A Home Base for Healing

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A Home Base for Healing

Broken families encounter holistic care

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Jose Raul and Karen were buried in the depths of infidelity. Though raised by Christian parents, the couple had fallen away from the church and became involved with other people outside of their marriage. On the verge of separation, they didn’t know what to do. They had heard of a program in a local church that helped people with relationship issues, so they called David and Lou Ann Woerner. Soon after, the couple attended the Alliance Marriage Academy and their lives and marriage drastically changed.

David and Lou Ann are Alliance international workers who have pioneered a movement of healing broken homes through labor-intensive encounter. “A lot of people come to us when the betrayals are so huge. When there’s infidelity and abandonment. They just feel so unworthy,” says David. “But where sin abounds, there is much more grace. The grace of God is so great that they never want to stray again.”

Marriage Encounter Beginnings

The Woerners began working with the idea of Marriage Encounter in the 1990s, partnering with Francisco and Sonia Rivera at Las Condes Alliance Church in Santiago, Chile. The concept behind Marriage Encounter was not new; the Catholic church had developed it to solve the problems occurring with students from broken homes. Their intention was to use the power of love to change the home. Catholic missionaries carried these types of programs to Chile as they ministered to local people groups. Marriage Encounter entered Protestant circles when Pastor Alf Cooper of the Anglican church translated the programs into Spanish, allowing people to engage with greater ease. David and Francisco reconfigured the program so that, instead of a priest conducting the sessions, a husband and wife team could lead couples to breakthrough.

The experience is testimony-driven, allowing couples to hear stories of others who were similarly broken but made whole through encountering Christ. A. B. Simpson’s idea of the deeper life became an integral component in helping couples make lasting change in their relationships. Through devotionals and testimonials, the message of the gospel is intentionally woven in. In addition to the weekend sessions, the Woerners added the most important part of the new Marriage Encounter format—discipleship. The lifestyle of discipleship allows church leaders to reinforce the teachings from the couples’ initial weekend as well as connect them to their local church body. Eventually, many couples go on to become members of the local church, assisting with the ministries that brought them into the fold.

Jose Raul and Karen were one of the closest discipleship relationships for the Woerners after their Marriage Encounter weekend. “That was a case when we became very paternalistic, not just pastoral, because he was as old as my oldest son,” says David. “I told them, ‘I’m going to treat you like my son and my daughter. So just get ready.’ I kept them very much accountable—pastorally, family-wise, and in every way.” After seven years of attending Chicureo Alliance and becoming members, Jose Raul and Karen have become youth sponsors, helping run Youth Encounter weekends and mentorships. Through their service and a missions conference they attended, the couple are now missionary candidates for Asia.

Families Restored

So, there in Santiago, Chile, the Alliance Marriage Academy, or simply ALMA, was born. Over the course of a weekend, struggling couples encounter God through the teaching and mentorship of the pastoral staff of their local Alliance church. “We were careful to give God the glory, to really make sure that the testimonies spoke of God’s eruption into the life of the couple and what the manifestation of that was,” David explains. “We were seeing the program take them, and grace bring them back.”

Lou Ann (left) and David Woerner (right) with Alliance Marriage Encounter staff members, Damaris and Hector.

David and Lou Ann also helped to develop the program at Reñaca Alliance and Chicureo Alliance in Chile. As the Woerners helped run ALMA in Las Condes, the couples who were retained from Encounter weekends began to become more and more invested in the Kingdom and the work to be done in Chile. Seeing the need for strong Christian presence in the communities around them, ALMA couples began to   partner with the Woerners and helped them plant Reñaca Alliance and Chicureo Alliance.

Over time, the Marriage Encounter model developed into programs for women, children, and youth. The Woerners have begun using the Alliance Women’s Encounter, the Alliance Children’s Encounter, and the Alliance Youth Encounter to holistically reach the entire family. These programs were modeled so that, as the marriage in a family becomes restored, the singles, youth, and children in the family become restored alongside them. The brokenness of the marriage affects the entire family, and David notes that, “Usually, at the bottom is when you meet the Lord.”

From Chile to the World

David and Lou Ann have not only integrated ALMA in Chile, but they have also helped pastoral staffs begin teaching Marriage Encounter in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, France, Russia, and even the Middle East. The most effective of these ALMA integrations is in the Middle East, a notoriously difficult area to reach— David says, “God is not going to leave Himself without a witness.” Families are broken all around the world—and using Encounter ministries to help rebuild communities around Alliance churches provides the lost with a home base for healing.

Ministry from the Inside Out

“The Alliance Marriage Encounters are local church-centered and pastoral-led—so it’s ministry from the church to the community that feeds the congregation,” says David. “We’re not a parachurch group—we work with a local Alliance church and invest in that church. It’s labor intensive, but that’s the strategy. We don’t outsource ministry.”

The Woerners are now in the process of developing the Encounter programs in the United States—but David has found that a cultural shift needs to happen for ALMA to work the way it has around the world. Christians in the United States have become accustomed to a conference culture for their source of renewal. David believes ALMA is the opposite of a conference-based structure. “People will say, ‘Let’s go to this conference, thousands of people will be there!’ I don’t give a rip about a thousand people—because when you come home, you forget; you don’t follow up.”

Since everyone involved in Marriage or Women’s Encounter is from the local church, an immediate connection is made whereby churches can maintain the learning from Encounter weekends in a way that conferences cannot. Growth occurs as people continue to live out the teachings they experienced with the people who taught them in the intimate environment of a church setting. But for programs like ALMA to thrive, the church needs to reprioritize and focus its vision toward a renewal in people’s hearts and a reignited passion for the Kingdom of God. “So many churches are doing many different programs, outreaches, and conferences,” David believes. “We need to stop doing so many things and start doing the best things.”

Jose Raul and Karen dedicated their lives to the Kingdom after their ALMA weekend, but the encounter did not end there. They fed back into their church and helped develop the other Encounter programs. It took a life commitment and daily discipline, but their lives and their church have been completely changed by their Encounter experience. David summarizes the steps to prepare for Encounter as simply: “You thank God; ask the question, ‘what can I do to make this happen in my local church?’; and then you look for the examples of how to magnify God in your life so you can serve Him effectively to reach others.”

David and Lou Ann are on a mission to spread the Encounter ministries they helped pioneer around the United States and further out into the world. Through the spread of Encounter ministries, more people are experiencing God’s grace and desire to heal the broken, regardless of how far they have fallen.

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