Finding Community in Tulsa
Matt Nelson has a passion for planting churches. As a college freshman, he helped start North Church in Oklahoma City and served on its staff for three years. Then a desire from God stirred in him to plant another church. Nelson said yes, but with one stipulation: anywhere but Tulsa, a city rich in churches. Nelson didn’t think it needed another one.
But God saw things differently. He led Nelson “kicking and screaming,” he says, to start City Church in Tulsa. His obedience set in motion the greatest challenges City Church would face and the miracles to overcome them.
In January 2010, City Church began meeting in the Tulsa Ballet building with a core group of 45 people. Every Sunday for the next thirteen years they set up and tore down for services. The church grew from 120 in early 2010 to 700 by 2019. Besides the incredible growth, they gave millions of dollars to missions and launched the Seed Network, a ministry that has planted 34 churches throughout the US.
Conducting three services every Sunday and with no place to expand, Nelson, 39, and the board of trustees went to prayer. After an extensive search of some 40 properties, they found a 54,000 square foot building on I-44, strategically situated between Tulsa’s affluent Arts District and its lowest income district. Their offer of $2.5 million, well below the building’s original price tag, was accepted.
Two days before closing, legal problems with the seller threatened to stop the deal, but God intervened. City Church closed on the property in February 2020 with a slightly higher bid. With $2 million raised by the congregation, they prepared to start renovations.
Three weeks after closing, COVID closed down the country and halted work at the new building before it started. If that weren’t enough, thieves broke in multiple times in October, stripping the building of copper and causing half a million dollars in damage.
Nelson beefed up security and trusted God. Two years later when the country finally reopened, he faced yet another challenge. The cost of building materials had skyrocketed, and City Church needed another $1.8 million to move in. Nelson explains, “It's reminiscent of the life of Joseph. Can anything else go wrong? And yet God was in it, orchestrating it all.”
In late 2022, Nelson and the trustees decided to begin renovations with the money on hand and believe God for the rest. Within five days after Nelson informed the congregation and posted on social media, God honored their faith. A $50,000 grant came from a local businessman. North Church sent a check for $250,000. Transformation Church in Tulsa, whom City Church had helped years before, planned to give $1 million.
With City Church rejoicing in God’s provision, work began on the building. It officially opened on March 26, 2023. More than 1,200 attended Easter services.
Ricky Broughton, a trustee who’s been with City Church since its inception, explains the difference those monies made. “We ended up being able to move in, do all the renovations we needed, and then have some leftover. Anytime there was an opportunity to doubt, something happened that turned the narrative in a way that no one person could take credit for.”
In this made-by-God facility, City Church has expanded their ministry. The back half of their building is used for community partnerships with nonprofits, and their exposure on the busy interstate draws people off the streets during the week. Nelson explains, “We have homeless people walking in every Sunday. And we love that. People who are broken in our city have a refuge.”
The new building doesn’t just minister to the community outside but to the community within its walls as well. A special part of that is a custom-made communion table, something Nelson had envisioned for years. Working six months, eight craftsmen in City Church fashioned a 1,000-pound piece of circular concrete with gold inlay and fastened it on top of three crosses. Set in the center of the sanctuary, the table symbolizes Jesus as the center of their community. Partaking of the emblems served from it each week reminds these people that more than adversity unites them, but the shed blood and broken body of their Lord.
God has changed Nelson’s thinking about Tulsa. It needs a place like City Church. And City Church has needed the test of faith, capped by seeing God provide. It’s something that Nelson and the congregation will never forget. He says, “As you walk into this building, to our whole church, it’s a testimony of God's faithfulness. People look around and they're like, ‘Man, this truly is a miracle.’”