It was a no-brainer to include SOMA Church in URBANwell Magazine Volume 4, Issue 1. In fact, we aren’t sure what took us so long. SOMA is a gathering of some of the best urban folk in town. SOMA’s pastor, Josh Elsom, is contributor to The Well. What follows is a Q&A with Josh – dive in!
In your article in URBANwell Magazine Volume 4, Issue 1, you said that “Jesus never commissioned his disciples to go and build new churches.” Can you share more about that? That question does not come with a short answer. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you were asked to start a new church. What would you do? Leave aside your thoughts for a moment about whether you are called to do that type of work or how you’d be able to pay the bills —for this thought experiment, you are qualified and called and you have unlimited resources. What would you do?
Most people will answer that question by providing a list of things that they would need to accomplish or need to purchase to launch a service on a Sunday morning. They will talk about real estate (where they’re going to gather and how that space will function to facilitate their ministry goals); the kind of music they will play (will they use hymnals and have corporate singing or will they have a praise band playing Christian contemporary music to an audience); and among a variety of other possible things, they will usually also say something about how they will get the word out about their new church (how they will advertise their services and programs, the amenities at their facilities, and their unique branding and style).
None of those things are unimportant. But none of those things actually have anything to do with “starting a church”.
The problem with these answers has little to do with the respondents and everything to do with the question itself. The premise of the question is flawed. How so, you ask? It’s flawed because neither Jesus nor his Apostles ever commissioned anyone to go and start a new church anywhere at anytime. Not once. Never.
Then why ask the question in the first place if it is flawed? Because “church”, as a building or a Sunday morning event, happens to be the way we speak colloquially about what Christians do when we gather together every Lord’s Day morning in our culture. So we’re stuck using the definitions that everyone uses (insufficient as they may be) to talk about what the culture thinks we at Soma are doing in our city.
If Jesus did not instruct us to start new churches then what work did he actually leave us to do? He commissioned his disciples to go and reproduce themselves by making, multiplying and maturing more disciples. That remains our call still today. Jesus said that he would build his Church, so we’ll leave him to make good on that promise. And we will remain ever faithful to him by doing only what he called us to do. Make, multiply and mature disciples. And as we are faithful to meet our obligation, Jesus is faithful to build his Church and advance his Kingdom in our city.
Soma is committed to disciple-make our Church family into existence. Not by gathering the Found from other Jesus-loving gospel-proclaiming churches in our city, but by going to the Lost and proclaiming the good news about our King Jesus and the abundant life that he has on offer.
You can spend an incredible amount of money and expend a tremendous amount of energy starting a church in Waxahachie that will be more impressive and more attractive than the other 80-some churches located here. And you will draw a lot of people to your services as a result, many of them from other churches. But that is not what Jesus has called his Church to do.
With all that said, you might be left asking whether we even gather for services on Sunday mornings. Absolutely. We do it with all the excellence that Jesus deserves. And we even advertise our services like every other church in town. The difference is that we want to prioritize and focus on what Jesus has already done to gather people to himself, into his family, and not on what we must do to gather people to our services, into our building.
It seems like this generation of believers has really identified with the term “disciple.” Where do you think this focus comes from? I’m not a sociologist so this is an uneducated stab in the dark —and certainly you’ll find people to disagree— but I suspect that disciple-making, and our identity as disciples, has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years because of the confluence of several cultural factors. The first, I think, is a recognition that churches over the past several decades have failed miserably at discipleship. People who have made commitments to follow Jesus have languished for years in churches that have prioritized attracting seekers over disciple-making and disciple-maturing. That realization began during my generation (GenX) and continues with Millennial’s today. Second, the rise of neo-Calvinism introduced a more proactive approach to discipleship into the broader Evangelical movement —which has existed all along in mainline Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches in the form of catechesis and liturgy. And thirdly, both of the aforementioned factors were introduced into the consciousness of Evangelicalism because they have been widely discussed and disseminated through the internet.
Whatever the reason, I believe recapturing our identity as disciples is a Reformation-sized positive development for the Church.
How did being and making disciples become a huge focus for you? I became convinced of it by studying the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus, discipleship in community is the only Church Growth Strategy that he concerned himself with. It is Plan A and there is no Plan B. This was hiding in plain sight in the Gospels for as long as I had been reading the Scriptures.
And I was further influenced toward this by experiencing a healthy and intentional discipleship community before receiving the call to pastor.
How did you become a pastor? I did not become a pastor in the typical way that most pastors become pastors. I received the call to ministry later in life than most. I was living and working in the Pacific Northwest, enjoying a fantastic career, building a suborbital space vehicle for a billionaire entrepreneur when I discovered that I had a higher calling than space. My family and I were serving at our church and I was being discipled by our pastor. That church, as ours is today, was a disciple-making and church planting church. And as I grew in knowledge and conviction, I knew that I’d not be staying there very long. So in 2010, at the age of 36, I resign from my career, moved to Dallas, and entered seminary.
It was not my intention to remain here in Texas. A pioneering spirit in me wanted to take the gospel somewhere else, where the Kingdom of Heaven is underrepresented here in our country. But that all changed in 2015 when I was invited to serve as an interim pastor for our church, Community Life Church as we were formerly named. Four months later I accepted the offer to serve the church as their pastor.
What kind of pastor do you hope to be? I hope to be a pastor who smells like sheep and dies with his boots on.
As a pastor, you share some of the best and worst moments that life can offer. How have you seen God answer prayers? I’ve seen him change my own life. I’ve seen my life at it’s worst and witnessed God’s answer to my own prayers, that he’d rescue me and transform me. And he has!
And not just me but others as well. We recently lost a member of our church when he was pulled off life support this past Fall. His heart was hard and rocky soil. But through many years of prayer and service to him and his family, God softened his heart and he gave his life fully over to Jesus in the weeks before his death.
What do you do when it seems that prayers aren’t being answered? Sometimes, in my weakness, I fret like everyone else. But more often than not, in His grace, the Spirit will whisper to me that the Father loves me far more than I could possibly dare hope. And if that’s true, then God is merciful to withhold the things that I often want for myself. If the Father knows exactly what I have need of even before I ask (Matthew 6:8) then he also knows exactly what I do not have need after I have asked, too.
God will often delay in answering our prayers because pouring our hearts out to him in our petitions is far more important to him and more advantageous for us than having those prayers immediately answered. And he will often tell us no. Because in saying no, he will save us from a life of enslaved worship to the gifts that he would otherwise provide us.
However, in the absence of more information, I will continue to ask my Father for those things my heart desires and that I genuinely believe I have need of.
What has been the biggest challenge to launching a church? Convincing Christians in this culture that the Church is not a rose scented convalescent home where you sit comfortably waiting for your turn to die. The Church is God’s people, sent on God’s mission, sent in God’s power, for God’s eternal glory.
How has Jesus led you through those challenges? The Bible. Seriously. That’s not just a Sunday School answer.
The Bible is the most fascinating library that has ever been compiled. It’s made up of a bunch of smaller stories, and histories, and poems that are each telling one great BIG and BEAUTIFUL story. The story about Jesus! And when I tell that story, people can’t help but be swept away into the story themselves. And when they understand who they are in Jesus’ story, they start living their lives in a brand new way and become truly human.
And as I look to that story myself and rehearse it daily in my heart, it brings all of the challenges of my ministry labor into perspective.
What kind of good works have emerged from the collective ministry of SOMA? We believe that gospel affected hearts will necessarily produce gospel effective hands that work righteousness and justice. And in our effort to assure that our gospel hands are growing at a rate that’s consistent with our gospel hearts, we have organized a quarterly service project in Waxahachie where we serve our neighbors in ways that express to them how God has served us in Jesus. We’ve named this project #morelikeheaven.
If all that stuff we say we believe as Christians is true —that Jesus is King and he brought his Kingdom of Heaven with him to this earth— then we ought to expect that wherever that good news goes and takes root, that those places will over time look less like hell and more like heaven on earth. We are doing our best to live like we actually believe that this is true. And this is one of the many good works that have resulted as a result of Soma.
What’s next for SOMA? We’re currently working toward multiplying, diversity, and equipping.
Soma is the Greek word for Body. And in Ephesians 1:22-23 Paul writes that Jesus was given as head over all things to the church, which is his body (his Soma), the fullness of him who fills all in all. And with that understanding —that Jesus fills us up with his presence— we want to organize our lives as a church to take him with us everywhere we go. We do that as smaller groups that we call missional communities. These missional communities operate more like small house churches than they do a typical small group bible study. The thing that makes these missional communities most unique is that each community identifies a people group who they are sent to serve as missionaries.
Our long term goal is that we would have one missional community per 1,000 people in Waxahachie. With that sort of saturation not a single man, woman, or child in Waxahachie can go without a daily encounter with the living Christ through his people.
In Ephesians 2:11-22 Paul teaches us that Jesus’ death on the cross destroyed the dividing wall of hostility that kept Gentile and Jew from worshiping with one another. We can extend that principle to say that the gospel has also destroyed every hostile racial and cultural boundary that exists between every culture and race still today. And Jesus has reconciled us to God in one body (one soma) through the cross.
So as we look to our future in Waxahachie we want to be a Church family that faithfully represents the diversity of our beautifully diverse city. And we are working and praying toward that end, that God would build himself a racially diverse family here in downtown that this world cannot possibly create.
Finally, in Ephesians 4:9-16, Paul teaches us that Jesus’ body (his Soma) is made up of many members, who each possess particular gifts, that are all working synergistically toward one goal —to equip one another for the work of ministry until we all attain to unity in our faith and of the knowledge of Jesus, and measure up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
We want to be an equipping, empowering, and a sending church. So we’re currently working on building systems and structures that provide the type of training and discipleship that will make our future gospel endeavors successful.
How do you #LIVEURBANWELL? God hasn’t just called me to pastor a church in this city. He’s called me to love Waxahachie and take spiritual responsibility for the place where he’s planted my feet. That means I celebrate what’s beautiful and good and right about this place. But it also means that I grieve over the things that are dark, and ugly, and evil about it too. So I #liveurbanwell by working to promote the things that make this city flourish and against the power of those things that make this city whither.