Pastoring in the 2nd Most Dechurched City in America feat. Jesse Bradley
In his former life, Jesse Bradley was a professional soccer player (don’t we all wish we could say that?). Now he is the Lead Pastor at Grace Community Church in Auburn, Washington where he facilitates a gospel movement called Saturate the Sound. He has a passion for his city and for people to encounter Jesus. Jesse also hosts Exploring Faith, a podcast and video resource that explores what matters in this life and beyond.
In this episode, you’ll be challenged to consider how healthy churches impact the community outside their walls, and how healthy church networks impact an entire region with the gospel. Listen now or read the show notes below.
First I want to start by saying that I am so grateful for the Luis Palau Association. When I was in seminary they started pouring into the next generation. I was able to come to Portland for training and encouragement which I received and continue to receive–I am so thankful. The vision for City Gospel Movements is so neat and timely in our country. It is so great to connect with you!
What is your story?
Right now, my family and I are in Auburn, Washington, which can be considered a part of the “South Sound” to those familiar with the Seattle area. I am currently a pastor at Grace Community Church and have been here for just over three years.
I grew up in Minnesota with very cold winters. We had three weeks of snow this year in Seattle, but that was nothing compared to Minnesota! Growing up we would go to all the University of Minnesota Gophers’ games and from a young age, I knew I wanted to play professional sports. I was more talented in soccer than other sports and was able to play in college. I went to Dartmouth and there I was coached by a soccer player legend from Scotland, Bobby Clark. Through this connection I was able to play overseas in Scotland and Zimbabwe. I also had the opportunity to play for a team in Minnesota before they had a Major League Soccer team.
In regards to my spirituality, I never had a faith growing up. My parents unfortunately had negative experiences in the church and wanted to shield me from that. While I was at Dartmouth, I took a World Religions class and my life completely changed. I share this story because I find that so often passion comes out of people’s deep personal stories and my life changed eternally because of this class. I never had read the Bible growing up so this class I was reading it for the first time. We studied every other religion and the Bible was by far the most different than anything I had read. The other religions were all about performing and trying to be good enough for the God. Christianity was the exact opposite. God loves us and he gives us undeserved grace by sending his son Jesus to die for us in our place and He is risen! When I heard this, I understood intellectually, but I still pushed against it.
I had a friend on the track team named Mike. Mike was Christian and I watched his life closely. He was the one who really showed me what a relationship with God looked like. I arrived at a point where I was certain this was real–that God was real. Then, during my sophomore year of college, I gave my life to Jesus. It completely changed me and that was the start of my relationship with God. C.S. Lewis challenges us to decide whether Jesus is a lunatic, liar or our personal Lord? I made the decision to put my trust in him as Lord. I had this song inside of me after I committed my life to Christ and it started to change my life and my relationships with others.
After college, when I was in Zimbabwe, I was taking a prescribed drug to prevent malaria which raised the toxins in my system. The drugs completely took over my system and I was fighting for my life for over a year. It took me about 10 years to fully recover from this incident. My soccer career ended and I had to go through so much recovery because it is the same reaction your body would have to a drug overdose–it was brutal.
My dreams of playing soccer until I was 40 were changed yet God transformed me through this trial. I struggled with my identity when I lost my dream. I had to ask myself, “Who am I and what do I still have?” I came to realize I still had Gods’ love. During this time, my prayer life changed and God started to heal me and direct me towards volunteering and serving. When I was healthy I started serving in middle school and then I did an internship at the same church. It was just one step after the other. God totally wrote the script of my journey into ministry. I didn’t see ministry coming, but now I look back and I am so grateful.
Ultimately we know that God knows better than anyone what we are made to do. If you have an appliance, you go to the maker to learn how to use it because they know better than anyone how it works. Our Maker is benevolent; He is kind, caring and He will guide us lovingly with His grace into a role or even a specific location because He ultimately knows what is best.
You are a pastor with a unique passion for evangelism. How have you become comfortable in your own skin doing ministry the way you were designed to do it?
At Dallas Seminary, I thought I would be an evangelist, but God directed me to be a pastor. I learned that evangelism is not separate from discipleship. The two are combined. It is so important that people make more disciples when they become followers of Jesus. I had to ask myself, “As a pastor, what does it look like to be an evangelist and a pastor at the same time?” It took me a while to get comfortable in my own skin and role because a lot of the models I saw were focusing on teaching. I wanted to push through the four walls of the church because I think we should meet people where they are at and not just hang out with believers!
After seminary I moved to Iowa, then to San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. I first attempted the ministry model I had adopted at a college ministry in Iowa for seven years and it was amazing–people were coming to the Lord every week. It was completely different, however, when I moved to the West Coast. The first West Coast city–San Diego–had a different spiritual environment and was more friendly to the gospel. We focused on relational ministry there. Then I went to San Francisco where there were cars with Darwin bumper stickers everywhere and only 3% of the people were going to church. Now I’m in Seattle–the second most de-churched city in the nation. The latter two cities were definitely different than San Diego or Iowa which means how I did ministry changed when I lived there.
In each city, I had to learn about the different environment and different ways to reach people there. We have to ask, “What does it look like to reach people in this context?”
For me, I just love it when someone comes to know the Lord. There is no greater joy than to see people receive eternity with God. I didn’t have it growing up and I understand everyone gets to choose, but my calling is to present Jesus lovingly in word and deed. And as a church family, we are doing that in community and in every place we live.
how are you helping people catch THE fire that is clearly inside of you?
It started within my family. We have a lot of different spiritual backgrounds in my family, like Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors. First I saw my grandpa come to know the Lord in his 70’s. Then my uncle–which was a miracle, and my grandma came to Jesus in her 80’s at 2 a.m. in the morning! I was able to share with my grandpa that his wife had made the decision and he had tears of joy streaming down his face because he knew his wife was going to be with Jesus. I just continue to want to be authentic in my faith, pray for my family and share the good news with them.
When it comes to outreach it is important to teach and train, absolutely, but there is a second element that is more caught than taught. In America, we tend to make sharing our faith very individual, but when we look at the gospels, Jesus had a group and they did it together. We need to make a shift that it’s not just on me, but sharing the gospel happens in community. People need to see a community with different personalities, following Jesus, and there needs to be a lot of people caring for others. In our churches, I hope there is a culture of this risk-taking because it is a privilege to share our faith.
People value safety in their relationships more than the risk of sharing their faith. We have to go deep in our heart to ask why we are not sharing our faith. When you share Jesus, some people are going to say “no” and close the door. This winter, my children went around the neighborhood shoveling snow for a dollar for our neighbors. They came back to me and said, “Dad, some people just said ‘no’ and shut the door on us.” Lots of our neighbors were thrilled though and there’s a spiritual parallel here because it is the same with Jesus. Some will put their trust in Him, and some will not and they will slam the door. However, that seed is still planted and although they initially reject it, God will use it. We have to remain faithful and trust God with the results because they are His!
We want to be a Church that is not just caring about the budget, but praying for the millions of people who don’t know Jesus in the city. In our country right now, over 80% of people are living in cities. We need to take cities seriously, which is why I love your vision and ministry. We have to think strategically about how are we going to take cities. It has to be collaborative, we cannot do it individually.
What does collaboration look like in your city of SEattle?
This has been a longing in my heart for decades for pastors to know each other. I’ve been in cities where there is one event or one gathering of a concert together, but my dream is for pastors to come together with other pastors to meet, pray and encourage each other. But far more than that, I want to see pastors that are intentional about spreading the gospel to every man, woman, and child in this city! That is so life-giving! Drop the logos and egos a little bit and come together. God has one family–the Bible is clear on that–and when we come together the gospel will take different shapes and forms in our cities.
In Seattle, we began Saturate the Sound. This collective is in alignment with other things happening in Seattle. We are building relationships with a lot of trust and unity. The first year and a half we took the time just getting to know pastors and ministry leaders in a group of 12. It took us a year to get to know each other and capture the vision for our city.
Now we have a website and hubs we call cohorts. Our cohorts are geographically-focused groups that focus on evangelism and disciple-making movements. Rather than coming together for an event we have a different approach. Our focuses are to:
- Build relationships and trust.
- Make sure everyone is on board with the vision.
- Develop health within churches.
In Seattle, we have the second most churches per-capita in the country. This reveals to us that we need more healthy churches in Seattle. Church-planting is good, but the number of people has to go up with the number of churches which is not evident here. We want to build health in churches and that is one thing that stands out to me.
I was with a group of pastors from large churches and asked if they have people making new disciples. They said, “No, honestly, it is not happening.” We have a lot of people who are hopping around from church to church and are not multiplying in terms of discipleship. This is our core and what we want to do here with Saturate the Sound.
For some pastors, fellowship and prayer feels safe and good, but to then combine collaboration to reach the city feels messy. You have to hold it loosely and have a Kingdom perspective. Oftentimes it can be competitive because churches coming together to reach a neighborhood is uncommon and raises questions like: “Which church will the people go to that they reach?” It’s not neat and clean stuff, but read through the gospels and see it gets a little messy there, too. We have to hold it all loosely and be unselfish.
A positive element of the spiritual context in Seattle is that most pastors know we are not going to win the city alone. In Seattle, you don’t have the illusion that the Bible Belt has where there are mega-churches everywhere and people going to church. In Seattle, we know we must lock arms and do something together or else it is never going to happen.
We have to change the measure of success and start to measure discipleship. We can’t just see our lives as just going to church, Bible study, serving and giving. These are good, but making disciples is left out. On a church-wide level we measure wrong also by focusing so much on budget or church growth but we need a bigger more compelling vision. I would love to see a new norm–that when a pastor arrives, there is a faith community that is already praying and intentionally reaching the city.
What was your Aha-Moment for this work and how did you find “your people”?
Sadly, three years ago, I had no clue about some of the work God was doing in Seattle when I moved here. There are a lot of pastors who are not aware of what God is doing in their city, so we must ask.
I called a pastor who used to live in Seattle, and I asked, “Who has a citywide vision here?” He recommended Christ Together. Christ Together was just forming at the time in Seattle and Jeff Vanderstelt had this passion for city-wide collaboration as well. Then, the church I stepped into had helped launch another church in Tacoma called Soma which created a partnership and relationship with them. The Seattle Union Gospel Mission was already doing amazing things through prayer with Light Up the City. It was amazing to learn what God was already doing and see things come together.
When you ask around enough you notice that the same names come up. If you just keep asking around about who has this vision and passion, it starts to take form. For us it started out as just a gathering and a dream. We took time to get to know each other and from there the vision of city-wide collaboration started to take shape.
It has also been so helpful to hear from different cities that are further along in some areas to learn how they have gotten to where they are. I’m convinced that in Seattle some things will rise and fall depending on the health of the cohorts I mentioned. In terms of ministry, I have always been in a small group, which is core to the church. I have seen more fruit from these smaller groups than the larger pastor gatherings. This strategy is new, and we are excited to do something unique, but we know it is connected to what God is already doing in Seattle.
It is wonderful that there are many different ministries with different focuses that are citywide in Seattle. We want to make sure we are in alignment with them. It’s important to me that there’s a commitment to both serving and spreading the gospel because too often we see too much of one without the other. There must be prayer, healthy relationships, serving communities, leadership and spreading of the gospel. Each ministry and church are different, and we must identify the strengths we each have and then bring them together to have citywide impact. We do not have this down at all, but we are practicing collaboration and there is incredible potential!
I just want to give you hope and encouragement. Even if your city looks huge, amazing things can happen in it. I would encourage you to get on your knees and cry out to God with that desire. Strong desires turn into strong prayers. Get together with people in your churches and in some other church because the chances are there are some networks already forming by God’s Spirit in your city. Start to come alongside one another, be humble, serve, and dream big.
I see something new across our country right now and I think over the next few years we will see unprecedented work in major cities in America. When God’s Spirit is moving, you don’t have to twist someone’s arm to do anything. When you share and find someone who has been praying for this too you will just connect, and I see this in and across cities right now. This is a needed and sweet time for potential in America.