Zac Vander Ley– Staff Writer
On a Tuesday night, around a year ago, Stevie Horan remembers walking into the Fruited Plain. In the wooden aesthetic of the cafe he met Travis Else: the then pastor of First Reformed Church in Sioux Center. After Else paid for Horan’s café miel with almond milk, the two spent around an hour discussing the question of covenant theology.
After moving to Sioux Center, Horan — a graduate of Emmaus Bible College and current Rec Center pick-up basketball legend — found himself somewhat alone. Therefore, his relationship with Pastor Else, a non-Dutch CRC member who also moved to Sioux Center in the past, meant a lot.
“When I leave church, I leave worshipping Jesus,” Horan said.
Horan also appreciates Else’s gospel-centered approach to preaching. This, coupled with Else’s humility, respectful challenges, and genuine interest in the people of his congregation, has greatly impacted Horan’s faith.
This past Sunday, Feb. 28, marked Else’s last sermon as a full-time pastor at First Reformed church. Two Sundays prior, Else had announced his resignation to the congregation.
“I was really surprised,” Lane Kieser, a junior, said. “It was a mixture of confusion and sadness.”
Kieser attends First Reformed regularly with some other students from Dordt, but after Else’s departure, Kieser will begin searching for a new church. He began attending the church as a freshman two years ago largely because of Else’s influence.
Since 2017, Else has taught CORE-150 courses (Biblical Foundations) as an adjunct professor at Dordt University—most recently in the spring of 2020. Kieser took one of those classes. Although he wishes he would have taken the class more seriously, he remembers Else learning the names of each and every student while forming relationships with them in class.
Back when Else began pastoring at First Reformed—around seven years and two months ago—there were few Dordt students regularly attending the church. However, Else estimates around 200-250 Dordt students currently call First Reformed their place of worship.
“It’s all relationships,” Else said. “I delight in the maturity of the college students and it is a gift to see them show up at church and worship.”
Through worship, Else found a way to engage with Dordt students. In fact, many alumni and current students — alumnus Ray Badudu; juniors Zoe Hoekstra, Antonio Maldonado, and Kira Waite; junior and freshman brothers Joe and James Kamstra; and sophomore Bryce Enger; among many others—have served or currently serve by leading worship at First Reformed.
However, worship has also become a dividing issue in many churches around the globe.
“We should not be held hostage to genre,” Else said. “So, I say yes to all of it.”
Else has four specifications of worship in the church: it must be Scripture-saturated, hospitable and accessible, excellent, and involve the participation of the entire church. He explained worship can sometimes be like walking people through a foreign language. Thus, it is integral that worship must move beyond the subjectivity of preference.
Another difficulty of being a pastor, Else explained, is navigating the realities of a post-denominational church in the context of a withstanding ancient institution that resembles the traditional Hebrew church.
“There was a time when the pastor was the most educated, but in the last 50 years, people are all educated and have instant access to people like Tim Keller,” Else said.
Else’s journey to the pastoral ministry was also filled with challenges and questions. At first, after graduating as English major from a family of English educators, Else attended law school at the University of Iowa in hopes of using his English degree differently than his family. After two years of classes and one year of interning, Else left law with a deeper purpose
. . . in mind.
“The world didn’t need another mediocre lawyer,” Else said.
God made it clear to Else, through scripture, small nudges, and prayer, that he should seek the ministry. His study of English, nonetheless, still influences his pastoral work.
“Words matter,” Else said. “We tell and read stories and then look to the greater story.”
Else does not know what the future holds—if he and his family will move, or what his next job will be—but he believes that this whole process has been an affirmation of his calling as a pastor and a reminder that God is in control.
“I will miss the opportunity to worship with and preach to the people I know,” said Else.
“I’m going to miss adding to my list of Travis words,” Horan said.
In sermons, Else is known for dropping rather large words such as visceral or schadenfreude. Gezellig is a word that reminds Else of home.
It’s a Dutch word meaning coziness. Else relishes in the gezellig moments of eating his wife’s beef burgundy with his family of six. Even with a change, he will find peace and rest in time spent watching concerts, attending musicals, and viewing sports—all done with members of his family.
As the Bible Project video from the latest sermon series comes to a close at First Reformed, Else walks up the row of stairs to preach from the pulpit one last time. He opens his Bible and checks his microphone before leading the congregation in prayer. His message focuses, fittingly, on the importance of reading scripture. Else claims he is a bibliophile—one who constantly reads books—and guides the listener through the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration framework of God’s story. At the end of his message, the congregation fills the room with an emotional applause.
“The Bible is the story of God; not of me, for we are not the protagonists,” Else said. “Will you be shaped and become people of this book?”