GCI Equipper

From Greg: Our journey of rebuilding

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders,

Greg and Susan Williams
Greg and Susan Williams

Rebuilding GCI is the theme for this issue of Equipper. That theme came into focus for me during the U.S. regional conference held in February in Ontario, California. Our Intern Program coordinator, Jeff McSwain, stepped out in faith and began his address to the conference by boldly declaring, “To the naked eye, we are a dying church!” As you might expect, the audience was a bit stunned. But then Jeff pointed out that we serve an amazing God who has marvelous plans to rebuild us. Jeff’s intent was not only to point out our challenging present condition, but also to help us sense what God has for us going forward. He mentioned how thrilled he is to be working full-time with GCI on this amazing journey.

Concerning that journey, at the Converge East conference in Ohio in March, I addressed our forward progress toward our future (what we refer to as GCnext). The video below excerpts my comments, and the articles in this issue provide additional detail about ways we can journey forward with Jesus. I hope these bring you both encouragement and challenge.

On YouTube at https://youtu.be/YP1LLX7WntA.

Nehemiah’s example

Nehemiah examines Jerusalem's wall br(used with permission of Sweet Media via Wikimedia Commons)
Nehemiah examines Jerusalem’s wall
(from Sweet Media via Wikimedia Commons)

A week after the regional conference, I visited NewLife Fellowship, one of our churches in Southern California. NewLife Pastor Bermie Dizon’s sermon told the story of Nehemiah, a Jewish exile serving as cupbearer in the court of Persian King Artaxerxes I. Through God’s intervention, Nehemiah was granted permission to take a group of Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city wall. Bermie focused on Nehemiah’s initial response to learning of Jerusalem’s ragged condition:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:1-4)

This passage reminded me of Jeff’s comment that GCI is dying. I asked myself, “Am I deeply stirred concerning the condition of my church? Am I, like Nehemiah, going before our Papa/Father in heaven, seeking him through mourning, fasting and prayer?”

Seeking God and his will

2016 regional conference logo (blue)Through Bermie, God was reminding me of the reality of where true and lasting rebuilding must begin. Though planning meetings, and training to provide motivation and skill development are essential, these tools are not nearly as important as spending time with Jesus, seeking his will for us. The church, after all, is his body.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that God has forgotten us or removed himself from us—quite the opposite is true. What I am saying is that Jeff’s statement penetrated deeply into my head and heart. I’m also saying that Nehemiah’s example deeply moved me as well. I’m now even more committed to talking with Jesus about the little part of his church we call GCI. I’m personally setting aside several days in May to spend in fasting and prayer concerning the rebuilding that the Father, Son and Spirit have in store for us. Ultimately I want to discern their will and plans for us. I know you do too.

I’m not saying, “Look at me!,” nor am I trying to strong-arm anyone into joining me. But I invite any who read this to participate with me, setting aside time in May to seek the Lord’s face on behalf of GCI—seeking to discern his will and plans for us. I think we’ll find them beyond our wildest imaginings:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

In the flow of Jesus’ love and leadership,
Greg Williams

PS: In Romans 12 Paul urges us to ground our identity in who we are as recipients of the grace of God. He urges us to use “sober” judgment (Romans 12:3) so that we can see clearly and realistically who we are in him. The same is true for us as congregations. I encourage you to gather as leaders to think and pray about your mission as a congregation. As you do, I encourage you to address these questions:

  • What is our generational mix? If we are missing younger generations, what can we do to connect with them? Are there ways we can serve and support younger people whether they join us or not?
  • Do we have a community where we are known, and in which we actively serve?
  • Are we comfortable with our worship service, or are we open to trying something new? Does our service center on Jesus?
  • What happens with our congregation between Sunday services?
  • What would we perceive as a “loss” if things changed in our congregation?
  •  Where do we see our congregation going over the next three years? Is there a plan with well-thought-out steps toward a preferred future?
  • What resources do we have for joining with Jesus in his mission of drawing all humanity to himself?
  • Is the Spirit nudging us to consider new approaches? How are we responding?

Rebuilding smaller congregations

Many of our smallest congregations are trying new ways to join Jesus in reaching out to new people. In the article below, Bob Miller, who pastors GCI’s church in Birmingham, Alabama, shares his congregation’s story.

Bob and Ruth Miller
Bob and Ruth Miller

Fellowship group-sized congregations often see themselves as too small to make an impact beyond their immediate members. That was our case at Grace Covenant Fellowship in Birmingham. But then God led us to change our place and mode of meeting, and that led us to shift our way of thinking about ourselves and our mission.

Given that we are both small and aging, we prayed, wondering what role we might play as a church in being Jesus’ “hands and feet” in the community. We had our familiar Sunday afternoon routine of coming together for worship in a nice church building belonging to others. It was comfortable for us (and occasional guests). A really wonderful member provided PowerPoint presentations for our singing and sermons. We enjoyed our worship and did our best to meet the needs of one another. We also got involved in outreach as finances permitted (we’re even helping plant a new GCI church). But something was missing. We wanted to share worship with others—not just see our group “age out.”

Then one day late last fall, I was encouraged to approach a local rehabilitation center (pictured below) to see if we might provide a worship service for them. Their program director was very interested as she had been contacting churches in the area to see if they could provide a worship service for those going through rehab in their facility.

We felt this was God’s answer to our prayers—an open door to join with him in ministering to some people going through very difficult times. These men and women are at the facility recovering from strokes, broken bones, various surgeries, hip and knee replacements, etc. Most are in wheelchairs; some use walkers.

So in December of last year we moved our church, lock, stock and barrel, into this new place of meeting and there began holding our Sunday morning worship service. The rehab center does not charge us rent since we’re serving their guests. With the money saved, we purchased some basic equipment: a portable sound system, a shelving unit to store our “stuff,” and an electronic keyboard. It has been a rewarding and encouraging experience—a good fit for us and our resources.

We continue to use PowerPoint to accompany our singing. We stay seated as we sing since our guests must do so. We made a few adjustments to the service to make it more visitor-friendly. We don’t take up an offering, but there is an offering basket where members can place their offerings. One of our visitors was so excited about what we were doing that they mailed us a check for $500! We hand out a printed bulletin with information about our congregation and GCI. We have a local post office box which we use as our mailing address.

Our members are energized and have really taken to showing the love of God to our guests, most who have a church they attend back home. However, they appreciate having an opportunity to worship during their rehab time, which can last from three to six weeks. The feedback has been very positive. One interesting thing that has occurred is that the guests enjoy it so much they often invite family to attend with them. Imagine our surprise on entering the meeting room one Sunday to see the back of the room filled with family members! We scrambled to set out more chairs.

One lady who was apparently recovering from a stroke, with tears in her eyes, told my wife Ruth, “I have loved Jesus my whole life.” It took great effort for her to get the words out, but you could see the emotion of gratitude for being able to experience Jesus with us in worship.

Another guest, a gospel singer, sang for us several times. It’s wonderful to have the flexibility to share ministry with whoever comes our way. A staff member who attended with one of the guests had been an evangelist in Kenya. There are many other stories I could share, but you get the idea. I feel that this experiment fits well GCI’s vision for “all kinds of churches, for all kinds of people, in all kinds of places.”

Rebuilding larger congregations

Here are reports from GCI churches in Texas, Ohio and Florida that are rebuilding. All three have participated in GCI’s Outside the Walls (OTW) training with Church Multiplication Ministries (CMM). The training included a major community outreach event, which by God’s grace has led to new members in all three.

Pathway of Grace Church  Mesquite, TX

Pathway of Grace participated in OTW last summer. Here is a report from lead pastor Gabriel Ojih.

Gabriel Ojih (left) with CMM’s Heber Ticas

He knocked on my office door one afternoon with his little niece in tow. I was in a meeting, but we invited them in. He told us his name and said he lives in the neighborhood. He had been looking for a church to attend when three neighbors suggested he “check out” Pathway of Grace. I welcomed them, offered bottled water and we chatted as he shared a bit of his life story. I shared our values and vision and invited him to church that Sunday. We prayed together and they left.

Sunday he showed up at church with his family of four plus his brother and sister and her family of three and a friend. They have been attending ever since. He heard about our church from three different people in his neighborhood who had been introduced to us at our OTW community outreach event last summer.

For a couple of years Pathway of Grace had been in the grip of “holy restlessness” with a burden to become more than a Sunday worship gathering. We recognized we had plateaued and were dying, even though we were a friendly, loving church. Our first step in rebuilding was to utilize the help of Church Administration and Development in assessing our situation using the Transformational Church Assessment Tool (TCAT).

Share Fair

As a congregation, we had been involved sporadically with our community outreach through Share Fair (pictured above) and other events. However, those events were not focused on a vision to join Jesus in our immediate community in making disciples. They were acts of love, but there was no intentional follow-up to connect people back to the congregation. That’s where OTW training helped re-orient our thinking and planning. Last June we held our first OTW event (watch the video below).

On YouTube at https://youtu.be/HMf4ahtonbw.

The event was a community-oriented Family Fun Day with food, games, and conversation. We reached out to the community by knocking on doors to invite our neighbors to the event, handing out flyers and giving motorists bottles of water with Pathway cards attached. We also improved our signage to identify ourselves. At the event we used connection cards to compile a database of information about those who attended so we can invite them to future events.

Vacation Bible School

During the Fun Day, which was held on a Saturday, we invited our guests to our worship service the next day, which featured a blessing of children and students ceremony. We also invited our guests to a Vacation Bible School (VBS) held the week after the Fun Day.

Through these outreach events we grew closer together as a congregation, conquering our fears about reaching out. We learned to be more aware of how a new person might experience us; and better ways to reach out to, receive, and relate with unchurched people in our community. We had lots of fun along the way!

We will continue to engage our community through outreach events at least five times a year. They are wonderful opportunities for meaningful conversation with our neighbors. We are also learning to be more welcoming when people visit us—greeting them from the parking lot through our doors and at our welcome center inside where we give them small gifts to say, “We’re glad you came!” We’re not perfect, but we continue to learn—following up with our guests during the week and developing friendships—pathways for including them in our congregational life through small groups and other points of connection outside the Sunday service. As a result, we have seen a steady trickle of people being sent into our midst by the Lord—often the result of contacts made at the outreach events. We are growing in numbers, but more importantly, we are growing in our participation with our Lord in his life of love within our community.

Christ Fellowship Church– Cincinnati, OH

Christ Fellowship Church (CFC) participated in OTW last fall. Here is a report from lead pastor Dustin Lampe.

Dustin and Rachel Lampe
Dustin and Rachel Lampe

As the saying goes, home is where the heart is—where you can let down your hair and relax. My family and I like to relax at home. But when company is coming, the pace changes! We get the troops (the kids) in gear, grab the cleaning supplies, and buckle down. We want our guests to enjoy a clean home and to walk away talking about the great time they had. Our goal is radical hospitality.

Churches need the same goal, and for us that meant change. We had grown comfortable with a rather closed circle of fellowship. But God woke us up and we began making plans to change. We began by preparing to invite people in the neighborhoods surrounding our church building to an OTW event we named Fall Festival! (see picture and invitation flyer below).

Fall Festival!

Cincy door hanger coverHosting this outreach event meant more than just a few frenetic hours of cleaning. It required that I, as lead pastor, be willing and able to lead change. First it meant helping other leaders embrace the vision Christ had given us to be an open, inviting community. If some leaders were not open to this shift, I would have to ask them to reorient. If some were unwilling to reorient, we would have to move forward without them in leadership roles. Next I had to gather a team of people willing to serve as good “leaven” out in in the community. This was vital because we were a church that loved one another (as insiders) but had not learned to open our circle of fellowship to make room for outsiders.

By God’s grace we now have a small but deeply committed and loyal inner circle of leaders and workers who are sold-out for our vision. They are good “leaven” that is working its way through the “dough” of our congregation. Now outreach events and programs (like Fall Festival! and the other events shown in the invitation flyers below) are not optional add-ons, but the heart of who we are.

Cincy Awana flyer Cincy blessing of children flyer Cincy blessing of pets flyer

The journey to this place has been a dramatic shift. The momentum created by OTW and our follow up events is still pushing us forward, months later. We don’t want to lose that momentum, but remain dedicated to being open and inviting. This is God’s house and the people that are not here yet are God’s people.

Christian Family Fellowship – Jacksonville, FL

Christian Family Fellowship (CFF) participated in OTW this spring. Here is a report from lead pastor Marty Davey.

Yvonne and Marty Davey
Yvonne and Marty Davey

Gradual growth over the last several years has allowed us to keep up with normal attrition, yet we desired to improve the way we were participating with Jesus in making new disciples. OTW training has helped us improve our outreach. In particular, it has helped us become more effective at welcoming the new disciples the Lord is sending to us through events like our OTW Neighborhood Fun Day.

Thanks to OTW, our members are now more alert to the needs of first-time guests to our church, and are more focused on how we can meet those needs. We have learned better ways to reach out to unchurched people in our community. Some of our members have gained experience in visiting the homes of neighbors with an invitation to a free church event. More of our members are now willing to participate on a “call back” team that invites those who attended the event to our worship services. Several excitedly shared the positive responses they received.

As seen in the video below, our “Neighborhood Fun Day” OTW outreach event welcomed about 200 people to our church grounds. For a few weeks prior to the event we had gone into surrounding neighborhoods knocking on doors and handing out flyers inviting people to come.

On Youtube at https://youtu.be/ZnhJq6Ui1Uo.

Those who attended enjoyed free hot dogs, hamburgers, drinks and cotton candy. There were fun activities that few kids could resist, all at no cost to the visitors. There were pony rides, a small petting zoo, bounce houses, carnival games, basketball shooting contests, and face-painting. There were free raffles each hour, with prizes, enabling us to gather contact information for over 50 households in the area that will be used to send out invitations to future events scattered throughout the year.

Jacksonville OTW

The event included a few things of interest to adults, including an arts-and-crafts display and really good used clothing. These were displayed inside the sanctuary so that people could become familiar with our building and thus less insecure about attending our worship services. Outside we had a Prayer Booth where visitors could stop for prayer or to chat about their troubles or blessings.

Throughout the event, our members were actively meeting and greeting our guests, getting to know them and inviting them to our worship services or to other connecting points like our small groups and specialized ministries. All this was carefully thought out in advance with the help of our OTW trainers who joined us in Jacksonville for the event.

Sermon Summary: Forward with Jesus

Here is a summary of a sermon from Brian Carlisle, lead pastor at Living Hope Christian Fellowship, GCI’s Washington DC (West) congregation.

Brian and Anne Carlisle
Brian and Anne Carlisle

In John 21:1-19, we read about a profound encounter Peter had with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Together they shared breakfast, and so much more. This encounter occurred after Peter and his companions had returned to their fishing business, thinking that their journey with Jesus was now past. You’ll recall that Peter had turned his back on Jesus. Three times he denied knowing him. But now on the beach there was a profound moment of restoration—it was time to go forward with Jesus.

Cast your nets on the right side by Greg Olsen
Cast Your Nets On the Right Side
(used with permission from the artist, Greg Olsen)

You’ll recall that Peter first met Jesus in a fishing village. He recognized Jesus as “the real deal,” and along with his brother Andrew, and Jesus’ cousins James and John, began to follow Jesus. Later, in a profound moment of insight, Peter declared Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded by declaring that “On this rock I will build my church.” That was certainly a high point in Peter’s life. He rose to prominence among Jesus’ band of disciples.

But then came the great low point. The night prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:33-35). Despite his former closeness to Jesus; despite all the promises; despite the privileged position; Peter showed himself to be abundantly human—a flawed sinner, and here his sin was directed against Jesus.

According to Luke 22:61, at the moment of the third denial, Jesus looked straight into Peter’s eyes. Was it a look of anger? Sorrow? As one friend to another? We aren’t told. But surely Peter knew, and he was full of sorrow and gut-wrenching shame.

Shortly after his resurrection, Jesus appeared a few times to his disciples, including Peter. Nevertheless, they returned to their secular professions. It appeared that their journey with Jesus was over.

But then came breakfast on the beach. There’s obvious symmetry in this scene in John’s account with Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus. Three times Jesus presses on Peter with this question: Do you love me? Through this encounter, Peter is both restored to fellowship with Jesus and given the vocation that would be the focus of the rest of his life on journey with Jesus in the world—proclaiming the gospel; advancing the kingdom.

This encounter had a profound effect on Peter. The man who had been a prominent disciple only to plunge into the deepest valley of sin and despair, was lifted up by Jesus himself. But there is something else in John’s account that often goes unnoticed—namely, the larger implications of how the risen Jesus relates to sinners.

What was it that Jesus was seeking from Peter? I think the answer is honesty. I think a good case can be made that what John is showing his readers is what all people can expect to find when, eventually, they meet our risen Lord Jesus face-to-face. It seems that John is inviting his readers to put themselves in Peter’s place, there on the beach with Jesus.

Can you picture yourself there? Your loved ones? Those who do not yet know and follow Jesus? Even the ones who are actively denying Jesus? How will Jesus relate to these people?

Sadly, many Christians think Jesus will utterly reject those who deny him. But that is not how Jesus related to the great denier Peter. Many commentators struggle with this passage and assume that at some point along the way Peter must have repented. Otherwise how could Jesus receive him in this accepting way? But the text says no such thing. What it does say is that Peter denied Jesus (three times, no less), then cried out in shame, then ran to the tomb, was among those who saw the risen Lord. But then he went back to his fishing business. No mention of repentance; no asking Jesus for forgiveness.

What we see through the lens of our incarnational Theology, is that Jesus already had done for Peter (and all humanity) what Peter failed to do. Already Jesus had repented in Peter’s place; on his behalf. Already Jesus had asked his Father to forgive Peter. Already Jesus had died for Peter’s sin. Already Peter (and all people—sinners all) had died and risen to new life in Jesus.

That being so, Peter’s lack of seeking forgiveness and expressing repentance up to that point did not mean that it was “game-over” for him. Not at all. And in the same way, it is not “game-over” for anyone. One day all people will encounter their risen Savior face-to-face. Perhaps Jesus will ask them the same question he asked Peter: “Do you love me?” We are not given the details, but we know who Jesus is and what he has already done. We can count on him to be who he truly is, our Savior.

In Peter’s case, his answer to Jesus’ question (in the original Greek) was, “Yes, Jesus, you know I like you.” Jesus received this honest affirmation and sent Peter on his way to a new life of serving with Jesus in the world—fishing for men instead of fish. Peter was utterly transformed (just read his epistles!).

The Biblical record doesn’t present Jesus as concerned with arbitrary time restrictions when it comes to our salvation. Jesus is concerned with human beings—with you and me. He pursues us across all time and space to bring us back to himself, just as he did with Peter. I’m sure Peter would give us this advice about our encounter with Jesus: “Just be honest with him and let him do the talking!”

Through his encounter with Jesus, Peter became utterly convinced of the goodness and grace of God toward him. That is what enabled him to do what he did and to write what he wrote—that as his followers, we should rejoice in sharing in Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 1:6). Christ is more precious to us than gold, says Peter. May God help us hear and apply that message.

Kid’s Korner: Planting lasting seeds

by Susi Albrecht and Nancy Akers

Kid's Korner logo
Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)

Leading children’s ministry or teaching children’s church is an important calling with lasting rewards. But let’s be honest, it can also feel overwhelming. Kids nowadays have higher expectations than ever when it comes to being entertained. Of course we want our children to enjoy church, but we have to be clear that our main job is to plant lasting seeds, not entertain, though as we know, children are quite honest in assessing our “performance” as children’s church leaders.

Let me (Susi Albrecht) illustrate our point: I taught children’s church on Easter in the GCI congregation I attend, and we were blessed with six new children that day, all dressed up in their Easter best. That is double our regular attendance, and I was thrilled. I had prepared resurrection eggs, an interactive way to explain and review the Holy Week and Easter stories. I had filled the twelve colorful plastic eggs with items like a little plastic donkey, coins, a thorny crown, spices, etc. The children each had a turn opening a numbered egg to discover the surprise inside. We then talked about the significance of each item. As we came to the last egg and the boy who had to wait patiently for his turn, he was understandably anxious to see what treasure he would discover. As he cracked open the egg with anticipation, he found nothing inside, symbolizing the empty tomb. Not understanding this point, his disappointment was pretty clear by his response, “Well, that’s lame!” He was fighting back tears.

I cringed for a moment at his honest, and understandable reaction, and I felt bad. I had left him disappointed—on Easter no less! A wave of self-doubt crept in. Maybe he was right, maybe my demonstration was lame. My focus in that moment was not on Jesus, but on my failure to have properly entertained and pleased my little pupils.

It took a quick prayer to realize the children just experienced a powerful lesson as they felt the disappointment and sadness of the empty tomb (or egg, in our case)! Together we were privileged to experience the Bible by feeling the momentary devastation of an empty tomb. It was a powerful teaching moment for me. I had assumed the boy knew the story of the empty tomb and resurrected Jesus, and he would understand the significance of the empty egg. Although momentarily disappointed with his empty egg, he received the life-changing truth of Jesus’ love for him instead. He became part of the story, part of the church.

We are shaping the future of the church in children’s ministry today. Because Jesus placed children in the midst of his ministry, we should put them in the midst of our church. Jesus knew how vital the season of childhood was, and the importance of laying a strong foundation in him. He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). This is arguably the most quoted scripture pertaining to children’s ministry. Over 2,000 years later, these words still go viral.

Jesus was teaching a fundamental truth about childhood. There is a season in a person’s life when they are most open to learning what it means to trust God. Consider this statistic: Nearly 80% of people in our churches today decided to follow Jesus before age 18; 50% of them decided to follow Jesus before age 12.

Childhood provides fertile ground for learning about relationships, how the world operates, right from wrong, trust and love. In this short time of innocence and impressionable vulnerability, God is calling us to demonstrate his perfect love to the smallest ones in our church.

In 1922, Albert Gage said, “God intends that we should win people in the days of their youth while their hearts are young and sensitive. But we are apt to let the springtime pass and then with great effort create a religious fervor by our own efforts to win men to Christ. We work hard, spend thousands of dollars and at the best get disappointingly small returns. We have waited too long. That which we should do is to work with God in His seasons.” Let’s not let the springtime pass!

Note: In the next few issues of Equipper, we will be exploring specific ideas on how children might experience Jesus through servanthood within our congregations. Their involvement is not only necessary for them, but we believe it is vital for the overall health of our churches.

We recently came across the promotional video below from The Gospel Project, which produces an excellent children’s church curriculum. It beautifully sums up the point that the Bible is far more than a collection of stories, but that Jesus is in the forefront of every book. Have a look!

On Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/121265107.