When the director of the school board in Cambridge, Canada approached Steve Adams, lead pastor of Forward Church, about opening a non-Christian public school for children with special needs in their church building, it was a no-brainer decision—Yes!
While the idea of Forward Church opening its building to a school free of charge, with no strings attached, is amazing in and of itself, the events leading up to this decision, including the role of the Summit, are pivotal to this point in story.
All along the way, God had been masterfully orchestrating his loving will, calling on a servant leader, and equipping the called to meet the needs of one church and the community that surrounded it. As a result, the community now sees the church in a whole new light. People from all backgrounds, no matter their religious origin, recognize Forward Church for the positive ways it serves the community.
Calling the servant leader
Steve always had an interest in leadership. Having received his Master’s degree in leadership, and being surrounded by leaders most of his life, he applied his learnings to his jewelry business and became a successful goldsmith. But God had something else in mind for his leadership skills and called Steve into ministry. “I ended up selling my business,” said Steve. “I worked for different para-church organizations in the US until I returned to my home church in Canada. At the time, my church really wasn’t in a good place; even though the building itself was increasing in size, people were actually leaving!”
Steve wasn’t involved in the church leadership at the time, but God was certainly stirring something.
“I’m not your guy,” said Steve while sitting in a meeting with the Elder board of his Church. He had found himself in an interview for the lead pastor position. “I’m going to drive you crazy!” he exclaimed.
One of the Elders, who sat quietly in the corner, interrupted, “Can I say something?” The room became quiet. He slid a key down the board room table. Steve caught it. “Do you remember what you said about our church when they were going through a tough spot?” the Elder asked. “You told us our church was like a big combine, sitting in a harvest field, but no one had turned it on. I think you’re supposed to be here. Here is the key to the combine.”
Steve Adams, who had never before pastored a church, became the lead pastor of Forward Church in Cambridge, Canada. God had lots in store ahead.
Equipping the servant leader
Soon after Steve became pastor, he attended a pastor’s conference hosted by Willow Creek Association. “I had no idea what I was doing,” said Steve. “So I decided I would drink out of anyone’s well if it meant I could learn something.”
For several years he had been attending The Global Leadership Summit. “It taught me that I can learn a lot from a lot of different places,” said Steve. “God really speaks through a lot of different people.”
The Summit also got him to look at his church building in a whole new light. “We changed our thinking,” said Steve. “Although we have paid for this building, we don’t own it. God does. And our building was under-utilized. So I made it a part of my prayers, and asked a few others to do the same.
“How do we take this and make it more of a community center as opposed to this religious behemoth of a building?”
An unexpected service for a local public school
Not even a week later, not even knowing the prayer that Steve and others were praying, a woman from the church called him. “There is a school in a local under-resourced area that is burning down as we speak. Would Forward Church take in this school?” she asked.
To understand the context of this moment, it’s important to note that Canada is radically different from the United States when it comes to separation between church and state. Under any normal situation, a church would never take in a public school in Canada.
Steve said YES.
That was at 8 a.m. in the morning on a Saturday. By 10 a.m. that same morning, the board of education leadership were at the church. By Monday the mayor, the parents and students were called to a community meeting. They announced the school would be moving into the church.
Everyone cheered. Every Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christian in the room cheered.
After the meeting, two Muslim men walked up to Steve to shake his hand. “What you have done is a very good thing,” they said.
By Wednesday that same week, the public school opened at Forward Church. The plan was for the school to stay for six weeks while they sorted things out for another building. But they stayed for three years.
On the day of celebration for the new school building, the chairman of the board of education, a refined, elegant woman, hugged Steve and said, “This is the best partnership we have ever had.”
This story is amazing in and of itself, but it doesn’t stop there.
Meeting the needs of the community
In the spring of 2017, Steve decided to host a lunch with local principals and police officers and talk with them about the needs of the community. Out of that meeting, the common theme was centered on the idea of providing rich experiences for under-resourced kids in their community.
As a result, the church decided to take action and host a week-long summer camp, sponsoring 100 kids to attend. Most of them had never experienced anything like it.
What Steve saw next was another God-orchestrated moment. “In the group were a whole bunch of special needs kids,” said Steve. “Many of them were from our church, and I thought, Wow, we really have got to ramp up our special needs ministry. We have to figure this out.” God was stirring.
August 2017 rolled around, and on the stage at the Summit, dozens of special needs kids flooded the stage to sing. “Afterwards, Bill Hybels said, if you’re a pastor, and you’re not doing anything for special needs kids in your church, you need to start. It rattled me.”
God prepared Steve’s heart for what happened next. Within 10 days of the Summit, Steve received a call from a woman who wanted to start the first school for autistic and special needs kids in the area. She had contacted the church because she heard about all the good they were doing in the community and how the school once hosted a school there. It was a divine opportunity.
When Steve announced the idea of opening up their church building to allow a non-Christian special needs school to hold classes in their building, everyone cheered. Everyone was on board. “During the Christmas offering, we decided to use funds to increase our special needs ministry because we’d like to become a catalyst for that in our region,” said Steve. “We want churches in Ontario to see a thriving model for how to minister to these families and these kids. We also visited the special needs space at Willow Creek Community Church.”
What’s the why? Steve’s answer is simple.
“During the first meeting we had with their school board, somebody said, I hope this is ok to ask. You guys are so kind and gracious, and your building is so fantastic, but our question is, why would you do this? Is there an ulterior motive?
“My response was, because Jesus loves kids, and we love Jesus, we try to love the same things that he loves. We’re Jesus freaks. We care also about the same things that you care about—these kids. That’s why we’re doing it.”
People don’t always have to think the same, but they can care the same for the good of the human condition.
Why attend the Summit?
“If I had never attended the Summit, I would be much more confined in my capacity to learn,” said Steve. “I remember one year going to the Summit, and there was a speaker I really disagreed with, but even in that, it was a lesson in making me think. There have been other times when someone has just punched me in the stomach, in a really good way, and I never expected it to hit me like that. It’s good to be called up short. It expands my learning and discernment.
“We live in a world that empties people’s tanks, especially leaders. If you’re not pouring into your tank, how do you expect to function? Go to the Summit, because you have to be doing something to continue to fill your tank. Keep learning. If you don’t continue to put tools in your toolbox, you’ll be under-resourced. The Summit gives you 20-40 minutes of the best thinking on a topic that I can’t get anywhere else. I can’t afford to take a one-week seminar on everything. When I go to the Summit, I’m inspired by people doing significant things for the common good, and it propels me forward.”