How Trip Lee, John O., and two other pastors started Cornerstone Church in West End Atlanta
If you’ve been following the history of Reach Records for some time, then you’re very familiar with veteran emcee Trip Lee. He has four full-length projects, one book, and is a constant favorite within the Christian hip-hop sub-genre.
Lee recently released his mixtape The Waiting Room on Dec. 9.
It came of a surprise to many in 2012 when he decided to step back from doing music and step up to the pulpit.
Many are familiar with Lee’s musical career and are now getting to know him as a pastor, and how he connected with three other men to form Cornerstone Church – a one and half year-old church plant in the West End of Atlanta.
How it all began
Lee and his family moved to Atlanta about two years ago to help with planting the church.
The way Lee describes it, it all made sense to be a part of the church plant when he found himself being approached by his good friend John Onwuchekwa, the lead pastor of Cornerstone Church.
“We’ve been friends since 2003, so a long time, over 10 years. We’ve been really good friends, like-minded, both ended up having a desire to pastor,” said Lee. “We always thought, you know, if there was an opportunity for us to pastor together we would love that, but we just didn’t know if the opportunity would come.”
At the time, Trip was at school in Philadelphia and then he was working as an intern and elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and Onwuchekwa was an associate pastor at another church plant called Blueprint Church.
Onwuchekwa approached Lee about the Church plant, but it didn’t start with them. They joined a moving train.
Richard Mullen, Cornerstone’s Pastor of Community Life, was the guiding force for the whole church plant. Mullen was Onwuchekwa’s freshman roommate back in college and they have been a part of the same churches for several years.
In 2011, Mullen, who was a part of Blueprint Church at the time, found himself in transition when his job downsized and the ministry that funded his housing discontinued his program. He had to relocate out of the North West Atlanta neighborhood where he lived. According to Pastor Onwuchekwa, Mullen was “burdened to relocate to a place where no one else wanted to go.”
“Richard and a few other families decided to move to a place where they could really be an expression of the gospel to people who were used to having no expressions (or negative expressions) of Christianity,” Pastor Onwuchekwa said.
Though Onwuchekwa has the title of lead pastor, he credits Mullen as being the main person of contact in establishing Cornerstone Church.
“Richard spearheaded a lot of the initial movement in the West End. He really carried the banner of the “lead church planter” in the traditional sense. He moved to a hard place and spent time relationally connecting with people, loving his neighbors, talking about Jesus and building up a strong Christian community,” Onwuchekwa said.
“He laid a good foundation for the church plant. A solid one. And he had the humility to see that in order for this thing to be all that God wanted for it to be, it wasn’t something that he could do on his own. He needed a team. He needed family. That’s where we came in,” he added.
Onwuchekwa joined Mullen’s moving train, and the same way he pulled in Lee, Mullen had pulled in his friend Moe Hafeez, who serves as Cornerstone’s Pastor of Administration.
All four of the men serve in different pastoral capacities.
“We wanted to be able to start the church with a lot of pastors so that we would be able to care for folks.” said Lee. “So far we kind of started out with a smaller crew of folks, met together, prayed together. So many people have moved into the neighborhood, and we live in the neighborhood as well. We just wanted to start out loving our neighbors well, getting to know people, and build good relationships,” he added.
Cornerstone: Its name, values, and the needs of West End Atlanta
Many of Cornerstone’s first members came from Blueprint Church. When Cornerstone was ready to start their church, Blueprint partnered with them to assist with the gospel going forth.
When it came down to establishing a name, Onwuchekwa says they “wanted something familiar, biblical, and normal. We wanted the simplicity of the gospel to stand out and not get lost behind creative names.”
They chose the name to establish stability in a transient community, to let the church be a representation of the cornerstone within the West End community, to help it holistically rebuild.
“We want the church to lead the way (by example) in what our communities should look like,” said Onwuchekwa.
Cornerstone also represents the unity and diversity which exists, in order to provide common ground. Common ground is also found in the overall need for the West End.
“At Cornerstone Church our mission is to display the greatness of Jesus through the everyday lives of His people,” said Onwuchekwa.
“We see the community of God consistently and comprehensively displaying the greatness of God’s goodness towards us in providing overwhelming solutions to three of the most apparent areas of need in the West End,” he added. Those three needs – family, dignity, and hope.
There are different needs for different neighborhoods, in the area where Lee lives, finances and housing are apparent issues, but when it comes to planting a church, he knows that there is one great need – a need for Jesus.
“One of the greatest needs wherever we go is going to be Jesus. That’s why we’re a community built around the Gospel. To know that Jesus needs to be preached,” Lee said. “And so, even as we love people and meet other kinds of needs, we know that everyone’s greatest need is to be reconciled with God.”
Why Church Planting?
Church planting has been happening for several years now, as new churches are planting in much needed areas to meet the needs of the community and branch out to spread the Gospel.
“It [church planting] I think, in many ways it is a very good thing, because planting new churches in a lot of ways is the best way to reach new people. New churches are a welcoming environment for folks,” Lee said. “But I don’t think we want to talk about church planting as opposed to sustaining and feeding healthy congregations – congregations that already exist.”
He went on to say that there are some pastors who have joined a struggling church to help them get back to a healthy space.
When it came to lessons in church planting, Lee learned a lot of it when he was interning at Capitol Hill. Helpful lessons like what the Church is, what pastors are supposed to do, what membership is, and how to conduct his first pre-martial counseling.
There was, however, one thing that stuck out to Lee concerning church planting. Somewhat of a fair warning and advice to others pursuing it.
“In one of the things that I’ve seen in the past couple of years is that we can make church planting and church in general a lot more difficult than it has to be, by adding a bunch of other roles unto the role of pastor,” Lee said. “For a pastor, the primary role of a pastor and elders in a church is to teach God’s word. To proclaim what God has already said.”
He went on to add, “I would encourage dudes not to make so much of the church planting talk make them get mystified with what it actually takes to be a church planter. It takes loving God, loving people, knowing the word, teaching the word, and being able to pull a good team around you who can do some of the stuff that you can’t do.”
That team that Lee talks about is exactly what Onwuchekwa focused on. When he found himself having to deal with the death of his brother six weeks before the church launched, his team helped shoulder the heavy load.
“I fell into a depression that owned me for much of the first year of the church plant. My brothers lifted me up and carried the weight of the church in a way that I’m grateful to God for,” said Onwuchekwa. “Pastoring alone for a prolonged time is suicide. I can’t imagine pastoring without a team.”
Alongside establishing a solid team, Lee wanted to make sure future church planters understand that they don’t need to get caught up in “the overly sexy stuff people say about church planting.”
“You don’t have to have a service on Sunday morning that’s the equivalent, production wise, of a Beyoncé concert at Madison Square Garden. You do not have to have smoke machines and a million lights,” he said. “It’s easy to just blow through all the support you’ve raised on trying to have the most beautiful service, and beautiful flyers and all those stuff. The church is a family of believers who are following Jesus together.”
“At the end of the day, what does God say that we’re supposed to do when we gather together on Sunday morning. What does God say this family is supposed to be. Don’t get too caught up in having this amazing presentation every week. That’s not what the spirit needs to work,” he says.