A Testimony to God’s Grace
“You will be weeping every Friday night over sermons that you will not be able to preach.” These were the words that the Conference President spoke to Mark and Leslie Martin in May of 1982 as they officially resigned from the Seventh-day Adventist ministry. Mark and Leslie, newlyweds and graduates of Pacific Union College, left the office after this pronouncement feeling relieved yet uncertain about the future.
Convinced of their call to serve God, Mark and Leslie immediately went to the Lord in prayer, asking Him to simply give them opportunities to share the Gospel with the people of Phoenix, Arizona. Only God could have known that twenty years later they would be celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Calvary Community Church, a thriving and dynamic grace-filled community of believers in the metro Phoenix area.
Calvary Community Church currently consists of over 11,000 members as it makes a significant contribution to the cause of Christ. Beyond this, Calvary supports over 100 missionaries around the world, facilitates an extensive Internet outreach program (www.calvaryphx.com), a city-wide 24-hour prayer network, prison ministries, home Bible studies. It produces a national radio broadcast called “Grace Upon Grace” and has pioneered ministry to searching Seventh-day Adventists though sdaoutreach.org. Calvary’s media ministry distributes over 150,000 teaching tapes and CDs each year. Through CalvaryRadio.com, Calvary broadcasts its six weekly services and other Christian music and programming twenty-four hours a day to people worldwide.
In addition, life at Calvary is enhanced by HeBrews Coffee Shop and Calvary BookStore, one of the largest Christian bookstores in Phoenix. Strategically located on a campus that covers over one square city block, Calvary Community Church is influencing the spiritual growth of tens of thousands of Christians in the metropolitan Phoenix area, one of the fastest growing cities in America. Recently Calvary opened a 30,000 square foot state-of-the-art children’s ministry building with over 100 classes offered each week.
While celebrating Calvary’s present vitality, Pastor Mark remembers well its humble beginnings. “We started with 11 people on our first Sunday morning in a rented school band room. Everything went wrong. The janitor was an hour late and we were left waiting outside in the oppressive summer heat. But through it all, God was planting the seeds of a growing community of believers.”
Calvary stayed small for more than seven years fluctuating between 25 and 60 people. The lessons that Mark personally learned during the early days of Calvary Community Church still guide his ministry today. “During those early years I learned that when God guides, God provides. I learned the difference between ministry in the flesh and a Spirit-led ministry – a lesson that I had never learned in Adventism. I also learned that teaching the Bible verse by verse builds the Church of God on a firm foundation. Digging into God’s Word makes people spiritually healthy and alive. Calvary has grown because God has touched lives through His Word and empowered people through His Spirit.”
The striking characteristic of life at Calvary is its atmosphere of grace. Pastor Mark has endeavored with the Spirit’s strength to build grace into the culture of Calvary Community Church.
Raised a fifth generation Adventist, Mark knows the stifling effects of an atmosphere of law. He vividly remembers the legalistic, controlling and judgmental approach to religious life within Adventism. Because of his background, Mark diligently teaches the people of Calvary to be people of grace.
The Bible reminds us that the strength of sin is the law, but we are not under the law but under grace. When people are living a performance based Christian life trying to earn and hold on to their salvation and security in Christ, they have a tendency to hold back when it comes to radical discipleship to Jesus. A fear of failure prohibits people from experiencing the joy of living with the safety net of grace.
During the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, several workers fell to their deaths. This had a debilitating effect on productivity and morale for the rest of the workers. Engineers decided to solve this problem by installing a safety net under the workers for their personal well-being. As a result, the productivity of the workers soared. They could now work freely without fear because they had a safety net under them. The finished work of Christ and the message of His grace is that safety net for believers. We can faithfully and joyfully serve Jesus without the fear of condemnation, because His grace secures us. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1).
This atmosphere of grace is frequently experienced at Calvary. Many times people enter the sanctuary and during the time of worship their hearts are moved to the point of tears by the loving and accepting tenderness of God expressed through the worship of God’s people and the ministry of the Word. Since 1995, over 12,500 people have made decisions for Christ and over 3,400 people have been baptized as God has worked through the ministry of Calvary to call people to a close and intimate relationship with Him. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of people make decisions for Christ each month at Calvary. During the past few years, several hundred people made decisions for Christ on Resurrection Sunday alone!
On the Saturday 20 years after leaving Adventism, Mark took his three children back to the Adventist Church where he had first pastored when he was forced to resign the Adventist ministry. “I wanted them to know what we had left so they would appreciate even more the spiritual blessings they now enjoy. We slipped into the church into one of the middle pews. I don’t think anyone noticed who I was. Halfway through the sermon the pastor looked directly at me and said that he believed ‘The most accurate construct of truth is Seventh-day Adventism, but we should all have the guts to move where we believe it’s truthiest’ [sic].”
When he reflects on that May afternoon in the office of the Conference President, Mark is reminded of the faithfulness of God. “Joseph’s brothers mistreated and betrayed him and wanted to seriously harm him. But after seeing God’s plan unfold, Joseph was able to say, ‘You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good’ (Genesis 50:12). God graciously pulled me out of the stifling environment of the Adventist Church. I see that what some intended to do to harm me was really God’s way of opening up new avenues of meaningful ministry.
God’s hand is obviously at work at Calvary. We are also encouraged by what we have seen in the last five years. God continues to raise up former Adventist pastors who understand the Gospel as well as the pertinent theological issues that separate Adventism from biblical Christianity. Their testimonies and ministries are bountiful evidence that there is abundant life after Adventism. What we have seen God do through the ministry of Calvary Community Church is unparalleled in the history of Adventism. Calvary Community Church is a testimony to the power of God’s grace.”
This article was originally printed in Proclamation! Magazine in 2002, figures updated in 2006.