Wednesday, December 30th, 2009
I’m through with church.
Have you felt the way I have recently? Has church become a drag instead of a joy? Does it seem that going to church is just something you do because you have always done it?
Have you experienced painful church splits, arguments, division like I have? Are there questions you have been afraid to ask like: what am I supposed to do with all of this? What is the purpose of going to church? Do I have to agree with my pastor?
Actually I am in church everytime the doors are open. Whenever the restaurant table gathers believers or each Saturday night when our fellowship comes together I am in church. When I skype my friend in Perth Australia for over an hour or gather each day in discipleship meetings with other brothers, I am in church. When I sit with friends in a worship service enjoying a teaching or a time of celebration, I am in church. When my close friend and I spend three hours grappling over passages of Scripture, we are in church. Wherever two or three have gathered, we are in church.
But, I found myself asking, “What is this all about?” “Why am I here?” “Where does all of this lead”? “Why are we getting together?” I began a new journey in life.
I have spent the last several years writing The Journey of Thomas and I hope it will be published soon. I was reading through the introductory section of the book and wanted to share this heartfelt, God inspired journey of my own with you all.
It is my hope that each person who reads this book will be more motivated and more equipped to share with others the hope they have experienced through their relationship with Jesus Christ. If you are reading this and don’t seem to feel that hope today, it is my prayer that through reading this book, God will show you His awesome love that never leaves us or forsakes us. At the end of this book, you will find my own story of hope that began in my life many years ago.
It is my personal belief that one of the most effective models of sharing the Love of Christ with others is through authentic relationships. This kind of love comes out naturally as we hear one another’s hearts and value one another’s created purpose for life.
How I Started on the Journey
In 2005, God began to work in my heart in a new way. He gave me a vision of a church building. This church was a square block style building with a foyer outside of its double entrance doors that was simple and more of a breezeway than a formal foyer.
As the doors opened up I saw people inside that were very busy. They were sitting in a variety of places. There were pews in the room but they were not connected to the floor and scattered about. They weren’t randomly scattered however. They were specifically placed for unique purposes.
There were people praying alone; bowing, walking, sitting. There were small groups of people praying together. There were people laughing in joyous fellowship. It was clear that the image I saw was that the pews were flexible and this room was designed for multipurpose use.
On the walls were stunning abstract sculptures. They were made of hand blown glass in ultra luminescent colors and so beautiful to look at. There was a cross hanging on the front wall that was made of the same hand blown glass. The blues, greens, oranges, reds, and whites were incredible and glistening with swirling brightness.
A man stood up front on a short stool. He was chanting out loud as if he were practicing for something. He had a black cleric’s robe on and there was a tailor that was hemming his sleeves while he stood there.
When I prayed about this vision, the Lord seemed to give me its meaning. He said that he wanted the pews loosened so that we would be free from a habitual existence within our gatherings. He wanted us to be free in our worship, our prayer, and our fellowship with each other. He made it clear that these people in their various activities were a pleasure to Him.
He said that the sculptures hanging on the walls of this room were works of art that exemplified the gifts He had given His people. These were callings, gifts, natural talents, spiritual gifts that were so special to Him that He wanted them displayed. It was to Him like a parent hanging a picture their children painted on the front of the refrigerator for everyone to see. He made mention that too many of His children had their gifts hidden away and that we were not celebrating each other the way He would like us to.
The Cross was the gift of His son to all of us and that it was similar to the others in that all of the gifts were given from the Father to be displayed, that was His gift to us.
Now to the chanting robe bearing man, God said he was representative of the history of the Body of Christ. There are traditions that we had lost as a Body and needed to try them on again and to be refit for them. He wanted us to reconnect to some of the traditions that represent our history and our family. He didn’t want us to forget them. This represented the stories, the lives and the accomplishments of others that brought us to where we are today.
After pondering that vision for many years now, I am more excited about being a Christian than I have been for some time. I finally felt that God was freeing me to be myself, to experience Him uniquely. I breathed a sigh joy thinking that my Father in heaven was really excited about my gifts and others as well. I have wondered if the dream was more for me than anything! God wants me to be free from the shackles of my own fears.
I spent many years of my Christian life sitting in pews and church buildings. I was relieved to think that there were many ways for us to celebrate our God with each other and it didn’t all have to be in straight rows facing the front or in buildings organized to facilitate church programs.
But something even more profound happened in my heart. For the first time in many years God inspired me to a renewed desire to reach the lost, the brokenhearted for Him.
I began to pray seeking Him for a plan. What did He want me to do with what He had shown me? So, for four years I prayed. I sorted through my varied responses some not so pretty to talk about. I began to wrestle with my vocational life. I had been in the same ministry for over 20 years and felt called to it. It was tremendously satisfying for most of those years but something started to change.
I’ve read through some books on “missional” churches, “organic” churches “house churches” and found some great inspiration through them but there seemed to be something still missing. Some of these books were tremendous and liberating in my heart but at times they left me feeling frustrated and critical. I had to continue working through that too. It seemed they were just another kind of church program that didn’t look that much different from where I had been.
God began to rock my world through adversity and relational challenges. I began to experience shifting in every area of my life. I had no idea how tough things were going to get for me and thankful that the Lord took me through it all gradually.
The Splitting Church
I was a part of a great organized church that went through a horrible and wounding internal breakdown where two thirds of the congregation left along with the majority of the staff including the Senior Pastor. Then I began to visit other churches sporadically almost feeling relieved that I didn’t attend an organized church every Sunday morning. I remember one Sunday sitting on my cool breezy front porch wondering if this pleased the Lord for me to just be quiet before him instead of going out to a church that day. I thought this surely was liberation from being bound to some church habits that had brought so much pain anyway.
I settled into a small Bible study group of about 16 people that were fast becoming really close friends. I started to ask the question about whether this would replace the larger organized church for me and others. Most of the time this weekly Saturday night gathering meant more to me than a majority of formal organized church services I had been to in the recent years. We met together every week, ate a meal and studied the Bible together, supported and encouraged each other with prayer and counsel. We surrounded each other at weddings, funerals, and hospitals. We ate meals together sometimes; I had spontaneous lunches with the men. I affectionately called it my church of 16 members and 12 regular attenders. What is the church anyway? I began to ask questions that I never felt the liberty to ask. I found it challenging to answer the question so often asked, “Where do you go to church”. I would squeamishly say, “Oh, my main fellowship is with our small group that meets on Saturday nights.”
As I looked around my city I found that our organized church wasn’t the only one going through splitting and internal breakdowns. God reminded me of a huge storm that occurred in Memphis where within twenty minutes trees had fallen all around town, telephone poles laying in the streets and electricity out for weeks for some. The word I received from our locals was that the majority of the trees that fell were rotten inside but we just didn’t see it. I began to ponder what had happened.
God spoke to me in response to this event. “I had to clean the garden from the rottenness that was inside the trees. I am sorry it was inconvenient for you all but it had to be done”.
I saw how this event was similar to what I saw was happening within our local organized churches. It became apparent that through the adversity of internal battles for control, God was cleaning my heart, challenging me to new growth and direction. He was also challenging others in the same say. Yes, it is inconvenient, but it has to be done. I also had to get honest about the fact that I had not really experienced true relationship with the majority of those I knew. I had however, experienced the habit of going to church and smiling with a hole in my heart longing for connection that was meaningful.
But there was still something aching in me. I found another organized church that seemed to have something special and I knew some friends who had been going there and said they enjoyed it. So, I happened to meet a couple at a home cookout who went there and they invited us to attend so we went the next day.
I resigned myself that maybe this might become what we needed and would enjoy. The new fellowship of Christians very quickly embraced us. I was invited to speak and share my gifts with the body there. The pastor was very supportive of me personally and spoke into my life with great encouragement. So we joined this church with the hope in our hearts that we would find a special ministry there and fellowship that was fulfilling.
I was invited to share a teaching series with a small group there. I called it “The Tributaries of Grace”. I started out the series inviting the participants to focus this series on a person or people that they wanted to reach with the grace of God. This could have been a friend, a family member or someone they were having a difficult time with.
Something new came alive in my heart. I realized that through the years of ministry experience I mostly responded to healing and recovery for those who came to us. This had changed to looking outwardly into the lives of those who haven’t begun their own journey yet or were stuck along the road. So, there was a glimpse of a major change in my heart at that point.
During this season another very deeply invested part of my life became a huge challenge. The internal workings of the ministry I had led for over 20 years became broken, confusing and wounding. I tried every way I knew how to correct the wrongs. I prayed, sought intercession and counsel but things continued to worsen. The conflicts and distractions increased and I felt trapped in a place I had celebrated for so many years. I hated leaving my home every day to go to a place that was such a personal and corporate challenge for everyone. What was God doing? How could it be like this? It seemed no matter which way I turned I couldn’t find a solution.
I began to search God’s heart for some answers. This time I began to ask different questions than before. I pondered questions that would take me deeper than just asking what organized church to attend. God, what is Your church? Where is Your church? What does it mean to serve You? How do I fit into Your church? Who is Your church? God, where do you want me to be?
After a couple of years of tremendous heartache I left my position with that ministry in faith that God had something He was leading me to. One of the first answers He gave me was to free me from the ministry I led. It became very clear that God was allowing me to close the door on that season of my life and begin anew. I felt strongly that he wanted me to take all I had learned and experienced there and use it in a new way.
I began to adjust to being away from that ministry I finally let my guarded heart open to some extent within the church I had discovered. I began to feel released to step further into ministry there. But as I got further into the workings of this church there were rumblings of discontent and elder / pastor problems that seemed to have been developing over a period of months. One Sunday, we went through a painful confusing combustion from these problems within the organizational leadership. That day, there was a split and the elders and staff resigned leaving the pastor and about one half of the original congregation. I left on that overwhelming Sunday feeling lost and hurt realizing that many of my new friends were going different directions. It had happened again, now what. How many more times will we see this happen?
A New Beginning
Needless to say, I was swimming in discouragement and hopelessness. What will I do now? What is God doing? I surely didn’t want to attend any organized church the next week and decided to attach to our home group even more. I began to accept things as they were and received a peace from the Lord.
I became encouraged and freer than I had been in a long time. After a few months, I felt Him answer me in another very unique way. He said, “Watch for the Springs of Living Water to come up out of the streets and sidewalks of the city. Get prepared! This water is the Living Water as unto salvation. I am inspiring my people to come to me and I want my Body to be prepared to receive them but they will not be coming to the front doors of the organized church buildings, they will need you to go to them, to listen for their voices, to know them and care about them. Go out into the streets”.
Whoa! These many years of confusion and pain has brutally moved me to go outside the walls of the organized churches! Building by building God has seemingly jack hammered me loose from my own traditions, religious practice and patterns of habit! He changed my entire world.
I began to see His “church” was everywhere I met or gathered with followers of Jesus Christ. I saw that I was having church every day! My new church didn’t have membership other than to believe in Jesus Christ. I enjoyed lunches, spontaneous meetings in the market places of my life which became encouraging connections with the Body of Christ. I found that when I took my eyes off of the Sunday ritual I had allowed to become a habit and hallowed ground, I saw the Body of Christ everywhere I went.
I have seen a new thing develop in my life. I am, more than any time in my life, excited to see someone come to a relationship with Jesus Christ that is authentic, life changing and invigorating! I have felt my eyes perk up in a watchful manner to see if I can see what He sees. There are lost children out there, Lord? Where are they? Do you want me to go to them? Where will I find them?
I felt him saying, “You won’t find them inside the walls of the churches.” “Walk as Jesus did, in the highways and byways, in the world around you.” “You will find them there.”
Living Outside the Walls
Well, this past six months I have found myself in some really strange places. I have entered the world with weak knees, curiosity, and timidity. I am not prepared for this! I am uncomfortable in the world. It is too strange for me. I want to be comfortable, safe, and this isn’t a safe place.
I was reminded that we don’t live in a “G” rated world. This world is not my home! But, I am asked to enter it with my whole heart so as to be in it, but carefully so as not to become “of” it.
Wow, this is really exciting – and dangerous. I have been around people and involved in circumstances that were similar to my sin filled past but I had forgotten my old life long ago. I have heard language, seen behavior and gone places that many told me in the organized church I should not be around. I have lived in a white washed world sanitized in such a way that was to keep us safe from the world. What about the real grit of this world? What about getting our hands really dirty – for the Kingdom?
As I have gone through this journey of change, God has inspired me to write the Journey of Thomas. I have lived out the principles that laid the foundation for this series for many years in a very different setting. Now they seem to have become applicable in other settings that I am not sure I understood at the time. I certainly didn’t see this as I began to write the Journey.
Now that I have written the last session on Honor, I can say with excitement that it is my greatest hope that this will inspire the Body of Christ to turn their eyes outside the walls of the church to see what God is doing. It would be awesome if this material would prepare many for the harvest that God is preparing for His Church to receive.
I believe that one of the greatest tools of evangelism for our world today is our own story, our own life. We live in a world that hungers for connection. So many are living lives of aloneness, fear and shame that for some the only way they will come out of their prisons will be holding the hand of someone they trust though knowing they can relate.
The Journey of Thomas begins with honest self evaluation and along the way I hope the inspiring, grace filled, forgiving and restoring voice of the Living God will permeate our souls with desire for His children to come to know Him and to find maturity through authentic fellowship with other followers of Jesus.
Along the Journey, after God deepens our heart for Him, I hope we will have a Well of His Living Water to share with the thirsty souls around us that He reveals to us.
Are there going to be Springs of Living Water as unto salvation coming up from your streets and sidewalks? Are you prepared to receive them? Are your eyes fixed forwardly in rows facing the front of your church experiences? Or, are you beginning to feel the pews coming loose underneath your familiar places? Would you like your Father to celebrate your life on the walls of your fellowship? Do you want to connect to all the saints who have gone before you with wonderful stories of life and traditions?
Get ready for a rocky challenging ride. Be prepared for some things along the way that may confuse you; but God has a plan to move you closer to Him and closer to His heart’s desire for people to come to Him.
I found one of the answers to my question, “What does it mean to serve the Lord” was simple and straight forward. To serve Him is to serve His people with His message of new life, hope, and healing. He wants us to never tire of speaking of the hope that is within us. Will we walk the streets of our lives with our hands outstretched just like His were on the cross? Unafraid, unashamed, and ready to embrace, to hear, to value and honor, those we find in the fields.
Matt. 11: 28-29
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
The Journey of Thomas is designed to answer to Thomas’ question; I don’t know where you are going, Lord. Show me the way. I would venture to say; you may find this question answered for yourself.