We recently celebrated seven years as an inner-city church in Montgomery, Alabama. As I reflect on this journey, we’ve faced many foes, but one stands above them all: fear.
As my wife and I contemplated moving into this community to plant a church, we did our best to count the cost (Luke 14:25–33). Could we handle something horrific happening to our property, each other, or our children? Were we really prepared to move into a hard place?
After much prayer and consideration, we concluded that we did indeed want to plant a church in the inner city. So in the summer of 2011, we moved into the Washington Park community of West Montgomery, Alabama.
Shaken to the Core
After a pretty uneventful first summer, we began to settle into our new context. We even started wondering what the big deal was about living in the inner city. As far as we could see, things weren’t all that difficult. As the date of our first public church gathering approached, excitement and anticipation grew.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. One night, just as we’d turned out the lights and crawled into bed, a sound I’d never heard before shattered the silence of the night.
It was the sound of semiautomatic weapons. The rapid fire echoed through the housing project just across the street from our backyard. For a moment, I thought we were in a war zone.
How this could even be possible? I wondered. As I ran upstairs to get a better view, I saw the silhouettes of people fleeing the scene. Were they the shooters, or were they running for safety? I’m not sure. I didn’t see faces, but that moment is cemented in my mind.
As desperate shrieks filled the night sky over two young men who’d just been brutally murdered, my wife and I wept and trembled.
I was shaken to the core. I wondered just how big of a fool I was for moving my family into this environment.
I was shaken to the core. The next few months were hard. The tragedy of what occurred that night played back in my mind every day for a long time. I jumped when I heard a door shut. I constantly looked over my shoulder when I walked through the community.
I wondered just how big of a fool I was for moving my family into this environment. If my wife had said she wanted to move, I would have strongly considered it. The temptation to retreat was real.
But God enabled me to fight fear with the power of his Word and the presence of his people. He used these means to stabilize my rattled heart.
First, he’s given me a steadfast, faithful wife. In the seven years since that dreadful night, not once has she expressed a desire to leave. Nor has she been paralyzed by fear. The calling to see God’s kingdom advance through a church plant in our community has kept her content and bold.
God enabled me to fight fear with the power of his Word and the presence of his people.
Second, one of my mentors, Anthony Gordon—who planted an inner-city church many years ago—shared his experience with me. He told me about the drug dealers who threatened to hurt his own children, because he was rescuing young men from selling drugs and putting them back in school. His faithfulness in the face of danger—and his walking with me in this season—encouraged me to persevere.
Third, God used a Christian hip-hop song called Signed Up to Die, by Thi’sl (sadly, Thi’sl was shot in an attempted robbery last month). The third verse is about an inner-city church planter threatened at gunpoint. Asked if he’s scared, he replies: “No, I signed up to die.”
And that’s exactly what Christ did. Our Savior “signed up to die” (Phil. 2:5–11). He looked on our hopeless situation, then left the glories of heaven to dwell in the ghetto of earth.
Following in his footsteps, we are summoned to lose our lives for his sake (Matt. 16:24–26). We sign up to die.
Before we moved to Montgomery, God’s sovereignty was a nice theological idea. Now, it’s the bedrock of our life. If God wasn’t sovereign, I would’ve left Montgomery the moment those gunshots rang out behind our house.
But in his sovereign care, God has kept me. I’ve been so comforted to know that, because of his sovereignty, we’re safe. Yes, physical harm may come. But God’s sovereign goodness guarantees our ultimate, eternal safety (Matt. 10:28–31).
Before we moved to Montgomery, God’s sovereignty was a nice theological idea. Now, it’s the bedrock of our life.
Since he has called us to plant a church in this community, there is no safer place for us. The call to advance the gospel in a sin-stained world is risky business—it always has been. But we serve a King who gives us our very breath (Isa. 42:5). We believe he should also decide how we use it.
Since that harrowing evening a few weeks before our first Sunday gathering, we’ve seen many highs and lows. So far this year, I’ve received death threats for three straight months (thankfully, they’ve stopped now). Our home was robbed and vandalized in July. The home of another pastor in our church, Alonzo Brown Jr., was mistakenly targeted in a shooting. Four bullets flew into his living-room window, forcing him and his wife to dive on the floor for their lives.
Yet, through it all, Jesus is building his church. We’ve seen true conversions, and people desiring to walk with him. We’re renovating an abandoned community center that will bless our neighborhood seven days a week. We also have a ministry called Fishers’ Farm, dedicated to developing men who have experienced homelessness and/or addiction. We’ve come to love this community deeply. Though it can be dangerous at times, you couldn’t pay me to move.
We’re clinging to David’s classic words: “Even though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow of death, [we] will fear no evil, for you are with [us]” (Ps 23:4).
Our confidence lies not in our abilities, but in those of our ever-present Shepherd. May he help us fear no evil as we plant churches around the world.