Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Church Pioneering in the Jackson Purchase

Aerial view of Murray KY, 2005

By Robin G. Jordan

When I arrived in Murray, Kentucky, the first thing that I did after finding an apartment was to find a new church plant in which I could become involved. My search led me to the Journey, a new church plant that held its worship gatherings on the campus of Murray State University. I initially contacted the lead pastor by email and he sent me a prospectus on the Journey. I then attended the weekly meeting of one of the Journey’s small groups then called Life Teams.

Murray is located in westernmost Kentucky, in what is known as the Jackson Purchase. The region is separated from the rest of the Commonwealth of Kentucky by the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and Barclay Lake and Kentucky Lake. The two lakes were formed when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the two rivers. The inland peninsula created by the rivers and the lakes is known as the Land Between the Lakes and is a National Recreational Area. Kentucky also has four state recreational parks on the two lakes. The region is largely rural. Its largest city is Paducah, located in the north-west corner of the Jackson Purchase, at the confluence of the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers.

I had been spending summer vacations, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in the region since the 1970s.

Murray is the 22-largest city in Kentucky. It is the seat of Calloway County, The city's population was 17,741 at the time of the 2010 U.S. census and its micropolitan area's population was 37,191. Murray is home to Murray State University.  

Murray’s largest employers include Briggs and Stratton, Morning Star Foods, Parr, and the university.  

Murray has roughly 75 religious assemblies representing various faiths. They include an Episcopal church, an Islamic center and mosque, and a Roman Catholic church.

The predominant faith is Baptist. Murray has 25 Baptist churches.

Almost all the communities in Calloway County have a Baptist church or two, a Church of Christ church, and a Methodist church. The countryside is also dotted with Cumberland Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches as well as Baptist, Church of Christ, and Methodist churches.

More than 60% of the population of the county, however, is unchurched.  This includes the population of Murray.

The Journey was launched on September 11, 2005 with 128 people in attendance at its first worship gathering. A group of young people—some MSU students and some former MSU students—saw the need for a church that would reach and engage the area’s unchurched population. The group’s leader and the church’s founding pastor was the son of a local Baptist pastor and a MSU graduate who had served as the youth pastor of a church in Colorado. This group would form themselves into the nucleus of a launch team for the new church. Additional members of the team were recruited.

The Purpose-Driven Launch Large approach was used to launch the new church.With the help of his father the founding pastor would obtain funding for the launch from a local association of Southern Baptist churches in the area. After an intensive publicity campaign, they held the first worship gathering in the Curris Center at MSU.

The Journey embodies the principles for streamlining the discipleship process, which Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger laid out in their book Simple Church. It follows the “Foyer to Kitchen” discipleship process that Andy Stanley used at Northpoint Community Church.  Newcomers move from the environment of the worship gathering to the environment of the ministry team to environment of the small group.

The Journey would grow from one Sunday worship gathering at the Calloway campus to two. It is considering starting a third worship gathering at that campus but is still working on the logistics. It would also grow from one campus to two, starting a second campus in neighboring Benton in Marshall County.

The Calloway campus in 2014 had an average weekly attendance of 373 people. 203 people were active in ministry teams and 167 participated in small groups. The Benton campus in the same year had an average weekly attendance of 44 people. 30 people were active in ministry teams and 21 participated in small groups. 55 people from both campuses took part in mission projects.

The average attendance of its Family Ministry in 2014 was 97 children and students—86 at its Calloway campus and 11 at its Benton campus. The Family Ministry works hard to make the various activities for children and students both enjoyable and edifying. If children and students have fun while they are learning, they will want to return the following Sunday. A number of parents are now attending the Journey because their children could not wait to return to the Journey.

The Journey’s Family Ministry embodies the Orange strategy in which the Family Ministry and the parents work together to have greater impact upon the child.

The Journey is a mobile church. It has no building of its own. It has no plans to buy property and construct a building or buy an existing buildng. It uses the facilities of MSU’s Curris Center for its Family Ministry and worship gatherings, renting the space for use on Sundays only. Early Sunday morning teams of volunteers do setup for the worship gathering, the Family Ministry, the Journey Café, and the information kiosk. Different teams of volunteers do teardown afterwards.

I am presently involved in the setup, operation, and teardown of the Journey Café. We serve bottled water; Starbucks Coffee, a dark roast and a medium roast; eight different kinds of tea; three kinds of granola bars, and bananas. We have also served donuts, bagels with spreads, apples, and breakfast cookies. During the cold months we serve hot chocolate. We began serving a light breakfast free of charge because a sizable number of the Journey’s attendees are students who live in the university’s residence halls and eat their meals at the university’s cafeteria. On Sundays the cafeteria only serves late brunch rather than breakfast and lunch.

The Journey Café is a part of the church’s guest ministry which includes an information kiosk and a cadre of greeters who are stationed in the parking lot, at building entrances, and throughout the building.

The music mix at the Journey’s worship gatherings is contemporary worship songs with some new arrangements of the older gospel songs. Its worship team includes a number of musicians and vocalists who serve on a rotating basis. Instruments include guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. They have included box drum, djembe, and violin.

The worship style is contemporary. The leadership team made a decision to eliminate from the worship gatherings everything that is associated with traditional worship. This is predicated in part on belief that one of the reason that people do not attend church is due to a negative experience at a traditional church. The decision was made to get rid of anything that might evoke memories of this experience or create associations in first time guests’ mind between the Journey and the traditional church where they had a negative experience. Traditional worship is also believed to put off those who not come from a church background because it is different from everything with which they are familiar.

The congregation is multi-generational and multiracial.

Dress is casual.

The Journey supports a number of ministries to impoverished and orphaned children in Central America and South Africa. Its local mission partners include the Needline—a community food bank, the Family Resource Center, Habitat for Humanity, CASA, and Pathway—a tutoring and mentoring program for children.. It also takes part in the local backpack food program and purchases winter coats for children.

The Journey also sponsors campus events. The most recent event was War Zone, which provides an opportunity for MSU athletes and coaches to interact with fans of all ages.

The small groups also undertake various community service projects. My previous small group planted a community garden and donated the produce from the garden to the residents of a local housing project. It did yard work for seniors unable to do yard work for themselves. Small groups are encouraged to join other community groups on service projects.

This past Sunday the Journey celebrated its first ten years in existence.

While the Journey originally identified itself as a Baptist church, it has dropped Baptist from its name. When people ask what kind of church the Journey is, they are now told that it is non-denominational. The desire to eliminate or reduce as many obstacles as possible to church attendance for unchurched people was a motivating factor.

Guests rate the Journey highly for the welcome its greeters extend guests; the quality of the music; the relaxed, informal atmosphere; and the relevance of the preaching to their lives.

Older guests do find the volume of the worship music too loud. Another reported problem is bunching, which occurs when attendees form tight groups with their friends and acquaintances and ignore anyone that they do not know. One of the goals of the Journey’s guest ministry is to help people new to the Journey to connect with other newcomers and regular attendees. Unless guests make friends and find a niche for themselves, they are going drift away from the church.

Photo credit: John Myers

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