HOUSTON—In 2009, a group from Humble answered God’s call to begin a new work in urban Houston, where the evangelical influence was lacking and the percentage of residents connected to a church was in the single digits. From their efforts grew Sojourn Houston–a family of church plants in urban Houston.
The original group, led by church planter Joseph Turner, focused their efforts on The Heights neighborhood. Covering about six square miles, The Heights is the oldest suburb of Houston. The area has experienced some revitalization as young professionals are moving from outlying Houston communities to be closer to their jobs.
Sojourn Heights Pastor of Preaching Brandon Barker said, “In urban Houston where we live, we leave the Bible Belt. Our neighbors that we know and love and want to see come to know God are not searching. Our approach to ministry has to be living it out, and being available to people who are not searching for it.”
Marshall Dallas, pastor of preaching at Sojourn Montrose, spent much of his youth as a missionary kid in several European countries. His friend, Sojourn Church Planter Joseph Turner, approached Dallas about coming to help at The Heights church with the goal that he would eventually plant a church somewhere in Europe.
But Sojourn leadership began to envision, “What would it look like if we were multiplying churches in Houston in areas that no one is really taking responsibility for?”
As they considered where to plant, the Montrose area rose to the top. “Montrose is the most progressive community—politically, philosophically, and in world view. Montrose is like Europe in that they are a little ahead—a lot of progressive thought develops in this caldron,” said Dallas.
From that moment, things changed rapidly for Dallas and his family. He sensed that his time in Europe had prepared him for ministry in the Montrose area of Houston. In Oct. 2011, he left his position at Second Baptist Houston and got a job at an Apple store in a Heights mall. In March 2012 Dallas moved his family from Katy into The Heights, and in Nov. 2012 they moved again into the Montrose neighborhood.
A group of Montrose families attending Sojourn Heights joined Dallas to establish a Sojourn presence in Montrose.
“Immediately we began gathering with the smaller group of 10-15 people. Over the course of the year we developed relationships with people in the neighborhood and shared the gospel in word and in deed,” Dallas said. The group grew to about 40 people meeting in two homes.
In October 2013 Sojourn Montrose launched their Sunday morning worship gathering in the loft of a restaurant. Now with 178 Sunday morning worshipers, the Montrose congregation meets in a historic 1935 movie theater.
John Mark Yeats, dean of students and associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, co-authored a book in 2009, Franchising McChurch, Feeding Our Obsession With Easy Christianity. Commenting on current church planting models, Yeats compared Sojourn’s methods to a northwest church planting model called SOMA. “Their whole system was catalytic church growth through the house church—catalytic meaning ‘to move to the next level’.”
Yeats added, “It can be an effective way to rapidly move within a given context.” Rather than a corporate approach to multi-campus ministry, Yeats noted that this is a “bottom-up, working together to build, grow, win and reach the lost” approach.
The stories of other Sojourn Houston campuses echo that of Montrose. A group of individuals or families commuting to an established Sojourn gathering organized a “parish” in their own neighborhood.
“Parish” is the term Sojourn uses for groups meeting in homes. They are the neighborhood level gatherings, doing life together, serving their communities together, and “manifesting the redemptive presence of God to their neighbors,” according to the Sojourn Heights website.
Each parish has a trained leader who resides in the target neighborhood. Barker said, “[Parish leaders] must be parish members first, who serve their parish well. They are identified by their parish leader, then we assess them—their head, their heart, their hands and feet.” A six-week training class follows the assessment.
Unified Teaching and Values, But Unique Opportunities for Ministry
The Sojourn family of churches adheres to a uniform set of core values: strategic church planting, justice and mercy, redeemed family, integration of faith and work, and artistic expression. Those core values may be exercised differently at each campus, according to the needs and unique traits of each neighborhood.
Situated in an arts district near a famous museum, Sojourn Montrose has opportunities to encourage and support artists and their craft. Dallas said, “There are some significant challenges for professional artists—affordable studio space, cost of supplies, and the high commissions charged by galleries to do a show. These artists would have to price their art out of the range of potential customers to make a profit.”
Sojourn Montrose provides space in their facility for an “artist in residency” program for three months and a stipend for art supplies. At the end of the term, the artist in residence conducts a show, keeping 100 percent of the proceeds.
“You get to talk [to them] about the rich history of patronage in the church and how creativity is part of exhibiting the image of God. It is a means to an end—building relationships in the community to share the gospel,” Dallas said.
Sojourn Heights ministry opportunities are currently being influenced by exploding numbers. Andrew Martin, executive director at The Heights, reported that about 400 attend Sunday worship services at The Heights, and 48 infants were added to their nursery in 2017.
In response to that challenge, they have purchased a vacant historic building adjacent to their present worship center. After much renovation, the new building will become the worship center, and the current building will be converted to space for children.
While building ownership typically is not a priority of church planting efforts, Sojourn Houston felt the need to accommodate additional children’s ministries and men’s and women’s discipleship ministries, as they have established roots in The Heights.
Yeats commented, “We see it all the time for churches who desire to remain flexible. As God establishes them, they root into their community for the long term—either through a purchase or a lease. It works. In our area we have churches meeting all kinds of places, but ultimately will be rooted in the community and have their own space.”
Martin said, “It was really incredible that God opened the door for this particular building. Even the real estate agents were flabbergasted that we were able to get this building. God laid the groundwork—it was so unlikely that it had to be the Lord. We are really excited about this project.”
God’s Call and Trained Leaders Determine ‘Next Plant’
Future Sojourn church planters might come into Sojourn already called to plant and already equipped with seminary training, or they might be called to plant a church while serving at Sojourn. Regardless of the circumstances, all serve residencies while working through courses in partnership with the Houston Church Planters Network (HCPN).
Barker said, “It takes a lot of time in the oven to become a Sojourn Church planter—a long slow residency to learn our Sojourn culture and what makes us tick as a family of churches.”
At Sojourn Montrose, a church planter in residence, Carlos Rebollar, came to faith shortly before joining Sojourn. Dallas said, “He has now arrived to the point that he heard a call and now wants to express that call in the context of Sojourn.” Carlos is training to plant a church in Houston’s east end.
Taylor Ince, who earned a doctorate in Old and New Testament, also completed the required church planter training prior to leading the Galleria plant. He described his first semester of HCPN training as relationship-focused: “Your relationship with the Lord, loving your wife and kids and family well, and taking care of your home—maintaining long term health.”
The second semester of HCPN training consists of more “nuts and bolts” of being a church planter, such as learning how to lead teams. Ince began leading a parish while in his second semester, and “soaked up the Sojourn DNA” while being mentored in the work of a pastor.
Dallas added, “I’m amazed by what has transpired over the last seven years, and what we see in the plans for the next seven years. We’re more along for the ride. But not in the pandering sense—I’ve got no other explanation for it. Knowing who we started with and our level of maturity—these things by our own powers are outside the realm of possibility.”