Millennial & bivocational: church's intentional DNA

BATON ROUGE, La. (BP) -- As both a crew member at Trader Joe's and a minister at Progression Church in Baton Rouge, La., Joe Handy essentially gets to pastor two locations -- his "Trader Joe's campus" and his "Progression Church campus."

At Trader Joe's, a grocery store chain, Handy rubs shoulders with nearly 85 coworkers from a wide range of social, cultural, political and spiritual backgrounds, most of whom have little to no interest in visiting a church.

"So I try to pastor them right where they are," Handy says. "I'm the only pastor some of them have. I love that I have opportunity to bring church to them.

"As they get to know me," he continues, "trust builds, and I get to play the role of friend and pastor in their lives," though they sometimes never realize it. "It's fun seeing the worlds of Progression Church and Trader Joe's collide like that."

Handy is one of four bivocational ministers on Progression Church's five-person pastoral team. Lead pastor Brian Crain is Progression's only fulltime staff member, though he did begin as a bivocational minister. Needless to say, bivocational ministry is an important part of Progression's DNA, paving the way for avenues of ministry that otherwise would have been unavailable.

Progression Church was planted in January 2014, but discussions for the church's formation began at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary years earlier. Crain, Handy and Joe Ashley -- who now serve as Progression's lead pastor, teaching pastor and pastor of children and family ministries, respectively -- were students at the Fort Worth campus and often spoke about planting a church together. After much discussion and prayer, they felt the Lord leading them back to their home state of Louisiana and specifically to reach out to millennials in the region.

"When I was in a youth ministry class taught by Dr. Johnny Derouen, he mentioned some stats about the millennial generation," Crain recounts. "He taught us that the millennial generation was the largest in American history and the most lost. That was one of the moments that clicked with me as to what God wanted me to do with my life; I wanted to plant a church that would reach my generation and the generations to come."

Crain and Ashley graduated from Southwestern with master of divinity degrees in 2013. Along with Handy, who continues to pursue his master of theology, they and their respective families formed half of Progression Church's six-family launch team in Baton Rouge.

Regarding the context in which they now serve, Ashley says, "It's pretty fun when, on any given Sunday, you may see a Southern Baptist blue blood, a liberal from the Northeast, a recovering hardcore drug addict, a classic prodigal child, some dude with a dog, and a Catholic school prodigy growing in Christ and worshiping Him together."

Each of the team credits their time at Southwestern with preparing them to face the challenges of doing ministry in this context.

"At Southwestern, I began to understand the value of the Scriptures, how to correctly handle them, and how to help others understand them," Handy says. "This has served me well in a culture that has a faulty sense of direction and little regard for truth." Crain adds, "Southwestern helped me feel confident to pastor and teach the Bible because I was taught the answers to the questions I had or where to find them."

Three years after its launch, Progression Church, which meets in Louisiana State University's BCM (Baptist Collegiate Ministry) building, now has two worship services, 10 small groups and an average attendance of 125. Despite this growth, however, the church can only support one fulltime minister. After Ashley and Handy, the remaining ministers are the two-person worship team of Ryan Andress and Michael Young.

Understanding the workplace

Ashley, who does maintenance and repair for a property management company, says bivocational ministry allows pastors and members of the congregation to better relate to one another. "Many pastors would be surprised to find out that their congregation is having trouble relating to them," he says. "It is a different world to work with unbelievers for a company whose main purpose is to make money."

Handy agrees, saying that working in both spheres grants him credibility and insight. "I see both sides of the story," he says. "I know what it is like to be a pastor; I also know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a layman. I understand some of the unique struggles that come with a secular work environment. Seeing both sides of the picture influences the way I teach and interact with my people in the church."

Another benefit of bivocational ministry is a greater opportunity to meet and interact with lost people, Ashley says, noting, "The person who only works for the church can have a hard time being evangelistic outside of the pulpit, not because of apathy but because he does not know many lost people unless they come to church.

"At the job I have now," he continues, "I got to explicitly share the Gospel with a man in my very first week. The person who is solely employed by the church can certainly overcome these disadvantages if he works at it, but the bivocational minister typically finds these issues resolved naturally."

For Handy, "it's been cool to see the progress of some of my coworkers. For some, it's exploring the Scriptures for themselves or attending church for the first time in years. Some have trusted Jesus for the first time; others have been baptized or joined our church."

Crain says that Handy "constantly" has people from Trader Joe's coming to church with him and has already baptized two of his coworkers. The first of these was the first person ever baptized at Progression Church.

This person, whose name is Kyle, was already a believer when he met Handy but had never been baptized and had fallen away from church. But, at Handy's invitation, he attended Progression's launch service, became involved with the church immediately thereafter and was then baptized by Handy.

Handy was later privileged to baptize another of his coworkers, Craig. He and Handy had had a conversation about grace one day at work. Handy then bought Craig a Bible and brought him to Progression Church. This led to multiple conversations about what it means to follow Jesus, and after a few months, Craig gave his life to Christ on the park bench in front of the store. Following his public profession of faith through baptism, Craig has since become one of the most faithful members at Progression Church.

"It's always a surreal moment for me," Handy says of baptizing fellow Trader Joe's employees. "It's just a snapshot of what God is doing in that store as a whole."

Ashley says he didn't become a church planter "to play it safe," so "I figure if your boss has a talk with you about how you are overtly sharing the Gospel with your coworkers, you are doing something right."

"Thankfully for me," Ashley continues, "he was a believer and told me to keep going. I did not tell him this, but I was going to continue anyway. I already had permission from my other boss."

Among the challenges Progression Church's bivocational ministers face are fatigue, the sense that there is not enough time in the week, and the need to be a good employee on two separate fronts.

"It is rare that we have a meeting where everyone is there," Ashley says about Progression's staff. "You have to give people space to miss stuff to go provide for their families. This means we have to work harder at staying unified as a staff." Solutions include texting one another often (or, in Ashley's words, "a lot ... a whole lot") and having lunch together regularly.

Despite the challenges, Crain sees the team having an impact for the Kingdom inside as well as outside the church, noting that lives have been changed, people have fallen more in love with Jesus and believers in the workforce have come to see how their workplaces can be mission fields. "We have been faithful to make disciples of Jesus in Baton Rouge, and we have reached millennials as we felt led to do," he says. "So yes, so far so good."

Alex Sibley is associate director of news and information at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared in the seminary's Southwestern News magazine.
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