By Jeff Finley
Thirteen years ago, Tracey Pfeiffer was a rocker pursuing a music career in Nashville, Tennessee, when he and his wife, Mandy, sensed they needed to make a change. He connected on Facebook with Pastor Steve Clason, whom he had met years earlier while living in northern Indiana. Clason shared about the church he was leading in central Illinois.
“It was called the East Peoria Free Methodist Church,” recalled Pfeiffer — now the lead pastor of the church that has since transformed into The Encounter with worship services in East Peoria and Pekin, Illinois — in a conversation with Light + Life. “It was a good church, but it plateaued. … One of the things [Clason] wanted to change was worship, and he wanted to do some stuff with youth ministry, and so he asked me if I’d come up and help him.”
“Pfeiffer became part of a church that also was making big changes.”
The musician traded the Southern state capital known as Music City for a smaller Midwestern metropolitan area known for product testing, comedians, and Caterpillar machinery. After making a big change in his life, Pfeiffer became part of a church that also was making big changes.
Church leaders decided, “We’re going to unashamedly do everything we can to bring people to Jesus. That meant building changes, repainting a bunch of stuff, pulling things out like carpet, and making it look more modern,” Pfeiffer recalled. “For people walking in, in their 20s and 30s, this is what they expect.”
After transitioning to The Encounter, the church lost some longtime members but also attracted many newcomers.
“We were running 60 or 70 [as East Peoria FMC]. Out of that original crew that was here when I got here, we’ve got probably less than 20,” said Pfeiffer, who also revealed that the services in East Peoria attracted 325 people the Sunday before the Light + Life interview. “It took some time to get traction for different reasons, but God has been blessing and showing up, and we’re seeing people change their lives. We average two baptisms a month.”
Since last August, the church has baptized at least 15 people. The Encounter is attracting many people who feel unwelcome in traditional congregations.
“We’re getting people who wouldn’t feel comfortable in an older style church,” Pfeiffer explained. “They come in with addictions and tattoos, and say, ‘Churches don’t normally accept me.’”
Some people don’t initially come to The Encounter with a plan to become involved, but that often changes quickly.
“… they’ve given their life to Jesus. They’re serving. That’s been a big part of our growth.” – Tracey Pfeiffer
“I can’t tell you the number of people who we have who are actually serving in some capacity who were like, ‘You know I only came because my wife made me, or my friend told me to come, so I’m just really doing this for them. I’m not looking to be a part of a church,’” Pfeiffer said. Later, however, “they’ve given their life to Jesus. They’re serving. That’s been a big part of our growth.”
Pfeiffer said The Encounter has “a great team behind it” with nine ministry directors — some who are paid and others who are volunteers — and “an amazing leadership. It is not just me making it happen.”
Flowing Into Multiplication
Pfeiffer began thinking about extending The Encounter’s reach after he attended an Exponential conference in the Chicago area at Community Christian Church, which now includes Clason as part of its pastoral team. During a breakout session, a pastor from New York City shared about the impact of the book “Flow” by Larry Walkemeyer. Pfeiffer was intrigued and acquired the book.
“I read this book by this guy who had launched all these churches. I thought, ‘That’s awesome! That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want The Encounter to be,” recalled Pfeiffer, who related his excitement to North Central Conference Superintendent Carl Brannon. He said that Brannon replied, “You realize Larry Walkemeyer is a Free Methodist pastor; right?”
Pfeiffer hadn’t realized that. Brannon connected him with Larry Walkemeyer who now serves with his wife, Deb Walkemeyer, as co-strategic catalyst for multiplication on the Free Methodist Church USA Executive Leadership Team.
“Larry has been awesome. We’ve zoomed a couple times. We’ve talked on the phone,” Pfeiffer said. “I went to a conference last year [the FMX gathering before Exponential Orlando] that the Free Methodist denomination holds. He was there, and I got to spend some time with him.”
Pfeiffer began to consider what church multiplication would mean for The Encounter.
“We got to a point here [in East Peoria] that second service was maxed out,” he said. “We have about 25 or 30 people who are driving from Pekin and beyond. If you’re in downtown Pekin, you’re about 20 minutes from our [East Peoria] church. We have people who drive 45 minutes to get to The Encounter from different directions.”
He began to wonder, “What would it be like if they didn’t have to say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have you come check out my church. By the way, it’s a 40-minute drive each way.’ What if they could do ministry where they live?”
He considered an available church building in Galesburg, an hour’s drive from East Peoria, but another pastor advised him not to plant so far away. Eventually, Pfeiffer and Encounter members began praying about Pekin, and he approached existing Pekin churches.
“I was just praying about: How do we reach the next generation?”
“We came across this Missionary Church that’s struggling there. They run about 20 or 25 on a Sunday morning,” said Pfeiffer, who was told by the aging Pekin congregation’s pastor, “I was just praying about: How do we reach the next generation?”
The Encounter accepted an offer to rent the church building on Saturday evenings.
“They use the building their way on Sunday mornings, and they let us keep a bunch of stuff up. Setup and teardown are 20 minutes on each end,” he said. “We did a soft opening in August and then actually launched it in September. In the last month, we’ve had two different times where we were over 100, but it normally runs probably about 60 to 70 on a Saturday night.”
Pfeiffer said “a great relationship” has formed between the two congregations.
“We help them meet their budget,” he said. “We have some of their people who are diehard Missionary [members]. They’re going on Sunday morning, but they still come to ours on Saturday night as well.”
Pfeiffer added that “the plan is to get the Pekin church completely self-sustaining, and it’s close.” Another goal is to add additional workers so that The Encounter staff members aren’t duplicating their duties for each location.
“I’ve got a pastoral intern who we’re discipling and training up, and he’s going to start a speaking schedule this month where we slowly start to work him in,” Pfeiffer said. “The goal is, by June or July, that I would still go on Saturday nights but just be able to sit back and enjoy a service and not have to speak more than once every six weeks or so there.”
While discipleship is important to The Encounter, which has 70 percent of its adults in small groups, Pfeiffer said the weekend services are “really geared for the person who doesn’t know Jesus … the guy who’s going, ‘I’m not sure God exists.’” When a person comes to a service, Pfeiffer considers, “I have your captive attention for the next hour. How am I going to help you realize who Jesus is?”