Gideon’s fleece goes high tech

PEARLAND Gideon had his fleece. Pastor Chris Clemons had his cell phone, Google maps, Facebook and a book recommendation. Both men had questions. Both had the ear of a patient and gracious God.

About 120 new straight-backed, black vinyl-covered chairs filled the sanctuary-in-the-making at The Way of Life Church in Pearland, Texas. Most still had the protective plastic sheeting wrapped around them. On Oct. 29, the 3-year-old, multi-racial church plant was months into a relocation and renovation gone awry and days from its first worship service in the new location. Clemons pulled up one of the few chairs freed from the plastic covering to the audio-visual table in the back of the room.

“This past summer was the most difficult. This. This,” he said, gesturing to the unfinished work in the room. “Obviously, it’s not the place of faith you’re supposed to be in but, humanly speaking, you just feel like, ‘O.K. God. Am I failing you?’”

What’s “This?”

Five days before celebrating their first worship service in the new location on Nov. 3, expensive renovation setbacks had left a hole in the church budget and a new construction crew scrambling to turn the former gym into a church.

Finding rental space in Pearland, at a price they could afford, was the result of prayer and a diligent search. But, despite the fact that Clemons and a team of church members scrutinized contract bids for renovation work, the church lost thousands of dollars when the builder did not complete the work.

“We got bit,” Clemons said. “And here we are.”

Getting “here” was a 16-year process. Clemons kept a good-humored sense of perspective as he recounted the journey.

In 2003 Clemons was the “main breadwinner” in the family when, with the backing of his wife Tracy, he quit his job as a chemist and lab manager to enroll at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Losing income and increasing expenses. That doesn’t sound wise,” Clemons told the TEXAN. He laughed recalling the audacity of the endeavor and the faith that sustained them.

By 2004 Clemons, who is African-American, was hired by Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, near downtown Houston. He called his job title the “etcetera pastor”—serving various roles, including as youth and executive pastor.

His time there provided the new pastor with experience he needed but could not have anticipated. In 2009, their daughter Kaylan was born with debilitating birth defects and died within two months. The church’s ministry to his family made Clemons a more empathetic pastor, he said. The couple has a teenage daughter and adult son.

As Clemons felt drawn to pastor a church of his own, Tracy suggested he consider planting a church. Their pastor agreed and quietly supported the endeavor as Clemons continued to serve at Good Hope and search for a location to start a new church.

Clemons had no doubt he was called to pastor. Where he should do that work took convincing by God.

What seems reasonable to man

Raised in Houston and with affiliations in the petrochemical industry, Clemons reasoned that the northeast side of town near the Houston Ship Channel would be an ideal location for a new church. But that was his idea, not God’s, Clemons confessed.

So in the summer of 2015, he fasted and prayed for 21 days seeking God’s will.

“And at the end of 21 days, nothing,” he said.

Frustrated, yet determined, Clemons recalled that some Good Hope members had told him they would join him if he ever decided to plant a church. He checked the church database and discovered they lived in “kind of a cone” southwest of Houston.

He then reasoned that a growing area would need a new church. A Google search for “fast-growing” regions around Houston gave him Pearland to the southwest; Katy to the west; and Kingwood, just north of New Hope’s downtown Houston location.

Was God directing him to Pearland? Clemons needed more confirmation. He posted a question on Facebook asking Good Hope members who could join a missional group if he started it in Pearland, Katy or Kingwood. He included northeast Houston because he was “still hanging on to that.”

“Thirty people responded,” he said. “And 27 of them said Pearland.”

Laying out the fleece

Clemons insisted that was not a “definitive” answer and laid out his fleece.

“I said, ‘God, if you want me to plant your church in Pearland, just tell me. Give me anything from Pearland today: if I get a letter from Pearland, someone calls me from Pearland—we’re going to plant in Pearland,” he said.

That morning, Barry Calhoun, who then served as an SBTC church planting associate, arrived unannounced at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church asking if anyone on staff knew of someone interested in planting a church as part of the convention’s Reach Houston campaign.

“So, we went out to lunch and my ears are just waiting. ‘Ok. Just say Pearland. Just say Pearland,’” Clemons said. “He never said Pearland. So, again, my shoulders just kind of slumped.”

Clemons asked if Reach Houston included Pearland. Calhoun told him it did and recommended he read a book called Planting Fast-Growing Churches.

Back at the office Clemons checked Amazon’s used book selections for the title. And there, listed between Goodwill and Tree of Life Books, was Pearland Book Company. That was Oct. 7, 2015. Clemons saved the image of the search result on his phone as a reminder that God still dampens fleeces.

With the blessing, financial support and 34 of its own members, Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church released Clemons in 2016 to launch The Way of Life Church. The congregation soon outgrew its first location in a retirement center and moved to an elementary school in Manvel—not in Pearland, but nearby.

There, church growth stagnated. Set back in a neighborhood with no visible signs of its existence, the church also sat in the shadow of a megachurch only blocks away. Door-to-door outreach revealed many in the neighborhood attended that church.

Last year, with their 2-year lease due to expire, The Way of Life congregation scaled back on its outreach, assuming they would lose some members in the transition to their current location in Pearland.

“The interesting thing is, we started to grow by word of mouth. We started getting people from the neighborhood when we weren’t doing anything,” Clemons said.

But preparation of the new building stalled. Contracted work was not completed and the new contractor (whom Clemons praised) discovered damage that needed repairing before renovations could continue.

Support from local and far-flung churches, the regional association and the SBTC sustained the church during difficult transition. Through the renovation debacle, the 116-member congregation—that includes the original 34 members—has remained faithful. 

“The good thing about our church family,” Clemons said, “[is] let’s say we lost everything and we had to meet in a backyard. The majority of them would show up and meet in the backyard.”

That, he said, has been the best part of the journey.

“I’ve just been able to witness so much faith. It’s been almost overwhelming.” 

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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