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Grace Outlet
By Jeanne Hartwell

God loves to do the unexpected! Five years ago He surprised me in a new way. In my devotions I’d been asking God to show me if there was something He’d especially like for me to do as a personal project for Him. Of course He answered me, but I wasn’t ready for what He had to say.
For nearly a year He began impressing me that we needed a young adult church in the Reading, Pennsylvania area. I respectfully pushed back on God’s leading –
My job as Associate Ministerial Director and Family Life Director already had me busy many weekends, plus I traveled a lot on the weekends with my husband, who is President of the conference. I told God I just didn’t see how that was going to work, but He kept nudging me forward. I told Him I didn’t have any special training in planting churches, but that didn’t seem to matter to Him.
After a year of these ping-pong prayers, I fell into a conversation with our (then) Youth Director, Kris Eckenroth. In the course of that conversation we discovered that God had been impressing both of us to start this church plant. Realizing that God was leading and that He specifically wanted both of us to be part of it, we began to pray for and look for a special place that would be attractive for young adults. What we found was an old goggle factory (Now called Goggleworks) that had been turned into a fine arts building, complete with art and dance studios, classrooms and a theater. Feeling a bit like Gideon, we decided to rent an area of the building for just six weeks and see what would happen.
We didn’t want to “rob” area churches of their members, so we decided not to send out bulletin inserts or to announce what we were doing. After much prayer we concluded that God wanted us to “connect with the disconnected” in the area. We began to make the phone calls, send invitations to those we knew had a past connection with the church, and to personally invite people. Since Reading is known as the original American outlet city, we decided to call our new church Grace Outlet.
Our first Sabbath we had about 20 people and by the sixth week there was a couple coming who hadn’t attended a church anywhere in a long time. They told us that this was their new church home. Because of their decision we felt this was God telling us once again that this church plant was His design. Kris talked to the people at Goggleworks and we began a long-term rental arrangement with them. We continued to invite people and pray for them to come, and news began to spread word-of-mouth. Others who hadn’t been attending anywhere or who attended only occasionally began to show up on Sabbath and our numbers began to grow. Some people drove as much as an hour to attend. As needs would arise we would pray and God would send people or finances for just what we needed. It was amazing to watch.
We formed a small leadership group and hammered out our mission statement, how we would treat people who came, continued to pray together, and invited people to come. Our mission statement ended up to be what God had originally impressed us with—“To Connect the Disconnected”— and our main values were to grow closer to God; to spend time helping others in the community as Jesus did; and to have real, down-to-earth fellowship with each other.
Our group has one Sabbath a month that we call Jeans Sabbath. We have red shirts with “Grace Outlet” printed on them and a big portion of our group goes out into the community to help others after lunch on Sabbath. Some of the on-going activities are feeding people at a soup kitchen, helping at a boys and girls club, going to nursing homes, and even walking dogs for a shelter. We also have a planned social activity once a month, and in-home small groups.
It has been exciting to see how God has brought people to the place He had in mind. Grace Outlet is no longer a church plant. It is now a small church with about 100 members on the books. Many Sabbaths there are many more than 100 people in attendance and often there are as many visitors at social gatherings as there are members, since our social gatherings are specifically designed with visitors in mind.
After four years, God has called me to do other things in His name, but my membership is still at Grace Outlet. Kris is now the full-time pastor and is helping other groups like Grace Outlet to get started. It’s a wonderful thing to watch when God has a plan!!!
Ask God today what plan He has for you!
Jeanne Hartwell is Associate Ministerial & Family Life Director for the Pennsylvania Conference.