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Life Center reaches around world to awaken their own congregants

By Mary Stamp

Given that many large churches have a wide front door and a wide back door—with people coming and going—Life Center Church in Spokane has not only small groups to build community but also involves worshipers in community and global ministries.

After the pastor, the Rev. Joe Wittwer, and a church team visited a water project in Kenya, the church decided to form global partnerships to engage in evangelistic work and connect people with other cultures.

Kristi Burns, Life Center

Kristi Burns shows the lobby kiosk announcing Africa Week at Life Center Foursquare Church.

Kristi Burns, director of community and international partnerships, said that on the trip the pastor read the book, The Hole in Our Gospel, by Rich Stearns, president of World Vision.

Joe was so moved that he ordered 5,000 copies and set a five-part sermon series in the fall of 2009, inviting Stearns to preach the last one.

Kristi, who has attended Life Center for seven years, decided to leave her work as vice president of university advancement at Whitworth University about that time.  Her volunteer work at the church grew into a part-time job on Life Center’s staff of 62. 

Joe’s vision is to engage at least 1,000 of the 3,800 worshipers in international experiences to change their world views through encounters with people in other countries who live in poverty.

“When we see the issues people of other countries face, we’re never the same,” she said.  “Seeing, smelling and touching life in another culture causes us to take apart our lives and rebuild them.”

Kristi, who at age 59 fulfilled her childhood desire to go to Africa, has looked at her use of resources and says God has strengthened her desire to share the Gospel.  Reading The Hole in Our Gospel, she observes, has changed how members relate with each other, with friends and with grocery store clerks.

“In the busyness of our culture, we need to check our priorities and ask if we are caring for people, doing what Jesus would do and allowing God to use us,” she said.

So far, about 150 worshipers have gone abroad and 200 are involved in local projects, plus 2,000—60 percent—sponsor children all over the world.

After the sermon series, people offered more than 50 ideas for partners. Kristi met with them and evaluated the proposals based on Life Center’s priorities.  The church bases its partnerships on principles outlined in the book, When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fickkert of the Chalmers Institute, a national organization that “helps churches help the poor help themselves” through relief, rehabilitation and redevelopment. 

“While there is need to care for widows and orphans, feed the hungry and provide relief in disasters,” she said, “we also want to build long-term relationships with the people of these countries through our partnerships.”

When Life Center spreads the Gospel, it seeks to train native people to do it in order to respect the culture and the people. 

“Many find it hard to believe we come to be friends, be among them and learn from them,” Kristi said.  “It’s about loving God and loving people.”

After reviewing possible partners, the leadership at Life Center chose six—El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia and Swaziland—and chose to work through several agencies, not one.

• In El Salvador, Compassion International paired them with a church.  Three teams have gone for week-long visits.  Life Center has given matching funds to build a wall around the church and support a child survival center, where young mothers learn to care for their babies and gain job skills.  Members also sponsor children in the church’s education program.

• In Nicaragua with Globe International, Life Center supports two orphanages with children who are not adoptable because one parent is alive but cannot care for them.  Teams have gone to repair orphanages, interact with children, lead vacation Bible school and dig a septic tank.

It also helps Forward Edge, a program that houses and educates abandoned girls who were rescued from living in garbage dumps.

• In Mexico, Life Center partners with Penasco Christian Fellowship, in Puerto Penasco, four hours by car from Phoenix. It started nine  years ago as a bilingual church in a tourist area. 

“The community is impoverished, because of the loss of tourism and because 1,500 poor people migrated from Southern Mexico and live in a cardboard-box village near town,” she said.

The church provides seven feeding stations, serving a daily meal in schools and the jail. 

In April, a Life Center team of 12 will help at a Child Evangelism carnival that draws 3,000 children to hear the Gospel.

• In Kenya with Springs of Hope, the focus is on evangelism through water, education, health and agricultural projects.  During Life Center’s Africa Week—Feb. 26 to March 3—one event focuses on that effort.  A Life Center group will go in October for a crusade. 

• In Ethiopia, the church works through New Covenant Foundation and Community Health Evangelism (CHE) in Soddo, an arid area where it helps a church, a feeding program, children’s home and orphanage.  CHE teaches people to grow alternative crops.  Another team will go there in the fall on a “vision” trip to learn.

In the mountains of Southwest Ethiopia, an area of sustainable agriculture—bananas, pineapples, sweet potatoes and chickens—they support a Bible school and church planters who go from there to Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and remote parts of Ethiopia.

On a visit, Kristi was impressed with the dedication of three church-planting couples.   The wives work to improve health and hygiene in remote villages.

Kristi and her husband, Jack, who teaches leadership studies at Whitworth, will go to Ethiopia in March to help CHE Ethiopia develop a five-year strategic plan.

• In Swaziland, Life Center works on a World Vision clean water project and plans a fall trip, taking 12 people to meet the children they sponsor.

Kristi said partnerships and child sponsorships draw major gifts.  In a special offering, the center raised $60,000 one Sunday in 2009 to dig two wells in Kenya.  The wells led the government to build a high school there. 

When World Vision’s president preached, he recruited 1,500 sponsors for children in Swaziland, where agricultural projects bring water to 40,000 people.  The $35-a-month sponsorships support children and water projects to improve their lives.

Kristi estimates that members send about $1 million a year to sponsor children.

When Life Center ended its fiscal year in September 2010 in the black, the church council transferred a six-figure amount to international and local partnerships, she said.

Life Center, which is at 1202 N. Government Way, also has five community partners:

1) Through World Relief, about 50 people have helped refugee families settle in Spokane.

2) With Global Neighborhoods, it supports a thrift shop.

3) About 53 participants mentor children at Sheridan Elementary School each week. 

4) One family is in Olive Crest Kids at Heart’s Safe Families program for preventing child abuse.

5) The center supports Antioch Adoption, an alternative, inexpensive way for parents to adopt, assisted by a social worker and an attorney who work pro bono.

Growing up Lutheran in Burlington, Wash., Kristi attended Evangelical Free and Baptist churches in Pullman. 

She earned a degree in elementary education in 1974 at Washington State University (WSU), earned a master’s in child and family studies in 1992, and worked as a substitute teacher, with USAID and the WSU Foundation before going in 1997 to Whitworth University, where she attended a Presbyterian Church before going to Life Center, a Foursquare Church.

She is one of 28 of the church’s staff who are completing a certificate of ministry at Whitworth.

For information, call 327-4422 or email