The Entrepreneurial Mission
Lipscomb alumni create an agile, thriving church for an ever-changing city
Just two years out of graduate school at Lipscomb University, Dave Clayton (’04, MA ’06) found himself calling an open-air park shelter in Green Hills Park his new church home. His wife Sydney (’02) and 10 other friends had committed to pray and discern in regards to their role in planting a new church in Nashville.
With very little money to obtain a meeting location, from May to September in 2008, they met for worship and fellowship at either the park’s pavilion, a nearby baseball field’s bleachers or the clubhouse of a nearby apartment building, depending on the weather or the availability.
From these humble beginnings grew a congregation that has thrived and grown to serve thousands of Nashvillians as members as well as coordinating a continual church planting ministry and multi-state spiritual initiative.
Clayton, who served as the founding director of Lipscomb’s campus ministry department from 2003 to 2009, organized the core group that eventually established Ethos Church and later began devoting his full-time energy to the mission of Ethos in Nashville and beyond.
Ethos Church was “birthed out of the spiritual and physical needs we saw emerging in a changing city,” said Clayton, and while Ethos Church looks a lot different today than it did in 2008, the city of Nashville is still changing, emerging and facing challenges like never before.
Clayton and Ethos are facing those challenges the same way they have from the beginning of the venture: “how do we very tangibly take our cues from Jesus, together as a group.”
LN: As you were growing up in Charleston, S.C., did you have aspirations to become a church planter when you grew up?
Clayton: It was not on my radar at all. My family loved Jesus and the Church, but I never thought about church planting. I came to Lipscomb to study theology, but I was also really interested in entrepreneurial pursuits. So I didn’t come in with a clear focus to plant churches.
As far back as I can remember I have always started things. In high school I apprenticed under a guy who was a serial entrepreneur. He must have started 60 businesses. I worked for him for two years, and it was the best education I ever got. He taught me how to make something new out of something that wasn’t even there.
LN: How did that entrepreneurial spirit play out as you studied at Lipscomb and went on to become a campus minister at the university?
Clayton: It’s just the way my mind is wired. It’s just what I have always done spiritually. It started when I was a junior at Lipscomb by recognizing the profound spiritual needs that were still in the lives of students, even though they were on a Christian campus. I was seeing students who had come from a Christian background but who had not yet learned how to live into and walk in the ways of Jesus. Those two things are very, very different. I would see students who got up and went to chapel and checked all the right boxes, but there was a serious lack of the fruit of the Spirit in their life. I say that empathetically, not judgmentally. It really stinks to be a Christian your whole life and never experience the joy of the Kingdom.
So we started creating places for community, finding ways to serve together and teaching students how to share their faith in meaningful ways. In my junior year, I started student-led Bible studies. On Sunday nights we created a gathering called The Offering. Basically we were creating places for people to connect with God and each other.
LN: What sparked the desire to establish a new church in Nashville?
Clayton: (Ethos) was definitely a calling from God that was birthed out of the spiritual and physical needs we saw emerging in a changing city. The city was growing rapidly, and on the most basic level, the church was not growing as quickly as the city.
We saw a renewed focus on the urban core, and thought about how that would impact a younger generation moving in as well as the group of people who had lived there for a long time and were being pushed out. So we started to say to ourselves: where do we see God at work in this situation? How do we live out the ways of Jesus there in front of these two groups?
The reality is that when we started, we had no idea what this thing was going to become, and we still don’t know what it will become. We try to follow a simple principle: how do we very tangibly take our cues from Jesus, together as a group. And that principle has provided a lot of mobility, allowed us to view the church as a whole where everyone has a part to play and everyone gets to be a meaningful contributor.
Only Jesus builds a Church. Our job is to stay close to Him, listen to Him and try to obey Him. We recognize that there are a lot of people who are close to Jesus, but their life and ministry doesn’t seem to work out the way they would have wanted. So we don’t turn that (principle) into a formula for success; we are just trying to follow Him.
Over the course of nearly 12 years, the Ethos Church has grown to include three meeting locations, all rented and all located close to downtown Nashville. The church also employs a house church model, where groups meet throughout the week in homes to develop deeper, meaningful relationships and to carry out missional activities. Church offices have migrated around the city over the years.
LN: How does the Ethos Church’s vision for obtaining and using meeting space relate to the overall outreach ministry of the congregation?
Clayton: We at Ethos have never owned a building, but we have very intentionally chosen spaces that are welcoming to non-Christians, are located in high-traffic areas in the city and have provided a low financial commitment to the church. Every leader has to pour their life into something. For me, I don’t want that something to be a building. And it is also pragmatic. The place where we feel called to do the majority of our ministry is in the downtown area, and that is expensive.
Our goal is to serve anybody and everybody with a heartbeat. All of our locations seek to serve the poor and the upwardly mobile — and everyone in between. Our first meeting location (the Cannery Ballroom) is located close to the Rescue Mission and the headquarters for Room in the Inn (a faith-based outreach to the homeless) as well as Cummins Station and The Gulch (two successful commercial and real estate developments). Those locations represent two totally different groups who both desperately need Jesus.
Our goal is to determine how we mobilize those two groups in order to serve and do life with Jesus together. Whoever God sends us, it is our job to send them out into the mission.
After seeing Clayton take initiative while still a student to create spiritual programming and opportunities for other Lipscomb students, the university approached him about applying his skills as Lipscomb’s first campus minister, a position that didn’t even have a firm job description at the time.
After seeing Clayton take initiative while still a student to create spiritual programming and opportunities for other Lipscomb students, the university approached him about applying his skills as Lipscomb’s first campus minister, a position that didn’t even have a firm job description at the time. — Dave Clayton
LN: How did your time working as campus minister at Lipscomb impact the work with Ethos?
Clayton: Some things I started in campus ministry have had obvious carry over, such as events focused on serving the city as a community or Resurrection Week activities at Easter time, but the biggest thing I took away from time at Lipscomb, I think, is the example I saw from leaders like Scott McDowell (then Lipscomb’s vice president of student life), to see the potential in others and to give people space to live out that potential. Scott McDowell made a space at the table for me, and I have tried to do that with a lot of other people since.
LN: You are also the executive director of Onward Church Planting. Tell me about the thought process behind that initiative.
Clayton: One thing we realized several years ago, as Ethos was really growing, was that we needed to address how to disciple and train future leaders and send them out. There are some things we have learned along the way, so we developed a way to share those things so that they advance the Kingdom of God, not just advance the particular mission of Ethos. So we invite leaders to come and just do life with us as we train them for ministry. We pour our energy into them, and then we bless them and send them out.
That is one of the ways we have seen the Kingdom advance most significantly. In addition, to our hub in Nashville, we are in the process of launching a hub in Europe and two hubs starting in Africa this fall, in hopes that we will be able to release dozens of new church planters into Europe and Africa next year.
It comes through the same idea: doing it the way Jesus does it, and letting it go from there. We have had 70 to 80 leaders go through that journey with us. Some leaders move here and get a job in the city as they train with us. Others stay at home and come in every month to get training or get trained through Zoom. We have more than 40 churches and campus ministries and non-profits we have started out of that effort.
LN: Tell me about the latest big initiative on your plate: Awaken.
Clayton: We really believe that when you look at the ways that God is moving all across the world, it almost always starts in a place of prayer and fasting. So a couple of years ago, we felt God calling us to mobilize all the churches in Nashville to pray for every person in the city by name. That first year (2019) we had 419 churches join us to pray for every person in the city, every day, for 30 days.
The next year (2020), we did it again with more than 700 churches in Nashville, and we had churches in 11 cities across the state join us and churches in other nations join us.
This is one more way we are trying to advance the Kingdom, by talking to God about his lost children. God can do something powerful there. Awaken has taken on a life of its own and gone well beyond Onward and Ethos.