GOOD NEIGHBORS

One Stone Nashville Church is renovating neighborhoods and lives

I wanted to be part of something where only God could get the credit,” Pastor Mark Lancaster says, sitting on the steps of the historic Stainback Avenue building that is now home to the One Stone Nashville Church. “We want to focus on the local community. I’m really passionate about East Nashville and the Cleveland Park neighborhood. I wanted to represent what Cleveland Park represents: racial diversity, old and young. There’s something powerful when we can all come together.”
     It’s an ambitious and optimistic vision, but also one that is markedly different from the standard operating procedure of many new churches, where a good portion of the focus seems to be growing arena-sized congregations and building church complexes to match. One Stone Nashville is following a different path, one that harks back to the past while also looking to the future: growing a church focused squarely on its local community, a place where the members can easily walk to services each Sunday and work across denominational lines to give back to the community.
     “Different churches are for different things,” Lancaster says. “People like different worship expressions. I have a great appreciation for that, and I believe all of those expressions are not only valid but very important. Rather than focusing on the way different services look, let’s focus on our commonalities.”
     In his mid-40s, with a neatly trimmed and graying beard, Pastor Lancaster exudes a heady sanguinity. For Lancaster, renovation is a serious subject, whether he’s talking about an 89-year-old church building, entire neighborhoods or individual lives.
     Originally from Kalamazoo, Mich., Lancaster grew up deeply immersed in traditional church culture. “My mother was a missionary kid that spent the first 16 years of her life in India. When they moved back to the States, my grandfather planted churches,” Lancaster says, “and my father helped lead singing. So I was always in church.”
     Lancaster soon learned that a life built around church didn’t immunize one from human failings. “My dad used to slap my mom around a little bit,” Lancaster says, “and about the time I was 9 years old, he had an affair with his secretary. It was devastating to me. My mom remarried about four years later. At first, we seemed like the apple pie family, but no one knew my stepfather was a closet alcoholic who was abusive.”
     Bouncing between his parents’ homes, Lancaster discovered rock ’n’ roll as a refuge, a path his family did not understand. “My dad’s side of the family was convinced I was going to hell in a handbasket because of the music I liked and the way that I looked,” Lancaster says. “I felt the same thing in church. I stayed away from church because I felt judged based on the way I looked. I thought Jesus was cool, but I didn’t care for the people in church.”
     Over the next few years, Lancaster pursued a career in music. He also found himself locked into a cycle of substance abuse and mutually abusive relationships that continued after he moved to Nashville in 1996. “I had a personal goal of working on Music Row,” Lancaster says. “Six months later I was working at SESAC. My first wife got a development deal with Warner Bros. Records, but after a while, the only thing we had in common was getting drunk and high.”
     A week after his fourth wedding anniversary, Lancaster’s wife left him, and in just a few weeks, he hit bottom. “I was broken,” Lancaster says. “I was walking around my block crying, and I prayed, ‘God, I don’t care about anything else on the planet. The only thing I need today is a hug. An hour and half later I was at work and a guy walked up to me and said, ‘I came to work early this morning because God spoke to me and said you needed a hug.’ That was the beginning of my life transformation.”
     Lancaster soon found an alternative to the judgmental atmosphere of the churches of his youth at the interdenominational, charismatic church, GodWhy, based in Hendersonville, Tenn. He soon became a youth minister at GodWhy, eventually leaving his music career behind to focus full-time on the ministry. Lancaster also remarried and started a family with his current wife, Angie, but his journey was not over. “I thought I’d be a lifer working with youth,” Lancaster says. “I never wanted to work with adults. I love working with teens because they still believe you can change the world, and I believe that too. Working with adults who were cynical and jaded because they’ve been through the meat grinder was never appealing to me.
     “But in August of 2012,” Lancaster says, “I got a call from a buddy of mine who said, ‘It was impressed upon my heart to call you and tell you that you’re supposed to start a church.’” At first Lancaster marked it down as impossible, but as he began to hear from more friends with similar suggestions, an impossibility soon turned into a conviction. “I told my wife I didn’t know any details, but I was sensing in my heart that I was supposed to start a church in East Nashville. She freaked out. Her whole family used to live here and they all got out of Dodge.”
     As more signs began to mount, his wife’s initial hesitancy was overcome, and in January 2014, the couple bought a house in the Cleveland Park neighborhood and launched the One Stone Nashville Church with Sunday services at the East Park Community Center. The name was partially inspired by a passage in the Old Testament book of Joshua, in which God instructed the tribes of Israel to build a stone memorial on the banks of the river Jordan. “The fact is that we are all stones being built up,” Lancaster says. “A stone is a monument and a reminder of what God has done and can do.”
     Since that first service in January, the congregation of One Stone Nashville has grown to about 100. It didn’t take long before an opportunity presented itself for a more permanent home. “I was praying about finding a church building when I saw this property,” Lancaster says. “I drove around the block and could see that the building really wasn’t being used.”
     The yellow-brick church building at 1101 Stainback Avenue was built in 1925 by the Grace Baptist Church and served as the home for that congregation for over five decades. In 1981, the property was acquired by Grace Apostolic Church, along with the more modern church building at 1100 Lischey Avenue that backs up against the Stainback Avenue building. Over the last three decades, Grace Apostolic occasionally used the Stainback Avenue building for classes, special events and meetings, until it sustained damage during the 2010 flood.
     “I left several messages for Pastor Boyd at Grace Apostolic,” Lancaster says. “He finally returned my phone call, and told me, ‘Pastor Mark, it is obvious to me that God is up to something here. I can’t explain it, but you called at precisely the time we were making decisions about the property.’”
     An agreement to rent the church building was soon reached, but One Stone’s relationship with Grace Apostolic soon went beyond a typical landlord-tenant relationship. Although their worship services and business affairs will remain separate, the two churches — one predominantly African-American in membership and the other predominantly white — agreed to merge their youth ministries.
     “I knew creating a multicultural church was going to be a tough nut to crack,” Lancaster says, “but I believed it could happen. We’re coming together to impact the children of this community — reaching across denominational and racial lines to work together for something greater than ourselves.”
     Since signing the lease a few months ago, Lancaster and his congregation have been hard at work on repairing and renovating the building. They fixed structural issues and removed years of “improvements” — restoring much of the vintage appearance of the building along with modernizing it for use in the 21st Century. Their first services in the building were held on Sunday, Oct. 5. Services are held each Sunday at 10 a.m.
     “We’re open to anyone,” Lancaster says. “I don’t want anybody to feel like they can’t come in to the church. Our tagline is, ‘A place where people are accepted, respected and listened to, exactly where they are.’ A lot of people feel like they’ve made one too many mistakes, like they’re broken and they can never make it right. Nothing could be further from the truth. I experienced that first hand.
     “I love East Nashville for that purpose,” he continues. “You see a lot of brokenness that’s been restored, and I think that’s very representative of what the church is supposed to be. Instead of building some big, glossy new building, it’s working with what’s already here. Just think of all the prayers that are hanging out in the walls of this place — all the people who were praying for lives to be touched and transformed. If these walls could talk.”