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What started as a gathering of fewer than 20 people in 1996 has grown to a congregation of more than 3,000 today. The interdenominational National Community Church serves a range residents in and around D.C., including Hill staffers and the homeless. We talk with lead pastor and founder Mark Batterson about the growth of the faith community, the method behind its message and where it fits into the broader religious landscape of this area.
- Mark Batterson Lead Pastor, National Community Church; author, 'All In' and 'The Circle Maker'
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The neighborhood church. It's a pretty familiar straightforward concept. You go to worship with a group of people of the same faith at a designated time and place once a week. But what if that church is an interdenominational one that meets in a theater or coffee shop? The neighborhood is the nation's capitol and the lead pastor reaches 28 times as many people on Twitter as he does during weekly services. Then things are necessarily business as usual, but that just might be Mark Batterson's modus operandi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to tell us about the church he helms on the hill and the influence it's having beyond the city is Mark Batterson. He is the lead pastor of National Community Church here in Washington, D.C. He's also the author of several books including "The Circle Maker," "All In" and I'm reliably informed by a source which shall remain anonymous coming soon to a bookstore maybe near you, "Praying Circles Around the Lives of Your Children" by Mark Batterson. Mark Batterson, thank you so much for joining us.
PASTOR MARK BATTERSONHey, Kojo. Great to be in studio with you today.
NNAMDI"Praying Circles" when does it come out?
BATTERSONIt comes out April 22 so right after Easter.
NNAMDIRight after Easter "Praying Circles" will be available for you. Mark Batterson, prayer is a common concept to most religions and prayer walks have played a central role in your career and in your faith. First, how do you think of and how do you define the act of prayer both for yourself personally and within your church?
BATTERSONYou know, I think prayer is the difference between the best you can do and the best God can do. And I want the best God can do. And so, you know, in simplest form, Kojo, it's a conversation with almighty God. And, you know, the beautiful thing is it's not really dictated by our vocabulary or the combination of 26 letters of the English alphabet. The truth is, you know, the Bible says that God knows every word before it's even on our tongue.
BATTERSONSo God can read our mail but he loves having conversation with us. And so prayer's the mechanism whereby we do that.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Have you read one of Mark Batterson's books or attended his services? Give us a call to share any insights you may have gleaned, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet @kojoshow. What is a prayer walk and how have they repeatedly shaped your pursuit of religious work?
BATTERSONYou know, it's simply praying while walking. And for some reason I'm wired in a way that it helps me be less distracted if I'm praying while walking. But I think there's also a beautiful story in the Bible that many folks will be familiar with, the story of Jericho. And it says that the Israelites circled that city for seven days. Now, on the seventh day those walls came tumbling down and God delivered on his promise. And I think that prayer is the difference between you fighting for God and God fighting for you.
BATTERSONI really believe that when we pray God fights our battles for us. And that's what he wanted to demonstrate at Jericho. And so they circled that city. And many, many years ago I felt led to circle Capitol Hill when we were one church with one location. And it's amazing, Kojo, the way that God has answered that prayer over the years. You know, prayer doesn't have an expiration date on it. And that's a beautiful thing.
NNAMDIDo you think that praying and walking for some people has become like walking and chewing gum at the same time, and that is we associate prayer so much with kneeling that we don't think of it as something you can do while walking.
BATTERSONYeah well, I mean, I would say in the same breath that kneeling is a powerful posture as well, that when you hit your knees, God often will extend his powerful right hand on your behalf. And so I believe in kneeling but walking is something that I think more and more people are doing. And those who have read "The Circle Maker," a lot of fun stories from NFL coaches who are circling stadiums to congressmen who are circling the capital, and a few real estate brokers who are circling properties.
NNAMDIMore than a few. In this town, when we can't categorize someone or an organization, whether along political party lines or through another means, we often don't know what to do with them. Your church is described as interdenominational. What does that mean both practically and in terms of how it steers your philosophy?
BATTERSONYou know, it simply means that there are a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds now, a lot of people who did not grow up going to a church who have found National Community Church. And we love that. You know, we're -- you know, a lot of people have given up on disorganized religion. And we like saying that we're very disorganized. You're going to love National Community Church.
BATTERSONAnd so we really focus on a relationship with Jesus Christ. And it's not the most religious environment that we meet in. We meet in movie theaters but I think people have found that if something is life-giving, if there's joy, if they can find faith and peace in an environment, that that can make a difference in their lives. And we've seen that happen over the years (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDISo you're saying if people have questions about organized religion then the National Community Church is the place for them.
BATTERSONI think so. I think so.
NNAMDIAs the church grows from a congregation of really three people in a living room when you first took over in the mid '90s to one that draws over 3,000 at seven locations today, all theaters, how much control do you maintain over each location and how do you decide what to let go?
BATTERSONWell, I preach on Saturday nights and that message gets recorded. And some of those videos play at some of our locations. But then on Sundays I travel to our different locations. I may be at the Lincoln Theater on U Street or I may be at our Barracks Row Campus on Capitol Hill. But we have campus pastors at each of our locations. And we have about 125 small groups that meet throughout the city.
BATTERSONAnd so we really believe, Kojo, that a church that stays within its four walls is not a church at all. And so it's not about just coming to a service per say. I would suggest the service starts when you leave the service. And so we'll take 27 missions trips this year, very involved in serving our community. And we think that, you know, that's -- we're called to be the hands of Jesus, if you will, and show the love of Christ in practical ways. And so we're trying to do that in some new and creative ways.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mark Batterson. He is the lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington. He's also the author of several books including "The Circle Maker" and "All In." And the next publication coming out on April 22, "Praying Circles Around The Lives of Your Children." You can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think the scope of a church's mission, do you think of it as being local or global, 800-433-8850? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDII find it interesting that you say the service begins when you leave the service because for so many church goers, simply making that trip, that pilgrimage, if you will, every Sunday to the church is the be all and the end all of their relationship with the church. You say the service begins after you leave the service. What do you mean by that?
BATTERSONWell, I think faith without works is dead. And so we really believe that church ought to be the most enjoyable hour of the week. And so when people miss church we want them to actually miss church. But I really think you've got to live out your faith Monday to Friday in the way that you love your neighbor, in the way that you live out the commands of Christ. And so the proof is in the pudding, the way that you live your life at work, at home. And so church is maybe a little pep talk, if you will. And then the rest of the week is when you truly live out your faith.
NNAMDIBack to the phones -- or on to the telephones now. Here is Dave in Westminster, Md. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEHi. Great to call in. And I just wanted to thank you, Mark, for writing "The Circle Maker." It's really changed my life, the life of my family and our small group from our church.
NNAMDI"The Circle Maker," the subtitle is "Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears." What did it do for you, Dave?
DAVEI think it helped me organize the prayers that were most important in our lives. And it gave us a focal point to really pray through some difficult issues that we had that we were facing as a family and as a group.
NNAMDIOkay, Dave. Thank you very much for your call. Care to comment, Mark?
BATTERSONYeah. Dave, it's just wonderful to hear that. You know, I get up very early in the morning to write. It's kind of a second job for me. But when I hear stories like that it makes it worth it. And, you know, Kojo, I would just make one observation, and I think it's important to say this that, you know, God is not a genie in the bottle and our wish is not his command. Prayer is not as much about us outlining our agenda to God. It's about getting into God's word and God's presence and him outlining his agenda for us.
BATTERSONAnd when we begin to discern his incredible plans and purposes for our life then prayer takes on a new dimension, a new power. And it's not about God serving our purposes. Then it's about us serving his eternal purposes.
NNAMDII want to get to the question of what do you think causes your ministry to appeal to so many people like Dave, but let's start in a way at a part of the beginning. With roots in the Midwest, tell us what brought you here to Washington, D.C. and how much of a culture shock your arrival here was. Because you first arrived in a city that was decidedly different than it is today.
BATTERSONYeah, you know, it was a failed church plant in Chicago. It's amazing how much you think you know when you're 22 years old. We thought was knew about everything. And I was a seminary student in Chicago and we tried to plant a church and it just didn't work out. And -- but sometimes our plans have to fail so that God's plans can really prevail in our lives.
BATTERSONAnd so we took what I like to describe as a 595-mile step of faith and packed up a U-Haul, moved to Washington, D.C. And this is where we felt like God had called us. And it was a little scary. I never...
NNAMDIHad you ever been here before? Did you know what Washington was like, what kind of community you were coming into?
BATTERSONYou know, the crazies thing in the world. My brother got to take a class trip to Washington, D.C. when he was in 8th grade. By the time I got to 8th grade, there must've been budget cuts because we went to Watertown, Wis.
NNAMDINo trip for Mark.
BATTERSONAnd so I had never been here. But there was something about driving down Pennsylvania for the first -- Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time. I just -- I felt like this is it. This is where God wants us.
NNAMDIAnd you moved here in 1994 to lead an inner-city ministry. You left your study of pre-law at the University of Chicago where you were on a basketball scholarship to pursue the ministry. People who live outside of the city might look at D.C. and see the nation's capitol in a kind of abstract way rather than a metropolitan area full of longstanding vibrant communities. The former group might think of the city as a somewhat Godless place where greed, where power rule the day.
NNAMDIThe latter know that you'll see families flocking to all kinds of worship here on the weekends. Where do you see your congregation fitting into that broader landscape of worship communities here? And how does it reflect the city to those people outside of the city?
BATTERSONYeah, you know, I think it is interesting that, you know, the news that comes out of this city is political in nature, but I think there is a spiritual undercurrent of what God is doing. And I think one of the great joys that I've experienced, really in the last couple of years, is to see the way that God is bringing churches together.
BATTERSONKojo, we really believe that it's not about the name over the church door. It's about the name of Jesus Christ and seeing his name lifted high. And we really are so grateful for churches and pastors that have gone before us. In fact, we hosted an event not long ago where we had some longstanding pastors in churches in D.C., everyone from...
NNAMDI...Greater Mount Calvary.
BATTERSON...Greater Mount Calvary, Bishop Alfred Owens who's been in this city for almost five decades, to other friends like Amos Dodge at Capital Church who they host the sunrise service on Easter. And we really want to give honor to those who have been here for a long time serving our city. And we want to affirm those who are coming to our city to plant churches. In fact, if someone's planting a church, we want to invest in that church plant. It's about the church at large and about the name of Jesus Christ being exalted.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Our guest is Mark Batterson, lead pastor of the National Community Church in Washington, D.C. To what do you attribute the impact of your church? You came here in 1994. You probably had no idea what this city was all about except what everybody knows, that it's a political location, it's the nation's capitol. But to what do you attribute the impact that you have had in this region, and apparently around the country with the number of Twitter followers you've accumulated?
BATTERSONYou know, I think there's a wonderful verse in scripture that says, unless the Lord builds the house, they who labor it in vain. You know, I think the beautiful thing about having a failed church plan under my belt is that I recognize unless God does it it's not going to happen. So I would start there, Kojo. And then I would say that, you know, you've got to dream big, pray hard and think long. And I've really prayed that if God would be gracious enough that he'd allow me to pastor one church for life.
BATTERSONAnd so I wanted to devote my life to this city, to this church. And we tend to overestimate what God can do in a year but we underestimate what God can do in ten or twenty or thirty years. And so really National Community Church has been a story of God's faithfulness and a church growing from very few people to now a wonderful influence in this city.
BATTERSONAnd I do think that there are some things that -- the convictions that we have. We believe the church ought to be the most creative place in the planet. We believe the church belongs in the middle of the marketplace and, you know, thus our coffeehouse on Capitol Hill, Ebenezer's.
NNAMDII was about to get to that because most people do not think of a church having a café or a coffeehouse. What's the reason for that?
BATTERSONWell, you know, Jesus didn't just hang out in the synagogue. He hung out at wells. And I think coffeehouses are postmodern wells. And instead of water we just serve coffee. And so what's beautiful about Ebenezer's is that every penny of profit we give both to missions and to some of our local endeavors including the Dream Center that we are in the process of building in Southeast D.C.
NNAMDIWould the unsuspecting patron walking into Ebenezer's even realize that it's run by a church?
BATTERSONI don't think they would. You know, we knew if you can't compete with Starbucks you better stay out of the coffeehouse game. And so we run a great business. It's a great product. But then I think our coffee doesn't just taste good, I think it feels good because literally every penny is going to go to some wonderful causes that we're involved in, both here and around the world.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again, here's Nathan in Annapolis, Md. Nathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATHANHello. I'd just like to ask your guest what specifically is going on in Washington between his faith community and other interfaith communities in the city.
BATTERSONYou know, I think we've got to find ways to serve the community. And coming together as faith communities is one way to do that. A number of years ago we did an event called The Convoy of Hope. And it was a one-day event where we served about 10,000 pounds of groceries and did a job clinic and haircuts and all kinds of different things to serve our community. And we were patting ourselves on the back and that's when we felt like God said, I want you to do that every day. And not something that we would necessarily put our name on but something that others could rally around. We really want to be a unifying force in this city. And...
NNAMDIBut how do you overcome doctrinal differences to get together with churches or mosques or temples of other faiths in order to carry out what you see as God's mission?
BATTERSONWell, I don't think you have to ask anybody else to compromise their beliefs, and we wouldn't compromise ours. We really believe that Jesus is the way of the truth and the life. But that -- he's the very same person who said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." And so I think those places where there are needs in our community. We've got to find ways to link arms to serve with one another and to really make a difference.
BATTERSONSo we're very involved in everything from homelessness to fatherlessness. I mean, we -- kids need mentors, need father figures. And I think those are needs where faith communities can come and really rally with each other around those causes.
NNAMDINathan, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back -- if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. What role do you think religion has in D.C.'s broader culture?
NNAMDIYou can send us an email to email@example.com. If you don't attend church service regularly, what keeps you from going? If you do go, what do you find there that keeps you going back? You can also shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Mark Batterson about the phenomenon known as the National Community Church in Washington, D.C. He is its lead pastor. He's also the author of several books, including "The Circle Maker," "All In," and soon to be released, "Praying Circles." We're inviting you to join the conversation at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIMark, some might consider the founding of new churches like yours as being a more suburban phenomenon. Do you have a sense for how common new urban faith communities like yours are?
BATTERSONWell, there are quite a few churches being planted in Washington, D.C. right now, which is really fun. We love coming alongside those churches, Create Church, Triumph Church, I could name a number of them. And just excited about new expressions of faith and energy. And I think God is doing a new thing. I look across the country and it is remarkable that more and more churches are going into those city centers, into those urban areas. And so it's an exciting thing to be a part of.
NNAMDIHere's Joan, in Washington, D.C. Joan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANOh, howdy, Kojo. I'm just mentioning the Church of the Savior, which has been here since the 1960s and their first outreach was in the Potter's House Coffee House and Cafe. And that whole story, Gordon Cosby, our great founder, who died last year at 95, got very nervous whenever the church grew to more than 25 or 30 people. So they kept breaking off so it's into smaller churches now.
JOANBut we -- up in the Adams Morgan we have Christ House, where people, street people -- it's a hospital. Columbia Road Health Services, Jubilee Housing. We have nine apartment houses. It's for low-cost people. We have Sarah's Circle, for the elderly poor. And oh, goodness, I don't know. There's…
NNAMDIPotter's House was one of my favorite spots, you should know, Joan.
JOANIt's temporarily closed now because it's being renovated and hyped up because it had been there since 1965 and was the only building left standing when the neighborhood burned, when everybody got so mad.
NNAMDIFor those who are not familiar with it, it's on Columbia Road and Adams Morgan. Joan, thank you very much for your call. Mark Batterson is nodding. Obviously, you're familiar the Potter's House.
BATTERSONOh, Joan, I'm so glad you called. And the Potter's House was such an inspiration to me. Reading about Church of the Savior and just some of the new creative ways in which it incarnated the gospel in the '60s and '70s, and obviously continues onto today. And so there's a big smile on my face, because I think we really have to honor those who have gone before and plowed the soil that others can come behind.
BATTERSONAnd so Ebenezer's, really is a coffee house much in the same spirit as the Potter's House.
NNAMDIJoan, thank you so much for your call. In this age of social media it may be growing harder for pastors to hold a congregation's attention for too long, but you actually reach about 30 times as many people on Twitter as you do in person each week. How are you using social media and other tech tools, like podcasts, to connect with people?
BATTERSONYeah, you know, it's so fascinating, Kojo. Our podcast goes to 181 countries and far more people are part of what we call our extended family than our immediate family who attend one of our seven locations. But I think we've got to redeem technology and use it for God's purposes. And that's what we've tried to do from the beginning.
BATTERSONOne of the reasons we love meeting in movie theaters is because I really think the screen is post-modern stained glass, that it's the way that we tell the gospel story in moving pictures to a post-literate generation. And so I've just come to terms with the fact that, you know, God has allowed me to pastor a congregation and have kind of first-person influence, but writing is really where I have far more influence around the country and around the world.
BATTERSONAnd I feel as called to write, as I do pastor. And so it's a unique way in which you can reach people that you will never meet face-to-face. And so grateful for kind of both of those mechanisms.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Josh, in Washington, D.C. Josh, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSHThank you, Kojo. Ever since college, when my college roommate came out to me as being gay, I've become more aware of ways that scripture can be taught to love and heal, and also ways in which it can be used as a sort of weapon. And I was wondering about the ways in which this faith community -- whether they're friends to gays and lesbians and the ways in which they are.
NNAMDIBefore you leave, Josh, allow me to put you on hold because there's Peter, in Mt. Jackson, Va., who has a question along these lines, too. So, Peter, your turn.
PETERYes. Thank you, Kojo. I was also interested in the minister's position on gay marriage. And I echo the previous caller's sentiments about Christ's love for his fellow man and the role of the church as serving Christ's purposes and how support for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and their marriage before God, how he (unintelligible).
NNAMDIPeter, thank you very much for your call. And finally this, from Richard, in D.C., who emails, "Recent survey research shows that the characteristics most attributed to evangelical Christians today are being anti-gay and intolerant of others. How does Mark Batterson address this reputation, which in my opinion," says Richard, "is deserved?" Mark?
BATTERSONYeah, you know, I think you live in the tension of what you believe. And here's the bottom line, Jesus said that he did not come into the world to condemn the world. He came to show what love looks like. And that's a sinless son of God nailed on a cross and raised on the third day. And he came to set us free from our sin, eventually from our suffering.
BATTERSONAnd all of us struggle with sin. The Bible says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And there's not one person who doesn't need his redemption or his mercy. And so what we've tried to do as a community is really teach what we believe the Bible says. That we celebrate marriage as a gift to a husband and a wife, but we're also a community where absolutely everybody is welcome. We do not avoid hard conversations. And the truth is, we tend to label people in our society. And our church has tried to remove some of those labels.
BATTERSONThe Bible says there neither Jew nor Greeks, slave nor free, male nor female. I don't think that we help our culture or some of the tensions that we experience when we label people one way or another. The truth is all of us are in need God's love and grace. And so we're a community where lots of people who are straight, lots of people who are gay and lots of people who don't have it figured out have found a relationship with Jesus Christ and a place to experience the freedom that we have in Christ.
NNAMDIWell, politically, this is obviously a very divisive issue, but how do you keep politics out of your church? Because for any organization to do that in this town, has got to be very difficult.
BATTERSONYou know, from day one, we made a decision that we would try to be apolitical. And by that we mean that we wouldn't touch party or candidate. And while we've had some high-profile people from different parties attend our church -- one of our small groups on Capitol Hill is split right down the middle of the aisle. And it's such a fascination to people who are outside our church looking in and wondering how can that even happen. But the truth is the bond that we have in Jesus Christ is greater than our political affiliation.
BATTERSONAnd so we're not afraid to talk about issues that might be considered political, but really have a spiritual bearing. You know, Kojo, I would describe our heartbeat this way, that we just really believe that church ought to be more known for what it's for than what it's against. Too often the church is taken the easy way out and criticized this or that or the other thing. I believe that we've got to be more known for what we're for than what we're against.
BATTERSONAnd the way that you do that is you follow the example that Jesus said. He put a towel around his waist and washed people's feet. He loved those who were outcasts in their society. And we've tried to follow that example to the best of our ability.
NNAMDISo do you believe or consider that homosexuality is a sin?
BATTERSONYeah, you know, I believe that marriage is something between a husband and a wife. I think that sex is a gift from God. It was his idea. And so our church celebrates that. But it's a gift that was meant for the covenant relationship of marriage. And so that's something that we teach and encourage.
BATTERSONAnd I also don't know a single person that doesn't wrestle or struggle with sexual issues. It's part of the way that God created us. And I really believe it's in him that we do find wholeness and find our way forward in that part of our life.
NNAMDIRegina, in Vienna, Va., has another issue that you must confront here in Washington, D.C., I guess, from time to time. Regina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REGINAGood afternoon. Yes. I just happened to turn you on right now and I heard the pastor talking. I wanted to know -- I know you say you don't want to deal with these political issues and social issues and labeling people, but in Washington, D.C. black churches are having a very difficult time because the communities are regentrifying with mostly white couples, a lot of gay couples, and they just want the black churches to be torn down and to go away.
REGINAThey have no use for us. And the reality is that a black person will go to a church with a white pastor, but a white person is very reticent about stepping foot into a church with black people. How do you handle -- tell me what you think about that.
NNAMDIWell, first allow me to qualify that, because Regina has made a number of very general statements that represent her opinion and are not necessarily reality. The reality, however, is that they say 11:00 o'clock on Sunday morning in America is the most divided hour there is in the country, that it's difficult for black and white congregations to come together.
BATTERSONWell, it's not the most-segregated hour at National Community Church. We're so grateful that God has created us with a wonderful diversity. And we celebrate that. We really believe that the greater diversity that we have as a church, the more we're going to be able to understand who God is and celebrate his nature. And so it's certainly unfortunate that, I think, some of what Regina is describing is true, but I think the way that you fight against that is you try to create an environment where everyone feels welcome.
BATTERSONAnd I just have to say that some of my dearest friends are pastors of African American churches here in the city. And I'm so grateful for the different kinds of churches in the city, because there are lots of different kinds of people. But my heartbeat would be that our churches would be a better representation of the communities that we're in and trying to reach.
NNAMDITheater Church has already crossed one river into Virginia. Now, you're working on a community center in Anacostia. How will that location differ from your existing places of worship? And what has your reception been so far in Anacostia?
BATTERSONYeah, we felt like we wanted to have a footprint there. We have about 75 or 80 mentors who are working with kids in that neighborhood now. And so we're already active. And we've been a part of the ministry of the Southeast White House for many, many years, which is a wonderful expression. And we just want to take it to the next level.
BATTERSONAnd so we have raised the money and we're ready to build a dream center right there in Southeast D.C., that will be a place where kids can learn everything from dance to math to a basketball court for a great outlet for kids, and experience the love of Jesus Christ. And so we want to do all of the above.
NNAMDIOnly have about a minute left, but I have to read at least a part of Sharon's email. She said, "I have prayed constantly and God isn't talking. So I can only keep treading the stormy waters and wait. Why is God silent?"
BATTERSONYeah, that -- do we have another hour, Kojo?
NNAMDINo, we've got 30 seconds, Mark.
BATTERSONWell, I believe that when you open the Bible, God opens his mouth. He has spoken. And he also speaks in a still small voice that's known as the Holy Spirit. And he speaks in both of those ways. And so I don't think it's as much as God not speaking, as sometimes us not hearing. And I want to be sensitive to everybody's situation, but I also want to remind them that, you know, we know that God loves us and has a plan for our lives.
NNAMDIMark Batterson is the lead pastor of National Community Church, in Washington, D.C., author of several books, including, "The Circle Maker," "All In," and coming soon, "Praying Circles." Thank you so much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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