Monday, September 2, 2013

A Conversation with Director of the Release Initiative: Sam Smith

Sam is a recovering false dichotomist who grew up in a highly conservative culture and reacted by living a life towards the opposite extreme. At 24 years of age Jesus found him and gave him a new beginning. He graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago with a degree in Biblical Studies and interned with The Chicago Plan and Forge Chicago. He serves in Chicago as Pastor of Multiplication with Mosaic Church and is the Director of the Release Initiative. He has served with various other initiatives such as Chicago Partnership for Church Planting, Hope for Chicago and Christ and City.

Matt Boyd: What was your life like growing up? How did God use your background and upbringing to bring you to the place you are in ministry today?

Sam Smith: I grew up in a first generation Christian family, my dad started following Jesus in his twenties and my mom and grandparents started following Jesus a few years after my dad. We were a lower middle class family living in New York state where my dad was a bi-vocational church planter. I wasn't too excited on the idea of the Church, as the network we were a part of was deeply legalistic. Because of this I reacted against Jesus and the Church by running the opposite direction and living a life that was centered on me, filled with many vices. However, while I was working with inner city youth from Baltimore and DC I was required to take the guys to a local church gathering each Sunday morning. And at that local gathering I became aware of my brokenness and need for someone to help me, forgive me, accept me and make me new. I was adopted into God's family after seeing this local church exhibit the rhythms of both grace and truth. I was 24 years old. 

I became aware of my brokenness and need for someone to forgive me and make me new.

I believe my experience both in the "churchy" conservative, legalistic culture and my experience in the un-christian culture has shaped how I view following Jesus and ministry engagement.  I believe God has given me a unique story to speak into both of those cultures.  For the most part, the negative, difficult and broken things in my background and life have primarily shaped the place I am at today in ministry. However, my dad was a strong influence as well, as he helped shape me theologically and practically as I watched him teach, read, work, serve, live and play as a follower of Jesus. 

MB: Tell us about your call to ministry, where that has taken you, and what the future holds?
SS: Shortly after I begin to follow Jesus I was on a trip through New England. It was there, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,  that Jesus clearly called me into full time vocational ministry. I had several moments throughout the following months where God confirmed that he did indeed want me to do what I heard him call me to. For example, there was a time when I distinctly heard him say, "This is the way, walk in it." The next year I was studying biblical theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. 

As I studied at Moody, I almost immediately was connected to a local church planting church in downtown Chicago called Holy Trinity. Within a year I joined their training program called the Chicago Plan and it was there where I met a guy named Jon Dennis who would disciple me for years. Eventually, after serving as an intern and graduating from Moody, I was hired by Holy Trinity's non-profit organization Hope For Chicago (HFC). Shortly thereafter I was brought on the Chicago Partnership for Church Planting (CPCP) leadership team. I served at HFC and CPCP for three and a half years and also worked with Holy Trinity on equipping and transitioning some of their community groups to missional communities. 

As I begin to build relationships with church planters and leaders in Chicago through CPCP I started to architect collaborative and catalytic events for the Church of Chicago. My desire in doing these events was to see the Church of Chicago equipped, unified and sent out to make disciples and reflect the Kingdom of God. 

After working alongside Jon Dennis for some time, I became infatuated with cities. Because of my urban sensitivities I believe, in the future, I will in some form or the other be involved in equipping, sending and coaching urban church planters to plant the gospel of the Kingdom in cities around the globe. 

MB: What are your current roles in ministry and how did you get there?

SS: I've now lived in the great city of Chicago for nine years. A year ago several churches and organizations invited me into a relationship with them. I prayed for a couple months and I believed God wanted me to walk with a church plant called Mosaic for a season. I joined their staff in January of 2013 as their Pastor of Multiplication. I have the privilege of overseeing their Villages (Missional Communities), being on the teaching team and serving as one of their elders. I also was asked to be the Director of their church planting intensive. We eventually called it the Release Initiative and this coming September we will be training ten guys in DNA and sending them out to plant the gospel of the Kingdom in several cities. 

Alongside Mosaic and Release, I get to coach future and existing pastors, missional community leaders and planters from Chicago and other cities in Gospel identity and rhythms. And lastly, God has allowed me to partner with a couple guys in Chicago and we hope to see a couple partner church plants in Chicago emerge in the near future. 

I got here because God called, equipped and sent me here.

I think I got here, because God called, equipped and sent me here. I've had a lot of pain and failures along the way, but He's been faithful and patient with me and he has allowed me to join him in the renewal of all things. There's really no other way to explain it. 

MB: As the Director of the Release Initiative, tell us more about what it is that Release does, explain the DNA briefly and why it is beneficial to guys looking to plant.

SS: Release equips men in what we believe is foundational Kingdom DNA and then sends them out to plant the gospel of the Kingdom. The DNA is Kingdom, Disciple, Society and Church and beneath each component there are sub categories (for example we define a Disciple as someone who hears and obeys God. And underneath the Disciple component is sub categories such as how to holistically disciple people through the rhythms of Up, In and Out). We believe this DNA is crucial to any church planter, pastor, small group leader and Christian.  The DNA of any local church or network is what the culture is built on and the place where the life rhythms of a local church or network flow from. A simple way to phrase the Release DNA in a sentence would be "As we make Disciples of the Kingdom, and send them out to engage all domains of Society, Jesus will build his Church." 

As we make Disciples of the Kingdom, and send them out to engage all domains of Society, Jesus will build his Church.

As guys join the Release Initiative they are put into cohorts, and each cohort has two intensive dates (each intensive is two days).  In the past we have sent guys that have been through these cohorts to Chicago, Chicago-land, Jackson, MS and India and we have ten guys from several cities going through the upcoming Fall Cohort in Chicago. Some of these men will be residents and others will be non-residents. Our desire is to send them all out to plant the gospel of the Kingdom in their contexts.  Alongside their intensives times in Chicago, they will also do some light reading and writing and have some Skype calls with some leaders from some of our partner networks. And lastly, as they finish the cohort they will be coached by one of our coaches as they seek to live out the DNA in their particular context.  

The Release Initiative is beneficial because a) it trains and equips in DNA instead of methods, b) the DNA is again foundational. It is what we believe to be the DNA Jesus instituted, as he came proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, c) the DNA is able to be reproduced, transferred and applied into any context in the world, d) we are connected with many networks that we can connect guys to if they are in need of further relationships, funding or more training, e) the Release Initiative intensives for each cohort are both informational and practical. We teach it and show it, f) we offer both a resident and non-resident track and g) it is very cost effective. 

MB: If there is a guy out there reading this right now and Release sounds like it is for him, what are his next steps?

SS: He can start by visiting our website, and from there he can either contact us with further questions at or  fill out a simple form labeled "apply now" on the home page. We are beginning to accept pre-assessment applications for the Spring Cohort. 

MB: I heard from a mutual friend that you are also putting on the upcoming Verge Regional in Chicago November 1-2, 2013. Tell us briefly about that and who is that really for?

SS: Yes, this will likely be my last conference of this nature! I architected this conference in partnership with the Verge Network because I've been encouraged and equipped by Verge in the past. My desire is to simply see the Church of Chicago, and the Midwest equipped and encouraged in disciple-making. At the conference five speakers from outside of Chicago will be addressing our Chicago/Midwest audience in several different paradigm shifts that I believe we in Chicago/Midwest can be further equipped in. So we will be hearing from our distant Church Family on day one. And then on day two there will be local-Chicago led breakout sessions on particular topics. These breakouts will be much more conversational and led by practitioners from Chicago.  

The goal is to see us reflect the way of Jesus, dismiss some traditional models, grow in unity and maturity and to be sent out on mission to see others invited into the Family of God. This conference is primarily for church leaders such as pastoral staff, small group leaders, campus staff and outreach organizations. But secondarily we desire the entire Church to come and be equipped and we desire all the saints to join Jesus as he makes all things new. 

Sam Smith is the Director of the Release Initiative and Pastor of Multiplication at Mosaic Church of Chicago, IL. Learn more about Release and Verge on Wednesday and Friday.

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