Meet Pastor Lucas Bitter of Intown Lutheran Church
I’ve wanted to be a pastor, ever since I was a little kid. I always thought it would be amazing to have a job where I get to go around telling people how much Jesus loves them. Today, that’s exactly what I get to do for a living (along with a few other responsibilities that come with starting a new church from scratch in the middle of a major city.)
Our church body has a fantastic training system for our pastors, which includes four years of college and four years of Seminary, with one of those seminary years being a one year internship in the field. I did my internship in inner-city Toronto and came away with a real passion for the diversity and energy of cities. I then wrote my senior thesis paper on the topic of urban church planting.
Upon graduation from Seminary I was assigned to a church in Marietta, GA. One of my first projects at that church was to look into the city and start what we called “Downtown Bible Study” – a Thursday night gathering of young people who initially met at JavaVino Coffee Shop in Poncey-Highlands. Over the space of three to four years, this Bible study evolved into a nucleus of people who really wanted to start a new church in the city, in order to share the love of Jesus with their neighbors. I worked with a few of the group’s leaders to create a detailed ministry plan, which we in turn, submitted to the mission planting board of our church body. In May of 2017 I was officially offered the position of “missionary to Atlanta,” which would entail starting a new church essentially from scratch.
My family and I moved into the city (Ormewood Park) that August. We spent a whole year researching before we began worship services. We spent another whole year renting a small space on Sundays only before we grew to the point where we could lease our own storefront just off Memorial Drive in Grant Park. Over the space of 2 1/2 years, we’ve grown from a group of 11 adults (including my family) to a congregation of 40-50 members who worship on Sundays and is very active in serving the community during the week. It’s been very humbling and gratifying to see this group grow – I know lots of people say this, but our church really does feel like one big family.
Starting a new church in Atlanta has been a wonderful experience, but there have certainly been challenges too.
I think the biggest struggle is simply the fact that many people in Atlanta are burned out on church. And you can’t really blame them… Some people grew up in a harsh, judgmental church where they were never allowed to question anything. Others grew up in a church where there was a massive scandal within the church leadership. Still, others have never been to church, but they can easily identify that many church people don’t “practice what they preach.” So the result is when people think of church and Christianity, they picture all kinds of negative things. They usually don’t picture the love of Jesus.
So we’ve had to work hard to win people’s trust and convince them not to give up on God, or on the church, altogether, just because they’ve had such a negative experience with it in the past.
Our mission statement is “A God Worth Knowing, A City Worth Loving, A Life Worth Living” – and we specialize in giving people a clear and unbiased look at what biblical Christianity actually is.
Like I mentioned, many people in Atlanta have left organized religion for one reason or another – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t believe in God. Perhaps they’re “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps they’re agnostic. But for whatever reason, there are a ton of people in this city with unanswered questions and spiritual baggage. They’ve never really gotten “closure” when it comes to their spiritual life. They’re not really sure where they stand.
The main purpose of our church is to remind people of that very basic concept that makes Christianity so beautiful in the first place: no matter who you are and no matter what your background, God loves you so much that he sent his own Son to conquer death for you and win eternal life for you in heaven. In short, God has done everything necessary to save you, and he did it all for free.
That concept is called “the gospel.” Some people have gone to church their whole life without ever really hearing it or focusing on it – instead they were taught to focus on themselves and how they should be living better lives.
So our church’s mission – and I do think it is a unique mission – is to give every possible person a chance to encounter that gospel message without their church baggage getting in the way. Our favorite way to do that is with a Bible Basics Class that meets in homes, coffee shops, or wherever else people may feel most comfortable. We try to create an environment that is fair and unbiased and where people have permission to challenge and question things without feeling judged.
Our church does a lot of different things (worship, community service, kids’ programs, etc.), but I think that the Bible Basics Class is really our best thing – because it lets people get straight to the message at the heart of Christianity. Once someone has taken the class, they may or may not join our church, but they invariably thank us for helping them find some clarity and peace with their spiritual life.
Our very clear focus on the gospel of Jesus – and getting that to people right away, even if they’re not comfortable coming to worship yet – I think that’s the best and most important thing we have to offer this community.
This is a tricky one because as you build a church, you are building an organization. You have to keep track of measurable things like worship attendance, membership numbers, offerings, budgets, etc. our church does have benchmarks for all those areas, and they’re certainly important for charting how we are doing as an organization. HOWEVER – there is a danger when a church puts too much stock in numbers. A church could be very well organized, rapidly growing, financially stable, etc. and still be doing a poor job of connecting people with the love of Jesus.
Personally, as a pastor, I would define success as A.) Doing my best to get to know people as individuals and understand where they are coming from, and B.) Teaching the message of the Bible as accurately and clearly as I can.
I know I’m doing my job well when I’m not finding my joy in numbers, but in individual conversations and relationships. It’s the best feeling in the world to help someone realize for the first time how much God actually loves them. It’s a contagious feeling of joy because it reminds me how much God actually loves me, too.