Summer 2016

We’re Not Pastors but We Plant Churches

Two couples explain how disciplemaking and church planting are just their “norm.”

by Diane J. McDougall

When John and Kitty DeMeester met as 20-somethings back in the ’70s, their church was The Sonshine House—a coffeehouse in the bar district of downtown Dubuque, Iowa.

There, a mutual friend had started an evangelistic outreach that featured Christian bands and drew crowds for lively conversation. John and Kitty were integral to its launch and growth.

After they married, they started attending Kitty’s parents’ church instead, as well as a Bible study at her parents’ home. Kitty’s father was a truck driver and attracted people from all walks of life. “My dad loved God,” she says. “He was a simple man and shared Christ wherever he went and led other truck drivers to the Lord wherever he pulled over.”

So the Bible study drew a diverse crowd with some off-color language, but John and Kitty knew that it came from hearts truly curious about Christ. “By watching her parents,” John says, “we were being discipled in how to care for people.”

If you can’t find one, start one

When a more legalistic element permeated their church and people with rough edges were no longer welcome, Kitty’s extended family started looking for a new church home.

Eventually, they were introduced to leaders in the EFCA, with whom they discussed their desire for a church that cared about evangelism and discipleship and welcomed all seekers. “The first thing you know,” John recalls, “we were making plans to start a church.”

That was 1978, and their church plant—Hope EFC of Dubuque, Iowa—is now a thriving congregation of 1,100.

Church planting as a family gave them children who grew up wanting to disciple people too.

“The coffeehouse was our first plant,” John says now. “And Hope was our second.”

And sure enough: Before long there would be a third.

In November 1983, John’s employer for all those years—John Deere—offered him a job in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (“a frigid, snowy, no-man’s-land,” John called it). The DeMeesters prayed and said yes.

The closest church they liked, Randolph EFC, lay 15 miles east. But driving 15 miles to church on rural roads at 20-below-zero “wasn’t our favorite idea,” John admits, so he eventually asked an EFCA friend, “When are we going to plant Beaver Dam EFC? I want to reach my friends and co-workers.”

A Bible study in their home grew into Harvest EFC in 1992 in the town of Beaver Dam, with an attendance today of about 300.

Church planting was an all-hands-on-deck affair, all the way down to erecting the building itself. Even the three DeMeester children pitched in, hammering shingles. “We never found it took away from family,” John says about those years of overtime invested in both work and church. “You know what it gave us? It gave us kids who want to disciple others too.”

New disciples might lead to a new church?

John’s EFCA friend, who had encouraged him to plant in Wisconsin, was none other than veteran EFCA church-planting coach Bruce Redmond—who eventually recruited the DeMeesters to join his team as coaches in the Southeast District.

Although the DeMeesters aren’t seminary-trained, John is working on his ministry license via GATEWAY1. But it’s the couple’s hands-on, organic church-planting experience that gives them “street cred.”

Even as they officially train future church planters, the DeMeesters, in their sixth decade, haven’t stopped their lifestyle of making disciples. For all they know, it’ll lead to church plant No. 4. “Since we’ve moved to Nashville,” Kitty says, “God has brought a lot of singles into our lives—in their mid-20s to early 30s. Our home is open all the time for them.”

How to indoctrinate your people at a young age

The DeMeesters are only one part of the creative church-planting team in the EFCA’s Southeast District. Bruce Redmond recruited another lay couple, in their late-40s, to also be self-supported missionaries to the district. Perhaps what Greg and Nancy Cole share most with the DeMeesters is a rich spiritual history: spending many formative years in environments that naturally lived and breathed discipleship.

“I remember my pastor buying me my first Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance when I was 19,” Greg says. “The fellowship I was part of focused on on-the-job training. We were given the opportunity to build a small group from scratch, teach/preach there and disciple people in that group. As young adults we were being indoctrinated in church planting and didn’t even realize it.”

“I’ll never forget the night I began to believe that God wanted to use me. My heart has never been the same.” — Greg Cole

The kicker came one summer at a biannual conference in Southern California, when their fellowship announced new churches that fellow members were starting. Greg remembers hearing: “And going to Portland, Oregon, out of the Buena Park church, Darren and Lisa Billlings.”

He looked at Nancy and said, ‘Hey, we know them. If they can do this, we can too.’

“I’ll never forget that night,” he continues. “I began dreaming of being able to reach people who did not know Jesus. I began to believe that God not only could use me but wanted to use me. My heart has never been the same.”

“I get to be the guy I always prayed for”

The Coles would indeed go on to plant a church and lead it for 11 years, starting as a neighborhood Bible study in their Whittier, California, home. Greg was working 50-60 hours a week at the time as a safety consultant. “We passed out a gazillion filers and began the study in our home with 12 strangers,” he remembers.

Soon they needed to rent meeting space. Praise Chapel Christian Fellowship of La Habra continued to grow, with Greg serving as pastor and still working full time. Evangelism and discipleship anchored the church’s mission. “Some of those we discipled felt called by God to pastor,” Greg says. “So we trained them, equipped them and then challenged them to step out and start a church in another city.”

With that continued pattern, Praise Chapel Christian Fellowship planted two other churches, one of which also went on to plant.

Greg eventually started his own safety consulting business, and he began training his fellow church planters in the business, so they could support their families with a career that didn’t drain their time.

Greg pastored the church until 2010, when he and Nancy moved to Orlando, Florida, to join the Southeast District. In the past, he used to beg God for someone to come into his life, “to help me figure out the challenges I was facing as a church planter. Now, as the church-planting catalyst for Florida, I get to be the guy I always prayed for.”

Without a doubt, Greg, Nancy, John and Kitty are just four ordinary believers who grew up assuming that disciplemaking was the living, breathing “normal.” From that conviction, as they gathered new believers around them, it seemed only natural to start planting churches.

1EFCA GATEWAY offers theological and pastoral training for those lacking the time and resources to access traditional seminary education.