Dave Gibbons: Newsong Church, Irvine, Calif.

Q: You say, “Questions should lead us to questions, not answers,” which makes me wonder about some of your questions, and the life experiences that triggered them.



A: I grew up in a Fundamentalist background. So everything was delineated in black and white. In fact, I remember asking my pastor one time, “Is everything so black and white?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.” [laughter] I said, “OK.” What I realized as time went on, of course, is there’s a lot of gray, which is not necessarily bad. But we often react against mystery instead of embracing it and enjoying it.


Q: Was there a particular point when you woke up and said, “Hmm, it’s not an absolutist world after all”?


A: Well, one of the first experiences that triggered a reframing of my thoughts happened when the administration of the Fundamentalist college I attended told me I could not date Caucasians. They had a policy against interracial dating. When I pointed out I was half-white and half-Korean, they told me I’d have to choose one or the other; I couldn’t date both. I noticed there were a lot more white women. [laughter] I thought my chances were better if I said white. Besides, I’d never dated Asians. In Arizona where I grew up there were hardly any Asians.

In time, a court case came along that threatened the school’s tax-exempt status because of the policy. It had become national news and the media were coming on campus. The administration called me back in and said, “You can’t date any more Caucasians. You can only date Asians.” When I asked why, they said, “Well, you look Asian, that’s why.” There was even a suggestion that I could leave.

That experience certainly accelerated the process of reframing my thinking.


Q: By this time you had also faced some things at home that unsettled your thinking.


A: My dad, who was a top leader in the church, had an affair, which was so difficult for my mom—even more so, I think, because she was immigrant Korean. Her dream had been to marry this American soldier, and they had attained everything that an upper class American family would have: boat, cars, pool, beautiful house. Then suddenly the family was destroyed by divorce.

This pristine religious world where I thought everything was nice and tidy was torn apart. So yes, the disappointment I saw it in my nuclear family was then enlarged to the Christian world when I went to school.


Q: You soon faced an even more painful ordeal, which, taken with these other experiences, not only prompted a reassessment of faith, it ultimately led you to embrace pain as one of the primary things God uses to lead us.


A: My mom died in a hit-and-run accident—a drunk driver struck her. Everything was torn apart because my mom was my best friend. I was forced to think again, even more deeply, about who I was and what my purpose on earth was. By then, I had begun to view myself as a business guy; I loved to think about ways to generate capital. My life was oriented around that goal. But at my mom’s funeral, as I sat in the front row and saw her in the casket, I felt God saying to me, “Your main ambition is to make a lot of money. I want you to focus on something more eternal. I want you to focus on making a difference in the lives of marginalized people—people like your mom.”

I gave my life to Christ that day to serve him in the ministry arena, but I went in kicking and screaming. I don’t gravitate to being in front of people. I like private conversations and hanging out at restaurants with friends.


Q: Given your background, that new vision—reaching the fringe—made sense. But wasn’t it still somewhat at odds with your church experience?


A: Well, I did notice just how ethnocentric congregations were. I had grown up in a pretty homogeneous white church and went to megachurches that were all white. That always bothered me. Why was this going on?

Then I went to a Korean Church and quickly realized they had the same issues. If the truth were known, they’d hate it if their children married an African America guy—or, for many of them, even a white guy..

And I remember thinking, This isn’t the kind of vehicle that’s going to reach a diverse world.


Q: The stage was set, but there was another piece of the puzzle: a transformative relationship.


A: I was part of a pilot group for Leighton Ford’s Arrow Leadership Program. He is an evangelist for the world, and he’s all about mentoring the next generation of leaders. He started seeing things in me, and was just a huge encouragement. When I graduated from the class he put his hands on my shoulders with tears in his eyes and he said, “Dave, God’s going to use you to impact the world and it is my privilege to pray for you.” He helped me see the world, and I felt the love of God through that expression of his love. He was like a father to me.

Not long after that I started Newsong Church. That was about 15 years ago.


Q: Your selection of Irvine, Calif., as a location was part spiritual impulse—you felt divinely led—and part logical choice.


A: We had researched and walked cities, praying extensively. But when I came here I said, God, something’s right about this place. I felt there was a convergence of who I am. It’s kind of a pioneering, innovative area and it is very multicultural, multiethnic. It’s a gateway to the world, especially Asia, more so than any city in America. I felt something buzzing here and I didn’t want to miss out.


Q: I think one of the particularly encouraging things about the story of Newsong is how the vision was embraced and encouraged by a couple existing churches in the area.


A: Both Mariners and South Coast Church wanted to help. We quickly outgrew our apartment as a meeting place and had to find an alternative. But we were still really short on resources, so we prayed that God would give us a free place to meet.

A little background: When we were in seminary, we didn’t have much money so I had prayed, “God would you provide a free place for us?” And He did—a free apartment in Dallas. I guess that emboldened me, because now I said, “God, how about a church?”

I had been introduced to Bob Shank who was the pastor of South Coast Church at that time. We were meeting together and he’d been such an encouragement to me in our new venture. One day he said, “Dave, I can’t give you any money, but I can give you something better than money.”

I said, “What could that be?”

He said, “Why don’t you go home and pray about that, then come back to me.”

So I came back and I said, “How about if we had a place to meet at your church on Sunday morning during prime time? Would you let us do that? And secondly, could we have offices here? And thirdly, could we interact with your staff and be mentored by them? And fourthly, could we partner with your children’s ministry?”

He looked at me and said, “No problem, Dave.”

I’ll never forget Bob Shank.


Q: The next few years did bring phenomenal growth, and you soon had a megachurch growing under your feet. But something wasn’t quite right.


A: The growth pattern was on this crazy trajectory. But as a megachurch begins to emerge, what’s next? You have to get land to continue the escalation of the vision. And we found a choice piece of property right off the I-5 freeway. But when we put in a bid, the Korean car company Kia outbid us. We raised the bid, Kia outbid us again. After a while, we were advised to just give in.

I remember during the capital campaign, I had taken the manta, “It’s not about the building, it’s about what happens inside the building.” Common fund-raising motto.

But then I noticed how disappointed I was when we didn’t get the building. It was like the Lord was saying, “It’s a little bit more than you think ‘about the building.’” I went into this funky stuff for a while—maybe part of it was mid-life on top of the church thing. In my cynicism, I was thinking, Is this all my life’s going to be? Am I just trying to build a bigger box where 90% of the people still aren’t going to be doing anything?

In my cynicism, I went through this thing where I didn’t really want to be in ministry for a while.


Q: By this time, Newsong had been making some progress advancing its global vision. In retrospect, it seems providential—and somewhat amusing—that you should go to Thailand right at this time of introspection and reassessment. That certainly became a tipping-point event, didn’t it?


A: I went with a group of CEOs and entrepreneurs from Newsong, several of them multimillionaires with huge interests in Asia—and aspirations for God’s Kingdom. Bangkok is a city of 13 million and, as one missionary explained, Christians have been there for 125 years and have only been able to reach about 1% of the population. All these guys on our team were befuddled. What could we possibly do? But I started feeling an energy I hadn’t felt in a long time. God was nudging me, I think, because the need was bigger than me, the opportunity greater. It energized me to confront a challenge I couldn’t resolve just by generating another process. This was so God-sized that we knew if we could achieve something, He would get the credit.


Q: That’s when you got a rather unusual invitation.


A: There was an older women working there in Thailand who had been one of Newsong’s first major investors about 10 years earlier. Now, at around 70, she was working in an English language school in Bangkok. She said, “Dave, you need to come here.” I said, “No way. We’re growing. I’ve got to take care of the church back in Irvine.” But she was pretty insistent.

At the time I was doing some devotional reading from the One Year Bible, that section from the gospels that talks about the Lord of the Harvest. And two words stood out to me. At the conclusion of the story it said, “Go now.” That just really struck me. It felt like the Lord was personalizing the message to me: “Go now.” I said, “Lord, the church in Irvine is growing. What am I going to do?” And he said, “Go now.”

When I got back to the States, I spoke with the staff, and they started crying. They said, “Dave, this is the vision of Newsong. We’re supposed to be doing this. It makes a statement when we send out our pastor.”


Q: You first tried to export Newsong Irvine to Bangkok, Thailand. How did that work out?


A: {Laughter] Well, we followed the church model of ramping up, core development, preview services. And we had this big service and a lot of people came—including all the missionaries, everybody. They’d never seen so many people coming together. I was feeling pretty good, and then I saw the Thai guys who were part of our core. They came to me looking discouraged.

I said, “What’s wrong?”

They said, “This isn’t Newsong.”

I said, “What are you talking about?” In my mind I’m thinking, Hey, I helped start Newsong. What do you mean, This isn’t Newsong? [laughter]

They said, “Well, when we were meeting before, we were always in these little circles and everybody got to talk. But here