By Carl Stagner
Church of God Ministries staff are known for their roles they play in the collective work of the Movement. But among those who report to “base camp” day after day are individuals who are very active in their local churches. Some are Sunday school teachers, board members, worship leaders, associate pastors, and senior pastors. Others are laypeople who volunteer and get involved in numerous initiatives and projects at the local church level. When Handel Smith accepted the call to fill an executive leadership position at Church of God Ministries in Anderson, Indiana, he accepted a massive portfolio—oversight of the Movement’s influence and impact in the United States and Canada. His ministry Monday through Saturday—and countless Sundays, too—is extensive and expansive. Though a faithful attender of one of the Anderson-area churches when at home, it soon became apparent that he’d received a special leadership assignment that would both bring God glory and give life to a life-giving soul.
Picture the scene: Handel Smith on a video conference call with pastors across the country. Not hard to believe, since many of you reading this have likely been on one of these calls! But during the U.S. and Canada Strategy team relaunch of Urban Missions, something unusual happened. A move of the Spirit—not at all unusual—rendered Handel somewhat speechless—a bit unusual—after which he checked out of the conversation. One of the ministers on the call had just challenged Handel to be actively engaged in urban ministry if he were to become the leader of the work. It was then that another minister on the call, Sharon Montgomery of Celebration Church at Arrow Heights in Anderson, Indiana—a church in search of a lead pastor—chimed in: “Handel, I believe you’re the one!”
God began to deal with Handel. This hadn’t been on his radar, but it wasn’t long before Handel embraced—though somewhat reluctantly, at first—his additional assignment. There were numerous aspects of the story that tie it all together, but one obvious piece was Handel’s connection to Celebration Church in Columbia, Maryland. That was Handel’s home church before moving to Anderson. Additionally, he’d gained urban ministry experience for a couple years at Celebration Church in Baltimore. An extension of the Celebration Church ethos in the Midwest, Celebration Church at Arrow Heights needed a spiritual jolt, and soon it would become clear that God’s man to get the job done was also the director of U.S. and Canada Strategy.
“I’m just not the guy to go sit at church and just soak it all in,” Handel reflects. “That drains my energy.” Like being spiritually bloated, Handel desperately needed an outlet for his God-given bent for pastoring. Since he became the lead pastor over a year ago, he acknowledges a much better understanding of what urban pastors face—from financial and spiritual poverty, to urban decline and blight. “For me, it’s about immersion,” Handel continues. “Like the illustration Rev. Sam Hines used to give about throwing his son into the deep end of the pool so he could really learn to swim, you can do all the schooling and ministry preparation possible, but you really learn when you’re thrown into the midst of it and begin doing the ministry.”
But it wasn’t just Handel that heard and embraced the call. Devoted to his family, it couldn’t be a choice between family and mission; it had to be his family on mission. Handel’s wife and kids were deployed to Celebration Church at Arrow Heights, too. Now his son Josiah is actively involved with the children’s ministry, his daughter Moriah helps lead worship, and his wife offers her gifts of both music and teaching.
All the wonderful developments coming out of Celebration Church at Arrow Heights are not strictly because of any one person. Handel gives all the credit to God for the renewal taking place at and around the church, but he insists the promotion of an atmosphere conducive to transformation was a team effort. Especially with such a busy travel schedule, Handel can’t always be present at the church to do the work of the church. Delegation would be necessary. There wasn’t sufficient funding to hire someone to ignite ministry passion on the ground, but there was an empty parsonage. There was also a younger minister who’d come out of an extended season of ministry at another church. Micah Merritt, already a part of the church family, accepted the offer—complete with moving into the neighborhood to be the outreach pastor.
Among numerous other strategies, Micah joins other believers to walk the neighborhood every Tuesday and seize as many of the “endless opportunities” as possible. “It’s amazing the conversations and connections I can make just walking and talking with someone out walking their dog, or working on their car,” he explains.
New children’s ministry strategies have been employed. Ministry teams and responsibilities have been put into place, coalescing around the compelling Christ-centered vision that Handel has cast. A practical application of that vision has been making affordable rental homes available to the poor. The church owned three homes in the neighborhood, but they weren’t being utilized for maximum impact. Today the church has done such an excellent job with these homes that the City of Anderson has begun the process of deeding five properties to the church to manage, help reduce blight, and get families the help and hope they need. Additionally, the church plans to plant a community garden, construct a community playground, and start a childcare.
Through the numerous projects and initiatives, souls have been won to Christ and people have been set free from addictions. One example is Michael Teague. Though he’d grown up going to church, he’d strayed away from the Lord for a decade. Having developed a taste for worldly pursuits, he’d even gotten drunk the night before he stumbled into the sanctuary at Celebration Church at Arrow Heights. “I knew I needed a change,” he recalls. “I heard Pastor Handel’s preaching and my soul was convicted. Besides that, I felt a sense of belonging at Celebration Church.” Mike’s 180-degree turn was just the beginning; now he’s helping in any capacity he can, including as an assistant teacher alongside Handel. Besides conversions and spiritual growth, Celebration Church at Arrow Heights is rejoicing as believers are now serving each other and the community in ways not observed at the church for quite a while.
Nancy Jordan, who leads the discipleship efforts at the church, describes it like this: “They’re not just pew-warmers. They’re out there, serving. Good things are happening so fast, and I’ve never seen a man of God so on fire for the Lord in my life. The Bible says ‘all things become new’ and God is certainly doing a new thing here.”
Sharon Montgomery is thankful for all that has transpired. “We’ve got some challenges, but we’re starting to grow again,” she reflects. “The Lord is moving, and Handel is a great pastor. We are blessed greatly by the ministry of his entire family.”
In Indiana, across North America, and around the world, God is on the move in the Church of God. Join the movement. Give life. Donate today at give.jesusisthesubject.org. Learn more about Urban Missions at https://www.jesusisthesubject.org/urban-missions/.