Limitless Life: An Interview with Derwin Gray

Derwin is the planter and lead pastor of Transformation Church, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, mission-shaped community just south of Charlotte, N.C. He is one of the leading voices on multi-ethnic ministry and has been on my short list of leaders I’ve wanted to connect with for my readers. In this guest interview, Derwin talks about his journey from the NFL to church planter, getting unstuck, multi-ethnic churches and his just-released book, Limitless Life. Derwin will be one of 27 speakers on the free Exponential West webcast.

TONY:  Derwin, tell us a little about your background and what led you from the NFL to church planter/pastor?

DERWIN: My wife, Vicki, and I were both unchurched. I came to faith through the consistent witness of a teammate when I played professional football for the Indianapolis Colts from 1993 to 1997. About the same time, Vicki came to faith through the consistent witness of a co-worker. From 1999 to 2006, my wife and I led an itinerant, evangelistic ministry. She led the operations and I preached. I grew up as a stutterer so it’s crazy that I ended up being a preacher.

In 2004, we began to sense that the Holy Spirit was telling us that it was time to lead a local church. After surveying the Bible, we didn’t believe we had the option of not planting a multi-ethnic local church. Local, multi-ethnic churches were desired by Jesus (John 17:20-23), described by Luke (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1), prescribed by Paul (Ephesians and rest of his letters), and foretold by the Apostle John (Revelation 5:9).

TONY: What advice/counsel do you have for planters/young leaders who have a vision to lead a multicultural church?

DERWIN: First, I applaud your heart for Jesus and I applaud your courage. You have attempted what many are afraid to attempt. In the foreword to Mark DeYmaz’s book, Leading a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, Matt Chandler wrote, “I have come to realize that planting and growing homogenous churches can be done with relative ease and a lack of dependence on the Spirit.” Second, continue to pray and be patient. Third, make sure you have a leadership team that reflects the multi-ethnic congregation you want to see expressed. Pray them in! Fourth, find a mentor who is leading a multi-ethnic, missional local church and learn from them.

TONY: Do you ever feel stuck? What do you do to get “unstuck?”

DERWIN: Yes! I get stuck when I ignore warning signs that I see in my own life. For example, when I start trying to do Jesus’ job of building His church! In my passion for Jesus, His gospel, and His church, I can operate in my own power instead of His. I get irritable, frustrated, and cynical. When I feel this way, I know I’ve left grace. I have to repent and remember that Jesus called me by grace and that He will build His church, not me.

Thinking back to a specific time I felt stuck, I wept and repented to Jesus and the people I offended. I had to re-establish that Jesus will build His Church and that I am His partner (1 Cor. 3:6-9). Thinking about His grace in my life centers me back on Him.

TONY: As a leader speaking to church planting leaders at Exponential West, what are some of the messages you’ll be focusing on during your session and workshops?

DERWIN: I want to encourage leaders to courageously lay claim to their divine destiny in Christ and to pursue things that are way too epic for them to accomplish on their own so that Jesus can show up and be the hero! I also want to share what I call the 3 Deep Shifts of Discipleship:

  1. Shift  from “My Story to His-Story”
  2. Shift from “Jesus Fix-My-Life” to “Jesus-is-My-Life”
  3. Shift from “Compartmentalized Discipleship” to “Holistic Discipleship.”

TONY: Your new book, Limitless Life, calls readers to abandon the labels they’ve internalized-failure, addict, orphan, damaged goods-and allow God to redefine them. What labels have you wrestled with personally?

DERWIN: Throughout my life, like most of us, I labeled myself as “failure,” “afraid,” “mess,” “dumb” and an “orphan.” At an early age, these painful labels were stitched into my heart and they limited me. As church leaders, we try to cover up labels like “spiritual orphan.” Many of us have daddy hurts. Many of us see ourselves as failures because our churches are not the biggest or the fastest-growing in the country. We find our identity in our ministry success instead of Jesus. 

Many of us live with a deep fear that produces insecurity and manipulation. Jesus really wants to heal us and make us healthy so we can lead healthy local churches that display what humanity can become. Limitless Life is a testimony to the soul-healing, transformative work of Jesus’ grace in people’s lives and a call to the Church to be beautiful in an ugly world.

TONY: What’s on the horizon at Transformation Church? What are you looking forward to over the next year?

DERWIN: We are in the midst of a building campaign, we have multi-sites in a prison and a high school, and we are planting a church in Spain. The greatest challenge right now is staffing. We need more high capacity, strategic leaders to take us where the Lord is leading us. Currently, 85% of our staff are people we have discipled from the congregation.

I’m looking forward to getting into our new 1,200 seat auditorium so we can reach, disciple and transform more people into missionaries. I think our growth is going to absolutely explode when we get our new facility!

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Tony Morgan
Tony is the Chief Strategic Officer and founder of The Unstuck Group. For 14 years, Tony served on the senior leadership teams at West Ridge Church (Dallas, GA), NewSpring Church (Anderson, SC) and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN). He's written several books and articles that have been featured with the Willow Creek Association, Catalyst and Pastors.com.

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