Rob James, '06

Rob James, ’06, takes risks, partners with community to grow his congregation

By Clint Riese, Correspondent

Pastor Rob James, ’06, and his congregation, GPS Faith Community, are used to breaking the mold. Pastors fresh out of seminary aren’t supposed to lead new satellite congregations, yet 10 years later James’ Machesney Park, Ill., church is as strong as ever. Congregations aren’t supposed to worship in movie theaters, yet GPS did for five years—and then took over a former nightclub.

It’s safe to say James and GPS (“God’s People Serving”) have remained on the move since Story magazine featured them in 2009. GPS organized as its own ELCA church in 2010, relocated in 2011 after three land deals fell through, and recently cleared hurdles to add a second staff position as well as a pastoral intern.

A voracious student of mission development with an entrepreneurial spirit, James caught the seven-year itch in 2013 and found himself wondering if he had fulfilled his calling at GPS. A Lilly Endowment clergy renewal grant allowed James a sabbatical and GPS a consultant.

“It was a huge turning point,” the Luther College graduate says. “We started conversations about what we wanted to be, and they continued while I was off doing my own reflecting. When we came back together, it was great for me to be able to say, ‘If we’re focused on growing and we’re committed to doing new things and taking risks, then absolutely God is still calling me to this place.’ We believe we can be bigger.”

Where James once had to navigate branching a church off from an established congregation—including the dynamics of longtime parishioners expressing just what GPS should be—he now is learning how to minister to a new population: the unchurched.

“At the movie theater, visitors came because of personal invites and automatically connected into our community,” James says. “Now we have big signs and are on a main road, so pretty much every week we still get visitors who just walk in cold. If we don’t connect with them, they’ll walk out. A lot of them aren’t churched, so we can’t just use the same jargon and expect them to know all the stories we remember from Sunday school.”

"If we’re focused on growing and we’re committed to doing new things and taking risks, then absolutely God is still calling me to this place."

Fittingly, the church’s theme this year is to foster connections. With GPS finally having a space of its own, and with a full-time family, children and youth ministry coordinator on board, James hopes to add weekday programming he feels has been the missing link.

“If we can figure out how to get a few things to click, I think we’ll grow really quick,” James says. “The ones in smallgroup studies and such are not going to leave. The ones who (leave) pop in, life gets busy and they’re gone.”

The mission field for GPS continues to extend beyond its walls. The congregation has a strong partnership with the public school system, and James jokes that he wishes the mayor didn’t have him on speed dial.

“How we’re invested in the community is different,” James says. “We go to the hard work of building relationships, taking risks and reaching out. We focus on partnering to be present in the community.”

James readily acknowledges that GPS is far from traditional; in fact he embraces it. It’s not about being unique, but about retaining vitality, and the father of two does his homework. One of his colleagues is Luther Seminary professor Terri Elton, who is using GPS as a subject for a research project on the changing face of ministry.

“A lot of established churches are trying to change their structure to match a world that’s more fluid,” James says. “We started out fluid and need more structure.

“Things have changed a lot in 10 years. I want to know what seminary students are learning that I never did. They will not believe that I made it through my first year of seminary without hearing the word ‘missional.’ Now they can’t make it through a class.”

Read about the beginning of GPS at www.luthersem.edu/story/rob09.

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