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Mobilizing Smaller Churches: Sojourn Community Church in New Albany, Indiana

As we’ve said before, the discussion of being a sending church may cause some leaders and churches to feel left out. Many sending churches are large and well-resourced. Why not leave sending up to them, along with missions agencies? It’s a tough question that we want to answer with the help of smaller church leaders. By 'smaller' we mean any church that isn’t multi-campus or multi-thousand. That could be a roomful of people with no staff, a mid-sized church of several hundred with a growing staff, and everything in between. So stay tuned to this series as we hand over the mic to smaller churches. Because smaller churches matter.

I didn’t approach Travis McGowen. He came to me. Travis is one of the non-staff pastors at Sojourn Community Church in New Albany, Indiana. After meeting a co-worker from the same country where I used to serve as a missionary, Travis set up a meeting with me to get some pointers on sharing the gospel in a culturally appropriate way. I agreed, and gladly gave him a solid ten minutes worth of instruction. Then, as he began to share, I spent the next hour exhausting my pen, pausing only sometimes to limply drop the thing. Along with my jaw. You’ll soon see why.

This wasn’t my first encounter with Travis. We met years before in a missions seminary class. Engaging me in conversation, I discovered that he, unlike the rest of us, was taking the course for pure pleasure. He had no vocational obligations to motivate his studies. The man simply loved God and his mission. And the more I got to know him, the more I realized he was cultivating the same sentiment among the small congregation at Sojourn New Albany, even with his limited time and capacity.

I was curious. What was his story? How did he develop a pastor’s heart with an eye toward missions? Three things clearly stood out.

  1. Scripture: “I never planned to be a non-staff pastor with a heart for missions,” Travis began. “But I did want to be a man of the Word.” As he studied both the Old and New Testament, God’s overarching mission to redeem people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) was undeniable. It became part of the basic framework of what it meant for him to be a Christian. “Acts 1:8 was really the key verse in this process,” Travis said. “I memorized it and put it in my heart.”

  2. Prayer: “I also wanted to be a man of prayer,” Travis continued. “I went to the Psalms and learned of Christ there—but nearly every psalm also mentioned the nations. I found myself praying from Psalm 2:8, ‘Lord, make the nations your inheritance.’ I also read and prayed Psalm 22:27, and from Psalms 45 and 102. The vision of God is so majestic, it gives way to the nations. This led me from awareness of the nations to concern for them.”

  3. Discipleship: Travis committed to pray with other members of his church. “Three times I went to our missions prayer gathering, but no one showed up because it had been cancelled. Well, I had come to pray, so I sat in my car and prayed for the nations by myself. Later I began using a copy of Operation World.” After that Travis decided to include Great Commission passages as an integral part of his discipling of others. “I always wanted younger believers to have a heart for the lost,” he said.” That meant the nations too. So I had them study passages like Acts 1:1-11 and we would pray for God’s glory around the world.”

This is where the interview went to a whole other level, worth the particular attention of smaller church leaders and members. As they well know, God’s global mission is easily touted during missions giving emphases or when missionaries come to visit, but taking regular global action can feel overwhelming and irrelevant. I asked Travis how he transmitted that passion into action among his local church. Here is a list of his simple, yet profound responses:

  1. "I began by admitting my own limitations. I can’t go myself. But I’m gonna do something. I will pray. My limitations motivate me to pray. It’s hard, but it’s what I have to give. Whether we’re staff or non-staff, we can pray.

  2. "I’m honest about my weaknesses and regrets. I don’t have enough money to give as much as I would like. I didn’t go when the opportunity was available. It makes me encourage others to give and to go be a missionary while they still can.

  3. “During family devotions we let the kids pick a place on the globe and we pray using Operation World. We believe that people are getting saved because of our children’s prayers.

  4. “I read a missions book with other Christians and took new believers to international restaurants. I want them to understand that missions is what normal Christianity looks like.

  5. “I remind people of the missionaries we’ve sent. I recently joined a missionary advocate team.

  6. “I tell missions stories.

  7. “When I get to preach, I mention missions as the Bible gives me opportunity. Or I work in a missions illustration.

  8. “I engage internationals with the gospel.

  9. “I invite people to missions events I am going to.

  10. “I used to meet up with another pastor from a small church in the area to pray through the IMB prayer guides.” (The IMB is the missions wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. If you are in another denomination or have a relationship with another sending organization, there is a good chance that they would have international prayer guides as well.)

  11. “I email our missionaries to see how they’re doing. I also let them know how I’m doing.”

See what I mean?! Do you think Travis’ church is affected by these plain, faithful measures? Do you think Sojourn New Albany’s lead pastor, Jonah Sage, and Missions Director, Chris H., are encouraged by his initiative? Let me answer with a story.

Remember when Travis missed those three prayer meetings and sat alone praying in his car? That was several years ago. He then told me, almost in passing, it was “during that time God began moving my heart to pray that our church would begin reaching out to [a particularly hostile people group]” (removed for security). No big deal, right? Except that two days before our interview, Sojourn New Albany had just commissioned and sent their first missionaries—to the very people group he had prayed for long before.

Pen drop.

Could it have been…was it really…do you think that…wow. That’s amazing.

In Travis’ words, that’s normal Christianity.

And that can be normal for any smaller church.

Photo credit: The Christian Century


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