Farm equipment is not a typical sight in the city. But Chris Paavola has walked over 100 miles in University City near downtown St. Louis, praying as he goes, praying what he sees. And when he looks down at his feet, he sees plowshares.
“On our very first prayer walk,” Chris said on his blog, “we were struck with the image of our feet like plowshares, with our prayers tilling the hard earth and making it ready for planting. It’s a metaphor that stuck with us ever since. Whether it’s the first century or today, prayer prepares the way as a church begins.”
Chris Paavola has been assigned a vicarage to plant a Lutheran church in an unserved part of University City.
He also is raising a family, sparking a community action campaign, and studying in the Residential Alternate Route (RAR) program at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
For Chris, all of these roles and pursuits find their meaning in one thing: They are opportunities to love people and introduce them to Jesus.
A Partnership for the Kingdom
Chris met his wife, Ashley, years ago while both were serving at St. John Church in Ellisville, Mo. Ashley started working as a receptionist at the church when she was 18 years old, and then moved into a variety of roles that allowed her to share her love for Jesus Christ with children and youth. When she resigned in March 2015 to focus on the new church plant, her family and her church celebrated 10 years of Ashley’s leadership and ministry to the next generation.
Chris, in turn, began by working with youth at St. John, but then became the director of worship production. Chris met Ashley while she was still working as a receptionist. A friend remembers Chris finding excuses to walk past her desk several times a day. Chris saw “a fire in her eyes to help kids know Jesus.” Ashley was drawn to the way Chris sees God’s hand moving in the events and moments of people’s lives. The two have been married for 10 years, and have adopted two children, Selah and Isaiah. From the beginning, Chris and Ashley’s desire to see more people know and follow Jesus has been deep and mutual. As they explored opportunities, church planting presented itself as a clear path to bringing the Gospel to people who have not been connected to any church. “More churches reach more people, new churches reach new people, different churches reach different people,” Chris said. Prayer and discernment led them to believe church planting was a good fit for their family.
Preparing to Plant
The natural next step was to pursue pastoral training at Concordia Seminary. In May, Chris completed the two years of classroom study required for the Seminary’s RAR program, for which he qualified based on his age and past experience.
One of his professors, Rev. Todd Jones, expressed confidence that Chris is well-equipped to plant a church. “He’s a high-energy, highly relational person who’s very centered in his calling to be a missionary,” said Jones, who oversaw Chris’ field education and his assessment as a potential church planter. “He’s good at not letting the task overtake the relationship.”
Jones said other professors also could see Chris’ ability to connect with people. “He was bringing the real conversations he was having into the discussion of our theology,” Jones said. This fostered practical application and showed that Chris was clearly engaging the world around him.
Chris also engaged fellow students. “The friendships formed with guys in class — the lunchroom conversations, the hallway conversations — those were huge,” he said. “Iron sharpens iron.” Some of these friends and professors have walked alongside him as he prepares to plant a church.
Supportive relationships with other congregations in the area and with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Missouri District also are vital to the success of a church plant. Chris and his vicarage supervisor, Rev. Joe Sullivan, have been in conversations with St. James Lutheran Church, located at the northwestern edge of St. Louis. They hope to develop ways of working together. The district also is supporting the church plant, seeking to reach people who have not been connected to a Lutheran church.
A Student in Prayer
As Chris’ time at the Seminary progressed, the Paavolas were presented with the opportunity to be involved in a church plant during his vicarage, working just a few miles north of the campus in University City (U City). This urban community of 35,000 people contains neighborhoods separated along racial lines. Yet the majority of its people, regardless of their race, feel a great deal of pride in U City. Residents place a high value on the arts — music, theater, dance, and visual art. Furthermore, they want to see their young people engaged in positive activities and pursuing a positive future. Thus, despite divisions, the opportunities to connect and work together are abundant.
Chris responded to this church plant opportunity by beginning to take Seminary friends, professors, friends from St. John, and his family on “prayer walks” through U City on Friday mornings before class.
“It started with Ashley and me trying to discern whether God was calling us to U City,” Chris said. Ashley said they put the children in the back of the van with a movie and drove around the city, looking and praying. Doing this prompted them to go back and do it again. Driving eventually turned into walking, and Chris now has a map full of highlighted marks, indicating the vast number of streets where he has walked and prayed.
How does prayer walking work? Many of Chris’ prayer-walking companions have never done it before, and have questions. Often Chris starts by saying “pray what you see.” He and his companions will pray for the faith and well-being of the people they encounter, or the constructive use of buildings they pass. They also will draw on Scripture for prayer: tripping on broken sidewalk has prompted, “Keep our feet from stumbling.” Spotting artificial plants has prompted, “Make us a church that bears fruit.”
“Prayer walking is letting God bring His requests to me, not me bringing requests to God,” Chris said. “Even though we are the ones praying, God can use what He brings into our line of sight to show us what He wants us to ask for, what is on His heart, and how He is working.”
This has certainly been Chris’ experience as he has prayer-walked in U City every week for more than a year. Along the way, he wrote a short book for Amazon Kindle called Pray What You See to prepare his prayer-walking companions and to share what he has learned. The response to the book has been far greater than Chris expected, and he is excited and humbled at the thought of all the prayer walks it might be inspiring in neighborhoods all over the world.
The Right Fit
The more the Paavolas prayed, explored U City, and talked to residents, the more they realized just how well the city and their family fit together.
First, through the adoption of their children, their family has become multiracial, and reconciliation between races is close to their hearts. “Make us a church as diverse as the city we serve” is a prayer that God has continued to lay on Chris’ heart. In fact, this prayer inspired the name of his new church plant: All Nations. Chris hopes that a visible racial unity among All Nations’ people will give others pause and make them curious. He wants this church to validate the confession that Christ really is for “all nations.”
Second, Ashley’s care for young people matches U City’s need for youth engagement. “My hope is in helping them see their identity in Christ,” she said. The more young people understand their identity and feel they have a purpose, she explained, the more they will be drawn to engage in positive, purposeful activities. Idle activities, or even activities that cause trouble, will naturally tend to fall away.
Finally, Chris’ love for the arts is at home in U City. “Art speaks across racial and demographic lines. A color is a color and a song is a song, regardless of your ethnicity,” he said. For Chris, the arts are not only a joy but also an excellent starting point for relationships. Furthermore, they are a means by which his diverse congregation will be able to connect with one another and even praise Jesus in creative ways.
The realization of this three-pronged alignment between U City and their family, combined with guidance received through time spent in prayer, led the Paavolas to accept the opportunity to make U City their new home and begin a new church there.
Serving the Community
Something else happened as Chris prayed specific prayers for U City: his heart for its people grew. Even as he prepares to plant a church to bring the message of the Gospel to people, he has come to understand more deeply the day-to-day physical needs of people in the community.
Conversations led to plans, and now some 15 U City community organizations have partnered in a campaign to ask residents, “What is your hope for the future of U City?” Postcards bearing this question will be mailed to every U City home in August and September. The conversation also will take place on Twitter. In October, once all the postcards and tweets have been collected, organizers will count and reveal the top 10 hopes U City residents have for the future, as well as give residents the opportunity to get involved with the partner organizations as they take action to turn the 10 major hopes into reality.
Chris was humbled as each community organization accepted the invitation to participate. Organizations that hadn’t worked together before have come together for this campaign. They believe that U City’s people can do great things if they work together. So do the Paavolas.
Managing the Transitions
“It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time,” Chris said.
As the Paavolas have followed Jesus from Ellisville to Concordia Seminary to U City, and from steady jobs to school to church planting, they are constantly faced with new joys and new pressures.
Ashley said, in the moments of whirlwind change, “You look at each other and go, ‘We did this, right? And we’re still OK, right? OK, good.’ And then you keep going.”
“Everything we’re doing is because we feel called,” said Chris. “[Our] family will be stronger for putting it in a place of trust like this.”
And they can see that this is true. “The last two years have been a ridiculous showing of God’s will,” Ashley said. For example, some events that could have been stressful were surprisingly smooth. Their house in Ellisville sold before it even went on the market, and they found a home to rent in U City within the following week. Ashley loves moments that reveal how God has been working long before they knew what they needed, and she looks forward to more of them. “For me, that’s really exciting, to learn what God has planned already,” she said.
Fixing Their Eyes
God has surely been working all along to prepare Chris and Ashley for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, and to orchestrate opportunities for them to do just that. Even as they currently find themselves sent to plant a church in U City, they are sure many surprises still await them. Yet their focus on Jesus and helping people meet Him is a calling that God will undoubtedly continue to nurture and bless. “I’m looking forward to reaching lost people,” Chris said. “There’s really not anything else I’d rather be doing.”