Steve Benninger is the lead pastor of New Life Church in Gahanna, Ohio (just outside of Columbus) and a recent friend of mine. I admire Steve tremendously, not just because he loves Jesus so much but because he's one of the few men who have at great strain and risk sought to lead a rather large church in a rather new direction, toward gospel-centrality. (It reminds me a bit of Joe Coffey's story.) I will let him tell that story in our interview below, but if for this tremendous pastoral work alone, Steve is a jewel among men. He is also one of the most pastoral pastors I've ever met (and this characteristic will be a common thread among all the men I'm featuring in this series), if you catch my meaning. He is patient, kind, gentle, and yet rock-solid in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For these reasons and more, I wish I was more like Steve. I think you will be blessed by his story.
Where did you grow up and how did you come to faith in Christ?
I was born and raised in Southern California back in the wild 1960's. However, my parents were from Iowa so I was also raised with strong midwestern, Depression-era values. As a result I grew up as a kind of 'cultural misfit.' Also, our family attended a fairly legalistic Baptist church, which added to my sense of being out of step with my peers. Looking back though, I must admit that I was given many spiritual advantages from my parents and my church, including a deep respect for the Bible.
Despite a supposed 'salvation experience' during VBS at the tender age of 8, I basically lived for myself up through my high school years, seeking validation and significance through athletics and academics. But everything changed in an instant on June 18, 1979---truly a defining moment for me. Traveling with a buddy down to Los Angeles to catch a baseball game, my vehicle was struck by a drunk driver in a head-on collision. Everyone involved was killed ... except me. I walked away with a few cuts and bruises and two broken teeth. Two months later I found myself at a fledgling Bible College in Virginia, housed in a dormitory full of guys who were on fire for Jesus. I had never before been around peers who were genuinely devoted to Christ, and the impact on me was immediate and lasting. The campus atmosphere was electric, the passion was genuine, and the spiritual reality was contagious. I was invited to a nightly Bible study group where for the first time I was shown how to study the Bible for myself. Then my RA started to disciple me. Classes on the Christian life were eye-opening. Through all of these things the Lord was graciously opening my eyes to Christ's beauty and my sinfulness. One night that fall His working in my heart was so strong that I felt compelled to get alone with God. I drove up the mountainside and found a clearing. There, looking up into the night sky with tears streaming down my face, the Father showed me my pride and ungratefulness and the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice for me. Repentance and faith filled my heart and I believe to this day that I was genuinely converted that night by the wonderful grace of God.
Tell us about how New Life Church in Gahanna, Ohio came to be planted.
Well, over the course of three years, the dormitory Bible Study group that I joined morphed into a discipleship group, which then morphed again into a church planting team. A team leader emerged quite naturally out of our discipling relationships, and eventually five men covenanted together to plant a church in Columbus, Ohio. It really was a faith venture for all of us since we knew no one in Columbus, didn't have jobs or places to live, and had no experience with church planting. But Christ was gracious to us, and through His mercy a new church was formed in the northeast suburb of Gahanna. That was in 1985.
You have a -- in my opinion -- rather extraordinary story of a "gospel renaissance" in your life that has affected your shepherding and church. Can you explain what that process was like, for you personally and pastorally and then for your church?
Oh my. The last three years have been quite extraordinary. I would have to say that my personal gospel transformation arose out of a season of disenchantment in which I found myself questioning the ministry paradigm that had been deeply ingrained in me for two decades. The truth is that we were products of the Church Growth Movement--we read the books, attended the conferences, adopted the strategies, and revered the gurus. 'Success' came to mean numbers (although we wouldn't have admitted it), so a functional pragmatism seeped into our leadership ethos.
By all accounts what we were doing was 'working.' The church grew steadily and we were starting to get noticed. We even published a discipleship manual for use by other churches who were looking to grow and disciple people like we were.
Then some cracks started to appear. An original member of our team grew restless and felt the need to leave us. Then a new hire didn't work out well. A few years later a second original team member departed. During that time we lost three key staff members within a few months, and that rattled the church some. Growth remained steady for a couple more years, but then for the first time in our history attendance started to level off as we neared our 20 year anniversary. Our senior pastor grew frustrated with all this, while also sensing a new direction forming in his heart. Restless, he too eventually decided to step aside. At that point the church voted me in to the Lead Pastor position. Within two years I was growing restless too, but not with my new role. I was becoming disenchanted with our ministry philosophy and what it seemed to be producing. Ironically, the first thing that began nagging my soul was my own thrill at having an extremely strong month of attendance and giving during the spring of 2007. I distinctly remember having the thought, "Steve, those numbers are making you a little bit too happy. Something's out of whack if positive statistics have that much impact on your joy level. This is not good." It actually scared me. Shortly thereafter, several of our daughter church planters began leaning on me to rethink our ministry paradigm, contending that the team members we had sent out with them were not spiritually mature. These guys had been reading Piper and were taken by a God-centered orientation to life, salvation, and church. I resisted and counter-punched, pretty annoyed, but my knees were weakening. I began to look around at our people, especially at the young adults who had started out in the nursery twenty years prior and had gone through our entire church program. "Where is the love for Jesus?" I found myself wondering. "Where is the passion and devotion? They've gone around all the bases and taken everything we've offered, but something obviously didn't get transmitted."
Right about that time Willow Creek's REVEAL study came out, and I was intrigued. I flew to Chicago for a pastors forum to discuss the early findings. There I heard Bill Hybels basically apologize for promoting a ministry philosophy that he was shocked to find wasn't producing fully devoted followers of Jesus to the extent he thought it was. On the plane flying home I knew something was changing in me. However, while I sensed I was releasing a long-held ministry paradigm, I had no idea what new paradigm to embrace. Over the course of the next year I felt like the trapeze artist suspended in midair, having released one swing but finding nothing swinging towards him. Was there a safety net beneath me? I didn't know. It was unsettling and frightening. That was a season of many 2AM conversations with God, pleading with Him to make sense of all this for me.
In the summer of 2009 I attended a local conference which included Dr. D.A. Carson on the speaker roster. The conference theme was Understanding the Emergent Church, but Carson's sessions emphasized understanding the Gospel of Christ. He recommended a particular talk of his that could be accessed online. I went home that night and listened to the talk, basically a lecture on I Corinthians 15. As I heard Carson speak of the gospel as being not just for non-believers but for Christians too, and being the message "of first importance," I experienced what I call a 'gospel convulsion.' My soul erupted within me. I don't remember if I had tears or not, but great joy filled my heart as I realized that the Lord was speaking to me in an unmistakable way. Right in that moment I felt the swing hit my hands and I grabbed it hard, knowing without a doubt that gospel-centeredness---whatever that might mean---was the direction God intended for me and for our church.
I began to dive in immediately, hungry to know what a gospel-centered church might look and feel like. Right about that time a church member recommended a particular blogger named Jared Wilson. As I perused the archives on his site I realized that Jared was on the same journey I was, only years ahead of me. I began devouring everything I could find online about gospel-centered living and ministry, and that fall I taught our church all that I was discovering. From that moment until today, New Life has been on a gospel adventure that has been eye-opening for hundreds of people. Rediscovering the gospel is progressively reshaping much of what we believed about salvation, discipleship, community, church, and mission. I'm finding that as the gospel seed finds soft soil in the hearts of God's people, it sinks deep roots and begins bearing the fruit of faith, hope, and love in their lives. Truly the gospel is 'the power of God unto salvation to all who believe' and it is becoming more and more precious to our congregation. We are now in the process of re-planting the gospel of Christ in our community, and trusting the Lord of the Harvest to call people to Himself through it.
What has been the greatest challenge for you throughout your life of ministry?
Well, aside from dealing with my own pride and fleshliness, I'd have to say the greatest challenge has been following a legend. Seven years ago I was selected to be the successor to the founding Senior Pastor of our church. His influence among the congregation was deep and extensive, and he was highly-respected as a preacher, spiritual leader, and burgeoning author. I didn't really know what I was in for. I think at the time I was a little cocky, imagining myself as the kind of leader that the hour and situation demanded. But as the inevitable comparisons started to roll in I began to have serious doubts. One church member took me to lunch and told me I wasn't the guy for the job. Another asked why I couldn't be more like my predecessor. While I had anticipated some of this, I remember my knees began to buckle under the strain at one point. I wasn't sleeping well and lost about 20 lbs. It was a rough season. I eventually sought out a ministry coach who offered some helpful perspective and explained the nature of church leadership transition. By God's grace, I survived the ordeal. Now I actually thank God for the experience, because I see it as part of His gracious plan to reveal and expose the idols of my heart, and drive me to Christ as my Supreme Treasure.
What are the particular challenges of gospel ministry in Gahanna, Ohio?
We live in the suburbs, so our challenge includes everything that comes with discipling fairly-affluent suburbanites. Individualism and consumerism are rampant. Self-absorption is in full bloom in all of us. We've also identified a kind of 'family idolatry' in which parents are prone to center their lives around their children, to the exclusion of gospel priorities. And of course in those with churched backgrounds we also find a strain of legalism that produces a performance-based religious mindset. Those challenges notwithstanding, we see the gospel progressively freeing our neighbors (and ourselves) from the idolatry of self-worship and causing Jesus to loom ever larger in our hearts. I think as a church we are growing steadily in trusting the power of the Gospel to transform lives from the inside-out. It's been a beautiful thing to be a part of!
What has been your greatest joy in ministry?
Two things: Ministering alongside an incredible team of like-minded kindred spirits in whom the Gospel is erupting, and then seeing lives transformed through the continual hearing and believing of the gospel message. I keep a folder of emails from people in our church who write to tell me how they are being changed by God's grace. Whenever I'm tempted to become disheartened by my own shortcomings or ministry setbacks, I pull those out and re-read stories of gospel transformation and my heart is filled with His joy once again.
Every Monday for the next 5 weeks, I will feature another interview with a Pastor I Admire. I trust hearing the personal and ministry testimonies from some very different folks pastoring in different areas will be a blessing to you. Next week: The Welshman who preceded me in the pastorate of Middletown Springs Community Church, Roland Mitcheson.