Our week at the little white church on the hill

Twenty seminary students and Professor E. Allen Sorum hopped on a plane in the frozen tundra of Milwaukee, Wis., bound for Faith, a mission start in sunny Tyler, Texas. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Faith’s pastor, Dan Schmidt, who began our work with a devotion and prayer, followed immediately by a debriefing on the expectations and goals. The expectations? Ambitious. The goals? More ambitious. But after asking the Lord for a double portion of the Spirit, we headed off to the church members’ homes where we would be staying.

The generosity of God’s people was enough to ease our minds and offset the jet lag, and we turned in early with butterfly-filled stomachs and hearts yearning to share God’s message. We woke early the next morning and made our way to Faith, planning for the events of the day with Professor Sorum and Pastor Dan, as the members call him. After dividing into four groups of five people, we hit the streets intent on coming to a better understanding of this East Texas suburb. Tyler is a relatively small, rural area so two groups were stationed there and two headed to the nearby towns of Whitehouse and Jacksonville. We went door-to-door to raise awareness for a new family-oriented sermon series at the notoriously picturesque “little white church on the hill.”

As expected, we encountered a spectacular amount of successes, followed on the heels by an equally spectacular number of failures. Each group slowly but surely discovered the difficulties of our specific areas of East Texas, and were exhausted at the end of the day. Each night, the congregation spoiled us with amazing food. We also closed every day with a debriefing and devotion, which soothed our weary spirits after long days on the streets. In addition, each group met with members of the community, from pastors of local megachurches to mayors. In all of this, we realized two things. One, the area was already very churched. Two, churches in the area are financially well-endowed, giving them better “amenities” than Faith, a church of one hundred. So, the next question became: What can Faith offer this area that the “big box” churches can’t?

The answer is simple. In an area where many congregants believe what their pastors tell them solely because of their position, worshipers at Faith take the Berean approach and base all their beliefs on the Bible. This was the message we took to the residents.

When the week of spreading the gospel, canvassing the area, and eating well had ended, we presented our findings to members of the congregation and proposed strategies for the coming weeks, months, and years. One major task the group was given was to assess the practicality of building another church in Tyler once Faith hopefully “bursts the seams” in their current worship space. The group as a whole adopted a slogan: “This city doesn’t need another church. It needs this church.” The church is in the perfect spot to grow as the city grows and can properly serve its people right where it is now.

So, for the time being, the decision is to keep the church just like it is. Does that choice make a trip like this useless? Absolutely not. We got the name of Faith Church into the community, assisted the congregation by developing innumerable strategies for future ministry, and perhaps most of all, we gained the experience we desperately search for in our time at the seminary. With the shortage of pastors today, there’s no telling where each seminarian will be sent on Call Day. The training we received in Tyler will be invaluable in our future ministries, especially for those who will be called to start and foster missions. Also, for those whom canvassing is a terrifying proposition, we realized that everywhere you go, no matter how far away from Mequon, people are just people.

I learned to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in every interaction. I learned to rejoice with my brothers in their successes, and to show humility in my own. I learned how to build my brothers up in their difficulties, and how to ask for help with my own. I developed relationships I won’t soon forget and strengthened bonds of friendship with men I will serve alongside. Even though our time spent in East Texas only came out to seven days, I’ll cherish the experiences I had the and hope to see the people of Tyler again. If not in this life, then in heaven.

God be with the people of Tyler until we meet again.

—Nicolas Gartner