These Things I Remember
by Mike Cosper
The following essay was written by Mike Cosper, a founding member of Sojourn and a longtime pastor. Over the years, Mike has balanced many responsibilities and wore many hats, making him highly qualified to recount Sojourn's Origin Story, which he wrote on the occasion of our 20th anniversary.
A Warning to the Reader:
First: This is long. Like Matthew Lee Anderson long.
Second: It is also a story built from memories. Unlike a work of history or a more serious memoir project, I have not consulted anyone on the details and dates. I do not guarantee that any of them are correct, rather I would say that these are the way they’ve appeared in my memory. Even my wife, in reading a first draft of this, is certain that I’ve gotten some of the dates and locations wrong. It’s been 20 years; I confess my memory ain’t what it used to be. Those looking for hard core might look elsewhere.
Finally: If you’re a longtime Sojourn member, this might bring back some fun stuff. If not, it might make you scratch your head a bit. In any case, I hope it’s an enjoyable ride.
A Sunday evening service at Highland Christian Fellowship, circa 2003
It struck me this week, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the launch of Sojourn, that everyone at our church has a Sojourn story. Some folks’ began weeks or months ago, others years or decades. For me, that story probably began in the Spring of 1999.
I couldn’t tell you the precise date, but it began when a group of us – all either recently out of high school or early along in college – found ourselves displaced from the churches we’d grown up in. I’d been part of a church of about 1,200 people in New Albany, Indiana, where a shake-up in leadership had led to my mentor (a pastor of worship) making a departure. At another church in New Albany, my friend Nathan Quillo had been serving as a youth pastor. There, he’d successfully begun to attract high schoolers that (as some kids do) smoked and skateboarded in the parking lot. The polite parents of other kids in the youth group did not approve, and Nathan was let go.
And so, a group of us gathered one night in the basement of Jo and Tim Underwood’s house, playing pool and talking casually about what we might do next. There was a steady sigh of finality around the likelihood that most of us would eventually say, “screw it, let’s just go join Southeast” (the mega-mega church across the river in Louisville). But some of us, myself included, were naïve enough to think that maybe we could start a church.
I had friends who went to Purdue University and found themselves part of thriving college-aged and young adult ministries, places where they could ask hard questions, get discipled, and experience community. The young adult ministry at my church featured a cart with microwaved hot dogs and a small tube television playing Joe Vs. The Volcano.
Sometime in the previous year I’d met a pastor named Ronnie Caswell who’d planted a church in Louisville, and I can honestly say it was the first time in my life I’d ever heard the phrase “church planting.” So as we gathered and talked and eventually prayed, a few of us began to wonder, “what if we started a church?”
That gathering began meeting on Wednesday nights in Nathan Quillo’s apartment in the Highlands of Louisville, a quirky neighborhood (much quirkier than it is now) full of independent coffee shops (Twice Told, where Sojourn had some of its first core team meetings), record stores (R.I.P. Ear X-Tacy), and vintage clothing shops (hello Stonefish and Cherry Bomb). It had whittled down to about a dozen of us, and every Wednesday night we’d meet, pray, and sing a few songs. Sometimes, it was fairly uneventful. Sometimes, with the group swelling to 18-20 people in a small apartment, it would get hot and the prayers would get intense. We’d lay hands on folks who were suffering or hurting. People would share from the heart their longings for God or their doubts and weariness.
It’s been interesting to me, over the years, to hear the way the story has been retold elsewhere. Often, this group huddled in Nathan’s apartment would get referred to as a “Bible study”, but that’s not quite right. Sometimes Nathan would share a devotional thought, sometimes others would. It was an egalitarian gathering, though. We all certainly looked up to Nathan as a leader and mentor, but there was a spirit of openness and freedom in the group that let anyone share, anyone call for a song. For much of the time, there was little talk of planting a church; we were finding our way uncertainly into adulthood and into the next stage of spirituality after the hyped-up years of youth ministry.
One night a friend named Loy Thurman showed up. Loy was a leader with Youth for Christ, running a ministry in the city that reached out to kids in the punk, hardcore, and goth scene – a scene that lived largely in the Highlands (remember the club, Pandemonium?). There was a sense of resonance in our desire for deep community and his, and like us, the kids in his ministry felt displaced in their churches.
So Loy began to attend the prayer gatherings along with a handful of kids from his ministry. By Summer, we’d outgrown the apartment and were trying to figure out where we could go next.
Around this time, Ronnie Caswell appeared in the story again. At Ronnie’s church was a young couple from Southern Seminary named Daniel and Mandy Montgomery. They had recently helped plant a church in an inner-city neighborhood called Smoketown, and they were considering planting in the Highlands now. Ronnie connected them with Nathan, and conversations began about working together. Along with the Montgomerys came Jason and Heather Gurnari, and Les and Alison Groce, all also from the Seminary. Nathan and a few of us involved in the leadership of the prayer group began meeting with them, discussing the possibility of working together, and trying to make peace with their (GASP) Calvinist theology.
By late fall, plans began to coalesce for us to work together to plant a church. Ed Stetzer, who at the time ran the church planting center at Southern Seminary, helped facilitate some startup funds through the North American Mission Board, and was a steady voice of counsel and encouragement. The plan, going into January 2000, was that Nathan, Daniel, and Jason would share leadership of the church.
For the Fall though, our Wednesday night gatherings became more formal Bible studies. We moved for a few months to the basement of Ronnie’s church way out on the East end of town.
It was Nathan who suggested the name Sojourn, based on the song “Land of My Sojourn” by Rich Mullins:
When the old world started dying
And the new world started coming on
And I'll sing His song, and I'll sing His song
In the land of my sojourn
1999 ended with a spirit of momentum and optimism. And it ended with one of the best days of my life. On December 4th, Sarah and I got married. We were 19 years old, with no idea what we were getting into.
In the new year, we met for the first time as an official core team in the Highlands. There were twelve of us at that gathering, with the prospects of church planting having scared off a good portion of folks. We met on Saturday mornings in the basement of Deer Park Baptist Church for our core meetings, and Wednesday nights we’d continue the Bible study (which also migrated to Deer Park).
In February, plans changed. Nathan stepped away from leadership for personal reasons (though he remained part of the core team), and Jason decided to move to Pittsburgh to plant a church there. There was a serious air of uncertainty just six or so weeks into the core meetings, but by God’s grace, the core team endured.
We knew we’d launch in the fall, and while much of that build-up has faded from memory, I remember a few things vividly. I remember core meetings in the back room of Twice Told coffee shop, with a tiny Marea Groce toddling from person to person as we talked about the logistics of church planting. I remember the Wednesday night meetings growing steadily with new people from Loy’s circle, and folks from the original gathering cycling in and out. I remember the way we experimented with music during those months. There were nights with cellos, acoustic guitars, and hammer dulcimers. There were nights with hardcore kids and near-screaming. There were nights with paint and canvases and the phrase “Cultivate Beauty” – a mantra that would follow Sojourn for years to come. And there were the move-in parties, as various members of the core team relocated from the Seminary, from elsewhere in Louisville, and from New Albany to make the Highlands their home.
Sometime that Spring, as we considered how we’d connect with the neighborhood, a vision emerged for a “zine” – an independent magazine that would (we thought) communicate something about who we were through poetry, essays, design, and art. Daniel was on the payroll with the North American Mission Board, and our second staff member would be Aaron Marrs, a longtime member of the group and an extraordinarily gifted graphic designer. That’s right… our second hire was a graphic designer.
That vision changed too. In the summer, we found a storefront on Bardstown Road – the central vein of the Highlands – that we believed would make a killer art gallery and music venue. Our team, oblivious to the dangers of asbestos, stripped the old building’s wall and ceilings to the studs and hauled the debris to God knows where. The concrete floors were stained, drywall was hung and painted white, lights were mounted, and Aslans How Art Gallery was born. It would house the offices of Sojourn and a back hallway would hide the pile of sound and musical equipment we’d haul to our church gatherings each week.
Aaron was offered a job with Goatee Records as an in-house designer, which he took and moved to Nashville for. His work appeared on records by Reliant K, Grits, John Reuben, Jennifer Knapp and many more. Aaron’s story would figure largely in Sojourn’s future as well.
At an Acts 29 Bootcamp, many years later, I heard Matt Chandler comment on the success of The Village. He told the eager crowd of church planters, “I’ll tell you the secret of successful church planting if you want to hear it…”
The room got whisper-quiet and everyone leaned in.
“We’re all,” he said, “just trying stuff.”
This couldn’t have been truer for us. Going into the fall of 2000, with the launch of our church plant impending, we had a beautiful gallery space, a core team of 40 or so people, and very little clue what we were doing.
I was leading the worship ministry as a volunteer at the time, but I’m not a singer – I’m a guitar player. The idea was that I would serve as sort of a coordinator and a variety of other musicians would serve up front as the song leader. In the late weeks leading up to our launch, one worship leader in particular would distinguish himself as the best singer and the best congregational leader, and it looked like we had a solid team going into our first services.
At our preview service, on September 10th, we loaded up trucks with mobile sound equipment, drums, guitar amps, bass amps, and drove a couple of miles from the Aslans How to Highland Baptist Church, a gorgeous neo-gothic stone building with bright stained glass. It was an odd church for us, not because of the aesthetics (they suited us fine, along with the dozens of aromatherapy candles we brought with us). It was odd because we, with our Southern Seminary and evangelical credentials, were out of place inside the building of one of Louisville’s most liberal congregations. But this is a reflection of the generous spirit of Joe Phelps, the pastor of that church. Joe seemed to think that whatever was good for the folks in this fledgling church, even though we saw the world and the scriptures very differently, was good for the kingdom of God.
We set up the gear and members of the band came in, one by one. All but the song leader. The clock ticked by. I called him. No answer. I think maybe I paged him? (Was that a thing?) I called his parents’ house. No answer. We ran the songs without him, subbing in a rhythm guitar player and keyboard player for the songs he was meant to sing, and we limped our way through the preview service uncertain of where he was and what this meant for the future of music at Sojourn.
Friends, I wouldn’t hear from him again until 2012.
But that’s not the story, here. The real story is that on that following Monday, I got a phone call from Jeremy Quillo. Jeremy was Nathan’s younger brother and had been a mainstay at our Wednesday night gatherings in Nathan’s apartment. But somewhere between Nathan stepping down in February and that fall, Jeremy had stepped away from Sojourn, feeling like God was calling him elsewhere.
Jeremy and I ended up meeting at Dooley’s Bagels in New Albany the following day, where he shared a story that still fills me with joy. He’d had a dream, he said, that a number of us had gone to a Delirious concert and been invited backstage after the show. The would-be after party was a dud, but at some point, someone noticed a small door hidden under a table. In the dream, he and a number of others (including the band) crawled through the door, fell through a long tunnel, and found themselves falling into a beautiful, clear mountain lake.
They were stunned by the miracle of the moment, and stunned by the beauty of the water, the sky, and the mountains. As Jeremy surfaced at one point, he came face to face with Martin Smith (Delirious’ lead singer), who said, “Can you believe we almost missed this?” He woke up immediately.
“What’s it mean?” I asked.
“I think it means I’m supposed to come back to Sojourn.”
“Yeah… whatever I can do. I’m in.”
When we launched the next Sunday, Jeremy led our church in song. He led Sojourn New Albany in song this past Sunday, at Sojourn New Albany, 20 years later. Songs he’s written like “Come And Sing” and “We Are Listening” are literally sung by churches around the globe. He’s been a pastor, a mentor to songwriters, and loyal leader in the church ever since.
On September 17th, we had our launch service. We had about 120 people there, probably because this collection of late-teen to early-twenty-somethings had brought their parents.
Like the months of core meetings, much of the next few years remains a blur. I remember house parties in various apartments in the Highlands, including ours – which was above the Alameda Grill (and now is Impellizeri’s Pizza). I remember a baptism Sunday where the baptismal water was ice cold, and in order to warm it up, we drained half of the baptismal and filled it back up with a string of hoses hastily bought from Keith’s Hardware, screwed directly into the water heater.
I remember an early Spring of 2001 where we were loading gear into trucks after the service and Jeremy grabbed a few of us, saying, “Come here.” We followed him outside, and he stood there for a moment, grinning ear-to-ear. “It’s the perfect temperature.” We all agreed.
I remember openings at Aslans How. I particularly remember one featuring art by Sean Reed and Jason Overby. It was an instillation called “Billy.” The gallery was draped in black, and much of the exhibition was odd steam punk looking sculpture and light boxes. I remember bands like The Violet Burning, Anathallo, and Me Without You coming through and playing small, packed shows. When 9/11 hit, we had an impromptu gathering at the gallery to pray and share our thoughts and fears.
Daniel asked me if I’d be up for raising support and coming on staff in the fall of 2001. I was, though I failed miserably at actually raising the money. Nonetheless, my days as a member of the staff at Sojourn began.
Later that fall, we made a live record that (as I’ve learned in the meantime) violated about 100 copyright laws. It was called The Reverence and the Noise and featured some of our favorite songs from the time, including the first recordings of Jeremy’s original songs as well as several of Michael Pritzl’s praise choruses and Delirious’s “My Glorious.” The latter was the unofficial theme song of Sojourn for many years. That record remains, for some, their favorite Sojourn album.
The church gained a reputation in the city as the “goth church”, and at the Seminary as an “emergent church.” The music was too loud, the clothes were too black, there were too many candles, and everyone was too young. If we heard “You’ll never be self-supporting” once, we heard it a thousand times.
What else to tell about these years? The making of Jeremy’s record, “With the Angels”? The move from Highland Baptist to Highland Christian Fellowship (a former synagogue-turned home for a charismatic Mennonite congregation)? The growth over those years? The additional staff, like Les Groce, and then Dustin Neeley? Christy Davis? Sarah Meador, now Sarah Nussbaum? Terri Coffee turned Terri Coffey? Our first intern, Lorie King? Our first baby born, Willow Noltemeyer?
Aaron Re-Enters the Story
Maybe the most important inflection point came in January of 2005, when Aaron Marrs re-entered the story of Sojourn. Aaron’s career had advanced in Nashville to the point that he was doing freelance design and directing music videos. In 2004, he began working on a documentary about crab fishing in Alaska. (He was actually filming at the same time that The Deadliest Catch was shooting its first season.)
After several trips up to Alaska, he’d nearly completed shooting the film. But he needed more money for the work. The captain of a boat called The Big Valley offered him a spot working for a crab harvest, and the money he’d make in a matter of weeks would fund the rest of the project. He spent Christmas in Louisville with us and with his family. I remember watching movies, sledding recklessly down Dog Hill at Cherokee Park, and sitting at the bar with him at a Christmas Soiree Sojourn threw at Kingfish. We toasted Christmas, a dozen memories, and an optimistic future.
I could fill another 1,000 pages about Aaron and may someday. But for now, I’ll just say that Aaron never came back from Alaska. The Big Valley was overloaded with too many crab pots, and on their first night at sea, the boat capsized. There was only one survivor, and Aaron’s body was never found.
Our young church had to learn how to lament one of its most deeply loved. If you met Aaron, you liked him immediately, and if you knew him for any length of time at all, you’d count him amongst your best friends. He was extraordinarily funny, generous, and talented. To this day, if a few people who knew Aaron get together, they’ll inevitably start telling Aaron stories. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral, and in the church, we searched for songs of lament to give voice to the pain that we suddenly felt.
That year, Sojourn recorded These Things I Remember, a mix of songs of lament, confession, and renewal. They were written by Jeremy, Rebecca Dennison, and myself, with art by Michael Winters that was made in honor of Aaron.
April, 2003, celebrating Cultivate Beauty month
At some point in that early years, it became a tradition to haze men on the nights of their bachelor party. In one case, someone was tied up, laid out in a yard, and subjected to having food thrown at them for a while, including cat food and a gallon of milk. When he came back inside, the smell that assaulted our senses remains one of the worst smells I’ve ever experienced. Another would-be husband was forced to dress up in a Winnie the Pooh costume, taken to a restaurant, and told that the only thing he could order was a pot of honey.
There were worse. I will spare you.
But perhaps most significant was the pig. (Do I tell the pig story?)
There are several bits of context needed to understand this story. First, is the world of the Highlands. Louisville is a blue city in a red state, and the Highlands is its bluest heart. There were many vegetarians and vegans in our church, and of course, many more in our community.
By the time of this story (2004?), Sojourn had a reputation as a confusing church in the neighborhood. We were culturally progressive but theologically conservative. If you knew a Sojourner, generally speaking, you thought they were kind but odd, and we were largely well-received by our neighbors. And then there was the pig.
Les Groce was one of our elders and may have been on staff at the time. (I can’t remember.) Les had grown up in Ethiopia as a missionary kid and was somewhat disgusted by the hazing. To Les, marriage was an honorable thing and we should celebrate men when they made that transition in their lives.
There was a guy in our church who had been in and out of the community, and who had been living with his girlfriend for several months. He and his girlfriend both got saved, got baptized, and decided to get married. So, when it came time for the bachelor party, Les took control. And rather than a hazing, there would a ceremony inspired by his Ethiopian upbringing. A sort of initiation. As a church “family”, this new husband would demonstrate his readiness to provide for his family by feeding them… which would mean killing and butchering an animal.
Now before you judge: remember that the roll of sausage in your fridge also once had a face, as did the chicken breasts in your freezer. All food comes from somewhere; it just so happens that our factory food system insulates you from having to watch it die. But I digress.
How do I describe this? A dog crate was loaded into the back of a pickup truck. A farmer was found, somewhere in the hills of central Kentucky, who was amused by the whole idea, and who left it up to some hapless city boys to wrangle a small pig into the crate. The crate was loaded back on the truck and driven to some land where a Sojourner intended someday to build a cabin. A campsite was carved out. Fires were lit. And, well, the deed was done. It was done respectfully. There were no black candles, no incantations, no spreading of blood on the ground. It was field dressed, carved, and roasted over spits. We intended to stay overnight, but the rain blew in and we all headed home at about 2 in the morning. Overall, we left feeling like we’d done something significant to honor the transition of our friend and, yes, to honor the life of the pig.
Our vegan neighbors did not share our perspective.
A number of Sojourners worked at Highland Coffee Shop and were regularly inviting friends and patrons to check out the church. Somehow word got out about the pig amongst the crowd there, and it was not well received. It was believed by some that this was some kind of bizarre ritual. Others told tall tales of a bunch of hipsters running through the woods with spears. It took some time for this rumor to die down. For the most part, the crew returned to hazing the groom rather than forcing him to kill an animal. (Though rumors circulate still about a violent rooster and a groom trapped in a garage together.)
We were at Highland Christian Fellowship for a few years, filling our single Sunday evening service to capacity. Late in 2005, we started talking about finding a building. Mind you, the church had essentially no savings, limited cash flow, and nothing resembling a business plan or (if we’re honest) a budget. But there was a sense of confidence and momentum.
Around that time, Daniel and I, along with the other elders, had experienced what I can only generically call a sense of gospel renewal. In the previous years, there had been a kind of theological uncertainty about who we were as a church and what the role of a pastor was. In spite of our ministry successes, we very sincerely considered quitting our jobs, getting regular work, and splitting Sojourn up into a network of house churches. But several voices became prominent in our lives and redirected us. Perhaps most significant was the voice of Tim Keller. Between his preaching and his writing, which was difficult to hunt down at the time, we got a vision for how “the gospel changes everything.” With it came a big vision for impacting the city with the gospel, launching ministries that reached the poor and needy, expanding our ministry into the arts, and putting the gospel at the heart of our preaching and worship.
With the expanded vision came a desire to dig deeper roots as a church, and while we had a good relationship with the folks at Highland Christian Fellowship, we knew that we weren’t going to be able to stay there indefinitely.
One day, Sean Fawbush, a member of the church, drove past the Isaac Shelby Elementary School and saw a sign that the building was up for auction. It was in Germantown, a neighborhood over from the Highlands where the housing was somewhat cheaper… and a bit more run down. A donor emerged who was interested in buying the building and donating it to us, if it could be bought for a reasonable price at the auction. Daniel and I attended the auction along with this donor and one other Sojourner. Only one other bidder was present. We made the first bid, they made the second, and we got it with the third. If I remember correctly, the 35,000 square foot building was purchased for $300,000.
Oh dear, the months ahead. Knocking down walls. Ripping up floors. Taking potential donors through the debris and trying to help them get a vision for what we intended to do. All while continuing the everyday work of gathering on Sundays and in small groups throughout the week.
Two inflection points during this season stand out. The first is truly a landmark for us. In what was probably the best decision we made in the first ten years of Sojourn, we extended a job offer to Robert Cheong. Robert was (if I remember correctly) finishing a PhD at Southern Seminary, and given that he was a bit older than us (sorry Robert) and more experienced than us, we hoped he’d bring a sense of wisdom and gravitas to our team.
The second thing happened almost by accident. The previous year, Sojourn Music had received a grant from The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship to facilitate a songwriting project. The idea had been to commission songs that walked through the movements of the liturgy, and to both use the songs in worship services and to use them as a teaching for church members. We had long overshot the grant period with no progress, largely because of the building project. As fall 2006 approached, I figured we needed to simply return the funds and apologize. But Bobby Gilles, longtime member and chatroom extraordinaire, wanted to spearhead the opportunity to push the project forward. He and Lorie King held workshops on the meaning of the liturgy and gave a batch of songwriters a vision for the project. Bobby then collected the songs, organized all the material, and helped me sort through it to figure out where we might take it.
In a matter of a few weeks, we found ourselves in the studio in Eddy Morris’ garage, recording the songs that would become Before the Throne. That it came in the midst of such a turbulent season remains, in my mind, a kind of miracle. That record continues to be the best selling of all of Sojourn Music.
The record wouldn’t release until several months later. But in the meantime, we finished the construction project and opened our building. It was the 930 Arts Center, so named for its location at 930 Mary Street. It housed two music venues (one which doubled as our worship space) and an art gallery on the first floor, a second art gallery on the second floor, and a variety of offices and studio spaces on the third floor. We had a nursery and children’s classrooms, and a McDonald’s Playplace-style playground on the seond floor. The building was not without quirks. There was an eternal battle with the roof and the furnace, there were Star Wars murals in the basement, and – being in Germantown – there were regular rounds of theft and vandalism. But it was our home and we loved it deeply.
Sarah and I bought a house around the corner from the building, and we had our first daughter about a year after moving in. Our second came 20 months later.
The years that followed are some of my favorite at Sojourn. The worship services at the 930 had a kind of musical experimentation and expressiveness that we hadn’t experienced before. It was too loud, the crowd was too close to the stage, and songs probably went on too long, but we made the best decisions we could for 20-somethings. We made the Isaac Watts records during that window too (Over the Grave and The Water and the Blood).
The galleries were host to a variety of artists’ work, from locals and church members to national touring exhibitions, Christians and non-Christians. For the venues, we partnered with local public radio stations and promoters, bringing in artists as diverse as Yo La Tengo, Bill Frisell, Ingrid Michaelson, Over the Rhine, Sandra McCracken, and Damien Jurado. Michael Winters and Kevin Janes were at the forefront of that work, booking artists and concerts, leading scores of volunteers, and showing hospitality to all who walked in our doors.
There’s a whole side story to tell about the 930 and its ultimate demise (you can check out the podcast The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea). But in the years that it thrived, it served as a witness to the church’s love of beauty, the arts, and most of all, artists themselves – the wonderful, often marginalized folks who struggled to find a place in many other churches.
Chad Lewis baptizing a new believer at the 930
The multisite conversation began within a few years of moving into the 930. Churches like Mars Hill in Seattle and The Journey in St Louis were experiencing tremendous growth through multiplying locations (as opposed to building bigger buildings), and so, in 2009 or so, we began gathering a core to plant a campus in New Albany. There were many unknowns at the time, but we did know we had a significant number of folks commuting to Germantown from across the river, and that we should have had critical mass to start a thriving church.
But providence derailed that plan. Instead, a church plant on Louisville’s east side led by Mike Graham and Dan Horton approached us about a merger, with the hopes that we could relaunch their church as a Sojourn site. A few months later, Sojourn East was born.
I remember preaching during many of the Sundays that followed. At the time, Sojourn at the 930 had 9am and 11am services, as well as a 5pm. Sojourn East was at 10am. You’d preach the 9am service at the 930 and rush out the door to Michael Morgan’s awaiting Mitsubishi, who’d whisk you across town to the East Campus, where you’d rush in the door, try to flag down Jamie Barnes so he’d end the last song. You’d preach, rush back to Michael’s car, and back to the 11am in Germantown. You’d collapse for a few hours on your sofa before heading back to the 930 to preach one more time. It was exhausting.
Talk of video venue was always present during these years. But even that far into the life of our church, our congregation was still very young, early in their careers, and we still lacked a significant donor base for large capital expenses like the high-definition cameras, projectors, and screens (not to mention the personnel competent to manage them). We would tiptoe right up to the edge of purchasing the equipment, and God would bring along a campus pastor whose shared our vision for the church and whose gifting made it evident that we didn’t need to “go video.” That first came with Kevin Jamison at Sojourn East, then in a similar way, Lisle Drury came to J-Town, and Michael Fleming came to Sojourn New Albany. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Thinking New Albany would be the next campus after Sojourn East, we resumed core meetings only to be derailed once again by a church in J-Town who offered us their building if we’d help shepherd their people through a tough transition. Sojourn J-Town launched a few months later. It was an interesting fit. There was about a 30-year gap between the Sojourners who joined the campus for the re-launch and the dozen or so members who remained at the church. The entire building, including the men’s restrooms, was pink. When the building was built, it was built without gutters and without a real plan for drainage, so despite being relatively new, it leaked and molded and was slowly sinking towards a pond on the property. It took a number of years for us to get the problems fixed, but the campus grew under Lisle’s leadership, and Lisle really preached the paint off the walls in the meantime.
Sojourn New Albany came after that, with the purchase of the old Silver Street Elementary School. A church planter from Boulder, Colorado joined us to help launch the campus, along with tireless efforts from Bryce Butler to acquire the building and arrange for renovations.
Just in the last two years, two more congregations have launched as well: Sojourn Carlisle and Sojourn North.
In 2011-2012, Bryce, Jenny Holzer (now Jenny Terry) and I oversaw the renovation of St. Vincent’s Cathedral in Shelby Park, which would house the congregation that had been meeting at the 930. It would nearly double our seating capacity and move us, literally, across the tracks from Germantown (predominantly white) to Shelby Park (predominantly black). A desire that had been simmering for years to turn our Midtown congregation (as we began to call it) into a multi-ethnic church was given its best opportunity to build those bridges. It would be another three years before we had the opportunity to call Jamaal Williams to lead that charge forward, and it’s been amazing to see what God has done since. The majestic building still houses Sojourn Midtown today, and it still fills me with awe and joy to walk inside.
The Hard Years
To be honest, it’s hard sometimes to look at some of those years. Growth is always painful, whether you’re an organization or a child, and Sojourn experienced a tremendous amount of pain in the years following our expansion into multisite.
Some of that is a natural part of the growth cycle of any organization. Some of it, I think, is intrinsic to the unique blessings and challenges of church planting… particularly church planting when you are so young. The fervor of youth and the fresh vigor of faith makes it feel like you’ve stumbled into some unknown land, a place that the generation ahead of you missed somehow. It isn’t arrogance that makes you think, “This is it, we’ve figured it out.” It’s innocence. The innocence of your own hearts, whose corruption and weakness has yet to be tested and revealed under the ordinary pressures of marriage, work, family, and suffering.
For much of that first ten years, we didn’t see a lot of drama. There was a brief skirmish over a theological issue with some folks who ended up leaving. There was a church plant gone horribly wrong because of a planter who revealed himself to be a sociopath. But for the most part, these issues were odd and rare, problems whose very oddness made the “normality” of everyday church life seem all the more safe and normal.
But time passes, and one year becomes five, then ten, and the little frictions that exist between partners in marriage or ministry become more acute. What seems, for a while, like an amusing character trait becomes outsized and reveals itself to be the source of deep fractures in the years to come.
Starting around 2011, I saw those fractures begin to take root in our church. The illusion that somehow we’d “figured it out” proved itself false as we began to see the troubles that plagued our forefathers plaguing us as well. Other churches that we’d grown up with experienced similar troubles. Some made national news. Most, like us, did not.
Staff members transitioned off the team, some willingly, some unwillingly. Org charts shuffled and shifted, trying to find a healthy balance but rarely staying in one place for long. The desire for health and maturity was strong amongst our leaders, but it eluded us, no matter how hard we tried.
I saw friends I loved pushed to a place where they could no longer sustain the energy to live in conflict. I saw the pressure of ministry cause others to crack and crumble. Most of this wasn’t visible to people on the outside of our staff and elders, of course, but inside, it was like a fog, a lingering question about how long things could last. In the years since, friends’ churches have experienced similar conflicts, especially those doing multisite. There are unique pressures and tensions that come with that “model”, and it’s been interesting to see some (like Matt Chandler and the folks at The Village) walk away from it.
When you’ve believed for ten or fifteen years that you’re “special” and that you’ve “figured it out”, it is hard to face the reality that maybe you haven’t. Not to say that Sojourn was some kind of failure; rather, we were facing the reality that we were, like any church – even “great” churches that experienced massive growth – a church full of flawed people who needed God’s grace every bit as much as those we were leading and shepherding. People tried to warn us when we were younger that the honeymoon of our church wasn’t built to last forever, that trials would come in the form of divorce, death, and disease. But you can’t dissuade someone who’s experiencing what we experienced, especially when it felt like every effort we made succeeded.
But as the pressures mounted, demanding more hours and more budget dollars than we had in those years, it took a toll on everyone, including me.
In the spring of 2015 I began to wonder if my season, too, wasn’t over as a staff member at Sojourn. I was living with a great deal of stress and exhaustion, and a mentor of mine began to invite me to consider what I might do differently. I shared some thoughts about wanting to equip the church on questions of faith and culture. That led, at the end of 2015, to my exit from the staff, and to my exit from our Midtown congregation. I didn’t leave because of any tensions over the vision for midtown (I was excited for that, and even more excited for the addition of Jamaal Williams to the team) but rather to give those leading music at the church some breathing room, not having to deal with the old man looking over their shoulder and saying, “I wouldn’t do it that way.” Our family landed at Sojourn East, where we remain happily today. My own journey – from launching a non-profit to starting a media company to landing this year as the Director of Podcasting at Christianity Today – is a tale to be told another time.
But if you’re a member at Sojourn, you probably know what followed in the next two years. Much that made ministry difficult while I was there remained when I left. In the fall of 2016, Daniel Montgomery was put on a leave of absence, and in May 2017, he resigned, citing failure of leadership and an unhealthy culture of leadership as the reasons why.
Somewhat ironically, I was in Reno, Nevada when the news came to the elders that Daniel was resigning. I was speaking at a conference with Brian Howard, who had served on staff at Sojourn, helped launch both Sojourn East and Sojourn J-Town, and served as the architect of Sojourn Network, our church planting network. Brian had left a few years before me and was serving on staff at Acts 29 back in California, where his family is originally from. We lamented together and prayed for the ongoing health and restoration of Sojourn, a prayer that God has answered.
It is truly remarkable the way the church endured the years to come. When another high-profile moral failure emerged at Sojourn Midtown, their leaders shepherded people through it with strength and grace.
In the months and years that followed, Sojourn decentralized, in an effort to empower the local congregations and streamline the central organization. Today, Sojourn continues to grow and expand, with two new congregations in the past two years.
There are moments where I look back and consider the losses and want to weep. It’s true that there are some deeply broken relationships that were once as close as brothers. I lament that brokenness. I hope those I used to serve with and no longer see thrive. I hope God heals their brokenness. And if he leads us down a road of reconciliation, all the better. In the meantime, cheers friends. I genuinely mean you no ill will. And despite where things may be today, the church endures and the work you invested in it bears fruit even now.
Mostly these days, I’m really thankful. Thankful for a place where I can raise my kids to hear, sing, and pray the gospel. I’m thankful that a year and a half ago, on Easter Sunday, I got to baptize both of them. I’m thankful for men like Kevin Jamison, Jonah Sage, Jamaal Williams, James Fields, and Chad Lewis. I’m thankful for a place where, when I’m struggling, there are arms to hold me up and help me back on the path.
And today in particular, I can’t help but think of some of the unsung heroes. The donors who saw a hopeless fledgling church and opened their wallets to keep us alive for a few more months at a time. You know who you are. For staff members like Dominic Gratto, Amanda Edmonson, Erin Wood, Erika St. Clair, Sara Galyon, Jess Shoup, Ben Terry, and Jenny Terry whose work was mostly behind the scenes but so critical to the experiences of worshipers who gathered each week. For Dave Owens, who went from being the administrative assistant to the Sojourn Network Executive Director to being the Executive Director of Sojourn Network. For faithful friends like Michael Winters, who loves and still serves artists faithfully like he has for 20 years. And for the friends like Lachlan Coffey, Jeremy Quillo, and Nathan Quillo, with whom I hope to Sojourn for another 20 years.
Finally, most of all, I thank God for Sarah, who had a heart and vision for Sojourn as bright and certain as anyone. She started the children’s ministry. She served as a worship leader. She encouraged and supported me through the dark seasons and foggy ones, and has more than once tethered me to hope in God when I didn’t have strength to do it myself.
It’s been a wonderful, complicated, and winding 20 years. With God’s grace, and (as Chad Lewis says), with strength and hope, I look forward to many more.
A Sojourn East gathering at the current site of Portland Christian School, circa 2007