After months of prayer and preparation, 170 church leaders gathered on the shores of Lake Michigan in early November 2019 to learn more about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Snow fell as participants of the “Growing the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit” (GTC) conference filled the Great Lakes Room at Maranatha Bible and Conference Center with warmth and expectancy.
Rev. Dave Westra of Gold Avenue Church delivered the opening talk, titled “The Holy Spirit Grows the Church in a Divine-Human Dance of Cooperation.” Using scriptural references, Westra described the pattern in which God engages his people in establishing his kingdom on earth. This, Westra said, is a divine-human dance of cooperation made possible by the working of the Holy Spirit.
“And so” wrote participant Lindsay Sisson in reflection, “we began a journey: a journey that for some meant receiving deeper theological and biblical explanations of the Holy Spirit; for some it meant an awareness of weariness, emptiness, and striving that clarified the need for supernatural help; for some it meant healing from hurtful experiences; for some it meant learning to surrender, wait, and listen to the Spirit in prayer; and for some the journey meant receiving the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as a means of empowered and effective ministry.”
For the next three days, Westra, Rev. Gina Dick, Rev. Philip Noordmans, and Rev. Paul Stokes taught on the two foundations that are essential for congregations to cooperate with the Holy Spirit: Leaders must embody the kingdom of God, and congregations must be growing to embody the kingdom.
Conference content drew directly from the book Growing the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit by Brad Long, Paul Stokes, and Cindy Strickler of Presbyteran Reformed Ministries International (PRMI).
Dick and Westra have been applying this Spirit-led approach to their ministry at Gold Avenue Church for the past several years and have seen abundant fruit through it, noting a fresh vitality in their congregation’s prayer life, renewed hunger for the kingdom of God, and many testimonies to the Lord’s working to bring salvation, healing, and restoration in people’s lives. They said they have also been blessed to share their experiences within their classis (regional grouping of churches): Grand Rapids North.
In recent years a major need for church renewal was identified in Classis Grand Rapids North. As a first step to addressing this need, the classis hired a prayer coordinator to mobilize prayer efforts.
In Feb. 2018 a classis retreat applied the GTC approach to ministry, which resulted in prayerfully discerning a new vision adopted by the classis — “Classis GR North grows praying churches equipped to embody, proclaim, and advance the kingdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Promoting participation in the November GTC conference in Muskegon was a next step in their classis renewal process.
“I was deeply impressed by the ways God worked among us; we were free to pray, worship, and learn together in ways that encouraged us and stretched us — and, I suspect, in ways that have changed how we'll relate to God and each other going forward,” said Rev. Sean Baker about his experience during the event.
Each day, conference participants were invited to join in morning prayer led by Stephanie McClain, director of spiritual growth and communications at Gold Avenue Church. The group spent an hour waiting on the Lord’s guidance, sharing, and discerning how they sensed God guiding them to pray, and then praying.
“Each day there were songs, Scripture, images, and themes that had been prayed about in the morning and that emerged throughout the day,” McClain said, “I’d say the biggest impact I saw while leading this time was how the Lord showed the participants of morning prayer how he longs to partner with us in prayer — they were so encouraged to see how the Lord used morning prayer to shape the day!”
Following breakfast, morning devotions, and worship, teaching would begin.
Filled with theological frameworking as well as practical application, participants were taught seven biblical dynamics of cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
“The conference gave me a better understanding of the Spirit’s work throughout the Old and New Testament,” said Rev. Steve Hull, another participant. “I appreciated the teaching of four steps of discernment to determine if the Holy Spirit is truly at work.”
During afternoon sessions, facilitators familiar with the GTC approach to ministry led small group discussions that included debriefing, sharing, wrestling through material and experiences, and especially praying for one another.
Evening sessions provided an opportunity to put the GTC approach into practice. Conference leaders and teachers along with worship leaders Tami Flick and Brandi Bonner of the Kalamazoo House of Prayer spent time applying the GTC approach to planning evening sessions.
What resulted were three unique evenings filled with intense worship, powerful prayer, testimony, vulnerable confession and repentance, healing, restoration, and profound encounters with the Holy Spirit.
Following Wednesday evening’s time of worship and prayer, one woman reported feeling and mobility restored to the left side of her body that had been paralyzed for 41 years following a stroke. “I could feel the cold of the bathroom tile on my feet this morning for the first time in 41 years!” she reported.
During Thursday afternoon’s final session participants gathered around one another to pray. They prayed for the next generation of leaders. They prayed for pastors longing to bring renewal to their churches. They prayed for any feeling called to new things. They prayed for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
“I tell my congregation frequently that I can never preach anything to them that has not utterly transformed me first,” said Rev. Matthew Pearce. “The GTC approach to ministry has helped me to deepen my relationship with the Holy Spirit in ways I never thought possible, so I cannot help wanting my congregation to experience the same fullness of life in Christ that comes through daily interaction with the Holy Spirit, assisted greatly by the framework and teachings of this conference.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the person and work of the Holy Spirit and are in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area, Gold Avenue Church in partnership with PRMI will be hosting a free follow-up discipleship track, “Empowered for Witness,” on Thurs. evenings starting in February. For more information, see their website.