Building community by being vulnerable

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication

The bullet missed Jonathan Waller’s head by inches, but the trauma found its mark: He went for the bottom of the bottle in the weeks after the shooting.

For years, pornography and alcohol directed and devastated Waller’s heart. His childhood church emphasized suits and the King James translation more than grace and the Good Shepherd. He felt ashamed, so he used the addictions to manage his spiritual and emotional pain.

Leaving home for the army meant four years of pornography and alcohol on a ‘silver platter,’ he said. Becoming a deputy sheriff in Florida and then a police officer in Washington intensified the addictions.

“To say I was far from God is putting it lightly and gently,” he said.

The divine separation might not last forever

On December 9, 2012, Waller and another Lakewood, Washington, officer spotted a stolen car on the interstate south of Seattle. It was 9:35 p.m.

Minutes later, the driver exited the interstate. Waller’s police car stopped right beside the stolen car on the exit, and the driver started shooting. The cars’ angles trapped Waller in the passenger seat while the officers fired back. The stolen-car driver shot the roof and passenger side doorpost, missing Waller’s head by inches. The shooter died during the gun battle.

After the shootout, Waller wondered for weeks why God didn’t take his life. Surely, that would have been the perfect way for the Holy One of Israel to stop Waller’s selfishness and brokenness.

“I didn’t know why God had physically saved me,” he said. “I thought for sure this would have been a great opportunity for him to end this so I would stop hurting people and stop defaming his name.”

Related: “I didn’t find my tribe; my tribe found me.”

Despite the shame, sin, and pain, Waller sometimes reflected on nearly dying when his life seemed broken and worthless. However, the pain and trauma mostly stimulated more pours than prayers.

A childhood faith framed around performance offered little intimacy with Christ for a deeply broken and traumatized man. At one point, though, a Christian friend asked him, “Do you know how close you came to losing your life?” That question mattered as Waller thought about the life he’d lived and the gunshots aimed at him.

But a question from his wife, Erin, was easier to understand and answer than questions about God’s place in his life.

How do you turn a life around?

Erin had seen Jonathan unraveling since the shooting. So, one night she confronted him in the kitchen.

“Hey, can we stop drinking alcohol?’ Erin asked him. “Can we just take a break from this?”

They’d been married about a year and had two girls, Glorianna and Abigail. Jonathan was making his favorite drink when Erin’s question came.

“I was making a drink ― a Captain Morgan and Coke was my favorite ― and I poured it out into the sink,” he said. “That’s the last drink I ever poured.”

After watching the mixed drink swirl down the kitchen sink, he agreed to give God every piece of his life ― if God would put the pieces together. So, the son of a Florida church planter eased toward the God of the Bible he’d heard about as a young boy.

Still, he was a long way from the seven-year-old saved in his father’s church. He’d spent decades managing his sin and proving his salvation with good deeds rather than knowing Jesus. But the word of God took root before the world of woe he created for himself.

“About two days into sobriety, that’s when I hit my knees with God,” he said. “There are times in your life when you feel the literal love and presence of God embracing you.”

A moment like that with the God of grace started the renewal that inspired the Wallers to start a Converge church last month in Puyallup, Washington.

Related: New Converge church plants launched since 2020

But the Wallers were still in the far country, even as they found the Father ran to embrace them.

In 2009, Waller was doing undercover narcotics work. Erin was working for the Department of Corrections as a probation and parole officer. They met because one of the men on Erin’s caseload had potential as an informant for one of Jonathan’s drug cases.

They started dating and merged their lives into a path of selfishness and partying. Erin learned about Christ as a young girl in a Lutheran church. But she didn’t have a connection to Jesus that influenced her life. At the same time, Jonathan wasn’t slowing down on the wild life he’d developed in the army and years of police work.

Related: An act of God: A cop on both sides of the law gets clean in more ways than one

Yet, for some reason, joining a local church was important to them. Sunday mornings included God and Temple Baptist Church, even though the rest of the week meant disobeying him.

Still, their pastor, Mike Roberts, committed himself to the couple’s marriage and faith.

“He extended so much grace to us; he helped counsel us through many things. He and his wife, Maryann, were supernaturally and strategically placed in our life,” Waller said. “We began to go on this journey of God drawing us back to him.”

As their involvement at the church deepened, and they grew spiritually, they began to serve at Temple. Erin helped with children’s ministry, eventually discovering she loves working with children and the more administrative elements. Jonathan started singing in the worship services.

When Jonathan quit drinking and rejected porn, the recovery phase from years of sin began. Again, they went to Pastor Roberts, who came to their house once a week. What happened in their home, he explained, was gaining a biblical perspective on life, who God is and studying God’s word.

“God’s word began to come alive to us,” Jonathan added. “It wasn’t counseling. It was discipleship.”

Renewed Life Church offers others what transformed the Wallers

Peter and Angie Livingston met the Wallers during the stress and trials of 2020. Washington was one of the hard-hit states early in the pandemic. Plus, the state saw many protests related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

In the Puyallup area, people from the Wallers’ church came to the launch meetings. But they also gladly received four families from their neighborhood. So, what slowly developed was a home group eager for supportive friendship and Bible study.

As they went through the Scriptures and the nation faced chaos, the group unified around a couple of core commitments. Those values are now central to the identity of Renewed Life Church.

Proclaiming the gospel is the first value that developed out of the earliest meetings of Renewed Life Church. The leaders prioritized God’s word as the tool for transforming lives.

Related: A divine reset

“We do operate like a hospital church, but we greatly value the word of God, and we dive deeply into the Scripture,” Livingston said. “At Renewed Life Church, you’re going to be loved and supported, but you’re also going to be fed the word of God. And that has the power to transform you from that place of brokenness.”

Churches in Washington couldn’t meet in person last year when the Wallers opened their home. Washington still has more strict requirements for churches than many states.

“We just started as a group of families meeting in a home, and we embraced vulnerability as families figuring out how to do this together,” Livingston said. “We need each other, we need to worship together and we all had doubts, anxieties and fears about the uncertainty. But, ultimately, we were in good company because we were all worshiping God together.”

Waller family 

Now, Renewed Life Church is clear that embracing vulnerability is central to who they are. Their vision is to be a place where the lost, sick and broken come to find hope, healing and new life in Jesus Christ.

“We all carry some brokenness in us,” Livingston said. “We work really hard to build community by being vulnerable.”

Renewed Life is possible

Renewed Life’s founding members and leaders are confident that people can change, grow, and heal through the gospel that inspires love and vulnerability.

Peter said he and his wife, Angie, have been through real trials since meeting the Wallers four years ago. But the Wallers’ story and support have helped the Livingstons persevere and trust God and find comfort. Plus, Peter is now the church’s executive pastor while he continues a career at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“My wife and I have fairly up and down testimonies,” he said. “It’s the faithfulness and grace of God that has led us thus far.”

Related: “I gained hope and faith”

For them, and many at Renewed Life, the word of God is how the Lord brings people closer to himself and communicates his grace. That gives everyone hope, no matter how broken they are.

“Ultimately, we’re going to point you to Jesus and the word of God,” Livingston said. “That has the power, so ultimately you’re not going to stay there (in a broken place).”

How does human brokenness display itself in Pierce County?

Erin, who grew up near Puyallup, where the church gathers, has a native’s insight and perception of this community. She said people in Pierce County are happy on the outside but lonely on the inside. Plus, they stay so busy to accumulate wealth, impress others or have good experiences.

“I cannot believe the amount of busyness people try to occupy their days with,” she said. “There’s no room for relationships.”

Jonathan, who grew up in Florida before moving to Washington several years ago, sees a lot of consumeristic loyalties as well. Whether it’s a church or a business, people in the community often base their loyalty on meeting their felt needs or making their lives better.

“People are waking up to the fact that they are not really deeply rooted in the word of God and relationships are very superficial,” he said. “What we’ve seen is a real need for authentic community has come alive. And people want to get back to the radical requirements of what it really is to follow Jesus.”

Related: Come and dine: A call to eat God’s word

Most people, especially those who don’t know Christ as Lord, embrace successful careers with big employers or the military bases. At the same time, Washington is a very wealthy state with lots of tourism and entertainment. People leave Seattle and bigger cities to come into the rural, suburban life of Pierce County. They enjoy the fairs, markets and traditional community events while they work or drop in for a long weekend.

Lots of the families in Pierce County trend younger and often have two or three young children in the family. Plenty of people are in their 20s and 30s.

“It’s just ministering to people where they are and getting them to understand their need for hope, healing and new life in Christ,” Jonathan said. “That’s the challenge we face here in our community.”

Worship service 

To achieve their vision, the leaders of Renewed Life Church are praying for a more permanent meeting location they could use throughout the week. The church is eager to offer home groups throughout the area. But they also focus on discipleship groups that could happen in the church. So, they’re praying that God provides them with a permanent meeting place.

Related: How you can help support new churches

The Wallers and Livingstons appreciate prayers for wisdom. They strive to find the right ministry posture when serving consumeristic people with discipleship but not being so discipleship-oriented that there’s no help for everyday life.

“We are transparent with life. We struggle in marriage. We struggle in parenting,” he said. “To expose those things to other people in relationships helps us to strive on this journey together.”

The Wallers are hopeful for others and how God can work through them. They’ve seen what God did in their marriage and lives.

Renewed Life Church has discovered a central truth of the gospel in the stories of brokenness transformed. The power of the gospel and the presence of God’s people offer hope and strength when life is threatened, ravaged or terrifying.

The bullets and empty bottles, the brokenness in everyone’s life comes from and leads to unpredictable realities of life. There is still chaos and a mess and lives out of control. However, transformed lives are possible through the local church, emphasizing Christ through his word and being vulnerable and experiencing and offering love.

“We are a redemption story, and Renewed Life comes out of that,” Jonathan Waller said. “As genuinely as we can, we’re going to follow Jesus and invite others to be on the journey.”

Converge is dedicated to helping people meet, know and follow Jesus. We do this by starting and strengthening churches together worldwide. Renewed Life Church is among the 312 churches that Converge’s 10 districts have committed to planting before 2026.

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.

Additional articles by Ben Greene