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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

'Put Me in, Coach'

Community outreaches provide breakthrough for frustrated church planter

By John W. Kennedy
Jan. 9, 2011

At the end of preaching his second service on an October Sunday, enthusiastic Pastor Jason Exley announces to the packed congregation that more chairs will be available the following week.

“I don’t know where we’re going to put them, but they’ve been ordered,” Exley tells the crowd at Life Church in Midlothian, Texas. Whether to start a third service or to kick off a fundraising campaign for a larger sanctuary — or both — is a dilemma that Exley doesn’t mind.

A year earlier, few at Life Church envisioned that more than 400 people would be showing up every week for services. Gatherings rarely topped 100 before the Assemblies of God congregation moved into its permanent home on Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.

In fact, in more than three years of setting up and tearing down equipment and furniture for meetings at a local elementary school, Exley repeatedly pondered whether he should continue with the church plant. Located 25 miles south of Dallas, Midlothian is a growing, sprawling city where the population has doubled in the past decade.  

Certainly the new location on 6.7 acres adjacent to a Wal-Mart served as the catalyst for increased attendance. But Exley believes a change in his attitude toward how he viewed church — reaching outside the bubble of the four walls — played an integral role. He now thinks community “pre-evangelism” events are essential instead of simply waiting for people to find the church on their own.

The church invested in a bounce house and slides, setting them up at outreaches on soccer fields, in parks and at an annual city Independence Day celebration. Life Church also began hosting an Easter egg hunt with 20,000 eggs, plus a drive-through six-scene nativity story. Now, 90 percent of attendees first encountered Life Church at one of these venues, including a growing percentage of couples in their 30s with children.

“If the first time we meet people is when they walk through the doors of the church, we’ve failed at our mission,” Exley says.

The 33-year-old pastor mirrors the demographic he’s trying to reach. Exley and his wife, Renee, 29, have three sons: Ethan, 7; Landon, 5; and Preston, 1. From the platform on Sunday morning, he reads Scripture from his iPhone to his casually dressed audience. He wears jeans and an untucked shirt.

The push into the community is what convinced couples such as Richard and Charla Rains, both 39, to start attending. Richard met Exley at a spring soccer game, where the pastor coached the other team. Soccer is a passion for Exley, who grew up in Argentina as the son of AG missionaries Don and Melba Exley.

In conversation, Exley learned that Rains recently had moved to the community to work as a maintenance mechanic for the steel mill that is Midlothian’s largest employer. The pastor mentioned his vocation to Rains, and invited him to church the following day. Rains told him he would be there.

Rains didn’t show up, but Exley didn’t think much about it; lots of people promise they will come to church but don’t. Six months later, when fall soccer games began, the local soccer league assigned Rains’ younger son, Lance, to the team coached by Exley. Exley phoned Rains to introduce himself, but Rains explained they already had met.

Then Rains explained why he hadn’t made it to church that Sunday: His 14-year-old son, Brent, was killed that day when he lost control of the four-wheeler he was riding and crashed into a brick mailbox. Exley prayed with Rains on the line, and later that fall the family did visit the church — and found comfort. A message in tongues and its subsequent interpretation that first week provided assurance.

“This is just where God wanted us to be,” Charla says. “People need to know they can go through something really tragic and be OK.”

Richard volunteered his services in the 10-month process of remodeling the church building before it became habitable. Charla has cut back on her hours as a hospital labor and delivery nurse to spend more time with 8-year-old Lance, who was baptized in September.

Feeling welcome
Married hairstylists Chad and Jennifer Rehn moved to Midlothian from Arlington about a year ago. But Chad didn’t have any use for God or His followers.

“I viewed church as a place of fear that just wanted to take your money,” Chad recalls. “I thought it was a farce and wondered how people could get sucked into that.”

It didn’t help that customers in his chair who claimed to be Christians incessantly gossiped about people with whom they went to church.

However, Chad’s curiosity piqued in April 2010 when he saw a Life Church member in the Wal-Mart checkout line with an entire cart of assorted candy for the Easter egg hunt. The volunteer invited Chad to church, and Chad agreed to give Life Church one shot the following Sunday.

On purpose, Rehn wore the scummiest clothes he could find — a holey T-shirt and ratty jeans — to test what he figured would be judgmental churchgoers. Yet those all around Rehn made him feel welcome.

“I figured if people came up and talked to me when I looked like this, they were for real,” the heavily tattooed Rehn says. “Everything Pastor Jason talked about felt like it was just for me.”

Yet when Exley gave an invitation to get right with God at the end of the service, Rehn felt too unworthy. The 39-year-old Rehn had been a drug addict since age 14, hooked on everything from prescription pills to illegal substances. And he had a deeper issue.

“After all the mean, horrible things I said about God, I didn’t know how He could forgive me,” Rehn says.

By the fourth week his desire for a relationship with God outweighed the marijuana habit that persisted. He prayed to God to take away his smoking desire, which instantly disappeared. When Chad felt as though he belonged, he believed. Exley baptized him in September.

Serving now comes naturally, including free back-to-school haircuts the Rehns and fellow stylists gave at the church to 110 kids. And Rehn identifies more mature churchgoers as his role models.

“I consider these people my friends,” Rehn says.

The coach’s role
While Life Church is thriving today, Exley hardly had smooth sailing in the beginning. Once he made the transition to church planter from youth pastor at another church, he lost his health insurance. Five weeks later, Renee had an emergency appendectomy.

“I didn’t see much reward for stepping out in faith,” Exley says. “Then I got the phone call that changed everything.”

That spontaneous call came from another AG pastor, who offered to pay his mortgage payment the following month. God’s prompting of another person to help him financially got Exley’s attention.

“God started to tell me about the church He wanted to plant rather than the one I wanted to plant: a church that didn’t just meet on Sunday morning, but one that would transform lives,” Exley says.

When the church opened on Easter in 2006, a total of 72 people attended. Exley thought he had arrived. Two years later, attendance had dwindled to 40.

“God was teaching me lessons about faith, trust and dependence on Him,” Exley says. “We’ve been faithfully stubborn to be obedient to what God has called us to do.”

Exley credits AG Church Multiplication Network (CMN) coach Dave McNaughton with keeping him on task and encouraging him when he felt like a failure.

“One of the greatest joys I have as a church planting coach is coming alongside leaders like Jason,” says McNaughton, 51. “Jason, like a lot of church planters, has tremendous ability and vision. The hard part is the lingering before the vision becomes a reality.”

McNaughton says the coach is akin to Barnabas in the New Testament, a helper to support the leader’s vision. The coach doesn’t tell the planter what to do, but rather acts as a sounding board for the pastor’s proposed ideas and action plans. McNaughton met with Exley every week for nearly three years.

“My coach was a cheerleader when I wanted to give up,” Exley says. “But he didn’t give me a three-step approach to success.”

The coach concept, implemented by CMN in 2009, has helped frustrated church planters keep going instead of throwing in the towel. McNaughton says church planters must decide on their own what God’s vision is for their community, understand who God created them to be, comprehend their specific mission, choose the team that will support them, and decipher how they will make disciples.

McNaughton says Exley’s time in the wilderness helped build his character.

“The dude had tenacity, and he got that from being a missionary kid,” McNaughton says of Exley. “I knew he wanted to quit, but he never vocalized it. He just kept getting back up after being knocked down.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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