Jim Killam

Meet Clayton Ganziano

Clayton Ganziano has served First Free Rockford for two years as middle school coordinator. Now he’s also coordinating Rooted, our young-adults ministry. Clayton and Hannah just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

We talked with Clayton about church youth groups, what kids are looking for … and how middle school and young adult ministries actually have a lot to do with one another.

 

What did your faith look like, growing up?

I grew up in an EV Free church. My family was very involved there. But once I was in high school, my older brother and I just didn’t connect well in the youth group. So we tried a lot of different churches, places that our friends were going or that we had heard about.

The Chapel, a multi-site church in the Chicago area, had just opened a campus at my high school, McHenry High School. We checked it out as a family and it was a place we were OK with going. My mom wanted us to get plugged into the youth group, but I didn’t want to go. That was a whole lot of new people. It was a bigger church and that youth group was going to be big and overwhelming.

The group met in Grayslake, so for the McHenry campus, the students would gather at a Burger King. Then a church bus would pick everyone up and drive them to youth group. So at my mom’s insistence, I tried it one night. As I’m sitting in Burger King, this lady walks in. And she’s like, “Hey, are you getting on the bus?” And I’m like, “Yeah … who are you?”

Clayton Ganziano with Student Ministries Director, Meredith Domanico.

Well, she was Meredith Domanico, who’s now here at First Free (director of Student Ministries). She had just become the youth pastor, and she caught me totally off guard. So in my head I’m thinking: Just go away. Just go away. C’mon, more people come in, because then she’ll go talk to you instead.

But after that first night, I felt like it was a place where I wanted to be. There was this wave of people saying, “I see you and I want to know who you are.” That was a brand-new experience for me. At our previous church, my family had grown up there, so everybody knew who I was. But a lot of people didn’t actually know me. People didn’t take the next step in trying to find out who I was. They just assumed, “Well, I know your family, so I know who you are.”

 

What changed about your faith after that?

I lived a large part of my early life thinking I needed to know all the answers. So when my friends would ask me, “How do you know God is real?” I needed to know the answer. And if I didn’t, I thought I would look like a fool and I wouldn’t win them over.

Heartbeat meets mid-week to play games, worship and study God’s Word together.

I had all the head knowledge. My church growing up emphasized knowing the Bible – and I know that’s extremely important. That’s what I’m trying to communicate to students today, how important that is. But at a point for me, I thought I knew everything, but I didn’t understand at all what it meant. I could tell you the gospel, but I didn’t know what it meant to live it out.

I don’t want to live my life like that, as if other people’s faith and eternal destination depends on whether I know all the answers. The question actually is, am I open to journey with other people? I would always ask our leaders questions and they didn’t always have the answers. I appreciated the genuineness of somebody looking at me and saying, “That’s actually a really good question. I don’t know the answer. I have my thoughts. But why don’t we together look at this? Let’s open Scripture, let’s go in prayer, and actually sit and process this question.”

 

How did that experience inform your ministry today?

Students come to me or our leaders with questions now, and a lot of times we could give them answers. That’s great, but that’s not real for me. I didn’t sit in that process of discovery and learning.

I don’t want this just to be a place where they know Bible trivia or they can recite Scripture. Those are good things. But if that is all we are going for, then what’s the point? I want them to be able to truly wrestle with: What does this look like for me? What does this look like in my life? And then to really make their faith their own.

 

Is there a main impression you want students to have when they attend Heartbeat?

I know there are so many students who go to school and they feel like nobody sees them, nobody notices them. And there is this desire to have friends and be part of a community. What does that look like for us to take intentional steps for them to do that together?

Clayton Ganziano teaches Heartbeat middle school students during their mid-week gathering.

I want every student who comes through our doors to know that they are loved. That’s a need they already know about. They want to be in places that love them and accept them. Not, We love you once you do this, or accept this, or believe this.

I want this to be an easy on-ramp for them to invite their friends from school. Not necessarily to Wednesday nights, but to their small group — for them to find a place as friends that they can actually belong, too.

And I want students to be comfortable asking questions. I tell my students every time, if there’s something I said onstage tonight that makes no sense to you, come talk to me. Or ask your leader in your small group. If a student says, “OK, you just said this and it doesn’t make sense,” that really excites me because I know they were listening.

 

What have you been tinkering with, format-wise?

Previously the kids were split up by age and gender. This year I wanted to mix it up a little. I’ve heard from past classes: “I know who the girls are, but I don’t really know them. I don’t feel comfortable talking with them.”

I want to see a group that isn’t founded on a friend group here or a friend group there, cliquing up. Like, our guys are really close together and our girls are really close together but they don’t know how to cross over. I want it to be a group that knows you can know and love somebody without it being, Oh, you’re my girlfriend if I talk to you.

Obviously there will be some topics where we do put the girls together and the guys together. We do have clear boundaries on certain things. But, looking at the rest of their lives, they’re not going to live segregated as guys and girls. There is such a bigger understanding of things.

 

OK, the predictable question here: Could this approach lead to romantic relationships that kids may not be ready for?

From my experience, I think that was even stronger when they separated the guys and girls more. The more they separated us, the more we questioned why. Who are they?

I want to get to a normal where it’s OK to go talk to a girl or a guy. You don’t just talk to a girl or a guy because you want to date them. It’s OK to have a friend of the opposite sex. Just because I go talk to you doesn’t mean I’m interested in trying to date you or marry you one day. I just want to know who you are.

And I see that in our students. Some are a little flirty and we know those kids. But for a lot of students, they just want to get to know people. I don’t want to have to be shy or weird around you because you’re a guy or a girl. I want them to get a better idea of what it looks like to respect the other. For our guys, what does it look like to actually be a friend and be a gentleman to the girls?

 

Now with some staff shuffling, you’ve taken on the Rooted ministry as well. What’s your focus there?

My hope is for our community to be a place for college-age students and young adults to come and take ownership of their faith. Many people, myself included, grew up in the church living out their family’s faith. But then in these crucial years of beginning to live on your own, you can truly learn, refine and own your faith. We want to be a space where people can come and ask real questions and then journey into those together as a community.

 

Rooted college/young-adult ministry meets every Tuesday in the lower level of the main campus.

 

What are you learning so far?

We all come in with everything we have learned from our families and home churches. We can bring these different perspectives not to change others or prove others wrong, but for better learning. I can only grow when I hear, see and experience others’ views — not just by sitting in things I already believe or by listening to people who think exactly like me.

 

Seems like you could do some easy research by asking the Rooted group what worked and didn’t work for them back in junior high.

One of my questions is always, “What was your youth group experience like? What things have you held on to, and what things do you say ‘That was just traumatizing. I’m trying to forget that’?

A lot of them have shared: The best things, biggest and fondest memories weren’t from a big event night or even retreats. It was just moments, whether scheduled or unscheduled, just being together. There was one youth pastor or one leader who was so committed, just inviting us over to their house or to do things together. And that is the picture I’m holding now in my mind of what true community looks like.

It’s not about bigger, better events. It’s not about making my teaching the most crazy with so many examples or whatever, it’s about the moments where they were affirmed, that they had friends and a place to belong. That they were seen. They were heard. Those are the things that they remember most. So then those are the things that I want to put a lot of our time into.

 

Is there a bottom line for you in ministry?

What I want for our students is to get to a point that, I know that Jesus is real. I know the things he said and the things he has done for me are real, because I have seen and experienced first-hand his followers, his people, living that same thing out to me.

I know I’m here because of people like Meredith and my other leaders back in that youth group — people who didn’t just understand this whole Jesus thing, but made it real. And they allowed me to have that same experience. They just loved me and cared for me. I know Jesus is real because I saw his disciples do that work in my life.

 

Clayton’s Favorites

Music: The Starbucks playlist on Spotify. It’s good music that you can listen to and get work done at the same time. That’s when I listen to music the most is when I’m writing or putting together a message.

Movie: Star Wars

TV show: Parks & Recreation

Food: Pizza (what else would I say as a middle school leader?)

Vacation place: Colorado. I love the mountains.

 

Women’s Retreat: A Closer look

First Free Rockford’s Women’s Retreat, “Closer,” starts Friday evening, Oct. 25, and ends at noon Sunday, Oct. 27. The site is Fox Valley Christian Action’s Riverwoods Family Campus near St. Charles. Register here. Registration deadline is this Sunday, Oct. 13.

We spoke with retreat coordinator Brandy Pardee.

 

What has your own spiritual journey looked like over the past few years?

I got to a point where I had been doing all the things that were recommended for a Christian to follow Jesus. Good things. Serving regularly, attending church regularly, doing a Bible study. Heck, I had my Bible degree. I married a pastor. All those things. But at the end of the day, I didn’t see lasting and real transformation.

Over a period of time … I finally just said, I’m still angry. I’m still prideful. I still go on this cycle all the time, trying to repent or do better. I get caught up in my own pride and performance and ego. There has to be a different way. If I’m supposed to do all these things, and this is how they make me feel, I don’t really want to do them.

Brandy Pardee and her family.

I also saw a disconnect among Christians. What we were supposed to act like — deeply caring for and loving one another and actually walking it out — wasn’t happening. We’d go to church and I’d come home angry and sad. I felt worse, and more shallow and unseen.

So after my oldest son, Teigen, was born, and I was changing diapers and tired all the time, I just said, God, if you are really alive and active and if you are who you say you are, you either need to show yourself or I’m ready to peace out. This isn’t worth it anymore.

 

So what happened?

A big, defining verse for me then was in Luke Chapter 1, where it says of Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Ultimately I just started to filter everything through a new lens: If he really is this, then I either choose to live this way and believe it, or not. So we just continued to press into living what we felt like were the ways of Jesus. That led me to become part of a spiritual formation community. I went on four retreats over the course of a year. Ultimately the Lord showed himself. He is alive and active, and he began to take me to those deeper places to breathe life and security in me for just being loved. I realized I don’t have to serve or do another thing for the rest of my life in order for God to love me.

 

What were those retreats like?

Ladies from First Free recently gathered to pray for the women’s retreat and practice some spiritual disciplines together.

Authentic, transparent community and mentors. We could go deep and talk about what was really going on. The retreats were about new or deeper ways of looking at who God is and what it looks like to walk that out with the Spirit. And then embracing so much more of a contemplative posture: solitude, silence, stillness.

Some of it was just practice and encouragement from people to just sit and linger. I’d pray something like, I’m just going to sit here and I’m asking you to make me more aware of your love. And maybe that was my prayer for a whole week. Over time my eyes started to adjust. I could see it. He was just moving all of that great, true, biblical head stuff into my heart.

 

What’s your hope for this upcoming Women’s Retreat?

We want it to be a time where women can come and encounter the Lord, encounter others and just have space for the weekend to be exactly what they want or need it to be. Maybe it is just a great, soaking time through worship and being in the Word.

It’s so great to get away from normal routines, habits, pressures, expectations … what we know as familiar. That might feel a little uncomfortable or even a little shaky or risky, but I think it helps open us up to being aware of things that we’re not normally aware of — like the Lord’s voice or presence.

 

What might be transformational about the weekend?

Knowing that I am not only fully known, but also fully accepted and loved. If I were just fully known, that would feel really risky and produce shame or guilt or fear. But the fact that I am fully accepted, while being fully known, grounds me in that deep place of being rooted and grounded in his love.

It’s about embracing both of those and opening yourself to God’s truth and his presence. That’s very different than just trying to attain Bible knowledge or perform as a Christian. It has allowed me to be real with my shortcomings – my ego, my pride, all of those things that I am not proud of. But it’s also allowing me to come into his gentle tenderness where he meets me and ultimately says, I love you so much right now, where you are, but I’m not going to leave you right there. We’re going to keep walking that out.

 

•••

Register for the retreat here. If cost is prohibitive, scholarships are available!

Floral illustrations by Emily Anderson, 2019.

 

Acts series: The church then … and now

Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke UranA new sermon series, focusing on the book of Acts, starts Sunday, Oct. 6. We spoke with Lead Pastor Luke Uran about this series, which will run through January 2020.

 

Why Acts? Why now?

As I was praying through the preaching calendar for the upcoming year, one of the books that kept coming to mind was Acts — the work that the Holy Spirit does through the early church, and the way that the church back then was truly a movement. It was growing and healthy and full of life. That’s not to say the church can’t be like that today. But I also look at the early church and think it looks very different than it does today.

 

Do you think today’s American church typically misses something in this book?

We tend to think, “That was the church then. Those kinds of things aren’t for the church now.” And yet the same Spirit that indwelled the church then indwells us now. The disciples preached, taught, healed and showed the love of God in schools, homes, marketplaces, roads, courtrooms, streets, hills and even on ships. Wherever God sent them, lives were changed. Now it’s our turn.

 

What do you want the takeaway value of this series to be for our congregation?

Three main things. One, to have a better understanding of the birth and the growth of the church. Two, to know that we, too, have been given a mission like the early church to go and make disciples. And three, to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.

 

Luke wrote the book of Acts very methodically, and yet at the end of chapter 28 he just kind of stops in the middle of a story. What do you make of that?

We are still living between that 28th chapter and Christ’s glorious return. It’s very open-ended — almost like Luke is saying, “OK, write your own ending.” As a church, our mission is to bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Our vision is to go, tell and show the love of Christ in the city of Rockford and around the world. Those statements drive home that the 29th chapter of Acts is us.

 

What would you suggest as a quick way for someone to get a big-picture view of Acts?

The Bible Project has two animated videos that take you through the whole book in about 8 minutes each. We even showed these to some of our staff as we started thinking and praying through developing this series.

 

Any suggested reading to go along with this series?

There’s a seven-day Scripture reading plan from the Bible app themed around The Forgotten God by Francis Chan. We’re doing this one in our Life Group. It doesn’t focus specifically on Acts, but on the Holy Spirit.

Also, The Spirit-Filled Life by Dr. Charles F. Stanley. This is one of my recommended books available in The Scroll Resource Center.

And then of course you can read ahead for the coming Sunday’s sermon. The weekly email sent on Thursdays always contains the sermon preview and text.

Fall forests: A few places to lose yourself

A few lesser-known places in and around Rockford where you can take a quiet walk in the woods this fall:

Atwood Park

Atwood is 334 acres of forest, marsh and prairie along the Kishwaukee River near New Milford, with hiking and biking trails. The trail system eventually will grow to about 20 miles on both sides of the river. Atwood Park is also the site of the former Camp Grant artillery range.
Brian Wahl says: 
“Atwood park holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a true hidden gem in the area. I’ve been hiking out there since I was in high school, and now I take my kids there. Not only are there great hiking trails and different ecosystems to explore, but there’s also great history there with the remnants of Camp Grant, and the CCC and of course the unique Birds of Prey exhibit. If you time your visit right, you may even be lucky enough to catch a feeding.”

Severson Dells

Severson Dells Nature Center on Montague Road offers a 2.5-mile, self-guided nature trail. The 369-acre forest preserve provides habitat to more than 180 species of native and migrating birds. You can even register for a free, naturalist-guided Fall Color Walk on Oct. 24.
Jessica McDonald says:
“Severson Dells is a gift. A pocket of quiet, an oasis of calm. In a day where we live with so many dings, beeps and whistles, it’s hard to come by a place, even outside, where one can hear the birds or the rustle of leaves. Severson Dells offers that to me. The Lord’s creation speaks to me deeply and to have a place to steal away and to be able to focus my thoughts, prayers and senses deeply refreshes my whole being. Bill Watterson conveys this so perfectly through his good-natured and thoughtful character Hobbes, when he says to Calvin, “Every minute outside and awake, is a good minute.”

Nygren Wetlands

The Carl and Myrna Nyrgren Nygren Wetland Preserve, just west of Rockton, is a 721-acre floodplain near the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica rivers. The amount of wildlife here is astounding, especially during spring and fall bird migrations. Hiking the 2.5-mile main trail you might see bald eagles, sandhill cranes, egrets, white pelicans, bluebirds, otters, beavers, muskrats, turtles, deer, foxes and minks.
Dave Hugdahl says:
“Nygren Wetlands is a great place to experience God’s wonderful world. In addition to the wildlife, there are beautiful fields of natural prairie grass and wildflowers. There are times when I have been there and not experienced much wildlife, but there is something about being surrounded by God’s glorious creation that settles the soul and draws you closer to him.”

Piscasaw Fen

Illinois once had 22 million acres of prairie full of tall grass and wildflowers. Today there’s barely any … but habitat restoration projects are happening around the state. If you want to see one up close, visit the Piscasaw Fen Conservation area east of Poplar Grove off Edson Road. Non-native plants are being systematically removed and hiking trails have been cut through the 177 acres of prairie, wetlands and oak savanna. Note: The area closes for hunting several weekends in late October and November, so check before you go.
Jim Killam says:
“My parents’ farm is adjacent to the Piscasaw Fen, so I grew up exploring this area when it was cow pasture. Today it’s a walk back in time to when most of Illinois was prairies, forests, wetlands and oak savannas. You’ll find quiet solitude here and be immersed in the restoration of creation.”

Reuben Aldeen Park

Hidden in plain sight at 623 North Alpine Road, the park offers 88 acres of maple and oak woodland, prairie and creek, right in the middle of town. An extensive system of trails — some paved — winds through 40 of those acres. Be careful of flooding, especially after this fall’s rains.
Tricia Magers says:
“Almost every day I get the opportunity to hike the trails from Spectrum School to Aldeen Park with my preschool class. When I am in the woods with my littles, I am given the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Where others see a dead log, they find life.  Where others see sadness in a fallen tree, they find joy in a new place to climb. On my worst days, my heart becomes full as they show me the way the water flows under the frozen creek, or point out the way the vines grow to create a hiding place, or when they notice the flattened prairie grass where the deer have recently been sleeping. It is an incredible thing that I get the opportunity to spend my days in the park with little people who always have joy for life from the juiciest worm, the slimiest slug or the puffiest mushroom.”
More:

Life, community and … vegetables?

For Philip and Kelli Anderson, the mission field has never felt more real. A decade ago, they returned from missionary work in Africa to start Anderson Organics on Philip’s parents’ farm. It hasn’t turned out exactly as they envisioned; a 2010 tornado made sure of that, destroying the barn they had envisioned as a church. But God has still used what seemed at first like a crazy idea to build community and make disciples. To Philip and Kelli, the agricultural setting feels like it leaped off the pages of Scripture.

We visited the Andersons’ farm near Loves Park to talk about ministry, community and calling. As we recorded the interview, we all realized this was a holy moment. Watch the videos and you’ll see why. 


Anderson Organics received a Jeremiah Fund grant from First Free Rockford. Wait until you see what they bought with the money, and what an encouragement the grant was to Philip and Kelli.


What should you do when you have an outside-the-box idea for ministry? Philip and Kelli Anderson offer wise words based on their own experience.

Prayer for the new school year

A community prayer of dedication and blessing

During worship at First Free Rockford’s Chapel venue recently, several schoolteachers led the congregation in this liturgical prayer. Feel free to share it, use it and adapt it.

 

Chapel Service at First Free Rockford

A time of Prayer and Musical Worship in the Chapel Venue.

Reader 1:

Eternal God, as this new academic year begins, bless our schools, home schools, colleges, universities and trade schools. Let them be centers for sound learning, new discovery and the pursuit of your wisdom.

Reader 2:

For all who are beginning or renewing the wonder of learning and teaching — let our schools be places of love and wisdom, sound learning and new discovery, anchored in your truth.

Reader 3:

Jesus, you are our great teacher and example. Please give our teachers your dedication, insight, creativity, patience, peace and joy. Let their lives, and their students’ lives, be enriched and enhanced by learning.

Congregation:

Guide us, Lord, by your truth.

Reader 4:

We pray, Lord, for our students, teachers and administrators in an unsteady and confusing world.

Reader 1:

In our divided nation and culture, let them be peacemakers.

Reader 2:

In a world filled with and motivated by fear, give them your courage.

Reader 3:

In a world filled with lies and confusion, guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Grant them discernment to recognize truth and to recognize that you are the source of all truth.

Reader 4:

Father, we plead with you for an end to violence in our schools and our communities, and for relief from the fear of being harmed. Keep evil far from our students, teachers and administrators. Help them to trust you as their refuge and strength. Give them your peace that goes beyond all understanding.

Congregation:

Guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Reader 1:

For those young ones who are on a destructive path, Father, please turn them toward you. Let education steer them to hope and faith in you. Give our teachers special wisdom in helping them.

Reader 2:

For students whose home life is broken or dangerous, let school be a place of refuge. Give us compassion and generous hearts. Prompt us in specific ways we can help.

Reader 3:

For those students who are on your right path, Father, let them be lights for you. Give them perseverance and joy, curiosity and a contagious hunger for learning.

Congregation:

Lead us, Lord, by your love.

Reader 4:

Father, for our school administrators: Give them godly wisdom and leadership. Help them to work for the common good of all students and teachers in school policies, contract negotiations and public policy.

Reader 1:

Strengthen us, Father, as we begin this new school year. Comfort us when we are unsure of our new surroundings. Strengthen us when we stumble. Help us to remember that your light shines in all places.

Congregation:

Father God, help us to support those who teach, lead and coach our students. Give us thankful hearts and prayerful spirits.

Reader 2:

We ask all of this in the name of Jesus.

All:

Amen

 

Tweaking the EFCA’s Statement of Faith

Teaching during the next two Sunday Evening Praise services will address the recent change in the Evangelical Free Church of America’s Statement of Faith. First Free Rockford is a member of the EFCA,  an association of autonomous churches united around 10 theological convictions.

At the June conference, EFCA delegates approved a change in Article 9. The change substituted the word “glorious” for “premillennial” in the EFCA’s doctrinal position about the return of Jesus. The statement now reads:

“We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”

First Free’s Paul Geddes will teach about this and related topics during the next two Sunday Evening Praise services, Sept. 29 and Oct. 6. The services begin at 6 p.m. in the Chapel.

For our church, adopting this change requires approval by the congregation — which is why the old version still appears on our website. Discussion and a vote are planned for the next Meeting of the Members, Feb. 23.

For background on the EFCA change, which was supported by 79 percent of the delegates, here are two helpful resources:

  • An article by Greg Strand, EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, also points to several other articles that help explain the change and the reasoning.
  • Christianity Today’s Quick to Listen podcast addresses the issue and the related conversation that’s been taking place in the wider evangelical world.

 

 

Sharing burdens: a countercultural mission

Galatians 6:2 says, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”

That flies in the face of our culture’s obsession with self-reliance … which ultimately is about pride. True Life in Community looks different.

John Piper interprets the Galatians verse this way:

Here is a vocation that will bring you more satisfaction than if you became a millionaire ten times over: Develop the extraordinary skill for detecting the burdens of others and devote yourself daily to making them lighter.”

Need an example? Consider what happens every day at Rockford Rescue Mission. Their mission statement: Rockford Rescue Mission shares hope and help in Jesus’ name to move people from homelessness and despair toward personal and spiritual wholeness.

Sounds a lot like Galatians 6:2, doesn’t it? The “homelessness” aspect is Rescue Mission-specific, of course. But aside from that, could this serve as a mission statement for any Christian who wants to “obey the law of Christ”?

We spoke recently with Joy Wilson, lead coordinator for the Mission’s Women’s Life Recovery Program. In the video above, Joy talks about her own hard path, and how God uses community to work in the lives of hurting people. Meaning, all of us. 

Faith, work and lunch

How do faith and work converge for Life in Community? A group of local business leaders meets monthly for lunch, networking and exploring that question together. Here’s their story:

Friends, Life Groups and community

What does Life in Community look like? Chad and Megan Clauson’s Life Group started when most of them were part of First Free’s young adults ministry, Rooted. Now that members’ lives have taken different paths, the group still sticks close.