Many kick off the New Year with food, friends and festive toasts. But Christopher Morante, senior pastor of Evangel Church in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, along with other church members started 2018 with a season of prayer and fasting.
“We needed to take a deeper step not to be a church with prayer but to be a house of prayer,” explains Morante. Therefore, in May 2018, Evangel started a midweek prayer service that involves praying for mission teams, addressing weekly prayer requests and setting aside personal prayer time so folks can privately share what is weighing on their hearts.
As the weeks passed, attendance began to steadily rise—first up 10 percent, then 20, then 25. It was easy to pinpoint the root of change—it all started with prayer, which goes back to the origination of the church 105 years earlier when a woman from Germany felt God instructing her to move to New Jersey. When she arrived, she started a prayer meeting in her living room, which eventually grew into Evangel Church.
“We knew that if we got back to the root of our foundation—prayer—God would honor it,” says Morante, noting that now prayer night attendance averages from 180 to 200 per week.
Though prayer service is held at the church, Evangel has always had an outward missional focus.
“We see our mission field as across the street and around the world,” says Morante. Every year Evangel sends between 75 and 100 people on around 10 mission trips. In addition, once every two years, they engage in Service for Service where they cancel Sunday morning services in order to send more than 1,000 people to go out into the community to tackle 100 or more projects.
“The message is, ‘We’re not going to church today. We’re going to be the church today,’” says Morante. “It’s been a beautiful way to be salt and light in our community.”
Morante first conceived Service for Service in 2013 after hearing a story about a new minister who went to the mayor’s office to introduce himself and received a rather chilly reception.
“Honestly, all the church does is take from the community,” the mayor stated gruffly. Before leaving the office, the minister promised to change the dynamic by serving the community. He followed through with his promise and trust shifted. Years later, during a conversation between the pastor and the mayor, the mayor said, “I don’t know where we’d be as a town if it weren’t for this church.”
The story left an imprint on Morante’s heart, and he vowed to do the same in his community. He regularly meets with the mayor to ask, “How can we serve you?”
Strategic planning is important, of course, but Morante has found strategic leadership isn’t the way to go. Instead, he relies on spiritual leadership, which can be tricky for those who crave predictability and practicality.
“In spiritual leadership, you add one and one together and it makes 5,000 and that doesn’t make any sense because it’s not practical or intuitive,” says Morante. Now that he’s witnessed the value of spiritual leadership, he yearns to operate increasingly from that place.
“You can’t control the outcomes. You have to invest over here and pray God is going to take care of it over there,” says Morante, who likens prayer to a furnace. “What happens in this room is impacting what happens on Sunday mornings, what happens in small groups, all of it.”
And then there are those private steps we take to obedience that trump the ones we take in public.
“We focus so much of our time and energy on what we do in front of other people,” says Morante. “But I think when we focus on the private things that no one ever knows about, that’s where the battle is won. That’s what God will honor.”
As for next steps, Morante says they need to make room for more, referencing the story of Elijah, the widow and the jars.
“Basically, everything she was willing to make room for, God filled,” says Morante. And filling hearts and minds with Christ Jesus is what it’s all about. “It’s not the number of people,” he adds, “but the number of hearts that are engaging in prayer.”
Scotch Plains, New Jersey
Lead Pastor: Christopher Morante
Affiliation: Assemblies of God
A 2019 OUTREACH 100 CHURCH
Growth in 2018: +299 (26%)