“I knew God wanted to use me, but I didn’t know how”
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
Bardstown is the bourbon town of Kentucky. The down-home, blue-collar town of 16,000 even trademarked itself as the Bourbon Capital of the World.
Six bourbon distilleries operate inside town limits. Within a few miles of Bardstown, five more distilleries contribute to the state’s reputation and economy.
Brady Gray, who planted a Converge church here, said Kentucky natives identify themselves by their county. So, Nelson County is home for Brady, Ashley and their 4-year-old daughter, Ainsley.
Two centuries ago, when Kentucky’s counties were hardly defined, people were crossing the southern Appalachian Mountains, heading west for room to breathe, farm and find opportunity. Many were going near Bardstown as the frontier shifted.
Therefore, the Roman Catholic Diocese in Baltimore divided its territory. The new diocese for the Catholics beyond the Appalachians was in Bardstown. Roman Catholics are still there, along with Baptists and Methodists.
Bardstown has roughly 11 churches for every distillery. But there isn’t much discussion about a second trademark as the Church Capital of the World.
To the north, in Louisville, is Southern Seminary. Many Southern graduates emphasize Christian education, especially from the pulpit, when they settle not far from the campus. Some of Bardstown’s Baptist pastors compete with one another to best think and teach like John Calvin. The brilliant pastor served in Switzerland 500 years ago. Professors have long organized Calvin’s beliefs as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Such an academic system fuels the competitive spirit among pastors, creating an emphasis on information while not necessarily helping people love God and their neighbor.
‘My religion was sports’
As a young boy, Brady Gray went to church for candy bars. “Snickers minis all day long,” he said of his favorite candy bar. “I don’t mess around when it comes to candy bars.”
Several years later, he went to church as a sophomore with his girlfriend. “I wanted to be a good boyfriend,” he said of his spiritual progress. “I wouldn’t have said I was a church person at all. My religion was sports; I played sports year-round. I worshiped it.”
For many of Brady’s sports and years, his dad was his coach. That close bond influenced Brady: His dad loved him well. Sometimes, Brady connected a good performance as an athlete with experiencing his dad’s love. In his thoughts about God or connections to God, Brady easily synced experiencing love with religious actions.
At a tiny country church, an hour east of Cincinnati, Gray started paying a bit more attention. The summer before his senior year, he prayed to Christ about being Lord, even accepting Christ as such. But nothing changed right away.
His senior year was more sports. When college came, Gray left Ohio to become an athletic trainer at Eastern Kentucky University. That’s where he realized he needed to be in a campus ministry, so he visited Cru events. That’s where he realized Christianity was a relationship with Jesus, not a performance of religious skills. He listened to Christ’s words about baptism and followed through, identifying with Christ in a plunge beneath the waters, dying to self and sin and rising to new life with his Lord, the friend of sinners.
He stayed connected with a pastor in West Union, the closest thing he had to a hometown pastor. That man welcomed Gray back every summer as a chaperone for a Christian youth music festival. At one of these trips, that pastor pulled Gray aside: God wanted to use Brady in ministry. Gray laughed, knowing his life plan was to be an athletic trainer for a college or pro team.
“Those words never left me and kind of planted in the back of my brain,” Gray said. “I knew God wanted to use me, but I didn’t know how.”
He led Cru Bible studies, and a desire for ministry increased. But he knew he was paying a lot of money to get a degree.
So, he finished the degree and passed his national board exams. He could now be an athletic trainer. He realized he loved learning, so he decided to get a master’s degree. He went to Auburn University in Alabama.
In the afternoons, he was working as an athletic trainer at the high school. That paid his tuition and education expenses. Before long, he was cold calling a Baptist church and talking to their youth minister. He started volunteering in youth ministry at that church.
Within a couple of months, Gray was spending a lot of time with that youth minister. It was only his first semester of graduate school. But, in the mornings, he would volunteer as a youth ministry intern. He accepted the call to ministry in that first semester. He started seminary at Trinity Theological Seminary in Indiana. He dropped out of his master’s degree program at Auburn without even finishing the first semester.
Several months later, he moved back to Ohio, terrified of full-time ministry. He was good at athletic training, doing that and part-time jobs to make ends meet. But he was miserable, and in 2011, a church in his hometown hired him as a children’s pastor.
From candy bars to preaching Christ
Gray knew he liked candy bars as a kid. But in under a year, he knew being a children’s pastor wasn’t for him. So, he and his wife, Ashley, moved a year after their wedding. In Greenville, Alabama, he was a youth pastor and an associate pastor at a Southern Baptist church. Two years later — after being called Yankee a million times — they felt released from that call. Cultural differences created too many hurdles for gospel ministry.
Next, at a church south of Louisville, Gray accepted a role as a youth pastor. Church elders gave him support and freedom in his ministry. No one made Yankee comments, either.
But then the lead pastor quit with a vindictive spirit, starting a church five minutes away. That was the second time a split in that church happened without any resolution of the conflict. After two and a half years as youth pastor, Brady was welcomed by the elders as the lead pastor.
“I was hired, but I really wasn’t ever released to truly lead the church,” he said. Some elders had been there for 40 years. “They never truly let go of their reins because I’d never been a lead pastor.”
One of the comments Gray doesn’t want to ever hear is how something has always been done a certain way. “We will try anything for someone to find Jesus,” he said. He said he might have tried to make changes too fast. But arguing with elders who wouldn’t consider a new way to serve communion stimulated a month-long sabbatical. After that, he pondered something he’d never considered.
"It was 100% God"
Close to burnout, Gray took his sabbatical to hopefully get clarity from his prayers. Gray asked God, ‘Why would you give me a crystal-clear vision for a church with no chance to pursue the vision?’ God responded, “This is for you. It’s just not for them.”
In separate moments, God spoke to Brady and Ashley, telling them it was time to start something new. Brady had always wanted to work for established churches. But, he said, “I’ve never experienced healthy leadership in the church.” Gray had never wanted to be a church planter.
“It was 100% God,” Gray said of the call to plant a church. “I fought it.”
When he returned from his sabbatical, having accepted God’s will to plant a church, Gray was upfront with the elders. He promised them he was not going to plant a church right there in their area. They told him he had six days left as pastor. Mother’s Day Sunday was his last day at that church. Then, he wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. But he viewed himself like Peter and decided to step out of the boat.
He connected with the only church planter he knew. But that organization didn’t seem a fit. Neither did another national church planting network. A Google search turned up Converge’s MidAmerica district. Gray cold-called the Converge MidAmerica office. Danny Parmelee, the vice president of Church Planting in MidAmerica, answered. They hit it off and Gray never looked back.
Gray was assessed in November 2019 in Phoenix. He flew out there with Ashley and Ainsley and a caretaker for Ainsley. The Grays thought being in such a family-focused chapter of their lives might be a hindrance. “They said it was positive that our family was so committed to doing this and doing it together.”
Being approved to plant a church, they moved to Bardstown in January 2020. Six weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic shut down most American businesses, government and churches too. That shutdown and reopening have been a night and day difference from their training. Adding to the challenge are health concerns for Ainsley. She requires specialized medical care several times a year in Delaware. So, they had to drive 12 hours to Wilmington, Delaware, when the pandemic made flying impossible.
“We are paving our own path,” he said. “We aren’t going to live in fear, but we’re going to give a healthy respect to the virus.”
Even with the pandemic and his daughter’s health concerns, The Grove Church launched April 25 with 84 adults and children in attendance. “God did what he was going to do,” Gray said.
“That vision is for you”
The Grove Church has the vision God gave Brady when he was pastoring the previous church.
“What gets me going is truly authentic relationships,” he said. “We truly have never experienced a church where people can be authentic. We have experienced healthy relationships in the church. But there’s never been a church across the board where people felt like they could come and lay anything before the church and not be judged for it.”
A significant group in the church will be a spiritual health team. That team will have five or six people who help the church be spiritually healthy by counseling people and praying with them. He learned how such a team works and why every church needs one as an intern at a Converge church in Ohio. Converge as a movement emphasizes being better together where churches share resources and build relationships to start and strengthen churches and send missionaries.
As the Grays reflected on where to plant a church, they had several people at the previous church saying, ‘Stay close. We’ll go with you.’ But Gray knew he needed some distance. He felt called to connect with people who didn’t know Jesus, not the church.
The Grove aims to reach young families; Bardstown has an average age of 35. Many people starting their families and careers are leaving Louisville or the Louisville suburbs to find an even quieter place to live with good schools and other qualities.
Jessica Culver grew up in Bardstown. She’s been to many of those 68 churches, never finding one that goes beyond traditional church culture to serve a younger generation. For most churches, the pattern is going to church because that’s what you do and having lunch at a restaurant later that day.
That’s why the Grove is something Bardstown really needs.
“There’s a real big disconnect between young families and Jesus,” she said. A lot of people in places like this have experienced church hurt.
“We want you to have a relationship with Jesus, and we want to have a relationship with you,” she said. The commitment of the people at The Grove is walking together in a relationship with no ulterior motives, no matter what process a person is living.
For The Grove Church, the front door into their authentic community happens through family groups. Gray said they are so focused on quality relationships that their church is a hybrid between groups that foster relationship and Sunday gatherings for celebration.
Much of their church’s commitment is to the family groups, where people can become friends, eat food together and grow their faith through Bible lessons. Once a month, they have Sunday gatherings to celebrate what God is doing. They plan to move to weekly Sunday gatherings, although the purpose will continue to be celebration.
Those family groups are exactly why Chris Dye, his wife and three kids joined The Grove. The Dye family sold their house and moved from about an hour away to join the church plant.
“People don’t realize how much we need other people and how much we need to be in authentic community, which is the heartbeat behind The Grove,” he said. “Whether you have been hurt by another church or you don’t know Christ, or you’re a spiritual infant or a spiritual adult, we want you to know Jesus. We want you to have a relationship with Jesus, and he wants you and wants to have a relationship with you.”
Converge is committed to starting missionally minded churches until every people group and community has heard the gospel. When you plant a church with Converge, we will be with you every step and provide a clear pathway for you to start a new church. Each step has been strategically designed to improve your success so more people will have the opportunity to accept Jesus. Learn more about church planting and how Converge can help you reach others with the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ben Greene, Pastor & writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.