By Becky Hobbs
"There's no doubt about it," says William Vanderbloemen (RTS '98), "when I came to Memorial in 1998, it was on life support. I had prayed for a church to revitalize and God definitely answered my prayer!" Memorial Presbyterian in Montgomery, Alabama, was indeed in trouble, showing all the signs of a church in the throes of death. It's membership had been declining for a long time, it had suffered two splits in five years, and, just before William arrived, the members had voted to sell the church building and relocate -- but had bought no land to do that.
"The church was in bad shape, but I have done nothing to renew or revitalize it," says William. "God has done it all. It has been His sovereign hand that has led us to try things together and kept us from trying things that would have been bad. He has brought together a wonderful team."
Since William's arrival worship attendance has doubled, with about seventy visitors a week, many due to William's popular and compelling radio spots aired daily on secular radio stations. Now syndicated, the spots focus on a current news event or buzz word and point people to Christ. Last year one of the spots prevented a suicide; the listener came to Christ and is now an active member of Memorial. Demo tapes and packages at different price levels are available to interested churches (see inset).
It's hard to believe God has done so much in only two short years. When William arrived that Palm Sunday in 1998, a good Lord's Day at Memorial was 150 in attendance. The church, established soon after World War II, had started out as a small neighborhood congregation and had grown to 1,000 members. Housed in a beautiful stone facility, it had become one of the pillars of Montgomery. But time changes most things, and as the city grew the area became completely urbanized. Membership continued to drop as people left the area; it was obvious that the church must move or become an urban ministry.
Shortly after William arrived, the congregation began meeting at a YMCA near their current location and began to grow. Members say William was not afraid to lead and has a God-given gift of dealing with people.
"He is always relevant because he teaches the never-changing Scriptures," explains Sease. "He challenges us to reach out to others as part of our Christian growth; faith is a very relevant thing, not just a social custom."
William believes his passion for revitalization stems from God's merciful work in his life during college. "I made every effort to throw a good life away, and God has taken it, changed it, rebuilt it, made it into a new creation and given it new life. That's why I have a heart for churches that have grand histories but have fallen apart at the seams. With the help of the Holy Spirit and God's Word, I want to try to bring them new life."
A mover and shaker, William seems to have been running on high octane fuel all of his life, but he hasn't always depended on God for guidance. The child of a Presbyterian lawyer in Lenoir, North Carolina, he grew up thinking that working hard and living right would insure aim a fairly happy life. He's always liked to do things fast, well, and before anyone else. Even in high school, his energetic resourcefulness was evident. When the school administration did not want the hassle of running a candy store for students, he got permission to set one up in his locker and made a killing. No wonder they elected him Most Likely to Succeed! His senior year he took thirty hours of college credit from Appalachian State. He subsequently transferred those credits to Wake Forest University when he graduated and was able to get an MBA in three years. By age thirty, "I was ready to take over the Western Hemisphere."
But his philosophy fell apart when he arrived at Wake Forest. "I saw a lot of people there with Roman numerals after their names who had everything in life but were terribly unhappy," recalls William. "My worldview of success was a house of cards; I didn't know the meaning of life any more. All I could see to live for was to have fun. So, for the next year and a half I lived a fast and furious prodigal life far from God."
By the middle of his sophomore year, his life had bottomed out. His grades were poor, and Melissa, now his wife, dumped him. The time was right for God to enter his life "I met the Lord in a way that was as real as anything I've ever known," says William. "It started with a look in the mirror and the realization, 'This is not who I need to be.' I was convicted of my sin, and I finally realized the truth of the words, 'Jesus is Lord.' All those little seeds that were planted at First Presbyterian in Lenoir started to spring to life and I knew the Lord was saying, 'I love you, and I want you to come home.'"
From that moment, the seeds sprouted quickly and William began to grow in faith. He lost fifty pounds, quit smoking two-and-a-half packs a day, brought his grades up, and declared a major in religion. He became a sponge soaking up knowledge about the Gospel. The old skin continued to fall off and a new person began to emerge. He was busy on the weekends driving home begging Melissa to take him back, and "she took ample time to let me grovel!"
Typically, now that God had saved him, William was ready to move on. What was God calling him to do? If he wasn't supposed to conquer the world, what was he to do? One thing he knew -- he did not want to be a pastor.
"Back then, I wanted to be respectable," laughs William. "Pastors, I felt, had bad hair and tacky clothes and asked people for money." So, he decided to pursue a Ph.D., finish it in record time, and then write books that would spread the Gospel faster and more furiously than anyone ever had. But his pastor, Parker Williamson ( editor of the Presbyterian Layman and a member of the RTS Board of Ministerial Advisors) and others slyly convinced him to do his Ph.D. work at a seminary where he could get a degree and be ordained. Then he could perform wedding ceremonies for friends and family.
"Those guys were one sly set of dogs," recalls William. "They could see God calling me to the pastorate but knew if they pushed I would rebel." Thus, William entered Princeton Seminary and became a top student. Yet, the more he pursued a degree in research, the more he realized he was not interested in what happened two hundred years ago; he was taken with the fact that he had been living a hopeless life and God had given him hope. He wanted desperately to share that with other people. He realized most people with that desire go into the pastorate. He was on the horns of a dilemma.
The only thing that interested him about the pastorate was preaching class. He watched his friends struggle to master communication techniques that came easy to him. He couldn't think of anything he'd rather do than preach. But he also realized that preaching was only a small part of a pastor's duties. Could he handle the rest of them? Friends and mentors encouraged him at least to give it a try, but William continued to find excuse after excuse to say no. Finally, William and Melissa could not refuse God any longer and, after one particularly weepy night, they said to God, "Ok, we'll go anywhere for You."
"I dreamed that night that we went to a solo pastorate in Nome, Alaska," William recalls. "When we arrived, it was the first day of winter; the sun was going down as we got out of the car, plunging us into virtual darkness for six months. I woke up in a cold sweat." Actually, the Vanderbloemens ended up at First Presbyterian Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina, when he graduated from Princeton in 1995. William became the associate pastor and was able to virtually co-pastor the church, gaining much valuable ministry experience. As usual, it was an answer to William's prayer that God use him to the absolute fullest measure of his gifts -- a prayer he continues to lift to the Lord now.
During his two years in Hendersonville, the church doubled in size. The elders also offered to pay for William's continuing education in the form of a Doctor of Ministry degree. William felt, however, that many D.Min. degrees were not worth the time spent taking them. But he had come to know Ric Cannada, Executive Vice President of RTS in Charlotte, and decided to try one course. All of the summer courses were closed that year except for "Church Revitalization" with the noted Dr. Harry Reeder, pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte.
"I had no idea why I was there," says William. "Our church in Hendersonville was growing so fast we couldn't keep up with the visitors. But once in class, I couldn't take notes fast enough. The Holy Spirit was at work in that room, doing business with me. I had prayed that God would show me my gifts and give me a passion for them, and He did just that. It became clear that the ministry of revitalization was what I wanted to do. This course was teaching me tactics, vision, and missions strategy to rebuild churches. I realized that God had rebuilt my life and I wanted to rebuild His church."
Toward the end of the week, William began to pray, "Lord, you're going to have to open this door. I don't know of any churches that need revitalizing." When he arrived home from the class, right on top of a foot-high stack of mail was a letter from Martha Stronach, Co-Chairman of Memorial's pulpit committee.
"I felt like Jesus' fingerprints were all over that letter," says William. "Normally, a church tries to paint themselves in a good light when they first contact you. But Martha laid the unvarnished truth on the line and asked me to consider it."
"Actually, William was not at all what I had in mind," says Martha. "At first, I thought we needed someone older, perhaps a retired minister looking for a challenge. But God gave me a peace and confidence that William was indeed just what we needed, and our committee looked beyond his age. He was only twenty-eight when he came; one of our committee members wanted to have T-shirts printed for us saying, " We know he's young!"
Part of Memorial's growth is because they have shifted from a family-oriented, internal focus to a concentration on people who haven't heard the Gospel, don't have a church home, or have only a superficial, impersonal relationship with Christ. Their worship style is neither contemporary nor traditional; they want to retain the best of the past, but do it in a crisp, fresh, and relevant way. Both classical and praise music find a home in the service, and William will quote from Augustine one minute and People Magazine the next.
"Worship has been probably our biggest drawing card," relates William. "It is intentionally eclectic. If a church segregates its worship according to style, it will segregate the congregation according to age. We want to do things intergenerationally. The issue of community is very important at Memorial. People are seeking a connection; therefore the church must be a place of community. Eclectic worship and small groups help accomplish that. Part of the beauty of the eclectic style of worship is that it forces us to realize that we're going to worship together forever. Even if I don't like a particular style, it's good if it is meaningful to someone else in the congregation. Our people are gaining a better sense of community."
Memorial also works hard to put people to work using their spiritual gifts. New members understand that they will have a job upon joining; they are told, "You can sit in the stadium as long as you want, but when you join the team, you'll get a jersey and play in the game." During the first month, a new member's job is only to bring three people to church. By month's end, the associate pastor has interviewed him and determined where his gifts best fit.
"This place is growing and alive!" says William of Memorial's rebirth. "People who have never been to church or who have never been comfortable in a church are coming to Memorial. Folks from all walks of life are finding something special here."
And, as far as William is concerned, this
is only the beginning!
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 1