Austin Coleman has spent each of the last two summers in New York City looking for intersections.
If ever there was a city where finding an intersection would be inevitable, America’s largest city would be that place with its blur of 24-hour activity, endless maze of intersections populated by yellow taxicabs, limousines, delivery trucks and personal vehicles. But through a special internship opportunity, Coleman has navigated the city he loves in hopes of intersecting with people to tell them about Jesus. And he has a desire eventually to return there to live and plant churches.
Coleman’s father is a pastor and a church planter, and the family made frequent moves during his childhood. For most of his formative years, his father served First Baptist Church in Trenton, Tenn., in the western part of the state. While there are far fewer intersections there, it served as a launching pad nonetheless for engagement in New York City.
Photo by Gibbs Frazeur/NAMB
Austin Coleman, youth pastor at Second Baptist Church in Clinton, Tenn., is a 2015 Week of Prayer missionary for The North American Mission Board's Send North America effort. Coleman hopes that God will one day take him back to New York City where he served as a GenSend intern to plant a church.
When he was in the eighth grade, his family volunteered to help with a Billy Graham crusade. His home church started a series of block parties and food and clothing drives, called “To Trenton With Love,” meant to give back to the community. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Coleman volunteered through the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Project NOAH Rebuild initiative that worked to restore 1,000 homes. More recently while studying at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., he spent two summers as an intern with a ministry that sponsors youth camps in Georgia, Texas and Costa Rica.
Then came Generation Send (GenSend), NAMB’s collegiate summer missions initiative tied to the Send North America church planting effort. There was no mass crusade, construction or camp management. Instead, the assignment this past summer for Coleman as a mobilizer, and the 10 fellow students he recruited, was to walk the streets of District 2 in Brooklyn, a New York City borough, and connect (or intersect) with every person possible.
“With GenSend there’s not going to be a lot of structure,” Coleman said. “We’re going to show you what it really is for you to drop into a city and plant the gospel to see a church come from that, and to see how difficult that can be.”
GenSend is part of the NAMB Farm System, aimed at assisting churches in discovering, developing and deploying the next generations of missionaries. “We are pushing forward the Great Commission,” Coleman said. “It fit better with my personality. I wanted to pioneer something.”
There are no church plants currently in District 2 of Brooklyn, Coleman says.
“It’s like a dot on the map where they want to plant a church,” Coleman said of a NAMB map with dots covering the major metropolitan areas, indicating communities needing new churches. Through “gospel conversations,” Coleman and his team were able to gain a greater understanding of the people inhabiting District 2. This will help inform future church planters.
Photo by Gibbs Frazeur/NAMB
Austin Coleman shares during Hawks for Christ, a student-organized group at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Tenn., which meets prior to the start of school with as many as 60 students in attendance. Coleman is a 2015 Week of Prayer missionary for the NAMB's Send North America effort.
Coleman discovered people were more willing to talk than he imagined. As with most inner cities, Coleman has not found hostility toward the gospel as much as ambivalence or self-determined spirituality.
“People in cities are very open to talking about what they believe, their spirituality and why they believe what they do believe,” Coleman said.
One person is a gay man from Ireland, who regularly hung out with Coleman’s GenSend team. The man knows that the team embraces a biblical standard for sexuality, Coleman says, but he apparently feels safe and accepted by the team.
“You come to Jesus as you are,” Coleman said. “It’s okay to be messed up, but not to stay that way. Once you come to Jesus, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He will change your mind on things.”
Then there is a young man from Belize, who regularly joined the team for their Thursday night cookouts. While walking back to Long Island University where the team stayed, Coleman asked about his story.
He had been raised in a Christian home and had a grandmother who was particularly committed to her faith. But both his mother and grandmother had died. That’s when he walked away from the faith.
Coleman said he steered the conversation back to Jesus as the only hope. “We can have spiritual beliefs,” he said. “But if they aren’t pointed back to a true hope, they mean nothing.”
Having a “gospel conversation” with people is an art, Coleman said.
“If you are listening well and being intentional, people bring up things that parallel who Jesus is and what the gospel means,” he said. “It looks different every single time. I’ve never had a gospel conversation in New York that looked the same as the next.”
Hoping to return
Now with a master’s degree in church planting and evangelism from Liberty University, Coleman foresees returning to New York City someday to start a church.
But first, there was the small matter of a wedding. Coleman and his fiancé, Sara Wallman, were married in October 2014. She was among his first recruits for the District 2 Brooklyn GenSend team. He also accepted a position as youth pastor with Second Baptist Church in Clinton, Tenn., which is near Knoxville. That church is interested in possibly starting a church in an urban area. After spending several years in Clinton, the Colemans hope that God will take them back to New York City.
“One of my greatest prayers for this summer is that God would make both of us fall in love with New York,” Coleman said. “If God called us back to New York to be part of a church plant, than we’d both have that urge and that urgency.
“I do believe God is changing the world from New York.”
The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering provide support for missionaries who serve on behalf of Southern Baptists across North America. With a goal of $60 million, this year’s offering theme is “Send North America.” For more information, visit AnnieArmstrong.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton writes for the North American Mission Board.)