Never Stop Learning

by E. Wayne Hanks
hanks

I have had the joy of serving First Assembly of God of Garland, Texas, for some 44 years. The first 10, I was privileged to serve as associate to Pastor Leonard Wood. He led the church for a combined 29 years as senior pastor, and I treasure the wisdom and Christlike character he demonstrated. Since 1974 I’ve been blessed to shepherd this congregation. I’m excited about the years God allows in my future here.

I’d like to share 10 powerful lessons I’ve learned through some of the most challenging and exciting days in our church’s history. These principles have undergirded our past, are shaping our present and are leading us into a glorious tomorrow. For purposes of illustration, I’ll connect them with our church’s recent and miraculous move.

1: Be steadfast and consistent in the ministry of prayer.

Everything we are and do is tempered by our regular communication with God. Leaders must provide every possible means for prayer “. . . on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18). As people are led to pray, God honors His Word, meets needs, gives guidance and does the supernatural.

At a key point in our church’s history while earnestly seeking strategy from the Holy Spirit, I was strongly prompted to call the church body to 40 days of fasting and prayer. A range of negative actions and attitudes had become increasingly evident in our fellowship. A tinge of discontent had formed. Bit by bit, a degree of heaviness and sense of burden had crept in. Vision became clouded. Preaching was tough. Singing and worship pulled uphill. Praying was strained.

Seven dedicated men in our deacon’s fellowship, with many in the church family, entered passionately together with me into the commitment of 40 days of fasting and prayer. The deacons met with me regularly for transparent evaluation and reflection. Most importantly, our times together were for the hard work of intercession and prayer. Our pastoral team joined wholeheartedly with us in expectation.

Those 40 days were not filled with casual requests, but with heart-searching cries of “not my will but your will.” The more we pressed through together, the more we knew God heard us. A confident, unshakable peace filled our hearts and souls. That sense of “blessed assurance” that comes only when you know you have “prayed through,” that you have touched God, began to unfold day by day.

Garland First Assembly of God was transitioning from impasse and plateau to fresh, hopeful dimensions of life, victory and freedom. New streams of vitality and anticipation were unmistakable in every aspect of our church life—in our times of praise and worship, in the preaching and teaching of the Word, in the giving, in the exchange of fellowship and in our loving concern and care for people.

2: Be receptive and obedient to the will and plan of God.

Prayerfully and submissively seeking God enables us to know His direction for our ministry. This filters out personal agendas, wishful thinking and self-serving strategies. The ultimate joy in accomplishment is found in knowing we are pursuing the pathway God has marked out for us. He will confirm each step as we walk in obedience.

As 2002 came to a close, we had returned to the challenges facing our church by setting our hearts on getting off “dead-center.” All the while we continued to devote our energies to begin construction on a worship center. At least, those were our plans. However, we were beginning to learn that the plans we had pursued were apparently not God’s plans.

Fast forward several months to mid-2003.

“Pastor, have you seen the For Sale sign on Lavon Drive?”

One of our youth leaders was on the phone. I wasn’t aware Metro Church was considering selling the church. Metro was situated on 15-plus acres, 3.1 miles from our Buckingham campus, and located on a main traffic way just one mile from the new President George Bush Turnpike.

We discussed what a great location Metro had, and agreed to make it a matter of prayer. In a matter of weeks, I received a call from one of the elders of Metro Church. I was stunned as he opened his heart. Circumstances following a well-publicized church bus crash necessitated that Metro sell their property. The church was without a pastor, most of the people had left their fellowship, and they could no longer meet the mortgage payments. It was serious enough that they had made the difficult decision to close the church. Knowing we were seeking to build, in prayer they felt impressed to ask us to consider buying and relocating to their campus.

3: Commit for the long haul.

During 10 challenging years of pursing God’s heart for construction on Buckingham, we had met one delay after another. Now in August 2003, the Lord was making His plan very clear—Garland First Assembly of God was to relocate.

On January 18, 2004, the congregation voted to sell the 7-acre Buckingham site and buy the 15.3-acre Lavon Drive campus. February 18 we closed on Lavon Drive for $4.1 million. Through one miracle after another, God answered prayer and honored our faith. August 18 we closed on the sale of Buckingham to Rodgers Baptist Church for $2.2 million.

July 18, 2004, marked another historic day for Garland First—our final morning service at 801 W. Buckingham and our first service at Lavon Drive. Our final action that morning was to join hands and form a huge circle around the periphery of the auditorium, through the foyer and across the platform. We praised and thanked God for the 35 years of fruitful ministry at that site—for every person who had come to faith in Christ, for those baptized in the Holy Spirit, those entering into Christian ministry, those called to missions, for more than $4 million given to support missions, and much more. Then we prayed for the Rodgers Baptist Church leadership and congregation, who would be occupying the properties as we vacated.

For our journey to 5500 Lavon Drive, police officers in the congregation had arranged an escort for the caravan of vehicles as we joyfully made our way 3.1 miles across town. The unfinished worship center still held scaffolding, and there was no carpeting on the platform, but the joy of God filled every heart. High praises were lifted freely to the Lord. In the 40 years previous I had been with the church, I could not recall any time when I had sensed greater praise and joy among our people. The Lord was powerfully present as we worshiped in that first Sunday evening service. The relocation and all it required was a significant building block in what God began and continues to do among us.

4: Genuinely honor and appreciate those who precede you in ministry.

Many faithful people who went before us paid a huge price for our present blessings. It is right, and gives untold joy to respect the memory of those now with the Lord, and to honor those still with us. This dynamically unifies all generations in our church body.

Garland Full Gospel Assembly was planted with sacrificial love and faithful commitment by a small group of believers in 1938. Set in order in 1939, First Assembly of God of Garland, Texas, joyfully celebrated its 70th anniversary of ministry in 2008.

No sacrifice was too great for those early pioneers. Several charter members are still with us. Accounts of faith and God’s direction from men and women like these keeps our people today more centered and focused. First Assembly held all-night prayer meetings. The people were hungry for the Word of God. Protracted revival meetings regularly marked the church calendar. Hosting and supporting missionaries became an engrained trait of the fellowship. For many years there was no staff, but many volunteers. Such attitudes and resolve helped form the spiritual DNA of the congregation, producing a stable, Bible-centered, family-oriented and missions-minded church.

5: Remain focused and undaunted even when some people are uncooperative.

We had come through a season when the overall life of the church seemed to shift toward a maintenance mentality—serving the member families and individuals who showed up—as opposed to an evangelism mentality of consistently and intentionally reaching out and caring for people beyond the four walls. That is not to say evangelism/outreach efforts were not utilized, but in reality it didn’t seem to be a primary component. Something of an “ecclesiastical country-club” mindset had developed within the corporate subconscious.

This became a time when spiritual, mental and emotional issues were fiercely at war within my own soul. I began to doubt my leadership in ways I had not experienced before. Always confident in God’s call, I now sometimes felt numb to ministerial clarity and direction. Questions annoyed my spirit: Am I remaining too long in this pastorate? Do I have the skills to lead this church to the next level? Does the Lord want someone else to lead? Do I still have the support and respect of the people who are depending on me?

It was one of the lowest periods I can recall in my ministry. I thank God for a faithful wife who stands by my side in all times and circumstances, especially times like those. Mary Lou’s encouragement was an enormous source of strength to me. I was also greatly blessed to be surrounded and supported by godly deacons and other men and women in our church family.

Coming through that season and regaining a sense of vision and purpose, thanks to God’s intervention during our 40 days of prayer and fasting, I had a fresh understanding that God could and would direct us and would even direct those members who could not share our vision. Our hearts were saddened that not everyone chose to make the move with us, although the large majority did. But we recognized that the Head of the Church was leading and in control of each one of us. We blessed those who did not cross with us. And we continue to pray that God will be with each one in their personal journey of faith.

6: Validate the worth of the entire ministry team, releasing them to do their job.

Jealousy and paranoia are team killers. Individual domains jeopardize corporate vision. As lead pastor, I joy in the people God has placed with me. I am pleased when our church family loves and respects them and their families. Their variety of talents and gifts provides a marvelous reservoir for fulfilling God’s mission.

Following the congregational vote to relocate, the need to examine all of our structure and ministries operations took on greater intensity, particularly regarding our need for full-time leadership in music worship. Aware of our concern in this area, one of our college students spoke briefly to me while home from Evangel College. She mentioned a couple she thought I may be interested in considering. Again, God was developing His Master Plan.

I contacted Aaron and Holly Snell. Our conversations reaffirmed we were all moving in the center of God’s will. In March 2004, they too were involved in 40 days of fasting and prayer for God’s direction in their lives. We agreed to visit a few weeks later, when the season of prayer was completed. Everything was moving in God’s timing. Our first visit with them was charged with eagerness and expectation. Sharing our hearts openly and prayerfully only strengthened our sense the Holy Spirit was directing each step.

Their first service with us was on Mother’s Day, 2004, two months prior to our relocation. Rather than preach a Mother’s Day pastoral message, I was led of the Holy Spirit to ask Aaron and Holly to tell their story, giving praise to the faithfulness of God and inspiring faith in hurting people. The service was powerful and dynamic from the opening moments. With anointed transparency, this precious young lady walked through the agony and grief of facing the reality that her first husband and new brother-in-law were both drowned in a Vermont river.

As this young mother described the Scripture verses, songs, people and other key elements the Holy Spirit had used in her life experiences to tenderly carry her through such a time, God was melding all our hearts for His future purpose and plan. His divine strategy in bringing Aaron into her life was arresting and encouraging to everyone present. In strong and eternal ways, the Holy Spirit poured healing oil in the wounds of the hurting. All of this served to reinforce their authenticity and their commitment to walk only in the will and calling of God.

In distinct ways the Holy Spirit used this time as an instructive and transforming phase to reconfirm the validity of our corporate direction; that we were indeed hearing and obeying the voice of God as a church.

7: Be bold in risking for the cause of God as the Holy Spirit leads.

Jesus states clearly: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). The magnitude of our God is on display in and through the lives of His people. He truly confirms His Word as we dream and think big for what brings pleasure to Him – reaching and winning people with the gospel. Without Him we can “do nothing,” yet through His provision we experience the miraculous.

Closing for our purchase of the Lavon Drive properties had been originally set for a date in mid-February, 2004. On the day before, our real estate attorney called to say we had encountered a problem. Some of the families affected by the bus crash believed they had no alternative but to file an injunction prohibiting closing on the sale. I knew these were good people. At the same time, we had gone all out to complete the relocation. There didn’t seem to be any way we could turn back. A court hearing was set to resolve the problem.

Three of our deacons and I met our attorney at the Dallas court building for a 9 a.m. hearing. We waited in the hallway as four attorneys discussed the issues. Precisely two minutes before the scheduled hearing our attorney said, “Let’s go tell the judge what we have agreed on.”

In amazement we stood in that courtroom listening to what God had accomplished. The attorney for the company holding first mortgage bonds on Lavon Drive agreed to reduce their claims and appeal to their bond holders to do the same. The attorney for Metro Church agreed the aggrieved families would receive all net proceeds from the sale. The attorney representing the injured families agreed that from henceforth, no further action would be attempted against the Lavon Drive properties. And our attorney agreed that we would accept these conclusions.

At that point the judge noted all agreements, issuing a stipulation that the property must be sold to First Assembly of God of Garland and that closing shall be not later than February 18, 2004. It was truly a moment when God was on display in the public court. In reality there was a fifth attorney present that day—the Holy Spirit Himself.

8: Authentically welcome all nationalities.

International influx continues to expand ministry opportunities for the Church today. The Bible speaks much about attitudes and behavior toward the “alien” among us. In all respects, the most effective and understandable communication is the language of love. God truly comes alongside the church body that sets its heart on reaching, loving and accepting people irrespective of cultural or linguistic nuance.

A seemingly co-incidental event in the mid-1980’s helped set the tone for the broader dimensions of ministry we enjoy today. On a business trip in Latin America, one of our deacons engaged in conversation with a gracious Brazilian couple on his flight. When they inquired about his Bible study, he told them he was preparing for the adult Bible class he would teach in his home church. The couple shared their heart for ministry to Brazilians in Dallas. The group they led had been meeting in the chapel of a large evangelical church in downtown Dallas but had recently had to search for another meeting place for their Portuguese services.

This encounter resulted in a door of ministry partnership we had never experienced before. From the very beginning we sensed deeply that God would use this as a pattern for transitioning us to being a multinational church. It remains a very bright spot indeed in the life of this church.

One of the most gratifying developments in the life of this church during the past few years has been the ingathering and assimilation into our fellowship of many wonderful people who were not born in the United States of America. The gracious and delightful relationship we began with our Brazilian friends more than 20 years ago has been greatly used of the Lord to form a multinational body of believers. The most recent review of our congregation registers people originating from 29 nations. The largest group is from Brazil, then Africa, followed by Pakistan, Mexico, Russia, Cambodia, Puerto Rico and China. These international brothers and sisters comprise approximately 30 percent of our church family.

As we sincerely and intentionally endeavor to provide a loving, accepting and forgiving environment, God attracts people from all cultures, thereby permitting the Holy Spirit to continue to grow us as a multiethnic fellowship.

9: Be willing to listen to and communicate with all generations.

Understandably, a 70-year-old congregation would have a significant group of senior adults to love and care for. Thankfully such is our case. They have prayed for me, supported me, given me their encouragement and love, and, in so many other ways, walked by my side through the years. I owe much in my ministry to these dear senior adults. We remember also that many of them have lived through seasons marked by minimal change, relatively speaking. They have lived in the same house and neighborhood, worked at the same job, had the same circle of friends and worshiped with the same church family for years.

How to honorably safeguard the spiritual well-being of this group and lovingly as well as authentically meet their needs is no small concern. A pastor is courting shipwreck and disaster when faithful people are overlooked or taken for granted. Wisdom says it is crucial to cultivate and maintain strong trust levels for these folks while continuing to open our doors to the next generations and make them welcome.

A personal commitment and objective on my part is to do my best to create a climate in which each person in every group feels free to reach out to me. I am pleased to try to be available whenever the old or young need me. Never mind that we have a sizable pastoral team. The fact is, members of each of our constituent groups still want to see and/or talk to their senior pastor. Keeping this vital relationship helps meet their needs and enhances the potential of keeping them on board with the greater vision for the church.

10: Be bendable without compromising truth or principle.

Change in methods, styles and preferences are ongoing elements of life. Resistance to new ways for advancing the work of Christ spells certain stagnation. Despite the ills of our times, these are some of the most exciting days of opportunity for proclaiming the gospel and reaching people for God. Anointed enthusiasm, faith and anticipation, combined with God-ordained unity are amazingly contagious and productive in any church family.

can take a staid, struggling, uncertain body of believers in plateau (or decline) and set them on a course of joyous growth and triumph in so many areas of church life. Under God, we went from 300 in worship attendance to a high worship attendance of more than 700 at the new campus. A new members’ class is now a regular part of the calendar. Week after week it is a joy to witness people flourishing as they trust Christ as Savior, receive baptism in the Holy Spirit and respond to the purposes of God for their lives. Hurting, fractured families experience His healing love and grace.

Creatively providing new venues and structure for growth is a constant stretch. Youth ministries have surged, requiring us to move adult meetings from the worship area to give the students larger space on Wednesday evenings. Children’s ministries max out all rooms designed for the little ones. We’ve launched Sunday Night Connections, small groups at the church for the purpose of offering a broad selection of discipleship subjects to our congregation. Many of these are presented by use of media, with a team of leaders moderating the meeting and are scheduled for eight-week sessions. Not only have our young families gotten on board, many of them are now in leadership roles. Participation on Sunday evenings has tripled.

The joy of my life is to have the opportunity to see our Lord honor His Word and build His church week after week. Mentoring younger staff members, sending people out for ministry, sharing the thrill of cross-cultural fellowship and ministry and more, is of inestimable joy. And believing that God has only begun what He desires to accomplish through the combined efforts of this diverse church family gives personal gratification beyond my ability to fully describe or explain.