As a boy Jason Brinker mastered the language of the church culture and became, in his own words, “a typical Southern Baptist” with an ability to play the role of a pastor’s son quite well.
Most who observed him in Metropolis, Ill., would not have guessed a child who grasped the rudimentary doctrines of the Christian faith would ever doubt God. It began with a 3 a.m. phone call when he was almost 10 years old, with news that his brother was killed in an automobile accident.
“Honestly,” Brinker said, “right then a disconnect between me and God began. And yet, I never left the church.” His little world was mugged by a reality that the God whom he had learned so much about seemed unfair and unable to sustain his life.
“If anyone were to ask me if I was a Christian, I would quickly respond – absolutely – but I didn’t really have a relationship with Christ,” Brinker said.
At age 16 he injured his T-5 vertebrae, resulting in a full upper-body brace which became a gateway to rebellion. Prescription pain medication helped reduce back pain, but when the back pain went away “the pills also helped dull other pain as well. Only no one would have ever known it because I was professional at church,” Brinker said.
One morning he woke up in his parent’s driveway unsure of how he got there. “It was as if the Spirit of God asked me, ‘Are you tired enough yet?’” Literally overnight, Brinker traded in his dreams of being a record producer for preaching.
He cut his long hair and “put on a suit.” Using his father’s ministry contacts, Brinker (who was 19) became a sought after itinerant preacher. “I went from being a rock-n-roll disc jockey to a suit and preaching in Baptist churches all over Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois,” he said.
He became pastor of Suwane Furnace Baptist Church and entered Mid-Continent Bible College.
“I watched preachers such as my dad, Billy Graham and even John Hagee and mimicked how they did it.”
The church grew almost overnight. The congregation continued to grow even as Brinker made his way to the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for further theological training.
His days were long and the demands between the classroom and the pulpit took their toll. By the time he was 23 years old he was on blood pressure medication.
Brinker was challenged by Steve Ayers and church leaders at Hillvue Heights Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Ky., to go on a personal spiritual retreat for one week. The next time he met with his mentors, they asked “Who are you?” and he replied, “I am His.”
So he began shedding the image of a “typical pastor who worked to look, sound and speak just like everyone else.” At that point Brinker didn’t know exactly what would happen next. “After that experience, my personality came back, my sense of humor returned, my relationship with my wife began to change and my passions came back,” he said.
Brinker made plans to start a church in Clarksville, Tenn., and after almost a year of research in the area the door never opened. Later he received an invitation to his local association meeting where representatives from Seattle, Wash., would talk about church planting. All Brinker knew about Seattle was that it was the most unchurched city in America.
After the meeting, Brinker was contacted as to his interest to start a church in Seattle. Erwin McManus and the Mosaic Community in Los Angeles, Calif., had already agreed to be the sponsoring church. Brinker and his wife headed to Seattle and later established Harbour Pointe Church in the community of Mukilteo in 2002.
Brinker’s original core group was released to other churches because most were disgruntled members from another church. Left with three remaining core group members, the church began to grow.
“It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” Brinker said. “About 85 percent of those who came to Harbour Point Church did not attend church. It was about being missional and intentional everywhere in every way.” The Brinkers labored seven years at the church.
Soon, however, Brinker and his wife thought perhaps the Lord was leading them somewhere else. He went to the Tennessee Baptist Convention Web site and input data about his qualifications. He quit halfway through, thinking that no church where he might want to serve would access data about a pastor like him through this means. The data was saved to a database that would later be viewed by the pulpit committee from First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, N.C.
Brinker told the committee he “was not interested in playing religious games or coming to a church that was not concerned about reaching the lost with the gospel.” Brinker tried to derail the process, but with each meeting “the committee members became more excited about the possibility of me becoming the senior pastor here.”
With a 99 percent vote in the affirmative, a 36-year-old with a goatee assumed the pastorate of
First Baptist Church in Jacksonville November 2008. Since then the church has grown by 49.3 percent, making it one of the fastest growing churches in America. More than 1,400 people gather for worship each Sunday.
Church leaders such as Erwin McManus, Craig Groeschel, Andy Stanley, Louis Giglio, Leonard Sweet and Ed Stetzer influenced Brinker. He is a textual preacher who takes the words of the Bible as the source of his sermon and is unafraid to teach doctrine. “What I have found refreshingly unusual here is that many people know the Bible and are eager to learn more,” Brinker said. “The resistance can come when you begin to align ministry objectives and resources around Biblical values. So often in the Southern Baptist Convention there is a programmed mentality that church is to be done in some particular way even if it does not reach the unchurched.”
Jacksonville is statistically the youngest city in the United States with Camp LeJeune (one of the largest U.S. Marine bases in the world) nearby. Brinker is careful to preach and teach the Bible in ways that provide space for the military community to find a realism about the fallen world in which they live. “We live here in a religious culture, and we are learning how to live incarnationally in this community with the gospel. We aren’t shying away from the truth of the Bible,” he said.
There is always a tension peculiar to the pastoral ministry between interests of the church and interests of the pastor. Often, the culture of modern ministry can devolve into a celebrity status of the pastor at the expense of the congregation.
Brinker is working against that. His style of change seems rooted in a deeper knowledge of the Bible becoming more of a reality in the Jacksonville community. At some point in the future, he is aware that the “newness” of his arrival will fade and the difficult work of sustaining a gospel witness over time will ensue. If his beginning is any indication, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville may never be the same.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Baker is director of public relations for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)