Out of Brokenness: Dave Gibbons and Newsong Church

At the age of 14, Dave Gibbons watches police lights dance on the windshield of his mother’s car parked at their Tempe, Ariz., home.

Locked inside, Gibbons’ mother cries hysterically and holds a knife.

When their pastor shows up, he manages to coax her out.

Sobbing, nearly collapsing, she says to her son, “Your dad had an affair.”

A few months after issuing a strong denial, his father asks him to wash his car. Underneath a mat, Gibbons finds a card written by someone other than his mom.

* * * * * 

When Gibbons returns in 2006 from a year in Thailand, he reimagines Newsong Church through the lens of pain.

He comes to believe most churches, including his own, focus on a cultural definition of success void of the reality and theology of suffering. Call it an obsession with comfort or size or consumerism or playing to your strengths, the goal ends the same: the idolatry of control.

“The church often measures success the way the world does,” says Gibbons. “It’s always up and to the right. It’s a scaling through profits or numbers. It’s the exact opposite for Jesus, who descends and embraces the cross.”

After building one of the nation’s fastest growing churches in the multiethnic city of Irvine, Calif., Gibbons apologizes to his congregation of more than 3,000 people.

“I think I have created something that I’m not sure is after God’s heart,” he says. “At some point, it became all about the church and not about the people and their lives.”

In his new focus to help equip people to live out their God-given destiny, Gibbons develops the working process he calls Flow, based on John 5: Jesus only did what he saw his Father do.

From a practical standpoint, Gibbons seeks a more accurate way to understand each person.

“Our main task shifts from church growth to developing our people,” he says. “We do that first through assessment, which I think is the most critical piece.”

Predominant church growth tools focus on gifts and personality but fail to take into account the power of pain to shape a life. A power, Gibbons believes, that can either fuel self-destruction or ignite a revolution.

* * * * * 

At the age of 7, Maribel shatters a mirror in her home.

Staring at her cracked image, she wonders again: Am I a mistake or a miracle?

The evidence is contradictory. Each time Papa repeatedly rapes her, he tells her she is a mistake.

Born two months premature to a woman diagnosed as barren, enduring endless abuse and abandonment, Maribel’s survival, on the other hand, seems miraculous.

Stooping down to choose a shard of glass, which she cuts into her flesh, Maribel cries when death fails her.

* * * * * 

When Gibbons starts Newsong in 1994, he shares his mother’s story with eight core people gathered in his living room.

A young girl living in South Korea meets an American soldier stationed there. He rescues her from an abusive marriage and eventually carries her away to Arizona in the shared pursuit of the American dream.

She designs hair. He works as a businessman for social justice and becomes a leader in their church. They have children and fill their world with a boat, a pool, nice cars and a beautiful, landscaped home.

His affair shatters her world. Within a year, she divorces her savior, and the American dream.

She drinks, comes home later and later, loses 30 pounds and suffers severe ulcers.

Gibbons recalls waking in the middle of the night as a teenager. When he hears the weeping of his mother from outside the bedroom window, he rushes out to hold her emaciated body. Combing his hand through her hair, he pleads, “Please, Mom, please don’t cry.”

A couple of years later, a drunk driver ends her suffering with a hit-and-run on Arizona Interstate 10.

* * * * * 

The legacy of his mom forms the core of Gibbons’ vision for Newsong.

Possessing half her Korean genes, Gibbons knows what it means to be different.

Owning her pain, he learns dreams can’t be made out of money.

Feeling her rejection, he vows to begin a church that responds to the depth of her kind of despair.

“The church didn’t know how to adjust to my mom as a divorced woman and, on top of that, an Asian woman,” he says. “She didn’t fit. Then I thought, ‘There are so many people like that. What if we had a church for people like my mom?’”

In the multiethnic community of Irvine, Calif.—where 40 percent of the population is Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Latino and Vietnamese—Gibbons plants a church for misfits.

* * * * * 

Three years before Gibbons starts Newsong, Maribel moves into a house on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

At the age of 18, she moves in with a man of great and shady wealth.

She desires to leave behind an abusive father and a mother who, upon learning of Maribel’s pimp, says, “Good, you have someone to take care of you.”

Maribel’s sudden affluence—a collection of names like Porsche, Rolex, Cartier, Gucci—is exceeded only by her eventual despair.

After a positive pregnancy test, her lover abandons Maribel and her unborn child.

* * * * * 

Snowballing from space to space—theater, football field and conference room—Newsong eventually connects with South Coast Community Church in Irvine, which shares space for worship and offices.

Undergirded by megachurch strategy, Newsong becomes one of the fastest growing churches in the nation, attracting mostly Gen X Asian Americans from surrounding churches and UC Irvine.

Campuses start in Fullerton and Los Angeles, and the Irvine congregation settles into a 65,000-square-foot home.

Measured by nearly every contemporary church tool, Newsong achieves great success.

In order to capitalize on momentum, Newsong focuses increasing resources on building, events and programs, which draw greater numbers of people into the church.

In 2005, Newsong draws more than 5,000 people to an Easter outreach event and collects more than $5 million for the purchase of prime land just off a major interstate highway in Orange County.

The success of the event and the fundraiser, Gibbons understands, is critical for ongoing growth.

In the Anaheim Convention Center, adjacent to Disneyland, Newsong rocks the house with its Jumbotron-laser-light-digitized-multi-platformed-staged Easter extravaganza.

With intense attention to detail, sparing no expense, the parking lot attendants wear Mickey Mouse gloves.

“It was mammoth, surreal,” Gibbons recalls.

The same could be said for the fundraising efforts, which always include the line from a best-selling church marketing book: “It’s not about the building; it’s about what goes on inside the building.”

Gibbons says he often struggles to discern the voice of God. In the year 2005, however, he has no question God poses the following questions to him:

After the Easter service:

“Is this it?”

After being outbid for the land:

“Is it more important what happens inside the church building or outside?”

* * * * * 

Married to a man who loves her for who she is, Maribel experiences the surfacing of wounds from a childhood rife with abandonment, prostitution, drug dealing, organized crime and sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Turns out, that kind of pain doesn’t just go away.

“I became controlling, abusive and obsessive,” she says. “I lost my love, my husband and my children.”

To make matters worse, she is saddled with the responsibility of caring for her dying mother, who never seemed to care much for her.

On her deathbed, her mother finds Jesus, and Maribel’s bitterness deepens.

“Now she was forgiven and saved,” she says. “This was unfair, unjust.”

Maribel douses suicidal thoughts with alcohol and, even when sober, can’t see straight.

“I knew I was going to die,” she says.

When a friend invites her to Newsong, Maribel hesitates before she finally goes.

Maribel surprises herself when she raises a hand after the pastor offers to pray for those with heavy burdens.

“During the prayer, Jesus met me, embraced me, loved me,” she remembers. “A new life began inside me. Each day was filled with wonder and beauty.”

* * * * * 

To help dig Gibbons out of a deep funk, God’s providence finds a 70-year-old teacher in Thailand, affiliated with Newsong, who begins to nag Dave about coming to Bangkok to plant a church.

“She was quite persistent,” Gibbons recalls.

Gibbons is first attracted to the Thailand trip as an escape from Newsong and then, more deeply, by the magnitude of challenge.

Despite a 100-year presence of Christianity in Thailand, less than 1 percent of 65 million people are followers of Christ.

Traveling with a team of heavily resourced CEOs and entrepreneurs, Gibbons arrives in September 2005 with high kingdom aspirations.

Following a large outreach service with unprecedented numbers of people coming, a few of the core Thai people come to Gibbons, slightly dejected.

“What’s wrong?” Gibbons asks.

“Thailand isn’t Newsong,” one of them says.

“What do you mean?’’

“We were always in little circles before and everyone got to talk. Here, we were watching just a few people do it.”

The voice comes again clear as a bell: Listen, observe and learn.

Gibbons winds up spending a year in Thailand and begins to experience transitional insights.

When you don’t drive around in a car, you see faces and hear laughter as you walk.

When you aren’t calculating by numbers, loving relationship defines success.

When you see the brokenness of humanity, you recognize the value and beauty of hope only suffering can birth.

Even in a bustling city of 12 million, Gibbons slows down. The centrality of relationship returns in clarity.

In a Bangkok bar, Boyd, a new Christian and phenom rock star idol, asks Gibbons if he will disciple him.

“This guy is one of the most popular people in Thailand,” Gibbons says. “If you build a church of 30,000, you may not have the influence of this one man. It was a critical transition for me.”

* * * * * 

Gibbons confesses to a love of chaos, the random multiple inputs and domains and possibilities of synthesis. Chaos is the place for him where pastor and businessman most fully congeal.

When he returns to Newsong in 2006, he apologizes to a congregation of 3,000 people. “I think I have helped build a church that is not after God’s own heart.”

In a short period of time, Gibbons makes several oxymoronic 180-degree shifts:

Small is big.

It’s not about preaching to people; it’s about loving them.

Pain fuels.

Reach the fringes for the maximum impact.

“Neighbor” is someone who doesn’t look like you.

Pragmatic reversals follow as well. A 70/30 split of resources flips from programs, events and buildings to greater investment in human development.

Focus switches from a Plexiglas pulpit to life in a messy community.

Growth strategy moves from the machinery involved in growing bigger to equipping personal destiny.

“Instead of a pastor setting a vision that leads to church growth,” Gibbons says, “leadership must discover the vision of the people and help each one reach the destiny God is calling them to.”

* * * * * 

When Gibbons begins the nonprofit Xealots in 2007, Maribel, as one who suffers on the fringe, is just the kind of person he has in mind.

Designed to identify and equip the next generation of socially conscious misfits, Xealots comes alongside Maribel in her pain and struggle.

Piece by piece, through counseling and community, they help Maribel un-shatter the mirror of her childhood, so that she begins to see herself as a daughter made in the image of a loving God.

Finding a peace she does not understand, relationships with her husband and children begin to heal as she rejoices in new life and new identity.

Challenged to use her suffering as a catalyst for change, Maribel first balks out of shame. “How could God possibly use someone like me?”

A love draws her to eventually step out.

Through Xealots resources, Maribel begins a ministry for young girls in Orange County exploited by human trafficking.

“I can walk in the shoes of these women,” she says. “I understand what it is to be in the darkness unable to see. Now, I have light. The more I love these girls, the clearer I see my pain fuels my compassion.”

* * * * * 

From the fringes, both locally and globally, the stories arise.

Like Maribel, Stephen Jean-Marie offers hope to the hopeless. A former Virgin Records rap artist who leaves the music industry to pursue God, Jean-Marie now leads The Row, a Skid Row ministry of Newsong LA.

Or Brent. A five-star chef from Australia, Brent opens a multicultural restaurant in Boise, Idaho, to train and equip refugees and other marginalized people for jobs.

Or Benny. While shopping in Mexico City, Benny and his wife, Janice, see the empty faces of girls sexually exploited. They move to Mexico and start the 27 Million ministry, which rescues and houses victims of human trafficking.

Or Garrison. Mentored by Xealots, his company turns around and grows 300 percent, contributing jobs and financial vitality to his community.

* * * * * 

In leading his church in radical new directions, Gibbons learns destiny is never really personal. Entering into the pain of the real world requires a community of encouragement to reach out in love for others.

“The consumer church focuses on comfort and felt needs,” Gibbons says. “By doing so, we miss the full expression of the gospel, the outworking of the second most important commandment of God.

Love your neighbor, Jesus says in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“The neighbor turns out to be someone not like you,” Gibbons says. “It’s someone you are not naturally drawn to, someone of a different culture, someone you may even be tempted to hate. When you begin to love someone who is not like you, the world takes notice.”

* * * * * 

Maribel stands outside her father’s door in Mexico reliving the dread of childhood abuse. In her head, she hears his voice again, telling her she’s no good, and the muffled grunts he makes when raping her.

Reminding herself of love’s track record for casting out fear, she finds the courage to speak when Papa comes to the door.

“Dad, I forgive you and I love you,” she tells him, “because Jesus first loves and forgives me.”

In the experience of the love of Christ, in great pain, her father cries. Through his tears, he sees for the first time his daughter as a miracle.

Irvine, Calif.
Lead Pastor: Dave Gibbons
Twitter: @DaveGibbons
Founded: 1994
Affiliation: Nondenominational
Locations: 6 (North OC, Los Angeles, Bangkok, Dallas, Pasadena, Mexico City)
Attendance: About 3,000

Newsong is also a movement of churches not bound by geography, with communities throughout Southeast Asia, China, India, Korea, Mexico City, London and North America.


Rob Wilkins, a freelance writer and photographer, is an Outreach magazine contributing writer. He also works as multimedia developer for Grace Community Church in Asheville, N.C.