Evangelical Church Plant in Washington DC: Influencing the City that Influences the World

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Chelsen Vicari serves as the Evangelical Program Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Last Friday, the Institute on Religion and Democracy's (IRD) Chelsen Vicari met with Deamon Scapin, the pastor of a new Capitol Hill church plant called Triumph D.C. According to the new church plant's website, Triumph seeks to be "a network of life-giving churches and a movement of leaders to influence a city that influences the world." Deamon, his wife Kristine, and their three children moved from suburban Texas in 2013 to join the revitalized movement of church planting happening inside the Washington D.C. Beltway.

Chelsen Vicari: When did you first recognize the call to lead a church plant in Washington D.C.? And, by the way, uprooting your family from suburban Texas to this crazy, chaotic, awesome city is quite daunting. What were your thoughts and feelings during such a hectic, exciting time?

Pastor Deamon Scapin: That is a huge story, but I'll try to condense it. Just out of college and newly married, we moved from Pensacola, Florida to Texas through a relationship with a spiritual father of mine to be on staff there at a church. At the time, we knew that when we were joining the staff—this was sixteen years ago or so—that we weren't going to be there forever. We were going to Texas for ministry training, development, and experience. At some point we knew we would plant a network of churches that we would have the opportunity to lead. We ended up taking over the 30-year old founding campus over and we lead there for about six years. But my wife and I knew God was leading us to do the work that we had done in Texas in another place.

We always felt like we needed to be in more of an urban center. We really saw at an early stage in ministry that the Church had left the city, where all of the culture making and shaping was taking place. It was taking place with a lacking Gospel witness. We knew we wanted to be in a major city, in a diverse environment, and we had a few things on our hearts that, if we got to choose, we would want in our urban area.

Probably about three or four years ago, we started feeling like we were entering into a season of transition. We had reached a place where we had developed multi-level leaders within our church and knew our kids were approaching a certain age, and we could sense God saying it was time.

We spent a couple of years praying through and traveling to different cities.

Vicari: Did you just randomly pick cities to visit or did you have contacts in certain cities? How does one even begin?

Scapin: We had our [Triumph] network and had already identified about twelve gateway cities in the world that we really wanted to focus on. And we knew immediately that one of those twelve cities would be ours because God would give us a passion for whichever one it was.

We were ready to move anywhere in the world but through the process knew it would be located in the United States. We had narrowed certain characteristics down in our [prayer and travel] process. So we took about a three week sabbatical and took a family road trip across the country. It was crazy and absolutely fun. We prayed through a lot of cities: Los Vegas, Los Angeles, Boston, San Antonio, places all over the West Coast.

We had been to D.C. in 2010 for a family vacation and God had started stirring our hearts then. But I didn't know what it was for. It wasn't the right season for us to transition out of the church we were at in Texas and so on. I still have journal writings where I'm like, "Okay God, I feel such passion and such a stir about what you are doing in Washington D.C. and what you are doing, but I don't know exactly what it is." So, D.C. was always on our list, but always towards the bottom for the obvious reasons. It's such an imposing city, especially for church planters who hear that D.C. has been labeled "A church planter's graveyard."

D.C. is a tall order, but we really felt like we needed to come back to D.C. and pray through it without kids, without all of that. So my wife and I made a trip in November 2012. It was in that trip that God cemented a burden in our hearts for this city. We really felt like it was a place to be for the rest of our lives.

Vicari: Next came the hard part, obviously. Where in Washington D.C. do you decide to plant a church?

Scapin: D.C. stretches all the way into remote places of Virginia and Maryland, depending on how you define it. Everybody was saying go to the suburbs, go to the beltway. It's cheaper, it's easier, there are more Christians, blah blah blah. We drove through all those areas, but we kept being pulled back into this city. So we realized God is calling us into the heart of the city. But even then the district has 39 clusters, eight wards, 130 or so neighborhoods. So, yes, where in the city do you start? We prayed through the process and we ended up right here on Capitol Hill for our first location.

The vision God has given us is to influence the city that influences the world. Knowing that if we were going to plant in the city, it was really important to us to enculturate as much as possible. We made this decision somewhat naively, somewhat in faith. For example, we put our kids in the D.C. public school system, which is a huge task for a suburban Texas family. My ninth grader metro's to Foggy Bottom to attend high school every day. For a fourteen year old from Texas this is just incredible.

We really wanted to get into the neighborhood, get into the schools, be apart of the city. We knew we had to do that to be effective.

Vicari: Did you have support launching God's vision for Triumph D.C.?

Scapin: Luckily, we have had others partner with us in this vision. We had some people who moved with us from Texas. Our worship pastor on my staff for seven years in Texas went off staff, moved his family to D.C.—they actually live in Alexandria—and went and found new employment just to be able to plant with us. Our discipleship and young adults pastor did the same thing. He was on staff with me for four years with me and resigned and came out here. We also had a couple of young professionals and even a single mom with two kids who on faith, believed God really wanted her here, and so she put in for a transfer. It all worked out that over a period of about nine months these individuals relocated to help launch Triumph.

Vicari: You are the first church plant leader I've interviewed whose ministry is based on Capitol Hill. It's certainly more unique to find for all those obvious reasons: expenses, location availability, etc. How did you find your first meeting location?

Scapin: Everyone we talked to did tell us that space would be our challenge. From Texas where we have sprawling campuses, it's a bit crazy. Crazy is my new favorite word. I promise I have a larger vocabulary than that, but it fits best for this situation.

We originally worked with a church located just off of Lincoln Park. It was a historic United Methodist Church (UMC) African-American congregation. We were going to do a co-share with them. The location was great. It was right across the street from our house and in the middle of the Hill.

For four months we worked with the [leadership] from the UMC, but then at the last minute the Trustees—we went to the building to clean out classrooms and we were about to launch advertising so we had 14 of our launch team members organizing and cleaning. Then two Trustees pulled me into a side room and were like, this is not going to work. I said, "What do you mean. We can't clean it out today or what?" They said no, this is not going to work at all.

Vicari: Did they provide you a reason for their change of mind?

Scapin: They weren't comfortable with the whole thing. I had been building a relationship with the pastor there. She and I had a great relationship, or so I thought. We had been talking for months and apparently she had not informed the real decision makers there. So I think it was a little bit of everything. It was also the underlying current of tension; they are an older African-American Methodist church. We are a young, multicultural non-denominational church. In fact a lot of it was, I think, an overarching tension around the whole city over gentrification and displacement and those kinds of things. And some of our African American launch team members said, "Oh pastor, if we had realized we could have joined you in all those meetings."

Luckily, Harrison Wilder who is an executive pastor at Capital City Church told me that when they sometimes get kicked out of the Atlas [Performing Arts Center], they meet at Capitol Hill Montessori School. Harrison was happy to introduce me to the principle of the school, which is a block north of [Ebenezer's Coffeehouse].

The school was a great open space and we were able to settle on a deal. At this point, we were approaching summer. We missed our Easter launch. Initially, the principle didn't want to give me a whole summer, so I said, "Look. Just please give me one Sunday a month and we will see how it goes." So we did a monthly service throughout the summer and then everything went well. So we officially launched September 7, 2013 and have had weekly Sunday gatherings since then.

And that is how we solved our space issues.

Vicari: After talking with many pastors, I have a feeling I can guess your answer to my next question. But I'm going to ask anyway. What is the demographic of Triumph D.C.?

Scapin: We are a wonderful, diverse church. We have always pastored and led a diverse church and we don't want to build anything else. I believe if you are to plant a church, then you need to have joy when you attend the church you are leading. Our life reflects a diverse set of friends, and the same with our church.

Basically, you'll find people old who are diverse socio-economically, ethnically and generationally. This is one of our church's distinctions. When we were traveling and praying, once we knew we were going to move to D.C., we visited some great churches. D.C. does have great churches, but not nearly enough. Unfortunately, we didn't see the diversity like what we were called to do here. This was a major reason why God was calling us to D.C., to be a spirit-filled non-denominational orthodox Christian church that embraces all types.

On any given Sunday, you'll meet a guy who works on our production team who works at the White House. Or a retired Army Master Sergeant from the Pentagon who helps setup and then we have a lady who is just getting back on her feet from being homeless at the door greeting. Then if Tony [Perkins, President of the Family Research Council] is doing interviews at Fox News, he will Uber on over and attend service since it's so close. It's weird, but yet such a God type of worship that we love.

Vicari: I must admit, that is not the answer I expected. Fully, I expected you to say your church consisted of young Capitol Hill staffers and other young professionals. It's refreshing to hear that is not the case.

Scapin: Absolutely, but we are a small church. We are a new church, but already have a microcosm of what we really want to be. And that's the deal. It's a God thing, but also a very intentional thing. It doesn't happen by accident.

Vicari: Finally, can you tell us what the greatest need of those walking into your church doors? Besides community and Christ, what are people on Capitol Hill truly searching for in a church?

Scapin: In a city that is so busy and Americratic, they are looking for a reminder of what is really important. So to say, you are more than what you do for a living is important. To have a place where you know that you are loved for more than your job is a big point. We are studying Ephesians and last week my sermon was "You are Not What You Do," which fights the whole spirit of this city.

And that is our assignment. You could say, it is to be in the city and for the city but to find out what the spirit of the city is and to work in the opposite sphere. There is a spirit of strife and division and disunity and contention and all these things. So the church has to be peacemakers, unifiers and connectors and fight that lie that you are what you do and how your job title defines your worth.

Chelsen Vicari serves as the Evangelical Program Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She earned her Masters of Arts in Government from Regent University and frequently contributes to conservative outlets. Follow her on twitter @ChelsenVicari.