LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — The majestic brick church with stained glass windows towers above a dilapidated neighborhood. This is a seedy section of Louisville where drug deals go down daily, prostitutes line the streets and murders are routine. Boarded-up houses, broken glass and graffiti dot the streets in every direction.
But Sojourn Community Church is a beacon of hope for the neighborhood. Sojourn, which began as a church plant 13 years ago, decided to make a permanent home in an area where many fear to tread. Not only is the church a part of the neighborhood but the pastor and many of the members live here as well.
Colin and Anna Freeman* moved to Louisville in 2008 to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to prepare for international missionary work. However, Colin says they became so focused on what was ahead “that we really forgot to be [missional] about where we currently were.”
The Freemans soon connected with Sojourn, which emphasizes that believers should not “dichotomize” their lives — separating who they are at church from who they are during the week.
“God calls us to Himself and out of that call comes a new identity as servants,” Sojourn lead pastor Daniel Montgomery says, “and so, service just isn’t something we do, it’s who we are.”
The Freemans put down roots. They joined Sojourn, bought a house in the surrounding neighborhood, graduated from seminary and got jobs in the city, waiting on God’s timing for overseas service.
Nathan Garth*, pastor of global missions, describes Sojourn as a “sending church” that encourages its members to “live sent.”
“The concept is as Christ’s followers, the commission He gave to us is that all believers are to go out to proclaim the Gospel, to disciple new believers and to see multiplication happen,” Garth says. “And that’s what we want to see — our church here, every member to take ownership that they live sent.”
“If we’re not moving outward,” Montgomery adds, “something is fundamentally wrong with our spirituality and our understanding of Jesus.”
That particularly resonated with Colin and Anna, who had wrestled for several years about committing to serve overseas until God began to give them a new perspective on living missionally through Sojourn.
“You’re not going to be effective missionally cross-culturally if you’re not effective across the street, and that is evident in the way they [Sojourn] preach,” Colin says. “… In order for you to be effective, you have to be present, you have to be in people’s lives, you have to be living life with others in the way that draws you closer to the Father through Gospel community.
“And so to be missional doesn’t mean it has to be glamorous or big. It just means it has to be intentional.”
That has been Sojourn’s philosophy from the beginning. More than a decade ago, founding members asked themselves tough questions, Montgomery says, such as, “Is church more than just an activity once a week and is mission more than just sending missionaries overseas?”
They found that many of the people they interacted with daily in Louisville were “interested in our spirituality,” the pastor says, “and who we were and the way of life that we’re about, but they had no interest whatsoever in the church.
“And so we wanted a place where people could really explore authentic biblical Christianity.”
Part of “moving outward” at Sojourn means sending workers overseas, and the church’s relationship with its missionaries is comprehensive, providing pastoral care, financial support, encouragement, accountability, networking and strategy support.
“We want to send and never let go,” Garth, the missions pastor, says. “That ‘never letting go’ piece is not a negative thing — the idea is continually holding on to relationship.”
Once Sojourn’s missionaries are on the field, three “adoptive community groups” stay connected by sending care packages and communicating regularly through email or Skype.
An advocate team of about 10 of the missionaries’ closest friends meets regularly to pray for them, is their first contact if they need something and also may travel to visit the missionaries overseas.
These influences “encouraged [me],” Anna says, reminding her of what it means to affirm that “‘Yes, we want to support you and enable you and prepare you to go.'”
Preparation to go
The Freemans will take overseas the lessons they learned while immersing themselves at Sojourn.
“One of the key things about being a Sojourner is to live in community,” Garth says. “So we gather on Sundays and then we scatter to community groups, to small groups, throughout the week.”
Sojourn has more than 100 community groups of about 10-15 people who meet once a week in someone’s home. Colin says they focus on being part of the community in which they live and making those relationships work. That mindset extends to each of the four locations where Sojourn now is active — two urban churches (which includes the main campus), a suburban church and a rural one.
Encouraging people to live missionally is not like starting a program, Garth say. It’s more difficult. It’s changing people’s worldview to the idea that “we are all on mission, we are all to be Christ’s disciples to the nations — and our neighbors are included in that.”
Colin and Anna started out as community group leaders for three years and then transitioned to coaches to mentor several community group leaders.
“That, I think, just as much as anything prepared us for cross-cultural living and understanding how people work and understanding how sin relates to people’s lives on a regular basis,” Colin says.
Sojourn’s “School of Missions,” a yearlong development program focusing on international missions, also was key in preparing Colin and Anna.
Participants “get the ins and outs about what does it mean to cross a culture, how do we communicate the Gospel in a contextual way, all the things you can imagine that go along with being an international missionary both across the waters and here in our own city,” Garth says, noting that Louisville is home to about 80,000 internationals.
The Freemans were sent out by Sojourn as missionaries to the Horn of Africa in early 2014. Sojourn currently has 20 missionary units (singles or families) serving in several strategic locations overseas and many more in the church’s assessment and development process.
“This is not because we’re anything special; it’s the opposite actually,” Garth says. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes … but by God’s grace, He’s doing something through our people.”
*Names changed. Laura Fielding is a writer for the International Mission Board. View a related video at imb.org/sending. Use the hashtag #sendingchurch on Twitter to join the conversation about how you and your church can “live sent.”