NASHVILLE SINCE 2009
Elliott Cherry is a bigger sinner than you are.
At least, that’s what he’ll tell you from his pulpit as pastor of Midtown Fellowship’s 12 South campus. The middle child of Wink & Reina Cherry, Elliott grew up on the beaches of northeast Florida. What they lacked in money, the family made up for by pouring their hearts into their community. To know the Cherries is to know what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. They each share the same infectious and welcoming smile that usually leads to big hugs, bellowing laughter, and the releasing of tears too long kept inside.
Elliott and his two brothers, Jay & Luke, were raised in a small home in Jacksonville, Florida. “I grew up a ministry kid…so we were poor,” he says with a laugh. In 1991, his parents started Coaches Honor, a ministry focused on preaching the gospel to coaches and other leaders of young people in the Jacksonville area. “I ate spaghetti a lot of nights,” recalls Cherry. “There were lots of months where my mom and dad sat us down and told us we didn’t have any money, so we were going to pray that some money comes in. Watching them live like that…they weren’t teaching us with their words as much as they were showing us with their lives what it was like to depend on Jesus.”
Though his formative years laid the foundation for the kind of leader Elliott has become, being a pastor wasn’t always the plan. “I swore I’m never going into ministry, because I’m tired of eating spaghetti,” he said. But, the example set by his parents instilled in him an unyielding reliance upon Jesus and a recognition of how flawed he was. “They really, truly believed, and I’m really amazed by this now as a parent, that they were bigger sinners than their kids were. They were constantly apologizing and repenting and saying, ‘I’m sorry that I lost my temper, that you heard wrath from me instead of delight.’ They weren’t taskmasters, but rather they were gentle leaders of our family,” said Elliott.
“I love my family, and I’m very thankful for my family. I hope that I’ve learned how to be a better parent from being raised by them.”
When asked about how he ended up in Nashville, that Cherry smile once again resurfaces. “A girl,” Elliott says almost bashfully. “A Vandy grad…I chased her to town. We dated long distance for a little bit, and I finally moved up and…it worked.” In 2010, Elliott married that girl, Britta, and they’re currently expecting their third child. Though he’d worked at churches in the past, Cherry didn’t jump right into one immediately after landing in Nashville. He got a job at an Apple store. He worked at Vanderbilt to pay the bills. He taught and coached football at Christ Presbyterian Academy. Meanwhile, he was taking Seminary classes on the side, and becoming more entrenched in the church his wife introduced him to, Midtown Fellowship. Like a musician who drops out of college to pursue a career in Nashville, Cherry could no longer deny what he felt called to do. “I tried to run away from it, but I couldn’t,” he said. “This is what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be teaching people about the love of Jesus.”
Elliott knew his calling was to be a pastor, but after a couple of devastating experiences with larger churches, he almost gave up altogether. “Right after I moved here, the church I’d left in Orlando had become a mega church while I was there. The pastor had an affair and had quit, and the church split at the seams. A year after that, he committed suicide. I was on staff at Midtown when I got the phone call, and I threw my phone across the room and I said, ‘I’m not doing it…it’s not worth it. I’m not going to do this to my family.’ I was weeping and scared, and they (my Midtown family) talked me off the ledge, not because I don’t have anything to be afraid of, but because I have something to walk into my fear with, which is Jesus.”
As he continued to get more involved with the church, he began to see that the leadership and values at Midtown were very similar to those he’d experienced growing up with his parents. “For us at Midtown, we believe that pastors are the biggest sinners among the people, and so they need to be in community just like everybody else,” says Cherry. “Midtown is one church with multiple congregations in the city. The idea behind that is that we’re not trying to build a mega-church with a mega-pastor. As our churches and our congregations grow, we hope to plant more, smaller, neighborhood-based congregations. That helps them stay community focused, but also to help the pastor to remember who they are, that they’re not that big of a deal.”
Elliott says that being a leader in Nashville’s trendy 12 South neighborhood is both exciting and terrifying. “In a town of all the artists and creativity, it’s the beauty and the curse of my role because this town chases what’s new, it chases what’s sexy and fun and creative and different, and I love that. There’s some of that where I can play into that and say, ‘that’s me, too,’ but at the same time, there’s a treadmill of always having to be relevant and always having to be in front of people and be somebody…but, Jesus doesn’t need to do that. So, I love that about this city and it’s really exhausting at the same time.”
When he came on as a pastor in 2015, 300 to 400 people would show up on a Sunday morning for church. In just two and a half years, the congregation has grown to over 1300 people over three sermons. “It just happened so fast,” says Cherry. “12 South is the cool neighborhood, it’s hot and trendy, and Reese Witherspoon is opening up stores, and everybody wants to be there. When I stepped in, the church exploded. We can’t fit all the people in our rooms. The guy in Orlando had the same thing happen to him. It was dark and hard for me… these people are coming to hear me teach and I want to honor that and be thankful for that, but I don’t like this. I’ve seen how this ends.”
Cherry stays grounded because of the unique and diverse culture that Midtown Fellowship has created within their four campuses. There are eleven pastors on staff, and each campus has their own personality. “Nashville is a unique city,” he explains. “Each part of the city has its own neighborhood identities, its own coffee shops, its own ethos and its own form of the Nashville artist, which is beautiful. Midtown 12 South is a part of the Midtown family, but we look very different than Midtown Eastside. Instead of expecting everybody to look and worship the same way, we said we wanted to be in the community, of the community, and for the community. We want to be constantly keeping up with the growth and diversity that’s coming to Nashville.”
So, what’s next for Elliott and the Midtown 12 South family? He says he’s not quite sure but knows that he’s not the one in control. “I’ve finally come to the place where if this is what Jesus wants to do with me, then I’ll do it. If he wants to keep blowing up Midtown 12 South, then that’s great. But, I’m not doing it for anyone other than Jesus. Because he’s going with me, I’m not alone, and I’ve got this team of guys that keeps me reminded of that, too. Man wasn’t meant to be alone, so I’m thankful I’m not. I trust that Jesus loves his people more than I do…and so he’ll show us what the future looks like.”