When you read Robert Friel’s church plant profile, you may find yourself, like me, pausing over casual references to a home group bursting at the seams or of people being miraculously healed of addictions or cancer. As I was preparing this one for publication, I found myself wanting to know more. So I went ahead and called Robert, and boy, did he have some amazing stories to share! So read on to hear how the Holy Spirit is moving in The Dalles Vineyard.
Name: Robert Friel
Church Plant: The Dalles Vineyard Christian Fellowship
Location: The Dalles, OR
Recommended Read: Deep and Wide, by Andy Stanley
Listening To: Bethel, Jesus Culture, Hillsong, Vineyard. I pretty much stick to worship music only. That’s the only thing my spirit loves, so I feed my spirit as much as I can.
Cute Kid Moment: My youngest is Adelina. She is 19. She took me to a Seattle Mariners game for Father’s day. That’s pretty cute!
Favorite Day-Off Activity: My children are grown up, so my wife and I make special days to hike, ride bikes, or snuggle. We make date nights every week.
How did you decide where to plant the church?
It naturally happened. We started a home group and it became larger than our house could hold. They were forming lines all up and down the stairs trying to make room for both levels of the home. It was time to move to a bigger building.
What’s one thing someone told you about church planting that you found to be true?
It takes time to build a foundation of relationship between all the leaders.
What’s your best experience of the first year?
My favorite experience this year is watching people’s lives change right before my eyes. They are all in! They are getting it! They have been saying things like, ” I’ve never seen a church like this”
What’s the coolest story from a ministry time or healing you’ve heard or experienced?
People getting delivered from meth and heroine, with no withdrawals. Cancer gone! Families getting their children back after they’ve been taken away.
What are one or two big things to share with other church planters that you’ve learned along the way?
Stay prayed up, stay in the Word, keep your vision in front of your church family. Keep calling them your family. Let them all play! Trust God to let them lead. Let them make mistakes and keep giving them opportunities to grow by leading. Work yourself out of a job, and you will have done well as a pastor!
What question didn’t we ask you that you would love to answer?
Keep the Christian words to where the unchurched can understand you when you preach the Gospel. Always minister from overflow, not overwork. Have fun! Don’t force things to happen. Let God do it in His time. Be content with the small things and God will bless you with much!
What is happening in your life or ministry we can be praying for?
We want the presence of God to change us and our family is a mighty way. May we never stop being hungry for the things of God.
After reading this, I got ahold of Robert to get more of the story. Here’s some of our conversation:
Can you fill me in on how you got to where you are and how things are going now in your first year of church planting?
We’ve had a wonderful year—our first officially as a church. We did a home group for four years before we started the church. We started out with just my wife and I, and within a year, we had 40-50 people coming. We had to move out of the house because it kept growing. So we went up the street to a small church building and grew to 80 people up there. And then we grew out of that little tiny church building, and so we took it down to a school cafeteria and still called it “home group” for another year.
Our town is about 14,000 people, and the challenge was that we had people from every church in town attending our home group. That was great, but we struggled with whether to move to Sundays, or to keep meeting during the week. I started thinking, “if we start a new church, then I don’t know who I have to build a church with.” But if we had it during the week and people were still going to their own church on Sundays, it felt like a mixed vision. Finally, I felt like God said, “meet on Sundays, and then you’ll see who your church is.”
So we went ahead and started meeting on Sundays. I feel like I made a lot of people in the community angry because they loved coming to our home group, but they still felt obligated to go to their home church on Sundays, and so when I moved our group to Sundays, many of those people did not come. So then I knew who I had to work with, and that’s who I began to focus on.
At that point, it pretty much dropped back down to 20 people. But we started building family with those people. And we just continued doing that. So now on a regular Sunday it’s about 100 people, and we have close to 200 people if everyone came at once. We’ve become a church.
Many of our church family members are addicted to drugs like meth and heroin. In fact, our worship leader was an atheist addicted to heroin a year before she began leading worship in our church. Now she’s been leading for a couple of years, and she’s growing and doing well. The Holy Spirit did an amazing download on her, and she is just growing and maturing fast.
Many in our church family have felonies, and have been in and out of jail. Sometimes we joke that if someone hasn’t come for two Sundays in a row that we look at the mug shots on the jail site here, and sure enough, there they are. But we have some families who aren’t going to jail as much after a year of attending, and though some are having drug relapses, the majority are being victorious, getting clean and sober. There are four families we worked with last year who had lost their children because of meth. And one family in particular had lost their children and had been addicted to meth for 15 years. But they heard about the church and started coming, and we prayed with them and they wanted to get baptized, and they just never missed a Sunday, ever. For about a year we’ve been loving on them and they’ve become family to us. We helped them get into a house, they got jobs, and we went to their hearings and were there for them as much as we could be. And they’ve just recently gotten all three of their children back. They’re doing really well, and we’re proud of them. And we have four families like that—one guy just got his kid back, and another girl just got visitation. It’s beautiful, what God’s doing in their lives.
We focus on the West side of town, which is typically the harder part where there is a lot of trouble—a lot of heroin, a lot of meth, and a lot of dysfunctional families, a lot of divorce, a lot of alcohol—and we want to see that change. We’re just naturally drawing that unchurched culture, the families that don’t know Jesus. We’re trying not to use Christianese when we preach. It’s real life in language they can understand and speaking to their culture where it can actually affect their lives.
And I’m learning a lot about drugs—I never smoked a joint in my life, and I don’t know anything about drug addiction, so I’ve been going to AA meetings and Celebrate Recovery just to understand those cultures. And I’ve just really been trying to become aware of their challenges and how to minister to them. It’s very foreign to me, but I love them and they know that. One of our sayings is that, “If you’re new here and you want to be a member of this church, just come twice and you’re a member. Oh, and by the way, if you have a tattoo, you’re automatically a member.” And you can see it on their countenance—they just sink right in like they’re home, they’re family, they don’t feel judged. And then they go out and tell their friends, “Hey you gotta come to this place, and they don’t care if we have tattoos.” So we just keep doing what we’re called to do—love on them and let the Holy Spirit clean them off in his timing.
And then this whole year we’ve been really focusing on discipleship classes, and we probably will forever, because if there are unchurched people, we need to teach them the Gospel and disciple them. So that’s all we’re doing. Loving on them, worshiping in spirit and truth and giving them the Gospel on Sundays, and offering discipleship classes throughout the week that we call home groups. That’s going very well.
This next year we’re going to continue all that, but we’re also going to focus on developing leaders and help them develop their ministries. So I’m going to do that with about twelve different families this year. And we do also have some amazing elders. I would never would have imagined starting a church or planting a church with the eldership that we have—incredible people that I’ve known since 1988. It’s a very special thing.
All in all, it’s been a crazy great adventure of just loving people unconditionally and spreading the Word. I think of the Samaritan woman at the well: she only had a brief meeting with Jesus, but she runs to her city and comes back with many people who just want to know what he is all about. She probably brought others into the kingdom just with the testimony of her own encounter with Jesus, and that’s what’s happened here, too. I don’t advertise, I don’t put anything on the radio. So you know it’s people just getting the word out, and that’s a natural Holy Spirit kind of thing. And whoever shows up, we can love on them.
You mentioned seeing people being healed of addiction with no withdrawals, or being healed of cancer, or other things like that. Can you tell me some of those stories?
You know, when we started the church, initially, all these people with addictions were just coming in off the streets. And we were seeing that with lots of them who wanted to be clean and sober, that they would be healed. I guess I take that for granted because it was happening all the time.
One guy who came to our home group was a dope dealer—I mean dope as in meth—down in Portland. He ended up being completely delivered in one night. Never had withdrawal again, never relapsed. There was also something really messed up with his knee, and that evening there was another woman that we prayed for, and her knee was healed. So we just had her turn around and pray for his knee, and when she was laying hands on the knee, it just completely moved all by itself and popped, and he was completely healed. It kind of freaked her out, because she had never seen anything like that happen. Now he and his wife are attending the Vineyard in Hood River. They are leaders there, and she leads a 12-step program. But that kind of healing was common in our home group.
But now that we’re meeting on Sundays, we’re seeing things, too. We prayed for one gal who had a large, inoperable brain tumor that was probably going to kill her, and there was nothing the doctors could do. So we prayed, but when she went back to the doctor, they discovered that not only did she still have the brain tumor, but she also had tumors all the way down her spine, and they were spreading and getting worse. She just felt hopeless. And so we prayed again. She was only 23 years old, and she had a son, and we just got this righteous anger that we wouldn’t stop praying for her. We weren’t going to give in to the cancer. And so we really prayed hard, and when she went back to the doctor, all the tumors down her spine were gone. All that was left was this inoperable brain tumor.
So we started praying again, and all of a sudden they found out, “oh, we can operate on that tumor.” So they operated on her, and she actually died in the hospital after the surgery, but they were able to revive her, and now she’s still alive and fighting. When they first discovered the tumor, they didn’t expect her to live more than three months. And we’re still praying for her, and she’s doing really well now.
So we’ve learned how to pray for that stuff. It’s part of life here. Jesus says his kingdom is come on earth just as it is in heaven, and if we truly believe, we can pray heaven down to earth—he says to pray that. And there is no sickness in heaven. And so that’s what we’re praying for and what we want. You know, not everybody is completely healed, but we keep doing it and keep pushing on and don’t look back.
The big miracle is really who shows up on Sunday. We look out every week and it’s a miracle that they even show up. For me that’s very special. I was a youth pastor nine years ago at another church, and I have some kids that came to youth group back then who are adults now and come to our church. And back in the ‘80s, I was a youth pastor also for five years, and we have a handful of those kids—I call them kids, but they’re adults now with their own kids—that are in our church. Which is kind of cool, seeing how God has brought us together.
Thanks for sharing all those stories! As we wind up, is there anything that you would like for us to be lifting up in prayer?
Please pray that God keeps bringing in the unsaved, and that God helps us to keep making disciples and developing new leaders. We can never have too many leaders. So pray that we raise up leaders that really own their calling and function in it. Everyone gets to play, and I’m going to take that seriously this year, which means letting people do the stuff. Letting them give testimonies, lead small groups, all that stuff. I don’t want people to be always seeking me and Marlene out. I want them to be seeking Jesus out. So I just have to have faith that our new leaders can do well and be ready to clean up the messes as they come.
So there you have it. God is at work in The Dalles. Isn’t that fun to read about? And we’d love to hear about what he’s doing in your neck of the woods. Why don’t you hop over to the forum and we can celebrate some cool stories of the Kingdom coming in our communities.