In the early 1990s, Ed Waken and his wife left Long Beach, Calif., with a vision for planting a mega church in Arizona. They had undergone training and a commissioning from their home church, and a small group of people joined them in Phoenix. But they soon realized God had other plans for them.
Once in Phoenix, they connected with a church leader who was following a “cell church” model and meeting in small groups. Ed and his team began several home churches, and their group quickly grew to more than 100 people, most of whom were new believers.
They began meeting as a large group for corporate worship, hoping for more growth, but their numbers plateaued at 100. When their growth stayed stagnant, Ed realized he needed to rethink his own plan. “I had to die to this dream of being the biggest Grace Brethren church and making a name for Grace Brethren globally,” Ed said.
The church moved back to a primarily house–church model and adopted a “more organic principle of decentralization for multiplication.” Before COVID-19, Valley Life Church was meeting in eight homes. Since the pandemic, the number of homes has dropped to four, but they still have about 70 people who attend regularly. Valley Life is connected with about 25 other home churches in the Phoenix area, and they have also helped plant house churches internationally.
Each house church is unique and fits the needs of that specific group, planning meetings around attenders’ schedules and discussing topics pertaining to their attenders. “The Spirit knows what each church needs,” Ed said, “and He communicates how they need to be cared for, taught, and motivated.” The churches operate autonomously, and Ed acts more as a missionary to the churches than a pastor. His goal is to help churches equip, train, reach, and send.
The churches follow the three-prong principles from Tom Julien, author and former director of Grace Brethren International Missions (now Encompass World Partners): Biblical truth, spending time in the scriptures; Biblical relationship, practicing one-anothering by caring for each other; and Biblical mission, praying for and cooperating with one another to reach people together for Gospel. Ed says not every meeting checks all three boxes; sometimes a meeting might be a meal with a prayer time, or a meal with a discussion on a passage of scripture, or a meal with fellowship time.
Once a month all the churches gather together, usually with a meal, along with another element such as musical worship, Bible teaching, or group discussion. They also work together on various outreaches. They have partnered with the organization Feed My Starving Children, and they regularly serve at local ministries for those without homes. A unique outreach they do is hosting meetings in places believers don’t usually frequent, such as a cigar lounge or sports bar, where they host a pancake breakfast or lead a Bible discussion to connect with nonbelievers.
Ed knows this house church model isn’t for everyone. “It’s not the only way, or the best way…but it’s how God is leading us,” he said.
Pray for Ed and the Valley Life Church as they continue to minister in the Phoenix area. Send Ed an encouraging note here.
This story appeared in GraceConnect eNews. To subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter that includes news and information from congregations in the Charis Fellowship, click here.