Aaron Gray

On today's show, Ronnie Martin from Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio is sitting down with Aaron Gray from Sound City Bible Church in Seattle, Washington. Aaron's church planting story is pretty unique. They planted in the aftermath of Mars Hill Church closing its doors, and Aaron shares that story and the evidences of grace that came out of that hardship.

Learn more about Sound City Bible Church here.
Learn more about Sojourn Network here


Dave Owens: Hey. This is Dave Owens from Sojourn Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and this is Sojourn Network.

Mike Cosper: Hey. Welcome to the podcast. My name is Mike Cosper, and I'm one of the board members of Sojourn Network, where we exist to plant, grow, and multiply healthy churches that last.

Each week on our show, pastors and leaders from Sojourn Network sit down to talk about church planting and ministry, what they've learned, how they've grown, and what they might be able to pass along to others.

On today's show, Ronnie Martin from Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio is sitting down with Aaron Gray from Sound City Bible Church in Seattle, Washington. Aaron's church planting story is pretty unique. They planted in the aftermath of Mars Hill Church closing its doors, and Aaron shares that story and the evidences of grace that came out of that hardship.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Ronnie Martin: All right. Aaron Gray, it's good talking to you, brother. One of the things I love about you in the times that we have hung out is that you are the consummate Pacific Northwesterner. I dig that, but I'm curious about what it was like being a pastor's kid in Anchorage, Alaska. Man, tell us about that.

Aaron Gray: Yeah. I think, in some ways, it was ... Certain parts of it were kind of traditional pastor's kid. Other parts were not very traditional.

My parents got saved when I was three years old. The midwife who caught me when I was born invited my folks to church, and they got saved kind of through that relationship. So that's why I believe in the sovereignty of God.

But we were part of different churches or whatever, and the church that we were a part of when I was about eight years old went through a big split, where people were fighting, and it was just a really ugly kind of church situation. After the dust settled, the people that were left, they looked at my dad and were like, "Hey, do you ... Do you wanna take over and be the pastor?"

He said, "You know, I've never been to seminary. I run an engineering company. I'm not a pastor."

They're like, "That's fine. You can just preach on the weekends and kind of do that."

So, yeah, when I was eight years old, my dad became ... I kind of jokingly say he accidentally became a pastor, and he, to this day ... He's an elder at his church now, a different church. But he's never been in vocational ministry. He's never taken a dime from the church. He's always done it bivocationally.

So, for me growing up, that was the model that I saw, and I thought that was kind of what I would do. In fact, like in college, I was involved in a church plant, actually, my dad had done. I went to school for music. I taught music. I worked at a recording studio, did a handful of different things, and then just served the church and eventually became a worship pastor as a ... basically, a volunteer.

So, when I was about 26 years old, our church merged in with another church, and they said, "Hey, do you wanna come on staff and be the worship pastor on staff?"

I'm like, "This is the weirdest thing I've ever heard. I don't know what that even looks like," 'cause I'd never saw that.

But, man, the one thing I can say, being a pastor's kid, I got to see a lot of just the hard times, the hard things that people go through in life. I got to see my dad walk through just really difficult things with people. But, man, you also get to see some of the coolest things, just God's grace, God's work, and, honestly, some of the stuff is ... You never get to tell anybody about it, 'cause it's people's private lives and personal details.

But, man, it has instilled in me a deep love for the church and a deep love for the people of God. That's actually one of my favorite things. I love Jesus, I love His Word, but I really love the church. It makes me super sad whenever I hear people say things like, "I love Jesus. I just don't like the church," 'cause it's like, man, that's His people. That's His bride.

That's something that I would say was instilled in me from a very young age.

Ronnie Martin: Yeah, that's cool, man, and you're right. That theology really breaks down for us that whole "I love Jesus, but I don't like His church."

What I find interesting is that we share some similar paths in that it sounds like you got your start in ministry by becoming a worship leader.

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: It also sounds like that wasn't the dream. That wasn't the Aaron Gray dream, was to become a worship pastor. But you kind of found your way into that through sort of the music industry, which was how I kind of got my feet into that particular role a long time ago. What was that like, and was that something that you thought would be a forever role, or did you already start to see it as something that would go into a lead pastor role?

Aaron Gray: Yeah, it's interesting. So I've ... I mean, very musical family. My mom's a music teacher. My dad is a drummer. I always joke, "What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? It's a drummer." But ...

So we've ... We were playing family worship music when I was, again, like seven, eight years old, when my dad took over that church as the pastor. So always been involved in music. Started playing in my first band when I was 13 or 14 years old and then would lead worship at youth group. I went to a Christian high school for a few years. They had a chapel.

So just always was doing music, and it would be 50/50. It was ... Half of it was in the church, and then half of it was like, "Hey, let's get some people together, and we'll rent out a warehouse space and through a show."

You say the music industry, but you gotta remember, man, I'm in Alaska, and there's, like, 18 people there and 47 polar bears. So it's not like you're having a huge musical career or whatever, but ...

Ronnie Martin: Dude, that was your industry.

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: It was your industry.

Aaron Gray: Yeah. You got those ...

Ronnie Martin: Yeah.

Aaron Gray: You gotta keep the polar bears happy, man.

But we ... I always played music, and, like I said, I always felt like I would use music and it would be a part of my life to be involved in the church. What happened, as far as kind of lead pastor role stuff, though ...

So when I was in ... about college age, this church plant that my dad had done ... He started it when I was about 15 or 16 years old, and I was kind of in charge of the music. But when I was about 21 years old, he hit a real significant wall of burnout. I think it was, one part, just kind of some internal stuff that God was working on him, but another part, just the reality of running a business and trying to pastor a church plant.

So he kind of came and said, "Guys, could somebody else kind of step into doing the weekly teaching?"

I said, "Yeah, I can do that."

So kind of college years through my mid-20s, I started preaching and teaching early on. So I never really thought of it kind of like the traditional lead pastor, preaching pastor role. But, looking back on that, it was pretty providential how God gave me opportunity to be ... to prepare just that kind of role of standing up and teaching and kind of leading that way.

I'm really, really grateful that none of those sermons are online. But it was definitely a formative time and formative experience for me.

Ronnie Martin: Yeah, and we're all glad about our early sermons being, hopefully, lost in the ether ...

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: ... somewhere. Some people may know this, but your history is also connected with Mars Hill in Seattle. How did you eventually become involved with them?

Aaron Gray: Yeah, so, kind of back-tracking again, my dad planted this church, and that lasted for about 10 years. Then when I was in my mid, late 20s, that church plant merged with another church there in Anchorage, and that was when I went on staff.

Going on church staff, I'd never really considered it, but one of the things it did is it gave me time to devote to studying and learning and growing in theology. I've always loved to read, always loved to study, but when you're working a job and doing different things and then kind of serving the church, the time is a little bit more limited.

So being on staff with this church was great. It was a wonderful time, and I'm still friends with some of those people. But what I realized is, "Man, I think that I've got some theological opinions, and I think I've got some ideas about ecclesiology and how the church should be governed. I think ... Man, I think God might be calling me to plant a church."

I thought, "Man, that's just completely God's grace," because at least I had the foresight to say, "I don't know how to do that. I mean, I watched my dad plant a church, and now I'm on staff with this other church, but I really don't feel prepared. I don't feel ready to plant a church yet."

So my wife is from Washington state, originally, and she'd always wanted to go back. So we were praying, we were talking about it, and I just kind of one day float up this idea, "Hey, what if we went to Seattle, we went there for a year? They have this internship program, and then they have this training thing at Mars Hill called ReTrain. So what if we moved to Seattle, just for a year, year and a half, and I got some training, and then we went back to Anchorage and planted a church?"

The internship, it was a zero-dollar and zero-cents per year paid internship, and this is how I kind of knew God was in it, when my wife goes, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's take this kind of leap of faith and this risk."

So, seven years ago, I believe, this week, as we're recording this podcast here ...

Ronnie Martin: Wow.

Aaron Gray: Seven years ago, put my wife and kids on an airplane, and they flew down to Seattle. I jumped in a van with a buddy of mine, and we drove all the way through Canada and out and around and brought our stuff and landed in Seattle.

So I was going to be here for one year. I mean, that was my plan, and, obviously, here it is, seven years later. So something happened. But kind of realized pretty quickly after we got here that God had indeed spoken to us, that we were to go to Seattle, but that I had just kind of assumed the go back to Anchorage part.

We got here, instantly just fell in love with some of the people. Actually, I only did the internship for a few months. Ended up getting hired on staff as a pastoral assistant to one Brad House, who is now on the Sojourn Network.

Ronnie Martin: Oh, my gosh. That's so disappointing to hear that. That must've been a really rough time for you.

Aaron Gray: Oh, man. It was ... Brad's best and most fruitful season in ministry ever was when he had me as his assistant, so ... No, I'm just kidding.

Ronnie Martin: Well, nobody doubts that. Nobody doubts that. Yeah.

Aaron Gray: So, actually, that was part of our initial connection to the Sojourn Network. But ...

So I worked for Brad for a while, and then another good friend of mine, a guy named Bubba Jennings, was heading down to the Tacoma area to plant a new campus for Mars Hill in Tacoma. He said, "Hey, would you come with me and be the worship pastor and kind of lead community groups and a few other things?"

So we prayed about it and said, "Yeah, let's do it." So we ended up going down to what was Mars Hill Federal Way. Eventually became Mars Hill Tacoma. Was down there for about two years.

Then, in late 2013, early 2014, got a phone call from one of the executive leaders of Mars Hill that the guy who had been leading the Shoreline Campus - so that's up north of Seattle proper - was gonna transition to a new role, and they needed somebody to step in as the campus pastor there.

So we prayed about it, talked about it. My wife and I felt like, "Yep, this is what God's calling us to do." So in March of 2014, I became the campus pastor for the Shoreline location of Mars Hill, and that was right as the mushroom cloud of all the controversy stuff started exploding.

Ronnie Martin: You came all the way from Anchorage, thinking you were going to do one thing ...

Aaron Gray: Right.

Ronnie Martin: ... thinking that you just had a short run there, you're gonna be back in your hometown. It's what happens to a lot of us. What we think is going to be our future ends up not really coming into play for our lives, because God has something completely different in mind.

So you take over Shoreline in 2014, and you had no idea ...

Aaron Gray: No.

Ronnie Martin: ... what was about to come undone and transpire.

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: So, man, what was that ... Without getting into too many gory details, what was that nine months like for you?

Aaron Gray: Yeah, I mean, it was extremely hard. I would say it was hard kind of for two reasons. Number one was I was ignorant in a lot of ways. Being an intern and being kind of the pastoral assistant, even going down to Tacoma, man, I just had some really, really great experiences, sincerely. Brad was a really great guy to work for, and my couple of years down in Tacoma with my friend Bubba, it was just ... It was such an ...

It was a new campus, and coming up to Shoreline, man, it had a long history. It was about a 10-year-old location. It ... I think it was the very first of the video campuses that they launched, and there was just a lot of history and a lot of ... I guess I could use the word woundings and things that were present that I just didn't know about.

So it was really hard, because in my ignorance, I just kind of stepped on landmine after landmine. Then it was also really hard, because, I mean, I had a lot of people coming to me and saying things like, "Hey, Aaron, we don't know you. You seem like a good guy. We just don't really kind of trust what's going on with the highest levels of leadership of the church right now, and so we're gonna leave."

So it was like people were trying to be encouraging, but then they were leaving the church. Actually, there was a point in time in 2014 where I absolutely knew the names of more people who had left the church than those who were still at the church.

They were the ones that were reaching out with emails or face-to-face meetings or phone calls, like, "Hey, could we talk? We wanna meet with you." There was just so many wonderful and really Godly and really gracious people who were leaving the church during that time, and I'm like, "Man, you seem like an awesome person. Wish we could be in church together and relationship together."

Ronnie Martin: So you were starting to see kind of the splintering happen before the collapse. What I'm curious about is, before the replant and the launch of Sound City and the collapse of Mars Hill, what did that gap look like for you?

Aaron Gray: Yeah, so as 2014 wore on ... You gotta remember, too, I'm trying to move my family from south of Seattle in Tacoma up to Shoreline area and up north of Seattle. So there's a move in there, which that's always not fun.

Then, man, somewhere around the summertime is when stuff started happening with kind of the real specific, formal charges against Mark Driscoll. There was all this stuff, and I got asked to serve on the investigation committee for all that stuff. It was just this avalanche of stuff.

During that time, certain people that I'd known, relationships around the country and people back in Alaska, actually were reaching out to me. They're like, "Hey, man, what's going on with Mars? Is Mars Hill gonna make it?"

I had two, in my inbox, job offers from churches back up in Alaska who were like, "Man, come back to Alaska. We could use you, and we would love to have you." I had one for a worship pastor role. I had one for kind of a pastor of ministries, executive pastor sort of role.

I just ... The only way I can describe it is I feel like the Holy Spirit was standing behind me, hands on my shoulders, kind of leaning in, whispering in my ear, "Don't you dare leave these people."

I felt just the deepest sense of Holy Spirit constrained. I would pray. I'd be like, "God, what's gonna happen? What's gonna happen with the church? Is there even gonna be a Mars Hill Church? Am I even gonna have a job? I just bought a house. Am I gonna have to sell that and move in with my mother-in-law or something? What's going on?"

Jesus wouldn't answer any of those things. He just kept saying, "Don't move. Don't leave these people. Don't move."

So that was kind of the summer into the fall for me, and I don't ... Again, not getting into all the gory details, but it eventually came where Mark resigned and the decision was made that the churches ... the campuses could have the opportunity, if they wanted, to kind of spin off and become independent, autonomous local churches.

Man, just through prayer, and my wife and I again, the elder team that we had in place at the time just talked about it, prayed about it, and said, "Yeah, I think that's what we're supposed to do."

So December 31st of 2014, New Year's Eve, and then January 1st, 2015, Mars Hill Church ended and we launched as Sound City Bible Church.

Ronnie Martin: So, man, so you guys launched ... So it wasn't one of these situations, which I find really interesting, is that there wasn't really a big gap in between what happened with the collapse of Mars Hill and then with you guys sort of restarting, relaunching. You guys just went into it right away. You made that decision ...

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: ... right off the bat, right?

Aaron Gray: Yeah, and I guess, technically, we didn't have to, but it's kind of weird. Sound City, we're three years old. We're three and a half years old now. I sometimes joke that we ... We're still a toddler. We're still pretty young. But when we were born, we were like one of those babies that was born with a full head of hair and some teeth.

We looked older, we looked bigger than we were, because our first Sunday as Sound City Bible Church, we still had ... We were in the same location that Mars Hill Shoreline was in. We still had the same sound system and the same projectors and the chairs. We still had a lot of really good musicians and worship leaders.

So we kind of looked like this older church, but it was a brand new day. It was a brand new thing.

So, yeah, we worshiped ... I don't know what the exact date was, but the last Sunday in December, we worshiped as Mars Hill Church. Then, seven days later, the first Sunday of 2015, we got together and worshiped as Sound City Bible Church.

Ronnie Martin: So two things that come with that that enter my mind is, number one, describe a little bit of the atmosphere at the time, when seven days later, you relaunch as Sound City. Then describe to us what your mindset and your heart was like at that particular time.

Aaron Gray: Well, my mindset and my heart was, "Lord, I hope this works. I hope anybody shows up. I hope I show up." I mean, it was a weird time, because being involved in the controversy and the painful year that was 2014, the people who were left ...

A lot of people had left over the course of the year, and ... for one reason or another, but the people who were left were, just by and large, just some real steadfast and faithful saints, some real, like, "Hey, I wasn't here because of the preacher. I wasn't here because of the name. I was here because I love these people, and I wanna be in a relationship with these people."

So there was kind of this resolve, and, man, I'll tell you what. I love and I still have relationship with a lot of people who left the church during that year, and not throwing rocks at them by any stretch of the imagination, but I just think there's some sort of kind of unique blessing that comes from sticking through the tough times and fighting through those hard times and really working to act in love and act in unity, even when it's like, "Man, everything, every indication is, 'Just get out.'"

So the atmosphere was kind of one of resolve. There was one of just kind of tiredness, because people had been just through so much. Then there was kind of like nervous, first day of school, "What's this gonna be like? What's gonna happen?"

You know what? People showed up, and, in large part, you know what we did? We sang some songs, we celebrated the Lord's table, I preached from the Bible, and it was like, "Oh, okay. Well, we've still got the main important things here - Jesus is at the center, and we can love each other. We can kind of take some time and rebuild here."

So it was. It was like nervous first day of school meets "I'm just exhausted from a really painful and tiring year."

Ronnie Martin: Yeah, for sure, and, yeah, like what you just described, everybody was able to see, "Hey, we're doing the same things we always did."

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: "So there's gonna be that level of stability. We're not walking out on any of the things that we have always held true to, 'This is who we are.'"

Aaron Gray: Right.

Ronnie Martin: "Really, we just ... We have a new name."

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

We talk about the atmosphere and the energy. God sent us a couple of guys, right toward the end of 2014, who came in with what I would say fresh legs. So the elder team that we had in place was a handful of guys who were really long-time Mars Hill guys, and they had just kind of been through the wringer in some various ways. They were tired, and they didn't have a lot of stamina, a lot of gas left in the tank. I was coming in, having been through my own experiences that just had me exhausted.

God sent one guy who he moved up from Texas. I don't know if he was the last, but he was one of the last employees that Mars Hill ever brought on. So he was only ever with Mars for just a few months, and we ended up talking and praying and feeling like the Spirit was leading him to come and be a part of our kind of planting team.

So he came in, really without any long-term baggage or whatever from Mars Hill. He came in with just some real fresh eyes, real fresh perspective. So that was a huge, huge blessing in that season, because he was able to come in as an elder and be like, "Yeah, I know the church has been through the wringer, but let me bring this perspective, and let me remind you of God's grace in these things."

So that was good, and then had another guy come up, a younger dude, who came from ... I think from California, at the time. He'd lived around a little bit, military guy. But just was like a fresh, kind of a newer Christian, like maybe four years in as a Christian and just like, "I feel like God's calling me into ministry, and I wanna come up and do an internship."

I'm like, "Bro, you understand that Mars Hill is possibly shutting down?"

He was like, "I don't know. I don't care. God told me we gotta move up and do this internship."

So he moved up, and real quickly realized, like, "Oh my goodness. This guy is an absolute gem." So we had him do an internship for a while, even after we launched as Sound City. We eventually brought him on staff. He's been serving as a deacon for the last few years, and, actually, two Sundays from now, we are going to install him as an elder in our church.

Ronnie Martin: Oh, wow.

Aaron Gray: He has been just a huge blessing. But same sort of thing. He came in with what I call fresh legs, just ... He didn't have all of that weariness from going through the year of ... just all the trials and tribulations of that year.

So those two guys in particular, just having them around on staff or interning or just in ministry relationship, were a huge blessing from God to me, personally, and to our church family, where they were able to see, like, "Oh, man, God's still sending people, and God's bringing leaders at the right time."

It's the whole idea of, like Jesus said, "I will build My church." He didn't say we will build His church. He didn't say He would build our church. He said He would build His church, and if that season and that year taught me anything, it's that Jesus is good on His word and He is faithful to His church.

It's like the hymn - "'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. How I've proved Him over and over." I got to see that firsthand, and I ... There's a lot of things I don't know. There's a lot of doubts and insecurities I have. But one thing I know is that Jesus is faithful to His church.

Ronnie Martin: What an amazing testimony, and it's one of the things that, from what you just described, that's so significant is that He just continued to surround you with a brotherhood ...

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: ... of Godly men that were emerging, that He was bringing in, that could walk alongside of you in some of the aftermath of what had happened up there.

Let me ask you this. Do you feel that there is a brotherhood of churches that are reemerging in Seattle that ... Have there been somewhat of a movement, kind of coming back from all of that over the last few years, that you've seen?

Aaron Gray: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the Pacific Northwest in general is kind of an independent sort of an area. I mean, it's people who moved west and people who moved north to kind of get away from ... frankly, to get away from people and to ...

The history of the Seattle area is really interesting in that ... I've read some books and some stuff where there were intentional initiatives by government leaders and city leaders to get rid of people and to push people away.

So there's this real independent sort of streak and this real independent sort of spirit, and, man, there has historically been a lot of competitiveness between churches in the Seattle area. Man, that breaks my heart, again, as someone who, from the days of my youth, just loves the church. I mean the church, not necessarily my church, but just the church.

Ronnie Martin: Yeah.

Aaron Gray: Really, really bummed me out. So, early on, even when I was still pastor at Mars Hill in the Shoreline area, I just started meeting with other pastors and saying, "Hey, how can we work together? How can we partner together?"

I found some different, like, "There's a couple guys here and there that are getting together, so let me show up, and let me kind of rally together."

I think, since the dissolution of Mars Hill, one of the really great things about Mars Hill was the relationship and camaraderie that we had between the various campus pastors. So, actually, there's a big pile of us. We still do a monthly video chat, hang out, and just kind of pray for each other, check in on each other. Still, three and a half years later, we still talk and text pretty frequently.

Then, yeah, it's just been really encouraging to see the way that other churches have started to kind of put an emphasis on unity, man. It's a ... I mean, the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle area in general, it's not particularly friendly to the Gospel. It still is, in many ways, the embodiment of kind of where the secular version of America is headed.

Man, we've just seen a lot of pastors and a lot of churches realizing, "We cannot do this alone. We absolutely cannot do this alone."

Ronnie Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Aaron Gray: "This is ... The mission is too big for any one local church, and we really need each other."

In Corinthians where it talks about the one body with many parts, I think that applies to individual disciples, but I'm increasingly convinced that that applies to local churches as well, that we need this one body with many parts functioning well. Not every church can do every single thing, but we need churches, particularly in a region, to band together and to work together, to love each other, for the sake of seeing the Gospel go forward.

So I'm actually really encouraged. Man, I've got our church and one other church here in the area. We're planning a fall prayer and worship night, and I've got about a dozen churches already kind of lined up. I've just been kind of making friends and talking to people and saying, "Hey, could we get together, get our churches together, for a night and just sing some songs and pray for unity in our region, pray for people to meet Jesus, pray for some of the brokenness and the social ills that we're seeing in our area to be healed by our Redeemer, Jesus?"

I'm looking forward to it, man. That's in late September, but we're already planning it out right now, and people are starting to jump onboard. So stuff like that is really encouraging to me. We've got a long way to go, but I'm super excited about that stuff.

Ronnie Martin: That's nice to hear, and I think what is going to encourage people about that is that, from our perspective, just getting sort of a particular view on what happened when all the collapse happens, I think even hearing that is gonna be encouraging to a lot of us, knowing that, "No, there was a group of pastors up there. They've stuck together. They're still encouraging one another. Just because Mars Hill as a brand sort of dissolved doesn't mean that these relationships had to dissolve."

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: So I think that that's great. That's encouraging for all of us, because we viewed what was going on in the Pacific Northwest as just an incredible movement that a lot of us were influenced by, especially when you just break it down into Mark's preaching ...

Aaron Gray: Right.

Ronnie Martin: ... generally. But it went beyond that, because ... I did a lot of traveling in the early days, and I was up in Seattle. I was on a label that was based in Seattle.

Aaron Gray: Right.

Ronnie Martin: So, man, I mean, we would visit ... When we had a Sunday off, we would visit a Mars Hill campus. So knowing that there still exists some of that camaraderie is ...

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: ... really, really cool. So, yeah, it's great to hear that.

Aaron Gray: Well, even specifically as it relates to Sojourn Network, so when I became clear, at the end of 2014, that we were gonna be closing down and relaunching, I actually reached out to Brad - not Brad House - and said, "Hey, tell me about this Sojourn Network thing that you guys got going on."

He was able to just kind of be a friend in that season and kind of talked us through stuff. Being a part of the Sojourn Network has been a huge part of that as well, because ... So we're north of Seattle in ... Now we're in the Lynnwood area, but it's kind of Lynnwood [inaudible 00:28:33], all the suburban sprawl.

But if you go further north, the next kind of city, the next real city up north of us, is Everett. Another Sojourn pastor, Ryan Williams of Foundation Church, he's up there. So kind of the Shoreline campus and the Everett campus have always been in relationship. In fact, the Shoreline campus planted the Everett campus years ago.

Ryan, man, in addition to going through all the stuff with Mars Hill, they had had some real personal tragedies as well. So it was just a really, really hard time for him, and I got to watch firsthand as the network surrounded him with love and with care, with compassion, with resources.

Man, we were so impressed by just watching the way that the Sojourn Network cared for that church, and we were a little bit slower. It took us a little bit longer to kind of make sure that we were in alignment and all that stuff. But it was like, "We want in on that. The way that that network has provided love and compassion and care, we wanna be a part of that as well."

So, even specifically, yeah, Ryan and I, I mean, we talk every week, every other week. We'll text. We'll chat about things. I just talked to him on the phone two days ago about ... We're looking at a possible staff hire situation at our church ...

Ronnie Martin: Yeah.

Aaron Gray: ... and he was giving me some insight and some feedback and even some possible names.

So the official organization known as Mars Hill, yeah, that's gone. But the relationships, the thing that will actually last into eternity, the relationships and the partnership for the Gospel, that's still going on, and it's a huge blessing in my life to still have guys like Ryan. Now even to be formally partnered in the Sojourn Network with him has been just a huge joy.

Ronnie Martin: What would you say is one of the more unique roles that the network plays in your life at this point?

Aaron Gray: Yeah. My wife and I actually flew down in 2015. That very first year that we were Sound City Bible Church, my wife and I flew down to the lead pastors' and wives' retreat, just to kind of check it out.

That was one of the first invites that Brad and the team had made. They said ...

Ronnie Martin: Okay.

Aaron Gray: ... "Just come down and spend some time in relationship with us." So we flew down, and, actually, while we were there in Florida, we had a pretty ... kind of scary situation that happened with our kids left back home in Seattle. We had to leave, kind of in an emergency, fly back home, and everything turned out okay. But it was just kind of a scary situation.

But even in that, before we left ... My wife's all the way across the country, as far as you can get, away from her babies, and we couldn't get a flight out 'til the next morning. It was just this really stressful situation, and even then, it was like Stark and Dave and the couple of Daves, the guys just grabbed us and started praying for us.

I think Nick Nye was there at that point, too. Just all these guys just surrounded us and loved us and prayed for us. People started texting me the next week or two weeks later, like, "Hey, what's been going on? We've been praying for you. Is everything good?"

So we personally got to experience that same type of love and care kind of early on. We took a little bit longer, because, having been through what we were as a church, it just took us a little while longer to feel comfortable as a leadership team, like, "Does our congregation want to join with a network, or will that kind of bump up against old wounds or bruises?"

So we just were a little bit slower and more intentional about it. We also had to move buildings in there, too, so that kind of took us out of commission and planning for six to nine months, because moving buildings is terrible. But ...

Ronnie Martin: Yeah. It's horrible, yeah. Absolutely.

Aaron Gray: But just being a part of the network has been incredibly life-giving for me. This is my first time kind of being in that more lead preaching pastor role, and even though I have experience with preaching and even though I was a campus pastor with Mars, it's just different.

Every other role I've ever had, I've had someone else kind of ... How do I put it? Someone else to lean on or someone else that had authority ...

Ronnie Martin: Right, yeah.

Aaron Gray: ... kind of over me, and this is kind of the first time where it's like, "No, it's me and this elder team, and we're kind of taking this boat out to sea. I don't know. I've never been out this direction before."

Ronnie Martin: Right.

Aaron Gray: So having guys that I can pick up the phone and I can call or I can text with, I can say, "Hey, what are you guys doing about this?" or "What are you doing about that?"

The network itself is pretty proactive about, "Hey, here's some resources we think that might be helpful for you" or "Here's what we're hearing a lot of guys asking about."

But, man, I'll tell you what, too. The other thing for us is we feel like we have been incredibly blessed by God. His grace on our church is just nothing short of miraculous, that we were able to survive what we went through and to be able to come out on the other side and see a return to health and a return to growth.

So we came into the network not just wanting to take and to receive, but really with a heart, "Hey, how can we help, and how can we bless, and how can we serve others?"

So even kind of from day one, being able to come in, "We're not a new church plant. We're an established church, so we can give some money and finances to help see other brand new church plants come about. We've got some guys on our team who are real good at kind of thinking through things like eldership or deaconship."

So we've been able to share some processes. We have some phenomenal kids' ministry leaders, and so we've been able to share some of our kids' ministry resources and organization with other churches in the network.

So it's been a blessing to receive. It's been a blessing to give, man. I hope that doesn't come across as boastful or something, but it's like, well, we've received just this incredible amount of grace from God, not only in the experiences we've had, but the people and some of the resources that we've had. It's like, "How could we not share that? How could we not want to" ...

Ronnie Martin: Yeah.

Aaron Gray: ... "hopefully be of benefit to someone else who's just getting started out or to be of benefit to someone else who maybe they're going through a really rocky time right now?" I know some other pastors, even in the network, that had some real challenges ...

Ronnie Martin: Yeah.

Aaron Gray: ... and some leadership challenges and some disagreements and stuff. Being able to be on the phone with some of those guys and kind of talk through what's going on and to try to love them and serve them with the experiences that I've had is a joy, man. It's a real joy.

Ronnie Martin: I love how you phrase that, because I think our natural default, especially if you are a church coming into the network, is you're obviously thinking in terms of, "Well, how is this gonna benefit me?"

Aaron Gray: Right.

Ronnie Martin: "What am I going to be able to receive from this?" Those are good questions to ask. "How am I going to be encouraged? What kind of resources are gonna be in place so that I can flourish as a pastor, how my church can flourish, because I'm with other men and women that can actually help me in my growth process?"

But I loved what you said, which was, "Hey, we're also coming in, looking to see how we can give back, rather than just receive." I think that we would always want that to be the heart behind any church that sees themselves aligning with the network - not only "What can we receive?" ...

Aaron Gray: Yeah.

Ronnie Martin: ... but "What can we give?" So, I mean, I really appreciate your heart behind that.

Here's how I would like to finish up, though, and, man, I would love to ask you what you might say to other dudes, other pastors who might be in scenarios that feel a bit unstable, that feel a bit scary, that feel a bit unknown, that may remind them of the place that you were in. What kind of encouragement would you have for some of these guys, if they find themselves in that kind of a place?

Aaron Gray: Oh, man. I think the first thing I would say is remember that you're not the Savior. It's so easy, I think, for a lot of pastor types ... I mean, you're in ministry and in leadership because you like to help people and you like to fix problems and you like to kind of jump in and maybe even take charge in certain situations. When you're in those situations, it's a grace of God to have an opportunity to be reminded that you're not really in charge.

Ronnie Martin: Right.

Aaron Gray: Our staff and our elders, we make fun of each other, 'cause we've kind of realized that different ones of us have our go-to verses that just kind of always pop out of us.

Ronnie Martin: Right.

Aaron Gray: Say your one Bible verse.

Ronnie Martin: Yeah.

Aaron Gray: Recently, the guys were teasing me, 'cause kind of realized that mine was ... It's from Hebrews 1, where it says that Jesus upholds the universe by the word of His power. When I think about my life, I can't even uphold the cleanliness of my living room by the word of my power, and here's Jesus, upholding the universe. There are galaxies collapsing right now and the rings around Saturn and nuclear chemicals. Who knows?

I'm speaking out of my depth, obviously, but all the stuff that Jesus is orchestrating and organizing. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here thinking that this whole church rises and falls with me ...

Ronnie Martin: Right.

Aaron Gray: ... and it's real freeing to remember that you're not the Sovereign One. You're not the Savior. So it's a real opportunity for that not just to become some theological idea that you hold onto, but to actually let it work its way deep down into your heart and be a reality in your life.

Ronnie Martin: Hey, we're better. We're better for having you in the network.

Aaron Gray: Amen.

Ronnie Martin: So thanks for making the leap. I speak on behalf of, really, all of us that have had the chance to get to know you, that we're glad you're with us, and we're glad that Sound City is part of the family and that we get to walk alongside.

But, hey, man, thanks for talking to us, and thanks for the encouragement and for opening up about your story, brother.

Aaron Gray: Hey, thanks for having me, and it's been a joy to be a part of the network. I'm really excited to see where God continues to lead us, not just as a church, but as a family of churches here over the next few years. It's exciting.

Ronnie Martin: Amen.

Mike Cosper: That's our show. Thanks again for listening. You can learn more about Sojourn Network at sojournnetwork.com. You'll find a series of e-books, articles on the blog, and information about our upcoming Leaders' Summit.

Today's episode was recorded by Ronnie Martin. It was produced and edited by TJ Hester. It was mixed by Mark Owens. Our music was by Sojourn Music.

I'm Mike Cosper, and thanks for listening. We'll be back in two weeks.

This episode produced by Mike Cosper
Editing by Mike Cosper and TJ Hester
Mixed by Mark Owens
Music by Sojourn Music
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Website Design by Brannon McAllister
Learn more at thisissojournnetwork.com

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