By CYNTHIA PICKERRELL, Four Points News
When Jonathan Spencer left Austin 17 years ago, his plans weren’t to return here someday to pastor a church. In fact, his own ambitions were leading him toward law and politics. But in hindsight, the new senior pastor of Austin Baptist Church sees God in action all the way back to his senior year in high school.
“Looking back at it, I see that God was not only calling me into a relationship with him, but that was the foundation of God’s call on my life to serve him through his church,” said Spencer, who is in the process of moving to Steiner Ranch.
Spencer was born and raised in Austin, grew up in a Christian home, and attended Hyde Park Baptist Church and school – which means he was in “church” seven days a week between school, sports and regular church attendance. Nevertheless, he realized his behavior wasn’t reflecting someone who called themselves a Christian.
“I don’t believe I fully surrendered my life to Christ until I was 17-years-old,” said Spencer. “I had to ask myself ‘Do I really know him, or do I just know a lot about him.”
At Camp Travis, held every year by his church during the summer, he not only realized this discrepancy, he surrendered his life to Christ. His prayer was simply, “God, I want to know you, I want to serve you, I want to experience you because I have not done that so far in my life.”
After graduating from high school, he left Austin to study pre-law and political science at Texas A&M, where he received his degree and even interned one summer in then Governor Rick Perry’s office. But around the age of 23, his life changed course.
“As I was preparing for the LSAT exam, God began speaking into my life that he had a different plan,” explained Spencer.
Call to ministry
Ending up in Houston at Second Baptist Church, his work spanned 12 years and a gamut of essentials for any pastor in training. Initially, he was hired as a youth pastor, moving on to become the adult ministries pastor where he helped start a new campus for the church. This exposed him to every aspect of church leadership, from pastoral care and teaching to building, finances and marketing.
He attended Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and was ordained as a pastor in 2013.
Also while at Second, he met his wife, Bethany, which he considers “the best and most important” event from his time in Houston. In June, they celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary. They now have three children, a daughter and two sons ages 8, 7 and 3 years old. The oldest two are starting school at Laura W. Bush Elementary near their new home.
About a year ago, Spencer sensed God was preparing him for a new season in life. He spoke with his senior pastor and other church leadership in Houston and began praying for God’s guidance. Meanwhile in Austin, the senior pastor at Austin Baptist, Gary Dyer, had announced his own plans to retire.
While this is all fairly commonplace in the life of churches, global norms were taking a historic turn. On the cusp of a pandemic, ABC’s search committee sought out Spencer before the church doors were quite literally shut.
“I never thought the pastorate would come at such a difficult time in our country and our culture, but that being said, I believe the Lord did,” said Spencer.
Spencer preached in Houston on March 8, the Sunday before spring break. Though he had spoken with the Austin Baptist search committee in February, he didn’t know at the time that some of the committee members were there in person to hear him. It is customary for such committees to go hear potential candidates in person.
That next week, Spencer’s church, as did most in Texas, closed for over two months in quarantine.
“I really believe it was God’s timing,” he said.
After many Zoom meetings, hours and hours of back-and-forth questioning, much prayer and a handful of socially-distanced in-person meetings, the pastor search committee recommended Spencer for the job.
He was introduced by video to the Austin Baptist congregation in advance of his first sermon on July 12. After the sermon, the church members both in person and online voted overwhelmingly in support of Spencer as their new senior pastor.
“I’m excited about this new beginning in Austin because I believe there’s a lot of people in this city who are like the 17-year-old version of me. They know a lot about Jesus Christ but they don’t know him personally.”
Of his new church, he’s equally enthusiastic.
“This is not just a place I am going to work at, it’s a place where I’m going to raise three small children,” he added. “I love the fact that this church is committed to coming alongside me as the parent to disciple and bring up these children.”
The Q&A with Pastor Jonathan Spencer is blending excerpts from a Four Points News interview and an interview offered to the congregation at Austin Baptist Church.
- Known for being an early riser and hard worker, what gets you up in the morning?
What wakes me up and motivates me is changed lives. People coming to know Christ, seeing marriages that are healed, seeing your children come to know Christ. I enjoy going to work, to talking with people both on staff and across the church. I just enjoy the relationships. I try to make every day count that God gives me.
- How do you view your role as a pastor?
The greatest ministry you offer is your presence. Some of it is very basic, like being in the hallway, shaking hands… when we can (again). Getting to know people and being accessible. Not being the guy at the pulpit but then disappearing afterward and nobody actually knows him. I take joy in learning people’s names and their stories even though that may take me some time and I’ll need some grace from people here in this church.
Behind the scenes, there’s all the obvious pastoral care… praying for people, counseling, hospital visits… having the opportunity to speak life into people.
- What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?
I love sports. I grew up playing football and basketball. I’ll be glad when that comes back. I’m an Aggie, which will be good news for some and bad news for others. I know I’ll hear a lot of Aggie jokes.
Beyond sports, I enjoy being outside, deer hunting in deer season, going to the lake, swimming with my kids… and we BBQ a lot. I have three different grills that my wife gives me a hard time about. Just being outside with family as much as we can in the Texas heat.
- What drew you to Austin Baptist Church?
This church has been gifted with a lot of resources and one of the most strategic locations in Austin. God is also bringing the whole country to Austin, Texas. It’s a great opportunity to extend his gospel to a lot of folks.
- Austin Baptist has a beautiful, relatively new facility. How do you see using it to reach out to the Four Points community and beyond?
I want to maximize it for the community. I’d love to see children and parents here every day. So the preschool program will continue to grow and build. We’ve already opened our facility for various programs, concerts, and events from some of our local schools. We will continue to support them in similar ways and expand that relationship. I’d like schools to see us as a community partner. Sunday will always be the priority in the ministry of this church, but the facility God gave us should be used far beyond – looking at how we can minister to people all week long.
- What is your plan to meet the needs of families in our area?
I want the community to know that Austin Baptist loves kids. I say that not just as a pastor, but as a dad. My kids right now are 3, almost 7 and 8. I want to be sure they are brought up in Christian nurture and learning the Word of God, that they’re loved and, on a practical level, they are having fun. I want a church that kids are dragging their parents to, not the other way around.
Then for adults, I want a church where neighbors become friends. I hope we have tons of people from the Four Points area come.So often, you see your neighbors but don’t really know their names or their stories. Church should be a community, a ‘city on a hill’ – that’s what Jesus calls it. We can be that ‘city on a hill’ where we can have that community sense for all ages.
- You have a heart for evangelism. How will you equip the church for this job?
Evangelism is not a ‘me’ job, it’s an ‘us’ job. It’s inviting someone into your life… and the core of your life as a Christian is your faith and your church. We have to teach, educate, and challenge our congregation to do that in their own lives.
They’re going to be leaving this place with a greater sense of faith, with a greater knowledge of how God’s word applies to their normal, everyday lives – so they can leave here and be better equipped to love and point people toward Jesus.
We don’t get to take anything with us to heaven. The only thing that goes with us is people. If that’s the case, we better set a high priority on relationships in this community.
- What is your teaching approach?
I’m an expository Bible teacher. That means the Bible, the Word of God, is the centerpiece of my message, not me. I don’t start with what I want to say. I start with a passage from scripture or a book of the Bible. From there, I study it to seek the application and how to illustrate it so people can understand it for their lives. And, by the grace of God, it can change their lives. If you took away God’s Word, I’d have nothing left to talk about that’s worth your while.
- How do you handle teaching tough topics in scripture?
All of God’s Word is useful and meant for us to teach and apply to our lives. If I believe God’s word is true, which I do, then I’ve got to preach all of it, even the difficult parts. So I won’t shy away from topics.
There are clear mandates in the Bible for us to live by and they must be taught. But I also need to present it filled with grace and love. At the end of the day, God’s arms are open wide. We all need to be reconciled to our Creator through Jesus Christ.
- What do you see for Austin Baptist in the next 13 years? We’re going to see a lot of growth. Jesus tells us the harvest is ready but the laborers are few. There’s a lot of laborers already rising up in our church and I’m just one of them. I think we’re ready to see God move in this city. My goal is to be a resource and support system ultimately for those we all fall under – the leadership and authority here in this city. I believe we’ll partner with school districts to bless them with support and love for our educators. I believe we’ll have partnerships with local businesses to love and serve them too.