Relearning My Own Hometown

November 8th, 2013

God called me to be a missionary. And then sent me to suburbia.

It all started in a hotel room in Atlanta, where my wife and I pledged to God that we would go wherever God wanted us to go. Perhaps surprisingly, we had never promised our lives to God like that. Not that deeply, not to that extent.

We thought for sure this would lead us to an exotic place. We applied for placement with a mission organization. We visited Monterrey, Mexico, and wept as we considered how God might use us to reach this city with the love of Jesus. We came home and told our parents, kids, and church that God was calling us to Mexico.

Then it all fell apart.

Everything that needed to happen for us to be able to go to Mexico came unraveled. Funding, language school admittance, denominational permissions. No, no, no.

I was confused.

Shortly after our last “no,” I was approached by some leaders from my home conference who asked me if I had heard of the new church that was being proposed. I had not.

It would be in the Providence area of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a new urbanism development that would double the size of the city. Had I heard of the area? I had. It was my hometown.

Then they told me I was being considered as the pastor to start it. I was confused.

“Why?” I wondered. Why had God done all of this missionary stuff in my heart? Why had God broken my heart for Monterrey, Mexico? Why, if I was to return to my hometown and start a new church?

I heard God’s voice in my heart say, “Because I wanted you to have that heart for your town. I wanted you to cry over that city, and instead you were on your way to becoming a fairly average religious professional.” Well, I’m not sure God said it like that, but that’s what I heard.

Two months later I had moved, and I was the pastor of a new church with no name, no place to meet, and no people. It was a city that looked very different from Monterrey, Mexico. Financial poverty was harder to find, but spiritual poverty was rampant. They spoke my language, if I mean English, but they didn’t speak Christian-ese, the church language I had studied for so long. The people looked a lot like me, but they were diverse in the ways they viewed God and in their experiences of church.

What I realized is that I would have to learn from and listen to the people of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, in much the same way that I might have learned from and listened to the people of a foreign land. I learned that I did in fact bring many preconceived notions of what they needed in a church. I learned that I didn’t know them any better than I knew the people of Monterrey, Mexico.

And so we listened. We walked through the grocery store and through the neighborhoods on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. (the hour we thought we would worship). If we truly wanted to reach people who weren’t in church, we needed to know: Who were these people, and what were they doing? We rolled our windows down at the stoplights and listened for the type of music they were listening to. It wasn’t a pipe organ.

On the other hand, they weren’t as trendy as I thought. I had envisioned a cutting-edge church in music, dress, and appearance. But I realized that I was not in a reclaimed urban area, where hipsters were buying old, rundown homes and visiting farmer’s markets. I was in suburban America, where soccer and minivans abound.

I was fortunate to be connected with Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter as a part of the Young Clergy Network the same fall that I helped start Providence Church. Though Mike and Adam are in different settings, over the years each has been able to remain focused on his particular mission field, and each has crafted- a ministry to reach the people God called him to serve. So many pastors become cynical or burned out, counting the days until retirement. Adam and Mike seem to burn brighter each year.

Initially, the things they talked about seemed unrealistic for me, because their contexts were so different from mine. And yet there were clearly common threads running throughout. In particular, I heard the same message of unyielding commitment to a vision: reaching people who feel disconnected from God and the church and connecting them with Jesus.

Here’s what I’ve learned at Mt. Juliet: No matter how savvy, well-read, and well-trained we may be, we must learn, know, and love the people in the places we are, the communities to which we have been sent.

One morning on my drive through Mt. Juliet, I found myself crying. Crying over the city. I knew I was in the right spot.

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