I sat in a room of thousands of people. Being a bit overwhelmed and feeling like the third wheel, I sat as high and far back as I possibly could. In these types of crowded situations that’s where you can typically find me. Introverted Jason, up high and way back. We were in Austin, TX at the Austin City Limits venue attending a conference that I had been invited to last-minute. I received a phone call a few days prior from our pastor asking if I would be interested in joining the church leadership team at the conference. By circumstance, or providence, I was already in Dallas for a bank meeting that week. I called Stephanie to make sure it wouldn’t ruin plans for the weekend and, with her blessing, delayed my return flight home. I booked a hopper flight to Austin.
I’m not one for big events like conferences or festivals. However, I had recently started volunteering at our church helping out with finances and thought it was the right move to get to know the team more. I was the new guy and, even though Stephanie wasn’t with me, thought it would be good to plug in more with a team of people we felt God had called us to serve with for the foreseeable future. I walked into the house they had rented after taking a taxi from the airport and quickly realized that I was the only solo guy in the room.
Austin Stone was the church that invited our church to come down and participate in the conference. Our pastor, Brian, knew the lead pastor of Austin Stone well. Reach, being a “newer” church, felt it smart to stay connected to a bigger brother church, one who’s seasoned some of the inevitable storms sure to be faced in the coming years. Part of the invitation was to tour a facility Austin Stone had purchased called the ‘For the City Center.’ We pulled into the parking lot to a beautiful building that was still in the process of being renovated and met the director of the facility who would serve as the tour guide.
She walked us through the facility and told the story of its inception. The building was previously a retirement home that had been neglected and was condemned as a result. The neighborhood was a low-income part of town and funding for the local schools was being threatened as a result of insufficient standardized test scores. Seeing the need, faithful people attending Austin Stone moved into the neighborhood and invested time and resources to help tutor the kids. In time, and as a result of their efforts, test scores rose to sufficient levels and hope flooded back into the school. The church asked the city of Austin if they could purchase the condemned building across the street from the school and turn it into a community center. At that point, the condemned building was being used for drug dealing, drug use, and prostitution. The city granted the request and the church moved in full-force to renovate the building. They designed it with retail space up front, office space throughout and an auditorium in the back that would be used for one of the church campuses. The heartbeat behind the project was the hope that the building would be a place where those in the city needing help could come and receive any services they needed to survive, both physical and spiritual.
We asked a lot of questions early on at Reach which helped leadership define what success was going to look like for our small church family. One of the primary questions being, “If the church closed its doors tomorrow would the city celebrate or mourn the loss?” We wanted to build a church that would be such a benefit to the people that the city would feel a sense of loss if the doors were to close. How Austin Stone was investing into the city of Austin gave us ideas toward answering that question.
What the church was doing was far more than just a building. In fact, it wasn’t about the building at all. The building was only an extension of what was already happening in the lives of people wanting to serve Jesus in Austin. The building was a place where people from different worlds could gather and love each other. That was happening in homes and businesses all around the area before the building came to be. People from all walks of life gathering to hear each other’s stories and sacrifice for the betterment of the other. Young and old. Poor and rich. Black and white. The building is worthless if it’s not built on the foundation of love through relationship and demonstrated trust with people who may not look like us or believe what we believe. That is the heart of Jesus. We will be known by the way we love.
As I stood in the back of the crowd of our team touring the ‘For the City Center,’ I felt the still, small voice of God whisper to me saying, “You know how to do this. You are where you are and have had the success you’ve had, not for money, but to learn how to help make a church family a benefit to the city.” I just stood there and cried not really knowing what was happening or how to respond. Nor did I understand what that really meant.
Later that day I sat in the far back of the packed Austin City Limits venue hearing speakers talk on the heart of God. In shorter, rapid fire type sermons, pastors came up to give their messages. I only remember one message that day. I don’t remember who the pastor was. The message was simple yet profound. The underlying question; “What’s your alabaster jar?”