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.

  • 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  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!

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


Remember His Rescue

"...the day I might have lost my wife, had the Lord not intervened."

This is a natural time of year for reflection. And so we spent some of this last Sunday evening's discipleship gathering in reflection (individually and together) about specifically where God has shown up in our journeys over the last year. “So often in the Scriptures,” Jordan reminded us, “the Lord commands His people to remember the work He has done,"--especially the ways He has moved into rescuing action on their behalf.  I began to make a list of some of the big ways and the little ways that He has been there for me and for our community. My heart grew so warm in gratitude as I composed a list of such incredible ways Father has demonstrated His faithfulness to us in midst of drawing us into new territory, places we’ve had to lean on Him to come through because we did NOT have the capacity nor ability to come through for ourselves. My faith has indeed grown greatly this last year because of this greater dependence on Him.

“So often in the Scriptures, the Lord commands His people to remember the work He has done"

As I continued this list, I made another bullet with my pen and began to write “You’ve kept us safe…” Immediately, my mind flashed back to a vivid image from one year ago. As if I’d almost suppressed it, the memory cracked like lightning in my imagination and sent waves through every part of my emotional consciousness in this moment. I remembered that the next day (today as I write this) would be the one-year anniversary of our second miscarriage, and the day I might have lost my wife, had the Lord not intervened.

She had been hemorrhaging unexplainably for some time before I could get her to the ER. I remember standing several feet away from the hospital bed as her face turned pale and head tipped back, a few quarts low of blood and still losing. The nurse and doctor responding as the blood pressure meter on the vitals monitor dropped dangerously low. I was frozen when I realized that this situation could go one of two directions, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. They were able to get an IV in for saline to stabilize the blood pressure and eventually a blood transfusion, but she continued to bleed. After several tests, it was looking like an immediate surgery might be the best chance to stop it. So we prayed.

"...we decided together to lay hands on and command Brooke’s body to stop bleeding in Jesus' name."

I had messaged several close friends and family as I could update them throughout the afternoon. The doctors left the room and we decided together to lay hands on and command Brooke’s body to stop bleeding in Jesus' name. About that time,  we received a message from Jenn that our Boiler Room church family was gathered in the prayer garage for the evening gathering and interceding for the bleeding to stop as well. Within a half hour, the doctors came back in to check on the bleeding and decide whether to begin prepping for surgery. When checked, the bleeding had stopped, and whereas the nurse had previously declared that we’d for sure be staying the night, Brooke was released that evening because she was recovering so well—only with instructions to take it easy as she had lost “a no-joke amount of blood.”

It was found out that this had all been brought about by a miscarriage of a pregnancy we didn’t know we had. We have grieved this, and though it comes up afresh at times like these, I find myself over-filled thankful for the day my wife was rescued. I am remembering, today, the goodness of my Father and His care for me and my family. I’m grateful that His healing power can go out from even a touch of His cloak. And tonight I will hug my wife and kids a little tighter and a little longer.

:: tim ::

tent of meeting [on commons lawn]

I turn onto the wide walkway's of the Commons Lawn at Calvin College and make my way toward it's center in the same minivan I used to drop off a full load of prayer room supplies just a week before. The 24-7 Tent in the center of Calvin's campus has been in commission this entire week with every prayer slot in the online sign-up filled by the second or third day running. As I approach the tent at about 10pm to pick up the prayer supplies, technically hours after it is supposed to have been over and done with, I see that it still looks very lively from a distance--and when I arrive I realize that there are still students using it. Not only are there still students using it, there are multiple groups of students praying both inside and out!

Ana and the team she's been coordinating meet me there and realize they are going to have to kick the students out of the tent while we tear down, but end up just redirecting them outside with some blankets to sit on as they continue to pray in huddles. We begin packing up the supplies and I overhear snippets of pray ministry going on around us:

--One group is huddled around a young woman and declaring the Truth over her that she is a daughter of the Father, first and foremost, and that the enemy can't bring a charge against her identity.

--Another girl pops in earnestly seeking a copy of the "Who I am in Christ" sheets to use to minister to a young man sporting a backpack and chucks who had just shown up asking for prayer.

--As we are loading up the van with bean bag chairs, christmas lights, and totes full of art supplies, one member of the team shares with me several stories of Jesus encounters during the week, including a young man who showed up one morning in the middle of the week saying that he had planned to commit suicide that day, but for some reason ended up there at the prayer tent and did not know why. He was able to receive prayer from those present, be encouraged to hope in The Lord, and seek help in his struggles.

As yet another student helping tear down shares with me his heart and desire to see food more evenly distributed and not gone to waste right here in this city and is beginning a practical food-waste reduction program in conjunction with his campus dining hall, I am amazed at the ways Jesus is meeting these students right where they are in prayer--His Spirit addressing hearts, comforting, restoring hope, spurring them to be agents of change for His Kingdom. He is drawing them to worship Him with their whole lives, and find their true identity and purpose IN Him. 

Thank You, Jesus for these students, for this tent of meeting--and for meeting your children here this week. 

:: tim ::