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The Circuit Riders

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How the Parkers discovered their mission field

 

Photo of T.J. and Anna Parker

Early on Sunday mornings, T.J. ’11 and Anna (Windle ’11) Parker buckle up their five young children in a minivan and drive to the first of three Methodist churches, where T.J. serves as a modern-day circuit-riding preacher.

Moody alumni T.J. and Anna Parker are serving three churches in Montana and Alaska, where T. J. is a modern-day circuit-riding preacher.

Like the itinerant Methodist ministers who traveled on horseback from church to church in America’s frontier, the Parkers bring God’s Word to congregations in Montana and Idaho that have had little or no gospel exposure for decades.

“The pastors they had before hadn’t really been teaching from the Bible, which I’m very, very passionate about,” T.J. says. “My heart is preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

T.J. and Anna, both 28, never dreamed their mission field would be three small congregations of mostly retirees over the age of 60. But after a year, T.J. says, “we very much feel that God wants us here.”

Planning for Foreign Missions

T.J. and Anna both grew up wanting to be missionaries. Anna, a missionary kid from Bolivia, was eight years old when she felt called to overseas missions. T.J. felt called at age 16 and applied to Moody after a friend told him that Moody is the number one missionary-sending school in the country. He had been to China and visited again during a Moody Men’s Choir tour. T.J. and Anna met at the start of their senior year at Moody while doing a class missions project tutoring Tibetans in Chicago. They continued working with South Asian communities until they married in 2012 and then moved to Colorado to work in a church and run the children’s ministries.

With intentions of becoming missionaries to Tibet, the Parkers joined a mission agency in 2014 and spent six months on deputation. They drove across the United States with three kids in a travel trailer to tell pastors and lay leaders their plans.

But while crisscrossing the country, visiting small churches and pastors’ conferences from Chicago to Texas to Washington, they noticed a common theme. “We ran into aging pastors who were just exhausted, ready to retire. And very few young people were willing to step in and take their place,” T.J. says. “They weren’t working together, and it broke our hearts.”

Anna adds, “We were hoping it was an isolated event. But as we traveled, pretty much every church that we went to had the same thing going on.”

Their travels opened their eyes to a bleak reality: “Wow, America really needs pastors,” T.J. says. “While Latin America, Africa, and Asia are starting their missionary expansion into the world, American churches are dying at an astounding rate.”

They visited Anna’s parents in Texas and sought counsel and prayer from her dad and other relatives. T.J. and Anna were already scheduled to begin intense wilderness missionary training, but a different plan was emerging for their lives.

“God began to impress on our hearts that our desire to spread the gospel was not limited to overseas travel. He began to show us that there is a mission field right here in America,” T.J. says. So they canceled their wilderness training and resigned from the mission agency.

T.J., who majored in linguistics at Moody, knew he needed more pastoral training. Soon he was offered a year- long paid pastoral internship at Trout Creek Community Church in Trout Creek, Mont. Just before he and his family moved to Montana in 2015, however, he volunteered to work on the mission agency building’s roof and fell 25 feet, averting death but smashing his foot. With more than 40 pins and screws in his foot, he was wheelchair-bound and then on crutches for months.

The internship was delayed a few months, but “that roof fall ended up being a blessing,” he says, “because I was able to focus more on my internship studies.” It also gave T.J. time to confirm his calling and place of service. Anna says, “I could see him, day to day, growing stronger spiritually and emotionally.”

While T.J. studied and served at Trout Creek Community Church, the United Methodists called the church and requested a pastor to fill in at three churches. T.J. was recommended and agreed to serve.

A New Mission Begins

After their first Sunday service at 7:30 a.m. in Noxon, Mont., the Parker family proceeds west to a second church in Heron, Mont., then crosses the Pacific time zone for their third church service in Clark Fork, Idaho, where they also live. “The time change makes it not quite so late in the day,” says T.J., who finishes the circuit at 12:30 p.m. after a 50-mile round trip. Besides preaching, he leads the singing and teaches three weekly Bible studies, including one that concludes with soup at the Parker residence.

“It’s rural, a place where the gospel needed to come, and it’s a lot like what I thought being a missionary would feel like,” he says. This rural pastoral role can be challenging.

Since T.J. is only paid part-time for his labor, the Parkers must live modestly and purchase goods at thrift stores. And their family has grown. Anna gave birth to their fifth child in May.

Preaching the Word

T.J. remains convinced of the great need for effective pastoral ministry in this portion of the United States. He immediately noticed the effect of wrong doctrine. “At the core, the churches had gotten away from the inspiration of Scripture, causing a slew of other problems.” He says his Moody education played a “massive role” in helping him work through doctrinal questions. T.J. and Anna are grateful that their congregations have the opportunity to hear expository preaching from God’s Word each week.

“I came into it from the beginning telling them I’m not Methodist,” T.J. says. “I believe in the Bible; I teach the Bible. I will teach you what I believe the Bible is saying, and I think you should read the Bible yourself to see if what I’m saying is right or not.”

That seems fine with the people, who are happy with their pastor and are beginning to bring their Bibles to church. “If you asked anyone in my congregation if they were Christians, they would all say yes, but when you start talking to them about the Bible and Jesus and the gospel and what it is, you start to see that they don’t really know. So my goal has been to teach those things, so that they do know,” T.J. says.

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni News.

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