Our pastor and his wife grew up on opposite sides of Syracuse, NY in non-Christian homes. While Suzanne came to believe in Christ at the age of 7, Barry became a follower of Jesus Christ in his sophomore year of college. He went on to complete his degree in Health Information Management and immediately after graduation went to work at a VA medical center near New York City. After leaving that position for a short-term assignment to assist a hospital in Bangladesh, Barry's plans were abruptly changed as the mission field became hostile and closed. It was during this hiatus he met his future wife Suzanne who was in nursing school and preparing to serve the Lord in Gambia, West Africa. Though Barry went back to the hospital where he had been working and was living several hours from Suzanne, both Barry and Suzanne were now preparing separately to someday serve the Lord together in reaching the un-reached. Suzanne served in Gambia in a rural clinic while Barry eventually left his hospital position to attend Baptist Bible Seminary where he received an MDiv degree and married Suzanne just prior to his final year there. After seminary, Barry and Suzanne came to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. They had no idea what God was preparing them to do five years later. Read on to see part of the journey of Barry and a Young Church that was changed by Grace.
In Barry's own words...
Three days after I arrived in Mt. Pleasant, MI from Syracuse, NY to begin my position as Associate Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries, my father passed away suddenly (massive heart attack) and shortly thereafter, my mother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer (given 2-3 months to live). Somehow, as devastating as these events were to me personally, they resulted in a desperate focus to reach out in relevant ways to the youth and families of the Mt. Pleasant community. You see, my father and mother did not believe in God until very late in life. They are ultimately responsible for their indifference to the Gospel, but part of their view of church and the message of Jesus Christ had to do with what, to them, seemed to be the powerlessness of the churches in their generation to live out the Gospel in meaningful, creative and compelling ways. I knew my parents held this view, and I was beginning to see that my own youth ministry was powerless to pierce the darkness of the up and coming generations. The tragic news of my father's death and my mother's cancer, brought about a renewed sense that time was of the essence and that we had nothing to lose and everything to gain by creating a biblically-based ministry that fostered authentic discipleship. This led us to design student-driven ministry teams that were very effective at reaching out to their peers. It seems much of the next generation feels the same way as my parents did about the priority Jesus Christ and His church should play in their lives. Therefore, we began doing biblically-themed services which were both creatively demanding and scripturally accurate. And guess what? God started sending students our way. At our first large scale service, 22 people chose to give God their lives in the Mt. Pleasant High School gym. During the next 4 years, hundreds of students and adults made a similar choice.
The main challenge with these new, young followers of Jesus was getting them integrated into local churches that they could relate to in terms of both surface and non-surface issues. The surface issues were relatively minor and included clothing styles, musical styles, and the use of creative arts. Some of the deeper issues included what I call "realness" (authenticity), a deep desire for meaningful creativity, and a desire for church leadership to provide forms of worship and non-traditional forms of ministry which foster the building of Christ-centered relationships and biblical community. While most churches did well at integrating older generations into their ministries, in many churches the new, younger followers of Jesus seemed to be in the 'permanent visitor' status. These realizations led Suzanne and I to go to our board at First Baptist Church and ask them to release us to start a new ministry here in Mt. Pleasant that could be stylistically geared toward the next generation, though appealing and open to people of all generations. Although we have a different ministry focus than First Baptist Church, they have been extremely gracious to us, and we have maintained a healthy relationship with them over the years. I have preached there from time to time and have given the privilege to serve them in ways that will further their ministry. I thank God for the ministries of First Baptist Church.
Beginning a new church is a difficult task and one that requires much study, prayer, and fasting. As is typical of most church plants, we had no money, no equipment, no meeting space, no people to speak of... you see, we had strongly encouraged most of the kids and adults we had been reaching and teaching to stay in churches they were affiliated with or, in the case of the kids, where their parents attended. Several months prior to our first public meeting at The Ward Theatre, an individual generously gave us the use of an airplane hangar at the Mt. Pleasant Municipal Airport. This provided for both office space and public meeting space. Once again, people began coming. Offerings were used solely for equipment and other expenses as staff for the new church worked secular jobs for a few years. We rented the Ward Theatre for almost three years. Then, for the whopping price of $100, John Loeks, the owner of the theatre, sold the historic building to the church. John was touched by the fact that our "young church" had already been reaching and changing so many lives, both young and old. He was particularly impressed by our seasonal musicals and multimedia presentations.
A common theme began running through the ministry of our church as we approached our 8-year Anniversary: Grace. We did a series of messages entitled, "Grace Changes Everything." In our case, that meant grace would even change our church name. So, at our 11:00am Sunday morning service on April 30th, 2006 we prayerfully and worshipfully changed our name to Grace Church. While there are many reasons for this change, the gist of it came down to this: our young church was growing up spiritually and we were being humbly captivated by both the concept and the implications of being a grace-based ministry. God's grace, which we defined as "God's empowering favor," has humbled our people, changed our path, and given clarity to our purpose. Grace Church has been renewed in its commitment to preaching God's Word, BEING disciples of Jesus Christ, and MAKING disciples of Jesus Christ.