by Jack Smith
Nathan Boley was a student at Auburn University with the next 10 years of his life planned out.
Then a mission trip changed everything.
While on a medical mission to Peru with a group that included several leaders from the Church of the Highlands, he heard a clarion call that was much stronger than the tug on his heart he had felt at other times.
“I felt called to the ministry before, but it kind of freaked me out. Then on the mission trip, I was able to really see the church be the church for the first time. I felt the call.”
Boley returned to Auburn, pulled up the Highlands College website and signed up for Preview Day.
“I knew then that was where I wanted to be,” he said.
When he began his journey at Highlands College, Boley had no idea where it would take him two years later. He ended up in the most unlikely of places for a church plant, his experience at Highlands College preparing him in ways he could not have known.
“It was the best two years of my life,” Boley said.
Hands-on ministry experience, small groups, and friendships forged with classmates and pastors alike gave Boley the preparation he would need for the calling to come.
“I have used so much of what I learned at Highlands,” he said.
He credits a host of mentors for impacting his walk, including Hayes Kearbey, Jordan Williamson, and Laonna Byrd, among others.
“You’re not just getting poured into at Highlands College,” he said. “They become a part of your life.”
When his time at Highlands ended, Boley ended up taking an internship about as far away from his hometown of Dothan, Ala., as possible. He landed at Sozo Church in San Francisco.
Eight other Highlands graduates joined Boley at Sozo, a church planted by Jason and Jennifer Laird in 2017. The Lairds’ journey to San Francisco was as unlikely as the team they now lead. They felt the call to plant a life-giving church for many years but were thriving at one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America when they made the sojourn to Sozo.
Boley says the experience at Sozo, where he works a fulltime job to be able to serve an internship without pay, has been the most rewarding experience of his life.
“Without a doubt, it’s been the hardest year of my life, but it has without a doubt been the most fulfilling year of my life,” he said.
One challenge is breaking down cultural barriers in a diverse, eclectic city where planting a church is no easy task.
San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in America. It is one of the most unchurched cities in America. The Golden Gate Bridge holds the sad distinction of the top suicide landmark in America.
Breaking through and building relationships with potential church members are challenging.
Boley finds comfort in Christ when he thinks of the daunting task.
“The message of the Gospel is the same everywhere. We’re really big on helping people discover their purpose.”
Sozo uses a combination of social media and hands-on outreach to draw visitors and stir interest in the church. The weekend before Easter, Boley and other staff members handed out free coffee and invitation cards at a Farmers Market.
While Sozo’s passionate, dedicated staff has grown the church to 350 members, rejection happens. Sometimes, it’s harsh.
“Some people do have strong preconceived notions,” Boley said. “We just tell them they can belong before they believe.”
Boley believes he has found his place far away from home. He draws on the challenging experiences from Highlands College—from the half-marathon to Expedition—as motivation to remember he has the stamina and the toughness to do what must be done to build the Kingdom of God in San Francisco.
Unlike his time at Auburn, he doesn’t have the next 10 years of his life planned. He is living for today.
“I am at Sozo until God calls me somewhere else,” he said. “I know this is where God wants me.”