Church plant emerges from walking the streets of Brooklyn

Mentoring and coaching come with the title of church planter, and that holds true for North American Mission Board missionary James Roberson (left). Roberson’s Bridge Church hosted student missionaries in the summer of 2016. Roberson prays on a Brooklyn street with seminary students and GenSend team members Anne Baldwin (center) and Travis Minogue. (NAMB photo / Susan Whitley)

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BROOKLYN, N.Y.—When James Roberson arrived in Brooklyn to plant a church, he began walking the streets. Much like a door-to-door salesman, he was looking for prospects with no leads.

Each morning during his quiet time, he would ask God what to do. In the New Testament book of Acts, he noted, “These guys just kind of walked around and prayed.” So his strategy was to prayerwalk Brooklyn, asking God to open doors. And God answered his prayers for Bridge Church.

Brooklyn 300Becoming a local, or at least being accepted in a new community, is never easy. Missionary James Roberson spends time engaging his neighbors in Brooklyn. He encourages people he meets with his infectious personality, and he is quick to tell people the source of his joy–his relationship with Christ. (NAMB photo / Susan Whitley)When Camille Mumford started attending Bridge Church in Brooklyn with her husband, she regularly sent Roberson quotes from New Age advocate Deepak Chopra. The Cleveland native wasn’t too sure about what she was hearing from Roberson, but she was sure nobody in the church’s City Groups would understand her.

Still, she continued to attend the small-group gatherings and learned the importance of discovering community, particularly when living in a new city. Within three months, she volunteered to bring food. Three months later, she started participating. Today, she can’t imagine living in New York City without her Bridge Church family.

Two years before Rich Bowman met Roberson, he had been an atheist. Although he recently had professed faith in Christ, Bowman and his wife, Emmy, had not joined a church. After finding one of Roberson’s online blog posts, he contacted the pastor.

The Bowmans appeared introverted. Rich was “super quiet,” never interjecting during City Group Bible studies. Emmy would hide in the Robersons’ bedroom because she didn’t want to interact.

Today, she’s the primary person Bridge Church women seek for discipleship, and he preaches for Roberson at the Bridge Church. Next September, he will be the pastor of the Bridge Church’s first church plant in Flatbush, N.Y.

When Roberson sees Rich, who was “basically a mute,” now preaching, and sees Emmy discipling women, he can only explain it one way.

“It’s a Holy Spirit thing,” Roberson said.

When Jessica Powell attended a poetry reading, the college senior wasn’t looking for a church, she wanted to meet the featured poet. She also met someone who invited her to a Bridge Church Bible study.

Powell lives in Queens, a 90-minute train ride to Brooklyn. She had made a profession of faith in Christ and was eager to grow in her faith. At the City Group led by Roberson, she received a handout on the topic of love, sex and dating. By the end of the study, Powell had drawn a conclusion.

“God, this is where you want me to be,” she said. 

Anywhere but New York

Getting to Brooklyn, a New York City borough, from Atlanta was a challenge for Roberson and his wife, Natarsha. After years of campus and church ministry throughout the South, Roberson knew God was moving them into church planting, maybe in his native New York. A mission trip to Uganda and Kenya had put Africa on their spiritual radar screen.

Brooklyn Roberson 350North American Mission Board missionaries James and Natarsha Roberson moved their family from Atlanta to Brooklyn in obedience to God’s call to plant a church. The Robersons have three daughters, Leah (left), Faith and Sophia. (NAMB photo / Susan Whitley)Roberson recalls sitting in an Atlanta parking lot with Natarsha as they discussed their feelings about a new ministry pursuit.

“I could hear the fear in her voice and the angst,” Roberson said. He recalls his wife saying: “I’m not going to lie to you. If you had told me that God was calling us to Uganda, I’d be happier with that. New York City is the last place I want to go.”

She did agree to visit Brooklyn with her husband as they wrestled with discerning God’s will. On that trip, they randomly met a young woman who recently had picked up a Bible and wanted to learn it but needed a teacher. Eventually, that young woman professed faith in Christ and joined a Bridge Church Bible study.

After that initial random encounter, Natarsha had a new understanding.

“I can’t believe that God has given us the opportunity to serve him here,” she said.

She also couldn’t believe God would take them and their small children from a spacious five-bedroom house in Atlanta where he was on staff with Blueprint Church, a predominantly African-American inner-city congregation. Brooklyn real estate would be different.

They arrived in Brooklyn alone on Feb. 6, 2013, with no team, no relationships and no home. A 600-square-foot apartment that cost $2,400 per month became their first meeting place for City Group Bible studies and home. Next, they needed participants.

Hitting the streets

Roberson offers an imposing figure. The six-foot-two-inch former collegiate football defensive tackle took his gregarious personality to the streets of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn 250Street encounters are no accident for Missionary James Roberson. He is intentional to prayerwalk his neighborhood in Brooklyn, home to the Bridge Church, a church plant he leads. Many new members began coming to Bridge Church after running into Roberson on the street. (NAMB photo / Susan Whitley)“When I came up here, I just found myself walking around, praying and dreaming,” Roberson said. In the process, God began to open doors.

A church across the street from the Barclay Center, home of the NBA’s New York Nets, offered them a meeting place. One of the staff members recognized Roberson from his small part in a Christian movie called “Man Up.” That person became one of the worship leaders at the new church Roberson had yet to form.

Then he walked onto the campus of Long Island University and soon became a campus minister with an office.

He kept walking until Bridge Church launched on April 20, 2014, with 180 people in attendance. The former football player wept as he considered what had transpired in 14 months. After arriving with only their obedience, God blessed them with a church in Brooklyn that mostly reaches second- and third-generation Millennials from Caribbean nations.

Since forming, the church has been active in the community with several initiatives. A desire to give coats to homeless people morphed into a campaign called I Am Known when member Yvonne Eseonu asked two questions: “What does it say to people that we’re giving you the coats that we don’t want any more? Why don’t we give them clothes that we would wear?” A person could now buy an I Am Known sweatshirt making it possible for a homeless person to receive a new, warm and free garment.

With the social unrest that has rocked the nation, the Bridge Church created an initiative called Do Justice that focuses on community relationships with police. Other issues of concern include over-gentrification, which has caused monthly rents to rise to the point some Bridge Church members have been “rented out” of Brooklyn.

But the real issue for Roberson is discipleship. With nine City Groups meeting for Bible study and community formation, each becomes like a spiritual family. At their Easter service last year, the church saw the fruit of its family discipleship efforts. With up to 160 attending, more than 20 came to the altar to profess faith in Christ.

“It was one of those days when you go, ‘What happened?’” Roberson said.

Part of what happened was that Roberson received a startup grant from the North American Mission Board made possible by Annie Armstrong Easter Offering funds to start the Bridge Church.

“You cannot start a church without resources,” Roberson said.

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