Living up to its motto—“Keep Austin weird”—has earned the Texas capital a reputation for being, well, weird. The city’s ethos colors it a brilliant blue—a stark contrast to the state’s ideologically and politically red patina. So, in a city in which 77 percent of its residents are either lost or unchurched, what is the weirdest thing Austinites can do?
They can surrender their lives to Christ and join the work of a newly planted or revitalized church suggest the leaders of Reach Austin, an SBTC campaign to share the gospel from New Braunfels to Georgetown and Bastrop to Dripping Springs.
American cities like Austin plant, cultivate and harvest an “add on Christianity,” not so much an anti-Christian culture, Steve Cochran, SBTC Reach Austin strategist, told the TEXAN.
Cochran and SBTC administrators Executive Director Jim Richards, Church Planting Associate Barry Calhoun, and Church Planting Consultant Terry Coy hosted two lunch meetings March 1 at Calvary Baptist Church in San Marcos and Northside Church in Austin. As with the Reach Houston campaign launched in 2016, Reach Austin seeks to establish new churches and revitalize declining ones through evangelistic outreach in targeted neighborhoods.
Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the church planting effort is hard to quantify, Ben Hays, Reach Houston strategist said. Damage made getting traction difficult for planters but it also made mission-minded people outside the state aware of the city’s need for the gospel.
Food for thought
A small but “quality” group of participants gathered in San Marcos, said Robby Partain, Bluebonnet Baptist Association director of missions. With 55 actively participating churches in the 78-member association, Partain is hopeful church planters will come from within the local congregations.
His association currently supports four church plants, and the burgeoning population along the southern Interstate 35, Highways 183 and 71 corridors indicate the need for more.
Sandwiched between the Austin and San Antonio Baptist Associations, the Bluebonnet Baptist Association faithfully encourages church planting but the pipeline of pastors has run dry, Cochran told those gathered for the Austin meeting.
By 2 p.m. that afternoon he finally sat down to eat his lunch, a boxed meal from the Austin-born Schlotzsky’s sandwich shop, as a few remaining participants helped clear off the five round plastic-topped folding tables in the sanctuary of Northside Church. Between bites of sandwich and farewells to pastors Cochran and David Smith, Austin Baptist Association (ABA) executive director, spoke with the TEXAN about how they believed God would use the initiative to draw Austin’s “weird” residents into a relationship with Christ—especially in a city that can be as hard as Central Texas limestone.
“What I’m learning about the culture here is it’s not anti-Christian—there are some anti-Christian folks here—but this is not an anti-Christian culture. This is an add-to Christian culture,” Cochran said.
He believes Austinites eschew the theological for the philosophical, creating a self-prescribed Christianity in which there is “nothing wrong with being a Christian and ‘doing this.’ Or being a Christian and ‘going there.’ Or being a Christian and ‘accepting this,’” Cochran said. “It’s the Areopagus. It’s just ‘Let’s hear something new today.’”
From East Texas to the Areopagus
Around the time Cochran could have been planning for retirement, God called him to plant a church. With the blessing and financial support of Macedonia Baptist Church in Longview where he had served as pastor for 15 years, he and his wife, Karen, set out to determine just where God wanted this new vine of his planting to take root.
Cochran was 54 years old.
That was six years ago and Crosswalk Church in Round Rock, Texas, is a thriving congregation that made its home in a former Hindu temple.
Cochran’s age illustrates that church planting is not only for those just starting in ministry, Smith said. And Cochran hopes to leverage his age and 40 years in full-time ministry in the Reach Austin revitalization efforts.
Sometimes, convincing older Christians in an established but languishing church that changes are required to revive the congregation and reach their community with the gospel is more difficult than starting a church from scratch Cochran said. His age signals he’s been around the proverbial block and understands their hesitancy.
“If a person much younger than me went in they might be perceived as not respecting the history of that church,” he said.
Whether planting or revitalizing, Reach Austin pastoral prospects must have a “fire” for their work and think like an entrepreneur and a foreign missionary, Cochran told those gathered at the Austin meeting. Starting a church from the ground up is not unlike starting a church in another country.
Pastor candidates must pass a vetting process to ensure they are prepared and qualified for the job to which they are called. Candidates must also show their entrepreneurial spirit by securing support—financial, material, service—from area churches. Financial support from state and regional associations is available for qualified candidates for up to three years.
Preparing the ground
God went ahead of the SBTC leaders to lay the ground work for Reach Austin Cochran told the TEXAN. The ABA, which currently supports six church plants, sold its office building last year for $1.7 million and uses the proceeds to support church plants. The association staff now work from leased office space at Hyde Park Baptist Church.
Additionally, Austin comes with its own built-in prayer network—a 10-year-old support system of about 57 churches, each devoting one 24-hour day a month to pray for the city.
And the need for prayer has only grown with the city’s population. The number of people who move to or are born in Austin every day—150—could populate the average-sized Southern Baptist church, making the Texas capital the fastest growing city of its size in the nation according to the U.S. Census. It is the 11th largest city in the U.S.
Those numbers add a sense of urgency to the evangelistic effort, the pastors said.
And even with all of the support built into the SBTC church planting system Cochran admitted he struggled.
“I had plenty of hard days,” Cochran told the pastors. “I laid across the bed of my apartment many days just, honestly, weeping saying, ‘Lord, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’”
Cochran’s experience pastoring established churches and the Round Rock plant makes him the best candidate to lead Reach Austin, Partain and Smith said. It also taught him to wait on God.
“It’s been refreshing,” Cochran said. “I’ve never lived by faith like these last six years.”
The pastors agreed—Austin is a hard place to plant the gospel message.
“But I’m finding people want to know the truth. People here are eager to know the truth,” Cochran said. “They may not respond immediately but there’s an eagerness to know the way – The Way.”