Why This Event-based Ministry Skeptic is Getting Behind CityFest West Michigan

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When I first heard about City-fest West Michigan about a year and a half ago, I have to admit that I was skeptical. I thought “Here’s another big-budget event with good intentions to megaphone the Gospel message out into the city---but really, how much of a difference is this gonna make in the long run?”  As I've looked more into this and felt it out personally, I've come to believe this is a movement catalyst we've been praying for for almost a decade. 

"But really, how much of a difference is this gonna make in the long run?” 


Relationship and Surrender

I’ve always been a relationally-oriented, grass-roots kind of guy. For almost eight years, I’ve been living in a neighborhood on the West Side with other believers in close proximity, sharing our intentions of loving neighbors, learning, praying, dreaming, trying new ideas, failing, learning more---and all the while the main thread has been growing and deepening relationship as we surrender ourselves in abandon to our Father’s great love as best we know how. It’s challenged every part of me along the way, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

One thing I’ve learned is that nothing can really substitute for that orientation of relationship and mutual surrender to God’s purposes around us. You can have big events, bigger budgets, well-designed social media images, sexy flyers, fun games, talented staff, and free food, but if people can’t connect to some kind of humanity in the midst of it all---or rather, some kind of divine expression of love through a human touchpoint---whatever it is, it won’t last long. A “flash in the pan,” as they say. (I’m not even sure where that saying comes from, but maybe I’ll google it later.)

This is what I thought of Cityfest. I didn’t know much about it. I learned a bit about Luis Palau and his sons Andrew and Kevin, and at the time and I appreciated what I learned about them, but I still didn’t want to give much attention to this thing that would be happening in our city in the not-too-distant future. As you may tell from the title of this article, things turned around for me. Allow me to share why.


Church of the City

I believe in the church of the city, that there is a call for the believers in a place (be it a city, village, town, or nation) are called to be an extended family and seek to value and love one another as such across the boundaries that can exist around church memberships and Sunday attendance. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about church-planting, the proclamation of the Gospel, and having strong relationship and submission to upward pastoral graces in our lives, but I also believe it to be a healthy thing in our culture if some of those boundaries between churches get a bit blurry because of affection, friendship, and the curious excitement of praying and dreaming for this city we share. This is a primary framework for the church to see our individual church families as part of the larger whole.

I’ve been so excited to see that in the past eight years that I’ve been leading in a church family in Grand Rapids, I’ve seen this same mentality growing among other leaders as well. I’ve personally been a part of multiple groups of church/ministry leaders who pray together for reconciliation, unity, and transformation in the city AND have a high value for friendship and vulnerability between one another. You might know as well as I that in America, this is NOT NORMAL in most places. It should be, and I’m glad it’s becoming normal here. God has initiated this and the groundswell is beginning to be felt in wider ways.

"This is NOT normal. It should be, and I'm glad it's becoming normal here."


Enter CityFest

I was having dinner with a good friend at a real good Thai restaurant in Birmingham, England last year as we were both attending a prayer conference. She is from Portland, OR and has been integral to powerful prayer and mission movements there for decades. It dawned on me while we were eating that CityFest originally STARTED in Portland, so I thought to ask her of her experience with it. I was surprised to learn (but maybe shouldn’t have been surprised), that she had worked closely with the Palau’s and CityFest for their prayer initiatives. She spoke plainly, but the testimony that she shared with me that night was powerful---how the process of CityFest began as a conversation among church leaders with a desire to humbly learn from city leaders how to serve the city in ways that would actually be helpful, and then mobilize the church to unify around that while communicating the Gospel. It also afforded the church leaders in Portland to prioritize a spiritual retreat that ended up being a breakthrough moment for relationship, letting guards down, and lots of repentance. The initiatives and relationships have continued to grow, develop and evolve since. All of this was a surprise to me, and I began to see CityFest differently.

I decided to go to some of the State of CityFest meetings, and I realized that many of the people who had been appointed to chair different aspects of it like the prayer and justice initiatives were the local trustworthy leaders who have been doing faithful work in those areas on the ground for years, and this was giving them an opportunity to invite the wider church body to share in those initiatives. At the first State of CityFest meeting I went to, one of the presenters asked, “if we do all of this but don’t actually grow in real friendship with one another, what is any of this going to become?” I ALMOST yelled out an obnoxious “AMEN!” but being it was my first meeting, I was a little too sheepish at the time.

From what I see, at its best, CityFest has the potential to be one giant excuse for the church in West Michigan to grow in our long term deepening of friendship across existing boundaries, and learning how to pray, serve, and communicate the Gospel TOGETHER---including making some significant impact in critical local justice issues like affordable housing, education, and racial reconciliation through the ONE WEST MICHIGAN campaign. Wow! That would be amazing! At its worst, it could be a flash in the pan (still haven’t googled that yet!), some hearing and responding to the Gospel message, but potentially reinforcing negative habits the church in our city/region has been carrying for a long time already. I believe the difference here will be in how we as actual individuals and leaders in the church engage it and one another during this time and the season to come. Will we see this an opportunity to love one another, to love others, differently than we have before? Will we really listen to the people we are trying to serve, and actually serve in the ways they express will be most helpful, rather than the ways that simply make us feel good about ourselves? There's a lot of humility required in asking these questions and following a true path of growth.

"I believe the difference here will be in how we as actual individuals and leaders in the church engage it"


Valuing Participation in the Midst of Disagreement

A couple issues worth noting here are criticisms I've heard toward CityFest around the lack of female leadership represented in the primary board as well as the lack of leaders of small churches represented in that board. From my limited conversations with CityFest staff about this I've seen that there is awareness about this, that there were initial efforts to have female represented in that group that didn't work out, and I've seen ongoing efforts to have diversity in leadership representation. No mistake: this movement is not perfect. Being this is a church unity movement, there are bound to be issues of disagreement whenever different churches come together around something. I believe that strength will come in togetherness and participation even though there might be differences of belief within, and if those who have a disagreement about how things have been done so far do not show up to the table to be a part of the conversation, there will be no opportunity to grow together. I've always appreciated the motto of the Moravians: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, Love. If you, like I did, have any reservation about participating in CityFest because of a disagreement you hold personally, I encourage you to stick your nose in, in some way, and ask if God is leading you to still play some role---because the truth is even if we, who are present at the table, disagree, WE STILL NEED EACH OTHER. 

"even if we disagree, we still need each other."

I lead a neighborhood church community that was birthed out of a larger prayer movement (24-7 Prayer) whose goal is to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission through the values and practices of prayer, mission and justice. These are pretty basic ideas of the Gospel that I see shared in what CityFest it about. I am also the designated City Coordinator for GR within 24-7 Prayer USA---and I see that part of my work in this this role will be raising awareness for what God is doing through CityFest West MI this year in hopes that these new Kingdom relationships and initiatives can endure into the future. SO as the spring marches into summer, you’ll probably hear a lot more from me about CityFest as I personally seek to take advantage of this opportunity we all share to grow together in the ways I’ve talked about here.

Lord, give us the humility and grace we need as your church in West Michigan. Help us to see one another as You see us---so that we will see others through Your love.


Get Involved

If you’re interested in getting involved, here are some great ways:

  • 1) Go to the website to get more info, and talk to others in your church about signing up as a partner along with over 300 other churches in the area. cityfestwestmichigan.org

  • 2) Prayer - Find out more about an opportunity for your church to join in a city-wide 24-7-365 prayer movement in which churches will be adopting one day each month (or portion of a day) to cover the city in prayer. Email Marcus Little for more info marcus@bereangr.org  You can also join the Prayer Team at the website to commit to praying daily. There are bi-weekly prayer and equipping meetings going on at different churches around West MI.

  • 3) Justice - Get involved in the justice campaign called One West Michigan, which is seeking to mobilize and equip the churches to unite and make a significant impact in our area in the specific issues of affordable housing, education, and racial reconciliation. The meetings are round table discussions with others who want to make a positive impact and figure it out together. Official launch of the campaign is April 12! Onewestmichigan.org

  • 4) Mission - Attend the friendship evangelism training by author Mark Mittlelberg on April 17 or 18. www.cityfestwestmichigan.org/friendship-evangelism


Mobilizing Prayer: Friendship and the City

 The RIDE GR prayer ride crew of 2017, made up of leaders and members of five different churches, including 5th Reformed Church, Good News Gatherings, Pentecostals of Kentwood, Gold Avenue Church, and the SBR. 

The RIDE GR prayer ride crew of 2017, made up of leaders and members of five different churches, including 5th Reformed Church, Good News Gatherings, Pentecostals of Kentwood, Gold Avenue Church, and the SBR. 

Imagine for a moment:

You've signed up for an hour slot at a 24-7 prayer room that your church or community that has committed to doing together for several days. You've signed up on the website and received a confirmation email for your time with a few instructions for how to get in when you arrive. You approach the different stations in the room and find yourself drawn to confess burdens you've been carrying in your heart to the Lord, and realize how heavy they have weighed on you. As the weight is lifted, you surprisingly feel compelled to pray for others in your family, your friends, coworkers, neighbors in your neighborhood, and even those you know who are doing mission in other countries. Even recent tragedies in the news, that made your heart so sad and helpless, begin to feel like opportunities for God to meet the broken in the most powerful of ways. All of a sudden, it is much easier to care---and hope. Through some strange grace,  you have capacity to intercede and believe in the transforming power of the Gospel and the Presence of Jesus with you. You even begin to dream about how you and others in your church family can do something to serve and bless those who are in need around you. And this dreaming with friends continues in the coming days, weeks, and months...your church, and even the city, has become pregnant with possibility as the Lord continues to move. 

1. Prayer is a powerful gift. 

In our journey, we have found in the place of prayer is where our hearts and minds are re-oriented around the things on God's heart.

When we forget to make space and time to connect with the Father's Heart both individually and corporately, we so easily drift into a place of mere life management, complying with the desires of our flesh, or even pushing forward strategically without the wisdom or the heartbeat of the Spirit leading us.

Prayer is a gift to communities and individuals as it draws us outside of ourselves and into something much bigger, a place where the Presence of God is apparent---where He has our attention and can communicate His deep love to us without competing distractions. In prayer, the Father encounters us, reminds us of how we are loved by Him, and opens our hearts to love others around us with the love we have been given.

2. We Need Friendship. 

As the Stockbridge Boiler Room community, God has given us a dream to see our city transformed and reconciled to the Father through His church (see our post What is the Church?). But we absolutely know this is not a dream for only us to pursue. This is a move the Spirit is making, letting us in on it with a whisper, and inviting us to play a small part of the orchestra He conducts. So first, we must prioritize keeping our ears to the heartbeat of God---and intercession for the city and its neighborhoods, with a listening posture, is something we cannot skip over. In Scripture and in church history, prayer always precedes mission movements, as well as sustains them.  Second, we need the rest of God’s family, the church. We will need to invest time in fostering prayerful friendship and collaborating with other churches that are seeking the same goal. And on the front end, we need much more of the prayerful friendship piece than the collaboration.  We all need our eyes opened wider to the precious value and purpose of one another in God’s church family, just as we are---and from there, with deep heart and mind agreement, loving and serving together as Jesus to see His Kingdom come on earth.  

This is a word the Lord keeps Bringing to us this year: prayerful friendship.

We want to encourage prayer among the church of the city and sow into relationships to serve one another---and we have confidence that this is the starting place to see the lasting transformation we hope to see in our city.

3. A Gift to the Church of the City. 

God has given us renewed desire to pursue prayerful friendship with other churches and communities in the city. One practical way He's has challenged us in this is to give away the DNA we carry in prayer as a gift to the church.  We sense Him leading us to bless others by offering 24-7 prayer resourcing and coaching for churches/groups who are interested. We are also intentionally making ourselves available in these relationships with other churches to offer orientation training in healthy leadership discernment practice (based on the process outlined in Ruth Haley Barton's book Pursuing God's Will Together). For smaller groups, we've continued developing resources in Listening Prayer and Prayer Walking to make available as well, which are so foundational and transformative. We see the Church of Grand Rapids as GOD'S EXTENDED FAMILY in the city, and we want to foster deeper friendship within this family while offering this as a gift. The gift that we receive is the friendship of those we get to journey with. This extended family, this prayerful friendship bubbling into city transformation---this is the stuff of the Kingdom.

If the churches of our city are encountering the Lord in the place of prayer together, and living out life as communities on mission in the places God has put us, the city will be transformed by the Presence of Jesus in every corner of it, everyday.

:: tim ::