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One generation will commend your works to another. —Psalm 145:4
From the introduction of Gary’s soon-to-be-published book, Here We Are to Worship:
My inspiration to write this book started on July 20, 2008. It was the very first Sunday in our new church home on North Avenue. I stood at the top of the stairs just outside the Chapel and scanned the Atrium. It was a beehive of activity. Singles, couples, and families were coming through the main doors. Many seemed to know exactly where they were headed; others were looking at building maps; still others were lined up to ask questions at the Welcome Desk. Although I knew many of the people, there were also many I had never seen before.
As I watched, two strong emotions welled up within me. The first was a very deep sense of gratitude for what God had done, and the second was a profound sense of the responsibility the Lord had given to Wheaton Bible Church as stewards of our new facility. This day marked the culmination of years of vision casting, program planning, architectural designing, financial planning, fund-raising, ‘permitting,’ and finally, constructing, equipping, and moving. Now we were really here. What struck me that day was not the detail of our new 235,000-square-foot building or the 47-acre campus—those of us on the building team had been living with that for years. It was the people and the new ministry opportunities that we would have for our current church family and for the children, students, and adults who were yet to come.
There have been several major events marking the history of Wheaton Bible Church, but apart from our founding, none have been as great as the move into our new facility in 2008 and the subsequent increase in ministry opportunities.
But how did this all come about? What precipitated the discussions that would ultimately move the nearly eighty-year-old church from its historic location in downtown Wheaton to an undeveloped piece of land a little more than four miles to the northwest? That’s what we will explore in the pages that follow.
Conviction, Courage, and Commitment
Although Wheaton Bible Church traces its roots back to a church formed on the campus of Wheaton College in 1860, it wasn’t until 1929 that our church was officially founded.
In June of that year, 160 people signed a charter for a new church called the Wheaton College Interdenominational Church. A few years later, reflecting a desire to enlarge the outreach of the church beyond the college campus, the name was officially changed to Wheaton Bible Church.
The church’s founding documents include this statement: “Its faith and practice stand on the foundation of the Bible, which is the inspired, infallible and inviolable Word of God.”
The call to construct our first church building was an early sign of the incredible commitment of the people of Wheaton Bible Church. In the heart of the Great Depression, May 1935, a letter went out from the church’s first Pastor, Kenneth Amsler, encouraging the people to “give sacrificially toward the new building, but not to forget the current expenses and the missionary commitments.”
So, in the midst of the Great Depression, with no physical assets whatsoever and only 291 members, the people gave with overwhelming sacrifice to purchase land and construct our first church building. On March 22, 1936, the congregation met for the first time in the new building at the corner of Cross and Union Streets. What a moment that must have been. The cost of the Cross Street land was $4,050; the building was constructed at a cost of $30,000 (including $3,000 for furnishings). The average wage-earner’s annual income in 1936 was approximately $1,160.
Over the course of the next decade, the continued growth and outreach of the church saw the congregation step up to new challenges and commitments. In 1947, a Christian Education wing was added, and in 1959 a new worship center was built, with seating for 1,100 worshipers.
In 1982, the original church structure, built in 1936, and the attached Christian education wing were demolished. A new Christian education building was constructed in their place, at a cost of $4 million. It was a time when interest rates for loans were well into the double digits. The church had raised approximately half the amount needed in cash and financed the balance over the next ten years.
All church construction projects are stressful for a church. This one was particularly painful for some because of the demolition of the original church building. Many had been married there, and some had held funeral services for family members in that building. The construction period also took its toll on the church because, during nearly two years of construction, much of the Christian education program had to move off campus. Classes were spread out over a seven-block area around the church and were held in homes, municipal and commercial buildings, and a local funeral home. The new building doubled the amount of space designated for Christian education and made it possible to bring all our staff offices under one roof.
In March 1987, Wheaton Bible Church purchased the former Christian Science Church, located on the corner of Main and Union Streets, adjacent to our other properties, at a cost of $225,000. We renamed the building Main Street Chapel. It quickly became the home of our Junior High and High School Ministries, and in 1990, it was the place where our Hispanic Ministry was born.
What started out as a small Spanish-language Bible study of thirteen people led by Wheaton College graduate student Rodrigo Chavarria, soon turned into a fully-functioning church of three hundred to four hundred men and women from many nations. Their common thread was the Spanish language and a desire to know the Lord.
We didn’t know where God was taking us with this new opportunity, but we wanted to ensure that we were responsive to His leading and direction. We have been learning together ever since that time, and the Lord has continued to richly bless the ministry of our Hispanic congregation.
By 1997, our church had contemporary services at 8:15 and 9:35 am, and both a traditional service and a Hispanic service were held concurrently at 11:10 am.
Our Sunday worship attendance was steadily growing, and even though our new Christian education facility provided over forty meeting spaces, we were once again gathering in nearby homes and other institutional buildings for Sunday school. Parking became more and more of a challenge, and bumper-to-bumper parking was practiced in most of our lots.
It appeared that we would continue to grow if we could ensure that we had the right balance of worship, classroom, and parking space to accommodate it. It was time once again to address the future, as other generations before us had done.
Those who had gone before us stepped out with great courage and sacrifice to provide what we had enjoyed for many years. Now it appeared that God had even greater things for us to do. But how could we know the mind of the Lord for the future? How could we provide for a thriving ministry for generations to come? The Elders, staff, and the whole church engaged in extended times of prayer to seek the mind of the Lord about what He wanted us to do next.
Over many weeks and months of study, discussion, and investigation, multiple scenarios for expanding our facilities on Main Street were explored. None, however, would provide a long-term solution to our space concerns. Eventually, a decision was made to explore a possible relocation.
In July 1998, the Elders appointed a committee called the Alternate Site Selection Committee. The purpose of this committee was to investigate possible site options if we decided to relocate. What became evident very early in the search was the dearth of suitable sites within a reasonable distance from our existing church. We initially sought sites that were in the 25- to 30-acre range, but with further investigation and planning, that was later increased. We set a goal to limit ourselves to sites that fell within seven miles of our current location. What we found were sites that were almost all located in industrial parks surrounded by large-scale warehouses. Nobody thought that was a good idea.
As potential properties were being investigated, a key conversation was initiated that would result in the eventual relocation of Wheaton Bible Church to the intersection of North Avenue and Morton Road.
One site we considered was just west of Gary Avenue on St. Charles Road, but it had several issues that could take time to resolve, including extensive wetlands issues, multiple owners, and nearby power lines. While that site was under consideration, Chairman Chuck Stair and committee member Mac Airhart arranged for a meeting with local developer Joe Keim. Keim and Airhart knew each other professionally as local homebuilders and through a homebuilders’ trade association. Keim had purchased the former Morton Estate at North Avenue and Morton Road with the intent of subdividing it for single- family homes. The land wasn’t for sale, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. After some discussion, Mr. Keim was open to considering the sale of some of the property to the church.
Mac and his wife, Vonla, had only recently become members of Wheaton Bible Church. The conversation between Mac and Joe Keim would not have happened just a few months earlier. This was God’s timing and another of His early confirmations that He was leading us. The land itself was far beyond our wildest dreams, and we recognized that God had opened an incredible door for us.
That was how we ended up with one of the most pristine, desirable, and well-situated pieces of land in all of DuPage County—when it wasn’t even for sale!
Sunday, April 18, 1999, was a pivotal day for the future of Wheaton Bible Church. The members were asked to take a step that would lead to a very large commitment spanning many years. It was considerably more than a real estate commitment; it was a commitment to the future ministry of WBC. The spirit of prayer that led up to the meeting con-tinued that night. Many gathered early before the meeting, and small clusters of people could be seen praying throughout the sanctuary. There was only one question before the members that night: should we purchase up to fifty acres of the former Morton Manor Estate on North Avenue?
In spite of differing views on this matter, there was a spirit of openness, love, and respect in the meeting. There were 715 people present, and 681 members voted. Although the church constitution required only a majority vote for the proposal to pass, the Elders were looking for more. The outcome was 79 percent in favor of the purchase; 21 percent opposed. The 79 percent approval was the Elders’ confirmation to move forward. The vote itself was one of those strong confirmations from the Lord that He was leading us in this step of faith.
As we considered the move, some concerns were raised about the impact the relocation would have on the life and ministry of our church:
Might a significant number of our people decide not to move with us, as we had been told often happens in a relocation?
Could the cost for the new campus be such a large commitment that it would have a major negative effect on our giving to our General Fund and to missions?
As to the first of these concerns, while some people left in the nine years between the vote and our relocation, average attendance at services in 2007 (the last year at our old location) was 2,370; average attendance jumped to well over 3,000 at Sunday worship during our first full year in the new location.
Relating to the concern about giving, I can only say that the response of God’s people was remarkable.
The cost of the land and those related to permitting, civil engineering, site design, and numerous studies, totaled nearly $10 million. With our five-year land contract, our annual costs for the land purchase were roughly $2 million.
At the time we started the land purchase, our General Fund budget was approximately $3 million per year. What this meant was that we would have to step up from a $3 million annual commitment to a $5 million annual commitment—and by the grace of God, we did!
We fulfilled our commitment in that first year, and then in the second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth. Making those payments was never easy. A few years we came close to the due date with a sizeable gap to close, but we made the payments on schedule every year. Our ability to make these payments each year was yet another sign of God’s confirmation to us. From a purely human perspective, we shouldn’t have been able to do this.
Something else was happening during that same five-year period. Our General Fund doubled from $3 million to $6 million, and since our missions budget is a percentage of our General Fund, our missions commitment doubled as well. By the time we actually moved into our new building, our total annual giving was in excess of $10 million, and our missions commitment grew proportionately.
In October 2004, the church made the final payment on the property; it was now ours. Over 1,400 Wheaton Bible Church families and individuals contributed $10,500,000 to make this possible. We all recognized that this could only have happened because God was leading us.
With title to the land in hand, we were ready for the next step. We had moved from vision casting to initial building design, and we were now ready for a major decision.
On the evening of January 30, 2005, the motion to build the new facility passed. It was one of the most important decisions ever made by the Wheaton Bible Church membership. It was now time to move from vision to action. The next steps were to sell our existing property, arrange long-term financing, and launch a capital campaign.
Our bi-lingual Spanish/English capital campaign was called, “Step Out—En Marcha,” reflecting the unity of our Spanish and English congregations in raising the funds for the construction of our new North Avenue campus.
Sunday, May 15, 2005, “Step Out” Sunday, was a unique and inspirational worship service at the new property, held in a very large tent. It was a combined worship experience, highlighting the worship teams of both the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking congregations.
It was a bittersweet day for the church family, however, because an announcement was made that early Saturday morning the day before, Dr. Tom Williams had lost his battle with cancer and had gone to be with the Lord. He was a very close friend and accountability partner with Pastor Rob and had a heart for evangelism and outreach.
He was passionate about the greater outreach opportun-ities we would have at the new site. He was too ill to address the January 30 Business Meeting, so his wife, Rhonda, read a letter from him to the congregation. That morning we rejoiced that Tom, too, was worshiping, not in a tent but in the presence of the Lord.
There was a spirit of anticipation in the air. The worship service began at 10:00 am with enthusiastic singing and special music from the combined worship teams. It included a video tour of the new church campus and
messages from both Pastor Rob Bugh and Pastor Al Guerra, then Senior Pastor of Iglesia del Pueblo. It concluded with an opportunity to make three-year commitments to the capital campaign. The morning was capped with the placement of bricks, symbolically marking the perimeter of the new church.
By the next month, Scott Landon, our Director of Finance and Administration, indicated that we had met and exceeded our first goal of raising cash and pledges of $14 million. Our “Step Out—En Marcha” commitments had actually reached $16,235,000. Over the next few years this increased to more than $19 million. By November of that year, Scott reported that the second goal of receiving $4 million in cash had been achieved.
All of this was possible because of the incredible commitment and sacrifice of our congregation. The giving was very broad-based and included little banks filled with pennies by children in our Sunday school, highly sacrificial commitments of various amounts from many families and singles, and a handful of larger gifts that also represented significant sacrifice and commitment. Another goal that had to be reached before we could begin construction was the securing of a construction loan.
At the church’s Annual Meeting on January 29, 2006, the members authorized the Elders to secure a construction loan up to $30 million. Much of the loan would be paid back with current contributions, and the balance would be rolled over into a long-term loan once the building was completed.
The ongoing sacrificial giving of a broad base of our people was both humbling and encouraging. Because of their faithful giving, it was September 2007 before we had to draw from the construction loan. By that time, we had already completed 47 percent of the building. About a year and a half after we were approved for the loan and hadn’t drawn from it, the lender called one day and half jokingly asked if we ever planned to use it. By delaying the need for the loan as long as we did, we saved thousands of dollars in interest costs.
In August 2005, just about the time we started our initial site-preparation work at the new property, and just three months after Pastor Rob’s dear friend Tom Williams passed away, Carol Bugh, Pastor Rob’s wife, was diagnosed with
an aggressive form of cancer. Despite months of treatments, Carol’s cancer continued its course, and on August 11, 2006, she died in her sleep at home.
Almost exactly two years later, on Sunday, August 24, 2008, the new building was dedicated, and Dr. Duane Litfin gave a prayer of dedication for the Prayer Tower Chapel, which was named in Carol’s honor and memory.
Whenever one gives a thoughtful look at the Prayer Tower, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:14 come to mind: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”
One day during the construction of the West Worship Center, the workmen were installing the Cross on the front wall. Normally the space was filled with multiple sounds from the men and machinery, but there was an interesting stillness that day as a team of men reverently carried the Cross and lifted it into place. They may not have understood all the theology related to the empty Cross, but they understood that the Cross was a symbol of something very special.
During the course of construction, opportunities were given for groups of our people to tour the facility on designated Saturdays. The visual updates that these tours offered were an important part of keeping the church informed about the new church building that the Lord was providing. On one of those tours, in September 2007, many of our people wrote Scripture verses on walls that would eventually be covered over by paint and drywall.
A similar experience occurred on Palm Sunday, March 16, 2008. That afternoon, the church family was invited to come to the building to write Scripture verses on the floor in the East and West Worship Centers in areas that would soon be carpeted. As people arrived, they were given marking pens and directed to areas that would be covered with carpet. In both spaces, you could see people on their knees, with open Bibles, as they recorded the verses that they wanted to leave behind.
Most of the verses written on the floor in the East Worship Center were in Spanish. Gary Martens (a member of the Building Committee who had professionally overseen major construction projects for the school districts where he had been employed, and who volunteered to serve as our “on the ground” representative throughout construction) reported that on the following Monday, drywall installers working in the East Worship Center were on their knees going from verse to verse reading the words. For many of them, Spanish was their primary language.
The day had finally arrived. Sunday, July 20, 2008 marked the culmination of nine years of seeking the mind of the Lord about this facility. It was nine years of interaction with the people of Wheaton Bible Church about the vision and development of a plan, nine years of sacrificial giving on the part of our people, nine years of developing an architectural program and design, nine years of meetings with various government agencies, and three years of site work and construction. It all came into focus on that day.
The parking lots were filling up, and people were streaming through the doors from all directions. Some seemed to know exactly where they were headed; others looked a little overwhelmed and lost. Large-scale wall maps, printed Step In & Discover booklets in English and Spanish, a friendly staff at the Welcome Desk, and a host of Front Door Ministry volunteers wearing “How Can I Serve You?” tags all helped people find their way on that first day.
As I observed the scene on that morning, I recognized many of the people, but I also realized that there were many I had never seen before. For me, there was an overwhelming sense of God’s goodness to us. All of us involved in the project knew that this was so much larger than any of us and all of us together. It was clearly God’s marvelous provision for Wheaton Bible Church. Along with the sense of gratefulness to God came a deep sense of responsibility to be good stewards of what He had provided. And what He provided was not only a wonderful and functional new building but a whole new open door to ministry that didn’t exist before. My frequent prayer is that we never lose sight of this and never take the gift of this new building for granted.
Gary Dausey’s book, Here We Are to Worship will be available in early October.