Our Story Your Story
By Scott Fiddler
“One generation commends your works to another; They tell of your mighty acts.” Psalm 145:4
Pastor Chris gave an excellent summary of the history of City Life Church on Sunday, but there is so much one can say in thirty minutes. Ji asked if I could fill in some gaps as someone who lived through the year of transition before Pastor Chris and Kacee arrived in Houston. What follows is an abridged version of the story of a year I will never forget.
Before there is a resurrection, there must be a death
This story starts, however, back in 2008, before that transitional year, when Pastor Jim Laffoon, who serves as one of the leaders of Every Nation Ministries spoke to our church. He preached a sermon to our church on resurrection, but he said that before there could be a resurrection, there must be a death. I don’t think anyone there, including me, thought that meant our church, then called Morningstar Church, would have to die. We were all focused on the resurrection stuff. We would only understand in retrospect how prophetic that message was for our church.
Hurricane Ike destroys our building
Later that year, the church decided to move from a building in a not-so-great area of town to the Edwards Greenway 24 Cinema next to Lakewood Church. It was a step up in terms of excellence but a stepping down in regard to size. Churches usually go from theaters to their own rental space; we were going the other direction, but it still felt right. As is often the case with choosing to follow the Lord, we only learned why it was right after we obeyed. On Saturday, September 13, 2008, less than a week after we moved out the building and the day before we were to have our first service in the movie theater, Hurricane Ike hit Houston and destroyed the roof of the building we had just vacated. As fragile as the church was at the time, had we not moved when we did, the months we would have been without a building may be the end of the church. But the Lord had other plans.
In debt and dying
A few months later, in the Fall of 2008, we learned the church was $60,000 in debt; some of it was in credit card debt, $40,000 of it was a maxed-out line of credit at Bank of America. I was asked by Every Nation Ministries to do an investigation, review the books, and figure out where the money had gone. As it turned out, no one had stolen from the church; the church had been in decline, and that decline had not been managed well.
Four people and two visions
Because we were running a deficit and could no longer afford to pay the pastor, at the end of January 2009, he stepped down and four of us—we were called “advisors” because the church did not have elders yet—took on the responsibility of running the church. It quickly became apparent though that Carlo Ratilla and I had different ideas from the other two leaders about how the church should run. I could tell it was not going to work, but I wasn’t sure what to do.
Rice on a plane
A few months later, I went to Nashville for a weekend golf trip with David Houston, a longtime friend who also happened to be our EveryNation church growth consultant. On Sunday, David drove me to the airport in Nashville, and in the airport, while waiting to board my flight, I ran into Rice Broocks waiting to board the same flight to Houston. Rice is one of the three founders of Every Nation. He was going to Houston for a reason completely unrelated to our church. We engaged in small talk for a few minutes, and then I boarded the plane, only to find our seats were right next to each other! There are coincidences, and there are divine appointments. This was the latter. For the next hour and a half, I told Rice what was happening at the church in Houston, and he gave me some great advice. He told me the reason the leaders couldn’t agree on how to run the church was that we had different visions and that instead of debating over the process I needed to talk to them in terms of the vision. It was great advice.
“I’ll take care of it.”
When I got back to Houston, I began to speak in our meetings in terms of our vision for the church instead of processes and practices. As I did it quickly became clear, Carlo and I had a different vision from the other two leaders. The difference was distinct. It wasn’t that one was right, and one was wrong; they were just different visions. When it became clear to me why the leadership arrangement would never work, I wanted to solve the problem, so I began praying about how to approach the subject with one of the other two leaders, Clint Summers. Clint was a remarkable man, a man I deeply respected. But as I prayed about talking with Clint, I heard from the Lord, as clearly as I ever had, almost like a whisper, “I will take care of it.” About a week later, Cindy and I and Clint and his wife, Rose Ann, went to dinner together, as we often did. After we arrived at the restaurant and sat down at our table, Clint said, “Before we start talking about other things, I want you to know that I’ve been praying, and I feel like the Lord is telling me I need to step away from the church.” I think my jaw dropped. Just like the Lord had promised, He had taken care of it. Clint and the other leader would leave not long after that to join a different work, and some who shared their vision followed. So, while there was a division, it was not a result of discord but by the orchestration of the Holy Spirit. I loved Clint, and we remained friends until his untimely death a few years later.
Through the summer, we kept things going while we were looking for a pastor. We had one bright possibility, but in September that fell through. I then spoke with Every Nation, but they didn’t have any other pastors on the horizon to fill the job. So, we had a decision to make: Do we close down the church or keep it going for a while longer. After much thought and prayer, we had a meeting at Ann Munson’s condominium in the Galleria. We had a core group left: Henry Emrik, DeWonne and Aisha Belleny, Brian and Sue Lemmon, Ann Munson, Jermaine Philps, Gina Nwose, Cindy and I and few others. I was an avid blackjack player, and Cindy and I were taking trips to Las Vegas a couple of times per year back then. So, I used the most similar term I could think of and asked the leadership team if they would be willing to “double down” for six more months, and if we didn’t have a pastor by then, we would shut it down. Everyone agreed.
We did double down. Morningstar Church had died, and we removed that name from everything where we could still find it. It was time for a resurrection. We changed the name to City Life Church. We got a new logo—the same one we are still using today—and on November 15, 2009, in the movie theater, we launched a new church with a new vision, name, and logo. I preached from Isaiah 43:19:
Behold I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness.
Rivers in the desert.
I’ve always felt that November 15, 2009, was the day City Life Church was born, and it is still the date we celebrate as CLC’s church anniversary.
Carlo & Sandra Ratilla
I had taken on the primary duties of preaching, usually three times per month. Fikri Youssef, from Every Nation in Nashville, began coming once a month to preach and minister. He did so voluntarily, and he was a God-send. Carlo and Sandra Ratilla, who were missionaries by training, were the glue that held the church together. I remember standing in front of the church that summer of 2009 and telling our people that if they needed pastoring don’t call me, call Carlo and Sandra. They laughed, and they understood. Without Carlo and Sandra, I don’t believe the church would have made it, but I can also say that about people like Henry Emrik, Fikri, and the core group mentioned above.
Financial freedom Sunday
Throughout 2009, we had been trying to get the church out of debt. We could have just shut down the church and told American Express and Bank of America, “Tough luck.” But that wasn’t the right thing to do, and Jesus words kept coming back to me, “If you are unfaithful in handling money, who will entrust true riches to you?” I told our people if we couldn’t prove faithful with money and get out debt, I wasn’t sure Jesus was going to entrust us with new people. So, we kept paying down the debt. Then I preached a series on finances that ended with what we called a “Financial Freedom Sunday,” where we decided to ask and trust God to get entirely out of debt in one day of giving. At the time we were still over $12,000 in debt, which was a lot of money for a church of 30-40 people. But we were crazy enough to believe. I told Ann Munson to text me the total after she had counted the offering while I was preaching, so I would know if we made it and could tell the church during the sermon. About half-way through the sermon came the text. It was like “$12,435,” just a couple hundred dollars more than we needed. It seemed like almost everyone had given. Children had given one-dollar bills — people who rarely gave, gave toward our goal. And at the end of the service, the church was debt-free.
Israel & Ji Yun
Ji Yun had been part of Morningstar Church but had left and had started leading the trips to Israel. He had invited me to Israel in the past, but I told him when they could figure out how to get a cruise ship into Jerusalem, I would be there. For some reason, I just never had a desire to go. But in late 2009, Ji invited Cindy and me to go on his next trip to Israel, scheduled for January/February 2010. At the time, I was trying to run a law practice, run a church, and preach three times per month. I didn’t have time for a trip to Israel. I told Ji we would pray about it, fully expecting a rational God to say to me the obvious: I didn’t have time to go. But after Cindy and I prayed, we came back together, and I said, “I know this sounds weird, but I feel like we should go.” Cindy said, “I got the same answer from the Lord.” So, we went, as did Gina Nwose and Ann Munson, and others, and it was a life-changing event. During that trip, we reconnected with Ji, and not long after that Ji came back to City Life Church, where he would eventually become an elder. I still remember Ji telling me when he came back after being gone for over a year that the church felt different in the right way. It was different. The church Ji had left had died, and something new had been resurrected in its place.
A Spirit-led decision
After we got out debt and we returned from our Israel trip, we seemed to have the wind in our sails. There was a new level of faith. New people started to come. Previously we could not find a pastor, but now we had four people who were interested in the job. People began to see that the Lord had birthed something special in Houston. By the time our leadership team met to decide who we would offer the job of the pastor to, the choice was between Fikri and Chris Pate. What you have to understand is that Fikri had been coming to City Life Church approximately once per month for the last 7 months. He had ministered to our people. We all loved him. On top of that, Fikri had planted churches in South America, was older than Chris, and on paper looked like the obvious choice. We didn’t know Chris and Kacee at the time. I think they had come in to visit our church once, and I had spent some time with Chris at an EveryNation cluster meeting in Midland, but that was about it. But when we gathered around the table out back by my pool in April of 2009 and went around the table, every person said they felt the Lord was saying Chris was supposed to be our pastor. That unanimity convinced us we had heard the Lord. That day was April 11, 2010, six months and three days after we had met in Ann Munson’s condominium and committed to double down for six more months and trust the Lord.
Chris and Kacee Pate
The rest is, as they say, history. Chris and Kacee came in and for the first time in a year, and half the church had a real pastor leading the church, instead of of a trial lawyer playing a pastor. Jay Ross, who had gone through our new members class about a year before Chris and Kacee arrived, finally joined and has since become an elder. I still rib him about that. But the careful thought and prayer he took in joining is an assurance to me he is here for the long haul. Of course, before he joined, he was already leading and loving on people because that’s who Jay is. I know Chris talked about how difficult it was after he and Kacee arrived at CLC, but it became quickly evident to all of us that Chris and Kacee were perfect for City Life Church, and they have done an incredible job of building the church into what it is today. I am proud to call Chris my pastor.
The legacy of City Life Church
I love to tell the story of City Life Church, and there is so much more to say than I have written here. But the reason I love to tell the story is that it’s so clear the Lord has been intimately involved in CLC’s history. His conspicuous involvement in CLC’s past is the best evidence of His destiny for us in the future. As Pastor Chris said Sunday, the statistics say we had a 2% chance of surviving, turning, and becoming a growing church—about the chance of a river appearing in a desert. What happened though was not merely a rare occurrence: Jim Laffoon’s prophetic sermon; my one-in-a-million meeting with Rice Broocks on an airplane; the Spirit-led parting of ways with other leaders that allowed us to relaunch with a new vision; getting out of $60,000 in debt in a year and $12,000 in a single day; a six-month commitment from a core group of people who trusted in the power of God; and a unanimous decision for a new pastor nearly six months to the day later that perhaps didn’t make sense on paper but made all kinds of sense in the Spirit. What started as a trickle of water in the desert back on November 15, 2009, has now become a river, twisting and winding, but ultimately headed toward its God-inspired destiny as a church uniquely equipped to reach and transform a city for the kingdom of God.