By Jim Burton
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Zack Randles believes that the nation’s capital needs another fort, and he’s willing to build that fortified structure.
The fort he envisions will not look anything like the military installations that protect the hub of America’s government–this fort will be a church.
The young west Texan set his heart toward Washington during his senior year at Oklahoma State University where he studied sociology. He committed to God in prayer to “do whatever you want me to do.” Randles had prayed that before, but this time was serious about obedience for the first time in his life.
“That day the Lord cast a vision for a place I’d never been and for people I’d never met,” Randles said. “I felt drawn to Washington, D.C.”
During the next several years, Randles worked on ministerial staffs of several large Texas churches while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He regularly led mission trips to the nation’s capital with his wife, Autumn. In 2005 with 42 students, “The spirit just fell in a way that I had not experienced before. We knew that we would come back here.”
What he didn’t immediately know was that coming back would involve church planting.
A ministry legacy
Randles grew up in the pastorates his father served. Jon Randles was a pastor and an evangelist who served the Baptist General Convention of Texas as their director of evangelism. When the senior Randles served existing churches as pastor, those churches typically experienced much growth. But his father never planted a church.
“My dad was my absolute hero,” Zack said. “It’s very rare. It was not always this way. It’s very rare to find someone who is your dad, best friend and hero all wrapped into one. He was an incredibly godly man.”
Zack was already following in his father’s steps by preaching at events for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, something his father did for years. So if the Lord wanted him in Washington, there surely would be an existing church calling him.
“I had been filled with so much pride that I had to take over a pre-existing church,” Randles said. “I thought people planted because they couldn’t plug into an existing system. I was incredibly wrong.”
God was calling the younger Randles to a city that many churches had recently abandoned for the suburbs. During his trips there, he determined that if his calling was to pastor in Washington, he would have to plant the church. The “follow me” passages of Luke 9 helped bring him to that realization.
Of the three people Jesus encountered that day, Randles realized that the only person Christ called to action was the second one. He wanted to bury his father first.
“The second guy in the story, Jesus has a mission set aside just for him,” Randles concluded. “It’s strategic and timely.”
Randles then understood God to say, “Trust me, and do the mission I’ve called you to do.”
His father became sick before Randles left Texas. A month after arriving in Washington, the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. There was no turning back, but his heart was clearly back home.
As Zack and Autumn poured themselves into starting Waterfront Church, they wrestled with how best to support Jon. For Zack the answer was to preach. His dad had said to him, “If a Randles can preach, he should preach.”
The flights between Lubbock where his father was and Washington where he was planting a church, and the emotional roller coaster, stretched him.
His father died April 1, 2015. Several days later, after preaching an Easter message in Washington, he returned to Lubbock to preach his father’s funeral to about 2,500 people in attendance and several thousands more via a live stream of the service.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Randles said. “Planting a church is a close second.”
Building the fort
The Randles felt God’s call to plant along a revitalized area between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, less than a mile from the capital and just two blocks from major league baseball’s Nationals Park.
“In the years we came here to do short-term mission work, we met brick wall after brick wall when it came to the gospel message,” Randles said. “When we moved here, it was the exact opposite. We prayed for 25 people. God sent us over 100.”
They now practice what he calls “M&M evangelism” because Washingtonians can have a hard shell that must melt before revealing their soft, gentle side.
Waterfront Church launched August 10, 2014, at the Courtyard Marriott Navy Yard. By Easter Sunday 2015, Waterfront Church had 150 in attendance. Randles baptized 15 people in the first eight months of the church–11 of whom were adults.
Randles calls Waterfront the bridge between politics and poverty. Though the neighborhood is now upscale, homeless people are still in the area.
“A homeless man walked in late,” Randles said of one Sunday service. “He sat next to a congressman.”
Waterfront is mixed culturally, ethnically and economically, Randles said. Members range from Capitol Hill workers to military to hot dog sales people at the nearby ballpark, and the congregation is not necessarily a young one.
“We don’t sell ourselves as the young-person church or the southern-gospel church,” Randles said. “We sell ourselves as the church that really does care about our community and wants to share the gospel message above all else.”
Planting a church in Washington hasn’t been cheap. Waterfront’s five-year budget is $1.3 million. An acre of land sells for $10 million. Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® and Cooperative Program funds helped Waterfront launch.
In spite of the cost, Waterfront’s leadership plans to have a permanent presence in the capital.
“Our goal is to establish a fort,” Randles said.
The goal for the 2016 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is $70 million. To learn more about the Week of Prayer, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and how your church can be mobilized to push back lostness in North America, visit www.anniearmstrong.com. To read about the other 2016 featured missionaries, visit www.anniearmstrong.com/missionaries-2016.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist and writer living in Atlanta.