February 9-10, 2019
Pastor Joe Wittwer
#1—A look back at the last 40 years
Today, we’re celebrating what God has done at Life Center in the last 40 years! So our time together is going to be a little different: rather than spending the first half hour singing and praying, and the last 45 minutes in a Bible teaching, we’re going to tell the Life Center story and mix in some worship from each era.
We’re going to condense 40 years into an hour—so we’re going to leave out far more than we include, including events and people. There are hundreds of people who have had a significant impact on the life of our church in the last 40 years. If I were to name them all, it’s all we would do. So please forgive me if you don’t hear your name or see your picture.
As you can see on your handout, we’re going to tell the story in three parts—three eras defined where we were meeting at the time. But before we get to the first era, I have to acknowledge that our church existed long before 1978. Spokane Foursquare Church was chartered on January 15, 1931 (pic of charter). When Laina and I arrived in 1978, the church had already been here for 47 years, and had been through seasons of growth and decline. So we didn’t come to nothing—we came to an existing church of about 40 people with a small building and six parking spots! Some people whose names we don’t even know had a vision to start a church in 1931—and we’re standing on their shoulders, and we honor them. Let’s not forget that 100 years from now, people will be standing on our shoulders and thanking God for the churches we started.
Laina and I rolled our U-Haul into Spokane on Friday, May 5, 1978, and led our first service at Spokane Foursquare Church on Sunday, May 7—the second running of Bloomsday. Our little building on Mallon was on the Bloomsday course, and after church, we drove straight across Broadway, with no idea that the race was going on. People flipped us off—we thought Spokane wasn’t very friendly! We quickly renamed the church Life Center…and we were off and running.
Video Lead: the Mallon Years.
- The Mallon Years: 1978-1990
There were about 40 people on that first Sunday, and we were not what they were praying for! Over the next several months, most of those folks voted with their feet and went to other churches. But not all of them—Grandma Doris stayed. In fact, she had prayed for someone like me to come. Doris loved my pastor, Roy Hicks Jr, and she had prayed that God would send her one of “Roy’s boys.” He did—and she loved me and became my biggest fan (everyone needs at least one fan).
And Milt stayed. Milt was in his 80’s, deaf as a post, and lived near us in Brown’s Addition. So Laina and I picked him for church each Sunday and brought him home. Milt brought his violin and played along during worship. I led with my guitar, and Milt sawed his violin—and there was no relation between the two. But we loved Milt, and he played his violin every Sunday until he died.
I whittled the church down to almost nothing. Our smallest service was Labor Day weekend 1978. A high school boy named Mike brought two buddies to see this cool new church he’d found. And that day, it was Mike and his two buddies and Laina and me. I never saw his friends again—I’m sure they told him, “Dude, it’s a weird church if you’re it—the only one there!” From 40 down to 5—I had a gift! I misread Revelation 3 where Jesus said, “Strengthen what remains.” I thought He said, “Strangle what remains.”
In 1982, I hired my best friend, Rick Noll to join me on staff. It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Rick and Janine left a family business in Eugene to work with me for ⅓ of what he was making back home. It was a huge leap of faith for them. Rick and I share common values and beliefs, but are polar opposites in temperament and style. In fact, we’ve taken many temperament assessments over the years, and we always score as exact opposites. So now, only one of us takes the assessment and we know what the other will be! Rick has been my right hand man for 37 years, and is preparing to retire on June 1—we’ll have another big party then! In the last 37 years, Rick’s job has morphed as the church grew. He started doing some preaching, administration, and counseling. He eventually became our executive pastor who runs our staff—kind of a COO, chief of operations. Rick is a legend in our area—many of my pastor friends tell me that they are praying for a Rick! It was a brilliant hire—I wish I could tell you I knew what I was doing—I just hired my friend. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Paul and Amy Miller, Mike and Cathy Rojan, Dave and Annee Compogno, Bill and Penny Kafflen all showed up in these early days and years later became staff members. These were foundational people—our church was built on their hard work—and many others too numerous to name. We sent our first missionaries in 1984, Chris and Jeannette Sheeran to Guatemala.
The Mallon years were a wild and fun ride. I say wild because I was 26 when we came and I was still trying to find my voice. On my second Sunday, I preached a vision message. The church exists for three reasons:
- Exaltation: to worship and honor God.
- Edification: to build up the believers.
- Evangelism: to win the lost.
We still hold to a version of that today. We say that Life Center’s four purposes are love, win, grow, send.
- Love: love God with all we’ve got
- Win: win our friends to Jesus
- Grow: grow to become all God wants us to be
- Send: send believers to serve and plant new churches
But after giving that talk on week 2 of Life Center, I floundered. The church didn’t take off like I expected it would. And I started looking for the keys, the secrets to growing the church. Since I wasn’t successful, I tried being like those who were.
- I tried being my pastor, Roy Hicks Jr, but ended up imitating the worst parts of him. One time I told him that I had done something because I saw him do it. He said, “That’s stupid. I was wrong when I did that so I don’t even do that anymore.”
- I tried being Jack Hayford. I listened to his sermons. He was the master of digression. He could go off on a long digression and then bring it back and land the plane. I’d go off and never come back. People said, “There he goes again…”
- I tried being John Wimber. I went to a Wimber conference and came home and tried to imitate him. We did this kind of spiritual free for all. Do whatever you want. We had a snowstorm—every flake in town showed up. It was a disaster.
Somewhere in the mid-80’s, I found my voice. I came back to the Great Commandment (loving God and loving people) and the Great Commission (helping people find and follow Jesus).
And it was around 1987-8 that we had a huge breakthrough in our thinking. For the first time, our staff (4-5 of us) evaluated what we were doing. One of our purposes is evangelism. We had tried lots of different things: door-to-door, street, concerts, crusades. I had even written a 12 week course on evangelism with a thick notebook and taught it to the church. At the end, I realized I hadn’t equipped them; I had paralyzed them! A 12 week course implies that this is difficult—and best left to the experts. We evaluated everything we had tried on a simple metric: was there anyone in our church who had come to Jesus because of this effort and was now growing in their faith? Time and again, the answer was no. But there were lots of people who had come to Jesus for one simple reason: a friend or family member had loved them, shared with them, and invited them to church. This was our Aha Moment! We were putting all our time, energy and money into things that didn’t work, and none into the one thing that did work. We decided to change that—stop doing all the things that didn’t work and focus our efforts on what did.
About that time, we found Find-Tell-Bring in the Bible. The first thing Andrew did was find his brother Simon, tell him about Jesus, and bring him to Jesus and the group.
Find someone you love.
Tell them what you know.
Bring them with you.
That’s what worked then…and was working now. It was simple and doable—and lots of folks started coming to Jesus.
I mentioned that I led all the worship from my guitar at first. One of the first songs we sang was “Praise the Name of Jesus,” written by my pastor, Roy Hicks Jr.
Song: Praise the Name of Jesus, led by Joe on guitar.
Fortunately, the Lord quickly sent better musicians to lead us—and one of those was our first hired worship leader, Bill Klein. Bill is going to lead us in a song we sang then, and still sing, “I Love You Lord,” which was written by his wife, Laurie.
Song: I Love You Lord, led by Bill Klein on keys.
Despite my guitar playing and singing, and all my wanderings and trial and error (lots of error), we grew slowly and steadily for the first six years to 300 people. And then we plateaued. We stayed there for the next six years. We knew that our little building had become a constraint, our limiter, and we began to look and pray for bigger place to meet.
And God showed up for us! The county offered to buy our little building for much more than we could have gotten on the public market. And at the same time, Calvary Chapel moved north and sold us their building on Nora. We moved out of Mallon in June, and weren’t able to move into Nora until October, so we met at the old YMCA (now demolished) for 4 months.
Video lead: the Nora Years.
- The Nora Years: 1990-2005
We moved into the Nora building in October 1990 and our church took off! We grew from 350 to 1000 people in six months, and added a second Sunday morning service very quickly. Within a couple years, we added a third service—this one on Saturday night. That one grew more slowly, but it eventually filled up as well. It was a very fun season, and we were all running as fast as we could to keep up. Most of the growth was fueled by new believers—we were doing find, tell, bring, and baptizing lots of new people. We did baptisms every month at our midweek service, and it was common to baptize 20-30 people at a time—every month
On Easter and Christmas, we did 6 or 7 services. Then in 1995, the new Veterans Memorial Arena opened in the fall, and we decided to take a leap and do our 1996 Easter service there. I think we were the first free event at the Arena—and all the local TV networks and the paper showed up. We were the banner headline on the front page of the paper Monday morning. That wasn’t what we were aiming for—but it was pretty cool that Jesus got lots of press! One reporter asked me why we were doing this, and when I told her, she said, “I need an angle, something to make this interesting.” I said, “How about this for an angle: a man who claimed to be God was dead for three days and then rose from the dead!” We did Easter in the Arena every year from 96 to 2006, except for one year in the Opera House.
By 1995, all three services were full and we were thinking of starting a fourth service. But my sister Ann Roth, and her husband Jared, kept encouraging us to think about church planting. I read a business book called The E Myth about franchising, and got this crazy idea. Usually we planted a church by sending out a young couple, and hoping they made it. Many didn’t. We were doing something in Spokane that was working—what if we “franchised” it? Most churches—more than 80%—never get to 200 people. What if we just started them already beyond the 200 barrier! We dreamed of doing something that no one we knew was doing. So we recruited a talented young pastor, hired him and put him on our staff with one job: plant a big church out of our church. For 13 months, he preached regularly and had an “unlimited fishing license”—he could ask anyone to go with him. And he did: he asked our staff, our church council, our key volunteers and our biggest donors. That church, as you heard, was Summit on the south hill. They had 635 people in two services on their first Sunday. Two years later we planted North Church—they opened with 565 people in two services on their first Sunday. Then a couple years later we had twins: LifeRoads in NE Spokane opened with 375 people at two services, and Eastpoint opened in the Valley with 800 people at two services. While we were planting churches and giving away hundreds of people, we grew from 1600 to 3000 each weekend. We thought we could manage our growth by sending out a couple hundred people each year or two and then slowly fill back up. It turns out we couldn’t give people away fast enough!
All four of those churches are thriving—combined average weekend attendance for them is around 5000 people now each weekend! And in the years since, they have spun off 7 other new churches, and Life Center has planted 4 other new churches, and sponsored 2 other new churches, bringing the total of daughter and granddaughter churches to 17 new churches.
This was one of my favorite seasons of our church! Lots of people coming to Jesus, lots of baptisms, rapid growth, new staff, church plants, taking big hairy crazy risks. We ended up doing five services on the weekend: 2 Saturday night, 2 Sunday morning, and 1 Sunday night—and a midweek service on Wednesday that was rocking! I started getting a little crispy around the edges.
Because of all this growth, my father-in-law, Pastor Noel moved to Spokane in 1992 and joined our staff to help us. What a God-send! Noel was my pastor and mentor and friend from 1970 until he died in 2015—45 years—and no one made a deeper impression on me and on our church than Noel.
I mentioned crazy risks. We decided to do an amnesty baptism one weekend. I gave a talk on baptism and then told everyone it was amnesty weekend—all excuses were forgiven, come and be baptized. About 265 people were baptized that weekend—spontaneously! One of them was a friend that I’d found, told and brought, who asked me to baptize him. Unforgettable. Since then, we do an amnesty weekend every few years.
Another huge moment: Did you notice that I wore suits and sport coats and ties to preach in? I did that when I was younger to give me more credibility. But one day on Nora, I realized that I was the only guy in the room in a suit—and I ditched them for Hawaiian shirts and shorts and jeans! Hallelujah! Huge moment!
It was early in the Nora years that we made another momentous decision: we hired Paul and Amy Miller. (Pic story!) Paul and Amy built our worship and creative arts teams from the ground up—huge impact on all of us. They led a lot of the worship on Nora—welcome them.
Songs: I belong to Jesus. I could sing of your love forever.
Paul wrote “I belong to Jesus.” (Pic of Paul and Cami) After 15 years of growth on Nora, we bought the property here on Government Way, preparing the way for the next era.
Video lead: the Government Way years.
- The Government Way Years: 2005-Present
Because of our over-crowding on Nora, we’d been looking for centrally located property to build on. One day, I saw in the paper that Murphey Brothers was going to turn the gravel pit on Government Way into a development. I called Bart Miller, our admin guy, and he called the Murpheys. They were intrigued by the idea of having a church in the development and wanted to know if we needed one acre or two. We told them we wanted 30 acres! “How big is your church?” We bought this 30 acres for $1.7 million, and then designed and built this building for another $10 million. I’m happy to tell you that our mortgage is down to $3.1 million and will be paid off in approximately 5 years! Another party!!
We moved into this building on Sept. 11, 2005, and grew by 1000 people that weekend. They weren’t all first-timers—it was lots of back pressure. I talked with a single mom that weekend. She told me that at Nora, she had to park blocks away, drop her kids off at several different buildings, and then would stand in the lobby because there were no seats left. She had quit coming, but said, “Now I have a place to park, a seat and my kids are all in the same building. Thank you for building this.” There were lots of people like her who were just waiting for us to get this done.
After we moved in, we were able to go from 5 services on the weekend to 3. We dropped our midweek service and threw our energy into Life Groups.—now Mission Groups. We continued to plant churches—and we’re going to plant more! We moved Easter services from the Arena back on campus—and they grew from 6,000 to 10,000 people—as did our Christmas Eve services.
One of the things that you saw highlighted in the video was The Hole in Our Gospel. In 2009, I went to Kenya for the first time to drill a well with our partner, Spring of Hope. While we were there in the midst of intense poverty, I read Rich Stearns book, The Hole in our Gospel. I came home determined that we could do more not only for the poor in our own community, but we could make a difference in the world. I asked our church financial council if we could buy 5000 copies of the book, and give one to every family in our church—and they said yes—another big risk. We all read the book, I did four sermons on it and then we asked Rich Stearns, then president of World Vision, to wrap up the series. Since we had bought 5000 books, he was curious and agreed to come if we’d sponsor kids. No problem—we’d done that for years. We asked them to send us 200 kid sponsorship packets. After the first week, we called back and asked for 500. You could feel the buzz building, and after the third week, we called back and asked for 1000. After the fourth week, we asked for 1500 packets. They thought we were crazy. Before Rich spoke, he told me that he gets after the church to motivate them. I told him that I didn’t think he’d need to do that. “They’re like stallions straining at the starting gate,” I told him. It was true. We taped up 500 child sponsor packets on the walls of the auditorium, and after Rich’s talk, we said, “Go get them!” And there was a stampede! The walls were swept clean in 2 minutes every time. People went to the World Vision booth in the commons and demanded a kid, upset that they didn’t get one off the wall. One dear lady who missed out at the 9 o’clock service hung around while they hung up the next 500 for the 11 o’clock service. She was told she had to wait and get one at the end of the service. She didn’t make it to wall that time either, so she came back Sunday evening—and someone finally just gave her one! To put this in perspective—1500 kids sponsored at $35 a month is $52,500…a month! I’ve always said that you’re the most generous church I know!
Offering: In fact, this would be a great time for the offering!
Since 2009 and the Hole in our Gospel, we have partnered with dozens of organizations serving the poor in our community and around the world, and hundreds of you have volunteered mega-hours to make a difference in our world. Kudos to you! And that’s only going to continue to grow.
Another thing that changed when we moved in here was our Kids Ministry, known then as Adventureland, and now as LC Kids. For the first time ever, we had large, bright, beautiful classrooms and a grassy playground. Each weekend for the last 13 years, we have served between 500-900 children from birth through sixth grade. Shaun Stone, Mike Riddle and now Katie Carlson and their staff teams along with hundreds of you who volunteer and love kids have made this possible. One of my favorite things is when parents tell me, “We come each week because our kids want to come and pester us to bring them!”
We’ve always have vibrant student ministries, but since we moved in here, our student ministries have soared under the leadership of David Lewellyn and his team. Collide Camps and Collide Conference are the gold standards in our denomination and our region; and hundreds of students participate in our excellent weekly ministries for middle school, high school and college age. And three years ago, we decided to up our game in our internships, and we created Northwest Leadership College, led by Josh Schiel. NWLC provides a fully accredited degree program through Southeastern University, while you do an internship at Life Center.
Finally, a few years ago, we decided we needed to simplify and clarify our discipleship process, particularly the first few steps for people who are new to faith or new to our church. We launched Rooted and over 1700 of you have completed that, and it’s been a game changer for many of you.
I saved the best for last. Our mission is to help people find and follow Jesus. In the last 40 years at Life Center, 11,410 people have said yes to following Jesus, and 5,749 people have been baptized.
11,410 people said yes to Jesus.
5, 749 people baptized.
That doesn’t count anyone from our 17 daughter and granddaughter churches—that’s just here.
Let’s celebrate that while we sing this song written by our own Eric Bradley. Then there is one last video and a final word from me.
Song: You reign
Video lead: what’s next
Next weekend: A look ahead at the next 40 years!