Planting the River
During the summer of 2002, we attended TACF’s Leaders School of Ministry. It was there that God gave us one of those “now” words to go and plant a church.
Frankly, we were both scared and stunned by the call. Once the shock had worn off some, we were able to pray and ask God where He might be sending us. He led us to Ezekiel 47:5 which says, “Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross; for the water was too deep, water in which one must swim, a river that could not be crossed.”
As we meditated on this verse, the words “Grand River” came to us. And then it occurred to us that the only Grand River we knew about ran right through the center of a city called Grand Rapids. As we connected the prophetic dots, our new orders became clear. God was sending us fifty miles north of our hometown to the second largest city in Michigan to plant a church.
But it didn't take us long to question God's wisdom. Grand Rapids is a “city of churches.” Home of several Christian publishing companies as well as the Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids is a religious city, a city once known as “Little Jerusalem.” After soaking in the River for seven years and enjoying the freedom of the Holy Spirit, we weren't that excited about the prospects of trying to plant a church in a city perceived by many to be a major stronghold of religion.
DO WE REALLY NEED ANOTHER CHURCH?
In the very early days of the work, the question, “Why does Grand Rapids need another church?” haunted us. In retrospect, we believe that it was God getting us in touch with our core purpose. He showed us that He was redeploying “River” people like ourselves to dry and thirsty places like Grand Rapids.
Apparently, we aren't to simply hang out at the oasis until Jesus returns. We are to go out into the wilderness and work with Him to open new wells of refreshing. Yes, the Lord gave us His heart for the “city of churches,” and it wasn't long that Grand Rapids became our home, even before we had actually moved there.
The prophetic word given to us at the School painted this new work - Grand River Church - as something we had never seen or experienced before. This isn't to criticize what we had been apart of in the past. But it became clear to us that the church is a dynamic organism – very much like the River in which it flourishes - always in transition and that we need to be willing to leave the old to embrace the new.
In the months leading up to our ordination and move to Grand Rapids, God promised that He would never give us more than a few things to do at a time and that if we would just follow His lead, He would order our every step.
He promised that Grand River Church would be built according to His design.
His message to us was simple and comforting: “Don't try to be a big boy and big girl. Just be little, and I'll be big.” He repeatedly reminded us that He isn't looking for the wise, talented, or even experienced to do His work. He's looking for willing vessels who will keep their hands off the steering wheel and let Him drive.
PLANTING WITH GOD’S PLAN
When people began to find out that we were planting a church, it generated much excitement and many people offered advice and suggested readings on the “art” of church planting. In those early and precious months of preparation, a well known church leader had suggested to Ron that he read a “how to” classic on the planting process. But Ron found the book boring and uninspiring and about two thirds of the way through it, fighting to stay awake on the couch one evening, he heard God say, “Do you want to read this book or do you want Me to tell you how to plant a church?” Ron closed the book that very moment and has not picked it up since.
Please know that we're not against reading “how to” books. But we have discovered that God wants to do new things with new people, and He wants to have new conversations. Simply trying to copy someone else's experience with God may cause us to miss the unique thing that He wants to do in and through us.
If we were to recommend a book for church planters, we would recommend something like Mark Virkler's book, “Communion with God.” After all, hearing God's voice is an absolute necessity for doing anything meaningful in life.
We were also told in those early days that you couldn't plant a church in the River. The thought was that “River life” was a bit too wild and weird for the lost and the religious. We were told that we would need to be a little more “seeker sensitive” to get this off the ground in a place like Grand Rapids. That too turned out to be well-meaning but bad advice, as the River of Life is always God's primary means of drawing the lost and religious to Himself. We learned this first hand and have never strayed from this principle.
In June of 2003, we moved to downtown Grand Rapids into our loft apartment/office overlooking the Grand River. Besides our family of three, we had another four individuals committed to our team. The seven of us agreed to meet every Saturday night in our apartment to worship, pray, and to discuss our core values as a church. On Sundays, we were and still are free to sleep in and enjoy a true Christian Sabbath.
Many friends and acquaintances visited us on those Saturday nights throughout the summer of 2003. Usually ten to fifteen people would be in attendance. But most importantly, the Holy Spirit was showing up powerfully. And the word started getting out that there was this new River church in town and that God was moving in the meetings.
It seemed that God was especially blessing our celebration of Communion, a time when the Lord's Presence was especially tangible, and the prophetic ministry offered to every visitor, every Saturday night.
June through October of 2003 saw a steady stream of visitors coming through our Saturday night meetings, though none of these meetings exceeded fifteen people. During this period, we had been praying that God would introduce us to key people in the city and that He would begin to add spiritual “moms and dads” to our ministry team.
In November of 2003, we met a couple of key people in town who are related to the city-wide prayer movement. They showed up unannounced at one of our meetings to “check us out.” The Holy Spirit touched them powerfully, and they began to put the word out that the River was flowing at this new “house” church downtown.
In December of 2003, we hosted a meeting in our apartment and forty people attended. The place was packed and the Spirit showed up so powerfully. A cloud of peace filled the room. You could almost see it.
We were in awe of His Presence.
By early January of 2004, we were pushed out of our apartment into a small conference room to accommodate the seventy-to-eighty people wanting to attend our now not-so-little Saturday night meeting. By mid-February of 2004, we moved to another conference facility that seats about 150 people.
Our core team has grown to some fifty people, though 100-120 regularly attend our Saturday night meetings. The Presence of the Lord is palpable in these gatherings, as we worship Him extravagantly and wait on Him to minister to His people as only He can do. The testimonies of healing and restoration are frequent and amazing. We are struck by the fact that many people in our city and region are experiencing this River for the first time. God continues to make it clear to us that our strategy is the River, for there is life and healing only in the River of God.
Early in 2004, God instructed us to take a radical step and just “give away” the River to our city and region. To that end, we brought in nine itinerate ministers people such as Georgian Banov, Peter Jackson, and Melinda Fish and we just gave the River away to the poor and thirsty, no conference fees, no special offerings, no strings attached. Freely received, freely given. And guess what happened? God moved miraculously to provide our every need.