How Did Your Story Begin?
Over two decades ago, I was the senior pastor of a seemingly healthy, steady-growing cell-based church. I was supported by a strong eldership team of four other men, each of whom loved Jesus (not always a given in eldership boards) and who wanted to serve the God’s purposes wholeheartedly. We had seven people on full-time or part-time staff, owned three properties in the city and ran our fair share of “successful” programmes including a Bible School.
Our eldership meetings were a joy; we spent most of our time ministering to the Lord and to one another. Doing so, I think, meant we were never overburdened with too many crisis “business meetings”.
However, as good as things seemed, I was personally starting to feel the pressure of being a “successful pastor”. I had started to discern some of the symptoms of burnout in my life; realising that as much as 70% of what I was doing as the “senior pastor” was not in keeping with my core spiritual gifts. I was burning out and everyone was cheering me on!
But above all this was a deepening frustration in my inability to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. In fact, the more I strove towards this end—the more skilled I became, the better I honed my leadership, preaching and ministry gifts, the better I attempted to structure things—the more dependent on me the church became; the less equipped they were for ministry.
I remember feeling a growing sense of disillusionment and a sobering realisation that the systemic inconsistencies of the “church construct” sabotaged the Kingdom values I cherished and attempted to live in and impart. I believe I was sincere—as I believe 99.9% of “pastors” are—in my desire to serve God’s people. But I concluded that I was serving a “system” that gobbled up time, energy, money and life.
I honestly assessed the expectations I laboured under as a “senior pastor” … that I must have a clear sense of calling, that I must hear the voice of God, that I must know the Word of God, that I must be a man of faith, that I must walk in the Spirit, that I must be a man of prayer, etc. etc. Then it hit me like a freezing cold shower on a winter morning: God desires this for us all!
Yes, of course, we all have different roles, gifts and responsibilities. But it was a slap-in-the-face realisation that my positional “pastor role” was a bottleneck preventing others from playing their role.
What was I going to do? Was I going to continue “business as usual” knowing that I could never shake this new deep-seated conviction off?
Then it happened.
At one eldership meeting—in my home where we met most Thursday nights—as we sought the Lord, we felt God bring 2 Corinthians 11:2, 3 to our attention.
I still remember trembling as I read Paul’s words to the church at Corinth:
For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
(2 Corinthians 11:2, 3)
Then I heard these words come out of my own mouth (without my permission I should add), “‘Your hands are on my Bride,’ says the Lord.”
In one of those holy moments, we all found ourselves on the floor immediately responding to a prophetic word we all knew was from God.
Up to this point, we would have characterised ourselves as a healthy, growing church with a bright future. The structures and systems were in place and things were in every way going well. We were sure we were doing God’s will to the best of our ability as a leadership of the church.
From this heart-stopping prophetic word, God began to reveal His desire to do a “new thing” in our midst; something that would “spring forth” like a “river in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18, 19). To be honest, this promise from Isaiah was a wonderful relief after the sober word from 2 Corinthians 11:2, 3. To this God also revealed His desire to pour out “new wine” and the necessity for new wineskins to handle His “new wine” (Luke 5:36-39).
Sobered yet excited by these words we shared what had happened with the congregation at our normal Sunday morning celebration. We asked the church to consider committing to a week of prayer and fasting starting the very next Monday, encouraging them to fast in any way that they felt led to and to join us for early morning prayer Monday through Friday that week if they could.
Looking back, I remember being run over with conflicting feelings as I headed off for prayer that Monday morning. I was overwhelmed with expectation, but I also had this feeling that I could be making a huge leadership error. Never did I feel so out of control as I did in that moment. These mixed feelings, though at the time extremely difficult, were of course the perfect storm for God to act.
Nearly 90% of the congregation turned out for prayer that morning and every morning that week. In fact, this week of prayer turned into an amazing ten weeks of prayer and fasting in which two things happened.
Firstly, a spirit of repentance sprung from our hearts as we recognised our dependencies upon an institutional construct of church, a reliance on things (not necessarily all bad) other than the Lordship of Christ in our midst. I still remember that moment when, bowed on my knees, with tears streaming down my face as I repented of my own misplaced affections and loyalties, I heard someone’s heartfelt confession of their dependence on my teaching! I was well and truly run through. (Just where Father God wanted me).
The second thing that happened was an Acts 1:8 blockbuster. In our own way, we experienced God pouring out His heart for the nations upon us. Up until that moment, my every thought and plan was to get people involved in our church ministry. Yes, I was sincere in my efforts and desired to see people from our city come to know Jesus and find family in our congregation. Yes, I prayed for the other churches in our city—and prayed with the pastors of the other churches in the city—but honestly never really concerned myself with anyone except the success of our immediate spiritual community. This all changed in those ten weeks. Suddenly, nations on the other side of the world burdened my heart to breaking point.
Without overplaying this, I feel we lived out the subsequent decades in large part from the well dug in those ten weeks. We’ve been blessed immeasurably … the grace celebrated at every success, the mercy experienced in every failure and the many, many memories etched in my mind.
But let me take a moment to spotlight that original prophetic word from 2 Corinthians 11:2, 3—the one I blame everything on!
After reminding the Corinthians that they belonged to God, literally betrothed to Him through Christ (v. 2), Paul then expressed his concern that they had been “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (v. 3). The NIV reads: “from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ”.
The word “simplicity” does not mean we must be simplistic or narrow, dull and one-dimensional. Not at all. It refers to a single-minded allegiance to God where He is the Centre around which we find our orbit; the essential Source that fans us into full flame, the Sustainer that brings every colour of Divine Life into our beings. And the pointed implication is that this requires no artificial props or external life-support systems. “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
For me, this word is the genesis of our understanding of simple church and urges us to focus on what is essential, vital and primary; careful to avoid allowing anything else to usurp the Preeminence of Christ in our personal and communal lives. There are many other secondary aspects of traditional church experience that are in themselves not bad. Remember, there is great freedom in Christ. As Paul explained, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Simplicity does not mean we become suspicious or phobic about everything (into which so many in ‘house church’ circles sadly lapse); it simply means we learn to be content in Him in our midst, vigilant to avoid becoming dependent on anything else—whether this be a style of worship, a person or leader, a specific gifting such as teaching or prophecy, a course or programme, or so on.
The questions we regularly ask of ourselves as Christ-followers are:
“Am I essentially connected to Father through Jesus by the Spirit? Am I living out of a vital, firsthand relationship with the Godhead?” (Ephesians 2:18)
And the questions we ask often as Kingdom communities are:
“Is our communal life wrapped around His Presence in our midst? Are we alive in the Spirit, in love with one another and about our Father’s Kingdom mission in our world?” (Matthew 18:20; 22:37-39; 28:18-20)
Following those first ten weeks, we embarked on a challenging transition from a congregational church into a network or fellowship of simple church communities. From a centralised, hierarchical-based construct we sought to decentralize initiative and responsibility trusting for each simple church to be self-governing as spiritual parents facilitated a communal life through their homes. Together, these simple church communities continued to enjoy a corporate sense of life together in the city and in the unfolding apostolic vision that began to emerge.
Since then we have seen pioneers and church planters sown into several nations as we’ve kept the missional fires of the Spirit in full flame and assisted people in responding to His prompting to “go”. Natural parents raise their children to release them to be parents in themselves. Likewise, we’ve tried to become spiritual fathers who put our sons on our shoulders so that they full their Kingdom destiny; rather than keeping them in our shadows to fulfil our church vision.
Has it cost us something? Everything!
- From selling all the properties we owned as a church over a decade ago (which seemed so difficult to do at the time, but in light of what was to come, it was a cakewalk);
- to closing down all our “successful programmes” we ran (killing more than a few sacred cows in the process; mine were the first to go);
- to effectively firing myself as a salaried “pastor” (and explaining this to pastor friends some of whom responded, should I say, in less than helpful ways);
- to (and this was even harder) helping those on staff look for alternative income sources as we redirected our finances to apostolic mission;
- to dying a thousand deaths to my ego (and still counting);
- to moving numerous times as a family to model this missional lifestyle (my eldest daughter had moved nine times before her eighth birthday);
- to leaving parents (and the children’s grandparents) and siblings behind knowing that seeing them again may only be for a few weeks in a few years time (and yes, we are a very close-knit family who would prefer to see each other much more often);
- to sending true “sons” in the faith into uncharted waters, believing in them and the God they trusted—but lying awake at night wondering if I’ve sent them to their doom;
- to being on the other side of the ocean when “sons” and churches struggled in the inevitable warfare against darkness, feeling helpless to assist, many times incorrectly wearing the guilt of any setback or failure;
- to … (I’m sure there is more to come) …
[And this is just my part in the story; the rest of the team could make this list three times the length.]
Has it been worth it? Absolutely! He is so worth it!
Not only do I live in the context of an organic apostolic team experiencing a sense of rest and fulfilment in Him I could never have dreamed of despite how busy we are and the cost paid to date, my true joy is to see the saints equipped for the work of ministry.
Ordinary believers, like myself, doing extraordinary exploits because we’re no longer serving a “system”; we’re serving an extraordinary God who is the King of His Kingdom, the Lord of His harvest, the Head of His church and the Shepherd of His sheep. The “government rests on His shoulder”—not ours—and “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6, 7)
While we’re certainly a work in process, as we often say, we’re ruined and we’re glad!