This story is courtesy of our friends at Forge Canada Missional Training Network.
By Dennis Gulley.
“So are you angry at God?”
This question seemed a bit odd to ask, as this was the first time Donavin and I had spoken one-on-one without others around. I had met Donavin some months before, when my wife Joanne and I, along with a few others from our Leduc Fellowship Church community, signed up for his Fitness Boot Camp at our local recreation center.
We had spent every Wednesday night and Saturday morning with him, and we quickly became fond of Donavin despite the pain we endured at his hands each week. He was a very energetic and charismatic young man.
We soon become aware of the fact that Donavin’s step-father Darcy was dying from brain cancer. It was not long after Darcy passed away that I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes with Donavin.
Joanne had discovered that Donavin was in his last year of university in preparation to be a teacher. With that bit of knowledge, Joanne decided that Donavin might like to help her with a mystery dinner she was putting on for the grade 5 and 6 students at our church. Donavin was very happy to help us with this event, and that gave me the opportunity for our first heart-to- heart conversation.
As we washed the dishes, I could feel the heaviness in his heart. I had never had a spiritual conversation with Donavin, but I felt the tug of the Holy Spirit to ask him if he was mad at God. After I had asked the very pointed question, Donavin ceased scrubbing the pot in his hand and stood silently. After moments of silence, he asked, “is it ok if I am?” I responded by stating that it was ok, and that God could handle his anger and doubt, but I let him know that the bigger question was what he was going to do with his anger and questions.
Over the next months, Donavin and I would meet often and share our stories with each other. He became a part of our family, an older brother to my daughters and a regular fixture at the dinner table. He quickly became active in our circle of friends.
After a few months of hanging with us, Donavin decided to join us for one of our church services. I always told him he was welcome, but that there was no pressure to attend. When Donavin walked into the building, he was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people he already knew in our church family.
There were people from his fitness classes and friends of ours that he had met in our home. Then he looked at me and yelled, “Hey that’s my Grandmother, and that’s my aunt and uncle.” There were many members of Donavin’s step-mother’s family that are a part of our community at Fellowship.
I had long held a belief that discipleship should take place more in our living rooms, at our dining room tables, and at our kitchen sink than in the rows of a classroom at our church. Donavin’s discipleship in Christ had begun long before he entered the church, and through relationships in the everyday path of life, he was assimilated into our community before he ever walked through the doors of the building or attended a single worship service. This was a true tipping point in my personal calling of missional living and for the calling of our Fellowship family.
This relationship was the catalyst that I needed to help our community at Fellowship live out their God-given calling. Our church had begun as an “unintentional church plant” 16 years before my arrival as the pastor. The church was founded by a group that had gone through a church split, and as they began this new work, the greatest desire was to be a congregation where people were free to reach out beyond the walls of the church. The missional DNA was there from the beginning, but they suffered—as I had—growing up with an old paradigm, outdated methods, and an unhealthy inward focus.
Over the last eight years, we as leaders at Fellowship have worked steadily at giving our people a renewed language around missional living. We have sought to help them express a clearer understanding of what it means to be on mission with God.
We have also given them permission to be on mission with God away from the church. We want them to know the freedom of being about the work of the Kingdom in the neighbourhood, the workplace, the school, the locker room and the other second and third places of life.
To provide this freedom, we have had to create space: space in people’s calendars so they may be given back to the spaces where God has planted them. So we have become very thin on programs, and have encouraged our Fellowship family to truly “love their neighbours as themselves.” We wanted to feel free to love, not win people; to bless the community, not just the saints; and to prioritize relationships over programs.
This transition to more missional living, though I believe it was in the DNA of Fellowship all along, has been slow but steady. Over the last eight years, we have seen great growth and progress in the lives of so many as we have sought to change the lifestyles of individuals and families more than create new or more programs.
This last year we have seen the community as a whole reaching a marvellous tipping point. For the first time we can say that the majority of people joining our church community do so because they had a connection with someone or a group of people in our church.
When someone, like Donavin, is loved by a part of our Fellowship family before they arrive on the scene, the process of assimilation is a piece of cake. They are assimilated before they get here, and on top of that retention of these individuals and families is off the chart. They stick with us, add to our family and walk the road of discipleship with us.
We have found in these situations that the amount of time from when someone walks through the doors of our church for the first time until they are feeling and functioning as a core part of our community is cut down by about 75%. They arrive feeling connected and they quickly join us on our mission to care for one another and our greater community. They are getting involved in discipleship, seeking to be baptized and looking to be on mission with Christ at astoundingly fast rates.
The story of how my relationship developed with Donavin has become indicative of how the members of Fellowship approach their neighbours and friends. It was my joy to baptize Donavin the Easter after we met, and to meet with him regularly as we mutually encourage one another in our walk with Christ.
Dennis Gulley is Lead Teaching Pastor at Leduc Fellowship Church. Dennis has served as the Regional Director of Student Ministries with the Alberta Baptist Association and as Associate Pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Portland. Dennis holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English a Master’s of Art in Educational Ministries. Dennis and his wife Joanne are blessed with five daughters and two sons-in-law.