Every church has a story. Sometimes a person feels a burden for a particular place or people, such as the Apostle Paul’s desire to go to Rome (Acts 19:21, Romans 15:23). Other times, God speaks out of nowhere to set a new course for someone’s life, as when God sent Jonah to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2). This is the story of how God led Robbie and Autumn Parks to start Vineyard Trailblazers and plant Vineyard Trailblazers Church of State College.
One day, Autumn was praying, and God spoke to her. He said:
“I am going to call you and Robbie to ministry sooner than you think. . . . The opportunities are coming soon, but you need to be alert for them. It will be like a siren around the corner; it will be loud and clear unless you are so used to hearing sirens that you just drown it out and don’t pray about it. I will make it loud and clear for you like I was to Samuel because I want you and Robbie to do this. It is important.”
What could this mean? Robbie said, “If I were offered the chance to be paid to do full-time ministry, I would take it in an instant! How could there possibly be an opportunity I need to be alert for? How would I ever miss it?” We were paying attention, but nothing came. What do you do in this situation? As Pastor Billy Kent taught us, when someone tells you something that God is possibly saying to you, put it on the shelf and look and wait for confirmation. If it is really God, confirmation will come.
On the last Friday of May, Robbie was preparing to go to work when a thought came to him:
“What if there were a college ministry that was focused on training college students to plant churches?”
Great idea! I have a friend who I know would love this idea. He always talked about sending college students out to reach the world. This is perfect!
Robbie was eager to share his ministry idea. Finally, two weeks later, the chance came. “What do you think?” he asked. His friend wasn’t interested. Robbie was flabbergasted. A week or so later, the thought caught Robbie’s mind for the first time: “Maybe you should do it.”
This was a mighty dilemma. Robbie had no interest in doing college ministry. We were on track to move away from State College in a year or two to plant a Vineyard church somewhere. That was the plan. When we were deciding to move to State College, we remembered a prophecy a man once gave us, that we would be leading a church full of young people in a few years’ time. Naturally, State College would be a realistic place to find such a church. Perhaps the prophecy meant that Robbie would work at a church there. That seemed plausible. Either way, we were headed to church leadership. College ministry was out of the picture.
God’s voice is unshakeable. When you know you have heard Him, all of your thinking comes back to what He said. You may try to explain it, creating scenarios to fit it into your expectations, but it’s still there, looming and fast like an unchangeable, fixed point in time. God’s word always wins. It always comes true.
As the idea of starting a church-planting-focused campus ministry grew in Robbie’s mind, new ideas were developed. What if the ministry planted at least one church every year? The graduating seniors could plan to move together to some place, get jobs, and start a church. What if we required every student to be actively involved not just in our campus ministry but in a church in town as well? That way, they would have the opportunity to put into practice what they learned. They would also be exposed to a wide demographic of people, not just college students.
We settled on three paths for starting the ministry: it could be part of another church in State College; it could be an extension of our most recent Vineyard church, Vineyard Base Camp; or it could be its own independent organization. We talked with Mark and Pam Couch at Vineyard Base Camp, and they were happy to help us get started.
Not long after, Mark said to us, “There is a course starting up through Multiply Vineyard (the church planting organization of Vineyard USA) called the Discover Course that is designed to help people discern God’s call, especially about church planting. You should look into it.” We signed up. It was amazing.
The very first class started with an introduction: “My name is Joel Seymour. I planted a church right out of college.” That is exactly what we want to train people to do! It sounds like we are in the right place! Then Joel started joking about a friend of his, Derek Heilmann, saying Derek would give $10,000 to anyone who started a new church in western PA. Where are we talking about starting a ministry? In central PA. Also, we had met Derek before; Mark and Pam introduced us to him, and we visited his church in Altoona, PA, the closest Vineyard to State College. Then a featured panelist spoke, “I planted a church in Oil City in western Pennsylvania.” Next, we were broken into small groups for discussion, but the Zoom setup was complicated, and we ended up back in the main lobby where we got to chat with Joel. Hearing our plan, he asked if we had met Derek. Yes we had.
What a meeting! Just like that paragraph, it was a whirlwind. We came in searching and questioning. God came in prepared to blast us with His attention, publicly calling out our plans and making connections.
It didn’t end there. The next class, by pure chance, we were put into Derek’s small group. For the third class, we ended up in the group led by Derek’s wife, Jeri. At the end of the final class, the floor was opened for anybody in the nationwide, 150-person class to ask questions. Jeri, who we had only just met, asked a question related to our specific ministry plans. Then Mark asked a question. Then Robbie posted a question, one of the many. Which question was picked to be answered? Robbie’s question. What are the chances that these three questions by these three people would be the featured three? God was all over this.
The class helped us to realize that our attention had drifted to the excitement of the course and away from what God was saying. That night, we sat down and refocused ourselves, and prayed for God to speak. An image came to Autumn’s mind: a large, white room, and outside of it, a silhouette of someone, as if about to enter the room. Robbie was surprised. “Have you ever been to the Spiritual Center on campus?” he asked. “Yes, a few times,” Autumn said. “Have you ever been downstairs?” “No. Why?” “Because downstairs there is a large blank room, where Navs and other campus ministries meet. I’ve been there probably hundreds of times. It’s probably not perfectly white, but overall, it’s rather blank. And outside the Spiritual Center is an art piece about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski: it’s a silhouette.” There we were, looking to start a campus ministry at Penn State, and God gave Autumn a vision of a real room at Penn State where campus ministries meet, confirmed by the silhouette outside. And get this: a few days later, we went to the Spiritual Center to show Autumn the silhouette and the room, and we found a second silhouette, right at the top of stairs to that very room. This second silhouette is of a person with arms outstretched to heaven in worship, just as Autumn saw in her prayer.
Another time, we were walking in the woods when Autumn said, “I have an idea for the name of our organization. What about, ‘Trailblazers’?” Robbie loved it. It seemed just the right length, the right number of syllables, something that could roll off the tongue, comparable to “Navigators” or “Intervarsity”, something one could picture a friend in college saying, “I’m a part of Trailblazers” or, “Hey, do you want to come to Trailblazers with me?”
We met up with Derek and Jeri within a few weeks. The Multiply Vineyard people were abuzz about our hopes of starting a ministry in State College. Derek had already been advocating to become a new area leader in central Pennsylvania, and our ministry would fall under him. He suggested we consider planting a church rather than a college ministry. “What is the difference?” he asked. “If you get college students in your ministry, they are going to want to be a part of a church that believes the same thing.” “That’s true,” Robbie said, “But there is a difference. God has called us specifically to start a college ministry focused on planting churches, not on planting a church ourselves, at least not right now. Also, God has called us to be a part of our current church, and unless He says otherwise, we are going to stick to that.”
This idea was fleshed out more when talking with Arleta Aureli of Multiply Vineyard. A college ministry would be focused on training college students (and possibly others) to go away from Penn State to plant churches. On the other hand, a church would be focused on reaching out to State College itself. They are two different missions, and we were called to the first one.
This is not to say that we didn’t want to plant a church someday. In fact, we would have rather planted a church than started a college ministry. Neither of us was drawn to college students above any other demographic, and frankly, neither of us wanted to do campus ministry. We would have rather not done campus ministry. But God told us to do campus ministry, and so we would, and we would do it with all of the enthusiasm, energy, talents, and skills that God had given us to do whatever He willed. We do not choose our ministry. God does. We follow and obey our King.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Trying to launch a new ministry created tension with some. Then, we realized that we weren’t hearing God completely. Jeri once said, “Sometimes God tells you one thing or moves you one way so that you can gain a new perspective, and then He tells you what He really wanted to say which you couldn’t have understood without taking that first step.” Robbie was adamant about not starting a church because he didn’t want to hurt other churches in State College, but the reality was that God wanted us to plant a Vineyard church in State College through which to make the college ministry happen. Suddenly, things moved quickly.
God provided startup funding through Vineyard Base Camp, and we launched our church, Vineyard Trailblazers Church of State College, in January of 2021. Soon we started meeting together on Sunday mornings, first at our house, then on campus, and later at the Lions Club in Pine Grove Mills. God opened doors for a space to rent at a price we could afford (which was not much). God surrounded us with prayer support from other Vineyard members and mentoring from Vineyard pastors. And God gave us a new understanding: rather than being in the way of other churches, we are but one of the hundreds of churches State College needs if everyone is to come to Jesus.
That is how Vineyard Trailblazers got started, but this is only the beginning of the story. What your part may be, only God can tell. Be sure to pray, hear His voice, and step out in faith. As Bilbo Baggins once said, “‘”It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to”‘” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3).