Listening in Place Project: Sunrise Church in Austin

Today we’re excited to feature the fourth episode of the Listening in Place Project with Cassie Carroll (Master of Divinity, ‘16), which we share monthly here on the Intersections blog. After graduating from The Seattle School, Cassie launched Listening in Place, a venture in which she is collecting stories from pastors and practitioners throughout the United States who are practicing new, innovative, and compelling visions of what it means to be the church. In this episode, Cassie talks with Mark Hilbelink, Emily Grace, and Michelle Thompson of Sunrise Church in south Austin, “the weirdest little church in Texas.”

Mark: “One of the most important things at our church is, whether you are from upper class or lower class or middle class, you’re gonna end up sitting next to someone who’s not like you at church.”

Mark, Emily, and Michelle tell Cassie about their experiences of helping lead a church that seeks to intentionally and radically transcend class boundaries. This vision is driven largely by their low-income childcare program and a homeless ministry that not a separate activity the church goes out to do, but is woven into the fabric of the community.

“Who we are has been dictated by where we are.” tweet

Mark: “Increasingly in the ‘cool church’ movement, everybody is still mostly targeting white college grads. So they can get really cool, like pubs or coffeehouses or liturgical or whatever, but they’re still basically reaching one demographic.”

Mark admits that he did not anticipate how difficult it would be to lead this vision. The former pastor left the position exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and Mark says he often feels the same. He and the staff are not only addressing the overwhelming and systemic obstacles that face their low-income sisters and brothers, but they are facing the uncertainties, anxieties, and biases of those who are used to congregations that feel a little more comfortable or safe.

Emily: “I think we have a fantasy in Western society that we can be safe, that somehow there’s a group of people that’s safer than others. Part of what I’ve come to peace with about this ministry in church is, everyone’s capable of dangerous things, and everyone’s capable of greatness.”

Mark: “In our church, we don’t fight about things like carpet color and whether or not you can take coffee in the sanctuary. We don’t have time for that crap. We’re too busy trying to exist and function and show up.”

Even with the daily challenges and unknowns, the team at Sunrise gets front-row seats to moments of redemptions and transformation. It has forced them to confront their own privilege and to keep growing—as individuals and as a community—in humbling but beautiful ways.

Emily: “To be able to be a part of healing in every sense is so rewarding, and I get to see God every day.”

Mark: “This is family. Which to me feels a lot more like the early church, in terms of people all coming out of their respective backgrounds to be molded together to be the bride of Christ. That’s what the church is supposed to be. And it’s exhausting and frustrating and some people lose their lives, but that’s what the early church was.”

You can learn more about the vision behind the Listening in Place Project here, and read more from Cassie’s time with Marvin over on the Listening in Place blog. And for more from Cassie, check out the presentation of her Integrative Project, “The Pastoral Both/And: A Complicated Story.”

Music courtesy of bensound.com.

Cassie Carroll graduated from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology with a Master of Divinity in 2016. Her desire is to help people see God in the midst of life—especially when it feels as though God is not present. Cassie started The Listening in Place Project in August 2016. She is collecting stories from church planters, practitioners, pastors, social entrepreneurs, and theologians throughout the United States who are rethinking the way we “do” church. These stories provide hope to the Church that has lost a sense of what it means to belong to each other.

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