Jesus For All
We are United Church in Owings Mills, Maryland! Owings Mills is in the Northwest corner of Baltimore County. From a distance, our community probably looks like a typical suburban, middle class area, but just as every community has its own personality, ours has a unique culture with both great blessings and real challenges for planting a new church. We started United Church just over two years ago after Owings Mills was identified as an area in need of unity-promoting, life-giving church communities. With 160,000 people in a five mile radius not going to any church, we realized that many people in this area are not connected to Jesus.
Personally, Tim (lead pastor) and I (Maria) moved to Maryland with our five children after doing ministry in New Jersey for ten years. We were introduced to a movement in Baltimore called Move Northeast whose goal is to see new churches planted as the primary way of reaching the lost. Tim met David Robinson from Community Christian Church in White Marsh, MD, and with a shared vision he completed a church plant residency there. This was and continues to be a huge transition for our family as we left our church, our friends, and all familiarity behind in New Jersey. We had to cling to the promises of Jesus to have faith for this transition. While here on earth, he said, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29 ESV)
United Church is first and foremost all about Jesus- Jesus for the lost and Jesus for the saved, Jesus for the broken and Jesus for the healed, Jesus for the churched, the dechurched, and the unchurched. Jesus for every ethnicity, race, and economic station. Jesus for children, teens, young adults, mature adults and everyone in between. In case that leaves anyone out…Jesus for all! Our main priority is that believers would be UNITED around Christ in order to provide a place for skeptics and unbelievers to experience and connect with God and Christian community while we all serve our larger community together. Jesus said it best when he prayed for his disciples then, as well as all those who came after, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17: 22-23 ESV) Our primary means for accomplishing this oneness begins with a weekly Sunday worship experience. Incorporating both traditional aspects of church like worship through song, prayer, and preaching of God’s Word and more contemporary ideas like having fun at church, getting rid of any “churchy” exclusiveness, and sermons that are not only informational but practical and applicable, we have tried to create a space where all can come and experience God’s presence in a meaningful way. Recently, we left the church building for a Sunday to accomplish this a different way. Rather than meet for a worship service, United gathered at a local grocery store to serve two schools and our Community Crisis Center by buying groceries for food insecure families who are reached by these organizations. Of course, we celebrated this event United style in the parking lot with coffee and food, loud music, games, and fun. Not only did God move on people’s hearts to buy over $7,000 in groceries, but we packed the food into boxes alongside volunteers from the two schools. As people from our church family chatted and connected with these volunteers from the community as well as with grocery store employees and anyone else who joined us to drop off food donations or check out the fun, “church” was happening in a grocery store parking lot! We also focus on semester based small groups that allow people to dig deeper into the Bible and to form stronger relationships within the church and as another space for including those not yet sold on the idea of attending a church.
Surprisingly, the greatest blessings of our region may also present the greatest challenges for creating a unified, life giving body of people focused on Jesus. In coming here, we learned that Owings Mills was a place to which people migrated in the 1980’s from Baltimore City as some became interested in and able to make their way to the suburbs. So although some of the area has a long history, much of it is newer. Even more recently the area has added Foundry Row, Metro Center, and other developments for increased retail, apartments, a better community college campus, and restaurants. New developments such as these give some sense of centrality, but many people still have ties to their families and churches in the city and continue to attend church there. Whereas we hope that these churches flourish and continue working to transform lives in the city, it keeps those who go to church there but live here from attending and inviting people to United or other local churches in our community. Also, though there have been good attempts by churches and community organizations at creating a sense of community in some of the new areas, there isn’t really a main street or hub where people gather for events. This presents a challenge when trying to find ways to meet and reach people in a larger way in the community.
The greatest blessing of our area, in my opinion, is its unique diversity. At the school where we meet every Sunday, it is said that thirty different languages are represented among students. The demographic research says that the population of Owings Mills is about 50% African American, about 25% Caucasian, and about 9% hispanic or latino. ( www.datausa.io ) Also, the economic diversity in the community is evident. In some shopping areas in town, one could see players from the Baltimore Ravens and their families who make millions of dollars each year ,as well as homeless people asking for food or money or looking for the refuge of a warm space or a bathroom to use. The social, economic, and racial diversity in our area provides United with excellent opportunities to try to truly welcome every person as unique, valuable, and necessary to Jesus’ mission. It gives each person the chance to fellowship with both those who are similar to and different from himself or herself. This is good practice for heaven where the innumerable multitude worshiping Jesus will be “from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages.” (Revelation 7:9 ESV) The challenge is hidden within the blessing. God has made it clear that he wants all his children to be one, but humans are prone to divide ourselves up for reasons of convenience, bias, preference, and familiarity. In Owings Mills and surrounding towns, among Christians, one can find small traditional denominational churches, Messianic Jewish congregations, African churches, Spanish-speaking churches, and many more small, specifically categorized places to worship Jesus. All of our beautiful differences can make it difficult to bring people together to form a unified and varied people. It is comfortable and easy to keep our own preferences, styles of music, and unique church cultures, and it is easy to see why many churches do not reflect the diversity of our area. At United, our hope is that our local church would represent the community in all of the areas of diversity and bring all types of people together to represent and worship the One who is Lord of all. This necessitates that everyone think outside of our own ideas, preferences, and methods to maintain unity while valuing diversity. We are still trying to figure out ways to do better at this to keep moving toward this goal.
In addition to the challenges specific to our area, United also faces the challenges most common to church plants, like attendance, burn out, and spiritual attack. We hold our Sunday service at a public high school in the area. Our volunteers spend many hours setting up and tearing down pipe and drape, instruments, rugs, cords, a baptismal, and TV screens to transform a public school into a warm and welcoming environment for people to worship God or to meet Him for the first time. This is not an easy task, and doing it week after week, month after month, can take a toll on even the best volunteer teams. Our staff works tirelessly making sure the Sunday meeting reaches the goals that we have set to create a fun, engaging atmosphere where adults and children alike can encounter God without the formalities and religious restrictions that have turned so many people away from church and from God. Our area of the country is like most other areas in that people have many things they would like to do on Sundays. From sports to relaxation to house projects, our culture demands that Sunday be a self-focused day of fun and fulfillment. This makes Sunday attendance a weekly challenge. Tim jokes sometimes that when you build a church for people who don’t go to church, they don’t go to church! Awareness of spiritual attack is also a constant battle. Those who try to reach the lost and follow Jesus will face the enemy’s advances as he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. As wife of a lead pastor and church planter, I feel this most in our family. As we face the struggles of daily life, we are “pressed on every side” by one who wishes to destroy us and divide us.
Ultimately though, a summary of our church and our area would not be complete without introducing the world to some of the greatest people we have ever met! While there are many challenges to church planting, the people who attend and volunteer at United are inspiring, caring, and passionate. In the Psalms, David told God, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you. As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” (Psalm 16: 2-3) The people of God and those he is pursuing for salvation are the delight of church planting! I think of Kim who greets us on Sunday mornings with a beautiful smile. Even though her story is one of much suffering, she is full of faith in Jesus and full of the Holy Spirit, always ready with a Bible verse and a word of encouragement for those who are struggling. I think of John who wants to volunteer every Sunday setting up. He too has had troubles in life, yet pours out his time to make United an excellent environment while leading his team both practically and spiritually. I think of our college students like Grace who not only loves God’s word but loves to share his word with our children as she skillfully corrals a lively group of 5-6 year olds every week in United Kids. I think of our (Tim and my) children who have fully embraced the mission of church planting, faithfully volunteering in many different roles on Sundays as well as carrying United on their hearts the other six days a week. I think of the glorious baptisms! Though a humble cow trough is the portable baptismal, many people have taken the plunge, professing their faith in Christ with a desire to publicly live as people belonging to and following God. Several of these baptisms were launch team kids who have seen first hand the blessings and sacrifices of church planting. Many have been adults who wandered from God at some point and have reconnected with Christ as their own fire of faith was stirred again after coming to United. And there are others who are just starting a relationship with God and after being pursued by Him can not resist the joy of identifying with their newly found Savior! I think of Geh, who leads a prayer small group. He has taught many by example the power of change that is available when we call on our powerful God. I think of launch team members who continue to drive long distances even after two years of volunteering because they love United and are committed to God’s mission in Owings Mills. Trey and Kristin and their four kids make the trek from New Jersey nearly every week to serve in music ministry and in United Kids. Tilea and her girls, Kilea and Sinaya left a church they loved and drive across town every week to welcome new visitors and serve in kids ministry with smiles and hugs that show the love of Jesus to whoever they meet.
I could go on forever about the people of United. I think of our staff who have cheerfully worked and served constantly for over two years to see people connect to God, and of our newest staff member Travian who has a pulse on our city and our teens and preaches in a skillful and relevant way (which also gives Tim a break from preaching every week while faithfully leading the church). Each face at United represents a story, a life that Jesus has impacted, and a person who has decided to partner with us, and we are grateful for each one and feel privileged to share this time of our lives with this church family. So, church planting in the North East…it is hard, but it is good. It is tiring, but it is necessary. And every soul brought to God and every person encouraged in their journey with Christ through the small part we are playing in Jesus’ mission is worth all of our time and efforts to create a place where these eternal connections can happen.
Maria is married to lead pastor Tim Wolf and is mom of five awesome kids. She has been serving in ministry alongside her husband since they met in college on a short term missions trip. She currently spends most of her time homeschooling their children. On Sundays she loves to help out as one of the worship leaders at United Church and in United Kids.