God willing, our family will soon be moving to Atlanta, Georgia. In my last post I dropped some hints about us moving to “really bad farmland,” so I thought I should share the news here. Continue reading for a rambling post full of theological and personal reflection.
Five years ago this month we moved to Iowa from New York City, after about seven years in The Big Apple. We came here to support my wife Zonya’s parents as her father’s health declined. Since Albert died in December, we have been “in transition mode,” asking God what’s next for our family. Many options and invitations came our way. Of the many, The Big Peach (aka “Atlanta”) gradually claimed center spot in our thoughts.
I’ve never felt good at making major decisions, but I have learned (slowly, repeatedly) that we can fully trust God to to care and to guide as he sees fit.
There is much mystery in how God guides our steps. I do not believe that it is normally the case that God has one detailed, perfect plan for our lives that he is keeping secret from us, a plan that we must beg him to supernaturally reveal lest we fall short of his perfect will. When we read about God’s will for us in Scripture, it is a much deeper matter: His will is that we be conformed to Christ in all dimensions of our character. In the specific “accidental” choices of life, he usually gives us much freedom. For example, in the choice of a marriage partner, we are to marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39) rather than to look for Mr. or Ms. Right. So the normal call in decision-making is a call to walk in wisdom within the moral boundaries God has provided.
But then there are also times when God speaks dramatically into our lives, giving very specific guidance: “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Often such special guidance comes unexpectedly, both in the sense that we aren’t seeking special guidance at the time and that the content of the guidance surprises us. Yet Scripture also records multiple cases of God’s people specially seeking him during times when important decisions are made: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for us Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them'” (Acts 13:2).
To sum it up, it seems we should follow the example that Paul shares in passages such as Romans 1:9-15, Romans 15:18-32, and 1 Corinthians 16:5-9. Garry Friesen summarizes Paul’s approach in six bullet points:
- Purposes: Paul adopted spiritual goals that were based on divine revelation.
- Priorities: He arranged his goals into wise priorities determining what should be done first, second, third, and so on.
- Plans: Next, he devised a strategy for accomplishing his objectives.
- Prayer: Through prayer, he submitted himself and his plans to the sovereign will of God…
- Perseverance: When providentially hindered from accomplishing his plans, he assumed that the delay was God’s sovereign will. This conviction freed him from discouragement…
- Presentation: Paul explained his decisions on the basis of God’s moral will and his personal application of wisdom. 1
I—like some other people whose decisions I have respected—have found Garry Friesen’s book [amazon text=Decision Making and the Will of God&asin=1590522052] to be freeing. I might tweak Friesen’s discussion in a few spots, such as his understanding of special guidance through spiritual gifts such as prophecy. But I think his approach sets a strong biblical foundation for making decisions that please God. (For a very similar approach in a much shorter span, see Kevin DeYoung’s [amazon text=Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will&asin=0802411592].) Turn your heart passionately after God and trust, child-like, that he will guide you.
So how has God been guiding us toward Atlanta? I’ll give the “short” version in another series of bullet points:
- We began intentionally praying for guidance immediately upon Albert’s passing in December, and we began asking counsel of long-time friends and advisers early this year.
- God began working much earlier. I’ll start with my shoulder problems which began about June, 2014—though I could trace God’s sovereign hand back to my birth and before. These shoulder problems drastically reduced my hours at work for over half a year—which gave me much more time to launch this website.
- A “Steve Smucker” sent me a Facebook message in mid-February that included this:
Dwight, I’ve been following your posts for a short while now and have been thoroughly enjoying your thoughts and writings… I am curious about a statement you made a while back that seemed to insinuate the possibility of you relocating to another area… [A friend] and I have been in discussions for the last few months about the possibility of starting an Anabaptist church here in the city… Last week your name came to my mind for some reason. My wife and I have been wishing for several years to have another couple or two join us in ministering to the community. We have contacted two other couples in the last year but it has not worked for either. Obviously there would need to be a lot of discussion to see if we are compatible both in our spiritual understanding and vision as well as general life. As I mentioned before I have found many of your posts resonating strongly within me… I know this is abrupt and as far as I know you don’t really know myself or my wife. We do see a lot of opportunities to serve and witness throughout Atlanta and see it as an area that is needing a rebirth of genuine Scriptural teaching as well as authentic Christianity in our lifestyle. Please prayerfully consider this. I completely understand if you already have somewhere God is taking you and your family, if there is hesitation about us due to not knowing us or any other reason, so if this is something you know right away is not for you feel free to let me know.
- This message led to some written dialogue, followed by several long phone calls.
- By May, Zonya and I felt peace about reducing our many options to a short list of three, one being Atlanta. (I’m leaving out some really significant pondering and dialogue regarding other options.)
- In June we visited Atlanta. I think it was my first time in the city. It was certainly our first time meeting Steve and Christy and their family. On our way there, I told Zonya that this felt a bit like going on a first date: We might walk away from this never to return, saying “Well, that was interesting!” Or it might be all fuzzy and unclear when we’re done. Or it might be instantly life-changing. Which was it? Well, all ten of us (they have three young boys, we have three young girls) hit it off famously and immediately during our four-day visit. Within minutes the children were happily playing by themselves, and we adults spent long hours comparing life stories and personal convictions and biblical understandings and visions for church and ministry. By the time we left, we knew we had at minimum gained new friends.
- The rest of June and July we communicated more with the Smuckers and also followed up on our other short list options. (One of these is part-time teaching at a Bible school. We have applied and are awaiting a response.)
- August arrived and we still felt peace and desire regarding Atlanta. So we specially gave the month of August to God, inviting him to say “no” or “not yet” regarding Atlanta if he saw fit. We told him we would say “yes” to Atlanta if he didn’t send an orange or red light before September 1. During this month Zonya and I took time each week to fast, pray, and listen. Steve and I also exchanged character references. All the references that Steve provided spoke highly of his character, and I also had a really good phone visit with his dad, Elmer (formerly a bishop in Lott, Texas).
- It was a bit hard to sleep the night of August 31, and not just because I was sleeping in a tent in the backyard with my family. When we woke up in the morning, we finally made our decision: We were moving to Atlanta!
We’ve had some interesting conversations with our children in the past few days. Several days ago our oldest (six) asked me, “So, what church will we be part of in Atlanta?” I told her that Steves and us will be a church together. “What, a ten-person church?!” But a smile peeked around the surprised look. I assured her our goal is to invite others to join us as a church and follow Jesus together. “Dad, are there any other churches in Atlanta?” “Oh, there’s a lot, over 100.” “Are there any Mennonite churches?” “Yes, I know of two. But I’m sad to say that in some ways they don’t obey the Bible very well.” “Maybe some of them will decide to join our church.” “That would be wonderful.”
Last evening our middle daughter (four) asked me earnestly, “Dad…? Did God say Yes?” (It took me a moment to confirm she was asking about our move to Atlanta.) Well, what is the right answer? Though I have a lot of peace about our decision, I can’t point to any undisputable special revelation from God telling us he wants us to go. So I told her that, yes, I think God will be very pleased if we move to Atlanta to learn to live in love and truth with Steve and Christy and their family and invite others to help us follow Jesus. She seemed content with this answer, and so am I. God will redirect if he so chooses.
I’m excited to think of raising our family in a new church in Atlanta! History shows that most Christian organizations, including churches, go through a common life cycle that has been summarized as Man –> Movement –> Machinery –> Monument. God can bring revival that rescues us from this “death cycle,” but look around and you will see a lot of churches where most participants have long lost the vision of the founding generation. Yes, God can certainly deliver us from this death cycle. And I think one of the very best ways he prefers to do this is by sending many of us out as men and women to begin new movements—new ministries and churches that express in fresh ways the Great Commission heart of God. (This sending vision can also rejuvenate the “old” church.) So it excites me to have the opportunity to raise a family in a setting that is decidedly not at the “Monument” stage—to give them the chance to be part of the first (or second) generation in the life cycle of a church. Yes, new churches bring great challenges and dangers. But none greater than those facing old churches! (For more on these ideas, see [amazon text=Historical Drift: Must My Church Die?&asin=0875099017] by Arnold L. Cook.)
So, that’s a peek into some of the decisions our family has been making in recent months. Now we’re facing many more: Which Atlanta neighborhood should we move into? Which house? What about employment options? Ministry options? And what about learning to make decisions as a fledgling two-family church? At this point we expect to move as soon as we settle the housing question (perhaps already this year), and I expect to continue writing for Open Hands and to seek new piano students. Much else remains to be discovered as we and the Smuckers learn to seek the Lord together.
If you think of us, please pray also that God will meet the needs that we did not say “yes” to. Pray especially for our dear friends here in Leon, Iowa. There are church needs and loved ones here that tug on our hearts. We long for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done ever more fully!
If you want to know more about Steve and Christy, you can visit one of Christy’s excellent websites—which are way more attractive than mine, by the way:
- See “Moving Out in Faith” for Smucker family adventures—including recent visits to urban churches in Philadelphia, Boston, and (soon) New York City.
- See “C. Smucker Photography” for great family photojournalism.
And what will a move to Atlanta (God willing) mean for this website? Here are some things I expect:
- My posts may be more sporadic during the months of moving.
- The challenges of learning to live as a new local expression of Christ’s body will affirm and sharpen my focus on ecclesiology. What constitutes a church? What does a church do when it gathers? How are church leaders chosen? How are decisions made? Who is a church member? How do churches share the gospel? How do they make disciples? How do they serve their communities? How do they live as a community? How do they relate to other congregations in the neighborhood?
- Sooner or later (probably sooner) I will need to gain a firmer grip on some tough issues like responding to divorce and remarriage.
- My idealism will be further tested on the anvils of real life and real life will issue new cries for ideals worth living.
- Urban living and cross-cultural relationships will reduce my exposure to traditional rural Mennonite concerns and increase my ponderings about welcoming all peoples to the gospel way.
- I will likely want to read books like House Church and Mission and The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission and A Light to the Nations and King Jesus Claims His Church and Divided by Faith and Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church and Our God is Undocumented and books by John Perkins and a host of others I haven’t yet seen…
- My computer may overheat when The Big Peach cooks next summer, and that might be the end of Dwight Gingrich Online.
It’s a bit hard to think that my children might never learn to properly skate, let alone play hockey. Our oldest shed tears over this recently, and I nearly did, too.
But I’m excited that our family is moving into new adventures with God. He’s led the way from The Great White North to The Big Apple and The Corn State. Now it’s on to The Big Peach—and someday to the New Jerusalem on the New Earth!
For Christ and his Church,
If you have thoughts on decision-making, our upcoming Atlanta move, or anything else worth hearing, share them in the comments below. Thank you!
- Decision Making and the Will of God, rev. and updated ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2004), 230. ↩
22 thoughts on “A Is for Atlanta”
Interesting, my first thought when I saw the Facebook post was “I wonder what a conservative Anabaptist is going to do about church in Atlanta?” It should be interesting to watch this develop from a distance. It might also be an interesting blog post. It seems in my limited exposure to Anabaptism that more “progressive”, neo-Anabaptist types tend to be urban/suburban while the “conservative” Anabaptist groups tend to be more rural and linked to agriculture. Perhaps I am wrong about that but it seems to be the case. God’s endless blessings for you and your family as you prepare to move, that is always a challenging time.
Thanks for the blessings, Arthur! Hmm. You write of “‘progressive’, neo-Anabaptist types.” But of course! I’m a socialist Canadian Mennonite, after all, right? 😉 More seriously, I do agree that cities tend to attract Anabaptists who are more ready to think outside their cultural boxes. Sometimes this results in good fruit and sometimes in bad. My sincere desire is that we will be guided by the Word and Spirit of Christ as we navigate the intersection of our Anabaptist heritage and the lessons and needs of urban living. Hopefully both Anabaptists and urban residents can learn from each other! And we’ll gladly add Hoosiers to the mix, too, when you come to visit.
Edith and I bless you in your move to Atlanta! It will be interesting to see how God will use you there. Many of your life experiences will be helpful in what you are being led into now. We will stand by you and pray with you as you face the challenges of this new venture.
Thank you, Merle and Edith. Your support in the past, including in this year of change, has meant so much. Your support as we learn the lessons of this next chapter will be also be a great blessing!
If my grandkids can ice skate in Hong Kong, surely your kids can learn to skate in Atlanta. If my son-in-law, who lives in HK, can play goalie for the national team in a tournament in the United Arab Emirates, then there’s hope for you, too. Well, maybe not as a goalie.
Dave, that’s a good word from someone who has moved a lot (and whose children are also on the move). I’m sure we can find a solution for skating if we prioritize it. At minimum, if we can keep them from becoming football fans I’ll be happy! 🙂
Congratulations! I’m excited for all of you. Another resource regarding the Gospel in urban environments that I would recommend is Center Church by Timothy Keller.
Thanks, Duane! And yes, a good book. I’ve read it! (Now if I could remember and practice it all!)
Thanks for the comment.
We are excited for you, and bless you! I know that sometimes it’s hard to see your children sacrificing things, but it’s a good chance to teach them about giving up in order to invest in God’s kingdom.
I can’t wait to hear all about how you flesh out church in Atlanta! I’m glad you will have a team. When I read your post, I felt this sick longing to have another family here with us, too. But I trust God will keep taking care of us…
Enjoy your adventure with God!
Thank you, Rosina. I do hope you and Will find (or win?) a family to join you in witness and worship right in your own town. I have great admiration for how Steve and Christy have obediently lived alone in Atlanta for nearly 5 years, and am very glad to help answer their prayers for teammates. May your prayers likewise be answered in His time.
Atlanta is a great place. God bless you in your work there.
Thanks, Josh (Good, I assume?). It’s fun hearing from friends who know the city better than we do so far. I anticipate learning more of what God’s already doing there.
I don’t feel very positive about moving a family to a city without an established church. Being part of a close community with people of all ages and the inter-relationships with school, church are business are very good for children. They can form lifetime friendships. However, in the city, life is compartmentalized and anonymous so that people’s social ties are much weaker.
Unless you have a tight Christian community, I see this as a recipe for individualism and acculturation so that the children will have a very hard time adjusting to a close community with accountability. It sounds like a decision to suit the parent’s desires, not a decision with the best interests of the children in mind. (I say this as someone who lived in Los Angeles for 47 years, then found conservative Mennonites when I was 47 and moved to a small town.
Barbara, thanks for sharing from your experience. It would be interesting to hear more of your life story which has led you to your conclusions. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but I admire Ernest Witmer, who moved his family there to plant churches.
If I may, I will gently push back against some of your thoughts. First, having lived in New York City for over seven years, we are well aware of some of the social challenges that urban living can bring. It is true, for example, that there aren’t always suitable first jobs so naturally available for teens. Examples could be multiplied.
Yet I have also observed families who have raised their children well in such settings, including some who have been pioneer church planters as families. I’m excited about modeling for our children our status as strangers and pilgrims who have no eternal earthly city, and about the spiritual conversations that should happen unavoidably as they grow up seeing first hand the spiritual and material needs in our world. (I’ve heard Clayton Shenk–church planter in York, PA, for example, talk of the value of hosting unbelievers in their home and having his children listen in on the conversations that arose.)
No, cities are not for everyone, and for some of us cities are only good for a season. But cities are where the majority of people on this planet, including families, are living. If the gospel is not sufficient for families living in cities, then the gospel is insufficient for most people on Planet Earth. If all we can do is send singles or childless couples to cities to urge families to leave so they can follow Christ, then we are missing something. I might also add that the NT records many urban believers, and historians note that large cities in the NT era were similarly transient and sometimes even more densely populated than those in America. We are not facing anything categorically different than those believers.
So we are going with the intention of partnering very closely with a family that has already bravely followed God’s call into Atlanta, helping to provide the relationship and accountability that they are seeking. We want to balance pioneering courage with patient community. And we are also going with the counsel and blessing of many who have known us well for years, some of whom have lived longer than us in large cities and transient missionary settings.
I welcome you to turn your concerns into prayer on our behalf! 🙂 We and our children will need all the prayers we can get. I am keenly aware there is no way we can guarantee our children will choose to follow Christ. But I am also sure that he will guide us in paths that are good for them as well as for us, and that for us to follow his guidance is the best thing we can do for them.
Grace and peace to you, Barbara!
I have been thinking about this ever since I read your comment a few days ago. Perhaps because I partly agree with you, the city doesn’t feel very “safe,” especially for children. And safety (physically, but especially spiritually) matters a lot to me, especially since the children involved in this situation are my well-beloved nieces.
Your perspective comes out of your experience, the same as my perspective comes out of my experience. Because our experiences have been different, our perspectives will be different as well. I enjoyed hearing both the little bit of experience you shared, as well as your perspective… and I’m sure you could say so much more about both! So here, I am going to share just a little bit of my experience, and a little bit of my perspective.
I had the blessing of growing up in a rural community, with a conservative church, and a church school. God did use those things to help shape my life. I now live on a farm in a different rural community, and value the small church we are part of, and am thankful for the resources that are part of this community, like having several Christian schools, as well as a large network of home school resources available.
In the time that lapsed between where I grew up, and where I am now, I spent a couple years in nursing school, where I was the only conservative Mennonite (that I was aware of) in about a 50 mile radius. The interesting thing for me was that, in many ways, it was easier for me to live out my beliefs there, where my peers had questions about my faith, and where they EXPECTED me to live up to what I said I believed, and where they did not expect me to be like them, than it is to live out my beliefs in a place where we are surrounded by “Christian peer pressure.” Although the community we are in has the blessing of many Christians, and many conservative Mennonites, it is also swarming with confused young people.
I say this, not to downplay in any way the blessing of Christian community or an established church. But, with these observations in mind, I make this statement:
The “safest” place for us to raise our families is where God calls us to be.
Another observation I have made is the tendency of parents to hand their children over to the church, or to the school, and expect the spiritual training to happen there. Again, giving thanks for the blessing of church and Christian school, neither of these replace the responsibility of the parents to train their children. And the best training a child can receive is to watch their parents live a lifestyle of faith, even when it doesn’t “feel safe.”
For you, living a lifestyle of faith meant leaving the city. For others, that faith may lead them into the city, not for personal fulfillment, but to share their faith, and to lead their family in a lifestyle of faith, in an urban setting.
Dwight, this is exciting! And I will pray with you in your move as God brings you to mind. Blessings!
Thank you, Asher! We are excited, too! Who knows, I might be picking your brain about urban churching at some point. Blessings!
It’s been a bit since you wrote this, but I did want to publicly affirm your going. I’m so excited for you! I almost wish we could go with you:) I bless you. May you be filled with joy and peace and courage and the love of Jesus. Keep writing too. A theologian in the trenches is worth two in the study.
Thanks much, Will! That is a good blessing, one we need. And this: “A theologian in the trenches is worth two in the study.” I hope to keep one foot in the study and one in the trenches. 🙂 I think both benefit from contact with the other.
There is so much beauty in these posts and the ones you’ve linked to it. Thank you for sharing your story and some of the steps to the present revelation. God’s unfolding of His will for you and Zonya and your children encourages me.
Thank you, Janelle! Your words encourage me.