@@We are relational people saved to love and serve a relational Savior.@@ We’re also ambitious, driven by the same desire as the apostle Paul, who said it was always his ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known (Romans 15:20). We want to be on the frontlines reaching people for Christ, which requires forming strategic partnerships. But relationships aren’t expedient. They take time and require patience. So how do we, as pastors and church planters, move forward in faith, seeking opportunities to preach the gospel in the neediest of places, while still maintaining that essential relationally-driven component?
Casey Smith: Can you set the stage for us real quick? How did Sound City get to the point where you were thinking international missions? How did you start processing that as a church plant?
Aaron Gray: We launched in January of 2015. And from the very beginning we knew that we wanted to be involved in mission work, not just locally but abroad as well. We saw that verse in Acts 1:8, "You'll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." We said, "Yeah, let's have that be a rubric for us geographically—our Jerusalem is here in the North Seattle area, but we need to look beyond our own church plant or beyond our current situation. We need a vision for partnering and planting with other churches in our locality and a vision for partnering with others to plant churches across the globe." Very early on we had a conviction that we didn't just want to throw a dart at a map of the world and pick some place at random. We really wanted to let God make it clear to us where we should be investing internationally.
So we were patient. We waited. I probably turned down eight different groups or organizations, all of whom were doing wonderful work, but all of whom just kind of cold-called me and said, "Hey, what do you think about this?" None of them really fit with our values or where our priorities were as a church. None of them were bad; they were all great ventures, but there's a difference between being involved in a good thing and being involved in a God thing. So we waited until the right opportunities came. It took all the way to the beginning of 2017 before some of those opportunities really came into focus. Now we have three international partners, all because we were committed to waiting, praying, and seeking God for those strategic partners and those relational opportunities.
CS: Can you tell us about one of those relational opportunities?
AG: Sure. We had a family join our church in the late summer of 2016. They had been a part of another church in the area for many years, but for a variety of reasons felt like it was time for them to find a new church home. They sent in a connect card and the email address had something about HEED Uganda in it. One of our staff members who processes the connect cards passed it on and said, "Hey, I looked into HEED Uganda, visited the website, and it looks like there are some cool things happening. It might be worth following up."
So our Student and Kids Director, Kyle Hackett, reached out. He and his wife went and met Julie for coffee and got to know her. They spent some time talking with her and learning about what it was that she was doing and has been doing for the last 10 years or so. Kyle came back and told some of our elders about it and one thing led to another to make that relational connection.
It felt right. In large part because Julie, the founder of HEED, was so gracious in saying, "I'm not here looking for money. I'm not here looking for special treatment. I don't need you to become some official partner or anything like that." Instead, her posture was something like, "I just love the church and want to be a part of the church." Then she said, "We just want to have the opportunity to tell the story of what God is doing in Uganda, because God is doing some really neat things and we want to be able to share them with others."
I really appreciated her gracious heart and her very open-handed approach to this. Two things struck me: Number one, if we're going to have these people (who are doing such a extensive endeavor) be members of our church, we want to be able to love and serve and support them well as pastors. These are the kinds of things we were praying that God would bring to us, a family in our church, a person who's a part of our church community that we could work with and partner with instead of just kind of drawing from the proverbial hat. That's what led to us taking a trip to Uganda to see it first-hand. The elders talked about it, prayed about it, and we felt like myself and Kyle should go and see it for ourselves. It's one thing to talk about it, it's one thing to watch a video or read a website, but it's an entirely different thing to go and experience it. Now when I rewatch the video and I see those locations, I see those buildings, I can feel it, I can smell it, I can sense what it's like having been there myself.
CS: I love that answered prayer. God has a wonderful way of doing that, doesn’t he? Can you tell us briefly a bit about what HEED Uganda is doing and how Sound City Bible is a part of that now?
AG: The brief version of it is that Julie took a mission trip with her previous church to Uganda and they ended up in a very remote area in Southwest Uganda. In this remote area they came across some orphans that had no options for schooling, and the Lord really stirred Julie's heart to try to find a way to provide schooling for these children. So they came back and did a garage sale here and raised enough money to send these 17 children to the government school. But when the Ugandan contact went to go sign these kids up for school they realized that that school didn't have a teacher and there were all sorts of problematic issues. The Ugandan contact said, "Well, what if we just hired a teacher to come and teach these children?" Julie likes to joke that she accidentally started a school in Uganda, but it just started with a very simple prompting from the Lord to help these children get an education and get out of the very hopeless situation they were in. God has just grown and developed it over the years. It's grown from 17 children to now almost 500 students between the primary and the secondary school!
With Sound City, we have not entered into a formal partnership yet. We are actually in those conversations now. We just met on Monday, and the elders are going to meet with Julie here soon to just talk about that. But to be sure, we are absolutely committed to supporting HEED through prayer. We are committed to supporting HEED through some updates from time to time. Julie usually travels there about twice a year and so we'll keep updates going. We are going to link to them on our website, and then we're exploring the options of either financial investment, maybe a specific project or a specific building. We're looking at maybe doing that, and we're also looking into the idea of possibly sending a small team, more than just two of us, to go there next year for some specific projects and investments.
We're exploring what the next step should look like, but the great thing is we get to do that in the context of relationship. We get to sit with our elder team and with Julie and her team because we're here together relationally. We can sit across from one another and pray and talk and dream up the future, asking God what he wants us to do for that future partnership. That's one of the great benefits, as opposed to a distant organization. @@With a relationally-driven approach we get to sketch it out and dream it up together.@@ We get to see where God leads us as a relationally-connected team. That's really encouraging.
CS: Yeah, that truly is. You're spelling out the benefits here of relationally-driven international missions. As that relationship has come to fruition with Julie and HEED, have there been others in your church who have kind of grabbed ahold of this idea or have been motivated by the relationally-driven component that Sound City is putting out there?
AG: Oh yeah. Since we started talking about it, now we've seen others start to step up and say, "Yeah, actually I've long had a heart for international missions. I just didn't know where to get started or how to even begin." Now we're able to connect those people with Julie and others to be able to have those conversations, again in a relational context of, "What might the Lord be stirring in your heart? What might the future look like for you?" Whether that means involvement in one of the current ministry partners or something completely brand new. But again, it adds to the relational component with other members in the church. Then those members meet other members, "Hey, I didn't know you were interested in international missions," or maybe they didn't even know each other at all. "What's your name?" "Oh, I'm so-and-so." "Oh, you're interested in international missions too? Great!" Now some of them even travel together. People get to know each other and become more relationally-connected because they’re serving together internationally. Then they came back here to the States and they're serving together hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder here in the mission field at home that God's given to us. It is such a joy.
CS: Man, that's fantastic. I’m curious now, thinking over these past few years of Sound City seeing how these relationally-driven partnerships have come to the fore, what has the Lord been teaching you personally through it all?
AG: Oh, that's a good question. I would say for me as a pastor, one of my greatest joys is seeing the people of God really thriving in their relationship with him and in their place in the work of the Kingdom. Having these conversations, building these relationships, as a pastor I get a first-hand view at the ways that God is shaping and growing his people, and it's so encouraging. I'm so thankful for that opportunity. Also, to be completely honest, I don't have some big heart for international missions. I'm not the kind of person that dreams of moving to Mexico or moving to Russia or wherever. I feel deeply called, just as a disciple, to mission work in the United States. I really do. But being able to travel or being able to speak with these people who are doing ministry overseas, it forces you to think through a different lens and you get to see some different things culturally and contextually, that forces me to rethink and reassess how I'm doing mission and evangelism and sharing the gospel in my home context. I have been personally encouraged and challenged to rethink how I do mission on my own turf because of these connections with the international partners.
CS: Oh, that's real good. Thanks for sharing that, brother. As we wrap it up, if you could give an encouragement or a piece of advice to a church planter who's either in a young church plant or a pastor who's maybe think of steering his congregation towards a more relationally-driven focus to international missions, what would you say?
AG: First of all, be willing to move slowly. I know that with young church planters there can be this temptation and tendency to want to take on the whole world and bite off more than you can chew, but trust God that his timing is right and don't try to force something that you (personally) or the church isn't ready for yet.
Secondly, be okay with having a small part to play in the bigger picture. Especially when it comes to international missions. Sometimes the stories sound very sexy, "We're planting 37 churches and we had a rally with 12,000 people." Sometimes those stories can be daunting or seem overwhelming because they sound too good to be true, and maybe your part only sounds like, "We sponsored eight children," or whatever it might be. @@On paper it can look very small, but be content to play your part in the Kingdom.@@ The economics of the Kingdom are not always the same. They certainly aren’t the same as the economics of the profit/non-profit world, so don't worry about the glamor and the size and the numbers.
Lastly I would just say don't be afraid if God does want to do something remarkable. Maybe God wants to do something really dramatic or really remarkable, so be willing to follow him even if it feels a little bit risky.