Landstown Community Church is a member congregation of Restoration Network International based in Sarasota, FL. Restoration is one of nine networks within the Association of Cornerstone Networks International (ACNI). The founder of ACNI is Pastor Gerald E. Martin. Pastor Gerald and his wife Sophia live in Harrisonburg, VA. The following is Pastor Gerald’s account of how the Cornerstone churches began.
“Like all of us, Cornerstone has a past; and in order to know our heart it is necessary to know something about that past. Since I was so much a part of the beginning of Cornerstone, the story also includes aspects of my past that have helped in the shaping of the church and ministry. Especially in the early days of planting and developing the church, my story and the church story tend to blend together making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Actually, it’s all part of the same story.
“So why is it important for people to know about the past? You have probably heard the saying, ‘If you don’t know from where you have come, you probably won’t know where you are going.’ It may also be true that you won’t know where you are. Knowing our history gives us a perspective on the present and future that otherwise would not be possible. We have found that a major obstacle to spiritual growth that many believers face is failure to adequately come to terms with their past.
“For whatever reason, when we become Christians the tendency is to ignore the past in an attempt to hide what we really were or continue to be. We stuff it down and try to forget it, especially if our past was painful or unpleasant. What we don’t realize, however, is that it never goes away. Our past is a real part of who we are, and try as we might to rid ourselves of the hurts, problems, and unresolved issues, we continue to be negatively affected, unless our past is properly dealt with.
“Many people who have been saved from their sins don’t know that they can also be saved from the hurt and guilt of their past. They don’t know that God has provided a way for them to be set free, healed, forgiven, delivered, and changed into a new person. Over the years, we have had the privilege to minister into the lives of many hurting people who have come to us discouraged and broken. Helping them come to terms with their past, and seeing them move from brokenness to wholeness, has been a tremendous blessing.”
“As a church, we understand the challenge of coming to terms with hurtful experiences. Cornerstone was born out of a very painful situation. Previous to the planting of the church, I was the pastor of a traditional church in the Mennonite denomination. It had a long history and a rich heritage with the distinction of being the oldest Mennonite church in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, established in the early 1800’s. I began my ministry with the church as an interim pastor with the expectation that I would only be there for a short time and then move on to a larger church.
“We had just come out of a church where things had not worked out as we had hoped and we needed time to regain perspective and discern future direction. The church into which we were coming also had gone through a difficult time. A number of families had left, leaving those that remained feeling pretty discouraged. So a hurting pastor and a hurting church may not have seemed to be a good combination but the interim arrangement turned out to be good for both of us. It removed any pressure on my part to prove myself and on the part of the church to impress the new pastor.
“The atmosphere was very relaxed and since I was only planning to be there nine months, I preached my heart without worrying about how it might be received. I figured I had nothing to lose. Perhaps the church thought the same way, that since I wouldn’t be there long they wouldn’t have to take what I said too seriously. In reality, our hearts connected. People in the church started responding to my preaching and leadership, and renewal began to happen. New people started coming and the church began to grow. After a few months the interim arrangement was changed to a long-term assignment and we agreed to serve a four-year term.
“When we first went to the church everyone agreed that they wanted to see the church grow. The declining attendance had been a great concern. So when the church started to grow, it was viewed as a very positive turn of events and everyone was encouraged and excited. People were getting saved and filled with the Holy Spirit. People looking in from the outside were amazed that what was happening could be happening in that church. It became one of the bright spots in the conference. We were actually experiencing new wine in an old wineskin.
“However, we were soon to learn the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘You cannot pour new wine into old wineskins.’ As the church grew, the ministry began developing in a way that was different from the way things had always been done. Some in the church started having second thoughts about wanting the church to grow. It seems that they had not realized that along with growth comes change. As more and more new people came into the church, those who had been used to influencing the decision-making process found themselves in a minority. They felt like their church was being stolen away from them.
“I won’t share all the details of what happened, but in a nutshell, an opposition group formed within the church and an attempt was made to shut down the new life that was taking place. In an attempt to have me removed as the pastor, a petition was circulated and submitted to our conference leadership. Had I responded in the same way I had before in similar situations, I would have simply resigned and moved on to another church; but God made it clear to me that I was not to make the decision to leave and that I was to walk it out to the end, whatever it might be.
“A listening team made up of three persons from the congregation, three from the district, and three from the conference, was appointed in response to the petition to help discern the situation. The team set a day to meet and invited anyone who so desired to come in and share what they had on their minds. While there were some who voiced their dissatisfaction, most had positive reports to share. Testimonies were shared of how their lives had been changed and what God was doing. Afterwards one of the conference leaders shared that hearing the testimonies was for him like a spiritual renewal.
“Much to the disappointment of those who desired to have me removed, the discernment of the listening team was that I should continue as the pastor. After that, things settled down for a while and the church continued to grow. However, when it came time to process the renewal of my contract for another four-year term, an attempt was made to keep that from happening. While the opposition was not strong enough to have me removed as the pastor, in the end it was strong enough to prevent me from being called to a second term. When that became final, I felt released to move on at the end of my term.
“Realizing that with our departure, many of the new people in the church would probably scatter, the district leadership approached me and asked if I would be willing to pastor a new church if one was started. I agreed to that possibility. So the district council met and took action to plant a new church with the understanding that I would serve as the pastor. A congregational meeting was called, and the chairman of the council announced the plan to the whole church and indicated that everyone could choose to either go with the new church or remain with the existing church.
“To say the least, not everyone was happy with that decision, but it nevertheless provided a way for a new wineskin to be developed in order to contain the new wine that was fermenting, and at the same time to preserve the old wineskin from further breaking. It seemed to be a win/win situation. As the transition unfolded, the new emerging ministry didn’t miss a beat. It simply changed locations, took on a new name, and continued to grow. The existing church called a new pastor and returned to its former pattern of church life. The people were given a clear choice.”
New Life Out of Brokenness
“So, what is the message in all of this? No matter what happens, God can and does work things together for our good. Out of a broken, painful situation, God raised up a new church and ministry that exceeded by far anything we could have thought or imagined at the time. What the enemy had designed for evil, God turned into an incredible blessing. We continue to be amazed at what God has done in response to our walking through the situation rather than seeking an escape. We give him all the glory for He alone is worthy to receive praise.
“Perhaps the greater message is that what He did for the church is what He does for each of us as individuals. Could it be that God allowed Cornerstone to be birthed the way it was in order to serve as an example of God’s grace? Over the years we have seen that what He did for the church He has done for many people who have come to us from broken, hurting situations in their personal lives, many of whom we have seen healed and restored.
“I’m reminded of the Gaither song, ‘Something beautiful, something good. All my confusion He understood. All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife; but He made something beautiful of my life.’ That’s what He did for the church and He will do the same for you. No matter what your situation is; no matter how much you may be hurting; no matter what anyone says about you or does to you; when you yield it all to Him, He takes it and makes something beautiful out of it for His glory.”