The story of how going back to school taught me about church

Crowd shot 2rc

It’s an historic week for our church. This Sunday we LAUNCH weekly services at Ooltewah Elementary School. That’s right. We’re launching a church in a school.

If you’ve never been a part of a church plant, that probably sounds a little weird. It sure did to me years ago when my friend left our “established” church to go on staff with a church that met in a school.

I remember thinking to myself, “Why wouldn’t he go on staff with a REAL church?”

At the time, I was ignorant. I thought “church” was a building – a place you find on Google Maps. A church has to have a steeple and red plush carpet. There have to be thrones up front for the pastor and jr. pastor to sit and uncomfortably sing as we stare at them during organ-led worship.


And where would they store the miniature pencils that God is apparently so fond of without pews?!

That’s church, right?

Yes. At least it was for me.

That’s where I first learned about Jesus at Vacation Bible School.
It’s where I met the crazy boys who became young men who are now the husbands and fathers I’ve been privileged to journey with through the years.
It’s where I learned how to worship and serve someone other than myself.
It’s where I discovered the plan that God had for my life and the mission that He would call me to.

But, I guess those things don’t require a building. Or miniature pencils.

As I get a bit older and wiser, I’m learning that the “church” is simply the family of God committed to the mission of God characterized by the presence of God.

That means church isn’t a place. Church is a people.

Over the last couple of years, God has called dozens of faithful pioneers to begin our new community of faith so that…

People who don’t know Jesus can have the opportunity to be rescued from lives void of purpose, hope, and deep friendship.

So that those who have given up on church, but not on God, might give the family of God – however messy and imperfect we may be – one more shot.

So that those who grew up just going to church, because that’s what we do in the south, can be invited into something bigger and more fulfilling than a religious routine.

Who’d want to go to church in a school?

Well, we hope you will.

Because sometimes we’re tricked into believing that “church” is just a building. When we gather and celebrate God any place other than a traditional building, we can’t help but be reminded as we set up and tear down weekly, as we walk past the principle’s office when we arrive, and look up at basketball goals as we sing, that God loves to show up and do extraordinary things in places that that we consider ordinary.

…like in our homes…places of work…friendships…and yes, even our kid’s school.

I guess I don’t care if we meet in a school, or a field or an old yoga studio, as long as I get the chance to share life with people who, like me, long to be connected by something that brings us deep meaning and purpose.

Just don’t make me sit in one of those thrones.  

Hope to see you Sunday.



God Cut my Cable

In our era 24/7 connectedness, it’s not a superlative to which many aspire.  In fact, if anyone called me “detached,” I’d be insulted.  I bet you would be, too.  
But, is being detached such a bad thing?
We make fun of our grandparents because they still use AOL as their internet service provider, use a phone with a physical keyboard, and (re)share recipes on Facebook like Martha Stewart has a gun to their heads. 
Is it possible that we’re too connected?
Could we be too available to too many?
Are the dozens of ways that virtually anyone can access us at anytime causing more relational erosion than construction?
I’m no fuddy duddy.  Well…I don’t think I am.
I love technology.  
I love being connected with people…a lot of people. 
I love social media.
I love the tools at our disposal to see through the small portholes of others’ worlds…and doing the same for those who care to peek into mine.
I wonder if being present to so many, so often is killing our ability to be available to those who matter most.
Because the people we’re with are those we love the most.  They’re our best friends.  They’re our family. They’re our kids.  And our neighbors.  They’re the acquaintances who might have become friends, if our attention was a bit less divided.  
Emojis are great, but they’re no substitute for the sound of laughter, the tone of someone’s voice, or eye contact from someone who’s hanging on our every word.
I’ve been ruminating on this for awhile, often feeling like I’m losing the battle of being present.
I want to be the kind of friend who listens well.
I want to be the kind of father who soaks up this fleeting time with my kids.
I want to be the husband who can sit in a room with my wife, and just be – no distractions.  Just present.
I bet you do, too.
What if we cast “detachment” in a not-so-bad light?  
What if we allowed ourselves to be detached so we could more deeply attach?
Meister Eckhard said that detachment “enkindles the heart, awakens the spirit, stimulates our longings, and shows us where God is.”
Heart aflame.  Check.
Spirit awakened.  Check.
Longings stirred.  Check.  Check.
God near.  That, too.
Sounds pretty good to me.  Maybe I could get used to this detachment thing.
I have to confess – it’s not the theologian or philosopher that catalyzed this conversation.  What began all of this was God cutting my cable.
Twice.  Within 2 weeks.
While technically it was the dude on the Bobcat doing construction next door, I think God was making a not so subtle hint.  As usual,  I didn’t listen the first time. 
(I was probably too busy scrolling through my news feed…)
Now, my ears are perked.
So, the Jessens are forgoing cable and we’re saying sayonara to Netflix.  We don’t need more competition for one another’s presence.  We have plenty of that already.
Like well meaning diets, I’m sure this won’t last forever.  And that’s ok, too.  It just feels right for the time being.  

Right or wrong, this is how I explained Valentine’s Day to my boys.

Allow me to set the scene.

My 3 sons and I needed to run a quick errand to Wal-Mart.  It was probably an emergency run to buy toy Monster Trucks or beef jerky.

Upon crossing the threshold of those automatic double doors, we were inundated with cheesy elevator music and a barrage of red and pink merchandise designed to make men feel guilty and women feel special.

That, I explained to my sons, is Valentine’s Day.

I thought about going into the history of St. Valentine and the rich heritage of this annual tradition – but I would have had to make it all up since I was clueless about all of that.

Instead, I did what I always try to do with my sons: I told the truth.

I explained to my boys that Valentine’s Day is a day that retailers and restaurants created to overcharge and make a profit on boys like us. I told them that on this one day, flowers cost double, waits at restaurants triple, and women feel 4x more lonely if they spend their evening alone.

Despite my objections to the commercialism of love, I had to confess…

We boys will probably always need Valentine’s Day.

Here’s why:

Women deserve and need to feel beautiful and cherished. And we men pretty much stink at this.

I don’t know why we have such a difficult time telling the women in our lives how beautiful they are (because we think it all the time), how crazy we still are about them (because we sure are), or how rediculously blessed and spoiled we are that we landed such amazing women (because everyone knows we’re waaaaay out of our league).

I guess it’s far easier for us to return to a kindergarten state of existence when we would simply push a girl down or call her names to let her know we have a crush on her.

I haven’t found that equivalent card at Hallmark yet.

Perhaps it all boils down to RISK. Guys are deathly afraid of rejection…I guess we all are. But I fear men can be far more cowardly in this department.

We don’t want to sound stupid. We don’t want to expose our feelings – especially if they could get ignored or rejected. And we certainly don’t want to open ourselves up to getting shot down.

So, we stay quiet. We remain comfortable and safe. And the objects of our adoration graciously love us anyway.

But there’s a better way, I explained to my boys. If we do our job, we won’t NEED Valentine’s Day.

Let’s be men who aren’t afraid to look silly, express our feelings, and take risks – because the women we love and the daughters we’re raising are worth and need it.

Pay too much for food and flowers as a nominal fee for the reminder that we dudes need to actively cherish those we’ve been given to love.

Happy Valentine’s Day, ladies. I hope someone buys you a Monster Truck, beef jerky, or overpriced flowers today. But if not, KNOW THIS, just because you haven’t heard how beautiful or treasured you are lately, doesn’t mean you aren’t.

What Willy Wonka, the lottery, & my 4th child have taught me: 6 nuggets from 6 months of church planting

It’s hard to believe, but we just passed the 6 month mark as church planters.   In June, our family and a bunch of faith-filled friends moved from Knoxville, TN to Chattanooga, TN to begin an adventure in following God’s invitation to start a new community of faith.

What a ride it’s been.

Now that I’m 6 months in, I can look back and consider a few things God has taught me along the way.  

  1. Church Planting ain’t for sissies.

(Full disclosure: the jury’s still out on whether or not I am one.)  What I do know, is that this gig isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s for the tenacious, stubborn, and optimistically naive.  

Jesus said it’s the “forceful” who advance the kingdom of God.    

“From the time of John the Baptist until now,

the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing,

and forceful people have been seizing it.” (Matt. 11:12)


  1. Desperation TRUMPS Competence.

Early on in ministry, I believed my greatest asset was my competence.  I wanted to work hard.  Sound smart.  Be prepared.  Execute with excellence.  While these goals aren’t intrinsically bad, they must be kept in perspective.  All of this has a predictable ceiling: ME.  

I’ve discovered that I’m not clever enough to change lives.  

Perhaps the best thing we have to offer in ministry is our desperation.  Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do NOTHING” (Jn 15:5). Nothing.  Nada.  Nunca.  

While my competence gets things done, it’s my weakness, desperation, and dependence on Jesus that bear fruit.  It’s a sneaky distinction – but an important one.

Paul wrestled with this too.  Listen in on God’s dialogue with him:

“But he said to me,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,

so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9)

I want the power of Christ to rest on me.  This means I must embrace and acknowledge my desperation.  That’s the truth of the gospel lived out through heralds like you and I.


  1. 4 kids is a whole lot of kids.

I still remember when Katie called to give me the big news.  It was a Tuesday.  She was crying…they weren’t happy tears.  My response was…uh…less than enthusiastic.  

ANOTHER KID?!  We already had 3 HIGH ENERGY boys.  We thought we were done.  There was already so much that was unknown and challenging ahead of us.  No one in their right mind would throw another baby into the mix.  Except God.

Our apprehension eventually turned to anticipation.  Then anticipation to excitement – especially when we found out that our little bambino was going to be a girl.  GIRL!  I squealed like a pig in heat in that dark ultrasound room.     

And on December 12th we met our daughter, Claire Elizabeth.  The boys got to meet their much anticipated baby sister.  Our new community got to rally around and claim one as their own.  

But it wasn’t until I saw our Honda Odyssey with FOUR car seats in it that it hit me – 4 kids is a whole lot of kids.  Our life isn’t boring. Our home rarely quiet.  But I wouldn’t change a thing.  

(Most of the time.)


  1. “Big dreams are made of thousands of tiny actions.”

I read this quote from Jon Acuff awhile back and it was exactly what I needed to hear.  

It was another one of those days, that followed one of those weeks that was full of tiny, mundane actions.  I’m sure you can relate.  It felt like my “big dream” got buried somewhere underneath post-it notes and to do lists.  

Over time, however, what we faithfully chip away at will have a major impact.  Growth is slow, often tedious, and requires discipline. I’m not a fan of any of these qualities, but I recognize they are absolutely essential if we want to accomplish what God has put in our hearts.

Unless you win the lottery.   


  1. God ALWAYS delivers on his promises.

That said, God’s timing and delivery method rarely coincide with my agenda.  Therein lies the rub with our faith.  In the words of Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory: “I want it NOW!”

I suppose there’s a little Veruca Salt in all of us.  Have you ever felt like God was late?  Or worse, wasn’t going to deliver at all?

God led me to read through the book of Hebrews in the fall to teach me what faith looks like.  The familiar and often quoted passage came alive and has reoriented my soul:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,

the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)

If everything happens just as I want it to, when I want it to, I suppose I wouldn’t need God.  And that would make me smarter than God. Ultimately, life wouldn’t require faith – just a good business plan.  

God has a better way.

God plants seeds of HOPE in our hearts, then whispers, “Trust me.”  

These seeds are like clues that invite and entice us to keep following, as Hebrews says, even when we can’t see where we’re going. As day turns to night, and our visibility begins to wane, our faith is then tested.

This is typically when I tap out.  But this is when it gets really good.  It’s our confidence in God that assures us, not our circumstances. I typically flip that.  Not so with faith.  And as we look in our rear view, God indeed has delivered on all He’s promised.


  1. I couldn’t do this ALONE.

Church planters have often been characterized as Marlboro men: solo cowboys conquering new frontiers.  Some are wired up for that. I’m just not that guy.

While God has birthed and is breathing vision into me as the leader of this community, I can’t imagine this experience without the support of my wife, our sending church, those who have joined the movement, and those who are coming.

Church planting is hard.  But when you’re in the trenches with people you respect, admire, love, and enjoy, it feels like there’s nothing we can’t do together.  I hope to grow old with these pioneers and treasured friends.  They are among my greatest heroes.


What have YOU been learning lately?  

“Your sermon SUCKED…”

“Your sermon SUCKED.”

It’s not an easy phrase to hear – but through a text?!  I was blissfully going about my business yesterday, when I received a text that started out with “Your sermon sucked…”  I thought it was joke.  Heck, I chuckled.

But the author wasn’t kidding.  He went on to pick apart the sermon that I delivered the previous Sunday, and then did the same to me personally.  All through a text.

I was mad.  Then hurt.  So, I picked up my phone to defend myself and respond to the accusations of the drive-by texter.  I was armed and ready to put a Matthew 18 whoopin’ on.  Thankfully, my call went to voicemail.

This then allowed me to process.  While I’ve been in full-time ministry for almost a decade now, I’m entering new turf as the lead pastor of a young church plant.  I guess that makes me a larger target for the enemy, and for good-meaning Christians, too.  I wanted to share what God taught me over the past 12 hours or so, because I suspect you’ve been hurt, too.  All of this begs the question:

How do we respond to criticism?  Here’s how God led me to respond…


“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1)

Someone once said that Billy Graham always thanked his critics.  Unfortunately, I’m not sanctified enough to respond to “you suck” with “thank you.”  I’ve learned that a soft answer diffuses drama.  It ensures that we’re not guilty of responding in the way we’re being attacked.  It teaches our transgressor a better and more Biblical way to handle conflict.

2.  Humbly and prayerfully consider what God might want to teach you.

 “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me” (Psalm 139:1)

I’m far from perfect.  I’ll always be far from perfect.  But if I’m attentive, God will use just about anything or anyone to teach me something.  While leadership requires thick skin, we must guard against hardened hearts.  We must stay humble and teachable.

God often uses criticism in my life to protect me from worshipping myself and subconsciously encouraging others to do the same.

3.  Let Jesus have the FINAL WORD.

 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved…” (Col. 3:12)

You’ve heard, and probably quoted, the old adage – “Live for an audience of One.”  As a pastor, that’s easy to say and difficult to do.  I love people and I want to be loved by them.  People applaud and criticize us for all the wrong reasons.

Toward the end of His ministry, Jesus was an extremely unpopular leader.  Good leadership often requires us to do and say unpopular things.  That’s part of the gig.  Take your critics’ concerns to Jesus and simply ask, “What do you want to teach or show me through this?”

Then, flush the rest – and salute those turds as they leave for good.  (You may need to reflush a few times, some criticisms can stick around and stain).

4.  Pray for your critic(s).

 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14)

This one’s tough.  But here’s what I learned this morning as I was finally at a place where I could pray good things (“blessings” rather than “curses”) for this person…


When we pray for people, God does something supernatural in our hearts.  He gives us His heart for them.  We no longer have to justify or defend – we simply get to love.  And let’s be honest, that’s way more fun anyway.

So…how do you respond when criticized? 

Honestly, I was quick to seek validation through others.  I moped and felt sorry for myself.  I numbed myself by watching Storage Wars and pounded a big bowl of Rocky Road.

Ultimately, God was doing bigger things in my heart over the last 12 hours, as He’s known for doing.

This story uniquely got a bow put on it.  The drive by texter sent another message this morning – humbly and graciously apologizing.  Either way, I’m grateful for lessons learned and these simple reminders.

not if, WHEN

It’s a familiar story. One most of us could tell from memory.

It centers around a bush that burns but isn’t consumed.

I love Moses. Moses is my kinda leader. Insecure. Flawed. Human.

Moses was taking care of his father in law’s sheep when an angel appears to him. Naturally, he stopped and took a look. Perhaps to make a quick s’more.

Either way, this seemed to please God. “When the LORD saw that he turned said to see, God called to him out of the bush…” (Ex 3:4).

Moses was paying attention, so God spoke. Then ACTED.

  • God acknowledges the suffering of His people (this was certainly on Moses mind and heart) – “I know their suffering” (v7)
  • God reveals his RESCUE PLAN – “I have come to to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians” (v8)
  • God gives them HOPE and promises provision – “I have come…to bring a good land” (v8)

Big stuff.

Moses, showing us his humanity, begins to reveal his insecurity. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (v11).

And then God smote him.

Nah. Not really.

You can’t really blame Moses. We know how the story plays out, but Moses didn’t. God asked 1 man to free over 2 million people from a global superpower then take them to a land full of giants and claim it as their own.

Intimidating, right?

I love God’s response:

“But I will be with you…”

Then he went on to tell Moses exactly who He is (“I AM who I AM”). Then speaks prophetically – I assume to bring confidence to Moses’ trembling heart and buckling knees:

“WHEN you have brought people out of Egypt…”


So, today, the question for us is this: ARE WE PAYING ATTENTION? I guess it all starts there.

Frederick Buechner noted:

“Who knows what he will say to me today or to you today or into the midst of what kind of unlikely moment he will choose to say it. Not knowing is what makes today a holy mystery.”

Let’s keep our eyes and ears open for our “unlikely moment” today. Then it’s not a matter of IF God will act. It’s WHEN.

I didn’t make the team

I’m not a born athlete.

In fact, quite the opposite. I was born with the odds stacked against me. I burst onto the cosmos 2 months premature, weighing just over 2 lbs. Certainly not the poster child of a future athletic prodigy.

My foray into sports began when I was 5 and joined a community soccer league. I played for 7 years. Never scored a goal.

After all of my success with soccer, I decided to become a 2-sport athlete and tried my hand a basketball. I was nearly unbeatable. The only problem is that my average competition was around 3 years younger and 2 feet shorter than me.

Nonetheless, my newfound confidence led me to try out for the middle school basketball team. While I was full of passion and hustle, I think the coach was looking for talent…which is where I fell woefully short. Much to my surprise, I didn’t make the team.

That’s ok – I’m a middle child. I know how to adapt. Perhaps I hadn’t found my sport yet.

Fast forward to my senior year of high school. I decided to give running a shot. Afterall, everyone makes the cross-country team. Despite having legs that belong to a 6 year old girl, I set my mind on becoming a distance runner. Heck, I even went to practice. Twice.

I’ll never forget my first race. It was an overcast, cool, dewy morning. There were hundreds of people in the large park where the race was held. You could hear officials on bullhorns directing teams and heats to their appropriate races. It was electric.

Finally, it was our turn. Lined up with a sea of other runners, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to win this thing.” Again, my naïve confidence wasn’t particularly grounded in reality.

The gun fired, and we took off.

It was the first time I’d ever ran 3.2 miles. I had no idea how to pace myself. So I just tried to run fast. And I did…for about a mile. Then, I began to slow and the more experienced and conditioned runners (which was pretty much everyone) zipped past me.

While I didn’t “win” the race, I did finish. It was a dramatic conclusion.

(Enter “Chariots of Fire” theme song and switch to slo-mo)

By the time I could see the finish line, I felt like I’d been underwater for 20 minutes and was desperately gasping for air. I’m sure the look of pain, exhaustion, and stale adrenaline consumed my countenance. I resolved to exert what little energy I had left in my tank, primarily because I just wanted it all to end as soon as possible.

After I crossed the finish line, I immediately collapsed to the ground and rolled out of the way. I thought I was going to die. So did the paramedics who were there on standby. I embarrassingly refused treatment via sign language because speaking required breathing, which wasn’t my strong suit at the time.

I guess when you’re one of the last people to complete a race, they don’t let you run through one of those cool ribbons. That’s when I decided running wasn’t for me either.

As I look back on my adolescent athletic endeavors, I can now identify the primary reason for my mediocrity. Sure, I wasn’t the most talented. But, the bigger issue is that I was never really big on practice. I just wanted to race. I wanted the thrill of victory without the discipline of preparation.

The apostle Paul encouraged his young friend and pastor in training in this way:

“…train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7)

Becoming a good runner doesn’t happen accidentally. I suppose the same is true when it comes to being like Jesus. It’s requires patience, consistency, work…discipline. Historically, I’ve stunk at this. But, I am trying to grow.

And at the end of the day, I think that’s what Jesus wants. Not perfection. Just an honest desire to be with and more like Him. And hopefully, that desire will lead us to action. And that action will usher us into this adventure that God invites us to every single day.

“O Begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises.

You may acquire the taste which you have not:

what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant.

Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily.

It’s is for your life; there is not other way”

-John Wesley








Ministry is Messy

I love things to be in order. From a very early age, I was a perfectionist. Every item in my room had its place…an exact place. I would dust and vacuum my room at least 1x a week. Strange for an 8 year old boy.

As I found my way to my teenage years, my obsessive compulsive nature began to subside. However, now that I’ve settled back into the fact that I’m weird, my true self has resurfaced.

I love things to be in order. I like things to be neat, clean, and organized. This is how i’m wired – and I’m good with that.

This propensity tends to rear its head in my ministry role. As a student ministries pastor, I love for our students to have things together. I love to hear and know that they’re falling in love with Jesus, growing in their understanding of who they are in Him, and all that jazz. I guess the problem is that sometimes I desire these things for the wrong reasons.

If everyone in our ministry is neat, clean, and organized, that means I’m a good pastor, right? It means our ministry is effective…transforming…life changing. If our kids are a mess, doesn’t that communicate that the leadership is a mess?!

If you’ve seen the movies “The Truman Show” or “The Stepford Wives” maybe you’re beginning to get my point. Sometimes, we put so much energy into looking like we have it all together, that we never focus on the reality that we’re all a mess, in desperate need of God’s grace. Every day.

Jesus had lots of choice words for Pharisees who worked really hard to keep up appearances of having everything together. Jesus knew that people are messy. Look at the people He attracted – they were all kinds of messy. Still are.

I guess at the end of the day, we’re all messy. Especially me. But isn’t that why we do what we do? We get to step into the messiness of life, junk, sin, lostness (if that’s a word) and get to offer Truth, hope, and healing in the midst of the mess.

It’s a privilege to be invited by folks who know they’re a mess to speak into their lives. It sure beats the alternative – clean outsides, rotten insides.

So, at the end of the day, I’m good with the fact that our ministry might look a little disheveled and tattered to the outsider, or even my boss. Because that’s real. It’s authentic. It IS a reflection of leadership, because we leaders are a mess too.

In the words of Henri Nouwen, “We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.

The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”