Big Changes

Photo by Lawson Whitaker

Back at the beginning of 2011, Melissa and I began to feel God calling us to let go of the lives that we had built for ourselves in Amarillo, and to follow His voice into a place of uncertainty. At the time, our photography business had been hugely successful in the West Texas area for nearly 7 years, and yet we felt that God would someday call us out of the life of self employment and into something else entirely different.

I’ve always been passionate about creating art and culture, and over the years, I’ve had the joy of being able to work with different churches, as well as for myself, creating beauty for a living through video, music, photography, and more. For a long time, my wife and I have felt a “missionary” like calling on our lives to let go of the comfort of the familiar, while at the same time, I have felt that my passion for the arts was not by accident, but that it would be used in ways that I hadn’t imagined.  

For many years, I have dreamed of opening a large, multi-purpose building in an urban area that could serve as a studio to creatives, host events, be a music venue and cafe, have arts shows, and even have church meetings on Sundays. I’ve always wanted to create a place for community and interaction between people who follow God and people who are nonbelievers -- since most of the time those two groups usually stay away from each other.

Back in 2012, through a series of miraculous circumstances, Melissa and I were invited to visit a new church plant in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee called the Mission Chattanooga. After our first visit there in 2012, we felt God called us to move to Chattanooga. And that’s exactly what happened. The following is our story of where we have been, and where we are now heading.

The City of Chattanooga

In the past 20 years, Chattanooga has completely transformed from what it once was. Today, the greater metro area is now well over 500,000+ in size, and it’s downtown is booming. In fact, Chattanooga added more jobs in 2012 than all the rest of Tennessee combined, and the city has doubled in size in the past 10 years.

Now that we have lived here for over a year, we’ve begun to realize how much ministry needs there are in downtown Chattanooga. As the city’s economy has thrived, the downtown is now thriving more than ever, with people moving in from all different parts of the country. So today, there’s thousands of people living in Chattanooga that are totally disconnected from any sense of community, far away from family.

The Mission Chattanooga

So in 2009 the Mission Chattanooga (the church we are a part of here) was planted downtown in this context, where most of the residents are mostly unchurched, and where poverty and crime problems abound. In other words, as a city, Chattanooga is the perfect mission field, and the Mission Chattanooga pastoral staff carries an identity of being missionaries; it’s an essential part of the DNA of the church.

The Mission Chattanooga is a fusion of church planting and urban ministry. When we first visited, it was shocking how many similarities there were with what the church was doing in the city, and what I felt was God’s vision for our lives. It’s vision is to reach the unchurched through life-giving, Christ-centered community, and to do it all through church planting. In the first 2 1/2 years into planting the church, 90% of the Mission’s attendees were previously unchurched. The Mission is truly reaching people.

Many of the staff of the Mission raise their own support to be on staff. The thinking is, to be a missionary means to act like missionary, so the model of church involves having to raise money for staff positions. Many new Christians and unchurched people are not reliable when it comes to supporting ministry, mainly because they haven’t learned how to give generously or because they don’t have the means to give.

So the Mission’s structure is based on support raising so that the congregation doesn't have to bear the full weight of the staff’s salaries, and this allows the church to expand and reach the unchurched in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in a normal church model.


The Camp House

To understand the Mission Chattanooga, you have to understand its for-profit business, the Camp House which is one of the places the church meets on Sundays. The Camp House is a coffee shop, music venue, event center, and cafe in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all kinds of coffee drinks. The Camp House, which is inside a large industrial building, is used for all sorts of things like local political debates, parent teacher conferences, concerts, radio shows, wedding receptions, art projects, and the like.  In fact, the Camp House is the highest rated coffee bar in the city of Chattanooga (check out their website at for more info).

Also it’s one of the most popular music venues in Chattanooga, having music concerts many nights a week with bands and singer/songwriters from all over. The staff of the Camp House are encouraged to live with the same missional intentionality as a missionary would, and many of the people that come to the Camp House are unchurched.

The goal is constant interaction with the surrounding culture, and because of that, the Camp House is constantly rubbing elbows with the unsaved. In 2013 alone,  the Camphouse hosted over 167 music concerts – from  singer/songwriters, to folk, to bluegrass, to blues, to alternative rock, to jazz, and even classical, 48 cultural events – from educational forums, to political forums, and academic lectures, to storytelling events, and city planning conference, and served 37,000 cups of coffee, which fueled innumerable conversations, study sessions, and business meetings. We had never seen a church do anything like this before.

So when we first came to visit the Mission Chattanooga, Melissa and I both felt God calling us to move to Chattanooga to be a part of the vision of the Mission, as well as to pursue God’s calling on our lives. It was as if the Mission fit right into the vision for ministry God had already given us: engaging and creating good culture for the purpose of reaching the lost in a multi-purpose building.

Where We’re Headed

When we moved to Chattanooga, we didn’t have a job offer from the church or a way of providing for ourselves. So after moving to Chattanooga in October 2012, we started our photography business all over again in the Tennessee area, and have seen lots of success in our business once again in the past 16 months. God has truly been faithful to us as we stepped out in faith and moved our lives over 1,000 miles from home.

And now God is calling us to a new level of trust, and so we feel it is time to let go of our business altogether. As of right now, we are no longer receiving any new income from photography. God has made it clear to us that it’s time to embrace uncertainty, and to let go of our comfort. In the past, we never thought that we would be in ministry full time, but God has spoken in so many ways, and made it clear to us that he has called us to be workers in his Kingdom. Recently, the Mission has asked me to come on to the ministry staff, and I have accepted the offer. My role on staff will be learning about preaching, pastoral care, church planting through assisting one of the new church plants in an urban neighborhood, and helping with fostering the arts and beauty in the church and the city through media arts in general. All the while, I am pursuing a masters degree from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. We are grateful for the opportunity to see God move in big ways, and are confident that He is calling us into this new chapter.

In line with the vision of the Mission, I am now seeking to raise my own financial support. And this is where we need your help. My family and I need to raise $35,000 per year to cover my portion of ministry that I will be overseeing in the city, as well as my living expenses. We are asking you to prayerfully consider partnering with us financially in order that we can pursue God’s calling of creating culture, reaching the lost, and church planting. We believe God will do something extraordinary in Tennessee, but we need your help.

We are asking you to give $25, $50, $100, $200, or $300+ in ongoing monthly support of my ministry with the Mission for the next 2 years at least, as well as partner with us in prayer.


While one-time gifts are a wonderful blessing, at this time we are in need of building a stable monthly support team that will allow the financial security for our family, as well as give us freedom to do ministry in the city.

Please consider giving monthly, even if it is as little as $5/month. It is still immensely valuable to our ministry and all that the Lord is going to accomplish through the Mission.

If you would like to give online visit this link here. And follow these instructions:

  • Enter your email, then click “get started” below that.
  • Fill out all the fields for personal information and contribution setup.

1) First you’ll enter your information
2) Then you’ll choose your amount you wish to give
3) Choose “recurring” if you wish, and fill out the rest of the prompted fields.
4) Make sure the designation is set to Media Arts (Joseph Elliott Schlabs)

  • Click “Continue” when you’re finished
  • On the next page, you’ll put in your credit or debit card that you wish to use
  • Click “Continue” to move to the last page
  • Confirm all the information to finish.