In a denomination with declining membership and where many available pulpits are no longer able to sustain a full-time pastor in the traditional model, many in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have been calling for more tentmakers.
Tentmakers are those who work in pastoral or ministry roles but whose primary source of income comes from their jobs in the secular world.
Justin Souza didn’t set out to become a tentmaker — he simply followed in the path it seemed God was calling him. A major component on that path was a love of music.
“I’ve always been interested in music — it has been my passion, and as a young person it, in many ways, defined who I was,” said Souza, who is the founder of a new ministry in Los Angeles called The Breathing Room. (To learn more about The Breathing Room, read this PNS story.)
In high school, Souza, who had grown up in the church, realized that although he loved music, his identity was more centrally rooted in Jesus.
“Over time I had this pull to match together the fact that my identity is in Jesus, yet he is the one who has created me to be this person who is very touched by music and passionate about it,” Souza said.
His journey of learning how to integrate his faith with his love of music led Souza to reach out to youth who might be grappling with similar circumstances.
“This is who I am looking for — kids who might be on the fringe of possibly having a faith, but who don’t know how to reconcile the idea of ‘church’ with who they are,” he said.
One group of such kids is known as ‘straight edge’: a music subculture associated with hardcore punk rock and a standard of living that refrains from drugs, alcohol and premarital sex.
“It is actually an easy subculture to engage with — they like hardcore music, screaming, tattoos and piercings so you might not know it, but they are passionate about their moral lifestyle as well,” said Souza.
He believes that it is especially these youth who might be drawn to Christianity, if they’ve got the opportunity. These type of youth don’t often feel welcomed into the church.
“Often as the church, we have become unapproachable so kids feel unsafe in those type of churches,” Souza said.
And that’s exactly why The Breathing Room — an all-ages music venue that Souza started in partnership with Granada Hills Presbyterian Church — is intentionally located in the church fellowship hall.
“Our reputation has been established that we are a safe place to come to, that you aren’t going to be judged,” Souza said. “We accept you for who you are, we love you for who you are and we want to get to know you.”
Christians are often encouraged to bring their friends to church, but Souza believes that getting to know people before inviting them to church is essential.
“It took me awhile to realize it, but I began to see that I really have no business inviting someone who is not a Christian to church — church is for Christians,” he said. “Actually, I have no business inviting my co-workers to church — I must first get to know them, to develop a relationship with them, and then once they know me and have an interest in knowing Jesus, then we might talk about coming to church to learn more and explore that little seed of faith that has developed in them.”
It’s not that inviting someone to church is bad, but attending a worship service isn’t necessarily the way to reach out to those beyond the church’s walls.
“The idea of the missional church, in the context of our ministry, is to identify who God has created these people to be and helping them see that it is not by chance that you have these passions,” Souza said. “We love you for who God has made you — and that is where discipleship begins in the context of our ministry.”
When he’s not volunteering his time for The Breathing Room, Souza works full-time in the music business, managing tour merchandise for bands such as The Smashing Pumpkins and Evanescence. His wife works raising their two young children. Seeing a need, she has begun a ministry with mothers of preschoolers, reaching out to moms who need other moms to talk to.
“It is hard to balance it all,” Souza said. “We are trying to do things — it would be nice to be able to do them full time, but we offer up what we can with what we have, and hope that God is pleased and hope his kingdom continues to grow.”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.