The only letter of recommendation we need is you yourselves. Your lives are a letter written in our hearts; everyone can read it and recognize our good work among you. Clearly, you are a letter from Christ showing the result of our ministry among you. This “letter” is written not with pen and ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. It is carved not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts. (2 Cor 3:2-3, NLT)
Those who serve faithfully in the mission of God leave their fingerprints all over the life of a church – most notably, as Paul notes, on the hearts and lives of those they minister to.
Last Sunday we said goodbye to over a dozen church members who will move to Austin, Texas, to help form the core of a new church there. They go to plant the seed of the gospel in the soil of Austin’s city-culture, and then to trust the sovereignty of God to raise up a thriving church. I love all of these people for the mark they have made on Coram Deo. But two of them leave a stronger-than-normal “fingerprint” on my life and on the life of our church community: Will Walker and Kendal Haug.
I first met the Walkers in 1999 when they joined our staff team working with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Texas. Will and I labored alongside each other in the fraternity system seeking to turn alcohol-drenched frat boys into Christ-centered kingdom laborers. When I showed up on campus in 1997, I started asking students which fraternity was most in need of gospel witness. The answer was unanimous: Sigma Alpha Epsilon. It was one of the largest frat houses on campus, known for drugs, drunkenness, and general debauchery. No one knew of a single Christian there. After a couple years of prayer, patience, and persistent ministry, I surfaced a couple of guys who wanted to follow Jesus. Walker parlayed those few contacts into a small army of disciples: by 2004, over 35 SAE members were immersed in gospel community. The entire culture of the fraternity house changed. Many of Seed Austin’s financial supporters – and even a few members of the launch team – are former SAE’s.
That experience made it clear to me that Walker and I were a unique team. Our complementary gifts and strengths and our strong friendship made for great ministry impact. So when God gave me the vision to start Coram Deo, I began to bug Walker about joining us. I lobbied him throughout 2004 and 2005. Finally, in the summer of 2006, he sensed it was time to make a change. He and Debbie moved to Omaha knowing no one except for Leigh and me. The people of Coram Deo – about 90 strong at that time – graciously welcomed him and took my word for it that we’d be better off with his influence.
They’re no longer taking my word for it. The proof is in the health, growth, and strength of Coram Deo. Walker’s fingerprints are everywhere. He honed our missional community structure so that spiritual formation could take place. He co-authored The Gospel-Centered Life, which has sold 40,000 copies thus far and is shaping gospel DNA in churches far and wide. He personally discipled, counseled, and taught countless people inside and outside of Coram Deo. And perhaps most significantly to me, he “had my back.” He called me to repentance when I needed it, yet stood firmly by my side on dozens of occasions when I was slandered, misunderstood, and disrespected. That sort of thing comes with the territory – Jesus promised nothing less (Matthew 5:11-12). But as any church planter will tell you, it’s nice to have some company.
About a year after Walker showed up, we started recruiting Kendal to join our team. We were in desperate need of a generalist – a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy who could set up a sound system, lead a discipleship group, write HTML code, or do theological research. That person didn’t exist within Coram Deo at the time. Kendal was making good money working for (aka running) bible.org. But he didn’t want to be a computer geek; he wanted to develop as a pastor. So he took a pay cut, raised his own financial support, and moved to Omaha to join our team. When he came, we gave him a simple job description: “Just make sh*% happen.” And that’s exactly what he’s done for almost three years.
Kendal’s genius is simple: he discerns needs and meets them. That goes for relationships, for pastoral ministry, and for functional tasks. When he first got here, I was still showing up 90 minutes early on Sunday mornings to help set up the sound system and manage chaos. He took me aside and said: “Hey, we need you to preach. You just worry about that. Let me handle the rest.” During his two-and-a-half years at Coram Deo, Kendal has majored in that sort of thoughtful execution: discerning the “next stage” and getting us there with excellence, precision, and theological rigor. He’s done this in worship (moving us from one small worship team to a diverse worship team with multiple leaders); communication (building a new website, new member’s forum, and new communication tools); liturgy (systematizing and streamlining the flow and execution of our Sunday gatherings); and special projects (most notably, the worship album ‘Doxology’ which he took from concept to completion).
I’ve played basketball with the same group of guys for years. The result is an unspoken chemistry: I sense the move they’re going to make, the shot they’re going to take, or the defensive weakness they’re seeking to exploit. Working with Walker and Kendal is a lot like that. If you’ve ever been on a team like that, you know what a loss it is for me to launch these guys into the work of church planting. But we’ve always said, “The church exists for mission, not comfort.” This is what it means to be serious about the mission of God.
And though their presence is no longer felt in our community, their fingerprints remain. We are a “letter of recommendation” commending their ministry. May we pick up the torch and write our own letters by sowing the seed of the gospel in the hearts of others.