I began my pastoral ministry in 1983 while still a seminary student. I had wonderful training in seminary and over the years I have continued to study and to improve my ministry skills. But, it is the message of God’s grace for a believer that has had the greatest impact in my life and ministry. I am indebted to many different grace teachers, the foremost being Dr. Charles Solomon and the ministry of Grace Fellowship International. So, it is a great honor for me to share how the message of God’s grace has influenced my personal life and ministry.
The Message of Grace In My Personal Life
I came to faith in Christ in 1978 as a man full of sin and dominated by the flesh. I was insecure and angry. I coped with those feelings by excelling in athletics and the martial arts. At my conversion, I experienced a measure of victory over sin, but many expressions of the flesh were deeply seated and still dominant in my life. In 1981 I entered Northwest Baptist Seminary in Tacoma Washington. I did well in seminary, but my academic success was due in a large part to my Type A personality, self-discipline and structure. Because seminary work was done with me relying on my own strength, I found it to be frustrating and fatiguing.
My first ministries during and after seminary were positive. However, much of my ministry was carried out in my own strength. When things went well I was fine emotionally; when criticism or conflict came I was devastated. I believed that my value as a person and before God was based on how well I did, how far the church ministry progressed and how much others loved and accepted me. As you can imagine I was not a “happy camper” most of the time.
Early in 1992, when I was planting a church in Carmel Indian, I was deeply frustrated. The church had hit a plateau at 100 in attendance. It seemed that no matter what I did I could not get the church to break this plateau. I was very bitter at some of the church families for not caring enough to be committed to Jesus’ work. I was miserable. It was during this period that I was exposed to Bible teaching about the grace of God in the Christian’s life. This teaching stressed the truths of grace and the New Covenant. I learned that Jesus did not die just for my sins, but that he rose again to give me His very life. I learned that the “positional” truths (as they were called in seminary) of being God’s child, having Jesus’ righteousness and being fully forgiven and completely accepted in Christ, were a practical and present reality! This fuller teaching of the grace of God became transformational in my life. Rejection was no longer a sledge hammer in the head, but rather a mosquito bite on the arm. I was no longer dependent on the evaluation of others or in the outcome of ministry for my value because I was seen by God as holy and blameless before Him in love (Ephesians 1:4). My true identity in Christ had become a precious and powerful reality!
In 1996 I left the church in Indiana healthy and growing (today it is a vibrant church of over 400) so that I could return to a calling that God had put upon my heart many years previously; planting a church in my home state of New Jersey. God greatly blessed our efforts in New Jersey, growing our church plant quickly to 90 people. In June of 1997 God lead us to merge with an established church and the Lord brought a further measure of revival. Hundreds accepted Christ from 1997 to November of 2003 and our attendance grew to almost 400 on Sunday morning.
Though I was experiencing the power of my identity in Christ and joyfully sharing it with others, I was still living much of my life in my own strength. My new found identity in Jesus gave me great peace and motivation, but it did not give me the power to defeat the forces of indwelling sin and the flesh patterns of self sufficiency that I had groomed for years. I confessed to the church publicly that much of the work had been done by my personal strength and that I was not abiding in Christ. As a result, I was not full of joy, but frustration and bitterness. Many in the congregation accepted my confession, while others used it against me. These former leaders continually stirred up conflict regarding my ministry and qualifications for being the pastor. After six months of such conflict I resigned a broken man.
Several months passed and I was continually struggling with the events that unfolded. One January day in 2004, as I walked my dog in the frigid cold, I asked God to just “vaporize me.” My hopes, vision and family were crushed. I did find a measure of relief in reminding myself of my identity in Christ but the rejection was to much to bear. I was headed for a dark place. I shared my struggle with a friend who was familiar with the ministry of Grace Fellowship International and I contacted Dr. John Woodward. Dr. John counseled me over the phone and recommended that I read The Handbook to Happiness, by Dr. Charles Solomon. Through my reading I realized that, in addition to my identity in Christ, I also needed to have my identification with Christ fully in his death, resurrection and ascension. Through the ministry of GFI I was able to interpret the rejection at the church as God’s tool to bring my self sufficiency to light so that It could be dealt with at the cross of Jesus. It was through the ministry of GFI that I learned that Jesus did not only die on the cross for my sins, but that I also died with him and that His life was being lived thought me. (Gal 2:20, Rom. 6:1-14)
The truths of God’s grace, not just for justification, but also for sanctification, have become precious to me and central in my teaching and preaching. The reality of the cross of Christ and His resurrected life in me are the foundation for my life of victory in the ministry of Grace Christian Church that was planted in April of 2004.
The Message of Grace In My Ministry
Early in 2004, several leading Christian men approached me about leading them to plant a grace centered church. These men had been under my teaching and were also experiencing change and victory in their lives due to the reality of their identity and identification with Jesus. Like me, these men had seen the futility of religion and legalism and desired a church organized with grace teaching as the foundation. That desire came to fruition and Grace Christian Church was planted. The impact of teaching the reality of Jesus’ life in and through believers, as experienced in the cross and resurrection, has been manifested in our ministry in many ways. Allow me to share three major ministries that have been greatly affected by the grace centered focus.
The ministry of preaching and teaching is transformed when the grace of God is the focus. Much of the preaching and teaching of today calls believers to God’s standards of obedience, godliness and service, without first providing God’s resources for achieving these goals. People come to Christ broken. Adam’s sin, their own sin and the sin of others against them has devastated every person. Grace centered, Christ centered and cross centered teaching addresses these core issues! This focus on preaching and teaching moves away from symptom based teaching to addressing the core issues that truly repair people in Christ. Believers who know Christ as life experience healing in His full forgiveness and acceptance. They are motivated by love and no longer need to be beat over the head with the Bible. They are given the power to win the battle over sin (Romans 6:1-14) and to serve in Christ’s love (Eph 3:16-19, John 14:21). Grace centered preaching and teaching moves believers from “doing in order to be” to “being in order to do”. Grace centered preaching and teaching helps the believer to make sense of the broken world and to not deny trials to pursue prosperity. Rather, it equips believers to more fully embrace the sorrows of life from God’s perspective, putting the believer on the path to true spiritual prosperity.
The ministry of body life is enriched by the grace message. Grace Christian is also a cell based church. That means that our church family gathers for worship on Sunday and then meets in home groups throughout the week. We have found that those believers with whom the life of Jesus is a working reality, worship in joy and sincerity on Sunday. Because they are full of gratitude and love, praise and worship are natural expressions of their faith. When they gather in their home cell group, intimacy and care does not need to be manufactured or stimulated by small group leadership techniques. These believers are secure in Christ and thus able to be transparent before others. They are Christ centered and not self centered so they desire to extend themselves to others in ministry. Leading a church where the entire leadership team and many in the church body have come to know the reality of Christ as life, makes the leading of the church like the joy of leading a family instead of a religious organization. Conflict at Grace Christian is the exception and not the rule!
The ministry of counseling is revolutionized. I don’t consider myself a counselor, my gifts lie in the public presentation of the Word. However, I have been through the counseling training at GFI and it has revolutionized counseling in our church. This is because GFT teaches a model of counseling that is consistent with the biblical view of man. It addresses the spiritual core issues in a simple yet compete manner. It contains four sequential stages that move the counselee from salvation, to identification with Christ, to spiritual warfare issues and then into discipleship. The counseling model of GFI is not designed to pull the head of the dandelion, but rather to cut the root out. This training is reproducible and today we have a host of equipped believers in our church who minister to our body.
The Christian life and ministry are often referred to as a warfare (Eph 6:10-17). Unfortunately, pastors and entire churches are the first casualties. The studies show that the majority of churches are declining and full of conflict. This cannot be what Jesus envisioned for His church. That has led many to realize that the model of church in use is broken. Unfortunately, the answer for some is better marketing, new paradigms and programs. But a change in church form and function will do little to revive the church. That is true because the core issues are spiritual. If you are tired, broken, frustrated, and are looking for a better way to not only survive but flourish in ministry, then I would encourage you to do what I did, contact GFI for training and counseling. There is a better way, it is Jesus’.