Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Southwestern News.
“God, wherever You want me to go, whatever You want me to do, I’m Yours.”
These are the words Matt Carter (’06) recalls praying in the cab of his truck somewhere on the side of the road between Texarkana and Dallas. The words may seem simple, but for Carter, who had been wrestling with God and resisting a call to ministry, they represented a future and a direction in his life for which he would never be able to take credit.
“I didn’t know what it was going to look like,” he said. “But I surrendered.”
A college sophomore at Texas A&M at the time, Carter, originally from Athens, Texas, was working a summer job for a construction company and trying desperately to run from a call to ministry. Spending time in prayer while he was driving, Carter remembers specifically telling the Lord, “I don’t want to answer this call.” A moment later, he turned on the radio in his truck and the song playing on the local station was one by Christian artist, Al Denson, titled, “Be the One.”
He heard these words:
Will you be the one
To answer to His call
And will you stand
When those around you fall
Will you be the one
To take His light
Into a darkened world
Tell me will you be the one
Carter didn’t know what his ministry would look like, but he knew, in that moment, he needed to answer the call.
“Wherever You want me to go, whatever You want me to do, I’m Yours.”
THE POWER OF THE WORD
While he continued working on a Bachelor of Arts in history at Texas A&M, Carter saw firsthand the power of the Word of God faithfully preached from the pulpit by his pastor, Chris Osborne (’77, ’19). Osborne, who now serves as professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Southwestern Seminary, spent 33 years as the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Bryan-College Station, Texas, and throughout his ministry he has mentored many who now stand in pulpits around the state and the nation, weekly walking their flock verse-by-verse through the Word of God. Osborne would also be instrumental in pointing Carter toward Southwestern Seminary for his theological training.
“I had never heard really anointed, biblically-based expositional preaching,” Carter said, reflecting on his four years at Central Baptist. “[It] profoundly changed me. So, when I’m thinking about moving to Austin, going near a university, how am I going to preach? I’m going to do it. I’m going to do the same thing.”
THE AUSTIN STONE
Carter planted The Austin Stone Community Church with his wife, Jen, in Austin in 2002. They recognized the strategic value of planting a church in the artistic, cultural, and capital of Texas and had a deliberate focus on what Carter called a built in “mission sending agency” represented by the college students coming into Austin to study at the University of Texas.
“Every four to five years, you’ve literally got 60,000 people that are coming in, some of the best and brightest. And then they’re going out.”
He remembers being a young church planter, “scared to death and poor,” who would often pray, “God, would You do something so significant that when we look back on it, years from now, that the only explanation for how it happened is that You did it?”
The Lord answered that prayer.
The Austin Stone, which began in the Carters’ apartment in south Austin, now meets in six locations around the city. In its nineteen-year history, the church has sent more than 300 full time missionaries out to unreached people groups, baptized thousands of new believers, launched a training institute for church leaders, and faithfully exposited the Word of God to an average weekly gathering of nearly 8,000 people.
“People told me I was nuts,” Carter remembers when he launched “The Stone” with a plan of preaching expositional sermons and simply explaining the texts of Scripture. “[They] said, ‘There’s no way you can go into a city like Austin and just preach verse-by-verse through the Bible and reach the culture.’ And they’re wrong.”
Impacted by the model of expositional preaching at Central Baptist, and undergirded by the preparation for ministry he received while he was earning his Master of Divinity degree at Southwestern Seminary, Carter saw no better thing to bring with him to reach the city of Austin than the truths of Scripture.
“There was actually a lot of movement in that time of people saying, ‘Hey, you don’t need to go to seminary,’” Carter recalls. “But somebody told me that they thought the best of both worlds was not to go to seminary alone, or not to just have a job and never go seminary, but to go to seminary while you have a job.”
Carter grew up a Southern Baptist and admits that many of the men who influenced him over the years helped him narrow down the choice of where he would pursue his theological training. “A lot of the guys that were the previous generation that I respected and loved went to Southwestern and Chris Osborne went to Southwestern, so that just was the natural choice for me. If you’re going to go, you’re going to Southwestern.”
A strong emphasis on expositional preaching at Southwestern Seminary made the choice a natural fit for the preaching style he wanted to cultivate at The Austin Stone.
“I’m convinced that the Bible is the most relevant book that’s ever been written. If it’s true, that it is living and active, and it is, then it’s living and active for every culture, and for every generation,” Carter said. “I really believe that the only guarantee that our preaching possesses the power of God is when we’re preaching the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God and I don’t care what culture you’re in, or what city; I’m convinced that that’s the way to go.”
Carter served as lead pastor of The Austin Stone for 18 years, but one night after a worship service, he sensed a stirring in his heart and the Lord asking the question, “Matt, are you ready if I ask you to do a fresh work somewhere else?”
His answer was the same as the day he surrendered to ministry, “Wherever You want me to go, whatever You want me to do, I’m Yours.”
ONE CHURCH, TWO PASTORS, ONE DIRECTION
On November 24, 2019, John D. Morgan (’66) addressed Sagemont Church in Houston for the last time as the senior pastor. His message to those in attendance, watching online, or listening by radio was the same message he had preached for more than 53 years in the church he helped found: follow Jesus.
“I learned a long time ago,” Morgan said, “if Sagemont is going to be in the future what it needs to be, all of us have to get on board to the fact that we will follow Jesus.”
The stately pastor stood behind an ornately carved wooden pulpit with the words “Jesus is Here” adorning it, and, with his soothing, unhurried south Texas accent, implored men and women within the sound of his voice to give their lives to Christ. It seemed the most appropriate way to bookend his ministry at the church that had grown from a few dozen people when he was called there fresh out of Southwestern Seminary in 1966, to more than 21,000 members in 2019. He also reassured his flock that God had a great future for Sagemont Church if they continue to follow Jesus.
“God is up to something right now. I wish I could get up here with boldness and tell you what’s going to happen. I don’t have a clue. I don’t know what another day is going to bring,” Morgan shared. “But I know this: God has a plan.”
God’s plan would ultimately lead the pastor search committee at Sagemont Church to call Matt Carter as the church’s second pastor in March 2020.
CONFIRMATION IN ‘GOD MOMENTS’
Denny Autrey (’84, ’87, ’13), a retired dean and professor of Southwestern Seminary, chaired the pastor search team at Sagemont Church where he has served as a faithful member for 17 years. Speaking to the church when the announcement was made that Carter was the pastoral candidate for Sagemont, Autrey referenced countless “God moments” that occurred between the search team and Carter.
One such moment was in relation to the search team’s first meeting with Carter in Austin. They selected a hotel for the interview and booked a conference room for Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Restrictions and shut-downs related to the COVID-19 pandemic began to take place on that same day in the state of Texas. But, the search team and Carter had the exact number of people in it to still be eligible for their meeting in the conference room under mandated COVID-protocols.
Another notable “God moment” Autrey relayed to the church came when the search committee heard Carter share the story about his call to ministry and the Al Denson song that played on the radio in his truck. While he was telling the story, Autrey reached over and calmly placed his hand on Carter’s shoulder. When he had finished telling the story, Autrey asked him a question: “Matt, do you realize that Al Denson grew up in Sagemont Church?”
Denson came to faith as a sixth-grader in the youth service at Sagemont and was one of many called to ministry under the guidance and leadership of Morgan and others on staff at Sagemont.
“Sagemont had a part in your story before you ever had a part in our story,” Autrey told him.
When he accepted the call to pastor at Sagemont Church in March 2020, Carter told the church that his entire philosophy of ministry could be summed up in this: “I live my life to exalt Jesus Christ. I want the name of Jesus to be exalted above my name, above the name of our church. I want Him to be the star of Sagemont.”
Carter points to Ephesians 3:20-21 as a life verse that he has kept at the forefront of his ministry all the years he has served. His hope and prayer for Sagemont in the years to come is that God will continue to do “far more abundantly” than all they ask.
One of the many core values of Sagemont Church that resonated with Carter as he was seeking the Lord and praying about accepting the invitation as senior pastor was their commitment to being debt-free as a church. As Sagemont Church grew in its early years, the church initially took on debt to build new buildings. Ten years into their existence as a church, Morgan was convicted by the Lord that they should cease all borrowing and work to get out of any debt. The church paid off all its debts in 14 months and moved forward using a cash-only method for all future construction projects.
Sagemont Church is one of the top contributors to the Cooperative Program and the top-giving church in the state of Texas. Carter sees the correlation between their commitment to be wise financial stewards and their gracious generosity to local, national, and global missions.
“There’s a direct connection between being debt-free, not having to spend an enormous amount of money paying down building debt, and your ability to be Spirit-led in how you direct your finances,” Carter explained. “When we’re debt-free as a church that really creates a very clear pathway from the giving of the dollar into the offering plate into the Kingdom of God.”
Giving through the Cooperative Program, Carter recognizes the distinctive nature of the Southern Baptist Convention and notes that it has the “greatest seminaries in the world. You’ve got the greatest missions structure and organization in the world. You’ve got, in my opinion, the best national missions organization in the world. And you’ve got a theological document that is precise enough to keep us together, but broad enough to let us have some freedom there.”
Looking forward to the future Carter recognizes Sagemont Church’s location in Houston as one that God has uniquely positioned and prepared as the population booms all around them. The Houston Metropolitan area is projected to overtake Chicago as the third largest U.S. city in the next 8-10 years.
According to recent census data, 1 in 4 Houstonians were born outside the U.S. and it reflects greater ethnic and racial diversity than the nation as a whole. Sagemont Church and its leadership are already making an impact in their city and around the world for Jesus. “The world is here,” Carter said. “And it needs churches that preach the Bible and live on mission.”
Carter is poised to see God do “far more abundantly” than they can ever imagine at Sagemont Church as they continue to follow Jesus.
Adam Covington is senior editor of Southwestern News.