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The Fruit of Faithfulness: A Decade of Hope for Colorado’s New Life Church

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By Brady Boyd as told to Ashley Wiersma

This month I celebrate my 10th anniversary as senior pastor of New Life Church, a congregation 10,000 people strong in the northern part of Colorado Springs, Colorado. And as is often the case when anniversaries roll around, I have spent the last few weeks reflecting more than usual on the decade that has passed. My stomach still flips a little when I think back on the congregational vote that was taken following my three-week “tryout” for the role—would I get picked? Would they like me? Would I fit in? Once the votes were tallied and the decision came in, my wife, Pam, and I mustered our courage, packed our car with our two kids and all the luggage we could fit, said goodbye to our families, and made the two-day drive from our home in Texas to the Rocky Mountain Front Range, wondering what on Earth we’d gotten ourselves into.

I stood in front of the church on my first Sunday as senior pastor and introduced myself exactly that way—“Hello! I’m Brady Boyd. I’m your new senior pastor!”—sounding every bit as awkward as I felt. Other than my family, I knew exactly nine people in the room that boasted thousands, but those nine faces—four that belonged to the members of the pastoral search committee, four that belonged to friends from Dallas who’d flown in to support me in my new role and my long-time ministry buddy Garvin McCarrell, whom I’d asked to come on board as executive pastor—brought me great comfort that day. Everything was a huge question mark back then: Who were we as a body? What were we called to accomplish as a church—both inside and outside our four walls? What kind of leadership would I need to provide to make sure we stayed on track? What were we in for in the coming days? How was this whole thing going to work?

Thankfully, the awkwardness I felt was short-lived, and things began to click. I rallied together an executive team, and along with our elder board, we began to dream. “We’ve got to address this debt,” I remember declaring. “Until that’s gone, we’re totally hamstrung.” In short order, we put together a debt-alleviation plan, we met and prayed through its details, we presented it to the congregation, and year by year, we watched that debt number fall. What was $26.1 million upon my arrival was slashed to $24 million and then $22 million and then $18 million—eventually dipping to $12 million and change, which is where it stands today. (But not for long, I assure you.)

With the cash that was no longer going toward servicing our debt, we invested in building the Dream Centers of Colorado Springs—first, a women’s clinic to serve uninsured and underinsured women who need medical attention; and then a place we named Mary’s Home, a 26-unit apartment complex that we completely renovated and filled with single moms and their kids who previously had been living in their cars or on the streets. The women’s clinic just saw its 5,000th patient, and Mary’s Home just “graduated” its first round of moms who completed the life-skills training courses we offered them and are now moving into their own places and starting jobs—for some, the first of their lives.

We planted churches—in Austin, Texas; in Kansas City, Kansas; in Rock Island, Illinois; and here in Colorado—in Denver, Fort Collins and western Colorado Springs.

We added congregations—in Manitou Springs; in downtown Colorado Springs; in the southern part of our city through our Spanish-speaking church, Nueva Vida; and, at our main campus, both a Mandarin-speaking service and a Friday-night service.

We raised up pastors and teachers and worship leaders through our world-renowned school of worship.

We launched and shepherded thousands of small groups.

We established and grew thriving Sunday-morning “section communities,” with the intention of making New Life Church the smallest big church around.

We led people to a decision point with Jesus. We discipled them. We baptized them. We plugged them in to community and loved them well.

And while I could go on regarding the happenings of this past decade, perhaps the more astounding story is what didn’t happen. In short, we didn’t fall apart. We didn’t shut our doors. And we didn’t become the used-car lot that everyone fully expected us to be.

When Shots Rang Out

On my hundredth day at New Life—Dec. 9, 2007—I woke to freshly fallen snow and a beautifully uneventful calendar. I’d asked my friend Pastor Jack Hayford to come speak that weekend, which meant that apart from hosting the morning services, the biggest thing on my agenda was enjoying lunch and conversation with him. But that’s not at all what went down.

Just after our 11 a.m. service had concluded, a gunman armed with more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition came onto our campus and brutally murdered two teenage girls before entering the building through the children’s-ministry hallway and opening fire. As Pastor Jack and I settled in for a light lunch in my upstairs study, all hell was breaking loose one floor below. Unbeknownst to us, rapid-fire shots were piercing the air while parents and children scattered in all directions, their shrieks betraying their certainty that they wouldn’t emerge from the scene alive.

My assistant rushed into my office moments later to tell me that shots had been fired in the building and that our security team had insisted I stay put. Feeling utterly helpless, Pastor Jack and I stepped toward the windows to watch the flood of terrified families head for their cars. As that stream of vehicles made their exit, emergency personnel raced to our lots. The crush of firetrucks, ambulances, squad cars and SWAT vans made it clear that we were at war. The gunman would eventually take his own life, after being wounded by a courageous member of our volunteer security team, but the effect of that singular turn of events would live on for years to come.

I stood slack-jawed as those events unfolded before me, my mind numb with incredulous awe. Barely 13 months prior, New Life had suffered the scandalous departure of its founding pastor, a moral failure so epic in its gravity—the drugs, the sex, the political tenor of it all—that it became instant international news. I was serving on the senior team at Gateway Church in the Dallas area at the time, and the other pastors and I were heartbroken as details spilled out. Ted Haggard was the leader of an independent, evangelical, Spirit-filled church; when he was asked to be the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, my colleagues and I had cheered over “one of our own” having finally arrived. His resignation hit me on a personal level—a deeply personal level, ultimately, given the succession situation that would soon emerge.

Anyway, when I’d been asked to serve as New Life’s pastor, I knew that a big part of my job would be watering a people that was severely dehydrated, bringing rays of hope to a downcast lot. But that was before a gunman showed up; what were we supposed to do now? Our church had been attacked from within, and now it had been attacked from without. The one-two punch should have spelled death for our church; the Enemy surely meant for it to. If he’d had his way, New Life would have lost her mission, her ministry, her people and her hope. The whole thing would have spiraled downward—and fast.

During those first hours and days following the shooting, discussions among the other pastors at New Life and myself centered on what we assumed would be our new role at the church. Clearly, our best days were behind us—that’s how things felt, anyway. The mood in the air was one of hopelessness. Of desperation. Of unthinkable pain. Collectively, we’d serve as hospice caregivers, we decided, our sole aim to give the church a dignified death.

And yet, even as those words of resignation were leaving our mouths, God was bringing to life a new plan. We couldn’t see it for what it was at the time, but he was about to gift us all with wild blessings of perseverance—if only we’d choose to persevere.

Grief and Grace

Three days after the shooting, our worship auditorium—the “living room,” we call it—was packed to capacity with congregants, city officials and friends of New Life, all of us united in our declaration that despite the terrifying events that had unfolded that week, we would not be governed by fear. As a church, we grieved. We read the Scriptures aloud. We prayed. We cried. We sang out our holy defiance—we will overcome this trial we’re facing; we will somehow rise again.

And as we sang, we saw it: There on the scorched earth surrounding us sprouted forth the tiniest of vibrant green buds. It wasn’t much, but it was there. Life was on the move.

Five weeks later, the gunman’s parents as well as the parents of the two sisters who had been killed convened in my office, their first time ever to meet. The tension in the air was palpable; what would the end result of this session be? Soon enough, I found myself in the presence of four weeping adults clinging to each other in an extended, tangled hug. These were good, God-fearing couples, neither of which could have foreseen these terrible circumstances. Who wouldn’t have sympathized with their decision to choose anger instead of compassion, to choose bitterness instead of forgiveness, to choose hatred over others-centered love? And yet there they were, owning their pain while still offering themselves up as a picture of unity and grace.

If those two families could muster the courage and faith to move forward, could any of the rest of us lag behind? A healthy heart brings health to other hearts. We all got better that day.

Scripture, Songs and Sacraments

That singular act of forgiveness was more catalytic for our congregation than human words can explain. Almost immediately, the executive team and I became obsessed with bringing health to our body, one hurting heart at a time. “If it doesn’t help to heal our hearts,” I remember saying to the other pastors on staff, “then for now, it’s going to get scrapped.” In a church our size, you pick up some fluff along the way—big-ticket productions, excessive conferences, budget-draining ministries, initiatives whose time has come and gone. Given what we’d gone through, my “fluff tolerance” was nil. “We will focus with laserlike intensity on the preaching of God’s Word,” I said, “on singing our way back to wholeness and on the receiving of Communion, so that we remember God’s great gift.”

Scripture, songs and sacraments—if it didn’t support one of our three stripped-down objectives, it was out, simple as that. We needed to heal from our pain as thoroughly as possible so that we could help others find healing too.

As we went back to the basics that have been honored through the ages in churches on every continent and in communities both large and small, we saw our faith—and our ministry—expand. The promise I made to New Life was that we would be a safe place where each of us could find restoration, and that we would not forsake the mission to which we were first called. Since the church’s beginnings, New Life has been driven by a singular purpose, which is to be in the city for the sake of the city. And perhaps the most surprising byproduct of all of our suffering was that once we got our collective feet back under us, we were better equipped than we’d ever been to bring that vision to life.

To those in our city who were homeless and friendless and hungry and cold, to those who were addicted and angry and despondent and sick, to those who needed help and needed hope and needed strength and needed care, we could say without equivocation, “You’re hurting? So were we. We know pain. We know scandal. We know violence. We know loss. But we found this place where healing can occur, and astoundingly, we’re getting healed.

Our empathy levels went through the roof as we welcomed other broken hearts into our fold. “You are at home here,” we would tell them. “You are safe, and you are loved.”

The promise that the elders and I made to New Life during the months following that tragic December day was that if they would help us alleviate our debt load, then we would convert those dollars into real, tangible help for those in our city who were hurting most. “Once we lighten this burden,” I assured our congregation, “we can go lighten weightier burdens still.” Admittedly, some people didn’t believe me, the pain of the experience still way too raw. But I knew in my gut this was the right course to take. I knew our church needed to walk by faith.

And was it ever a faith journey for us. At the time of the myriad conversations that preceded that announcement to the congregation, we elders hashed through this decision regarding whether to serve our city while we were still in debt. I quoted Proverbs 19:17 so often that I may as well have had it tattooed across my face: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,” I’d declare, “and God will reward them for what they have done. God will reward us as we help our city!” I’d say, surer of this thing than of anything I’d ever been sure of before. Even so, the road was long.

By then, our church had already paid down the debt by $5 million—from $26 million to $21 million—but we had quite a mountain still to climb. To add insult to injury, the timeframe was 2009 and 2010 when the economy was free-falling. Two of our elders own their own businesses and were as close to bankruptcy as a person could get. As a team, we’d make our petition to God—that our church would serve well as we got out of debt—even as those men wondered if they’d still be afloat personally the very next day. Still, they declared something I’ll carry with me the rest of my life: “If we’re going to go down, let’s go down faithful.” Faith takes us places we can’t access on our own; I saw that in spades with those men.

In addition to declaring what we would focus on—the veracity of the Scriptures, the power of those anthems of praise, the beauty of the Lord’s table, the simplicity of ministry we loved—as a staff we quit focusing on all else. For us, this meant no more tracking numbers and attendance—no more emphasizing how many, how much. Our premise was, “If we obsess over quality while we’re healing here, quantity will take care of itself.” And the thinking had a ripple effect: The more our own stance stabilized, the more committed we became to steadying another in our midst. Once the women’s clinic was operational, for instance, we would view each patient not as a number to be tallied, but as a soul to be well-stewarded for God. In short order, women were receiving not only the highest level of medical care possible, but also spiritual guidance, the care of friends and heartfelt prayer.

When Mary’s Home opened, the women and children who came to us off the streets weren’t a sum on someone’s spreadsheet; they were divine appointments from God.

As the other pastors and I met men, women and kids each month who were new to our fellowship, and in some cases also new to town, we viewed them not as “prospective giving units,” but as fellow sojourners in need of care. We intentionally learned their stories. We sorted out their distinct pockets of pain. We connected them to appropriate ministries. And we taught them how to use their struggle for good. I remember sitting in the early-morning prayer meetings that occurred almost daily in the prayer center on our campus and looking around the room at the godly, capable people who were determined to walk through that fire. And as healing came to us, one by one, together we knew that we could.

New Life Rises

Across the decade that has passed, I have heard from hundreds of pastors from every corner of the world, each one looking for healing too. Male pastors, female pastors, young pastors, old pastors, black pastors, white pastors, denominational pastors, independent pastors—all with the same question on their lips: “Where can I find hope again when there’s no hope to be found?”

These were leaders who were discouraged, leaders who were hurting, leaders whose churches aren’t on this magazine’s lists. And to a person, they believed in their heart of hearts that their best days had come and gone. What were they supposed to do now, they wondered—shrug their shoulders and shut their doors?

In person and by phone, via email and sometimes by text, I’d convey the very same news: “Take whatever time you need in order to heal, and then take that healing to those who still hurt.” New Life’s recovery to a ministry of real impact didn’t come about as a result of some fancy leadership model or church-growth strategy or charismatic personality up on the stage. It came about as a result of one person at a time getting healthy and then spreading health. It came about as a group of wounded people made the brave decision to stay steady, to love one another, to forgive one another, to overlook one another’s faults and to encourage one another in this thing called faith.

“Your story of suffering will foster greater empathy in you,” I told those pastors, “if you’ll steward the good times as well as the bad. You be faithful to what you’re called to do, and let God show himself faithful to use your pain for good.”

Not long ago, I was visiting with my friend Bishop Thomas Muthee in his house in Kiambu, Kenya, where he founded Word of Faith Church. We were taking a walk along his property when we came to a graveyard right there by his home. “My first wife died in a carjacking,” he said, “and she is buried here.”

Bishop Muthee then said, “My second wife died from complications of an illness, and she is buried here too.”

I studied my friend’s face as he studied the ground beneath our feet. “So many tears this patch of earth has absorbed,” he said, his head shaking in reflexive disbelief. “And yet, look—look there. Such life, here so close! I can’t keep up with so much life.”

I turned away from the graveyard to find an outright orchard there at my back. Avocado trees bursting with goodness, mango trees so weighed down by fat, fresh fruit that I thought their limbs would snap in two. In just these few acres existed great flourishing and great loss—the reality of having lost much alongside the reality of things made new.

I sat with that scene for several minutes, making sure it seeped down deep into my heart. It was a perfect picture of what we’d been through at New Life. In this world, we do find suffering, and yet it’s this world that has been overcome. That orchard—it’s a promise of new life unfolding, of growth springing forth from the ground that bore pain.

Brady Boyd, an Outreach magazine consulting editor, is the senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the author of several books, including Speak Life: Restoring Healthy Communication in How You Think, Talk, and Pray (David C Cook, 2016).