*Some of the quotes in the following article have been edited slightly for context
The Heart of a Hometown
The city of Lansing, Michigan, had experienced nine shootings in just six days. The local schools were testing in the lowest 10% in the state. And in 2015, Jerome Vierling was hearing from everyone around him to get out of his hometown.
Jerome was pursuing a career in rap music in 2002 when he attended a church service that changed everything. “I was making rap music, and I came to church Easter Sunday, heard the Gospel, stayed up all night at a party. I had walked in as an addict, and I left that place transformed.”
Inspired, Jermone pursued Christian rap and sought to help others through his newfound faith. And it was while he was pursuing the next big thing that Jerome felt a tug on his heart to meet the needs in his city.
“I recall looking in the comments online after the shootings, and everyone’s like, get out of Lansing, that’s why you got to leave that place,” Jerome said. “And I felt this burden where, man, this is a reflection of how much we love the city. And this is our city. These are our schools. These are our people. These are our neighborhoods. Are we going to be a part of this solution? Or are we going to be a part of the problem?”
For Jerome, it was an obvious choice. “I think people meant well, but even in most of the church circles I was in I got coached to go where it was safe. … How was I getting further away from the places that he saved me from?”
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Loving the City First
Jerome’s heart for reaching people with the love of Jesus in the city of Lansing was evident, and his heart longed to plant a church that loved his city well. But instead of jumping into the journey of church planting right away, he stepped back and into a different approach: launching the Love The City initiative.“Reading the texts, what came alive was, I’m not sure we love the city. I think we tolerate the city,” Jerome explained. “When we talk about the city, a lot of times we’re talking about what Satan does. People are just talking about the issues, instead of saying, man, isn’t there an Imago Dei there — people made in the image of God? Isn’t their beauty? And God is wanting us to be salt and light. Like we’re the city set on the hill, but that’s in a city within, that we’re permeating.”
And so Jerome and his team set out — not to plan to love the city after their church launched, but to love the city of Lansing first — before any plans for a church began. “So I felt like it was God’s statement,” Jermone recalled. “God was like, ‘I love the city.’ And we had to partner up with what He was doing. He wasn’t trying to plant a church. He was trying to remind the anthem of what he already built this thing on. You know, God is love.”
The next step was to create this initiative and brand it in a way that showcased its heart and broadened its reach, and that’s when Jerome reached out to ArtSpeak. “God was calling us to speak over the city and let them know they’re loved. So, Love The City became that personal campaign where we had to say yes privately, and then it became the campaign with ArtSpeak that we launched before the church branding.”
ArtSpeak took the vision of Love The City and worked to brand the initiative that would then jumpstart the church of City Life Lansing. What started as a vision for Jerome and his team turned into a movement as they worked with ArtSpeak to bring the goal of the initiative to life.
“I remember talking to you, Jason and Kirk, and saying, ‘Okay, here’s some of the energy we feel. We want people to not feel forgotten…What would it look like if it was all connected? And we started talking about the energy, a heart that’s not separate.’”
There were mood boards and deep conversations, and Jerome and his team laid out their dream for Love The City to the ArtSpeak team.
“One thing I loved that you guys did, it was like you entered the vision that God was doing here. And you were able to take your skills and hear what we were saying, and then create this heart that had connection lines. And we branded this mantra, this anthem called Love the City.”RELATED: See City Life Lansing and Love the City’s branding here»
Being the Church Before Building the Church: 5 Ways to Love Your City
With the Love The City initiative created, branded, and blooming, all that was left to do was start loving Lansing. Jerome highlighted a few ways that his team chose to go out of their comfort zones and into the lives of the people they were called to love — and practical ways that you can seek to love your cities, too.
1. Be Present
The biggest takeaway for the City Life Lansing team was the decision to be amongst the city they were loving. “We started helping to be present in those neighborhoods, go to those parks, just throw the football, throw the basketball, and hang out,” Jerome said.
“We put a basketball hoop up in one of the section eight neighborhood housing, on one of the toughest corners. Building relationships, hanging out there, learning from the people because, you know, ‘outreach’ — I think if we got to say that term, we’re already too far away. We should already be close enough where we can reach out.”
2. Solve Problems
When you have the opportunity to make real change and solve real problems that the people you’re loving are facing, take it.
For Jerome, it was the Lansing schools and their low test scores that inspired problem-solving. “We said, ‘Hey, what would it look like if we started tutoring?’ And so we started tutoring at those schools.”
3. Show, Don’t Tell
The heart behind the Love The City initiative works to show before it seeks to tell.
“To be the Church, you don’t have to tell people. Like, I’m five foot six and white. I don’t have to go around telling people that. They know that. They see that.” Jerome explained. “There weren’t big things I could say, but being present and looking at people and telling them, ‘Hey, dude, I love you.’ And then they’ll start to ask, ‘Why?’ or ‘Why are you doing this?’”
4. Get Close
Often, the best way to reach people is to get close to them and live life alongside them.
“I don’t think most people are asking for another church. They’re asking for us to be the Church.” Jerome said.
“What does a discipleship class look like? Well, maybe I have to be so close that we’re putting together a deck together. What does loving my neighbor look like? Maybe I’ve got to be so close that I got to grab a snow shovel. So we practically just realized, look, we’re not sweet. We’re out here. We want to be amongst. This is it.”
5. Trust that God is There With You
It can be easy to lose ourselves in the big ideas, wondering if it’s really where we’re supposed to be or what we’re supposed to be doing.
But Jerome remembered hearing from God in a quiet moment in one of the city schools. “I remember being in the school and the Lord was like, ‘Hey, where have you been?’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, ‘I’ve been here the whole time. Everybody thought there were issues. I’ve been waiting to do great things right here right now. And I’ve just been waiting for people to see it that way.’”
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Launching City Life Lansing from the Ground Up
As the Love The City initiative thrived, Jerome and his team took steps towards their church launch of City Life Lansing.
Their launch team was 30 people. Jerome remembered the humility that came with that number. “I’m thinking, okay, this is my hometown, there’s guaranteed we’re going to have like, a hundred on our pre-launch team. We had 30. I didn’t know everybody. And a lot of my friends, God called them to stay at their churches, which was beautiful. Because our goal wasn’t to compete, it was to complete.”
City Life Lansing church saw 398 people attend on launch weekend, with their highest attended weeks hitting 1,200 people pre-pandemic – an incredible turnout for a multi-ethnic, economic, and cultural church. And then COVID-19 happened.
“Insert the pandemic, and whatever was conventional, whatever we held onto, whatever our views were on, it’s going to be right in front of your face. And we were still a toddler plant.” The team came to the realization that they weren’t seasoned enough as a church plant to withstand those kinds of storms without intentionality.
“And we all realized it was great evidence, the reason there’s some type of tension because we are reaching people that are on both sides of the aisle that don’t come from the same background. They have different skin colors, they have different income brackets, and they watch Fox News, and some watch CNN and some don’t believe in either. And in that we were like, all right, we got to somehow get in front of them in a way that we can get ahead of this.”
So City Life Lansing, after moving fully online during the pandemic, began another initiative: Love > COVID-19. “We recognized fear was rising up,” Jerome explained. “…but perfect love casts out fear.” The team pivoted services online, but they also hosted Zoom at Noon sessions, in which people could drop in mid-day to engage with encouraging content. They created a daily morning Health Kit devotional focused on starting the day well. They created and sang worship songs over their people, even releasing an EP entitled Freedom after George Floyd’s death.
“We just kept curating what God was kind of doing “in us,” said Jerome. “We were dealing with fear, and how do we override that? The love of Christ. We needed new songs. How do we override that? Let’s get some worship stuff in us. And the vulnerability of that, telling our people we’re struggling with that, I think was helpful. It’s still happening. It feels like we’re launching a brand new church again, as we’re in person. But those are some of the things we did.”
Redefining Success: The Unglamorous Reality of Church Planting
Jerome and his team’s Love The City initiative was transformational and unconventional when it came to launching a new church. But perhaps it’s City Life Lansing’s view of success that flips the narrative and challenges church planters moving forward.
We live in a world of bigger, better, faster. And those definitions of success tend to carry over into church planting, too. Jerome equates it to his time pursuing success in rap culture.
“I’m a product of that. Think about the rap culture. Everything’s ‘How sweet am I?’ We want to do bigger. We want to do louder. And so I know what that monster’s like in my own heart, but it’s just such a mirage. So if I’m already defined by Christ and the Scripture teaches us one plants, one waters, and God makes it grow. Well, I need to be faithful and loyal to the soil, if you will.”
Any church planter or pastor knows that it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers: attendance, finances, and growth. But City Life prioritizes shepherding the small moments, slowing down, and being intentional with every part of launching a new church.
“It starts to rewire your metrics, which okay, numbers matter. They tell a story, but we also got to have tough, tough, tough conversations with ourselves,” Jerome explains. “Like, are we stewarding, or are we just trying to produce? Are we laboring, or is the Lord building it? Is it healthy or is it just bigger?
“And so turning 40, the animal the Lord gave me was a turtle. And I’m like, dang. He’s like, if you’re going to finish this, you gotta take the turtle posture and you got to see your wife better, you gotta see your kids better, and you got to see the block better. And that’s going to be slow. It’s going to be long. It’s not going to look glamorous.”
Jerome’s new posture meant redefining what winning looks like: Success is loving the city because God loves the city, not because we want to be building the Church. “If we redefine winning as being faithful and being amongst and dwelling, then it only makes logical sense that we’d want to live closer to people.“There’s a book, Dream with Me by John Perkins. He writes ‘reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution.’ And it’s pivotal. I think it’s essential that we all kind of see that. And we give up whatever comforts that we might have and we ask the Lord, ‘Where would you send me?’”
Today, City Life Lansing is working on their next practical way to love the city – their first two block pastor homes in marginalized neighborhoods.
“We want to give a good example of what a stewarded home would look like, but then moving some of our ministers and training in there and having men’s homes and women’s homes, and then couple’s homes,” Jerome told us. “And we’ve had a dream pre-launch to do that, and now this is coming to fruition, like homes under the authority of the Church of Jesus Christ for the glory of Jesus Christ. And that’s bigger than us, that will outlive us.
“Those homes will be pretty much on the block to love the city one life at a time, or to love the block, you know, one life at a time.”You can learn more about Love The City on their website, and get involved with City Life Lansing.
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