What Evangel Means to Me

As Evangel is nearing its merge with Free Chapel, so much is stirring in my heart about this precious place I’ve called home for nearly thirty years. I was two weeks old at my first Sunday morning service. Pastor Miles was preaching. That service began a beautiful story in my life – the story of God using this amazing church family to establish His eternal work in my heart.

The older I get, the more I study in seminary, the more I’m exposed to different traditions within the Church… the more thankful I become for my church home. Not because other traditions are less valuable. And certainly not because my church is flawless – ‘flawless’ doesn’t exist in any local church or in any denomination. [I’m saying this up front so that what follows doesn’t give the impression that I think our church is perfect. I don’t.] But despite its flaws, God has used this Charismatic church home to establish some things in me for which I am forever grateful.

Evangel.

Evangel.

It’s inside of the walls of Evangel that I learned…

What Unconditional Acceptance Feels Like. Evangel has always been a place of tangible love and acceptance. Embracing people from all walks of life has been its standard from the beginning. One doesn’t need a minimum salary or designer clothes or a certain color of skin to belong in this family. What a rich gift it has been to worship in this kind of environment. I worked at a local ministry right after finishing college, and we often counseled young couples. I was responsible for processing client charts; so I got the privilege of reading about all of the counseling sessions at the ministry. In reading these client assessments, I noticed a pattern over the years: whenever interracial couples came through our ministry doors, they were consistently referred to Evangel as a potential church home. It made my heart smile every single time I saw this. This pattern captures a beautiful truth about our church home: the “rejects,” the ostracized, even the “weird” :), have always had an invitation to be part of our family. Diversity hasn’t been tolerated; it has been embraced and even celebrated.

Bishop Miles being honored at his 85th birthday celebration.

Bishop Miles being honored at his 85th birthday celebration.

How Kind God Is. Tracy Stewart, one of our frequent guest speakers in years past, once said, “God is so much nicer than Christians.” This captures Evangel’s culture – and its understanding of God’s love – so well. God doesn’t withdraw Himself or give us silent treatment when we ‘behave badly.’ His unconditional, insanely passionate love for us has been a prevailing theme of any preaching I’ve ever sat under. Not only the existence of His love, but more importantly, its limitless nature. The fact that it overcomes every obstacle to our knowing Him. If there’s anything I’ve learned at Evangel, it’s that God is not afraid of our mess. He loves down our walls, even in our messiest situations, and is so available to us no matter how badly we’ve messed up. It’s that kind of Love that disarms us and makes room for transformation in our lives.

Cameron Walker and Blake and Eliza Lewis leading worship in 2011.

Cameron Walker and Blake and Eliza Lewis leading worship in 2011.

To Linger in the Lord’s Presence. Our leadership has placed a HIGH priority on worship because it recognizes its power. We’ve never drudged through songs as if it’s a chore we’re trying to check off. If you’ve never sat consistently in this type of worship atmosphere, this point may be very hard to understand. But let me tell you, there has always been something unique about Evangel’s worship. This is not an arrogant statement; it’s a fact that I simply can’t get around. A uniquely sweet and transformative atmosphere is created when you have a worship leader that is intimate with the Holy Spirit. There’s a sensitivity and a power that comes with this type of worship, and it can’t be mimicked. An atmosphere of intimacy, love, new life, hope, and restoration is created. It peels back layers of our hearts and prepares us to receive the Word that’s about to be preached. There’s no way I can do justice for this point – I could write a dissertation about it! It’s one of the richest deposits God has made in my life through Evangel.

Vince Edmund and Iris Valley at Bishop Miles' 85th birthday party, 2013.

Vince Edmund and Iris Valley at Bishop Miles’ 85th birthday party, 2013.

To Get to Know the Holy Spirit Personally. For us (and Scripturally), the Holy Spirit has never been some vague third member of the God-head. He really is what the Word says He is – our Comforter, Teacher, and Helper. Every single day of our lives. We talk to Him, seek relationship with Him, want to hear His voice, don’t want to grieve Him, celebrate His presence, and recognize His work in the people and world around us. He knows me intimately, and prioritizing relationship with Him means that I can know Him intimately too. This is a life-changing gift. Because of the emphasis on knowing Him personally, I’ve hungered for this from an early age and have experienced things in my relationship with Him that have changed and anchored my life in profound ways.

Pastor Langley preaching in 2014.

Pastor Langley preaching in 2014.

To Be a Generous Giver. This principle has become part of the fiber of my life because of the countless stories that have been shared in our congregation concerning giving. Maybe you’ve heard it said that “you can’t out-give God.” This truth has thrived in our church culture. And not just where money is concerned – but time, talents, worship, service – all of it. And even the money component hasn’t been all about ‘giving to the church’ – that’s been part of it, sure. But the culture has been one of generous giving outside the church too. Being a generous giver wherever you are (paying for people’s meals/groceries, giving generous tips, blessing people in secret) – because God can display Himself so beautifully in the world through our generosity.

My mom and me with Laurie Langley on Easter Sunday, 2013.

My mom and me with Laurie Langley on Easter Sunday, 2013.

A Willingness to Look Foolish. Speaking of God displaying Himself in our world… We’ve got to be willing to do whatever the Holy Spirit leads us to do, no matter how foolish it may appear. Every preacher and leader I’ve sat under in this church has demonstrated this point in one way or another. And this truth is present throughout Scripture. Why dip seven times in water to be healed? Why spit in mud and smear it on someone’s eyes to restore sight? Why march around the wall for seven days to see it fall? Why put the worshipers at the front during battle? Why kill the Savior of the world so viciously and after only three years of public ministry? I don’t know. None of us do. But through these ‘foolish’ acts of obedience, God moved. The Kingdom story was told. Lives were made whole. So if the Holy Spirit tells me to pray for someone in public or to tell a stranger something specific that will encourage him or to start a conversation with random kids in Barnes & Noble (He led me to do this several years ago – and did one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced when I stepped out and obeyed) or to give to something specific when I’m tight on money, I better do it! Who cares what it looks like?! Who cares if people think I’m weird?! If the Kingdom manifests through my looking foolish, so be it.

Bishop Miles and Evelyn greeting everyone as they arrived at his 85th birthday celebration, 2013.

Bishop Miles and Evelyn greeting everyone as they arrived at his 85th birthday celebration, 2013.

That Salvation is the Beginning of the Story, Not the End. We are endlessly thankful for what Jesus did on the Cross and recognize that receiving the free gift of salvation is miraculous beyond words. But we also recognize that salvation is the beginning of our story with God, not the end. Salvation is the starting point for a rich life in God that is about SO much more than simply going to heaven when we die. Salvation isn’t primarily about saving us from hell; it’s about restored relationship with our Father. Life with God is the point. Restored relationship with our Father is the point. Therefore, the main point of our preaching hasn’t been to offer redundant explanations of how to ‘get saved.’ The Gospel message is very present in every sermon – and even an invitation for salvation. But much more has been communicated from Evangel’s pulpit than the ‘how-to’ of salvation. And I am so thankful for this. Because if that’s all that sermons ever do (evangelize people who are already Christians), they give the idea that assurance of heaven is the only thing that happens when we come into life in Christ. And nothing could be further from the Truth!

Lily Lenderman, one of our dearest family members at Evangel.

Lily Lenderman, one of our dearest family members at Evangel. Her faith became sight on October 15, 2012.

What Great Leaders Look Like. No, Evangel’s leaders have not been perfect. But they have shown me what great leadership looks like. When I spoke at Evangel recently, I shared something I had gained from each of the three pastors who have led me. From Pastor Miles, I learned humility. God has used this man as an amazing leader around the world – starting hundreds of churches, being a global influencer, and leading a local congregation. But Pastor Miles never got puffed up because of it. He’s always been approachable, and we’ve always felt like he was one of us. He never became too important. That speaks volumes about the kind of man he is. From Dr. Gaulden, I gained a value for the study of the Biblical languages. His preaching brought the original contexts and languages to bear, and listening to him sparked something in me. The Word came to life in a fresh way. God used his preaching to sow a seed in my heart to go to seminary. He embodied both deep knowledge and great passion – a rare combination. It showed me that serious study doesn’t have to hamper passion; instead, it can fuel it. From Pastors Randal and Laurie, I’ve learned tenacity. God’s assignments often come with great challenges; their assignment at Evangel certainly did. But I’ve watched them in the trenches and seen tenacious grace on their lives to be in this thing with God for the long haul. They’ve also had a heart to empower those whom they lead. They’ve never been ‘all about me’ in the way they lead. They’ve always wanted to empower others and see people arise in their individual callings – and have not been threatened by other people’s gifts. This is rare in leadership. I am forever grateful God gave me them as a tangible example of this attribute.

Laurie turning the mic over for me to preach on Sunday, May 24th, 2015.

Laurie turning the mic over for me to preach on Sunday, May 24th, 2015. Thank you, Todd Kuhns, for capturing this special day!

What an incredible gift it was to stand behind the pulpit where so many great men and women of God have stood and share from my heart with this precious church family. Thank you, Pastor Langley, for allowing me this opportunity! I am forever grateful!

What an incredible gift it was to stand behind the pulpit where so many great men and women of God have stood and share from my heart with this precious church family. Thank you, Pastor Langley, for allowing me this opportunity! I am forever grateful!

To Value the Gifts of the Spirit. Evangel has always made room for the Holy Spirit to minister. Whether it’s been at an altar call or in a small group setting, I’ve repeatedly experienced the gifts of the Spirit in action. For example, Kevin Baird, a former Evangel staff member from years ago, is very prophetically gifted. At one evening gathering, he started getting prophetic words from the Lord for specific people in the group. He called my mom out and proceeded to give her a very timely, very accurate prophetic word. She was undone. It’s one of the most precious things God has ever done for her.

It’s easy for people to say that God doesn’t do this stuff any more until they experience it for themselves. It isn’t hard to see that these gifts are still very much active when you see them operating in your midst. Only God knew the specifics of my mom’s situation at that time, and yet, this minister who knew nothing about it (in the natural realm) was speaking directly into it. And the cool thing about the prophetic is… the person giving the word is simply a vessel. God gives prophetic words in such a way that the giver of the word still doesn’t know the details surrounding the word (God is so kind and is always protecting our hearts – He doesn’t expose bad or shameful things about us and He’s never out to embarrass us) – the prophecy is always packaged in a way that is specific enough for us to know that it’s coming from Him but discreet enough to leave the details ours.

The prophetic alone has been one of the greatest things I’ve experienced during my time at Evangel. It always brings great encouragement and gives fresh grace to keep moving forward.

I remember another instance when I was in a small group setting with other young people at church many years ago. We were going through a particularly hard time as a church family, and some of our more seasoned prayer team members came to minister to us. We were all sitting in a circle, and at some point during our time together, one of the ladies started weeping. I had seen stuff like this before; so at first I assumed that God was really ministering to her as an individual.

But then the weeping became deeper, more gut-wrenching. And it kept going. And going. Something shifted, and suddenly it was clear to me what was going on. I was seeing deep intercession take place. I believe it was the Holy Spirit that made all this clear to me. Because suddenly I understood what I was witnessing in her weeping: God was weeping over us through her. His heart was so moved over our pain as a church family that He used this woman as a vessel through which to weep. It was very moving to realize how much God’s heart was hurting for us.

I know this probably sounds nuts to anyone reading this who has never been in such an atmosphere. This type of thing hasn’t been an everyday occurrence, even in our church. But again, I am thankful that we’ve always made room for God to minister however he wants to minister. It is deeply healing and encouraging when the Holy Spirit ministers to us (and through us) with His gifts.

My sister, Dawn, and her daughter, Crissy, with Dr. Gaulden on Easter Sunday, 2006.

My sister, Dawn, and her daughter, Crissy, with Dr. Gaulden on Easter Sunday, 2006.

Larry Braswell speaking at Bishop Miles' 85th birthday party, 2013.

Larry Braswell speaking at Bishop Miles’ 85th birthday party, 2013.

Candid shot of Jerry Clevenger, Pastor Langley, and Kevin Baird at Bishop Miles' 85th birthday party, 2013.

Candid shot of Jerry Clevenger, Pastor Langley, and Kevin Baird at Bishop Miles’ 85th birthday party, 2013.

The Vital Role that Women Play in Ministry. Having studied this issue from a more scholarly perspective over the last few years, it now means that much more to me that my home church has always welcomed women behind the pulpit. Because of Evangel’s stance on women preachers, I have been privileged to hear women speak from as early as I can remember. I’m seeing now what a rare gift this is. I’ve never had a time in my life when I doubted the place women have in the church and in ministry in general. And you know what? Some of the very best speakers on this planet are women. They have a passion and a voice for God that is unique from men. This does not, of course, lessen the value of men. Not in the least! The point is that both sexes are made in God’s image. We both bring vital attributes to the table, and both need to be heard if our church families are going to thrive. As Danny Silk of Bethel Church says, when a family only hears from its father and never from its mother, things are lop-sided. Families need fathers and mothers! I’m so thankful for this precious, lifelong gift of regularly hearing women preach.

The Bunch Family - This was shortly before Debora's bone marrow transplant in 2010.

The Bunch Family – This was shortly before Debora’s bone marrow transplant in 2010.

Tracie Baird and me at Bishop Miles' 85th birthday party, 2013.

Tracie Baird and me at Bishop Miles’ 85th birthday party, 2013.

The Importance of Inner Wholeness. This goes hand in hand with my earlier point about salvation being the starting point, not the end, of our stories. Much of our journey with God consists of Him fathering us out of our brokenness and into true sonship or daughtership. This pursuit of inner wholeness has been another prevailing theme in the Evangel culture. There has always been access to individual ministry at our church. We have placed a high value on dealing with past wounds because until we give God access to them, they will continue to cripple us – no matter how much we love God or how saved we are. I am so thankful to have grown up in an environment that fostered inner healing. I’ve not been told to pretend I’m okay when I’m not or to sweep my issues under the rug. Instead I’ve always been encouraged to get the counseling, the ministry, the prayer I need so that I can move forward in wholeness.

James Reese playing at Bishop Miles' 85th birthday celebration, 2013.

James Reese playing at Bishop Miles’ 85th birthday celebration, 2013.

Roger Gosnell speaking at Bishop Miles' 85th birthday party, 2013.

Roger Gosnell speaking at Bishop Miles’ 85th birthday party, 2013.

That Passion, Joy, and Physical Response to God are Fitting in Worship Settings. Unashamed hunger and overflowing praise have been a driving force in our services. When you glimpse the insane goodness of God, you are compelled to respond with more than a stern expression or a motionless stare. Lifted hands, shouts of praise, kneels at the altar, and tears of joy are the natural overflow of a redeemed heart in the presence of the Lord. This is not to say that there is no order or that our services are chaotic free-for-alls. Not at all. What I am saying is that our corporate atmosphere has always been one that makes room for holy celebration and response to God. And even laughter. [GASP] Pastor Langley said something one time that has always stuck with me because it challenges many people’s notion of ‘decently and in order.’ “Decently and in order have to do with the corporate atmosphere, meaning that your worship, actions, etc. should fit with what’s going on corporately.” (This is not a direct quote but captures the point of his statement.) In other words, if it’s a corporate time of praise and celebration, then, by all means, dance or shout if you feel led. But if it’s a serious or silent moment corporately, it’s not a time to shout. That would distract and prevent other believers from receiving in that moment. The point is this: whether it’s silence, kneeling, clapping, singing, laughing, or shouting, there’s a time and place for it all. So we’ve made room not only for silence and stillness, but also for noise and celebration.

Most of the Latvia mission team from 2006.

Most of the Latvia mission team from 2006.

Kari Eplee Bailey, Kristin McDowell Robertson, Krista Bridwell Gaulden, Katie Moore, Gina McBride Parrish, and me in Latvia, 2006.

Kari Eplee Bailey, Kristin McDowell Robertson, Krista Bridwell Gaulden, Katie Moore, Gina McBride Parrish, and me in Latvia, 2006.

Me, Krista, Melody, Anna, Kari, and Brian in Latvia, 2006.

Me, Krista, Melody, Anna, Kari, and Brian in Latvia, 2006.

~

Despite my best efforts, I could never adequately communicate the love I have in my heart for this church family. Our family members have gone in different directions over the years, and many are at different houses of worship now. But we continue to share this deep bond, no matter how many years pass between our reunions. When you experience God in such profound ways together, you become bound to your brothers and sisters in Christ in a supernatural way. The bond is unending. It will exist through all of eternity. What a glorious thing! Thank you, Lord, for drawing me into this family and for all that you’ve deposited into my life through the journey.

Bishop Miles as he arrived at his 85th birthday celebration, 2013.

Bishop Miles as he arrived at his 85th birthday celebration, 2013.

[These pictures include only a few of the precious people that have been part of Evangel. There are MANY more than I could picture in this one post.]

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