Four years ago, Sarah and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where I went through almost two years of clinical training to become a hospital chaplain. During that time, we talked about our long-time friends Alan and Lana Ridge into starting a church in their home. We began to meet with them and several other families weekly. It was not long before we were encouraging each other throughout the week, praying for each other daily, and having cookouts and birthday parties together. We had found and formed a community that felt so much like the description of the church located in the book of Acts; we knew that God was a part of it.
When my chaplain training came to an end, we wanted more than anything to remain in Louisville. We wanted to build upon the foundation that God had laid there. God, however, closed every door in Louisville, and so I applied at a hospital in the distant land of northern Indiana. It was the only place I applied for work outside of Kentucky. With hospital chaplaincy being an incredibly competitive field, there is no way a beginner chaplain like myself should have been selected unless God had something to do with it. So, it became apparent when I was offered a job in Northern Indiana that God had different plans in mind for the Miller family. We were hopeful that these were plans to “prosper us, not to harm us and to give us hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11); hopeful, but also a little skeptical to be honest.
We spent our first year living a 55 minute drive from the hospital that I worked at, which took a lot of time and energy out of me. We half-halfheartedly attempted to make friends with other families in hopes of stumbling upon friendships like the ones we left in Louisville. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we were in a time of grief during that first year over the loss of our church family.
During this time, there was no doubt in our hearts and minds that we were going to start another church. At the end of our first year in Indiana, we decided to move closer to work and bought our first house ever in Marion, Indiana. We describe Marion as a town a lot like Ashland, Ohio, where we went to seminary, just more depressing. To be clear, Marion is not where we wanted to end up. Part of buying a house in Marion was accepting that we would not be moving back to Kentucky any time soon. We had to let that dream die if we were going to embrace the future that God had for us.
Sarah and I had a lot of talks about how to go about starting our next church plant, and we ended up deciding that there was only one way we could do this, and that was to give it all we had to make friends and dive into life with others boldly. I believe this was a slight shift in thinking for Sarah, and for me, it was more like a shift from one universe to another. We started doing things that I would have thought insane just a handful of months earlier. Sarah began to meet other homeschool families at the park, or other events in town, and even on Facebook. She would send me texts while I was at home telling me who she met and when they were scheduled to come over to our house for dinner. I met a lot of people for the first time as we shared a meal in our dining room, or roasted marshmallows around the fire pit in our yard. It felt a little awkward, maybe even weird, but I quickly grew to love it. We were making friends faster and better than we ever had before. This aggressive focus on making friends formed the relational foundations that would soon develop into a church.
We were on the lookout for people that may be interested in starting a church in a home similar to what we had formed in Louisville. Sarah did a lot of the footwork in gathering up people that made starting the church reasonably easy. She started a Facebook group for homeschool families in our county (there was no FB group before this). With around 100 families represented on the group, it has now become the first stop for new homeschooling families in Grant County. We have met and started friendships with several families that have moved to town in the past year and reached out through the FB page. Sarah also started a Lego club at the public library for homeschool families and has had weeks with 40 kids and parents in attendance. It was through these avenues that Sarah met and connected with the families who eventually formed into UnChurch.
I have a confession to make. I fear rejection. And that fear has kept me from making friendships many times. But when God moved us to Marion for David’s job as a chaplain at the VA hospital, I decided I wasn’t going to be harnessed to that fear. I decided I was going to put my neck out. That’s what brought me to meet a new friend. We had connected online, and eventually, she invited me over to her house. From there, we got together at our place for a family dinner. We even gathered for sourdough bread-making lessons at our home with just the moms and kids.
It was at this meeting that I snuck in the question about where their family went to church. This question had become my go-to when meeting people to feel out their openness to a new church. We knew we wanted to start a group in our home but were searching out those who God wanted to come along with us. She responded that they didn’t have a church home and asked me where we went. Then I got to tell her our idea- a church at home. That led to her asking about how that would look and a little about our beliefs. I responded, saying that we had some specific beliefs, but what mattered was the message of the Gospel. To which my friend asked what the Gospel was. I gave her a concise explanation. When David came home from work that day, I exclaimed how excited I was that we had a family interested in starting this group with us and gave him a play by play of our conversation. His response was, “Sarah, you got to share the Gospel!” In my narrow-minded focus on starting our church group, I had missed the most important part!
As we invited three families to join us, we had each family over for dinner to share our heart for Church and what we envisioned as we started this. We then set a date to begin in the middle of February 2019. As we explained the concept of a house-church, we began comparing it to a homeschool philosophy called “Unschooling” where learning is student-led, and not structured as strictly as a traditional school setting. Out of this, we came up with our name UnChurch.
In our first meeting as a church, all four of our families showed up in our living room with all our loud and rowdy kids, not sure of what we were getting ourselves into. After an enthusiastic kids’ lesson, the parents gathered in the other room, and one by one shared our spiritual journey stories. It was a powerful time of spiritually coming together and forming ourselves as a unified body. We then prayed for each other, and God answered one of the major prayer requests within the following week. Prayer has since become a central part of our gathering time. We take turns praying for each other each week, and God has faithfully answered our prayers. We also carry a slightly different approach to our teaching time. In preaching the Word, we utilize a discussion-based learning model versus the lecture-based preaching found in many churches. This approach has made scripture much more accessible, especially for those less familiar with the Bible. Incredible questions come up that bring the Word to life and force us to stop and struggle with the hard or confusing parts of our faith.
One of the big highlights in our first year is the baptism of 3 children.
Two of the families that started UnChurch with us continued to attend their other churches on Sunday morning in addition to being part of our church family. One of the big highlights in our first year is the baptism of 3 children. We joined along with Exit 59 Church down the road to celebrate the baptisms of Nathaniel (10), Cherish (8), and Paisley (5). At the next gathering of UnChurch, we gave each of the baptized kids a chance to share why they chose baptism and what it meant to them. These kids would put many of us seasoned Christians to shame with how well they articulated their faith in Jesus and desire to follow him with their lives.
After three months or so of meeting in our house, we discovered mold in the basement. We then removed the wall and carpet in the basement that was moldy and did several arduous tasks to remediate the mold. During this process, we discovered that Sarah has extreme health reactions to the mycotoxins produced by mold spores. Even though the mold was removed from our house, she would no longer be able to live in the house without having severe reactions. We moved into a tent set up in our garage for several weeks while we came up with a plan. We eventually moved into a camper in our driveway while we finished up the remodeling projects on our house and prepared to put it on the market.
I remember going over to Daniel and Karen’s house (one of our UnChurch families) for dinner one night and telling them about the issues with our home. They asked if they could pray for us, and then prayed for us right then and there. I later shared with Sarah that I was so grateful that we had friends that cared for us enough to offer to pray for us. This was the first time I realized that UnChurch was becoming a place of spiritual and emotional support for our family, much like our group in Louisville.
Over the coming months, our UnChurch family loved us like Jesus. They helped paint the inside of the house, landscape the yard, prayed for us, and even took turns hosting church in their homes since we could no longer meet in our house. I kept telling them that I felt like I was living in the Kingdom of God (which we had been studying as a church).
This disaster in our home had the potential to ruin us as a church because we no longer had a place to meet. God had put in place a plan that not only saved us from disintegrating but provided a way for others to use their gifts of hospitality. I believe that we are a closer-knit community than we would have been otherwise because we went through it together.
As we talk together in UnChurch about who we are as a community, it is clear that this type of close-knit friendship with a focus on how to spiritually support and love each other is not common. What we have is small, but it is special. It is special to each one of us and has been a place of love, friendship, and spiritual growth. We love God, and we love each other, and we are on a mission to make disciples.
Churches like UnChurch don't happen by accident. The Spirit of God is clearly moving in Marion, Indiana, and so many other places around the globe. But along with the move of the Spirit is a Spirit-led, Scripture-informed intentionality. The Brethren Church is intentionally training leaders like David and Sarah how to start new communities of faith. Whether it's a house church, or the revitalization of an aging congregation, The Brethren Church equips leaders to build Christ's church.
We could not do this without your support. UnChurch would not have been started with out the faithful support from people like you, which helped train David and Sarah and equipped them for this mission work.
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