Celebrating life transformations

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USC delegates hear stories of changed lives

By Connie Faber

Ask the contingent of 173 Americans who attended the U.S. Conference (USC) biennial convention if it was worth their time and money to travel outside the United States for this event and they will likely answer yes.

Yes, because the convention, held in Vancouver, BC, was in conjunction with the North American celebration July 12-18 of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church and attending a historic event is always noteworthy.

Yes, because gathering with Mennonite Brethren from the U.S.—and around the globe—has all the makings of a spiritual family reunion.

Yes, because hearing stories of transformed lives invigorates one’s faith.

Reflections written by Celebration 2010 participants during and after the events confirm these answers.

Conection 2010, the new moniker for USC conventions, was one of three events that made-up the weeklong Celebration 2010. The week began with a consultation on Mennonite Brethren identity and mission, which was followed by binational celebrations events. The third component was individual national conference gatherings during which delegates heard reports and conducted conference business.

U.S. delegates gathered at Gracepoint Community Church in Surrey (pictured right), Thursday and Friday while the Canadian delegates met at North Langley Community Church and also celebrated their conference’s 100th anniversary.

Nathan Braunberger and a team of musicians from the host congregation were the Conection 2010 worship leaders. Members of the Gracepoint congregation catered the Thursday evening and Friday noon meals and host pastor Bill Hogg welcomed the U.S. delegates. Door prizes were given out both days, including a $100 gift certificate for Kindred Productions books and resources won by Don Klassen of Dinuba, Calif.

The Thursday evening service began with a prayer time led by Ed Boschman, the USC executive director, who asked those present to pray in groups of two or three, basing their prayers on various Scripture verses he read highlighting unity. Boschman introduced the theme for the evening, “Life Transformation,” by noting the visual display behind him.

Sheets of black paper hung vertically from display panels stretched across the stage in Gracepoint’s multi-purpose sanctuary. Boschman explained that behind the paper was a colorful banner. As stories of transformation were shared during the evening, storytellers would rip off one of the black sheets revealing the colorful backdrop and illustrating changed lives.

When the service was over there would likely still be black sheets left, Boschman said, and that was the intention. “God’s work is not finished in the world and we are part of helping to transform lives,” said Boschman. “There is still work to be done, changing darkness to light.”

Seven individuals representing church plants and established Mennonite Brethren congregations shared stories of people in their church’s sphere of influence who have seen their lives changed.

  • Abraham is a 50-year old religious man with a strong personality who, one August Sunday morning in 2009, accepted the Lord as his personal Savior at Ethiopian Christian Fellowship in Sacramento, Calif. Abraham’s decision led him to give up plans to divorce his wife, to begin enjoying life as a husband and father and to be baptized. Today Abraham is praying that his entire extended family will come to Christ. “Abraham preachers everywhere, to everybody,” said pastor Tamirat Haile.
  • Miss Luetta came to a Sunday morning service at Grulla (Texas) MB Church, she says, because she “wanted to be nice to the friends who invited me.” Having grown-up and married as a Catholic, that morning she “chose for myself” to accept Christ as her Savior.
  • When Alex moved to Sioux Falls, SD, a year ago he was invited to Christ Community Church, a MB church plant in that community. He became involved in the youth group, but “came with an attitude,” said Roger Engbrecht, the Central District Conference minister who attends CCC. Alex made it known that, “I will never accept Jesus Christ unless I see him.” One night during the youth group gathering, Alex began trembling. When questioned, Alex replied that he had just seen Jesus. He accepted Christ that night. Alex began witnessing to his family and July 18, 2010 his entire family was baptized.
  • Carl was one of the first core team members at Watershed, a new MB church plant in Kansas City. Church planter Jason Phelps said he and his coworker, Paul Bartel, asked for a huge commitment from Carl, who moved to the target community in order to more fully participate in the church plant. Carl, who Phelps describes as someone who gives “extravagantly in every way,” recently confessed that before coming to Watershed he was just “a good Christian.” Carl’s transformation can’t be attributed to anything other than God. “It wasn’t us,” said Phelps. “(Carl) just decided to follow Jesus and his life looks completely different than it did before.”
  • Terry Hunt, pastor of The Life Center in Lenoir, NC, was worried about the details of his sermon that Sunday morning in October 2009. The PowerPoint for his message, “It’s not about you,” wasn’t working and his notes were lousy. “I gave the worst delivery of a message that I’ve ever given,” Hunt told the Conection 2010 delegates. Hunt ended his sermon with an invitation to receive Christ and 10 young adults responded. “What just happened?” Hunt remembers wondering. “The power of the Holy Spirit descended on this church,” he said. “Not only were 10 lives transformed, but I got the point of the message: it’s not about you. God transformed my life to another level.”
  • Troy, raised by “Mormon Catholic hippies,” pursued a life of parties and drugs until he successfully completed a recovery program and returned to the Mormon Church. Troy did his best to raise his own four children as well as a niece and nephew. But his breaking point came when police broke into his house looking for his daughter who was selling drugs. Then Troy found the hope of new hope in Jesus Christ and Josh Gonzales, church planter of the newest church in Great Salt Lake City, Utah, baptized Troy in July.

Paul Robie, pastor of South Mountain Community Church (SMCC) in Draper, Utah, concluded the series of transformation stories with a presentation outlining the challenges of ministry in Utah, a unique “under-churched” location where 80 percent of the population claims to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints (more commonly called Mormon). With 1 percent of Utah’s population claiming to be evangelical and the average evangelical church in the state averaging a membership of 64, Utah is seeing lots of church planting.

Robie’s intention when he and his family moved to Utah more than a decade ago was to target disenfranchised Mormons. Today SMCC is a multi-site church with nearly 2,000 attendees that as of October 2009 has seen 600 baptisms, with former LDS members accounting for 250 of those.

Why would SMCC grow beyond a congregation numbering 64? Robie answered his question with a brief explanation of the Mormon belief system. “We are all about the religious older brother in the Luke 15 parable—that’s a Mormon.”

People from an LDS background often have “big trust issues,” said Robie. They think in terms of earning one’s faith in this life and the next. Their faith has been motivated by fear and shame as well as a system that appeals to ego and the desire for honor and respect.

“Consequently, as a church we have to stay away from that motivation and appeal to people’s love of Jesus Christ,” said Robie. “We talk about the gospel of grace that is a gift.”

Robie went on to say, “We are committed to the process of changing people from the inside out. We use a ‘belong before you believe’ concept. We are careful in the way we explain Scripture, never going beyond what the Bible promised. Staying away from an emotional appeal can make us boring as a church. But to get an honest commitment, it takes time (for Mormons) to extract them selves from this environment.”

SMCC has recently begun ministering in the polygamist Mormon community, and the Robie family currently has a young man living with them that was forced to leave his home polygamist community.

Robie concluded his portion of the program with a video testimony by Melissa, a young woman recently baptized. Melissa tried to fill her life with lots of things and when that failed she returned to Mormonism. That didn’t work either.

Then coworkers introduced her to SMCC. It didn’t take Melissa long to realize she needed to choose between partying and her new friends at SMCC. “Every friendship lost because I’m not partying has been filled by new relationships.”

Melissa said, “Trust is hard. I’ve been a Christian for a year now. There’s no date, but I know that I’m saved.” Relationships in her family are now difficult, but “Christ comes first, even with family…. I’m learning to let Jesus fill those holes. As I’ve gotten to know Jesus, he means everything to me. Getting baptized is my public declaration.”

The evening finished much as it started—with prayer and singing. This time delegates and guests circled the church leaders who had shared a story during the evening as well as the four district ministers: Terry Hunt, NC District; Tim Sullivan, Southern District; Roger Engbrecht, Central District; and Gary Wall, Pacific District.

“Surround these folks,” USC moderator Steve Schroeder encouraged the audience. “Lay hands on them and pray for them. Thank God for what he’s doing.”

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