By Andy Jansen with Derick Sherfey
This series of interviews zooms in on the development stage of the Sending Church Pipeline. Developing Sent Ones is one of the indispensable Sending Church Elements for being a healthy sending church.
At Upstream we value passing the mic to others in order to hear about the reality beyond the theory. Last week I interviewed a prospective church planter, and this week I correspond with Derick Sherfey. Derick is the Director of Content Strategy here at Upstream and serves as Lead Pastor of The Oaks Church in Denver, Colorado.
Andy Jansen: Hey, Derick. You are an integral part of what happens at Upstream now as well as a recent church planter, but what led you here? What’s your story, and how did you get your start in ministry?
Derick Sherfey: Shew, our story is pretty messy, but we’re learning that grace takes brokenness and turns it into beauty.
I was first exposed to faith late in childhood after my cousin was tragically killed by a drunk driver that sparked a lot of the ultimate questions laying dormant in my family’s soul. My understanding of the gospel was tunicated at best and most of my teenage years was a pendulum swing of exhausting religious effort trying to please God and everyone around me to excruciating rebellion as I’d spiral in my doubts. Later in college was a transformative time as a campus minister walked me verse by verse through Galatians, giving space for my doubts and helped connect how the gospel is actually good news in real life, not just an abstract ‘religious idea.’ That same semester I began a relationship with who now is my wife and began attending church again with her.
It was there that I began to experience a healthy local church for the first time and eventually discerned a calling to pastoral ministry as I was grinding in the trenches of making disciples while having others investing deeply in me. I later came on staff as College Pastor and then transitioned to one of the Lead Teaching Pastors and started our first multi-church congregation. It’s such a gift that the church that helped me learn what it means to follow Jesus is the same church where I was able to serve as one of their pastors for years and was the same church that helped affirm my calling to church planting and is now our primary sending church. In so many ways my experience of being developed there is a story I pray is replicated over and over again in the church I pastor now.
AJ: That’s excellent that you already have the experience of leading a church multiplication. At what point did you discern the call to plant a new church?
DS: Since 2009 I had been involved with our church transitioning to become a Sending Church, so multiplication and sending have been part of our DNA and were the bull’s eye of everything we were aiming at as pastors. I was fulfilled in being part of equipping and sending people from our faith family to be sent to cross-cultural contexts, both internationally and in US cities, but in 2015 God began stirring in my family’s souls that we were going to be the next ones to be sent. Many things went into this, but three primary things converged that year that made it clear God was calling us: undeniable clarity through daily walking with Jesus in His Word, the affirmation and identification of my fellow elders and our close community, and my last trip to Southeast Asia where the Spirit vividly stirred up convictions and a sense of my personal purpose and gifting. Coming back from that trip I approached our elders about getting serious about discerning my family’s next steps together.
Our calling was first very personal and was being birthed out of convictions God had placed deep within me before the call ever had an address. Most of 2016 was spent going through an assessment process with The Send Network which helped us identify areas we needed extended time to sort through before we got on the ground to begin church planting- building a team, developing partnerships, and getting emotionally and spiritually healthy. I had knowledge of Sojourn Church through my time working on my degree online during seminary and reached out to them with our Development Plan to see if we’d be a fit to spend time there preparing for what God was leading us towards in Denver. As it turned out they had been praying about beginning a church planting residency.
AJ: How did Larry and Upstream come into the picture?
DS: In God’s sweet kindness, my residency at Sojourn Community Church East had me crossing paths with Larry McCrary, Executive Director of Upstream. As Pastor of Sending at Sojourn he oversaw my residency, but we quickly developed a great friendship. I’ve jokingly called Larry my missional Yoda. Our friendship led to relationships with the rest of the Upstream crew. These folk love Jesus, the Church, and are passionate about God’s people awakening and living into its identity as the ‘sent ones’ to all nations.
Upstream’s content is tremendous and has been deeply formative for me (Tradecraft is our one and only textbook for our core team development. Other than the Bible, of course. Ha), but the material is what it is because of the humble, experienced, and Spirit-led people who are leading the way. They’re the real deal. They’re in the trenches seeking to be faithful to see the nations glad in Jesus and the outcome is invaluable conversations of how to keep pushing these efforts ‘upstream’ against so many other distractions that can get us off our mission given by our King.
In my experience, Upstream’s strength is a holistic approach to mission. Theology without pragmatics lacks the needed tools to move past mere ideas and pragmatics without theology is a soulless carcass of busyness that lacks the primary motivation and sustaining goal of all this. Upstream is an unique voice striving to maintain the balance of both. I’m really grateful that I get to climb into the trenches on staff to play a small part in this effort now.
AJ: For someone with a lot of prior ministry experience, what have you learned recently that you didn’t already know?
DS: God has been so kind to let me serve alongside other pastors who are faithfully pursuing obedience to multiply the gospel, disciples, leaders, and churches. In the grand scheme of things, I’m just getting started. No church is perfect, everywhere has its own bruises and limits and blindspots, but I’m deeply thankful for the way God has used the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Church to shape us and equip us for this next season of mission. I hope I never stop learning and growing in new things.
Our team has been stretched both theologically and practically in the early stages of this church forming. All of us come from different parts of the country with unique prior experiences and gifting, but all come from similar church backgrounds of larger established churches. It has been a steep (yet also refreshing) learning curve to push our understanding of who God is and what the church is to be and do when literally all we have right now is the Word, the Spirit, and a new city with new challenges that we’re trying to learn and love on. We’ve had to humbly pour over the Scriptures and in prayer to come away with convictions of what it means to follow Jesus together when we don’t have any of the conventional structures and systems of traditional churches to give our time to. As complex as it is, it’s freeing and exciting in many ways.
AJ: How have you experienced church planting so far? Is it going smoothly?
DS: Growth takes time. I wouldn’t consider this a setback in any way, but it did come as a surprise in that we expected this to happen, but no where near to the depth of how true we’re experiencing this to be. We’ve come face to face with the nitty gritty of what all this vision and mission and strategy talk actually means with skin on. Everyone is all about the idea of loving our neighbors, but many of us find it difficult to actually walk across the street. We believe we must engage the nations in our backyard, but often it’s just easier to share a table with people who are just like you. We have great dreams of what community looks like, but that only comes from the ministry of faithful, intentional presence in everyday life over the long haul. There’s no silver bullet, no lever to pull that pops out mature, multiplying disciples. One of the greatest temptations of our day, I believe, is to continually pluck up the ‘tree’ and bounce from ‘soil to soil,’ frustrated our seeds haven’t turned into the massive Oak Tree we see somewhere else. But the reality is, that tree is what it is because it has been doing the same thing everyday for a really long time with roots that go deep. The Kingdom of God is a lot like that. It’s often slow. We try to go fast and often end up slowing down the fruit bearing. But we’re finding already that when we slow down in humility and spirit-led dependence, we often end up going faster than we ever thought.
AJ: How is your development paying off so far? Have you generally been prepared?
DS: I feel over my head in literally every aspect of life and ministry right now. By far one of the biggest weaknesses that has been exposed in me personally these last few months has been my prayerlessness. Jumping out to truly trust God’s purposes and promises in ways I’ve never done before has exposed all the illusions of control and self-sufficiency that fueled my lack of desperate dependence on God for everything.
We’re experiencing God answer prayers in ways I’ve honestly been cynical of in the past. For far too long I’ve let my fear of praying presumptuously keep me from accepting Jesus’ invitation to pray expectantly. Now, in many ways, we don’t have any other alternatives if we don’t pray. Our faith is growing more steady every day joining God in what He is already doing and watching Him do things only He can do, but I can’t help but lament all the intimacy and impact I’ve missed out on simply from lack of prayer.
AJ: What is the one lesson learned that you thank God for the most?
DS: Jesus is better. He is better than every comfort or applause or platform or success. He is better even when obedience costs you everything. He is better than the illusions of the idols of our hearts. He is better even when sorrow and doubt are so dark you can’t feel anything. It’s exhausting and a cheap counterfeit to try to do the work without being with Jesus.
And I’m not talking about Jesus as an idea or a theological construct, but the actual, real Jesus who is knowable. He is the only thing that will ultimately motivate and sustain a life of mission. Do whatever it takes to enjoy Jesus. Don’t plant a “successful” church and lose your soul. Don’t just do things for him; live every moment of every day with him, resting in his grace, receiving his love that He has already offered you for free because of what He’s already done. And as you see just how beautiful he is, give your life away to see other people enjoy him, too.