In the Spring of 1998, Mark and Sherri Bankord and Doug and Cindy Thiesen were deeply concerned as they watched so many of their friends drifting away from God. They set out to create an environment where their friends could engage and flourish in their spiritual lives. They dreamed of a church that would be an authentic community of Christ-followers where the teaching would be life-transforming, where people could develop deep, caring relationships, and where people would worship God wholeheartedly. Heartland Community Church is God’s fulfillment of that dream.
The early leaders of Heartland had a passion to create an engaging, relevant environment where people who were drifting in their faith or far from God could experience the transformational teaching of God’s Word and apply it to their lives; a place where the Holy Spirit could move in the hearts of people and make an impact on the community and the world in a new and exciting way; a place where sharing Christ’s love with others would be the norm because God and the church, through transformational teaching, worship, and community was changing the trajectory of their spiritual life, their marriage, family, work, and their heart for God and for the lost.
On July 19, 1998, Heartland Community Church held its first service at the UIC College of Medicine with 113 people in attendance. The most visibly unique dimension of Heartland was the use of video taped teaching from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, rather than having a “live” teaching pastor. The concept was unheard of and unproven. It had never been tested or experienced. But the initial core group of leaders believed that with predictably excellent teaching, it would be possible to build and establish a prevailing church.
A less visible but even more significant dimension of Heartland was a commitment to organize the church around spiritual giftedness. Heartland would be a church where those with the gift of leadership would lead, those with teaching gifts would teach, those with the gift of administration would organize, etc. It is this dimension of Heartland that particularly makes it “a different way to do church.” Instead of a Senior Pastor who was expected to lead, pastor and teach, those responsibilities would be divided: Mark would be the directional leader, Doug would be the pastor, and the teaching would come from Willow Creek via videotape.
From the very first service it became evident that God was up to something exciting. His Spirit touched and transformed hearts and lives. As the teaching pastors from Willow Creek taught God’s Word via videotape week after week, people who had been far from God were drawn closer to Him, Christians whose hearts had been shrinking came alive again, and Heartland, like those who were attending, began to grow.
Many people began experiencing community in the context of a Growth Group—small gatherings where people connect with each other, take steps in their spiritual growth and have opportunities to serve together.
Heartlanders also began to discover their spiritual gifts and passions and then put those gifts to use in various ministries. They began to understand that a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ is responsible for stewarding the resources that God has entrusted to them, and so they gave financially to the ministry of the church. Out of a growing heart of compassion to serve the less fortunate in our community, Heartlanders began giving truck loads of food to the needy, experiencing inner-city ministry, serving breakfast to the homeless, and giving compassion offerings to assist those in need.
Heartland quickly outgrew its rented auditorium. A task force searched the city for a building with enough space to accommodate the needs of the rapidly growing congregation. God amazed everyone as He made it possible for this three-and-a-half month old congregation to lease and then five months later purchase the former Michael’s on Perryville, a then vacant, upscale restaurant/conference facility. Crews of volunteers cleaned, scrubbed, painted, and spruced up the facilities. The local Ramada Inn loaned chairs to Heartland, and each week volunteers arrived early Sunday morning to bring the chairs from the Ramada Inn to the new Heartland building.
On Sunday, November 1, 1998, over 750 people worshiped together in Heartland’s new facility. Everyone was in awe of what God was doing, and the excitement continued to build. Families and individuals were challenged to “adopt a chair” for themselves and for a guest, and 600 chairs were purchased and delivered. Professional and volunteer construction crews remodeled the café area, built new walls, and carpeted rooms and hallways. In 2002, the Perryville building had to be expanded to include 200 more seats, additional space for children’s ministries, and offices. An atrium and a resource center called Journey… books & music were also added. Ministries continued to grow and be added as God moved. Men learned a new definition of manhood through Men’s Fraternity. Single moms were provided with reliable transportation as the CARS ministry refurbished donated cars. Hundreds of couples found help and hope for their marriages in Marriage Matters, and those who had experienced the pain of a divorce found healing and relational guidance through Rebuilders.
Only a couple of years after expanding, it became obvious the Perryville building would not be able to meet the needs of the church much longer. A task force was once again organized and the search for a new location began. Heartland had purchased 70 acres of property on University Drive just East of I-90 off of East State Street. But as plans to build on that property were being developed, Heartland’s Leadership Team felt strongly that it would not only be too expensive and take too long to develop that property, it would not be in our ministry’s best interest to move away from the city. Instead, in March of 2005 Heartland moved toward the center of the city, bought Colonial Village Mall and soon began renovating over 140,000 square feet to make room for more people.
During that time, the building was also used as a staging area for a citywide effort to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005. Thousands of people dropped off clothing, toys, and other supplies. Hundreds of people volunteered hours of work, sorting and packing donated items. Waves of teams served in Waveland, Mississippi for months helping to restore the lives of people after the hurricane.
The Making Ripples capital campaign was launched in the beginning of 2006. In an amazing display of faith, sacrificial giving and generosity, Heartlanders committed to give more than $10 million over the following three years to help cover the cost of the Colonial Village renovation.
On the weekend of December 2-3, 2006, after a year of remodeling and construction, Heartland held its first worship experiences in the newly renovated Colonial Village Mall, which included a 1,600-seat auditorium.
The “others-centered” energy surrounding the relief efforts in Waveland, Mississippi was redirected to Rockford, and Sharefest was born. Sharefest is a Heartland-led initiative bringing help and hope to the community with no strings attached. Heartland leaders asked Rockford public school leaders, “How can we help?” and Sharefest mobilized thousands of volunteers to renovate, refurbish and repair classrooms, gyms, auditoriums, teachers’ lounges, bathrooms and hallways. The results have been amazing. Sharefest also mobilized the entire city to resource, pack and ship a Million Meals to Haiti following a devastating earthquake.
In 2007 two churches in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, asked to become a part of the “Heartland movement” in order to more effectively reach their community and the Madison area for Christ, and Heartland: Sun Prairie was born. Heartland: Sun Prairie has become a bright light in the Madison area, and hundreds of people have experienced Jesus’ presence and power through its ministry.
Shortly after Heartland Community Church moved into the mall we took advantage of available retail space and opened Sharestuff, an upscale thrift store, and soon after we opened Sharestuff Furniture and More. Both stores, staffed by an army of volunteers, serve the community with inexpensive, high quality, gently used goods.
Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered recovery program began helping people overcome their hurts, hang-ups and habits as they work through Christ-centered ‘steps’ based on what Jesus taught in the Beatitudes. Each Spring Heartland’s students and volunteers host A Night to Remember, a prom-like experience for students with special needs, and each year it is an unforgettable night with tuxes and gowns, flowers, limo rides, dinner and dancing as we celebrate and “love on” 200 special guests and their families. With Change for a Dollar, Heartlanders are making a change in the world by simply dropping an extra dollar in one of the blue water bottles in the mall. All of that money is given away to help people and ministries locally and globally. And in December 2013 Heartland led the way in helping to create a wonderful, family-oriented community Christmas experience called A Stroll on State. Hundreds of Heartland volunteers descended on Downtown Rockford to decorate lampposts and trees, hang lights, build stages and then host this amazing holiday event that was enjoyed by more than 30,000 people.
Josh Peigh became Heartland’s Lead Pastor in 2013, and he continues to lead Heartland with strategic clarity and vision to help more people find and follow Jesus.
Since July of 1998, God has been building a prevailing church in Rockford, and there is still a lot of work to do. Like that first church in Acts 2, Heartlanders are filled with awe because of what God is doing and are looking forward to the awesome things He is going to do in the years ahead.