Heartland leader Breaux 'doesn't just preach the message, he lives it'
Everywhere he goes, Mike Breaux wears a bracelet with his favorite Bible verse engraved on it.
The bracelet is a daily reminder, Breaux says, of his three-step program: “Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” — Micah 6:8.
On this day, Breaux would be quick to show off his bracelet — except he gave it away the day before.
“Someone asked where I got it,” he explained. “I said, ‘Take it. I can get another one.’ ”
This 50-year-old preacher knows the act of giving it away is far more valuable than the bracelet itself. For him, such generosity is simply an act of love — and that’s what Breaux is all about.
“I’m a simple guy: Love God, love people,” he said.
A nationally sought-after speaker, Breaux has led megachurches in Las Vegas and Lexington, Ky. In 2003, he joined Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, where he routinely preached before some 20,000 people.
Now, Breaux’s message of love has worked its way west to Heartland Community Church in Rockford.
Building a church
Heartland, in case you haven’t noticed, is the city’s newest megachurch. Less than 10 years old, it draws 6,000 people to its services each weekend. Last year, having outgrown its Perryville Road building, Heartland renovated and moved to Colonial Village Mall, where it now holds church services in a former JCPenney department store.
Most recently, Heartland expanded to include a Madison, Wis.-area church that was looking for a new way to grow its congregation.
For years, worshippers at Heartland would hear Breaux’s sermons via video from Willow Creek, along with messages from other pastors there. But after getting to know more about Heartland during guest appearances and through Hurricane Katrina work trips, Breaux decided to become part of the Rockford church’s staff.
“I think the addition of Mike Breaux to Heartland is a considerable coup for not only our church, but also for the community,” said Rebecca Kopf, a 41-year-old church member. “He is a genuine and real person that has an everyday approach to life. That makes him one of us rather than someone just extolling phrases from the Bible.
“He doesn’t just preach the message, he lives it.”
Last month, worshippers at Heartland and Willow Creek were told that Breaux, who had split his time between the two churches for most of 2007, would become Heartland’s full-time teaching pastor. It’s a move Heartland leaders hope will drive weekend attendance figures even higher.
“There is no question that when he’s teaching live, our numbers go up,” said Doug Thiesen, Heartland’s lead pastor. “His style, his way of communicating, is very powerful and effective.”
Making ripples: A way of life
Breaux’s teaching, in fact, was the catalyst behind Heartland’s move to Colonial Village Mall. His sermon, Making Ripples, was played via video to the congregation the week before church leaders announced they were buying the mall. Using the analogy of making a splash by cannon-balling into a swimming pool, that sermon laid the foundation for the church’s long-term plan.
“Live your life in such a way that you touch someone else’s life,” Breaux said in that message. “Then they’ll touch someone’s life, and they’ll touch someone’s life — and long after you’re dead and gone, the ripples will still be going strong.”
Making Ripples wasn’t a sermon unique to Heartland. In fact, Breaux began developing the concept at another church years earlier, and it was so popular that he has since preached it “tons of times” in churches across the country.
“Deep down inside, people want to make a difference with their lives. They want to know their life counts, that they have a purpose,” he said. “It’s not just a sermon. It’s the way I want to live my life.”
And in the end, Heartland’s commitment to making ripples is one reason Breaux came here. He was amazed to see that, at a time when so many churches are moving to the suburbs to buy big plots of land and construct huge buildings, Heartland was moving in the other direction.
“One of the things that interested me about this place … is they said, ‘We’re going back to the city — where the people are,’” he said. “A lot of churches fail by being inwardly focused. What if you have a favorite football team and all they did was huddle? You would say, ‘They’re not a team.’
“Christians, left to ourselves with no mission and purpose, we just love to huddle.”
Much of Breaux’s appeal to Heartland attenders is that straightforward, all-cards-on-the-table approach.
“When I was a youth pastor, we tried to make things understandable, relevant and engaging,” Breaux said. “We do that in student ministries, so I thought, ‘Why doesn’t the church do that for big people?’
“I’ve been doing youth ministry for adults for a long time now — 25 years at least.”
That concept works for Jeff Rosene, a 26-year-old from Rockford who says Breaux is the reason he heads to Heartland for church services.
“There is not another person I would rather see up on the stage,” he said. “The biggest thing that sticks out to me is how he relates to his audience. He always uses examples (and) stories from his life … to put things in perspective for the congregation. Everything is still scripturally based, but is also applied to modern-day examples.
“It gets many more people interested in what he has to say, and it makes it easier to understand.”
Settling into Rockford
Outside of the church, Breaux is just like any other newcomer to Rockford. He recently bought a house on the east side — right next to his daughter and son-in-law, also staffers at Heartland. And when he’s not at the pulpit, there’s a good chance you’ll find him playing Ultimate Frisbee, dreaming up practical jokes, entertaining his two granddaughters or hanging out with his dog, Bubba.
But for Breaux, the best person he can find to spend time with is his wife, Debbie. He’s known her since high school, and he’s quick to lavish praise.
“Debbie is the best person I know,” he said. “She is the kindest, most forgiving. She giggles through life. … She’ll live to be 180, because she just laughs all the time.”
Breaux is quite the comedian, dropping jokes into his sermons and throughout the two books he recently authored: “Making Ripples,” which came out in 2006, and “Identity Theft,” which was just released.
“I’m writing anyway when I’m preparing a message,” he said. “And if we can help people with that, great. I would like to think I communicate in such a way that someone who isn’t interested in God would want to hear it.”
Three decades into his life as a preacher, Breaux hasn’t lost a love for his job. The way he sees it, being a pastor draws rich rewards every time he sees someone’s life change. There’s nothing, he says, he would rather do.
For the 6,000 who flock to Heartland each weekend to hear his insights and be motivated by his teaching, Breaux has a single challenge. He wants churchgoers to do more than just show up on Sunday mornings. He wants them to live the life, walk the walk and make some ripples in the neighborhoods of Rockford.
“My challenge to the people of Heartland is go and be,” he said. “So many churches are come and see. But people aren’t going to come and see until you go and be.
“I’ll make sure that if people come, they’ll be fed.”
Q&A with Mike Breaux
QUESTION: You draw on real life for a lot of your sermons. Do you find yourself learning much as you prepare to teach others?
ANSWER: If you’re not constantly learning, what do you have to teach? One of my prayers is that … (God) is teaching me something as I’m teaching other people. I want to be constantly growing and learning and morphing.
Q: You say that, at age 17, you devoted your life to God. What changed when you did that?
A: I went from a guy who knew religion to a guy who knew God. And I want to see everyone else get that, because if you don’t, you’re living beneath your privilege.
Q: What’s the best part of being a Christian?
A: I’m not searching for significance. I’m already significant in God’s eyes. When you live like that, it gives you freedom.
Q: What makes a church grow like Heartland has?
A: When you hear, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t know them — not so they can be your spiritual project. Just love ’em because that’s what God wants you to do. That’s real.
That’s just so much more organic than a church coming up with programs to reach people. Just get out of your cubicle, walk across the street and love people the way God wants you to.
Q: Love is easy in concept, but not in reality. How do you go about loving those who are a little harder to love?
A: I think of me first, because I know I can be hard to love. There are people who are a little “extra-grace-required.” I’m not commanded to like everybody, but I am commanded to love everybody.
Q: You’ve led many large churches. What do you think about the trend toward megachurches?
A: Sometimes, there’s a negative stigma to big churches. But I think they’re big for a reason, because they love people outside their walls.
Q: If you weren’t a pastor, what would you be?
A: A teacher or a coach. I love kids and I love athletics.
Q: Where is your favorite place in a church?
A: The junior high room. I love junior high kids: They’re a microcosm of everybody. They’re in that stage where everybody is changing. They’re so moldable and pliable.
Q: What motivates you?
A: Having a relationship with God. I love it. I love doing life with God. The passion for seeing other people connect with God, that’s the reason for me to get out of bed.