Multiplication Center

Church Has Lots of Struggling People—and Wants More

May 21, 2008

    Gracechurchjohnleonardj_4John Leonard has a Jesus tattoo on his leg, plus numerous other tattoos on his leathery arms and chest. On Friday nights, he parks his big motorcycle in a “preferred parking area” designated for bikers, just steps away from the front door of Grace Church, a United Methodist congregation in Cape Coral, Florida,Gracechurchmotorcyclepro_2  where Scott Thumma and I conducted our most recent field study visit. (See these links for previous stops 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.)

In many churches, John might feel or seem out of place. Not at Grace Church. The Friday night Christ-centered recovery ministry regularly draws several hundred people like John. Some are far from God, but find an inviting sense of community there. Others, like John (a former prison guard with a big-time drug addiction), have not only seen God break through their addictions, but also develop them into leaders. In fact, today John heads up the entire recovery ministry.

Gracechurchbirdwarrenth_2  Grace Church, which started its first recovery group in 2000, is at the vanguard of a growing number of churches launching Christ-centered recovery programs that serve alcoholics, substance abusers, sex addicts, or those with other areas of brokenness. Most do so cautiously because they are uncertain of whereGracechurchacevedojorge_3   it might lead. These churches are concerned with the long-term impact: how can an us-vs.-them attitude be avoided? How can we fund these presumably money-losing emphases? Suppose the struggling people we reach have out-of-control children who join existing children’s programs? Will we become a different church if the recovery participants successfully deal with their issues and become church leaders? Will cigarette butts litter our parking lot or other gathering areas?

Grace Church is a great model for how these questions can have positive, healthy outcomes. Jorge Gracechurchrejoicingwors_2 Acevedo, lead pastor since 1996, has taught the church to pray, “Lord send us people no one wants, and send us to people that no one else sees.” The church has not only seen that prayer answered, but it has developed a church-wide culture of respect for those in the recovery community who become followers of Christ and integrated into the life of the church. “The twelve-step community knows more than most chuGracechurchchildrensministrylindaborches about how to make disciples,” Jorge comments. “They’ve figured out a spiritual path rooted in the future that gets people out of themselves; they are unapologetic about how messed up we are and about our need to take an apron and serve.”

Yes, the church has developed thriving worship services, ministry to young parents and dynamic  children’s ministry. But its biggest draw is the way lives are being touched. “We don’t do any advertising, not television, radio or mailers,” says Wes Olds, senior associate pastor. “People are seeing transformation and they Gracechurchsteeple_2wonder what is going on here. We have life-change stories here every week.”

It’s little wonder that some 2,400 adults and children attend Grace Church on a typical weekend. One church board member, a member for 12 years, speaks for others as he embraces the transition and growth, and looks forward to more of it. “If we were a smaller church, we’d reach the same kind of people but then we’d grow to the size we are now. And we still have a lot more people to reach!”

Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 19 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.

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