20 years is a long time to do any one thing. That’s two decades. A child grows to become an adult in that period of time (hopefully!). I am always proud of married couples who make it 10 and then 20 years and beyond. A business that continues for that long is established and usually respected. What about a church?
Come July 4th (a purposefully chosen auspicious starting date) the church I was privileged to start, and continue to pastor, will celebrate 20 years of ministry. A number of core people have been with me the entire time, and many others have joined along the way. It is not my church. It is ours.
1999 seems like a lifetime ago. I was a youth minister, and it was one of the most difficult years of my life. The back story is posted on this blog if you are interested in reading. Suffice it to say my time as a youth minister seemed to be coming to a conclusion. In a staff meeting at the church where I served I mentioned that one day I’d like to start a church. The senior pastor jumped at the idea. A few weeks later I was meeting with local and state denominational leaders. A few months later I led a few adults and about two-thirds of my youth group into uncharted waters.
The church we launched was called City of Refuge. The name comes from the Old Testament. Israel was required to have special cities where those who had unintentionally killed someone could flee for safety. The concept was our church would be a safe place, a community free of judgmental attitudes, the church where those who have made mistakes would be accepted. This is the nature of God’s grace. I believe our church still possesses it as a part of our DNA.
Wherever there is grace, there will be those who use and abuse it. Virtually everyone in our church was between the ages of 16-22. It was basically a youth/college group, only without the financial and moral support of a larger church of adults. We experienced a lot of storm and stress. People left. New people came. A small core remained. This was drama ministry. I believed it was time for a change.
The City of Refuge needed to grow and grow up. I wanted us to become a city set on a hill for all to see. In February of 2002 we officially changed our name to Zion. At first I hung on to the concept of a city. In fact, our website was cityofzion.org The name Zion has deep significance in the Bible as a reference to God’s people, often connecting them with his promises. It also had some cultural resonance at the time. We loved it. I had hoped it would help connect people to our roots and God’s promises. For some it did.
At first we didn’t have our own space. We held worship on Sunday evenings in ballrooms of hotels, and had a noon brunch and discipleship Bible study on Sunday at a house I rented. During that period we continued to do a theatrical event every Halloween called House of Judgement. Although we were a very small church, we reached a very large number of people with the Gospel. In 2000 we rented an old movie theater. This permitted us to do our activities and to produce other dramatic events. It was a great venue for those programs, less so for worship. We quickly discovered the building didn’t have heat, and that it flooded during hard rains. The landlords wouldn’t do anything about this, so at around the time we changed our name to Zion, we left the theater and become nomads.
We met in parks, and in other churches for two years. In 2004 we came to downtown Garland and began meeting at a large coffee shop. I rented an office in the same building. There was a conference room where we soon moved our worship services.
The church experienced some turnover as well as slow, steady growth. By 2006 the last of the orignal adults who had helped start our church had moved on. We grew up and began the process of becoming multi-generational. I officiated the weddings of young people who now have children of their own. They stayed and grew and now form the core of leadership in our church. I cannot help but be reminded of the children of Israel who fought to live in the Promised Land that their parents refused to enter.
We’ve always had a talented group of musicians in our church. There was turnover in the early years, but one young man stepped up and stayed. Dean Short has been the backbone of our band for many years now. He and Natasha met at our one year anniversary. I performed their wedding a few years later.
As the church broadened in age it was important to continue ministering to youth, and to start a children’s ministry. In 2002 one of our young people started serving as the first youth minister right out of college. The young lady who would be his wife served as one of our earliest children’s ministers. In 2005 I officiated Craig and Rachel Wilson’s wedding. They’ve served faithfully all these years. Rachel is one of our beautiful vocalists and does our finances.
In the days leading up to our church start back in 1999, I had discussions with young people on the patio of my apartment. We talked about the kind of church we wanted. What would our target audience be? One of the young men mentioned a girl he had dated in high school as the perfect representative. She had recently been living in Austin, had no relationship with God or church, but would likely be receptive to a church that wasn’t judgmental, legalistic or formal. Heather came to our inaugural worship service on July 4, 1999 at 111 Ranch. Over time she put her faith in Jesus and was the first person baptized in our church. She got to know Josh as they attended over the years, and I was blessed to officiate their wedding. Two more solid core people who have two wonderful boys. Heather does our finances. Josh has been the drummer for our band for many years.
I could go on. There are others who’ve been with us since they were kids too: Both Elijah and Veronica are in our band. Veronica is married to Sy, who has also been with us from the early days, another wedding I was privileged to do. They have two amazing boys. Craig officiated Elijah’s wedding to Sarah several years ago, and they have a beautiful daughter. Brooke has been with us since the early days; I officiated her wedding to Chris the same year as Craig/Rachel, and Dean/Natasha. Many others have been around for a decade or longer.
What about our kids? Our first official child is the adopted son of Craig and Rachel. His name is Jacob. He was born in 2003; we’ve watched him grow up. He’s now a teenager who runs our tech on Sundays. Then there’s Jayme, the firstborn of Dean and Natasha. We watched her grow up too. I had the privilege of taking Jayme to youth camp this year. And there’s Miss Jubilee, Craig and Rachel’s first daughter. I mention her because at the point of her birth our church began to see an explosion of kids, and they are all wonderful!
So, we’re called Lifewell now. After a decade as Zion, the church had changed. We were now multi-generational. By 2011 Craig was our Associate Pastor and we partnered with others to send him to Indonesia. This is the largest Muslim country in the world. I became concerned that our name would be misinterpreted. This concern was reinforced as I encountered people (usually older) in our own community who misunderstood and misinterpreted Zion. Lifewell comes from the passage in John’s Gospel, where Jesus spoke to the Woman at the Well and promised: ““but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”” (John 4:14, NIV). Our motto is: Live Well; Love Well. The double meaning of well is intentional. Receive the Spirit of Life in Jesus and live life well.
We’re still in downtown Garland. In 2009 we began meeting in a 100 year old building at the corner of 6th and State. For years it was McKnight’s drug store, then the Garland Opry. It’s our home, as is downtown. We seek to be good neighbors and to represent our city well. I confess I don’t know specifically what the future holds, but I believe God’s promises, and that He has promised great things for our church. It is not time for us to rest in the past but to rise to the promised future!
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.”
(Isaiah 60:1–5, NIV)