Annie Edwards: Hey, this is Annie Edwards from Pleasant Valley Community Church in Owensboro, Kentucky, and this is Sojourn Network.
Mike Cosper: Sojourn Network is a church planting network that exists to help pastors plant, grow, and multiply healthy churches that last. On each episode of our show, pastors and leaders that are part of the network sit down and talk about their experiences in the trenches of ministry. Today, you'll hear a conversation between Dave Owens and Matt Herron. Dave is the Associate Director of Sojourn Network, and Matt is the Lead Pastor of Sojourn Traverse in Traverse City, Michigan. They'll talk about a time when Matt's reputation was threatened by another pastor, about his journey to Traverse City, and about his awakening to the Gospel that came through the work of [inaudible 00:00:42] and Tim Keller. It's a great conversation. Thanks for listening.
Dave Owens: I didn't realize that you were part of a multi-generational pastor's family. You're a PK.
Matt Herron: I'm a PK. My dad's a pastor, my grandfather's a pastor, and then I have a brother and two sisters. My brother is a pastor and my two sisters married pastors.
Dave Owens: I had no idea.
Matt Herron: Ministry all over the place.
Dave Owens: Has that been an enjoyable heritage for you? Do you take pride in that, a good kind of pride?
Matt Herron: I would say it's been a very positive thing. If you were to ask me in high school, like, "Matt, what do you want to be when you grow up?" I did not want to be a pastor. What I would have said is, "I want to go to college and get a good job, and then I want to join a good church, and I want to support the pastor to the ends of the earth." The reason I would've said that is because having grown up in a really small church, I saw my dad get stabbed in the back. I saw people have way too high of expectations on him, and I often, maybe even subconsciously, I often longed for some people in our church to stand up and to be on my dad's side, to be for him no matter what, and I didn't see that happen very often. I didn't want to go live that life of a pastor, but I didn't want to get out of the church. I didn't want to run away from it. I wanted to go be part of a situation where I could, in a sense, make it better for the one who was pastoring.
That all changed my senior year of high school. It wasn't a big, significant event or anything like that. I had applied to a university in Ohio. I was accepted to that university and was accepted into their engineering program, and had every intention of, that coming fall after my senior year, to go to that school. Somewhere in the early spring of my senior year of high school, I totally sensed that God wanted me to go to this Bible college in Pennsylvania instead. Even though I was accepted to the school that I wanted to go to and all those plans were basically in place, I bailed on them and I went to this Bible college that was called Baptist Bible College. Now it's called Clark Summit University, but when I went there it was called Baptist Bible College.
By the end of my freshman year, I had become a pastoral major and the rest is history. I graduated from college, jumped right into ministry, went to seminary part-time on and off for the next number of years, and finished my Masters degree while I served in various roles. I did an internship. I served as a young pastor for a couple years, and then I was an associate pastor in Columbus, Ohio for just over three years.
Dave Owens: Did you meet your wife, Kim, in the midst of all of that through college or some of these post-college ministry stints, or through seminary?
Matt Herron: Yeah. Kim and I met at Bible college up in northeast Pennsylvania. I think I was a sophomore and she had transferred in, and we met each other, and actually didn't date. We were very, very good friends through college, but we didn't date until after we graduated. After we graduated, we started dating and then we were married in 2000.
Dave Owens: Wow. Describe some of those early ministry years, you and Kim freshly married. What were those like as an associate pastor and different roles? You said various ministry roles in those early years.
Matt Herron: My first two full-time positions, I was a full-time youth pastor in Pennsylvania and then I was a full-time associate pastor in Columbus. Both of those situations taught me a ton primarily about what I didn't want to do in ministry. The first church I was at, the lead pastor there was honestly, he was my hero. He was the chairman of the trustee board at the school that I went to. He had his Doctorate. He was a great public speaker, great preacher, athletic, all kinds of things that for me, mattered. When he wanted me to come on his staff, I was blown away. If you would've asked me to write down three names of people that you would like to hire you, he would've been the first name I wrote down. When he reached out to actually offer me a position, I couldn't believe it.
We moved there in 2001, I believe it was, but I was there for just a few months and I started to realize that something wasn't right with the finances. It was a church of about 800 people. Over the next 18 months, it got really unhealthy. It resulted in eventually me resigning from that ministry position over this financial problem. There was some significant hurt that came through that journey. I was misrepresented pretty significantly during that time, and so here's a guy who was like my hero and I was being mistreated by my hero. That's a hard thing to navigate. After I resigned from that church, that church eventually took action against that lead pastor and he was eventually removed from the church there.
My first full-time position was with my hero and then he ended up being quite dishonest and very, very iron-fisted in the way that he led. Coming out of that, I think God used that experience to put on my radar the danger of using power to manipulate and to control, even though I wasn't the lead pastor. After I left that church I remembered talking with God about this and being like, "If I ever end up as a lead pastor, God, please don't let me lead like that." That is so soul-crushing to the people underneath that leadership.
Dave Owens: Did that ever make you waver in your call to ministry?
Matt Herron: I had confronted that pastor about his financial dealings, and Wednesday night we had a meeting. I resigned that Thursday morning. I was bawling. I was just crying like crazy. I said to him on that Thursday morning, "I don't know how you want to handle Sunday when I resign, but if you want me to write a statement that I just read and you can see it ahead of time that I'm going to read to the youth group," because the youth group was 120 kids. He said, "No, you don't need to do that because you're not going to say goodbye to the teenagers. The janitor will meet you here on Saturday to clean out your office and you're done." That Sunday, when he told the church that I was no longer on staff, he gave indication to the congregation of 800 people that I had moral failure, that I had an affair on Kim. That whole Sunday, the youth leaders were getting calls from the parents of teenagers asking if that's why I was no longer employed.
It got nasty and yet, I did not go through any of that at any point and say, "I need to get out of this. This ministry thing is a mess." I remember having someone wise say something to me along the lines of, "You need to trust Jesus with your reputation. You can't defend your reputation. You need to trust Jesus with that." A church in Ohio, there was a connection that happened really quickly with the church in Columbus, and I, within a couple months, moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio and became part of a church of about 250 people in the outskirts of Columbus. The good thing there, the pastor was an older guy, and so I had a lot of ministry at that church in Columbus. I did all the baptisms, because he was older and it was difficult for him. I did a ton of the hospital visits and he was moving towards retirement. He had actually, in my candidating, had suggested that he was going to be retiring and he would love to hand the baton off, but that ended up not working out.
I had been there for about three years and a friend of mine, a pastor friend, found out that there's a church looking for a pastor, and this church was in Traverse City, Michigan, way up in northern Michigan, and he put my name in at this church called Emmanuel Baptist Church. That was in the fall of 2005. That starts the next chapter.
Dave Owens: Tell us about Traverse City. What was it like when you went up there to visit for the first couple times? What have you learned about it since? It's an old church. Over 95 years old, so you're walking into a church with a lot of history, walking into a town with a lot of history, and here you guys are, new to all of this. Even though it was a great fit, it seems like as a church with your background and its background, tell us what it was like. Tell us what the city was like.
Matt Herron: My first visit was in the fall of 2005 and then we came back and visited again, I think in February of 2006. Both of our visits were actually in the colder, more difficult parts of the year. They wanted me to actually see it in the worst part of the year because summer in Traverse City is actually really great. This city is right on the water, it's a tourist attraction. It's beautiful for three or four of those summer months, but man, once it starts to snow, it can be a long, cold, dark winter. They wanted me to experience that. Those were my first couple visits. Again, this church was the same circle of churches that I grew up in, and so there was a lot of overlap in the way that we saw the world.
We moved here in 2006 and when we moved here, we were unloading the moving truck. It had gotten later in the evening and we went to order a pizza, and all the pizza places were closed. We were like, "Where did we move? How is there not a pizza place open?"
Dave Owens: You packed everything back in the truck and said, "We're going back to Columbus."
Matt Herron: It felt so small compared to Columbus. I grew up in a relatively small town, but having been used to the larger context, the larger city of Columbus, it was surprisingly actually to me how much of an adjustment it was. The size dynamics were really tough off the bat. The church, as you said already, the church was started in 1922. It was actually started as People's Gospel Church. That was its first name back in 1922. Over the course of those years, it became an established church. They had a 30 year old building on 15 acres. It was all paid off, debt-free, but they had gone through a really, really difficult stretch of time. That stretch of time was not really short. It was actually decades long.
The snapshot is this. In the '70s, a pastor came who was very, very evangelistic. He was evangelistic in a 1970's kind of way. It was door-to-door evangelism, it was bus ministry, it was Monday night kids programs, revivals, special events. Those kinds of things. Through the '70s, there was a lot of church growth, so I don't know what it is in the '60s, but by the end of the '70s, it was close to 300 people and a lot of them had been recent converts. They had been people who had come to know Jesus, had made public professions of faith through these evangelistic efforts. The problem is, the long-term fruit of that evangelistic push did not prove to be very healthy. The '80s, the '90s, and the early 2000s, this church actually went through a lot of difficulty. There were a couple church splits. '80s were pretty tough. In the '90s, they had several short-lived pastoral stints, they had discontent and unhealthy staff dynamics with the pastors and the associate pastors. By 2004, they had another pastor and it just wasn't working.
From the early '80s to the early 2000s, this church earned itself a pretty bad reputation with the Christian community in Traverse City, but also with the general community in Traverse City. I didn't fully realize that moving here, but within the first few months of being here, I started to realize that was the situation.
Dave Owens: Here you are, how old were you when you started the pastorate there?
Matt Herron: The church called me when I was 29.
Dave Owens: Okay. You're 29 and you are learning about this history through the pastoral process, I'm sure, and you arrive, there's no pizza in the dead of winter. What was your posture as a young preacher coming into a church with that history?
Matt Herron: This church, at that point in time, was averaging about 95 people on a Sunday. They had a reputation for being legalistic, fundamentalist, Pharisaical. They had no evangelistic impact in the city at all. They were looking for someone who was just like them, and that's where the connection comes with me being a good fit because the truth was this, Dave, in 2006, I was a Pharisee. I was the lead Pharisee. I would never had admitted it in 2006, and that's because I didn't actually know that I was a Pharisee. I was a perfect fit because I was a 29-year-old who was going to ensure their culture. If I stayed, I was going to ensure their culture for another 30 or 40 years.
In that sense, it was a smart hire for the DNA of Emmanuel Baptist Church in the year 2006. As dysfunctional as it all was, I actually seemed to fit right in. I came out of that season saying, "We got to teach the Bible more." My first two years at this church, it was just teaching the Bible like crazy. We added more Bible studies. We started talking about bringing Sunday night services back because we were just like, "We need to know this Bible. We need to learn it more." We tried to implement a Scripture memory program. I wore a suit and tie every single Sunday. We started singing more hymns. We were trying to double down on this picture in our heads of what committed Christians do. That's the only thing we'd ever seen.
Dave Owens: I've been twice. I've been to your church in 2013 in the middle of winter, by the way. Almost never went back. Then I came last year in 2017. I've been twice and I can say that it's not like that at all now. Those early years, until at least 2013, what happened to change it?
Matt Herron: About two years in, I remember coming home from a meeting and saying to my wife, "This can't be it. This cannot be what I'm supposed to do as a pastor for the next 30 years, because attendance is up and giving is up, but the fruit of the Spirit is nowhere to be found. No one's getting kinder, including me. No one's getting more joyful. We're teaching the Bible like crazy, but none of us are becoming more like Jesus."
Dave Owens: Did Kim agree with you when you said that?
Matt Herron: She totally agreed with me, but here's the problem, Dave. I had actually no one to ask because all the people in my life were doing church the exact same way that I was trying to do it. We had a view that was basically this. If you are successful, you must be a compromiser. A lot of books, a lot of authors, a lot of scholars, we wouldn't even touch them with a 10-foot pole because we thought they were contaminated. I'm two years in here, I'm doing what I think I'm supposed to do, and yet, I all of a sudden realize this is not resulting in Christlike-ness. It's resulting in a lot of Bible knowledge, but not becoming more like Jesus.
I had these growing questions throughout year 2008 into early 2009, but I really didn't have anywhere to take the questions. That's how those first couple years happened, and then I thought, "Maybe it's this church." I actually started to look for a new position. I put my name out and I started looking to maybe move to some place warmer, to a larger city, whatever. My wife was like, "You know what, Matt? I think it's too soon. I don't think we should move yet. I think that we haven't been here long enough, we haven't given it enough effort." My searches were coming up empty anyway, and so we hung in there, but I did not know what to do. We were not part of a robust network. The only connections we had were churches that were just like us.
Then 2009 happened. Summer of 2009. I read Ed Clowney's "Preaching Christ in the Old Testament." When I read that book and I tasted for the first time, this vision of the Bible itself being a story, and that Jesus is the point of that story, I'm sure somewhere along those 30 some years of life, I'm sure somewhere along the way I heard that this was true, but in 2009, when I read the book by Ed Clowney, it changed absolutely everything for me. All of a sudden, the Gospel went from being black and white to being full color. It just disrupted everything in my life. It revealed so many of my misunderstandings about what the goals of the Christian life were. As I was bubbling up with all of this stuff, someone says to me, "Do you know who Tim Keller is?" I said, "I've heard that name before, but I don't really know him." They're like, "You need to read Prodigal God."
I read Prodigal God and in the introduction to Prodigal God, Tim Keller says, "I want to thank Ed Clowney for being the first one to talk to me about Luke 15 from this perspective." It was like immediate credibility for Tim Keller, because I just read Ed Clowney. I read Prodigal God and that book cut so deep into my heart, because as I read that book, I sat there and just stared at the page when I realized I was the older brother out in the field who had obeyed every step of the way. I had done what the Father told me to do, and I was this performing older brother who thought that I deserved more blessing, instead of realizing that the Father was welcoming me in too. That sequence of reading Ed Clowney and then reading "Prodigal God" changed my life. That change then, had almost an immediate impact on what I was trying to do as a pastor.
There's this great illustration that a guy named Mike Witmer, I heard him use this illustration. He says there's two ways to run a farm. One way to run a farm is the way you do a farm in America, and that is you put a fence up. The way you know which cows are yours and which cows are mine is that the cows on this side of the fence are my cows and the cows on that side of the fence are your cows. The other way to do a farm is the way they do a farm in the Middle East. That is, they sink a well, and the animals never go very far because they need water. Mike Witmer's point was that the problem with our churches is that our churches are doing this fence maintenance. We're out there maintaining fences and none of our churches have actually sunk a well. There's no life-giving, joy-giving, centering reality.
When I read that, I, as a pastor was like, "He's exactly right. I've spent my entire time at this church trying to mend the fence and to repair the fence, and to make the fence nice and clear, like this is what our church is about, these are our doctrinal distinctives," and there was no well. There was no Jesus that was the magnetic center that kept drawing us in.
That illustration proved to be really, really helpful for me and for our leadership team, and for our church. At that moment in time, we said, "What if we committed to actually sinking this well? What if we committed to making Jesus the center of everything that we do?" A guy named Bryan Chapell, he uses the phrase "Gospel representation." We started calling our Sunday services Gospel Representation, that every single Sunday we want to come together because we want to hear the Gospel again, because we need to hear the Gospel again. We just started making this commitment that every bit of our service, the whole order of service, the sermon itself, we wanted them all to be rooted in Christ and His Gospel, we wanted to hear the Good News of Jesus again.
In January of 2010, I made this commitment, and I just said, "I'm not going to try to do it when I think it works. I'm going to do it every single Sunday. Every time I preach, I'm going to try to make that a Christ-centered sermon." Here we are in 2018 and for these eight plus years, that's what I've been trying to do every single Sunday, is preach Christ. Some Sundays I do it okay, and some Sundays I do it terribly, but the commitment for us as a church is to pursue that. We don't do it because we think we're killing it. We do it because we see how desperately we need it. In 2010, we hired a guy to come on staff here. His name is Ben. He has been this great partner in ministry for me, this great gift to our church.
In 2012, we joined Sojourn Network and for us, that was the resource, the place that we could learn from and watch by example of what does the Gospel do to a church. What does the Gospel do to a pastor? How does it change the way you see the world and how you try to minister to people? It was this great resource of other pastors who are trying to pastor their churches in Gospel-rich ways using the encouragement of community, one to the other, trying to love Jesus and lead our churches to do the same thing.
At that point in time, most of our events were happening in Louisville. I remember saying, "We'll bring this culture from Louisville. We'll bring this culture back a bucket at the time if we have to, but our church needs to taste this. We need to see what it is to be free in Christ. We need to see what it is to actually have a theology of rest and have a theology of celebration, and to actually learn how to love our Christian brothers, but then to also faithfully and extravagantly love everyone." These are things that were bubbling up just from the pursuit of the Gospel, but then to see them in tangible demonstrations from the various churches in Sojourn Network, was a huge gift for us and it has been for the five years that we've been part of the network.
Dave Owens: What I love about your story and how the Gospel awakening really happened for you personally and then moved out in concentric circles through your family and through your ministry, is that you started with this Gospel center and allowed that to move slowly outward into your Sunday gathering, and then outward into your building. There's eventually going to be a name change for you guys. There's going to be bylaw changes. There's going to be leadership changes. There's going to be lots of turnover of people who may not enjoy that kind of Gospel centeredness to the worship and to their life. It really moved slowly, though. For a lot of people I hear, when I go into revitalizations, it's the opposite. They work outside, back in. Outside in terms of, "Let's change some programs and then work backwards," which is sort of how you started those first couple years, but then you did a total 360 in that, the Gospel began to be the center and affected everything from then on, the last eight or nine years.
Matt Herron: Sometimes discipleship or spiritual growth can feel like we're going upstairs and I'm a few steps in front of you, and I'm helping you make it up to the top of the stairs. What if the better picture is that we're not making our way upstairs, we're all seated on the floor of the living room at the feet of the Master, and we're all learning from him together? Yeah, maybe I've been seated on that floor longer, but we're learning together and we're learning from each other, and we're sitting at His feet, not people sitting at my feet. From 2010 forward, the environment in our church had this notable change where, at least I think, I viewed myself as a student. I viewed myself as a learner. It was much more like inviting the congregation into this journey that I wasn't expecting to go on, but I was on.
Dave Owens: It begs the question, especially for young pastors who are listening, who are not 10 years into their ministry, what enables a pastor to stay the course, longing to see that fruit, but having to daily step into faith, where he can't see the fruit happening right in front of him? He's a church planter, he's grinding it out. He's faithfully proclaiming the Gospel on Sunday mornings. He's living faithfully in his neighborhood. He's sharing the Gospel. He's modeling it. He's loving his wife and kids and neighbors, but it's just slow. What do you tell a guy, and maybe what did you try to do during those years? What got you through those really tough years?
Matt Herron: I hear John Piper say one time that in the bad years, no other church reached out to him, and in the good years, he wasn't interested when they did. I kind of feel like some of that is God's faithfulness to me, the opportunities to leave here, they came at times when I would never have even thought about it, and then the times where I was looking, my searches were coming up empty. I think those things would not necessarily be things that I was like, "Way to go, Matt. You're so faithful. Way to hang in there." I think that would be more like God being faithful to me, or God keeping me here, whether I wanted to be or not.
It's a similar answer to what I was just saying, that my invitation would be, to every pastor, whether you're a church planter, church revitalizer, or you're pastoring a stable, ongoing ministry, fight for the seat of the learner. Try your best to model it, to live before your congregation this personal journey of figuring out what it is to follow Jesus, because there's a lot of things that pastors do subtly that cultivate an environment of them being the answer man or of them having it all together. If you, instead, can fight for an environment where you're learning together, I actually think that it's a far more joyful journey. There's been some really hard days in these 12 years here, but honestly Dave, since 2009, the Gospel has been sweeter than the trouble. The idea of loving people for their sake, not for my sake. The Gospel says that I'm already accepted.
I have a Father in heaven who is smiling upon me, who has welcomed me in, who says, "This is my son in whom I'm well-pleased." Since that's true, that means that I don't have to love people for my sake. I'm already loved. I can actually love people for their sake. That reorientation of why I love people has been as great a gift as just about anything since 2009.
Dave Owens: What are two or three ways we can be praying for you and the future of the church there?
Matt Herron: One prayer target would be that we are able to navigate a season of spiritual health without growing apathetic, without growing cocky, and without falling prey to the desire for more. The second prayer target is related to that, is we have a lot of decisions in regard to staffing and in regard to the space of our building. Parking space, seating capacity, offices for our staff is growing. Our church has been debt-free since 1992 and that's a pretty sweet situation to be in. We want to be very wise if we were to actually try to build or do something like that, what is the impact of debt on our church congregation. We want to handle that well.
The last thing I would say, there's been good evidence of the Gospel having impact in the way that people are functioning as neighbors to their non-Christian friends. Traverse City just showed up at the 14th largest de-churched city in America. We have a lot of people in our city who in a sense, have given church a try and it hasn't worked out. We don't think that a really killer song set is going to be the way to connect with people who have already tried church. We want to figure out how to be neighbors who loved people, and we are not loving people in order to share the Gospel with them. We're sharing the Gospel with them because we love them. If I was going to pick one thing to say, God, would you grow that and multiply that, it'd be that right there.
Dave Owens: Got it.
Matt Herron: That we would have more people in our church who are living as neighbors who love people for their sakes.
Dave Owens: Thanks for joining us today, Matt.
Matt Herron: Thanks for having me.
Mike Cosper: This is Sojourn Network is a production of the Narrativo Group. It was produced me, it was edited by TJ Hester, it was mixed by Mark Owens. Our music is by Sojourn Music and Dan Phelps. We'll be back with another episode in two weeks.
This is Sojourn Network is a production of the Narrativo Group
Produced by Mike Cosper
Edited by TJ Hester
Mixed by Mark Owens
Graphic Design by Casey Smith
Website Design by Brannon McAllister
Our Music is by Sojourn Music and Dan Phelps