Marginal Christianity

John Wayne grew up in Bryan-College Station, Texas, in a church-going home he describes as “marginally Christian.” Though he and his siblings attended church camp and mission trips, he didn’t sense that anyone in his family had a personal relationship with Christ. 

John Wayne believes that his family’s marginal Christianity cost them. When tragedy, trauma and addiction issues hit their family, his brother went to prison. “Everyone in our family kind of folded in the pressing of that trauma and difficulty,” he says. When it was time to go to college, John Wayne went off “to do things on my own and figure out life, and found out how difficult things can be without some core relationships and definitely without faith.” 

As John Wayne navigated his college years with personal struggles, a turning point occurred when he was waiting tables back home in College Station. A youth leader from his home church came in and coincidentally – or providentially – sat in his section. She knew John Wayne had been in and out of church, and she insisted he come back and help with the youth. John Wayne, who was on house arrest with a DWI and only allowed to leave his house for work and school, showed her his ankle monitor. “You don’t want me around young people,” he said. The woman would not take no for an answer. Showing the hospitality of Christ, she told John she loved him and wanted him to come to church and serve. 

Blue Bell Ice Cream in Kentucky

John Wayne eventually did come to church and volunteer at the youth program. At the same time, a young woman named Lauren began interning there as a youth leader. She would someday become John Wayne’s wife.

His volunteer youth position put John Wayne on the path to answering his call. “That started a trajectory that really led to my salvation but also to this calling and love for the local church to be the extension, presence and avenue of the salvation of God, to reach people and to call them home,” John Wayne says. From that point forward, he wanted to serve the local church and sensed the call to be a pastor.

As called and gifted as he was, however, he wanted to learn more about the ministry. Because the most formative Christians in his life were Asbury Seminary grads, John Wayne found himself visiting the Kentucky campus in Wilmore. Far away from Texas, Wilmore felt like a strange place. Then, at a store near the Seminary, he found a container of Blue Bell ice cream – a brand native to Texas. With this little taste of home, John Wayne felt confirmation that he was in the right place.

While working toward his M.Div. at Asbury Seminary, John Wayne’s calling and spiritual gifts were affirmed by others. He was also a member of Asbury Seminary’s first church-planting cohort. While at Seminary, he married his fiancee, Lauren, who joined him in Kentucky. Then, halfway through his seminary education, John Wayne received a pastoral appointment back in Texas, one that included initiating a church plant. The Seminary helped him finish his M.Div. remotely, and he graduated in 2016. 

Drinking From a Fire Hydrant

John Wayne’s appointment, a Methodist church just outside of Houston, “was like drinking from a fire hydrant of leadership and ministry,” he says. In his six years there, he endured hurricane Harvey, where 250 homes in his church alone were submerged in water. Then his senior pastor died of a heart attack, leaving John Wayne to co-pastor this large church with just a few years of pastoral experience. Due to these circumstances, church planting was put on hold. John Wayne next served at a Methodist church in Tyler, Texas, for a couple years. In the midst of having three young children, John Wayne and Lauren moved twice and went through Covid.

Then came the opportunity John Wayne had been waiting for: to plant a church. He was called to First Methodist Conroe in North Houston to plant a church from that community. Within just a few months of his arrival, however, he was drinking from yet another fire hydrant. His church went through disaffiliation and joined the Global Methodist Church, which led the senior pastor to go in another direction. John Wayne was, once again, asked to step up in his role. “I went from church planter to being asked by the board to be the lead pastor of this church,” he says. 

John Wayne now lives out his calling in each of his passions. He is serving as a lead pastor, launching a church plant, and training other leaders in church planting and discipleship. 

Contextualized Church Planting

John Wayne and his family live in the neighborhood where the church plant is launching. Regarding church planting, he says, “What’s funny is, nobody can really tell you how to do it, because it’s different in every mission field, every context. Anybody that has a book on church planting, I’m very skeptical of.” He perceives church planting as requiring flexibility, listening, willingness to change directions, dependance on God, and prayer. “You never know what you’re going to run into – the obstacles that come up, the difficulties that you face,” he says. 

John Wayne considers listening to be the key to contextualization. Because the church plant meets in an elementary school, he and his team met with school leaders. “We just listened and asked, ‘What do you need? What kinds of families are involved in your school? How can we support you?’ And then we had community events, house parties… and we just listened.” They hear from many millennials with families about the demands of life and about struggling in isolation. “The opportunity for contextualization is to not change the message, but to consider how the gospel actually meets that need specifically.” 

Another primary demographic are early retirees moving to the area. “That’s a whole new stage of life with different needs and problems or challenges. How can we present the gospel in a way that speaks directly specifically to those needs?”

Wesleyan Bands and Class Meetings 

John Wayne is as passionate about Wesleyan discipleship as he is about church planting. Introduced to class meetings and bands while at Asbury, he’s been helping churches start Wesleyan discipleship groups for 10 years. “In the early Methodist movement, the office of the class leader, not of the clergy, was probably the most prominent. Lay class leaders were shepherding people and helping to disciple people,” John Wayne says. “And so my urgency is, how do we retrieve that in the best way for our church today? How do we raise up disciple-making lay leaders?” 

These questions are what John Wayne tackled as he did his doctoral work at United Theological Seminary. His church plant will start with class meetings from its very beginning, and class leaders are being trained. Additionally, John Wayne has been tasked with leading a class meeting team for the whole GMC conference. “So we’re helping churches across the three states in our conference to start classes.” 

According to John Wayne, Wesley’s classes and bands hold us accountable to means of grace like worshiping together, sacraments, scripture and prayer. Classes are mixed gender groups of 10-12, whereas band groups are usually small and same-gendered and include confessing sin. Both kinds of groups answer transformational questions such as,‘“How are you experiencing the movement of the spirit through scripture and prayer?” Answering such questions regularly, according to John Wayne, teaches us to expect to encounter the Spirit.

The Catch-All Word

John Wayne has observed something unfortunate: the word “discipleship” has meant so many things that it has come to mean nothing. He describes it as a catch-all word for any form of Christian education and even for fellowship and hangout. But the real meaning is something much more involved. “The biblical witness of discipleship is about helping people to be an apprentice of Jesus… where they spend their life with him, so they become like him, so that when they’re sent into the world, they do what He did in the world,” says John Wayne. 

Discipleship should also be counter-cultural. “You have kind of a secularism narrative in the world that would say that we can essentially progress to a certain level of utopia on our own… and it’s all fueled by social media,” says John Wayne. “In that narrative, we think we can get heaven without God.”

John Wayne describes true discipleship as helping people really stay with Jesus and have an intimate relationship with Christ; it involves positioning ourselves in community groups, testifying and giving language to what God is doing in our lives, and helping each other see what we might not see ourselves. “It should be less about information and more about transformation,” he says. 

Expectation that God Could Do It

John Wayne and Lauren desire to remain planted and rooted for a long time. “We really just want to invest in the community that we’re called to,” he says. At the very root of this is nurturing a high expectation of what God will do. 

“We believe in divine action, intellectually, but functionally I don’t think we actually act that way. So I’m desperate for us all, and particularly Methodist churches, to awaken to all that God has for us,” he says. “And if we can have those high expectations, then God is going to lead us and guide us in places where we get to experience healing of all kinds and crazy ministry opportunities.” 

One of these “crazy ministry opportunities” happened when a church member in hospice work was caring for an elderly atheist man who felt hatred for God. She invited John Wayne and a couple other leaders into his home as his aggressive cancer indicated the end of his life was near. They invited him to church and, surprisingly, he agreed to come. 

He was wheeled into the service, and, in the midst of the service, he began to cry and worship. A group of church members then prayed over him, and he received holy communion for the first time. He died five days later. “We got to witness a breakthrough that the Lord was doing with him, because we had expectation that God could do it,” says John Wayne. “And we were willing to step into uncomfortable, weird places… We need to expect God to work, and when that takes root in a local church, even with a remnant of people, the Lord can do more than we can ask or imagine.” 

John Wayne and Lauren are privileged to serve together at First Methodist Conroe, as she is on staff both assisting the church plant and coordinating the Sunday morning hospitality team. “We want to always find ways to serve in ministry together,” John Wayne says. “I don’t know about the details of the future; but I just know that we’re called to help see First Methodist Conroe to multiply, to reach outside of themselves and to grow in faith.”

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