Robert Gelinas is pastor of one of the largest multi-ethnic churches in America—Colorado Community Church in Aurora, a suburb of Denver. He’s an author, jazz aficionado, and foster-care advocate. And he leads his church by infusing a “jazz ethic” into every aspect of the congregation—that means he and his staff value improvisation, flexibility, and adaptability. These three characteristics are also crucial for all churches as we transition into the “Gray Zone,” the description author and pastor Mark Sayers gives to the chaotic in-between time we’re now living in.
I met with Robert, along with the team I was working with at the time, for a wide-ranging interview focused on thriving—here’s an excerpt from our Q&A…
Rick: How do you approach discipleship and faith formation in your specific context?
Robert: When I came to the church, many years ago, we didn’t have a set understanding of discipleship. A disciple is someone who’s been through a program—that’s a popular conception. But I believe the things we don’t do are the most important. For example, I liked Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Church went it came out. But I saw a guy writing from his own context. I took his same Scripture passages, started with them, and explored what was right for our context. A linear approach wouldn’t work here in a multi-ethnic church. How do we create an environment that reflects the makeup of the community? We can’t embrace an American version, because we have so many nationalities represented here.
Rick: What are examples of the way you’ve embedded flexibility in your congregational ecosystem?
Robert: We say “a” instead of “the”—it’s a women’s ministry, not the women’s ministry. Anyone can have “a” whatever. This creates an environment of entrepreneurship. I have an executive pastor who is the flight controller for all of these ministries. We want a culture a freedom—anyone can start anything. And we want you to ask Jesus where your tithing goes—whether it’s here or somewhere else. The key is to discern where the Spirit is actually leading, and learning to find guidance and make decisions from that guidance. Every organization is somewhere on the continuum between control and freedom—we want to plant ourselves on the freedom end of that continuum.
Rick: What does that look like in reality?
Robert: We start with the expectation or assumption that God is leading us. We use symbols as well. After a few years of trying to reframe and introduce discipleship, the question that keeps coming back to me is—people don’t really believe they can hear the voice of God. They believe God talks to others, but not to me. They love the message, but they don’t believe it in their heart. Dallas Willard talks about “The ministry of Eli.” Eli tells Samuel what he’s hearing from God. People need to learn how to discern and trust the voice of God. Because the best pastor and teacher you can have is Jesus.
Rick: How has this been challenging for you and your staff?
Robert: We get theological pushback for everything we do, because we’re an interdenominational church. I try not to solve the disputes, but ask them to turn to each other to talk about them. I have to deal with lots of assumptions from those different perspectives. For example, we have Charismatics and Pentecostals among us—they already had a set program for what “praying in the Spirit” means.
Rick: So, in faith-formation and discipleship, how do you measure growth?
Robert: The way you measure it the best is through stories, because there’s no quantitative way. How do people hear from each other? How do people know what other people are doing? We show testimonies of transformation—tell stories of people and their transformation. My job is to set a culture of high expectations. The assumption here is that everyone here is mature—we have a city to reach, things we need to do. We need you to be mature—we don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether or not you’re up to speed. You’re the best judge of that. We have many options for you to help you get up to speed, but that’s up to you. People self-educate before they go to see their doctor, so we expect the same relative to their spiritual growth.
Rick: But what does growth actually mean?
Robert: You can either make lack of movement comfortable or uncomfortable. If you want to stay stagnant, you’re going to get increasingly uncomfortable. If you want to grow, we have ways for you to do that. People can get tired of the prodding, unless you’re already moving. These things depend on the culture you set. I am looking for people I can’t hold back from wanting to get involved in Kingdom adventures. People who can’t get enough of Jesus. The thing we can manufacture is throwing people into the deep end of ministry—it snaps them into awakeness. Giving people a leader role makes them desperate to know what to do. The more you deploy, the more they come back wanting preparation. We have to get comfortable with chaos—that’s one of the keys. In chaos, all you have are values.
Rick: You said your job is to set a culture of high expectations—can you talk more about that?
Robert: We call this place “Base Camp.” Our [country] flags on the wall in our facility are evidence of our reach. Everybody needs a passport in our church—so they’re ready to go wherever Jesus may take you. It’s an act of readiness. The culture says look at the oceans that are being crossed, and look at the commitment made to go across the street. In the worship center, the greeting time matters—even though I’m an introvert. Those are your neighbors. You’re responsible for the people next to you. We have tables instead of pews in our worship space—we set the space for discussion. I took a sabbatical and spent time discovering what people were doing on a Sunday morning who were not in church—I went to coffee shops and bars, and saw why they were there. It’s community.
Rick: We are followers of Jesus, but it’s not a one-way relationship. How is faith-formation and discipleship mutual? What is it we’re supposed to do, and what is God supposed to do?
Robert: We have to consider the things that Jesus asked us to do—baptism, teach, obey. Shine a spotlight on Jesus. And equip. That’s the same word used for His disciples mending their nets—preparing them to be deployed. My job is to prepare you, and deploy you. What did the disciples know before they were discipled by Jesus? So, how do we get them to a baseline of maturity so they can be deployed. Essentials of the baseline: biblical worldview, working knowledge of the story of God in Scripture, already giving a portion of their income to God, basic theology. After the baseline is met, a daily experience of Jesus beyond the Bible is a priority.
Rick: So, why do you think so many people are leaving the church today?
Robert: The bureaucracy and red tape of church… In our church there are two tracks: 1) You don’t need permission to start a ministry. 2) If you want the church to help promote it, you’ll need to meet with us to set some simple parameters. And we expect maturity—that means we expect them to be what the Bible says they are—created in God’s image.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.