Church Growth: 400-28,000

For those who may have wondered why I have chosen “It’s a God Thing” as my blog site title, let me give you some background. My relatives have been members of a denominational church for many years. Every time we moved,  the first Sunday we would show up at our denomination’s church. The first seven years in Las Vegas was no exception. Something felt very wrong. In all that time we saw very little growth and believed the church possibly would never grow. I felt the need to find another church. I had a very good friend who was the Woolworth store manager who attended Central Christian Church. I also was acquainted with the Penny’s store manager and had served on a Chamber committee with his wife who was a local retail mall’s manager. They also attended. So I thought I would give it a try. It was a very traditional church. There were more traditions than I had ever seen, but I felt the Holy Spirit telling me that this was where I should be. 

 In 1983 I was elected to the church board. As a board,  we decided to make some changes and become a more evangelistic church. Most Christians agree that not all traditions are essential. Traditions like wearing of robes by the choir, thundering organ music and the order of worship are honorable but not Biblically necessary. But as we started, we found out  that those traditions weren’t going down without a fight.

We decided to clear the platform and have the minister sit on a front seat until it was time to preach. They would not introduce who was going to sing and no one gave their testimony before singing. It was a well-planned and organized presentation of the gospel. The reaction of some members of the congregation to the changes was unsettling. After about three weeks we had three families leave because we had removed the American flag.  Some asked why we were hiding the preacher. Had he done something wrong? It wasn’t long after that when our minister accepted a church in Seattle.

Over the next six months we interviewed a number of ministers from other churches. No one seemed to fit the leadership role we believed God wanted for our church. We were told that a young preacher three years out of college leading a youth group was going to be interviewed. I said a person that young and that inexperienced would have to walk on water before I would vote for him. Why were we even paying the expenses for someone that young to come? Gene Appel was interviewed. The board unanimously asked that Gene accept our call. Which he did! Gene arrived in 1985.

It was not very long after Gene arrived that we decided that every Tuesday morning at 6:30 a.m. we would meet and pray for God’s vision for Central. We did this for more than two years. To this day I feel assured that this was one of the most important things we have ever done at Central. From these meetings Gene received a vision that our church should change from being a traditional church, largely made up of traditional Christians whose concern for lost people seldom translated into action into a non-traditional church with a passion for the lost. Up to that point, with few exceptions lost people seemed to stay away.

In order to faciliate such a transition, we (The Board of Elders) went to Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington, Illinois to learn more about the concept of  winning those to Christ who did not have a church background. It was difficult making the transition from a church that ministered to a closed community to a nontraditional church that would reach out to a lost people. Careful and prayerful planning was of the utmost importance if the road to spiritual renewal was going to be a success. 

Gene preached a long-term diet of teaching sermons to lead comfortable Christians out of their comfort zones. He taught the difference between that which is unbiblical and that which is antibiblical. Most of our Christian traditions were not necessarily biblical. For example there is nothing in the Bible that forbids women from taking an active part in Christian ministries or favoring a piano and organ over a guitar, drums and keyboard. Nor does the Bible say anything about things like choir robes, song books, Sunday School classes, the wearing of neckties or whether the congregation should applaud or not. These things are not biblical and we are free to decide for ourselves. We are not free, however, to alter things like God’s plan of salvation. The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace and when a church adds some requirement to this, it is doing so in defiance of Scripture. Such things are antibiblical.

It was not easy to convince traditional Christians that the purpose of the weekend service is designed to help us reach people with little or no church experience. The purpose of the mid-week service would be to build up believers through worship, teaching and praise. The transition did not go easily. The Board of Elders realized that spiritual leadership involved more than being right. It involves love and compassion for those who do not agree, or do not understand. Spiritual leadership requires a sensitivity and skill in knowing when to do what. In some respects, spiritual leadership is like parenting. Parents have to know when to encourage, when to correct, when to stand firm and when to let go and let a child make some mistakes. Of course, parents also make mistakes and we, as a Board could be guilty.

In our efforts we realized one important thing:  nothing would happen until both the leadership and congregation, or at least most of it, was willing to listen and respect each other’s ideas and opinions. We had to learn to cooperate with one another and once something was decided, we had to set aside our differences and work together toward a common goal. A focused commitment to corporate prayer, as I noted, began with the Board, but it took some time before the concept spread through the congregation. Everyone had to get out of the habit of praying occasionally for a few special projects or causes and become a congregation that prayed daily, for everything. This would include personal prayer plus corporate prayer. Praying together helped bond people together and start them on the road to spiritual maturity. Everyone knows there is no such thing as total unity. No two people ever agree on everything and the more people  added to the equation the more disagreement there is. But it is entirely possible to build a team, or congregation, where most of the people agree on a few key things. We believed prayer played a major role in making this happen. As we struggled through change, we made our Sunday service attractive to the non-believer. A new comer did not want to come and be embarrassed. They just wanted to hide in the crowd and not be given any special attention. It also became our vision that God wanted this church to evangelize the Las Vegas area.

In 2003 Gene Appel went to Willow Creek. He was replaced by Jud Wilhite. The seekers keep coming, the church keeps growing, and God is still in charge. Even after a number of years of trying everything we could to maintain our vision and keep people happy, it almost seemed impossible. Many believing Christians, who had always gone to services that were geared to their liking, still were not pleased that the emphasis was on those who were not even members. No matter how hard we tried, we realized Central would not be for everyone and that we would continue losing some believers. It was difficult to see some very strong, tithing Christians leave the door for another church. But I believed God needed these people to strengthen other churches in our city. As a result, there are now a large number of growing churches and they are spiritually very strong. God has a force in Las Vegas! Previously, I told you about expansion of our older church. I briefly described information on our new campus that was completed in 1999, but I will reserve some of the “It’s a God Thing” happenings to later writings. What I wanted to share with you is that though our church has gone through a lot, it’s been well worth it. On Easter Weekend 2009, we had over 28,000. That does not count the attendance in the two other churches that a number of our people left to help start. But God gets the glory. From 400 to 28,000 required a different vision, God’s vision.

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