25 Lessons from EVBC / Redemption Gilbert

November 21, 2016  |  Luke Simmons

“I hope we like this place.”

That’s what I remember saying to my wife, Molly, in June 2002 as we sat in the parking lot of East Valley Bible Church — a church we had just moved across the country to join yet had never attended a service.

Little did I know how much we’d end up liking that place. After a few years of volunteering in the college ministry, I was hired as an intern to adults and then promoted to pastor of small groups and men’s ministry. I spent about 4½ years on staff there before being sent to plant Second Mile Church, which is now Redemption Gateway.

This weekend Redemption Gilbert celebrated its 25th anniversary as a congregation. I couldn’t attend the celebration because of the big things happening at Gateway this weekend.

But I did want to join in the celebration by sharing 25 things I’ve learned about life and ministry from East Valley Bible Church / Redemption Gilbert (for the rest of this, I’ll just call it “Gilbert”). I’m sure that I could come up with many more if given more time and conversation, but here’s what first came to mind:

1. I always want to be in a church that takes God seriously but not themselves. That’s the dominant cultural description I coined of Gilbert a number of years back. Leaders love the Lord, hold his word in high regard, and live for God’s glory — all while having fun, being themselves, and not overestimating their importance. I never, ever want to do ministry in an environment that doesn’t embody this.

2. Church planting goes much smoother when you have a generous sending church. From the beginning of my work as a church planter I felt like a turtle on a fence post — you look at it and think, “That didn’t get here by itself.” While so many church planters are alone and have little support, Gilbert gave us people, money, help, training, and relationship. When I asked if I could hire the worship leader at their largest service, they said yes. Like amazing parents, they gave and gave and gave because they wanted us to succeed.

3. Leadership development happens best through multiple voices. Most movements create ‘parrots’ of the founding leader, where each successive pastor mimics the founder in voice, gestures, etc. But if you look at the leaders who were developed at Gilbert, they don’t all sound like Tom Shrader. Ever wonder why? I think it’s because Gilbert had and has a culture where young leaders are shaped by multiple voices. I was shaped significantly by Tom, Jim Harper, Tim Maughan, Chris Mueller, Neil Pitchel, and Jerry Smith, as well as many other folks I was leading with. Rather than there being a single ‘guru’ who developed me, I was shaped by a lot of faithful people playing their part to develop others.

4. Doctrine matters for health in life and church. Gilbert has always had a reputation for being a church that emphasized doctrine. But it’s one of the least heady, stuffy places around. Instead, it’s filled with people who love, serve, sacrifice, and suffer — all with an eternal perspective. Sometimes now people will come to Redemption congregations and say something like, “This church is so refreshing and I like it so much, but I just don’t think I can embrace the doctrine.” It never occurs to them that the health they experience isn’t in spite of the doctrine, but because of it. Hhealthy doctrine should lead to healthy living–and at Gilbert I saw that it would.

5. The doctrines of grace transform your worship and your love. Speaking of doctrine, Gilbert was where I learned the doctrines of grace, which Tom would teach every other year. We all know (or have heard) of stodgy Reformed people who need to be reminded that these are the doctrines of grace. But at Gilbert, I saw that the doctrines of grace led to vibrant worship where God was big and glorious, and it led to people who, having experienced grace, were eager to extend it to others.

6. Obedient generosity plus wise stewardship leads to future opportunities. I remember being shocked in the early days at Gilbert that (a) they published the giving stats every week and (b) that giving always seemed to exceed budget. It was part of the culture that obedient Christians give. Then I learned that leadership had wisely saved and stewarded that money, building significant reserves. Those reserves became the bulk of Redemption’s reserves in 2011 and have since enabled the purchase of a building for Tempe, the purchase and renovation of a building for Arcadia, renovations for a building that was given to Alhambra, renovations for Scottsdale, and the opportunity to buy land and build on it for Gateway. The future kingdom opportunities that resulted from the combination of generosity and good stewardship are remarkable.

7. Sometimes God fulfills dreams we have in ways we could never imagine. One of the things that attracted me to move to Arizona and attend Gilbert was a vision for church planting. I soon found out that Tom Shrader had said something like, “We’re not looking to start a church, but to start a denomination.” Well, after a few years with no church plants that sounded ridiculous. But then, in 2011, the idea to merge multiple churches and form Redemption came about. Soon more congregations were planted and adopted and now–sure enough–people who ask us about what we’re doing say things like, “So it’s kind of like a denomination?” Yup. Kind of is. And a good reminder that God often takes an indirect route to fulfill the visions he gives.

8. Don’t be afraid to let staff dream out loud. Tom wasn’t the only one who dreamed. In fact, he created an environment where it was common to talk about dreams, hopes, and desires, even if those dreams may eventually lead you away from Gilbert. Nobody was walked out or told to gather their things because they didn’t dream about working at Gilbert forever. Rather, they were given opportunities to prepare and encouragement to pursue those future passions. That’s only possible with secure leadership who cares more about the kingdom of God than a personal kingdom.

9. The kingdom is stronger when you enjoy growing fruit on other people’s trees. I’m borrowing the “fruit on other people’s trees” phrase from Colorado Community Church, where I first attended as a new Christian. But I see the principle and pattern at play through Gilbert. Countless people and leaders have been given opportunities to learn, develop, and grow because it would help build Jesus’ kingdom–even at significant cost to Gilbert. I think this flows from theology built on grace and on the leadership security required to rejoice at the successes of others.

10. Leaders must get comfortable in their own skin and be themselves. Like I mentioned in #3, I never felt a pressure to “be like Tom” or any other leader at Gilbert. This was because a culture was formed where it was expected that you would be comfortable in your own skin and lead that way. Free and regular conversations about strengths, weaknesses, and how God had made you created an environment that benefited from leaders leading authentically and from the diversity that comes from people who aren’t trying to be like each other.

11. Excellence comes by paying attention to the details. I never sensed that leadership at Gilbert cared about being impressive, but I did sense they cared a lot about excellence. They would say that excellence honors God and inspires people. While excellence can be a moving target, you can’t hit it without paying attention to details. One example was an expectation that handwritten signs were not allowed, and every sign needed to be printed with a specific font. That may seem nitpicky to some, but I was inspired to pay attention to the small things that show the people we serve that we love them enough to sweat the small stuff.

12. Godly people serve, give, and participate in discipling others. A major factor that has made Gilbert great over the years has been the significant number of godly people who are part of the church. These people read the Bible, pray, serve, give, love neighbors, invite friends, pour into other Christians, and just keep doing it week after week and year after year. At Gilbert, I learned that this isn’t just what “Navy Seal” Christians do–rather, it is the normal Christian life.

13. Healthy churches prioritize Student Ministry. From the first weeks I arrived at Gilbert, I heard Tom talk about the desire to “be an influence beyond this campus and beyond this generation.” With that vision, it’s no surprise that Gilbert has continues to emphasize ministry to students. At times, it even felt like Student Ministry received preferential treatment over other ministries. And, upon reflection, I’m glad it did. Part of what has kept Gilbert able to keep reaching new people is the way that leadership is connected to and prioritizes young people. As I help lead Gateway, I’m doing what I can to support and encourage a strong Student Ministry.

14. Empowering young leaders is the best way to be an influence beyond our campus and beyond our generation. Leaders from other churches are often amazed at how many churches Gilbert has planted, how many leaders were developed there, and how effective a 25-year-old church still is at reaching younger people. I think the way it happened is that Gilbert empowered young leaders (and continues to do so). At one point, I was one of eight pastors on staff under the age of 28. That inevitably led to change and adaptation to reach the next generation. It also provided a training ground that has made it possible for many of those leaders to now be leading at much higher levels. The key takeaway here was that Gilbert’s leadership didn’t just talk about wanting to reach young people, but they hired and empowered young people to lead. They absorbed the criticisms of our young mistakes, didn’t quench our passions with patronizing comments, and they sacrificed money and influence for us to have a better seat at the table.

15. Pastoral ministry isn’t a 2-for-1 job. Among the greatest gifts Gilbert has given me and my family were healthy expectations for pastors’ wives. Soon after I was hired, Molly and I met with my supervisor, Jim Harper. She asked what she was expected to do now as a pastor’s wife. He said, “Support your husband and be a normal Christian.” Rather than seeing Molly as a free bonus employee, they encouraged her to use her gifts in whatever way was life-giving to her and our family. We’ve taken this culture to Gateway and it’s one of the most precious things we have.

16. Unity among senior leadership will make or break the church. While so much of my experience at Gilbert was overwhelmingly positive, I remember a very difficult season around 2006-2008. The church had grown so big so fast that it was putting a real strain on relationships among leadership. Elders weren’t as connected to one another, and there was mounting tension between staff and elders. During that season a few long-time elders and staff left the church, along with hundreds of people. I’m sure I don’t know the full extent of the issues that were happening above me (I have more of a sense now as a Lead Pastor), but I could tell that it was rough. Fortunately, senior leaders weathered the storm and things turned around to become an incredibly unified group of elders and staff. Upon reflection, I think the key issue was relationships among senior leadership. When they were fraying, the church felt it. When they were strong, the church felt it. These relationships are so important and yet so fragile. As Gateway grows, I become more and more aware of how vulnerable we are for relational fracture. But I don’t think it is inevitable, and I’m doing what I can to learn from those years at Gilbert.

17. A church can change to become more outward-focused and city-positive. I think Gilbert always had an evangelistic culture because Tom’s preaching had an evangelistic tone. But in the early days that I was there, we definitely had a reputation for being “that Calvinist church that doesn’t play well with others.” There was a sense among other churches that we were standoffish. This may have come from all the criticism that Gilbert endured for its Reformed doctrine in the early years, but it was something that many of the young leaders hoped would change. By God’s grace, it did. Senior leadership empowered Tyler Johnson (see #14), which set into motion a remarkable change. In the last ten years, Gilbert and then Redemption have formed a reputation in our city for being one of the most generous, outward-focused, grow-fruit-on-other’s-trees (#9) churches around. It has taken time and resources, but the contrast between how Gilbert was perceived then and now is stark. It’s a beautiful, God-honoring change. I guess God doesn’t just sanctify Christians but churches too.

18. In a healthy church, everyone is just a “finger in the Jell-O.” I think Tim Maughan coined this phrase to describe how all of us as leaders are temporary and replaceable. Imagine sticking your finger in a big bowl of Jell-O. If you took it out, the Jello-O would fill up the space and you’d hardly know anything had been there. In a world where all men are like grass (Psalm 103:15), we’re all replaceable. But what’s been so remarkable at Gilbert is how strong, impactful leaders have been replaced without skipping a beat. The most notable example is the transition from Tom to Tim as Lead Pastor. Those guys couldn’t be more different in terms of leadership and preaching style, but the transition has gone incredibly well. That’s a testimony to a healthy church that is focused on the gospel rather than a personality.

19. People ultimately remember (1) one-liners, (2) stories, and (3) what you emphasize over time. I realize now as a preaching pastor how much I say that is forgotten (sometimes I go back and look through old sermon notes and realize that even I had forgotten what I said!). But people remember one-liners (I’ll share my favorites below), stories (Tom was full of them and had some classics that many of us could repeat word for word), and what you emphasize over time (at Gilbert it was the sovereignty of God, the sufficiency of the Scriptures, obedience that comes from faith in Jesus, and being comfortable in your own skin). I don’t know that this was something leadership planned for or strategized, but I think it’s clearly what happened. And likely what happens at every church and every preacher.

20.“Our job is to make the invisible God visible and speak the truth boldly.” This one-liner came from Tom’s preaching on Matthew 5:13-16. It’s a terrific summary of how we need to both demonstrate the truth of the gospel with our good works (make the invisible God visible) and how we should proclaim the gospel with our words (speak the truth boldly). Tom would go on to say that if we did the first without the second we were cowards and if we did the second without the first we were hypocrites. Too often Christians get stuck on whether we should do good works or preach the gospel and this line helps us see that the answer is, Yes. Both.

21. “Whoever cares the least has all the power.” This one-liner comes from Jerry Smith who has lots of other good ones (like “Don’t pole vault over mouse turds,” which I think is an Iowa version of, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill”). I use this line so often in counseling and in leadership because it’s remarkably insightful. In any relationship, the person who is checking out and doesn’t care typically has all the power. The potential danger of this phrase is that it could be taken as an encouragement to care less about our relationships. But that’s not the point. Rather, it’s an incredibly helpful assessment tool when looking at the dynamics at play in a relationship. I use it all the time.

22. “It’s never wrong to do the right thing.” This one-liner comes from Tim Maughan and it’s about the courage to obey the Lord, even when it’s hard. There are times when we reach a crossroads where the right thing just doesn’t feel very good because it will be too painful or costly. I’ve often been encouraged to move forward in obedience as I’ve remembered this simple line.

23. “You overestimate what can be done in a day and underestimate what can be done in a decade.” Just before I arrived at Gilbert, this line was printed on the 10th-anniversary t-shirts. I doubt it’s original to Gilbert, but it has always stuck with me. I consistently overestimate what I can accomplish in a day. At the same time, now approaching 8 years at Gateway, I’m amazed at all that has been accomplished over a long period of time. Having this long-term view gives us confidence when we’re tempted to be discouraged and encourages us to keep faithfully plodding.

24. “Christ died for the church, you don’t have to.” I remember at one point early in my role as a pastor going into Tom’s office to chat (pretty cool that a 20-something nobody could just drop in on the senior pastor of a 3,000+ church) because I was discouraged about how overwhelming pastoral ministry seemed to be. Tom encouraged me that ministry is a black hole of need and there’s always more you could do to help people. But then he said words that I’ve heard him say hundreds of times: “Christ died for the church, you don’t have to.” These words have been so life-giving and freeing to me. Jesus loves his church. Jesus died for his church. Jesus is building his church. That pressure doesn’t rest on my shoulders because it rests on his. Ministry is still full of sacrifice (because that’s what love does), but I’m able to sacrifice and pour myself out knowing that ultimately the “success” of the church is not on my shoulders.

25. “What you know trumps what you feel.” This is Tom’s most famous phrase and for good reason. Some years back I asked him if he’d be interested in me helping him turn it into a book. In typical fashion, he quipped, “Well, it’s probably better as a cover than a book. I don’t think I’d have much else to say.” I’m still holding out hope that we could collaborate on a project like that. But he’s right. In just seven words, that phrase captures such important and practical theology. And it’s a great summary of what I’ve learned at Gilbert. God has spoken to his people through his word. He’s offered good news to all who will trust in Jesus. The life of following him is often difficult and confusing, but we will be people who lean on the truth of God’s word rather than our own understanding. May it always be.

I’m forever grateful to God for East Valley Bible Church and Redemption Gilbert. In closing, I’ll just post this video that commemorated the opening of Gilbert’s worship center. I think it so beautifully captures the spirit of the church that has so powerfully shaped me and so many others. It brings me to tears every time I watch it.