PaulJPastor.com

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach, senior acquisitions editor for Zondervan, and author of several books. He lives in Oregon.