From WWF & jail to conversion, his passion is for new churches

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Friday, March 08, 2002 (19 years ago)

CHICO, Calif. (BP)--Church planting missionary Bill Breunle followed a nontraditional path to ministry, having been radically transformed by God from a life of bodybuilding and professional wrestling to one of church building and spiritual warfare. But he has brought with him a personal drive to excel that continues to bear fruit in northern California.

Since Christ changed his life in a jail cell about 12 years ago he has helped birth 38 new congregations and is currently transforming a dying traditional church into a vibrant postmodern one. He considers his most important non-family responsibility to be mentoring young ministry leaders. Meanwhile, he's renovating his family's home and studying for his second doctorate.

"Doing my best is important to me. It's like worship to the Lord," said Breunle, who along with his wife, Annette, is one of the featured missionaries for the March 3-10 North American Mission Board's 2002 Week of Prayer for North American missions.

Adopted by a dedicated Southern Baptist family when he was an infant, Breunle took up bodybuilding at age 18. He found he had a natural ability for the sport, and with the abuse of steroids Breunle soon was able to bench press 685 pounds.

That led to a two-year stint as a WWF wrestler, before the emptiness of fame and the joy of marriage cooled his ardor for the bright lights. A year after he opened a chain of health spas, he was arrested for conspiracy to smuggle steroids. He served two years of a three-year sentence, but soon after his release was arrested again on what were later proven to be trumped-up charges.

During the seven pre-trial months he spent in the Los Angeles Detention Center, Breunle finally made his peace with God.

"I remember standing in the chow line facing 40 years," Breunle said about his potential prison sentence. "I remember God speaking to my heart: 'You can choose the Aryans, you can choose the Brotherhood [prison gangs who wanted him to join with them] or you can choose me.' I got out of that chow line -- and for me that was a miracle in itself! -- and went to my room and prayed like I had never prayed before.

"God rescued me that day," Breunle continued. "He saved me. I finally had the peace and joy I'd talked about all over the world. In the middle of the complete darkness of that jail -- and I was living in hell -- I was consumed by God's complete love."

Out of 140 inmates on his floor, Breunle led 27 to a life-changing relationship with Christ within the next two months.

"It was unreal," Breunle said. "Guys of the most horrid crimes, guys tattooed from knuckle to neck, we became this community of love."

The miracles continued. In the midst of his trial, the prosecutor stopped the proceedings and apologized to Breunle for his arrest. He was free to go.

Breunle became a youth minister while a student at California Baptist University. Thoughts of a career in law or psychology faded when three churches flourished that he started nearly simultaneously in Riverside -- Downtown Christian Fellowship, Family Bible Fellowship (a ministry to hurting families who would not be drawn to a typical church setting) and Set Free of Southern California (a ministry to hard-core bikers). All three congregations, despite their names, were solidly Southern Baptist, Breunle said.

In 1999, Breunle was appointed a missionary with the North American Mission Board and the California Southern Baptist Convention and was assigned as church starter strategist in northern California, from Modesto to the Oregon border. Modesto is about 100 miles south of Sacramento.

The Breunle family lived in the small town of Paradise for two years, then bought their first home, a fixer-upper, in the bustling nearby college town of Chico, about one and a half hours north of Sacramento.

Breunle led Annette, his wife, to the Lord when they were in the visiting room at the Los Angeles Detention Center.

"My job is to support Bill in whatever he does," she said. "I don't play the piano. I don't sing. I don't lead any groups. I don't speak in front of people. I don't even pray out loud. I am totally able to be myself because Bill has set it up that way. And people respect that. We're best friends! His strengths are my weaknesses, and vice versa. Together we're a team."

In less than a month after the family's move to Chico, Breunle accepted an additional work assignment: Breunle was called as pastor by about 40 mostly elderly members of Esplanade Baptist Church.

"I told them upfront that there would be many, many changes, but if they didn't make them their church would die," Breunle said. "They didn't want the church to die."

His hope is that the renamed Church on the Esplanade will become a Southern Baptist model for a church transitioning from a traditional to a postmodern mindset, one that emphasizes giving the good news of Jesus rather than offering a specific church culture.

In a postmodern church, Breunle said, "The pastor serves the community. He facilitates their giftedness, cultural propensities and ethnicities. He leads by supporting what God created them to be. Conformity is seen as antithetical to community."

Breunle changes from a suit and tie at the "traditional" 8:30 a.m. service to more casual attire for the 9:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. "gathering" services, which are complete with Christian rock bands. But he preaches the same message at each. The church also now has a fourth service, a rousing Saturday night celebration.

"The question we ask at this church," Breunle said, "is, 'What does love look like?' Love looks like giving them a safe authentic community to let the life of Christ emerge in their context. Celebrating the beautiful diamond of diversity God has created to reflect himself. As long as we're being biblical in keeping the core of the gospel, we're right on."

Word of mouth, rather than a major media campaign, helped the church grow rapidly to about 350 people in worship within a few months.

"[Breunle] has an incredible magnetic personality and the gift of faith," worship pastor Brian Tremain said. "People are drawn to him. He has the ability to break down heavy truths and teach them in a way people can apply to their lives."

Breunle sleeps only about three hours a night and starts each day with two hours of Bible study and prayer. Once his kids are off to school, he's off to where the people are: Starbucks is a favorite hangout. His "office" is the cell phone that clips onto his belt, but it's usually turned off so he can concentrate on the person he's with.

In addition to strategizing with local church pastors throughout northern California about where, when and how to start churches, Breunle is facing the need to reconfigure space at Church on the Esplanade, or perhaps to relocate from its landlocked, residential neighborhood. But to Breunle, "'things' aren't nearly as important as people."

"He's the front man. He's the guy who can make things happen in the community," said pastoral intern Stephen Price. "I'm here to do pastoral care and counseling. That's my calling and background."

Breunle mentors Price as he does others on the staff at Church on the Esplanade and across northern California.

"My life really is about investing in Timothys," Breunle said. "Programs aren't going to connect people with God and change the world -- the next generation of authentic, servant leaders are."

Breunle teaches "Timothys" and people who attend Church on the Esplanade to connect with people who come into their lives by being "real." The church motto -- seen on banners outside the church and inside the worship center -- is "Trying to be real with ourselves, others, and God."

"I've never met anyone who rejects the love, grace and mercy of Jesus Christ," Breunle said. "I see them rejecting the church culture, which is why we don't do that here. People here look and seem unconventional, but it's very Baptist. Baptist is history, and the ethos is Bible in hand, doing whatever it takes to connect people with God. Really the biggest thing for me is to hand them Jesus. That's what works."

(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at Photo titles: PASSIONATE PLANTER and RADIO OUTREACH.

Download Story