Following God’s Call to Salt Lake City

Within five miles of Nate Ray’s house in Salt Lake City, Utah, there are 96,000 people and only three Christian churches. Ray and his family moved there for a ministry residency while he was pursuing a degree from Northern Seminary. But once they arrived, he says, “the Lord grabbed our hearts, and it became apparent He was not going to let us leave anytime soon.” Now they are in the process of planting the area’s fourth church.

“Utah is the most religious, and least Christian, state in the country,” Ray says. It is a national leader in rates of depression, plastic surgery, porn consumption, and teen suicide. “Utah is filled with wonderfully nice people, but behind the smiles of a lot of wonderful people is a lot of hurt and pain. The cross of Jesus frees us to be radically honest about the hard realities of life. It is living water for parched souls.”

Ray began plans to launch The Front Church knowing that Utah, with its large population of Latter-day Saints, is a unique place to do ministry. Only 15% of church plants in the state survive past their fifth birthday. Ministry leaders need a deep understanding of Mormonism, which is as much a culture as it is a religious system.

“It’s not uncommon for a person passionate about ministering in Utah’s context to move in from out of state and burn a lot of bridges before they realize they’ve burned a lot of bridges,” Ray says. There are more nuances than many outsiders know. “Take everything you think you know about the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and stuff it; instead, ask your neighbors, friends, coworkers, classmates, and family and hear from them what it is they believe and don’t believe. Just as we expect missionaries we send overseas to learn the language of the people they are ministering to, we should expect as much of Utah church planters.”

What Ray’s team couldn’t anticipate was that the COVID-19 pandemic would dramatically alter their plans. Still, he says, “the God who is in the practice of bringing life from death has done so for us too: we have participated in the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Distribution program multiple times, giving away 120,000 pounds of food and blessing thousands of families across the Salt Lake Valley. About 40% of our volunteers for these events have been a part of The Front Church; the rest are community members, religious and not.”

God has been at work amid pandemic disruptions. “We say often, at The Front Church, we want to be a church not just in our community, but a church for our community. These food giveaways—a direct result of COVID—have put that message on full display.” Ray comments, “If you had told me that prior to our grand opening we would be featured by almost every major news organization in Salt Lake City, either on TV or with articles, I’d have said, ‘How?!?!’”

Studying with Northern’s cohorts allowed Ray to complete seminary without leaving his ministry context. He also forged lasting relationships with classmates, and he especially enjoyed learning from Dr. Scot McKnight. “Dr. McKnight often says, ‘I want my students to write for the church,’ meaning he wanted us to distill what we were learning in a way that the average church member could read one of our papers and understand what’s going on. This gave me a lot of creative freedom to develop as a writer and communicator.”

The next steps for Ray and The Front Church include a five-year fundraising plan. They’ve been assessed and commissioned as church planters through Converge and its regional office, Converge Rocky Mountain.

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