Into the Neighborhood: Randy Frazee and Oak Hills Church

Community is a conduit of life: you live in community. If you starve yourself of community, you die.

Shortly before Randy Frazee preaches one of his first sermons at Oak Hills Church, an usher walks up to him and says:

“Just wanted to let you know, the buses are here.”

“What buses?” Frazee asks.

“The tourist buses,” the usher says, pointing to four or five of them pulling into the parking lot.

“Why are they here?”

“They are people who came for a tour of San Antonio, and one of the stops is the church where the author Max Lucado preaches.”

“But Max isn’t here. He preaches in the spring,” Randy says.

“Yeah, I know,” the usher says. “It must really suck to be you right now.”

 

Even by Frazee’s accounting, succeeding Max Lucado as senior pastor of Oak Hills Church doesn’t make sense.

Following the diagnosis of a heart problem in 2007, Lucado announces his desire to step down while continuing to serve as a teaching pastor and write.

“Who would want to take over for Max Lucado, the author who has sold 80 million books?” Frazee remembers thinking. “Someone would have to be either really stupid or really secure. For me, it was probably a little bit of both.”

After Frazee accepts the position and sets a goal to connect the church with more than 70 percent of San Antonio’s neighborhoods, he knows from experience what it means to give room for a good story to unfold.

 

Past 3 a.m. one night in 1994, Randy Frazee awakes from sleep. Nothing to be alarmed by, he believes—the expected occasional interruption for a 33-year-old father of four and senior pastor of Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

Just a few days earlier, he and his wife sit down together and click off all the worlds they navigate: 1 for church, 1 for relatives, 1 for small group, 1 for hobbies, 5 for kids sports. …

“We counted 35 separate, disconnected, fragmented relational worlds that we were trying to manage,” Frazee remembers. “It left us exhausted and alone. I later learned that sociologists have a name for this disease: crowded loneliness.”

So, Frazee thinks, a sleepless night or two: no big deal.

Forty-four more sleepless nights in a row, and he changes his mind.

 

Five years before Randy’s birth in a blue-collar Pennsylvania neighborhood, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act becomes law in 1956. Construction launches on a grid of transcontinental superhighways and provides a tipping point for the American dream of individualism and dramatic cultural change.

As the automobile expands space, the place of community diminishes.

“American cities were built around the whole idea of living life together,” Frazee says. “There were sidewalks, banks and bakers, and you did life together in a community. As soon as the superhighways came along life began to segment and fragment in the pursuit of possessions.”

In once empty spaces, suburbs blossom with the possibility of things.

Decades later, an unprecedented number of women and men, like Frazee, show up in the doctor’s office with stress-related illness.

 

Frazee says the doctor gives him some of the best advice ever. 

“When the sun goes down,” he suggests, “why don’t you as well?”

When Frazee explains the overwhelming responsibilities of his job as senior pastor of Pantego Bible Church, the doctor gives him a prescription: Chill out, eat dinner with your family, take long walks in the neighborhood.

Or the other option: Go home and not sleep again.

Instead of planning more church strategy meetings or enrolling their children in an ever-increasing number of events, the Frazees purposively slow down, cleaving, one by one, their number of worlds.

One evening, a most remarkable thing happens in their neighborhood. Frazee has nothing to do.

To see a beautiful sunset, he parks one—then two—chairs on the front lawn. He and his wife marvel at the sky’s colors as neighbors stop by to chat.

 

One of those neighbors, Tom, ends up changing Frazee’s vision for his church.

“I was hanging out with Tom and wondering how I could get him to come to church, become a Christian and join my small group,” Frazee says. “At the same time, I knew Tom would never step foot inside of a church.”

Tom, a gregarious man with an infectious laugh, encourages Randy into a game of kickball on their neighborhood street. Several families join in, and they agree the games should continue.

A few months later, after collecting enough signatures for a stop sign to slow traffic, they celebrate at a neighborhood block party called Stop in the Name of Love.

“What began to happen in our neighborhood was amazing,” Frazee says. “People were coming to Christ, we were learning to care for one another and a lot of our blood pressures were coming down.”

At the same time, Frazee wonders why his church-sponsored small groups rarely achieve the same kind of intimacy.

“We were creating an assimilation model that moved people deeper into the bowels of church and away from their neighborhood.” By doing so, church became another fragmented world disconnected from the stories of each other’s life.  

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After Frazee shifts the focus of small groups into individual neighborhoods, Pantego Bible Church grows to more than 4,000 people over the next 12 years, and Frazee begins leadership conferences sharing critical principles:

* The presence of Christ resides in a movement, not a program, and ignites where two or three are gathered in his name.

* Shaping a community requires a body not a group.

* People like Tom, as God-created connectors, are critical for leadership because they create a place for others—with different gifts and passions—to grow, belong and serve.

* To love others well means to enter into each other’s stories, always pointing toward the higher story.

The comeback of Pantego Bible Church attracts the attention of Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. In 2005, Hybels invites Frazee to join his team of teaching pastors as well as lead church outreach.

Shortly after accepting the position, he receives a confirmation of his decision through an email written by a member of Pantego.

I know you’re getting tons of email right now, but I wanted to join the well-wishers and tell you how excited I am about your new opportunity at Willow Creek. I have always thought that your special gift and purpose is to communicate and implement the idea of place-based community, especially in metro areas where it seems to be most needed.

I also wanted to tell you something that I hope will encourage you, though it may not sound very encouraging right off, so keep reading! Here it goes: It doesn’t really matter to me that you are leaving, and I don’t know that your departure will make a big difference in my life. (Keep reading!) You’re a nice guy to listen to on Sunday morning, but you’re not in my “circle,” and I barely know you. I would be upset by the departure of the Hamburgs, Chambers, McLeans or Seibolds (all of them in my neighborhood group) since those guys are such a significant part of my life and spiritual development, but I’ll be fine without you!

I say all these things quite bluntly just to confirm and emphasize that your vision has been fully implemented here at Pantego and you can move on, knowing that it will continue to thrive and bring glory to God as people share in one another’s lives and invest those lives in the kingdom of God.

Always fueled by challenge, Frazee begins to imagine the same kind of loving neighborhoods in the suburbs of Chicago. 

 

Less than three years later, Max Lucado calls Randy Frazee. When he speaks of a recent heart problem and wonders if Frazee has an interest in taking over as senior pastor at Oak Hills Church, a shared love for story unites them.

A good story, they both understand, unfolds in unexpected plot twists. Through an author’s power of character development, foreshadowing, engaging metaphor, irony and geography, anything is likely to happen.

A year later, it comes as no coincidence for both men that the first sermon series they share is named The Story.

With tourists no doubt disappointed not to see the beloved Max Lucado behind the pulpit, Frazee frames the series by defining two levels of story.

The lower story centers on the horizontal reality of people paying bills, taking children to practices and hoping life will one day make sense.

The upper story involves God’s loving pursuit of us in an almost unimaginable descent.

When the upper and lower stories align—both men will testify—redemption rises.

 

When Frazee trades the suburbs of Chicago for a neighborhood in San Antonio, he leaves with some frustration.

“I’m a person that likes to finish what he starts,” he confesses.

Under the best of circumstances, Frazee has learned, it takes five to seven years to implement a vision for neighborhood groups, and the suburbs of Chicago, birthed in disconnection, are a tough sell for a sense of place.

At the same time, the three years at Willow Creek reveal pockets of loving neighborhood and provide Frazee a new theology of community.

“We have this massive individualism that leads us to believe God’s image is in each person,” Frazee says. “If you go back to Genesis you will see God’s image stated only as it relates to Adam and Eve in community.”

Because God exists as three persons in relationship with one another, how could his image not be collective?

The epiphany of theology leads him to understand community as a conduit of life. “You live in community. If you starve yourself of community, you die.”

 

With a new sense of urgency and a unique challenge, Frazee partners with Lucado to shift the focus of Oak Hills Church. Together, they model a heart for community, sharing the same neighborhood, golf tee times and complementary gifts.

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Following one church service, Frazee calls for Lucado to come to stand by him on the stage. Frazee (5-foot-8) asks Lucado (6-foot-3) to take off his shoes as he does the same. Frazee ends up looking like Bozo the Clown; Lucado, like Cindarella’s stepsister. No, Frazee can’t fill the shoes of his predecessor.

“Here’s what we have decided,” Frazee says. “Max is going to wear his shoes, and I’m going to wear mine. We will walk side-by-side to help move the church out.”

They map the 3,000 San Antonio neighborhoods and develop a purpose/vision/mission statement in one:

We are the body of Christ called to be Jesus in every neighborhood in our city and beyond.

They call each person to:

* Fully participate as a member of a Christian community right where I live.

* Engage in a journey of learning to think, act and be like Jesus.

* Actively use my life, my gifts and my resources to serve others.

The church’s role shifts to equipping people into a “way of life” instead of constructing programs or buildings.

In an effort to reach a “tipping point” of engaging 15 percent of the community of San Antonio, Oak Hills launches 174 neighborhood groups, which currently connects the church to 6 percent of the city. Six campuses provide services for nearly 10,000 people.

In pioneering a movement—not a series of programs or buildings—steady progress builds empowerment.

“Ninety percent of what happens in our church now takes place outside of a church building in the neighborhoods,” Frazee says. “That allows us to shift resources.”

Each new neighborhood group follows a process:

* Software identifies people living in certain areas, who are asked to meet together to explore the possibility and vision for reaching their specific neighborhood;

* Training and resources are made available, often through the Internet and social media;

* After six months, the group is assigned to one of seven neighborhood pastors from a campuscommunity, which is closely aligned to neighborhood schools.

* In the process of organic growth, the group—based on its own DNA of gift, passion and need—is encouraged to engage in common purposes with their neighbors: kickball games, a local service project, a community meeting, a 5K run or walk together—anything that leads them into deeper relationship with neighbors.

“We have developed a very sophisticated process in terms of monitoring, training, and empowering our groups,” Frazee says, “to help people with a simple idea of living life together.”

As tricky as the logistics may be, Frazee says, the real challenge of developing an outward focus comes in redefining the idea of success.

“In America we define success largely through personal possessions,” Frazee says. “While people may say they desire community, they don’t let go of the passion and pursuit of this next thing. We have this hope in the promise that this next purchase is going to do something for us that the last one didn’t.

“We need to help people realize that identity is wrapped up in a relationship with God and others in a community, and not in a series of fragmented pursuits.”

The best way to call people into an others-centered way of life?

Tell stories.

Live stories.

It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg paradox, Frazee says. Living story generates telling story and telling story generates living story.

In many neighborhoods of San Antonio, the stories grow.

Like the one group where one of them, Glen, looks like Santa Claus, and they develop an outreach to at-risk children, and get voted Neighborhood of the Year.

Or the story about Jason, eaten up with guilt, who doesn’t yet believe in God and wouldn’t step foot in a church, walking four doors down and confessing his sin to a Christian neighbor, setting in motion a chain of forgiveness.

Or the Webster family, whose house burns down, and one neighborhood group puts out the word to other groups. A posse of believers and unbelievers arrives with clothes, food, offers of shelter, open arms and not a single form to fill out.

It’s what Jesus did, Frazee says, the lower and upper story merging in one.

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
—John 1:14 (The Message)

 

OAK HILLS CHURCH
OakHillsChurch.com
San Antonio, Texas
Senior Minister: Randy Frazee
Preaching Minister: Max Lucado
Twitter: @RandyFrazee, @MaxLucado
Founded: 1958
Affiliation: Nondenominational
Locations: 6
A 2013 Outreach 100 Church: No. 56 Largest
Attendance: 8,663

 

Rob Wilkins, a freelance writer and photographer, is an Outreach magazine contributing writer. He also works as multimedia developer for Grace Community Church in Asheville, N.C.