THIS ARTICLE IS BY ANDY JANSEN, AN UPSTREAM INTERN FOCUSING ON CONTENT MANAGEMENT.
The following story is based on an interview with Dustin Crawford, Lead Pastor at Refuge Church in Atlanta, GA. One of their sent ones, JB (name changed for security), was also interviewed and shares his unique perspective of how God is working between their two contexts.
From Louisville to Atlanta
This story begins a few years ago when Dustin had become a member at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY. As Dustin and his wife formed relationships at their jobs, they began opening their home and inviting their friends in. “We basically started a community group without knowing it,” Dustin explained. “We kept meeting—two believers with 25 nonbelievers. Over the next couple of years we saw 10 to 12 people come to faith, and our group multiplied twice. Eventually I became a neighborhood deacon.”
As the Lord continued to bless their ministry and make it fruitful, Daniel Montgomery, the pastor of preaching at Sojourn Midtown, approached Dustin and asked if he would consider doing a church planting residency. That’s exactly what he did. Dustin told me, “We knew we wanted to start a church in an urban context, but we didn’t know where. With a lot of prayer, we ended up visiting Atlanta.”
Eventually Dustin and his wife moved to Atlanta with a small core team. In fact, JB considered joining them but ended up moving overseas instead (we’ll come back to JB shortly). After nine months they launched public gatherings as True North Church with 15 people attending. “It was sooner than we wished to launch, but it’s hard to do ministry in Atlanta without a strong Sunday gathering.”
As they established their presence in their neighborhood, they were jumping into everything they could, including monthly pancake breakfasts that drew many and a biweekly hotdog cookout on a drug-infested corner of the neighborhood. Eventually Dustin also met Thomas Cotton. “Thomas Cotton had been doing ministry here for about ten years. They had about 25 people at their church. We came together in January of 2017 and merged into one church body, Refuge Church. There have been challenges, but it has been super grace filled.” That is a brief summary of how Refuge Church came to be what it is presently.
The Asian Connection
In the meantime, JB had been on the field in Asia. Refuge Church became integral to him staying there. He recalled, “My source of income changed, and I was suddenly in need of someone to handle my finances in a fast turn-around situation. I already had a previous relationship with Dustin and Refuge Church. I wouldn’t have been able to stay on the field through traditional sending models. That’s one benefit of partnering closely with a church—they already knew my character and didn’t have to put me through the entire assessment, which is normal for an agency.”
I asked Dustin why they would go out of their way to start supporting JB at such an early stage. After all, many churches wait years to reach financial stability before considering becoming involved in sending cross-culturally. “When I think of what it means to be a sending church,” Dustin explained, “I don’t think that just means finances. We are by no means the biggest financial supporter of JB. But from day one, our church has been talking about sending or mission.” By handling the accounting side of JB’s finances, Refuge Church provides an essential service without crushing themselves to fully fund another full-time minister.
The Trap House Messenger
Dustin continued, “The beauty is we can talk about sending all day long, but with JB we get a real picture and can taste and see. JB sends us monthly update videos, which we include as part of our regular Sunday liturgy. We share stories and have donations for care packages at the back. It has been huge—JB is an example for how to walk across the street and reach neighbors in our everyday life.”
Dustin wasn’t just saying that. He shared a story with me about a new believer named Jay: “Jay was a drug dealer in one of our neighborhood’s well known trap houses. He came to faith after coming to our church for a couple months. Jay came to us in a meeting and said, ‘I’ve been praying for JB so much.’ We said, ‘Who?’ and Jay said, ‘The guy in the videos! He was willing to give up everything to go share the good news.’ Sharing JB’s story has inspired an ex-drug dealer to share the gospel in his own context. It allowed him to overcome fear and share with his old acquaintances.”
JB echoed amazement. He commented on his recent visit to Refuge Church: “The first Sunday I was back and met Jay—they told me about him, but I had kind of forgotten—he screamed my name, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah. This must be the guy.’ Hearing about a new believer who was praying for me—it’s hard to put into words how encouraging that is. The way Refuge built up a culture of missions, when I came in, I was already a part of the family. They all said, ‘Hey JB, what’s up!’ They already knew me before I knew them.”
Iron Sharpening Iron
This is the kind of partnership that mutually builds each other up.
Looking to the future, Dustin said, “We hope that the idea of going across the world becomes normal for our people. This summer our leadership team is visiting JB. Then we want to send short term teams. And we already have some people who are thinking about going long-term. A year from now, we want to see someone from Refuge Church co-laboring with JB. It’s exciting to see that this isn’t just my vision but the whole church is involved, and we always want to get input from JB. The greatest benefit for our church is the fact that from day one, sending is normal.”
JB was equally enthusiastic: “Although I see my church membership as being where I live in Asia—Can you have multiple church memberships? No, but I still have a real interconnectedness with my church back here. It enriches my spiritual life. I aligned with this church because sending is part of their identity. I know I can come home to a church that is on mission, and I will not experience serious culture shock. I can see things they’re doing better than us and take it back with me where I’m going. The way people go on short-term mission trips and see what God is doing, and then they come back home full of hope and stories—that’s how I feel visiting Atlanta and going back home to Asia.”
Dustin was sent to Atlanta to plant a local church, and he discovered a particular mission and a neighborhood to minister to. JB was sent to Asia to a particular people, and he found himself planted in a local church. In a way, JB was unwittingly used by the Spirit to send Jay back to reach his own people.
This is where the local church and sending kiss.