The Emergence of the Tampa Underground

May 25, 2022

Perhaps like all great stories, the story of the Underground is one of love and pursuit—both in the sense that all Scripture is the story of God’s pursuit of us, but also in our reciprocal, albeit imperfect, pursuit of Him.

The Summer of 2006

In the summer of 2006, about 50 of us left our traditional churches to form seven house-based church groups. It wasn’t that we hated church. We just hoped for more than Sunday morning worship and middle-class Christianity.

Many of us had cut our teeth on the college campus over the course of the preceding decade, having developed a strong sense of missionary identity through loving students and the broader city. During the week many of us were engaged in meaningful ministry (running tutoring programs, discipling college students, and having Jesus to disrupt our lives) only to show up on a Sunday morning and have the kingdom confined to what was happening in that place and time. While each of us handled that tension differently, we came to realize that if we wanted more than what we were experiencing, we had to go find and/or potentially be that.

Prayer, Study, and Nine Months in Manila

It started with prayer. We committed to intercession for the bride of Christ in our city between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. We held a 24-hour prayer room for 40 days. We studied the book of Revelation and had lengthy discussions on what we thought the Church should look like. There wasn’t a blueprint or a plan, but we were alive to the sense of God’s presence. Eventually, this pursuit led nine adults and ten children to spend nine months in the Philippines. It was in Manila that we gained clarity around three major elements of our network: microchurches, a bifurcated/dual operating system, and our governing values. After Manila, the Underground was officially birthed.

It started with prayer. We committed to intercession for the bride of Christ in our city.

Even though we already had over a dozen simple house churches prior to Manila, we wanted a definition of church that didn’t need to be limited to that. As we surveyed Scripture, we became increasingly convinced that wherever we saw worship, community, and mission come together, there we saw the Church. The Church could look like the small house church expressions we already had, but it could also be a more specific work like a group of guys working with men coming out of addiction (Timothy Initiative) or a mentoring program for middle school and high school black girls (Mama Africana).

Joining the Organic with the Organized

The organic life of the microchurch demanded a new infrastructure, something that would interface the organic with the organized. We designed a dual operating system that prioritized mission over all other enterprises by forming a non-profit on the organized side of the network whose sole reason for existence would be to serve the microchurches on the organic side of things. Rather than the small entity serving or being an extension of the larger, the big would exist to serve the small.

Within this new operating system, we sought to cultivate a missional ecosystem that assumed that every believer is called and sent by Jesus. Because we believed, and still believe, calling is at the center of microchurch formation, we were free to bias toward radical empowerment, reduce command-and-control mechanisms, and protect the autonomy of the churches to pursue the assignment God has given them. 

Rather than the small entity serving or being an extension of the larger, the big would exist to serve the small.

Coming Together Over Shared Values

What would hold us together wouldn’t be a common methodology or technology, rather it would be 18 shared values that represented to us what it meant to be the Church in our time. This manifesto, along with the Lausanne Covenant, the Apostles’ Creed, and our Leadership Covenant, form the edges of what it means to be Underground.

As a result, we’ve seen a form of church that revives mission, exponentially multiplying the impact of the Church. What started as 50 people leaving their traditional churches in 2006 in search of something more in the name of Jesus has seen the emergence of over 450 microchurches in Tampa. We also have 16 sister networks around the world sharing our core missional DNA. And with our best data, we believe we have seen more than 85 networks and over 400 brave network/church leaders around the world influenced by the Underground’s story and given the inspiration to innovate the Church for their place and time. Yet, what will always be at the core of all we do is this: pursuing Jesus.

Pursuing Jesus Through the Margins

Our passion is for the poor and the lost. We empower communities to reach and serve the people who exist at the margins of the Church as we know it. We believe that intimacy with God and commitment to his mission means prioritizing both those in poverty and those without knowledge of his saving grace. We also believe that discipleship of the believers happens best and most significantly through mission. Therefore, we empower believers to seek the heart of God in prayer to know their unique calling, and to find a community where they can truly live it out. We then work to mobilize communities to meet the needs of the world around us, and to proclaim the good news of the kingdom.

As it was in the beginning, so it is today: all we really want is Jesus. If our network is anything at all, it is an act of worship and obedience to the one we love. It’s what led us to leave the traditional church all those years ago, and what would cause us to close our doors in the future. Whether or not people remember us or know our story is not our goal; we just want to play our part in the story of God.

We empower believers to seek the heart of God in prayer to know their unique calling, and to find a community where they can truly live it out.

While we don’t aspire to replicate the Underground in other places, we do hope to stir missional imagination and equip networks and church leaders to start contextualized, empowering ecosystems that release the priesthood of all believers in their own cities. We dream of a bride wildly in love with the bridegroom.

For more information, you can find the story of the Underground most notably in the documentary, Underground People, as well as Brian Sanders’ book, Underground Church.

Tomy Wilkerson

Tomy Wilkerson

Tomy Wilkerson currently serves as the Tampa director of the Underground Network. As such, he is responsible for equipping, serving, and stewarding the decentralized network of churches in his city. Prior to working with the Underground, Tomy served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA for eight years, planting student ministry in Tampa and the Cayman Islands. He holds master’s degrees in both creative writing from National University and ministry leadership from Belhaven University. In his spare time, he can be found enjoying precious moments with his wife, Brianna, and their two-year-old daughter, Neema. 
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