On this episode, Dave Owens chats with Rusty McKie. Rusty is the lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Chattanooga, TN, and Today we talk about the ups and downs of church planting, pastoring through dark seasons, and about God's faithfulness—his ability to show up—when things get confusing.
Jonah Sage: This is Jonah Sage from Sojourn Church in New Albany, Indiana, and this is Sojourn Network.
Mike Cosper: Hey there. This is Mike Cosper, one of the board members here at Sojourn Network, where we exist to plant, grow, and multiply healthy churches that last. On each episode of our show, members of Sojourn Network sit down to talk about their calling, their ministry, and the challenges they've faced as pastors and church leaders.
Today, Dave Owens, our associate director, will be talking to Rusty McKie, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sojourn Chattanooga's in The Hill City neighborhood where Rusty and his other pastors are working to love Jesus, cultivate community, and be missionaries. On our show today Dave and Rusty talk about the ups and downs of planting, about pastoring through dark seasons, and about God's faithfulness, His ability to show up when things turn confusing.
Dave Owens: So when did you guys move up to Louisville and start attending Sojourn Community Church?
Rusty McKie: Yes, so that's a big part of our church planting story for sure. We lived in Columbia, South Carolina, my wife Rachel and I, married our senior and took a year off after college just to be married. And during that time the Lord really refined my call to church planting. I was actually reading through the book of Romans in its entirety in one sitting out loud, and got to the end where Paul mentioned not wanting to build on someone else's Foundation, but wanting to go where the Gospel had not been heard. And I've only had a few experiences like this in my life, but that was one of them where the Holy Spirit very clearly impressed upon me that that was what I was made to do.
And so from there, I really had no idea what that meant. And then through a series of circumstances, about a week later an older mentor my life mentioned church planting. I never had heard of it. So kind of opened up to this whole new world of starting new churches for the sake of reaching new people, and started reading as much as I could that year, so that would've been 2006. I read Ed Stetzer's ... Back then the title of his book was planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, I think now it's planting Mission Churches. And in that book, he actually mentioned Sojourn Community Church, and it was just a really neat moment of reading that because we had been dreaming of the type of church that we wanted to plant, which we had not seen. Right. And so reading the description of Sojourn I remember yelling at my bride from the other room saying, "I found our church that we're going to," as I read this, and it was just very clear desire to want to be a part of Sojourn in Louisville, with the hope and the goal of then being sent out.
And then in 2007 we actually moved to Louisville, Kentucky so that I could go to seminary. But really more than that, so that we could go and be a part of Sojourn.
Dave Owens: Were you thinking it would be a quick couple years and then you'd launch out into planting a church or into ministry, or did you anticipate it being more like five or six years before you would leave Sojourn and go and plant a church?
Rusty McKie: I think we anticipated it being longer. In my undergrad I did what I think is very normal for college students to do, which is I really put more emphasis and energy into college ministries than I did a local church, and we really suffered for that as a family. By the time we graduated we didn't necessarily feel like we had a place in a local church, and that was really more of our own doing than a church's fault.
And so going into a seminary. I had a pretty strong conviction, because of my earlier stupidity, that I was going to invest my energy primarily in the local church. And so we had pretty much decided hey, even if it takes longer to go through seminary. If it means me getting a C on a quiz and take that energy and put it towards serving in the local church, we're just going to make that our priority, so definitely loved and benefited from seminary in so many ways but we kind of had a mindset of we're going to invest in the local church first, and then seminary second.
Dave Owens: What did God do during those six or seven years in your own life and your marriage to prepare you for what you do now as a church planter, as a pastor?
Rusty McKie: I think the Lord used that season in a lot of surprising ways. Up until then, when I would show up in churches or various ministries, people would just kind of give me responsibilities. Pretty early on. And so, kind of by default, and then also in my own arrogance at that time, I just expected that when I came to Sojourn Louisville, and in one of the very first membership classes that we attended, Dana Montgomery at the time mentioned, "Hey if you want to plant a church, come and let me know after we're done with this class."
And so I went and shared our desire and our calling to plant a church after. And honestly, I was thinking alright, I'm going to get to spend time with pastors and get books and resources, and kind of get some next steps. And he was very kind and excited for us. And then his response was, "Great. Well, start serving somewhere, and jump into a community group and be faithful attender. And over the course of time, you will be able to potentially lead a group and then lead leaders, you'll be well on your way."
And I just remember walking away from that like that is the craziest advice I've ever heard. Like how on earth is that going to prepare me to plant a church? And then by God's grace I was able to just submit to that leadership at the time. And I parked cars for the next year, attended a community group, and man, Dave I just remember parking cars and thinking How on earth is this preparing me to plant a church? And I look back on that time though and I see that it absolutely did.
I think the Lord develops several things in me and that season. One, He gave me a healthy dose of humility that he does not need me to build His kingdom but He chooses to use me. And so that's something that I still think about often as I have the privilege of leading our church here in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
and then the other thing was faith. I think it really took a lot of faith to trust my pastor to go through some mundane and ordinary steps that didn't really make sense to me at the time. And ultimately, I was not just trusting my pastor, but I had to trust Jesus, that he really was preparing me in that season. And then finally I think it taught me a lot of grit. I know like I just served, and I just had to learn how to be faithful in areas that I necessarily wasn't passionate about.
And so I think about those three areas and I use humility, I use faith, and I use grit on a daily basis when it comes to just doing ministry, here in Chattanooga. So that was a surprising season in the things that the Lord taught me, for sure.
Dave Owens: So you're going through this season where you're learning humility and faithfulness and grit. And at some point you have to decide like, I think the Lord is calling us to plant a church, now. So what was that period of discernment like? How did when you were ready to go and actually plant a church, and kind of what were the steps you took to begin moving that direction, where you felt like all right, our time of preparation here in Louisville at Sojourn church and seminary might be coming to an end. And I feel like the spirit is pushing us out to start something new.
Rusty McKie: Yeah I think in a very objective sense it was helpful that I was going through seminary. So, as we were coming to a close with seminary, it took me around four and a half, close to five years to get my master's degree. So, that was helpful. There was kind of an objective end date for us. But then from a subjective sense, I did continue to serve in Sojourn. I did have the privilege of becoming a community group apprentice, becoming a community group leader. I was able to then become a community coach, and basically just to do the work of multiplication in group life, which was obviously so beneficial to them moving and doing essentially the same thing with a church plant from the ground up.
But towards the end of our time in seminary and at Sojourn in a subjective way, there was just kind of this bitter sweet dissatisfaction that my wife, Rachel, and I started experiencing, where we loved Sojourn. Obviously I mean there's no perfect church but man that that church is just the healthiest church we've ever been a part of. So formative in our marriage and our walks with Jesus. So yeah we just absolutely loved that church. And it would have been really easy and comfortable to have stayed. And yet we we just began to experience a discontentment and really this urge that we have to go we we have to go and share what we've experienced with others so that they can not only know about Jesus, but they can experience Jesus and the Gospel transforming every part of their life all the way down into the nitty gritty of the deepest darkest corners of their hearts. And also on the way out into their relationships in the world as they scatter with the church together.
So there was really that objective pull, but then also a subjective of mission and a desired to go, where we just realized yeah, it'd be comfortable to stay. But we're going to be miserable if we do, because the Lord called us to go.
Dave Owens: I know your story pretty well. We spent many camping trips talking about our own pasts, and our journeys, our suffering. When you landed in Chattanooga, you and Rachel, fresh off a call to plant a church. You took that courageous step to move to a new city and embed yourself in a new culture. It's just a big moment of transition in your life. I think of Abraham and some of the transitions that he took on his journey to the Promised Land, right, into working his way through what God would have him do in his life. And many of them involve lots of waiting. And then all of a sudden there's these big moments of change and transition where God shows up and says it's time to go, and you go, and you land in this new place. And I know it was a hard season, and so, tell us about what happened when you guys landed in Chattanooga those early months and kind of that first year.
Rusty McKie: I think the first initial wave of emotion was kind of some disenchantment and some disappointment. We started praying and thinking about church planting 2006. And then we moved in 2012. So six years of praying and planning and moving towards this. And I think subconsciously I just had this idea in my mind that when we got there that I would feel like we had arrived, and I don't think I would have verbalized this. I think I felt like the waiting would be over, and we moved. And then I was like, okay, now there's work to do. And oh, by the way, there's no church. There's just me and my wife and a couple of people that we've managed to convince to come along with us on this crazy journey.
And so we found ourselves like Oh we're here doing this but our are still waiting. And I think it was a pretty profound lesson for me that in life we're always waiting. We think that if we can just get to a certain point then we won't have that delayed gratification. But it's like no, waiting is always, by God's wisdom, interwoven into every part of our lives in order to cause us to depend on him. So that was a hard lesson, immediately.
And we moved January 7 of 2012, and just a couple days into being here, on January 11 of 2012, we miscarried our first child. And so that was definitely not what we expected or how we had planned on starting our church planting journey, to basically still have boxes to unpack and to head to the ER in the middle of the night in a city where we knew about four people. So that was a big shock for us. Obviously it was a big blow for us.
In addition to that I mean we had decided as a couple to hold off on having kids to get through seminary and to get to the stage of planting a church quicker, and so to hold off on starting our family to then lose our first child couple days into our church plant was a pretty disorienting experience for us.
Dave Owens: As you guys moved through the winter, Rusty, what was that first season like? Did it get better? Did things get worse? Stay the same? I mean what was it like those next few months after that?
Rusty McKie: I think it kind of stayed the same in the sense that we had this lingering grief. But we also had just a lot of work to do, and so we just kind of had to get busy and get after it. I look back on that season and if you would ask me how I was doing it, I would say I was doing OK. Hanging in there. But looking back, I was stressed to the max. I wasn't very self aware of how much stress and pressure I was feeling, as essentially, I was just trying to network with anyone and everyone who would listen to see who would want to join us in this kingdom work. And so for the rest of 2012 we just worked really hard, my wife and I, in order to find folks to join us and being part of our launch team, to help us. By God's grace, we were able to get pregnant fairly quickly with our son, Justice, who's now five years old. And so that was definitely a joy in the midst of that season.
But that led us into 2013, by that point we were able to see our church grow, to grow to not just having one community group that we started with, but having two in our city, where we were basically trying to instill this culture in our church from the get go that being a Christian is not just going to an event on Sunday morning, but being a part of the Kingdom of God means that we live the Christian life together Monday through Sunday.
And then from those two groups we were able to launch on Easter of 2013. And it was crazy, I mean our son was born on January 9 of 2013, which was just such a grace from God. He actually came three weeks early, and so as we think through the timeline there, on January 11 when we were mourning the year anniversary of losing our first child, we were in the hospital with our son and God's kindness to us in that was unfathomable, it was just incredible. So that was January 11. And then on January 20, just a couple of days later, we had our first preview service to start the process of launching Sunday services. So that was a pretty busy season.
So yeah, we started our preview services January 20, and then we were able to launch weekly services on Easter of 2013. And the following Thursday got a call in the middle of the night that my wife's younger brother had unexpectedly passed away. No warning sign no way to prepare for that. And so we got our newborn son in the car and we headed to South Carolina. And so our second week of weekly services we were not there because we were at a funeral for my brother-in-law.
And so that whole season was just insane. It was this crazy mixture of amazing highs of Jesus bringing life, but then also just really crazy lows and the contrast of death, just in our face. And then again, from there, when we got back to Chattanooga, we had to get back to it. I mean, we had a brand new young church. There weren't a ton of leaders at that time, we were very much in the phase of leadership development. And so, just had to get back to it. And that has been something that we have as a family been processing for the past five years, and I think it will be another decade for us to fully wrap our souls around that season.
So the Lord definitely took us through some pretty intense suffering right off the bat, which it's interesting, before we left, one of the pastors in Louisville said something that he sees in me that I needed to grow in sobriety. It was pretty prophetic that from the get go, the Lord began the work of sobering me up to the pain and the suffering of life. I think I'm a pretty optimistic person and I can always look on the positive side of things. And while I had experience suffering at that point in my life, I don't think I'd spirits really deep suffering. So in order to church plant, in order to pastor well, in order to connect with suffering people, I think what he meant by sobriety was that I needed ... I just needed to suffer some. And that is what Jesus took us through. And it has, it has been painful, but it has definitely given me a little gravitas as older theologians used to say, a little more depth and an approachability for suffering people that you can't learn in seminary.
Dave Owens: I think the Lord's really worked in you that suffering, and in your wife, Rachel, and in your church plant, I can see it in you, I can see it in her. I can see it in the people that you're raising up as leaders and elders of Sojourn Church there in Chattanooga. What's your posture towards the suffering now that you're five years into the plant? Are you thankful for it? Are you sober about it? Expecting more, in the middle of different seasons of suffering now?
Rusty McKie: Yeah, for sure. I definitely recognize that that's part of the job description of being a pastor, and that when you plant churches and you're seeking to reach the lost, the unchurched, and the over-churched, that there are obviously spiritual forces at play in the midst of all that as well, there's a warfare going on that it's not a flesh and blood of spiritual powers and principalities, and so. So I wholeheartedly expect more of that. I do pray and hope that as we enter into more suffering in the future, that Jesus will continue to help me to learn how to suffer well.
Dave Owens: So tell me about the other side of the equation. Where do you think, Rusty, God has surprised you guys as a family and as a church with experiences of joy.
Rusty McKie: We celebrated our five year birthday just this past Sunday, so about a week ago and it was overwhelming to me to think about the church that we were dreaming up in our heads when we moved here in 2012 and the church that is now in existence in Chattanooga. And this is mind blowing to me, that the dream that we had is here. The Lord gave us those dreams, the Lord gave us that vision. And Jesus has built his church and it has come about, and it's also mind blowing and that it is so much better than I could have ever imagined. The particular leaders that the Lord has brought us and allowed us to develop and to raise up, the members of our church, people whose lives have been changed by the Gospel, it's just so amazing to see how much this church means to the people who are part of it. How much they love it.
And yeah I mean ultimately just the joy of being on that front line of ministry, like of course that's hard. And I think we can obviously focus on the difficulties of doing frontline, new works like this, but there's also such a joy in being able to have that front row seat into seeing Jesus change people's lives. To see Jesus take those who are not Christians, to bring them to the place where they are Christians, and then to see them grow. I mean, there's a brand new Christian in our church. I met with him just this past week, and he is thriving. Like he is flourishing and as a human being. And he is sharing Jesus with his non-Christian friends and bringing them to church. And it's just, it's incredible.
And then also to see the over-churched, which there are so many people who have been hurt and wounded in Chattanooga. To see our church full of people who were cynical and suspicious of the church to now love and value and to view it as vital to their walk with Jesus. There is nothing more satisfying than that. I mean, church planting, for me, has been much like marriage, in the sense of it is the hardest thing I've ever done and it is the best thing that I've ever done. And I would do it a thousand times over. At this point, I would say that.
Dave Owens: So how do you stay human in the midst of all this Kingdom work. You know. that's one of the things I love about you. You're a joyful personality, adventurous, you have tons of hobbies. And you just don't forget that hey, I'm still just a person.
Rusty McKie: Yeah.
Dave Owens: So what are the things that you've learned to enjoy about a Chattanooga, about your own interests and passions and hobbies, that keep you grounded and keep you experiencing joy in the little things in life, and maybe and some days in some seasons of life, keep you sane as well?
Rusty McKie: The first several years of planting a church, I was pretty consumed by it. And I thought a good bit about this, of is there another way to do that? And I don't know the answer to that question. When you start a church, there's just so much work that you have to do, that I don't know if there's any way to not be consumed by the work.
But I did realize pretty quickly on that if I keep up that pace, then I'm not going to do this forever, like I'm not going to be able to maintain that pace. And so there's definitely been a transition that probably started around year three for me, where I just began to realize I'm kind of slowly dying on the inside. I'm working really hard to prepare a gospel feast for other people, and I'm trying to live off the crumbs that are falling from the table, and became pretty clear to me that that needed to change if I was to continue to be faithful, and if I was to stay qualified.
And so, for me personally, that looked like really being consistent and growing in discipline, in spiritual disciplines. I wish, man, Dave, I wish that I could say that I'm consistent spiritual disciplines because I'm a disciplined person. But in fact, that's not true. I'm consistent in my spiritual disciplines because I'll die if I don't. You know? I just ... I've come to a place my life where I have to have that time, or else my inner life, my emotional life, my thought life, it doesn't go well for me.
And then in addition to prioritizing spiritual disciplines, I think having activities that promote exercise has become very important to me. Having activities that gives me the opportunity to have fun, and to realize, you know what? The world and the Kingdom of God is so much bigger than our little church here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. What we're doing for Jesus, yes I wholeheartedly believe that's very important. But at the end of the day if I can get some activities it gets me out of nature. I can enjoy watching a film, as good art, if I can have these little moments where I can escape from kind of the tunnel vision of church planting, to step back and see Hey, the world is full of wonder and awe, and God is amazing, and His world is beautiful and creative. That has helped me keep my sanity, so that I don't just focus in on what we're doing and get eaten alive by it in the process.
So yeah some as you mentioned I used to say that my hobby was acquiring new hobbies. Definitely like to enjoy learning new things experiencing new things. Obviously with children, a bride, a church plant, a church that I'm leading. I've had to narrow those hobbies down, had to whittle that down to a couple. So yeah, I love backpacking. Chattanooga has been ranked number one outdoor city in the country by Outdoor magazine for several years in a row. There's plenty of opportunities to get out and nature.
And so I love backpacking into the wilderness. I love film. I love watching pretty much anything that I can. I enjoy reading. I enjoy woodworking, that's been pretty helpful for me because a lot of my work is ongoing and undone. And so to be able to work on a project around our house, to start it and complete it, and look at it and say, "I did that, and it's done," is a pretty satisfying feeling for me. And I've heard folks say if you work with your mind you should rest with your hands, kind of a deal, if you work with your hands, then you should rest with your mind. That's definitely been a helpful paradigm for me in thinking through that stuff, as well.
Dave Owens: Yeah, I've watched you do that. You've actually invited me into some of the stuff, going camping with you, experience your love of movies and food, and the Chattanooga culture. You love it there, and it's really become home for you.
Rusty McKie: Yeah, I mean we love Chattanooga, and we don't know what the Lord has for us obviously, but we would love to be buried here, if that's what the award would have for us.
Dave Owens: Let me ask you this, Rusty. You're in Sojourn Network. You've been part of Sojourn Network since the beginning of your church plant. Why did you go with Sojourn Network, and really what is it meant to be part of Sojourn Network as a family of churches?
Rusty McKie: Man, I love the Sojourn Network. It was a natural move for us to be part of the Sojourn Network, because it was a birthed out of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville. And that was the church that we were sent out of. It's just good to not be alone. It's amazing to be in a network where there are other men who are farther along than us. That's both humbling, for us to remember that we haven't arrived and that to a large degree like our successes are because others have gone before us. We're standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.
But it's just also helpful in the camaraderie of that, and so to be able to hop on the phone with other guys in the network, and say, "Hey, these are challenges that we're working through in our church. What have you guys done, how have you handled those challenges?"
And then also at the personal level, I think back to 2016, where I was really struggling with depression, to be able to hop on the phone with other pastors who had been there and who understand, and they could help me. They could lead me and guide me by the hand out of that was just incredibly beneficial.
So, we've loved being a part of the network. Yeah, we don't get to necessarily drive and hang out with other guys in the network, because churches are not quite close enough to us to do that. But the network has provided some structure for a relationship with other pastors who are like-minded, who have the same passion to see Jesus become famous in our cities, in our country, in our world. And then yeah, they can just walk alongside of us.
Dave Owens: Before I let you run and we signed off, can you give me two or three really specific prayer requests? We can be praying for you, your family, or Sojourn church.
Rusty McKie: Yeah. I think for our family we just continue to pray and long for more children. And so, we've definitely, by God's grace, been able to have a daughter here recently, she's turned 1 in May, which is incredible. We also struggled with some infertility, and so definitely would love to see the Lord grant us the ability to have more kids, if that's what he wants, and so we see a lot of wisdom there.
And as far as for our church goes, we really are in a season where we focused a lot over the past five years and established a loving community that really has emphasized grace and understanding the grace of God in our lives, that he is the one who equips us to do everything that we do, and it's not us and it's all Him. And now we're kind of transitioning into a season of alongside, not throwing away grace, not stopping our emphasis on that, but in addition to really emphasizing the grit of the Gospel, and what does it look like for us to be spirit empowered witnesses like we see in Acts, who go out, and who are zealous, and who are passionate about seeing folks in our city come to know Jesus.
And so, I think praying for the years ahead, one of our prayers is that we would be able to be a church that is all about the Jesus saying [inaudible 00:32:54] my burden is light. But we would also be a church who fully, wholeheartedly embraces Jesus' called pick up our crosses daily, and to follow him recognizing that when we're last, we'll be first. So that'd be a big prayer request for Sojourn in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Mike Cosper: Thank you, Rusty, for sharing your story. This is Sojourn Network. It's a production of The Narrativo Group. You can learn more about us at narrativogroup.com. Today's episode was recorded by Mark Owens. It was edited by T.J. Hester. It was mixed and produced by me. Our music is from Sojourn Music.
Thanks again for listening, and we'll see you with another episode in a couple of weeks.