Derick Sherfey traded the mountains of East Tennessee for the Colorado mountains and the challenge of church planting in Denver.
Chris Turner: Hello and welcome into this edition of Radio B&R. I’m your host Chris Turner, and today we’re speaking with a special guest who is from Tennessee, but is a church planter in Denver. Tell us who you are and where are you from.
Derek Sherfey: Hey Chris. Yeah, thanks for having me. My name is Derek Sherfey now pastor of the Oaks Church here in beautiful Denver, but East Tennessee is home, it’s where I grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. My wife grew up there as well and then did most of her adult life up to this point in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Chris Turner: Well, so you guys are here in a Denver suburb, a Denver area. Which side of Denver are you on? Because we’re learning that Denver is quite large.
Derek Sherfey: Yes, and rapidly growing. So, we are in the Southeast corner of urban Denver, we’re about a handful of miles from downtown. So our neighborhood, they call it the doughnut. So we’re not urban, urban, like downtown, Skyrise, that sort of way. But we’re also not super suburban as you get way out into the … As the bedrock communities are growing out. So, we’re kind of in the in-between doughnut ring around the city.
Chris Turner: How does a couple from Johnson City wind up in the suburbs of Denver?
Derek Sherfey: Yeah, well that’s a long story. How much time do you have? Well, yeah, so like I say, I grew up in East Tennessee, that was home. The church that my wife grew up in, Tri-City Baptist Church there in the tri-cities area right there on I-25… 26, I’ve been gone too long. I-25 runs through Denver.
Chris Turner: It’s funny how 25 and 26 seem to be close together, but they’re not.
Derek Sherfey: They are not. But they’re the 26 and 81 intersection there in the Tri-Cities area. Yeah, so my wife grew up in that church. I was not walking with Jesus, really had just an encounter with the gospel. And Jesus grabbed hold of my heart, met my wife and went to church with her at Tri-Cities. Men became spiritual fathers to me in the absence of my earthly physical dad and that church really just valued spiritual formation in my life. My wife and I’s relationship grew, ended up getting married there, really discerned a calling to ministry as we were just in the trenches of making disciples who make disciples through a local church. Got a heart for the church and a surrender to the calling to pastoral ministry through our time at Tri-Cities. Then later came on staff and went to seminary at Southern Seminary while working on staff at Tri-Cities.
Worked as a student intern and then a college pastor and then we planted a multi-site campus with Tri-Cities and I served as the lead teaching pastor at that location. It was in downtown Johnson City, right in between East Tennessee State University and Milligan College there. Served there for almost five years. Loved it, loved those brothers. We get to serve alongside of those elders and until about now, it’s been almost three and a half years ago that God just began stirring our hearts. Our Tri-Cities exists to be a sending church to multiply the gospel and disciples and go into the nations. And we were sending, by God’s grace, to places like Denver and around the world to unreached peoples in places. So I always assumed that was going to be my calling, is to be a sender in an equipper in East Tennessee, in our hometown.
Definitely to see people come to know Jesus in East Tennessee, but to exist for the sake of places like where we are now. But about three and a half years ago, God began to break into our hearts that we were going to be some of the next ones to be sent.
Chris Turner: So the sender became the sendee.
Derek Sherfey: And that’s right. Yeah. And so we ran from it for a really long time and really kind of rubber hit the road. My last overseas trip, I was in Southeast Asia working with the Underground Persecuted Church with one of our partners there. And I was reading through the book of Isaiah on my own time with the Lord that morning. I got to Isaiah 61 and that’s the passage that Jesus claimed for himself in Luke 4, “This vision of Oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he would be glorified.”
And I just fell in love with Jesus again, Chris, to be honest with you. So before the calling was ever about Denver or even the Oaks Church, which comes right out of that passage, it was really a stirring up of the heart of Jesus and the heart of God for people that don’t have access to the gospel like we do in East Tennessee. And so I came back from that trip, just wrecked and in love with Jesus all over again. Talked to my wife, and we’d already been praying about what was next and brought it to our elders we were serving alongside of, and just consistently after every conversation, it was always, it’s about time you answered this call. Everybody was affirming that in us. And so-
Chris Turner: It’s one of those where everybody else could see.
Derek Sherfey: Yep.
Chris Turner: Was waiting on you guys to catch up.
Derek Sherfey: That’s exactly right. So that began just a process of fasting and prayer and just our yes on the table. And at that time we did not have Denver on our heart. We were just, we were open to going to the nations with AMB. We had planted some churches in Denver already. So we had started a church as a supporting church in downtown called the Summit Church. They’re 10 years old now and hundreds of people, we’ve seen dozens of people come to faith. And so we had Denver on our radar. We came out here on a vision trip with a few other cities in a few months. God just broke our heart uniquely for this place in a way that he didn’t any other places that we were. Lost people everywhere, we need churches everywhere, especially in our urban centers. But God called us very clearly to Denver and we were out here in our partnership with North American Mission Board.
Chris Turner: So, it’s one thing to come out and see that for a vision. It’s another to leave a place where, really is gospel-saturated. Just the adjustment and how is it different here as far as being involved at this level of church planting, church work and maybe what you experienced as a staff person in East Tennessee?
Derek Sherfey: Well. Yeah, there’s a lot of things different from a personal level. The culture is dramatically different here in the West, here in Denver and we’re fairly urban and where we are located. That’s just different than anything we’ve ever grown up around. So there’s that. We’ve always grown up around family in East Tennessee to see with the community and support structure where we grew up and we moved here not knowing hardly anyone, just a handful of folk that we were loosely connected with from church planting endeavors that we were already involved with.
So personally, it’s been a really big step of faith and starting over in a lot of ways. And then from the church side of things, from church planting versus being a part of a fairly large established church. Of course, we started the campus, but even that was a little different there in East Tennessee. And so when we think of church, we think gathering, preaching series, ministries for discipleship of our people. But what do you do when you don’t have people to pastor? And all of the things that I grew up around and what it meant to follow Jesus. We stepped into a context where none of that existed for our church.
And so what does it mean to just be with Jesus, become like Jesus and do what Jesus is doing and join him and where he’s at work when there’s not a lot of the structures that exist in the established church. And again, we’re not against that. We’re heading that way. We’re trying to build that here in this city, but instead of just attracting a bunch of Christians in a room that hopefully, the outworking of that’s to make disciples and engage the Kingdom. What does it mean to start with Kingdom first to say, to engage the city, to share the gospel by God’s grace, to see people come to know Jesus who are seeking and then out of that to see the church birthed?
Chris Turner: Have you had to change your expectations a little bit and coming out and kind of knowing some things, but then all of a sudden you’re… You live here. This is your reality, now. This isn’t like a mission trip out here, but this is now your reality. Have you guys kind of had to say, “Okay, we need to adjust the way that we view success in what we’re doing,” or somethings like that.
Derek Sherfey: Yeah. I think a couple of the big lessons we’ve learned, one is more God requires faithfulness, not just success. That’s success for us. Are we being faithful with Bibles open on our face before the Lord, to hear from God and do whatever he tells us to do? And that’s what success looks like, is being faithful to follow Jesus in the ordinary, mundane, everyday stuff of life. Like joining God in what he’s already doing in the lives that we’re already living. That’s where the extraordinary revival kind of stuff happens. So yeah, just walking with God in the ordinary things. But then because it’s slow, right? It’s slow. Even some of the largest churches that are most successful in our city are a 10th of the size of some of the largest churches back East. And so it’s just not going to be what I think a lot of times we see as successful.
But then the biggest lesson that I think that we’ve learned, Chris, is at the end of the day, it’s got to be about Jesus for us. And by God’s grace, that was our posture and our heart in East Tennessee. And we were part of a church that really believed that and so it wasn’t new to us, but we’ve learned it in very fresh ways. On the other side of obedience and in over our heads. We’ve always been over our heads. We can never see life change. We can never produce that in ourselves. But we feel it more deeply being out here. And so the posture of, if we’re not praying, we really don’t have a leg to stand on in this. And so at the end of the day, I just want to enjoy Jesus more. I want more of him. And if I’m walking in intimacy with Jesus and what’s on his heart gets on my heart, it’ll compel us to live for the joy of other people in this city.
Chris Turner: Well, we see the statistics from the NAMB website, kind of the whole background of what Denver is and we know that the volume of people to churches, access to the gospel, is really limited. So what are some of the challenges as you guys go about making those connections? What are some challenges or some barriers you face to really connecting with people or their response to the gospel and kind of that whole… You’ve got to make those relationships and it’s not so simple as offering four spiritual laws and people respond and, “Hey, we get saved, baptized or selling their own discipleship.” Just what are some of the challenges in getting someone even to that point where they recognize their need for Christ.
Derek Sherfey: So you mentioned the stats and so I won’t bore you with the numbers. You can Google them and maybe you can even link to some of those. I can’t even speak to our whole city, it’s rapidly changing all the time. But in our neighborhood alone where we’re sitting right now in the middle of this, if you draw a two-mile circle around this building where we gather and I live just five blocks away, our core team lives within a walk from here and we’ve all just kind of done life right here in this urban neighborhood. If you draw a two-mile circle around here, you’re looking at 100,000 people in two miles and you do another mile circle and you’re looking at 175,000, almost 200,000 people just in a two to three-mile radius. Of that, the stats vary. 90 to 97% depending on who you ask in a liberal estimate, but from our experience to some of the surveys and the work that we’ve done with our neighbors around us, it’s closer to that 95, 96% of our neighbors are not interested in following Jesus and are not in church on Sunday today.
And so just the sheer number and the density of living in a city like this. We’re just talking about my neighborhood, a two-mile block of just more people than from my hometown, right? Lives within in my neighborhood and I can ride my bike to, and then when you’re actually seeing it past the stats and you walk past and you just count nine out of 10 people, chances are you’re looking at them in the face and if they don’t hear the good news and respond by repentance and faith, they’re going to spend eternity apart from Jesus. And that’s just overwhelming, just the sheer need. In our neighborhood alone, there’s maybe three evangelical churches for those couple of hundred thousand people right here and they’re great churches and they love Jesus, but I think the average of those are less than a hundred people. Some of the even NAMB church plants, the very successful ones that are just around us that are a few miles down the road in other neighborhoods, three or four years in and just a few dozen people.
I mean, so it’s a slow road and people are far from God and not really interested in what we’re doing. So making it cooler, making it hipper marketing well. You may reach some people that are kind of moving here and looking for a church, but most of our neighbors are just, they’re uninterested in what we’re doing. And so just the sheer density of the place is overwhelming and the lostness of it and the need of it and the lack of gospel presence in it. So it’s a very good possibility that people would go to work and kind of live life in this neighborhood and never interact with a Christian in a meaningful way.
So there’s that, but then there’s the diversity that exists in our neighborhood. So of those 100,000 people, we have kind of the older population that’s been in Denver for a really long time. That are lonely, have their own issues, their own brokenness and that their own resistance to all of the change of the city and their own issues with the gospel.
Then you’ve got all of the people that have moved here into Colorado over the last five to 10 years. The city’s doubled in size over the last decade and people on average stay here for about a couple of years and they leave. So they’re here searching for something. They’re here because of the mountains or the good weather or all that the city has to offer or their job. And then they realize, “Wait, the problems that were in my heart, wherever I came from, followed me to Denver.” So you’ve got 20 and 30 somethings highly educated, making a lot of money that are here and they’re searching desperately, we believe, for the church and for the Kingdom and for the King. But they’re trying to find it in everything, in anything and they’re hurting and they’re lonely. And then in our neighborhood is highly ethnically diverse. So there’s 60 languages from 40 countries that exist in our neighborhood.
And that’s one of the main reasons that we feel that God’s called us to this particular spot. And most of those 60 languages from 40 countries are from unreached, unengaged peoples. Where you and I can’t get on a plane and just boldly go into those countries and share the gospel. But God is providentially bringing in literally in my backyard and the schools that we’re serving. And so that’s an opportunity. But you’re asking about obstacles.
And so how do you reach people that have been rooted in Denver that are 40 years my senior. And how do you reach the millennial young professional that’s just working to go play in the mountains and has no… The joke about Denverites is the only thing that they’re committed to, is not being committed to anything. And so these are done by Jesus and church and the gospel, and then our refugee friends and impoverished people from around the world.
There’s unique social issues that come from kind of the urban poor that we’re planted among as well. And so it’s obstacles, but also we see it as opportunities that if we can in any way reflect our neighborhood, it’s the Kingdom of God breaking in, in the city.
Chris Turner: So with all that diversity and the volume of people and the great spiritual need, where do you even begin? Where do you get a toe hold to connect to build those relationships with such a mass of people?
Derek Sherfey: Yeah, man, thanks for asking that. And I don’t know that we know. We’re far from the professionals. We say all the time here, that there’s no cape flapping in the wind. We’re not superheroes trying to take our cities for God. We’re trying to love our city with God. We believe he loves Denver more than we do.
And that’s the hope of the confidence of the gospel. I think we’ve got to start there, that this gospel is true or it’s not, and we’re putting all of our chips in that the gospel is true. That Jesus is worth it, that he is gathering the people for himself from every tribe, language, and nation in this world. So there’s a confidence that he’s going to grow the church. But again, back to that faithfulness. And so I think our own intimacy with Jesus and trust in the power of the gospel and not in our tactics. And not being ashamed of the gospel in a very secular culture where it would be easy to not associate with Jesus and just be nice. But when we’re doing it in the name of Jesus, trusting that there’s power in that name, and so I think that’s the only hope that we have in this.
And that’s the same thing is true in East Tennessee. It’s just as much of a miracle for somebody in East Tennessee to come to know Jesus as it is here in Denver. The second thing and I don’t want to rush past this, I really do mean it, is prayer. I think we’ve grown in prayer, not because we’re super spiritual or that was even part of my rhythms. I’m honestly ashamed of how the lack of prayer in my ministry up until this point. And it’s no one’s fault, but just my own self-sufficiency. But coming here and you feel that overwhelming and has driven us to our knees. So our whole- we’ve been here a year and a half and our whole first year was really just getting to know the neighborhood and everybody lives within a few miles of each other. Everybody’s working jobs and we just kind of do life.
To use a common kind of phrase. In the parks and the school system and coffee shops and restaurants and just frequenting as much as we can in this place to get to know people. Obviously, to share the gospel but also just to be a normal neighbor but to do so praying. And so much of their first year was just gathering with our small core team on our knees with the bottle open for strategy of what does church need to look like for this culture and what God’s calling us uniquely to do here, but also just begging that God would move and that we would have eyes to see where he’s at work and to join him there.
And so those are the two biggies. And then just keep showing up. Keep showing up to people who are very far from Jesus and some were walking that tension of boldness, but also playing the long game of we hope to spend decades here. The kind of work that we want to see, not just to plant a church, but to see a multiplication of churches. We pray out of our church even in a way that would reach the nations. We’re talking about decades here. And so we’re just kind of rooting down and being here for the long haul and loving one of the well and loving Jesus well and just, over the long haul, inviting people into our lives and introducing them to Jesus.
Chris Turner: So Denver is really our future from like Tennessee. We’re already starting to see, just especially in the middle Tennessee area with Google coming in and Amazon coming in, Mitsubishi is moving there. Nissan moved there years ago. So there is this migration of people from beyond the buckle of the Bible belt from Michigan, California, upper Northwest. They’re moving to middle Tennessee. That really will, as that spreads from the epicenter of Nashville out through the state, will have an impact on the overall spirituality there. So just talk a little bit about what you would share with a pasture. I mean, we have a number of churches that disconnected from their community, they’re plateaued or declining. What are some things you can share from the future that would benefit what’s coming to Tennessee and how churches really need to possibly re-evaluate their communities.
Derek Sherfey: Yeah, and just again, even listening to you talk about that, there’s something welling up in me of what the spirit of God’s doing in our cities and it’s coming to Tennessee. Of just the opportunity he’s bringing these people to us for our churches. And so I would say a couple of things, one is having a paradigm shift of church. And I don’t mean that from a young, angry at the traditional established church. That is not my heart at all. I’ve seen that a lot in my generation. I’m 30 years old and I’ve seen that in a lot of people younger than me and older than me. I love the local church. I believe in what we do and the everyday ordinary means of grace, of the gathered church and the ways that we’re trying to make disciples. I just think that we’ve got to wake up to where our culture is and where it’s headed, that they’re not coming to our church services.
And again, can God used those things. Absolutely. But if our strategy is just trying to grow our churches, I think that we’re always going to be playing catch up and in so many ways, just reaching a small sliver of our ever-changing, increasingly post-Christian, pre-Christian in some ways, culture. And so it’s shifting a paradigm of, of less of how can I grow my church and more of how can I participate with God to see the Kingdom expand and to have that vision of church to say, how can we mobilize our people to serve and engage and go to where people are, to ask the questions, to answer the questions that they’re actually asking, and not just that questions that we know are relevant, but to actually meet people, have conversations with real people. The other would be a paradigm shift kind of as a lofty idea, but then very practical is equip our people for mission.
And so as pastors we are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. And I would just say in a very loving but firm way is that making disciples and equipping our people is not less than training them to run our programs of our church because our programs are great. We’re doing them for a reason. It’s to equip people, to make disciple-makers themselves where they live, work and play. And so having a missional, evangelism, missionary skill strategy for your people. Equipping every member to be a missionary of knowing how to see their neighborhood on purpose, to know how to engage people who are far from God, to know how to share the gospel and culturally relevant, but also biblically faithful ways.
And then what does it mean for that member, empowered by the spirit of God with the word of God to actually take that person that they’ve seen come to faith and disciple them. To see them grow up in every way into Jesus. And then to see the church grow out of that, and I think that’s what we’ve got to be doing and which we should’ve been doing and so many ways we are doing, we just can’t expect those people to come to us. We’ve got to go to them and it can’t just be our programs that are discipling people, but our programs must exist to equip our people to go take the gospel to their neighbor.
Chris Turner: Yeah. It really is a shift in that mindset of, you may have built it but there- And they may have come at one point, but they’re not coming in anymore and there’s so many, I won’t say distractions, but there’s so many offers on the table anymore for people to do things that that church is just increasingly not at the top of their list. Unless some significant life action has happened and then all of a sudden they’re searching for something. But for the most part, it’s not even on the radar.
Derek Sherfey: Yeah. One of the most powerful examples I’ve heard, I’ve heard a lot of pastors use this and missionaries overseas use this, but just imagine that a mosque opened up in your neighborhood and if you’re not Muslim, then that’s probably not something you’re going to just wander into to kind of be curious of what’s going on behind those doors. And matter of fact, you’re probably a little curious, maybe even skeptical, maybe a little nervous of what’s going on there. You just don’t understand it. And so even if somebody invited you, even if the music was cool, you’re not going there because you’re not… That’s not who you are, that’s not what you’re after.
And so many of our neighbors, that’s how they see us. They see us in that way. It’s completely irrelevant to them and kind of cultish and weird to them. And so we kind of put ourselves in the shoes of our, of us, to say, “Remember what it was like before you believed. Remember what it was like when the gospel didn’t make sense to you.” And try to not get too far from our conversion and to have some compassion. And sympathy for the folks that have yet to see the beauty of Jesus.
Chris Turner: So you mentioned prayer. What are some ways that Tennessee Baptists could be praying for you and your family and then the ministry here?
Derek Sherfey: Thanks for even just asking that and I really do mean it. That’s not just something church planners spout off. I really do covet everyone’s prayers. So first, personally pray that me and my family and our leaders here would enjoy Jesus, that we would not do for him without being with him. That all of our doing would flow out of intimacy with God. That’s something you can always pray for us. We don’t want to plant a church and lose our soul. And so we’re always trying to hold intention, faithful and radical obedience, but also rest and care and not taking ourselves too seriously and embracing our limits and not doing everything for everyone. So pray that we’d have wisdom to know that tension that we wouldn’t burn out, but we also wouldn’t be lazy in that. And that we would disciple our kids and our families first before we try to save the world.
That’s always ways you can pray for us. But then for our church and then the mission. For our church, we’re heading into our launch in September, so I don’t know when this is going to air, but mid-September is going to be our official launch as our church. As we’ve been meeting a small group, we have three communities that meet throughout our neighborhood. We’re hoping to double those by the end of 2019 to have six and then our weekly gatherings to really crank up. And so just be praying for that. That we would grow in that and that more and more people would be making disciples as a result of what we’re doing here. We’re installing elders and deacons coming up this fall as well. So be praying for wisdom in that, that our church will be healthy and our membership base would continue to grow and then pray for all the people that are in our lives who are close to us, but far from God that we have relationships with.
We’ve yet to see someone profess faith in our year and a half year. Again, it’s slow, but we know that God can radically speed that process up if he would be so kind to do that. And so pray for continued boldness, but we’re praying for our first baptism this year, so please ask that God would save people and then we want to be a church-planting church. We have not really even got our church off the ground in some ways and we’re already in plans to start our first church in the city. We want to be a sending church for the nations. And so we’re asking that God would stir up and call people from within our church to be sent out in so many ways that we’ve experienced from our sending churches all over the country.
Chris Turner: And what are some ways if Tennessee Baptists wanted to come and do some kind of partnership, what are a couple of things that they might be able to do or how you could plug volunteers into what you’re doing?
Derek Sherfey: Oh, we would love to say, “If you want to come out for a vision trip, we would love to host you.” To even just see the city, answer any questions you’ve got that’s going to get a heart when you see what we see in the field of stats when you’re looking at faces. And so we would just invite anybody that wants to come out-
Chris Turner: Those vision trips sound dangerous though cause you came on one and now you’re here.
Derek Sherfey: That’s right.
Chris Turner: So be careful.
Derek Sherfey: Come on in boys. The water’s fine. Yeah. So a vision trip would be a good first step. Or if you want to just directly send a team. And so we hosted 10 teams this summer. We just finished that. So prayer walking, door to door surveys and evangelism, we’ve done. Park outreach ministries, apartment ministries that we’ve started serving some of our at-risk communities, we do a lot of work with refugees.
So we work with three schools in our neighborhood with refugees. We’re helping plant some ethnic churches with some non-profits here. So we’re doing a lot of work with ethnic refugee work here in our neighborhood. We’re doing urban gardens and whatever local government needs, and so there’s a myriad of projects that are tangible that helps advance our church and then also obviously, be here to share the gospel. But then to encourage our team as well to watch the kiddos so that our leaders can go out for date nights and to maybe even invest in some of our leaders. There’s a myriad of ways and whatever, even your church would have if you’ve got a unique skill set we would love to. That’s kind of the short term partnerships, but we love mid and longterm as well, so we just, we’re partners with Jensen. So I know you know about Jensen for college-age students.
We just, I was a Jensen coach this year we hosted 15 students from around the country, mostly from the Southeast this year. So that’s a great-eight week program that’ll be next summer for your college students or maybe even another internship program. And then maybe you have some of your members that say, “I’ve got a job and I can take my job and move to Denver, Colorado and work my job and be a part of the Oaks Church or any church for that matter that’s happening in our city.” And to be a disciple-maker and a leader of leaders in our community and have your job that you’re working in Tennessee, but to do it here among people you know that don’t know Jesus. So those are kind of short, mid and long term opportunities.
Chris Turner: Well, there’s a lot of opportunity, it sounds like. Certainly, there seems to be a lot of need. So as you continue just doing what you’re doing and seeing things play out, you obviously have a great enthusiasm for it, energy to match it. So we’ll be praying for you and we’re just excited that you were able to take a little bit of time to talk to us and tell us a little bit about your work.
Derek Sherfey: Chris, thanks for being out here, bud. It’s really encouraging.
Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to radio B&R, a podcast production of the Baptist and Reflector, the official news journal of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. This and other episodes can be downloaded at baptistandreflector.org/radiobr. The ministries of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board are supported through the cooperative program and gifts received through the golden offering for Tennessee missions. For more information, visit tnbaptist.org.