Dennis, Cody and TJ Ray are more than just family – they’re coworkers at Connection Christian Church in York, Pennsylvania and alumni of Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School. Dennis and his two sons, Cody and TJ serve as the senior pastor, student ministry pastor and worship and arts director at this growing congregation, sometimes called C3. The church has two campuses, one in York and one in Lancaster. We talked to them about family, ministry and of course, their time LBC.
What lead you to this church?
DENNIS: We came to York after I had served in Desert Storm in the Middle East with the U.S. Army while I was working as an Army recruiter. My life had drifted pretty far away for the faith of my youth. When I finally decided to look for a church to reconnect and get my life back together, I simply got in the truck one Sunday morning with my wife, Susanne, and our two young boys, Cody and TJ, and started driving until we found the first church we came to. After pulling in the parking lot of one church where everyone was dressed in three-piece suits, (I was wearing jeans) I decided we would turn around and go the other direction. After about a mile we came to a little church. When I pulled in the parking lot, I felt God speak to me and say, ‘You are home now’. It was a profound experience. We returned the following Sunday and I haven’t missed many Sundays since that one in 1996. In 1999, as I neared the end of my tour as a recruiter, the church elders asked if I would consider getting out of the Army and joining the staff as the youth pastor. I accepted, and a year later I became the senior pastor. This year will mark our twentieth year serving at the church!
How did you end up in church ministry?
TJ: I was kind of born into it, I suppose. Most of my early memories are at church and it’s always been a second home for Cody and I. It was only natural that we started to get involved. The first thing I remember doing at church was filling up the communion cups. I was so short I had to get a step stool to reach the counter so I could fill them up. I’ve always loved music and really looked up the worship leaders at church. When the opportunity presented itself for me to join the worship team and serve alongside them, I jumped on it.
CODY: I first felt called to ministry in the summer of 2009. I was invited to be part of a ministry trip called Operation Barnabas. This trip solidified for me what God was calling me to do with my life. I tried to “run away” from that calling. I didn’t want to work in a church full-time as I was growing up in high school, but it was during this six-week trip, and after doing many different types of ministry all over the country in that time, that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away from His call on my life and I surrendered to His will. Ever since that time, I knew – and still know – ministry is exactly what I was created for. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth it. I believe people – children, students and adults – have so much potential and I love getting to be part of bringing that out of them.
Why did you choose to attend LBC?
DENNIS: Tom LaHue, who was the pastor at the church when I started, became a close friend and mentor to me. At that time, he was finishing his degree at LBC and highly recommended it. I also really wanted to go to a college that I could attend in person and continue working and applying what I was learning right away at the church. LBC was close enough to be able to accomplish that goal. I believe one of the most valuable aspects of my education at LBC was the fact that I could go to class and drive back to York and apply what I had learned right away. Through the years, we’ve not only provided many thousands of dollars in scholarships to the college through the LBC Church Matching Scholarship, but we’ve also encouraged every student that attends to be involved in an apprenticeship program here at the church where they can take what they are learning and put it into practice right away.
CODY: My dad went to LBC for graduate school, which is how I knew about it. I was never pressured to go to LBC and I applied to many other places as a way of trying to “run away” from the ministry call like I talked about earlier. I don’t remember the exact timeline of everything, but I think I applied really late and after my trip on Operation Barnabas I knew that is exactly where I was supposed to be.
I have always had a love for leadership and after graduating the first time as an undergrad, I wanted to continue my education in leadership studies, which is how and why I was able to graduate twice from LBC.
TJ: I was familiar with LBC because my dad and brother both went there, my dad was teaching and coaching cross country there too. It was between LBC and another school where I was going to study education. I had heard about the new communication major at LBC and I was very interested in that, as I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do as a career and it seemed open-ended enough to give me some possibilities. I prayed about it a lot and I woke up one morning with a real peace about LBC. I submitted an application and was accepted that day.
Above: Connection Christian Church (C3 Churh) in York, PA.
What did you find most impactful about your education at LBC?
DENNIS: One class in particular still stands out to me as having the greatest effect on my life and ministry. It was an organizational leadership course with Dr. Gil Peterson [former president of LBC]. It was during that class early on in my ministry that I was able to work out and define the type of ministry God was really calling me to live out. During that class, I clarified my values and vision and I have referred back to it many times over the years when I’ve started to lose focus.
CODY: The relationships I built with peers, professors and other staff members of LBC was the thing I loved most about being there. I was able to experience teaching from people that were in ministry for a long time and knew what they were talking about. My experience was very relational and not just transactional. The professors really cared about the students on a personal level and made that the priority.
TJ: When I look back on my time at LBC, the thing that stands out the most is the community. It didn’t matter where on campus you went, you were always with friends. LBC is a tight knit community. I met my wife and my best friend during my time at LBC and I made relationships that will last a lifetime. I also I played bass on a few different worship teams that led worship in chapel. I remember being pretty nervous to play on a different worship team. Up to that point, I had only ever been a part of the worship team at our church. I definitely learned a lot of things that to improve on while playing under different worship leaders at LBC and it was a valuable experience.
How does your church center their times of worship?
TJ: A saying I’ve always heard is that people come to church for the music and stay for the preaching. I think that’s a little too simple, but I do believe that music is a great way to reach people who may not be completely sold on the whole Christianity thing. I believe music is a gift from God, given to us so that we can worship Him. Our services would be labeled as contemporary, but we tend to not label things like that and simply do what we feel God is calling us to do in His Word and through the Holy Spirit. If we feel the Spirit leading us in a direction, we’re going to follow.
What do you think your church’s youth ministry program gets right?
CODY: We put a huge emphasis on building leaders. We do everything we can to equip and empower students and adults to become better leaders and followers of Christ together within our ministry. We want to be able to do new things and not be afraid of failing, but growing from each experience. We allow students and adults to be a major part of what we do and are part of growing the ministry, not just receiving the ministry. We do this because we believe if people are part of the process, they will learn more and it will become part of who they are for their future.
Tell us about a time that your students in youth ministry made you proud.
CODY: We have a few students that have started Bible clubs in their local high schools and are making a difference there. One of the schools that many of our students attend started a Bible club two years ago, and it’s grown so much. Sometimes, the amount of students going to their meetings before school can reach up to 50 or 60 people. They use their time to encourage and pray with each other, as well as encourage everyone in their school. They have written and passed out notes to all the teachers in the school and have been able to go around praying for other students before, during, and after school.
What’s it like working with your family?
DENNIS: I love working with my family here at the church. Both Cody and TJ essentially grew up in this church and have served in several different ways throughout the years. Watching them turn into Godly young men who serve the Lord has been a great joy for Susanne and I. They are both very good at what they do and bring a lot to the table, and I’m not just talking as a proud dad. I cherish every day that we get to work together here, “Building God’s Family Together” (That’s our tagline here at CCC). They are both highly gifted, skilled and equipped to deliver the ministry God has called our family to. We are all thankful to LBC for playing a big role in that equipping in all of our lives.
CODY: I get to work with my dad every day which has been great. We get to be part of a lot of cool things together and are able to be very open and honest with each other. We don’t have any extended family around us, so the people at the church are our extended family. It is great to work and be with them and see God accomplish His mission through us.
TJ: We don’t have any biological family nearby, so our church has always been our family since I can remember. Our staff at CCC, most of whom I’m not related to, operates as if we are all family. If someone is hurting, we are there to pick them up, and if someone is celebrating, we are there celebrating with them. If there is an issue, we hash it out and hug each other at the end of the day. We can all be completely honest and open with each other like a family should. I think this speaks to the culture my dad has helped create at CCC, which is that we are building God’s family together. We truly take that to heart and our church is a family that is on a mission to connect with God and each other. In terms of my actual family, I really look up to my dad and brother as men and pastors, and I consider myself blessed to be able to serve the congregation alongside them.