New York Times best-selling author and Regent alumnus Mark Batterson ’12 (Divinity) believes in dreaming big and praying bold prayers. That’s the premise of his book The Circle Maker—which just crossed 1 million copies sold—and it is a principle that has guided his ministry for the last 18 years. As lead pastor of National Community Church (NCC) in Washington, D.C., his God-sized dreams have resulted in a vast ministry reaching thousands—but this isn’t your typical megachurch.
With a congregation made up mostly of professionals in their 20s, NCC is a multi-site church that meets in theaters around the Washington, D.C., metro area. The vibrant flock is filled with enthusiastic Christians intent on reaching far beyond the four walls of a church.
Batterson’s journey to becoming pastor of the D.C. ministry was one he never expected. As a 22-year-old seminary student, he attempted to plant a church in Chicago, but it never took root. After a few months of praying, he felt God was calling him to move his family to D.C. Without a place to live or any income, he and his wife Lora packed their belongings into a 15-foot U-Haul and made the move. They started the church in 1996, connecting with a group of people who had been meeting together for about a year. Their first Sunday service coincided with a record-breaking snowfall, so only three people showed up—Batterson, his wife and their son.
“When I started pastoring NCC we had 19 people,” Batterson recalls. “We started very small, but we had a big dream. We dreamed of reaching thousands of people. The Lord has blessed us, and we are now one church with seven locations.”
That big dream began with a prayer walk through the streets of D.C. Batterson felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to pray a perimeter around Capitol Hill. It took him three hours to complete the 4.7-mile prayer walk on that hot August day. Now, 17 years later, three of the properties the church owns lay within the route he walked.
NCC first held services in a school near Capitol Hill, but they were forced to move when the school was closed due to fire code violations. Soon after Batterson’s prayer walk, God opened the door for the church to meet in the movie theaters at Union Station. It was a prime location, four blocks from the Capitol and four blocks from the city’s largest homeless shelter.
Their plan had been to rent meeting space until they could buy or build a church building. However, they quickly discovered theaters met their needs perfectly. For 13 years, NCC met at Union Station until the theater closed in 2009. By then, holding services in theaters had become a part of the church’s DNA. They launched locations in Ballston Common Mall, Georgetown, Kingstowne, Potomac Yard, Columbia Heights and Barracks Row. In 2013, they launched their first international location in Berlin, Germany.
“There are ways of doing church that no one’s ever thought of before,” Batterson explains. “The Spirit of God is infinitely creative. We believe the church ought to be the most creative place on the planet, and it belongs in the middle of the marketplace. That’s really what drives us.”
Seeking additional ways for the church to connect with the community, Batterson and the congregation began to pray about purchasing an abandoned building one block from Union Station so they could convert it into a coffeehouse. Before the building had fallen into decline, it was a café that served train travelers in the early 1900s. More recently, the building was used as a crack house.
“People will ask me, ‘Why would a church build a coffeehouse?’” Batterson says. “Most churches build churches, but Jesus didn’t just hang out in the synagogue; He hung out at wells. Those were the meeting places in ancient culture, and I think coffeehouses are postmodern wells. We wanted to be in a place where the church and the community could cross paths.”
The project seemed nearly impossible. The property had an asking price of $1 million, and the church had a budget nowhere near that. However, the congregation continued to pray over the idea. Six years later, they were miraculously able to purchase the property even though they had been outbid by four other potential buyers. In spring 2006, construction was completed on Ebenezers Coffeehouse. It sells Fair Trade Coffee with all the proceeds going to local and international mission projects.
Missions is at the heart of NCC’s ministry. In 2013, the church gave $1.8 million to mission projects around the world, and they plan to increase their giving to $2 million annually by 2020.
“I believe that a church that stays within four walls is not a church at all,” Batterson explains. “That’s why we are going to be taking 27 mission trips this year. We want to mobilize people for the mission.”
They also want to mobilize the church to make an impact locally. In summer 2012, they acquired an abandoned apartment building which they plan to convert into the D.C. Dream Center, a facility that will serve the poor and destitute in an area of the city known for high rates of poverty, unemployment and teen pregnancy.
Batterson says he has long believed that God will bless His people in proportion to how they give to missions around the world and how they care for the poor in their city. He fears Christians have forgotten the instructions Christ gave in Matthew 25 to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and minister to those in prison.
“Those are things that the Church ought to be leading the way in. People ask, ‘Why isn’t the government taking action on that?’ But it’s our responsibility,” he explains. “We’re the ones called to go after the biggest problems—like homelessness, lack of education or HIV/aids—that plague our cities. We need to show people the love of Christ, and we need to be the ones offering practical solutions to give the gospel hands and feet.”
NCC’s congregation quickly rallied behind his vision for the Dream Center. They raised $3.3 million in three months, a remarkable feat considering the demographics of the young congregation. Batterson believes it is because members of today’s younger generation are looking for a cause they can give their lives to.
“I think that’s what Jesus offered, and it’s what we are trying to proclaim,” he says. “Meeting the physical needs that exist in our community is part of what gives us the platform to preach the gospel. I really believe the Dream Center will position us to reach thousands who maybe would not be reached by the traditional church.”
With all of these huge endeavors, what does it take to oversee a ministry the size of NCC? Batterson believes it requires the willingness to ask God for big things and the flexibility to follow His leading. “What I’ve learned is that nothing keeps me on my knees like a God-sized dream,” he says. “Those dreams help me rely on Him and operate in faith.”
It’s also important to know when to let a dream go. Batterson attended the University of Chicago on a basketball scholarship and studied pre-law, but he eventually laid down those dreams when he felt called to the ministry. Even his dream of planting a church first had to die, he says, so God could bring it about the way He wanted.
“I look back on that failed church plant in Chicago,” he explains. “That was painful when it happened. It was embarrassing, to be honest, but God used that to prepare me for what He wanted to do. I have found most of the dreams God has given me have gone through a death and resurrection, and the purpose is so the ego will die in the process so God can get the glory.”
He also cautions leaders to remember the dreams God gives us aren’t so we can attain lofty positions or be known for grand accomplishments. “The purpose of a dream is not just to accomplish that dream, it’s about who you become in the process,” Batterson says. “God is able to do big things through you, but it starts with what God wants to do in you. He always does something in us before He does something through us.”
Directing NCC also requires strong leadership skills—something the pastor honed during his studies at Regent. As his small congregation began to grow, Batterson knew he would need additional training to lead the burgeoning ministry. He chose Regent’s Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) program because he greatly respected the faculty—several have become lifelong friends—and he was drawn to the university’s theological perspective.
“It was the beginning stages of the D.Min. program that really helped define my leadership gift and lay a foundation for what the Lord’s done. It gave me the practical tools that I needed,” he says. “We now have 55 staff members with seven locations, and our vision is to have 20 locations by the year 2020. The only way to get from here to there is as I keep growing as a leader. I knew the program at Regent would be a catalyst for that, and it has been.”
His advice to other leaders or anyone pursuing a God-sized dream is to persevere. “As a leader you’ve got to keep growing, keep stretching, keep learning. I always tell pastors it’s not about church growth; it’s about personal growth. If you keep growing personally, whatever you are leading, whether it is a team or a ministry, it is going to grow.”
But don’t be discouraged, he says, if the dream takes longer than you thought it would, because it usually does. Continue taking the steps God has given you and trusting Him for the outcome. “What I’ve learned, to put it in Eugene Peterson language, is ‘long obedience in the same direction.’ God is going to honor and bless that.”