The plan was simple. We would grow our core group and equip them with the fundamentals of what a church is. Our little group of about 12 grew to about 14 or 15. It was not very amazing. The buildup, to what is called “the launch,” was unspectacular. The launch date was March 6, 1994. We had a mailer printed up (we sure could have used Martin’s and Mark’s help in those days!). I got a few calls. One guy called and asked my views on polygamy. Strange. But we became friends. The big day approached, and we had some folks from Sierra Community Church in South Lake Tahoe come down. Some of those dear people would stick around for six months or so. Sierra Community Church was always very supportive. We had some others who wanted to help make the day special and so they joined us. We also had the “worship team” from another CBA church offer to come down and help with sound and music. We had rented the Carson Valley Middle School multipurpose room. We had a banner made. We were ready.
The day came and we had 77 souls showed up. It was exciting. The music was way, way too loud. The guy who led worship couldn’t play a hymn to save his life. The sermon was OK, as far as I remember. But we were out of the gate, off the block. That day an older gentleman and his wife came to check things out. Come to find out, they lived right across the street from us on Waterloo. Ernie and Flo Keuhnel quickly became regulars, with Ernie offering to help at every turn. Those were the early days. Each week was filled with anxiety and anticipation. Would new people come? Would I scare them off? New people did come. Sometimes it was a blessing. Sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes God brought servants. Sometimes the devil brought wish-dreamers. (OK, I know God brought them too, but it is easier to think the devil brought them).
There we were, the Borgmans, Grabows, Keosababians, Winans, Keuhnels, Janis, Dottie, Aguileras, and some others. Those others, who straggled in during those early days, were people like Steve and Connie Schoonmaker their kids, Sean and Chanelle, Don and Jean Strachan and their seven children (some of whom you might know!), and John and Suzanne Wilber and their six children, Brent and Fran Guddat and their three darling little ones (not so little anymore). But there were others who were demanding, critical, and harsh. They had an idea of what the church should be and since they viewed themselves as big fish in a little pond, they would try to take control. Most of that stuff happened behind the scenes, in the small groups, or in the confines of a phone call. The ones who were loudest in their praise of the church on their first Sunday were the ones who left louder. There were others, who the more they got involved, the more I realized that they weren’t there to help, but they needed help. Efforts to help became consuming and yet were never enough. There were allegations that I didn’t know what I was doing (which was probably true), that Ariel was a shoplifter (which wasn’t true), that one of elders was a womanizer (which wasn’t true), that we weren’t pre-trib (which was true). I remember with crystal clarity the first time I got a phone call from a couple I had spent hours with, trying to help. They let me have it up one side and down the other. I got off the phone, sat down next to the bed and wept. Ariel sat down and wept with me, and then said, “Honey, blessed subtraction.” It didn’t help that much.
Everything that happened in those days seemed huge. When a family came, it was very noticeable. When the left, it was even more noticeable. Every Sunday felt like it could be the best or the last. The music was terrible. We had to bring our own scrapers to get gum off the floor before we could set chairs up. I hauled the fake trees to CVMS every Sunday in the back of my little Toyota and they would lose more leaves every time they were transported. Soon they looked like trees that belonged in Nevada. But we had a church. We had a group of people who loved the Lord, loved His Word, and were committed. But sometimes that was eclipsed by the harsh words of critics and my thin skin. My own insecurities as a young (26 years old), overweight Reformed guy didn’t help. It seemed like the fight for encouragement was a constant fight.
Where did encouragement come from? First, I believed that each week as I labored in the Word to prepare the sermon, that God had given me a privilege. I never felt once like I didn’t want to preach. Studying and preaching the Word kept me revived. Second, God brought people who were committed to the church and who loved me. That may sound strange, but it is apostolic (2 Cor. 12;15; Phil. 4:10, to name just two). That’s a risky thing because not all love proves to be true love, but God was faithful through faithful people. Third, Ariel helped me keep things in perspective. She’s more pragmatic than I am, and sometimes I needed to hear things from a realist’s perspective. Fourth, God gave me friends, both inside and outside the church. Friends who prayed for me, friends who sought to encourage me. He gave me friends like Ernie, who was unwavering in his love and loyalty. Finally, the church graciously let me go to Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and later the Trinity Pastors Conference, where I would hear preaching and make some life-long friends (like Robert Elliott and Robert Briggs).
Did I ever contemplate quitting on a Monday? No. God made me stubborn. God gave me a sense of calling. God was knitting together a body of Christ. It’s was I lived for. No amount of discouragement could get the upper-hand over “I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail.”
This morning I was preparing for the Church Leaders seminar, which will be from Jer. 3:15. But as I was going over the context, I was struck by this phrase, “Return, faithless Israel” (12, 14, 22). Christopher Wright, in his commentary, translates it, “Turn, you turning-one” or “Turn back, turning-away Israel.” The people who should have known better had turned. (The northern kingdom turned first and Judah should have learned, but rather followed suit). She is guilty of “playing the whore” (6), and not just once, but “all the adulteries of that faithless one,” (8). And on top of that, she “takes her whoredom lightly,” (9). God says that He expected after all this gut-wrenching turning away, that she (Israel) would return, but she didn’t.
At this point, one might expect that God would have given up both northern and southern kingdoms to His judgment, but instead He makes an appeal. “Return! If you return, I won’t look at you in anger” (12). God asks of them to acknowledge their sin and rebellion, to own it (13). In calling the turning-one to return, God is calling her to repent, which begins by owning the fullness of her sins. God then tenderly says, “I will not be angry forever” (12). What a promise! God could justly be angry forever, but He offers His wayward daughter a way of escape: acknowledge your sin and return to Me.
Spurgeon’s famous predecessor, John Gill, said, “unless a man knows his sin, and is convicted of it, he’ll never repent of it, or turn from it; and when he is made sensible of it, and sorry for it, he ought to acknowledge and confess it before God, against whom he has sinned; this is what is insisted upon, and all that is insisted upon; and it is the least that can be done, and is what every sensible sinner will do, who upon it may expect the discovery of pardoning grace and mercy.”
God is so tender and kind. His promise is to receive the one
who turns, without anger. He can do this because of the great sacrifice of
Jesus on the Cross. Truly, as we sing, “His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.” But we must return.
We are rapidly approaching our 25th anniversary as a church. We will have Bruce Ware and Joel Beeke help us celebrate. Our theme is going to be “Loving the Body of Christ,” which is close to my heart and eminently appropriate for our 25th year as a church.
I am going to try to write some blog posts between now and then that cover our history and some personal reflections. I don’t know how many pastors plant a church and make it 25 years, but I know I am unbelievably privileged and blessed to be in that tribe. This reminiscence will cover how we got to Nevada.
I attended Western Conservative Baptist Seminary from 1990-1993. Ariel, Ashley and I moved to Portland, OR in Dec. 1989 and I started classes in January 1990. There I met men and took classes that would change my life. Three men stand out and deserve special mention. The first is my theology professor, Bruce Ware. God used Bruce to instill in my heart a passion for theology. God also used him to shake me from my Arminianism, which I euphemistically called “moderate Calvinism” (I believed in eternal security). Bruce is a dear friend to this day. The second was my hermeneutics and homiletics professor, Jim Andrews. Jim would also become our pastor. God used Jim to form in me convictions about preaching God’s Word, as well as a passion to preach God’s Word. Jim still is a powerful preacher and a dear friend. Finally, God used Dr. Duane Dunham. He was my Greek teacher. I had more classes from Dr. Dunham than from anyone else. God used Dr. Dunham to instill in me a love for the Greek New Testament and passion to dig into the Word. Dr. Dunham remains a beloved professor and friend.
In the course of seminary, I came to Reformed theology and had views of preaching that would have put me out of the mainstream of evangelicalism in the early 90s. If you can remember back, Bill Hybels was still a major influence, and Rick Warren was a rising leader on “how to do church.” Our association was heavily influenced by both men, and I knew God had shaped me into a different person. I had been listening to Pastor Albert Martin’s pastoral theology, and I began to think I may not last long in the typical evangelical church. Church planting became a serious consideration.
Our pastor, Jim Andrews, was a great help in thinking through this process, assessing my gifts, and preparing me for the possibility of planting a church. After much prayer, Ariel and I began thinking of areas where we could possibly go. One of those areas was the Carson Valley. At that time, I was presented with three ministry options. I could stay on at Lake Baptist Church, which offered the most security. I was recommended for an internship in a church in Little Rock, which would have led to a church plant in the southeast. Or we could proceed with the Carson Valley church plant. Although we would have loved to stay at Lake Baptist (now Bible) Church, I knew that was the safe thing to do and that God wanted me to do something that required a lot of faith. The Little Rock venture sounded good to me, but Ariel said I would have to move to Arkansas by myself. So, the Carson Valley it was!
Through a contact with the Conservative Baptist Association, we met Andrew and Cathy Winans. It seemed that God was opening a door for us in Nevada. Early in 1993 I was approved by the Northern California and Nevada Conservative Baptist Association (called Vision 2000) to be a church planter. We then drove from the bay area to Minden, to meet Andrew and Cathy and a small handful of believers who were interested in a church plant. Tom and Barb Keosababian were a part of that little group.
I graduated the following May with an M. Div. and was making preparations for a big move. It was scary and exciting. We had another meeting in Nevada in July with the families. At that time something happened that seemed to jeopardize the whole venture. We prayed, our friends in Portland prayed, and God cleared the obstacle in a miraculous way. But perhaps that story is for another time.
During that July meeting I told the little group that we needed about $2,000 month for me to support my family. We had support from our home church, Lake Baptist, and some other support from a few other churches and individuals, and I was going to work part-time at Sierra Community Church in South Lake Tahoe. We needed about $1,000 per month from the core group to get to $2,000. I asked everyone to write down what they thought they would be able to give and put it in an envelope. We had a great meeting, I presented certain aspects of how we would start the planting efforts, we prayed and then started the long drive home back to Portland. I asked Ariel to look at the envelopes. My heart was filled with faith that God would do exceedingly, abundantly above all we could ask or think. She started reading the numbers. $150. Good! $100. OK. $50. $5. $25. $70. Gulp! $400 per month! I felt dejected. It wasn’t supremely about the money, it was that we were uprooting, leaving our home, leaving opportunities, to serve the Lord with all our hearts. I felt that maybe people didn’t understand the level of our commitment. Ariel said, “Don’t worry, the Lord will provide for us. Give them time.”
In September of 1993 we packed up a moving truck and moved to Gardnerville. Kary and Cindy Grabow had just moved to Nevada and Kary heard through the Corvair grapevine about a new church. They were interested, showed up to our rental house when we pulled up in the moving truck and helped us unload. Little did we know that God poured out a huge blessing on our lives that day with Kary and Cindy. Not only would they become among the first members of Grace Community Church, but God gave us some great friends. Their kids and ours would grow up together. God did do exceedingly, abundantly above all we could ask or think.