You have just read many examples and stories of church planting around the world. Let me share the story of the very first DOVE church plant, which became the seed for many of those you have just read about.
As I write this manuscript, my mind races back to forty years ago when I was in my mid-twenties. At that time, starting a new church was not even on my radar. A group of us had reached out to some unchurched teens in our area. Many of these teens gave their lives to Christ, and we were committed to helping them grow in the Lord. LaVerne and I were firmly established in a local church in our community.
Had you told me then that we would eventually build a team and start a new church, I would have told you that was a crazy idea. After all, I had no seminary experience or even a desire to start a new church. In the 1970s, a group of us from our church youth group had a burden to reach out in love to the unchurched youth of our local community in northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. During this time, youth throughout the United States were turning to God in record numbers after a decade of tumult in which many had sought answers for life by dabbling in the occult and drugs. We set out to initiate creative and culturally effective ways to reach young people with the love of Jesus. Through friendship evangelism, dozens of young people began coming to Jesus.
A weekly Bible study was established for these new believers, and I was asked to lead this group. We taught simple truths from scripture and encouraged believers to love Jesus with all of their hearts. In this informal group setting, many began to experience a genuine relationship with Jesus and a growing depth of relationship with each other.
Although the team working with us did their best to help the new believers find church homes, most of them simply did not fit into the established churches. During this time, God spoke to me in prayer and asked if I was willing to be involved in the “underground church.” I interpreted underground church to mean small groups of believers meeting in homes (underground, in a manner of speaking) to pray, evangelize and build relationships with each other. These small groups would provide the opportunity for people to experience a Christian faith built on relationships, not on structured meetings. In these informal settings, people could share their lives with each other and reach out with the healing love of Jesus to a broken world. We desired to follow the pattern in the New Testament church as modeled in the book of Acts, where the believers met from house to house.
We studied the Scriptures to discover the necessary components of a church from God’s perspective. We knew that if two or three gather in His name, He is in the midst of us. But we also realized that the church is certainly more than two or three meeting for a Bible study. We needed more answers, which we found in Acts 2:38-47.
According to these scriptures, a local church in the book of Acts was made up of those who had repented of their sins and received Jesus Christ as Lord. They were connected to leadership in the whole body of Christ (they taught the Apostles’ doctrine). They did not need a building because they often met in homes (house to house). They prayed together and experienced the power of God in their midst, they shared life together and they served one another. Church was a spiritual family, and families need parents, so the leaders took on the role of being a spiritual parent! People came to Christ every day and joined these new spiritual families. We wanted to experience church like they did in the book of Acts!
We started the first home group, and soon our house was packed with young people. We trained leaders to take over the initial home group, and we started a second group in our brother-in-law’s and sister’s home. A few young couples committed to discipling new believers led each group.
At this point, we did not consider our two Bible study groups to be a church. However, during a Sunday morning service at our local church, I sensed the Lord calling me to start a new kind of church for new believers. New churches must be birthed in prayer, so I invited twelve to fifteen believers, mostly from the two home groups, along with a few others who had a heart for church planting to meet at 5:00 a.m. every Saturday morning to pray. We prayed for wisdom to start a new church—a new wineskin (Luke 5:38)—one that is appropriate to serve and disciple these new believers in Jesus.
After months of prayer and receiving counsel from our local church leaders, the Lord released us to begin. In October 1980, about twenty-five of us gathered in a large living room near Brickerville in northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for our first Sunday morning celebration. DOVE Christian Fellowship International was birthed. (More details in the book: House to House).
Our vision was simple: We were called to pray, make disciples and reach the lost for Jesus. This was done relationally through small home groups. One week I would preach the Word, and the next week, I would serve in the children’s ministry. We had our share of growing pains. Within the first six months, the original three small groups became two groups—we were multiplying backwards! But the Lord was so faithful to give us spiritual mentors who helped us to identify some of our mistakes and mature in our understanding of the basics of biblical leadership.
When our new church was about six months old, I met Ibrahim Omondi, a student from Kenya studying in the USA. We gathered with a few others for a prayer meeting in a barn near our home. God knit our hearts together and our relationship has now spanned more than thirty-four years. The many new DOVE churches planted in East Africa have been under Ibrahim’s fatherly spiritual oversight.
During the first ten years of DOVE Christian Fellowship, our church grew to include more than 2,300 believers scattered throughout a seven-county region of Pennsylvania. We met in 130 small home groups during the week. On Sunday mornings, we met in larger clusters of congregations at eight different locations. We called these weekly gatherings celebrations.
In the mid-1980s, after moving our Sunday celebration from a house to a remodeled barn to a Christian school building and then to a renovated barn at Abundant Living Ministries near Brickerville, Pennsylvania, the building was filled to capacity. We started our second celebration, called the Southern Celebration, which met in the Sight and Sound Theatre near Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Eventually believers from this celebration planted churches in York and in Southern Lancaster County.
We sent a team to start a church in Wellington, Kansas and a church planting team to Central Scotland. We also started a Northern Celebration in Lebanon County that continued to plant new celebrations in Berks and Schuylkill Counties.
LaVerne and I led the Central Celebration at Abundant Living Ministries. After holding three services each Sunday, we eventually found a home at Westgate Auditorium in a strip mall near Ephrata. This celebration grew to 1,300 believers and soon teams were sent out to start new celebrations in Manheim, Elizabethtown, Ephrata and eastern Lancaster County.
Every few months believers from all the celebrations met together in a large auditorium or gymnasium or local park that we rented for the event. We turned over the hands-on leadership and ministry of the church to eight local church leaders and their leadership teams. Multiplying people and allowing them to move out on their own, affords limitless potential.
We also helped to plant churches in other nations including Scotland, Brazil, Kenya, New Zealand, Uganda, and Guatemala. Churches continued to birth churches. Some of these stories were told in this book.
Not all of these church plants continued on long term, and not all of these new churches stayed with the DOVE family, but there is such blessing in giving people an opportunity to plant a new church and spread the Gospel and build the kingdom. There is no failure as long as we keep our eyes on Jesus and on His kingdom and grow in the process.
Our focus was not on the large meetings. Instead, we focused on Jesus and on training believers to be leaders of small home fellowships. We realized that as people are trained, they should be released to start new churches.
An International Apostolic Council was formed to give spiritual oversight to this new apostolic movement we call DOVE International, and I was asked to serve as the international director. This “apostolic movement” was formed to become a family of churches with a common focus—a mandate from God to labor together to plant and establish churches throughout the world. We have found apostolic ministry provides a safe environment for partnering congregations and ministries to grow and reproduce themselves. On January 1, 1996, the one multi-site DOVE church in Pennsylvania took the step of faith to decentralize and release the eight local congregations to each become self-governing churches in the DOVE International family of churches. At the same time, DOVE churches in Kenya, Uganda and New Zealand also joined this new family of churches.
Since that time, we have had the joy of seeing dozens and dozens of churches planted and many others join the DOVE International family. Currently, about 300 cell-based congregations and house churches, and thousands of small groups from twenty nations serve with the DOVE International family. We are continuing to trust God for many more new small groups and churches to be started to reach a new generation of believers in Christ.
We are ordinary people who have made lots of mistakes and have stories that are not all success stories. But one key we have seen is the necessity of embracing the biblical truth of spiritual parenting. Each believer needs practical input from loving, seasoned spiritual fathers and mothers whose goal is to help them reach their full potential in Christ. Parents expect to see their children grow. During the past thirty-four years, it has been a privilege to watch many who were once “children” become spiritual parents and grandparents, as new believers, small groups and churches are added to our DOVE family. Read more about spiritual parenting in the book The Cry for Spiritual Mothers and Fathers.
Read Chapter 23. Where do we go from here? here