So often when people inquire about a church, they ask things like, “Who goes there? Young people? Old? Black? White? Folks from this side of town or that?” In the case of Rockford First, Senior Associate Pastor Dan Valentine says the answer is a simple: “Yes.”
“We welcome every race, age and demographic,” says Valentine. “Each week we have 18- and 80-year-olds volunteering side by side. You don’t see that in every church.”
The church’s diversity doesn’t stop there. Valentine acknowledges that everyone who attends is on a vastly different spiritual journey. “Some have given their life to Christ. Others don’t even know what that means, and that’s OK,” says Valentine. “We just ask that they let us be on that journey with them.”
This open-door policy enables all members to feel comfortable inviting their friends to worship with them. And that’s how growth takes place.
While growing their church, which is located in Rockford, Ill., their biggest challenge was getting the congregation to trust the leadership of a young pastor. When Lead Pastor Jeremy DeWeerdt first took the helm in 2007, folks were initially skeptical.
DeWeerdt’s personable and relatable disposition, however, paired with his affable and conversational speaking style, quickly made him a beloved visionary leader. Now when he says, “Let’s go charge this mountain,” people get behind him.
“There’s truth in the phrase, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” says Valentine. To demonstrate that care, church members are helping to build the Transform Rockford Mission, which is currently in its infancy stage of planning, inspiring, creating and identifying shared values.
In addition, “Love Works” is something that members of Rockford First started three years ago as a week-long initiative to encourage members to give back to the community by volunteering their time with local charities, doing strategic acts of kindness and serving their neighbors. Members logged their time and found that they donated over 10,000 hours to the community. After such a positive result, the church decided to launch it as a year-round initiative to serve the community. “We encourage all of our members to seek out ways to make our community better and to partner with local charities that are making a difference,” says Valentine.
In addition, members of Rockford First raised over $100,000 to open the Champions Club, a center in their church dedicated to children with special needs. The club includes the educational room, sensory room, physical therapy room and spiritual therapy room.
Currently, the Champions Club is only used on Sundays, but plans are in the works to utilize it for parents’ night out and other events.
The opening of this club has meant the difference in church attendance for some. One woman told staff that she and her husband haven’t been able to go to church in over a decade because they couldn’t find one that offered care for their child with special needs. Now they can worship with a grateful heart and a relieved mind, knowing that their child is in good hands.
Rockford First is located in one of the most economically depressed cities in the country, where the foreclosure rates are 800 times the country’s average. Nevertheless, the congregation has rallied—and even expanded—as they have worked to improve their environment.
Still, many members of the community have a hard time shaking the fatalistic attitude that has gripped the area. To help inspire hope, DeWeerdt regularly invites his congregation to be a shining light and a positive voice for the community.
“There’s a scripture Pastor Jeremy uses,” says Valentine. “It’s Proverbs 11:11: ‘When right-living people bless the city, it flourishes.’ That has become the mantra for our church.”
Lead Pastor: Jeremy DeWeerdt
Affiliation: Assemblies of God
Growth in 2013: +465 (15%)
Fastest Growing: 66