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Once-Dwindling Congregation Becomes One of Fastest Growing in U.S.

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When Jeremy DeWeerdt put his name before the congregation to become head pastor of Rockford First Church friends thought he had taken leave of his senses. Although he knew the Illinois church faced not only a dwindling attendance but looming bankruptcy as well, DeWeerdt says he felt a sense of loyalty and investment to his home church. He believed the Lord had called him to lead the church out of its difficult season.  

In 2007, DeWeerdt became lead pastor after receiving a 92 percent favorable congregational vote. At age 37, he became the church’s sixth pastor in its 77-year history.   

DeWeerdt says he interpreted the strong affirmative vote as a mandate for change. Six weeks later, he made the painful decision to lay off personnel in high-level leadership positions to cut $850,000 from the church budget.

This was the first of three major downsizings that took place in the first three years he led the church. AG Financial Solutions helped guide the church through some rough financial waters, and by 2012 Outreach Magazine ranked Rockford First as the seventh fastest-growing church in the U.S.   

In 2013, the church made the list again after gaining 465 attendees for a total average attendance of around 4,000 — up from 900 when DeWeerdt became lead pastor.  

DeWeerdt came to the church in 1990. He interned under youth pastor Jeanne Mayo, during which time the Wednesday night youth ministry grew from 35 to more than 850 students.  

In 1993 DeWeerdt officially came on staff. He says in the course of 14 years he saw thousands of young lives changed by strong, biblically centered sermons. DeWeerdt brought this same focus on outreach to his role as lead pastor by creating a mindset among the congregation that the church should be a safe and exciting environment that welcomes everybody.  

“We exist as a church to gather in the name of Jesus and invite those who don’t know Him to come join us,” he says. “It really means making some very difficult decisions to change the inside environment to make it welcoming to those that are on the outside.”  

DeWeerdt encourages congregants to be unified on the essential of reaching the lost and to allow liberty on what he considers non-essentials, such as service times, music, and attire, with everything governed by love.  

Among those who embrace this mindset are longtime members Glenn and Karen Stockwell.  

“The bottom line is salvation,” Glenn says. “As long as I can see that happening and growing, then everything else is peripheral.”  

The Stockwells started attending the church in 1977 when it was called First Assembly of God. They have experienced four head pastors, including DeWeerdt, whom they’ve known since he was a child.  

Though it’s a more casual atmosphere than what she is accustomed to and the contemporary music isn’t her preference, Karen says she knows the goal is not to just make changes for the sake of change, but to reach the lost.

“The gospel is being preached and people are being reached,” she says. “We know it’s not all about us.”  

The Stockwells say DeWeerdt built upon an already solid foundation that began in 1934 when the church started in downtown Rockford. The church moved to its current location in 1971.  

Future plans include a campus that will be planted in the first quarter of 2015 inside of a local state prison.  

“The hardships don’t cast any sort of a shadow upon the overwhelming blessing and favor that God has put upon this journey,” DeWeerdt says. “It’s worth the tough decisions to transition a church.”

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