There’s nothing easy about starting a new church.
Brent Bramer was the Student Ministry pastor at Southeast Christian Church’s Crestwood Campus when he knew God was calling his family to plant a church 2,400 miles away in San Luis Obispo (SLO), California—the second most unchurched city in the nation, according to Barna Group research.
Through intense interviews and tests with the Orchard Group, a church-planting organization, the Bramers were chosen to plant a church in San Luis Obispo.
Set amid the spectacular beauty of beaches and mountains, historic buildings, outdoor cafés and coffee shops, most people in SLO have no history of church.
On Sept. 8, SLO City Church launched to a standing-room-only crowd in a rented school building.
Surprises made the morning memorable. A packed house was a surprise. With a church plant, no one knows if one or 1,000 will show up for the first service. New faces in the crowd were a surprise. People came because of postcards, fliers and personal invitations.
Brent preached on Zacchaeus, the man in Luke 19 who felt excluded by society but longed to see Jesus. That is good news for those looking for hope.
After the service, volunteers served Popsicles from a SLO City Pops bicycle in the courtyard. People lingered at patio tables covered by bright umbrellas. Though “church” had to be packed up and put away in two hours, no one seemed in a hurry to leave. That, too, was a surprise.
So were connections.
Laura and Matt Graham were close to leaving SLO when Brent and his wife Jenna and their four children moved in across the street last summer.
“We were ready to give up,” Laura said. “I’d been through rehab after an accident and just needed friends to walk with me. I prayed for believers for our family.”
Standing in their backyard, noticing a family unpacking boxes, Laura and Matt’s son Mattie launched a paper airplane with a message over the Bramers’ fence.
“My name is Mattie. Will you be my friend?” That paper airplane answered Brent’s wife Jenna’s prayer for “fast friends.” That day, everyone, including the Bramers’ yellow Labrador, Moose, gained a friend.
A new church in SLO is good news for Julie Moore, who shared her story at the launch. She needed friends to walk alongside as she faced surgery for a brain tumor. As that date approached, Jenna, Laura and friends prayed for her and made Scripture cards that her husband read to her in the hospital. Moore told her story of finding hope and community.
For a year, ministry unfolded at the Bramers’ oversized dining room table. It became the setting for everything new as people gathered to share stories and needs. That group grew from two to four to six to 11 and more.
Jenna called their first year in SLO the “Year of Interruptions.” There was always a knock on the door, a phone call, someone stopping by to talk.
“It’s easy to ignore interruptions, but we saw God moving in those moments and became intentional about living differently,” she said. “It became such a way of life that our kids are bored if we’re home alone. We have a front-row seat on watching God work.”
The last year has been a crazy journey the Bramers wouldn’t trade.
“God put this thing together piece by piece,” Brent said. “To see God move up to this point is overwhelming. We see God pulling together a collection of people who seek to live the way of Jesus and bring hope to everybody. We know people are hungry for real, authentic community and faith.”
Southeast has a big stake in this launch. Brent and Jenna are much loved and supported and still have strong ties to the Crestwood Campus.
SLO City Church was planted out of a church that was planted out of Real Life Church, the church Southeast Senior Pastor Kyle Idleman planted in Southern California in 2000.
The SLO City Church team also includes Southeast member Kelsey Dudding, who left her job as a high school teacher in Oldham County to support the church plant.
“People want to know more when I tell them that I moved here to help plant a church,” she said. “I’ve also met believers who are encouraged to know about the church.”
Former Southeast graphic designer and photographer Steven Estes and his wife Mikayla also joined the team in SLO.
“It’s cool to be part of a community that is living the way of Jesus and bringing hope to everyone,” Steven said. “We’ve heard stories of people who didn’t feel part of a community who were looking for purpose. If that happens to one person as a result of this, it’s worth it.”
Brent said the church is already making an impact.
“It is not a production for an hour on Sunday,” he said. “We’re not getting buttoned up for church. We are creating an environment for people to come face to face with Jesus. People are hungry for real and vulnerable. Jesus rescues us so we can rescue others. Jesus redeems our story so we can be part of the redemption of our city.”