Interview with Gene Appel

By Brad Dupray

Gene Appel became senior pastor at Eastside Christian Church in Fullerton, California, on October 1, 2008, after serving as lead pastor with Willow Creek Community Church’s South Barrington (Illinois) campus. In many ways, he has come full circle, having served as an intern at Eastside while a 20-year-old student at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. At 25, Gene became senior minister at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada, and led the church from average weekly attendance of 400 to 8,000 during an 18-year ministry. Gene and his wife, Barbara, have three children, Jeremy, Alayna, and Jenna, with whom they love to relax at their lakeside retreat in Minnesota.

Some pundits have called the megachurch a dying breed. Is it?

Personally, I’ve never liked the term megachurch, but the reality is the first church was a megachurch. I’ve always believed it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people. Churches of great size have been around for 2,000 years. While there are many different expressions of local churches, I think the death of the megachurch has been greatly exaggerated. It’s hardly surprising to me that churches that develop God’s heart for people far from him and are located among larger population centers grow to reach thousands of people, many of whom once were lost but now are found.

How have megachurches changed since coming into vogue, say, 20 years ago?

Many of the megachurches that started to emerge 15 to 20 years ago had ministries primarily built through a heavy programmatic approach. When a need was identified, a new program was developed to help meet that need. Most megachurches became a confederation of subministries, and the thought was you would reach more people by starting more ministries.

Was there an inherent weakness in that approach?

Over time, more and more ministries meant more ministries competing for more volunteers, more resources, more staff, more announcement time and exposure, and churches felt less and less focused. I’m thrilled to see a much simpler approach by many megachurches these days. There is a clearer focus on reflecting the kind of church we read about in Acts 2 where they gathered in the temple courts, but then also from house to house for fellowship, prayer, the apostle’s teaching, and breaking of bread. I love the growing awareness of caring for one another’s needs like we read about in Acts 2.

The church in Acts also seemed compelled to move on to new frontiers.

And a dramatic shift in just the past five or six years is the rapid acceptance of multisite venues for one church, often including video-cast teaching. This has enabled many churches to expand their mission to reach more people and make more disciples, while maintaining a bit of a smaller experience on multiple campuses.

How did your experience at Willow Creek change the way you thought about how to do church?

During my time at Willow we expanded from two campuses to five throughout the Chicagoland area. I found the vision of penetrating an entire metropolitan area with the gospel quite compelling. With the opportunity to travel and speak to church leaders throughout the world, I gained a new appreciation for the scope of what God is doing in many unique ways and places globally.

Did anything in particular catch your attention?

God really began to focus my attention on the enormous need in our world for the poor, the sick, the under-resourced, and the disenfranchised. Traveling to some of the poorest and forgotten areas of South Africa, Malawi, and Zambia wrecked me in a very good and needed way.

A lot has been made of Willow’s “Reveal” study; what did you take away from it to increase your ministry effectiveness?

Actually it was just reaffirming of what we all know—spiritual development and transformation happens by the same spiritual practices of prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting, community, and serving as it has for 2,000 years. Without the basics, churches will become anemic, evangelistic passion will wane, needs will go unmet, and hearts will shrink.

Do you feel reenergized in your new role?

First, let me say, I’m having a ball at Eastside. I interned here as a 20-year-old. In many ways I feel privileged to be able to bring 27 years of ministry experience back to the place my ministry journey began, including all of the mistakes and lessons I’ve learned the hard way, and have a fresh start in the midst of what I consider to be one of the great mission fields of the world. More than 200 languages are spoken in the Los Angeles basin. The world is at our doorstep. The opportunity is enormous and the kingdom stakes are high.

Have you revisited your thoughts about how a large church can encourage life change?

I’m much more conscientious at this period of my life about the importance of driving spiritual subject matters and themes deeply into the hearts and lives of a church family; this should result in true transformation, versus skimming many spiritual subject matters, studying lots of different topics, but failing to sufficiently absorb any of them.

What is the megachurch good at doing? And what can a smaller church do that a megachurch can’t do?

Actually I find the questions a bit unproductive. I’ve been in some very unhealthy megachurches and smaller churches. And I’ve seen both megachurches and smaller churches effectively disciple their people, care for one another, raise up quality Christian leaders, and advance the cause of Christ in their sphere of influence. How thrilling to see God use both.

Is it good for a young, growing church to aspire to be a megachurch?

Actually, I think it’s the wrong aspiration. My goal has never been to build or be a part of a big church. My passion has always been to recapture the dynamic of the kind of church we read about in the book of Acts. I think a megachurch resulted. But being a big church wasn’t my goal when I was 25 years old and moving to serve a church in Vegas. It wasn’t my goal when I transitioned to Chicago. And it’s not my goal now serving in Southern California.

How does a megachurch develop disciples, as opposed to just putting on a good show every Sunday?

There’s no mystery here. The same way disciples have been built for 2,000 years. In smaller venues—whether it’s small groups, Sunday school classes, or just intentional relationships—believers challenge each other in their spiritual development to grow, study, serve, and be available to God for his purposes.

Is the Sunday morning service a tool that points people toward discipleship, or is it simply corporate worship?

Yes! Actually, I believe it is both. My passion is to see Sunday morning worship experiences be an environment where all people are transformed by God, wherever they are at on their spiritual journey. As they encounter him in worship, the truth in his Word, the fellowship of his people, the substance of his table, and the presence of his Spirit—people grow, worship, and find God.

When is the church at its best?

It seems to me when the Acts 2 church pursued God (devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer) and when they built community (being together and having everything in common) and when they unleashed compassion (selling possessions to give to those in need) they were at their absolute best. No wonder the Lord added to their number on a daily basis those who were being saved.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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