I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.
One of those people is Rob Hogendoorn.
The Senior Pastor at Forest City Community Church in London, Ontario, Rob is one of my favourite people to be around. He is, to me, the epitome of both a friend and a mentor, and he is always generous with his time.
In my conversation with Rob, he shared some great perspective that I feel will be extremely valuable to any goal-oriented person, such as the need to have a clear vision to begin but also remaining open to new detours and opportunities, the importance of finding and empowering the right people, and why it’s necessary to be both persistent and patient.
Another key takeaway from my chat with Rob had to do with the idea of “overnight success,” and what it truly takes to achieve the kinds of results worthy of being labelled as such. Rob also reinforced for me the reality that sometimes things don’t go the way you expect them to, and not only is that still okay, but it can actually prove to be even better and more memorable than if things had gone according to plan all along.
Here is my conversation with Rob Hogendoorn.
KB: How did you find your way to London (from Vancouver)?
Rob: It was a combination of things. One is that my wife grew up here, so we had some connection to London. And we lived here for a little bit after we got married.
When you get out into British Columbia, you get so taken by the majesty and the beauty of the place, and the softer climate and all of that. And that’s why people rarely move back. And we had that for five years. We were like, “This place is just amazing – it’s just so beautiful.” But somehow we had just kept a soft spot in our hearts for London.
And then a situation turned up where I was able to find a bit of funding for me to basically pay my salary the first couple of years while I was trying to start a new church here, but it was kind of limited to the London region, this funding. And because the desire was so imbedded in my heart to start a certain kind of church, because that was all taking shape in my mind while we were living in Vancouver, and then the opportunity came and a little bit of that financial means – I had four young kids under the age of 8 and I thought I at least need to feed them and clothe them while I’m trying to do this thing – we took the opportunity.
So it was that convergence of those two things. But the sense of what it (the church) would be like, the kind of way it would function, that started to take root in my mind in 1989, 1990, 1991 – somewhere around in there.
KB: Can you tell me more about the things that were stirring inside you, both in terms of having the sense of needing to move on and in terms of the idea for what became Forest City Community Church? What was going through your heart and mind?
Rob: I’d say two things on it. One is the vision for how it would look increasingly took shape by the fact that I grew up in a church-going family and gave my life to Christ at a pretty early age. And then when I was a pastor of a church, it was kind of a traditional church and it was a church that was really great for people who were born and raised in it, and never really strayed. But increasingly I started really resonating with the need for 85-90% of Canadians for whom that’s not their story.
Probably 85-90% of Canadians, they might have some perspectives on faith and God but they certainly don’t have a very strong integrated personal experience of God and they certainly don’t have a meaningful way in which that’s lived out in a church community.
And so increasingly I thought, “How could we develop a church that would make sense and engage the 85% of Canadians?” And that’s where the kind of model and method and style and approach and philosophy of Forest City Community Church came increasingly clear in my head and in my heart, and what it would look like and what it would feel like and how it would function.
And then it became a matter of saying, “Okay, what things are going to have to happen for that to happen?” And, “What things am I going to have to try to put in place to see that take shape?”
A lot of it had to do with finding some of the key personalities and leaders who could give rise to some of these dimensions of what this church actually is now, because I couldn’t do it all. So I had to find and build a sub-team of people who resonated with that vision but they could take a different piece of it and push that piece of it out.
So that’s really what I ended up doing in the first five years, was really honing that team of people and supporting them and working with them and then together, all these different aspects of the church’s ministry just started to take shape.
KB: What was the response, if any, from the traditional church community when you first got started? What was that like in the early days?
Rob: You know, it was pretty simple I think, because nobody knew about us. We were nobody. We were just a group of kids, really. I mean I was 30 or 31 years old and all of my other leaders were in their 20’s and we were just a little rag-tag collection of some people doing this little thing. So I don’t think anybody noticed.
KB: And at this stage, you were at Saunders (Secondary School)?
Rob: At that stage we were at Ashley Oaks Public School. After about 5 years, we grew out of that. And then we went to Saunders, and we were there for 7 years.
KB: So the church at this point is more of an intellectual and spiritual entity as opposed to any kind of bricks and mortar?
Rob: Absolutely. And I didn’t feel tension with other churches in the city at all because, first of all, we weren’t trying to reach their people. We were trying to reach people that were not going to church. And most of them were just really quite thrilled about that because many of them would like to have been more effective at that too. But for most of the years, you’re just kind of on your own at it and you don’t even think anybody’s noticing.
KB: What point was it when you realized that this had gained enough traction that you thought, “Wow, we’ve created a going concern here that is going to be somewhat of a long-term, established commitment.” When did that first occur to you?
Rob: It’s a good question. I think that, on one level, I know that for the first 10 years easily, we wondered all the time whether this was going to work.
KB: Ten years?
Rob: (Laughs) Oh yeah. Easily.
KB: I think it’s important to hear that. So many people – and I’ve been guilty of this as well – they think that everything comes right away, or should. And that’s not reality. Every overnight success is born of a lot of time with your sleeves rolled up.
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. It was probably 10 years before I sort of thought, “Wow, I guess this might actually work.” And then the other thing is, I would say this: I still sort of think of it in my heart as this fledgling little community trying to reach into the lives of people who are not super-connected to God. So I still think of us in a very primitive state actually. I don’t think of us as this going concern. I think of us as, “Wow, we’ve got a pretty good start.”
KB: Do you think that’s what allows your curiosity to continue to flourish?
Rob: Yes, I think so. You’re probably right.
KB: So Rob, when you talk about that 85-90% of people who don’t regularly go to church, what it is about Forest City Community Church that does seem to connect with them?
Rob: I guess I would say that there are a number of things but one of them would rise to the top for me. It’s two of our core values are Biblical truth and cultural relevance. Without a strong, truly transformative, authoritative message, you don’t have anything for people. But at the same time, if you’re not engaging people in a truly culturally relevant way and in a way that addresses life today, and communicates in the way that life is lived today and the realities people have today, if you’re not bringing those two to bear on each other, you’re also missing the boat. So that’s what we work really hard to do.
KB: I’m interested in what it’s like for you, where you are the leader here in a number of different senses, in finding the balance in being able to be confident wearing that day after day, but also knowing that you’re an individual that is probably looking for guidance as well.
Rob: A couple of things come to my mind. One is that I think it’s important to not try to do this alone. There’s no doubt that I have a central, visible, pivotal leadership role in this church and this faith community. But I think that if you try to do that in isolation, it’s dangerous because I’m fallible just like everybody else is fallible. So I can get off track. I can make mistakes just like anybody else can. And I’ve made my share. So that’s where you’ve got to be careful.
It’s important for me to have people around me who I am also learning from, bouncing ideas off of, who are either bringing good ideas or confirming ideas I have. So we have a small elder board, a little team. We’ve got some senior staff people and then I also stay networked with pastors of other larger churches in North America that also are communities and not just try to do this in isolation. So that’s the one side.
But the other side of it is that I believe that when you have a calling from God, when you know you have been called to do something, you have to also believe that He’s going to give you what you need to do it. And if you really have sensed and believe that you have that calling, you work very hard to stay close to Him and you experience how He repeatedly, and I’ve seen this for 21 years, how He continues to come through and confirm that call with wisdom at the right time, with resources at the right time with people at the right time. So in that way, you have to keep a healthy sense of humility about your dependence on other people and God while also recognizing the importance of the role you have.
KB: As we’re having this conversation, we’re sitting inside the church. When did this building even become the seed of a thought, and then where did it go from there?
Rob: We started the church with just a dozen people and, literally, in a living room. And then the church started growing in that little Elementary School in White Oaks (a neighbourhood in London, Ontario). And it continued to grow and then we went into Saunders (Secondary School) and like I said, we spent 7 years there. So we were in rented facilities for 12 years before we built anything with physical bricks.
In the Saunders era, as the church was growing and we were reaching people, maybe 3, 4, 5 years in, we started realizing, “Okay, the rental facilities, as useful as this has been, is starting to become limiting to the vision.” And like we mentioned before, when you know what your vision is, it makes it a little easier to say ‘yay’ to that, ‘nay’ to that. When we realized that our vision was starting to get limited by rental facilities, then the option became maybe, “Is it time for us to build a facility that can continue to facilitate the vision and the mission of this church?” So those thoughts and conversations started happening in that era, which would have been about 10, 11 years ago.
And then we started thinking about, “well what would that kind of facility look like?” And so we got some architects and interestingly, our first architects were people who were not church architects at all. They’d never been involved in a church. Because that’s the other thing: you typically will get a church architect, and we decided, no, we don’t want a church architect because they’re going to be thinking about building a church building and we wanted to find an architect that’s going to think a bit outside the box with us on what the facility could look like that could facilitate the vision of the church.
So we did that and then took them to some other places to kind of give them ideas of what buildings could look like. And then we just started the process here of just starting to put numbers down on paper, putting a bit of a design together.
We sort of thought, “Right now we have this amount of people, and if the growth continues, in 10 years from now we’re going to have ‘this’ amount of people, well then we have to find a way to build something that ultimately could be facilitating THAT many people when we don’t have THAT many people to pay for it right now.” So how do we do that?
So we developed a master plan of the facility, just sort of dreaming crazy of what this facility could grow into over the years. But then we broke it down into components and we built the first component. And then 3 years later we build the next component and then 3 years later we built the next component and then a couple years later we built the next component and we just kept adding components as the church continued to grow and as we continue to expand some of our generosity base of people who could actually be part of these expansions. So in a nutshell, that’s sort of how it came to be.
KB: What was it like, the first service here?
Rob: Oh, it was amazing! Actually the first service we had was outside. This was all parking lot, for the first service, where we’re sitting now. And we had our Grand Opening morning – this is a bit of a side point to what you’re asking – and we had announced it at Saunders, that everything was lined up, next week was our opening on Bostwick Road. And that week, the final inspectors came and the Fire Inspector came and there were a couple of things he did not like, that didn’t meet his standards. I don’t blame him, but he just said – and this on a Friday afternoon – he said, “You cannot open this building on Sunday.” And we were like, “Are you kidding me? We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people that are going to be showing up, because that’s what we said last week (he chuckles)!”
So we had to make a decision. What we did is set up a stage outside in the parking lot, right there (points outside) and we had a little outdoor service, and there were hundreds of people standing here for the very first service. And it was magical, because it was a great moment.
Our Creative Arts Director, who is still on the staff, I remember him getting up and he said something about, “You know, this is just a great reminder to all of us that that’s not the church. This is the church. The church is the people here. The church is not that thing.”
And I think we’ve tried to never forget that.