The Road of Our Becoming
Atlanta Christian Church is a Stadia church plant that launched in 2004. Current lead pastor, Derek Sweatman, wrote the following post after reflecting on what he and ACC have learned after 15 years as a church.
On Super Bowl Sunday, our church turned fifteen years old. Our building is a few blocks from Mercedes-Benz Stadium – and the neighborhood had been closed for a week in preparation for the big game – so we never even met for worship that day. A forgotten birthday, like Sixteen Candles (minus a year).
We talk about our fifteen years in terms of days:
The “Strip Club Days”
The “Theater Days”
The “Peachtree Road Days”
The “Downtown Days”
If your church has met in a number of locations across the years, you know what I mean. Each place we land is a stop on “the road of our becoming.” We look back to see what it was that God was doing in each location, and how what happened in “those days” reshaped our congregations. And us pastors, too.
When my friend John Wasem asked me to write this reflection, it meant me looking back on our days here in Atlanta and finding the things that have mattered most in the life of our church across these fifteen years. Naturally, I started with a list of wins: the baptism numbers; the total dollars given to mission and justice work; the small groups we’ve launch; the homes we’ve built; the church we planted; the art we’ve made; you know, all the fun stuff.
I’m grateful to have been around long enough to see all those things (and more) happen in the life of our church, but what has mattered more to me – and to my team – have not been the ways God was evident in the extraordinary times, but in how God has shown himself to be near and active in the day-to-day ordinary and unseen rhythms of ministry. The long stretches of nothingness – of no one singing, no one getting baptized, no one signing up to serve, no one asking us how we’re doing – have been the most formative for me and my team. It turns out that deep-rooted discipleship is not defined by so much by the “mountaintop experiences” (which are rare, at best), but in the quiet and ordinary rhythms of daily living. Joan Chittister, O.S.B., in her book, The Liturgical Year, writes:
It is what we do routinely, not what we do rarely, that delineates the character of a person. It is what we believe in the heart of us that determines what we do daily. It is what we bring to the nourishment of the soul we nurture. It’s what we do ordinarily, day by day, that gives intimation of what we will do under stress. It is the daily – the way we act ordinarily, not rarely, that defines us as either kind, or angry, or faithful, or constant.
Every church has its own story, its own folklore around the experiences that have given it its shape and voice. And what’s out there among the congregations in the cities and towns and rural communities of our nation is not a monolith, but a patchwork of localized testimonies of God’s workings in the life of each parish, each with its own wins and losses. For many, the wins are the defining factors for a church’s health. For us, it’s been the losses. We are more ordinary than amazing. We don’t have the buildings or the campuses or the book deals or the songs you want for your church; instead, we have the lines on our faces, and the scars on our hearts from the road we have traveled. And that road “has made all the difference” for us.
We’ve learned to love the moment we’re in, and to know value of pastoral presence over any sort of need to build a platform or legacy of success. We are not the model of success, but simply a people who have learned how to fail together. We tell our people often that the church ought to be the safest place to be human, and for us, that mantra comes from experience, not vision.
Across all these years, God has remained on the job. The baptisms. The baby dedications. The skeptics who keep coming. The Jewish people who stand in line for communion. The deaf homeless men who come early to help set up and then play cards during the service. The people who have overcome addiction. Blind Willie Johnson was right: “God don’t never change.”
May the joy you know in success be familiar to you in failure.
Grace and peace.
Derek Sweatman is the lead pastor of Atlanta Christian Church, a downtown parish in the city of Atlanta, GA. Derek and his wife of 24 years have two children (7 and 17), a pug named Yoda, and a home on Peachtree Road in the heart of the city. He is a Grateful Dead fan, and has a tattoo of Jerry Garcia’s face on his ankle. In addition to pastoring ACC, he is also an adjunct professor of Biblical Studies at Point University.Derek Sweatman