Frank Viola author has written out his spiritual biography in an upcoming book called “Rethinking the Church.” The book is part of a 5-volume series called “The Rethinking Series.”
These books will be available on Viola’s website in January 2015.
Viola opens the book saying,
Being a student of church history, I have never personally met a true spiritual or theological trailblazer. Most of the people I know who are turning the sod on various aspects of the Christian faith are exploring pathways that have been populated by others in the past. None of it is brand new or completely original. As Dr. Laurence Peter once put it, “Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear, but forgetting where you heard it.” Anyone who doesn’t admit to that is bluffing.
Consequently, what you will read in this book has undoubtedly been said by someone else in some other place at some other time or in some other era. I have often made the following statement when invited to speak somewhere: “If you’re looking for new revelation, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
I have no new revelation. In fact, I have never met a person who had new revelation. Nor do I possess any “heavy revy” to dish out (that’s cute shorthand for “deep and heavy revelation from God.”)
I am a person who firmly believes what Solomon said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” In fact, all of what we have in the New Testament is found in the Old Testament—in types, images, allegories, and shadows. There is one exception, however. “The mystery” that Paul of Tarsus so passionately spoke about in his letters. That was a genuine case of “new revelation.” Unquestionably so.
To put a finer point on it, there’s only one revelation, and there’s only one Revelator. The revelation is Jesus Christ. The Revelator is the Holy Spirit. And we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. It is only by God’s marvelous grace that we can (perhaps) see further than they did.
While I’m banging this particular drum, let me add that I don’t believe that there are any elite Christians. And I certainly don’t believe that there are any elite Christian workers or ministers. I believe that the simplest saint who has met the Lord Jesus Christ is as holy, as valued, and as cherished in the sight of God as Paul, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Watchman Nee, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham or any other name that you wish to insert into that sentence.
King David is honored in Scripture as being “a man after God’s own heart” Acts 13:22. This has puzzled many Christians because David’s life was riddled with so many failures. I suspect the reason why the Holy Spirit regarded him to be a man after God’s own heart is because David caught a glimpse of the Lord’s ultimate purpose. And he was willing to pay any price to fulfill it. David was occupied with building a house for God (2 Samuel 7:2ff.; 1 Chronicles 29:3; Psalm 132:3-5).
As I look back on my Christian life since I was a teen, I’ve been on a quest to find the church after God’s own heart.
What exactly is a church after God’s own heart? Well, it’s certainly not a church that is void of failures and shortcomings. King David teaches us that lesson quite well. But he also teaches us that the church after God’s own heart that has caught a glimpse of the Lord’s ultimate purpose and is willing to pay any price to fulfill it.
In March of 2006, I was invited to speak at a conference for Christians who gather outside the traditional church. The conference was held in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t terribly large. Approximately 120 people attended. More than 20 churches were represented.
It was the most unique conference in which I had ever spoken. Every memory of it was burned into our memory banks. In the first message, I cleared the deck. Then I began to build.
The audience of that conference was unique. The messages I delivered were unique. And the group interaction was unique. (By “unique,” I mean it differed from any public event I’ve attended before or since.)
One man, a former pastor from Spokane, Washington, described the event like this:
“This gathering was a turning point in the lives of many of us who attended. We were deeply challenged. Our understanding of the ‘glory and the gore’ of growing to know Jesus together was deepened, as Frank shared out of his 20 years in intimate church life.
In the course of the weekend, our eyes were opened to see that New Testament Christianity is nothing less than the corporate pursuit of the Person who is passionately pursuing us. With a burning heart and great Scriptural clarity Frank explained that, ‘We live by the Lord, who dwells in our brothers and sisters, and the Body of Christ is a real thing that we must actually experience.’ Relating rich and unforgettable stories drawn from his experience in true Body life, Frank taught us that “the divine nature is biological in that, when we meet Jesus as the Head, we still need to meet Him as the Body. We must have the other half of Jesus Christ.”
As Frank described how this can actually work, he made us hungry to experience the real expression of the corporate Christ in a Biblical, unreligious setting, where believers can actually get to know each other in the Lord and practically discover the spiritual priesthood for which they were born again. Having drunk deeply of the anointed vision and revelation of the Bride of Christ, we left this gathering with great hope in our hearts that God truly is restoring New Testament church life today, and that simple churches with the Holy Spirit as the main leader really can happen.”
These words sum up well the content of this book. Some of the events described in the following pages will be accompanied by specific dates and times. I’m somewhat of a stickler for accuracy, so I’ve consulted my journal notes taken during those years to confirm (and sometimes correct) my less than inspired memory.
I would now like to tell you the story of why I left the traditional church and where that journey has landed me. I also wish to highlight some of the lessons that I picked up along the way.
At the time of this writing, I’m not involved in planting or working with churches that gather outside the religious system. I haven’t been involved in that kind of work for about four years as the Lord has me in a season of working with the poor and oppressed, developing relationships with non-believers, and focusing completely on my broader ministry of the Jesus studies and the deeper Christian life, which serves all Christians.
That said, the content of this book was written during the years when I labored in planting and working with the churches that sought to meet under the headship of Jesus Christ in close-knit community.
Many of these chapters have never been published before. So no one has read them. Until this book.
Others are reworked articles that were published in various magazines and revised blog posts.
If you’ve read any of my work, you are aware that my theology is Christocentric and ecclesiocentric, and radically so. My major claims are:
* Spiritual formation and growth is largely a communal action.
* Character comes from living in a community where people aren’t afraid to call each other out, especially when things don’t go their own way.
* Christ’s fullness can only be fully known and fully expressed in community.
* Constantinianism is defined when a local church is shaped by the world’s structures and governed by the world’s principles.
My work offers a distinctive narrative, a distinctive identity, distinctive practices and a distinctive people. All marked by the supremacy and centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s Eternal Purpose in Him.
Viola’s journey began when he came to the Lord at 16. This is well before Frank Viola became the author he is today. He writes,
I used to envy people who could wax eloquent about the day, the year, and the time of their conversion to Jesus Christ. I could never do that.
My mind can still replay some of the testimonies I’ve heard: “I got borned-again on July 10, 1965 at 5:37 p.m. in my Chevy convertible. I do believe that I heard the angels quake with glee at that very moment.”
Similar words could never fall out of my mouth.
If I had to guess, I was approximately ten years old when it happened. Or some age close to that. (I couldn’t tell you the year if there were a gun to my head!) I take comfort in the fact that I don’t have the vaguest recollection of my physical birth. Yet I’m quite sure that I was born. (To contemporize Descartes, “I think therefore I be.”) In the same way, I can’t quite remember the specifics of my spiritual birth. But I know it happened.
I grew up in the beautiful Catskill mountainous region of upstate New York. “God’s country,” as my relatives like to call it. Peaceful lakes, countless trees, swervy roads with endless hills, and breath-stealing snow covered mountains filled your horizon from any direction. If there is such a thing as “God’s country,” that was it.
If memory serves me correctly, I attended a summer vacation Bible school at the Assemblies of God where my parents would take my sister and me. It was an evening service. The gospel was preached, and I respond to the altar call.
My cousin Vinny was sitting next to me, and I confidently asked him to walk up to the front with me. (Yes, I really do have a cousin Vinny.) Vinny is one of the most tender-hearted men I know. When I think of the words “pure in heart,” he comes to mind.
Vinny was reluctant to walk up with me because he had already “said the prayer.” Nevertheless, as an act of kindness (or perhaps because of my pressuring), he walked up with me.
I don’t know why I wanted him to escort me forward, except that I was somehow afraid to do it myself. Even so, something dramatic happened to me that day. I met the Lord.
Ironically, I recall saying “the sinner’s prayer” countless other times after that evening. It was usually when I was lying awake in bed pondering something I had done wrong that day. I wanted to re-state the prayer just to make sure it “stuck.” I eventually outgrew that (thank God).
If you’ve ever read any of my books on church practice, you know where I stand on the traditional church. I believe it needs a complete overhaul. But no matter how much I may disagree with its practices, God still uses it. I owe my salvation to it. Some may wonder why God would use a system that they believe He didn’t authorize. The reason is quite simple. His people are in it.
Christians who have left “institutional Christianity” can sometimes become strident and demeaning toward those who are still part of it. But such an attitude betrays the gospel. And we have not so learned Jesus Christ.
From the ages of ten to sixteen, I was a typical kid experiencing the typical struggles of typical kids my age. Four things were most important to me: My family, baseball, baseball cards, and music.
I wasn’t terribly interested in school. I didn’t like to read, and I was a tad bit hyperactive. (The latter is actually a titanic understatement. My poor parents.)
The evidences of my conversion were real, but superficial. Two indelible marks were left on me. First, my conscience came alive, and it became very sensitive. Unlike my peers, profanity, drugs, and pre-marital sex were things that I had strong convictions against. Second, I had a keen awareness that God was real. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to my spiritual life as I recall. I don’t remember reading the Bible much nor praying a great deal.
When I was sixteen years old, however, a new chapter opened in my life. I had a profound encounter with the Lord Jesus that utterly ruined me. I’ve never recovered from it till this good minute.
In Calvinist terms, it was at that age that the Lord captured my heart. I was smitten, and I began to follow Him wholeheartedly. As a result, I lost most of my non-Christian friends (we no longer had anything in common). But God was faithful to replace them with new friends who shared my newly found spiritual interests.
The net effect was that I lost all passion for most everything else. I also began to read. And for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed it. The only material I read at that time, however, were Christian books—including the Bible. Anything else was drudgery for me. That includes all those famous novels that my English teacher required me to read. For me, they were little more than a yawn.
(Interestingly, I’ve never been able to read fiction books, whether Christian or secular. Somehow I’m wired with the narrow capacity to read non-fiction only. When it comes to movies, however, it’s the exact opposite. I much prefer fiction films. So when all of C.S. Lewis’ fictional writings are set to the silver screen, I shall learn them then.)
I began devouring the Bible and attending church services every time the doors were open. Out of my hunger for the Lord, I developed a relationship with a number of adults who had attended the traditional church to which I belonged. They had a prayer meeting on weekends that I rarely missed. The prayer meeting was populated by people in their 30s. They all had families. The age-gap didn’t bother me too much, though, because I was finding the Lord in tremendous ways. Authentic spiritual manifestations were a frequent occurrence, and the Lord ministered to us at a deep level.
Among that group were two men that I shall never forget: Ken Trantham and Earl Leonard. Those two brothers encouraged my walk with Christ, and they were, in the truest sense of the word, my friends.
There’s something about having a young person on fire for God that gives more seasoned folks a renewed sense of spiritual mission. I believe that I brought this intangible element to these people in that prayer meeting.
Some of them told of their deliverance from all sorts of vices. Their conversions were dramatic. I used to envy them. For I had never been involved in any such things. Consequently, I felt that my salvation story was rather boring.
My perspective changed when someone in the group said something that has stuck with me till this very day. He said, “Frank, the same power that delivered me from all of those horrible vices is the same power that’s kept you from them. You’re testimony is more powerful than you think.”
From that moment on 2 Thessalonians 3:3 has had special meaning for me: “But the Lord is faithful, who shall establish you, and keep you from evil.” The delivering power and the keeping power of God are two sides of the same coin. And both are worthy of rejoicing. I no longer feel that my conversion story is boring.
Viola’s hunger for the Lord marked his late teens and only grew. He says of this time,
If you met me during my late teens, you would find a desperate man, hungry for His Lord. I was driven to know Him and to know everything about Him. So much so that I would almost chew through concrete to find someone who could teach me something new about Jesus.
Do you remember the story of the Samaritan woman? The Lord spoke to her while she was drawing water out of Jacob’s well. He said, “If you drink the water that comes out of this earthly well, you are going to thirst again.”
There’s a marvelous message in that story. If we drink the waters of this world, whatever they may be . . . fame, entertainment, material wealth. . . they will leave us thirsty for more.
Yet the Lord went on to say to her, “But if you drink the water that I shall give, you will never thirst again.”
In my early Christian life, I could relate to the first part of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman. That is, once I tasted life in Christ, all temporary pursuits lost their spice. They suddenly became wooden and bland. I found a new well from which to drink, and it dramatically changed the direction of my life.
However, meeting the Lord didn’t quench my thirst entirely. It actually produced a greater thirst and a greater hunger within. But it was a thirst and a hunger for more of Him. And that thirst and that hunger has never left me.
In this connection, I’ve come to a conclusion: If you get a glimpse of the peerless glories of Jesus Christ, something is going to happen to you. You will be wrecked. On the one hand, you are not going to thirst for the things of this world. But there’s going to be another hunger and another thirst that will be born within you. And you will thirst again. But that thirst is going to be for more of Christ.
To put it in a sentence, He will remove your thirst, not be taking away your need for water, but by showing you a new well which will never run dry.
I say that looking back over my shoulder 25 years down the pike. I live in constant tension. On the one hand, I’m satisfied. Jesus Christ has quenched my thirst. On the other hand, I live with a constant thirst for more . . . a constant hunger for more. It’s particularly evident whenever I get around a Christian who has a walk with the Lord that exceeds my own. At that moment, I become a student . . . a sponge ready to soak up more of God.
I don’t know this from experience, but I’m told that once a person is materially wealthy, they desire more wealth. Once they taste the fruit of great material riches, they keep wanting more of it. The Lord Jesus Christ is a lot like that. Once you discover Him in a real way, you want more of Him. Perhaps the reason for this is because Jesus Christ is the incarnation of true wealth and riches. Colossians 2:2-3; Ephesians 3:8.
There’s a point here, and it is this: Hunger is a sign. It’s a sign of life. If you’re not hungry, one of two things is going on. Either you’re dead, or you need to be admitted to the IC unit because you’re in a coma.
Spiritual lethargy is symptomatic of a spiritual problem.
People have often asked me, “How do I get hungry for the Lord?” The very question itself reveals hunger in some measure. As the Latin proverb goes, “It is part of the cure to wish to be cured.”
My answer is simple. Get around Christians who are hungry for Christ. Spiritual hunger is contagious. There’s a proverb that says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise.” En Proverb 13:20. NKJV. I believe that principle can be extrapolated to many arenas of life. Namely, “He who walks with hungry people will become hungry.” In addition, “He would walks with dishonest people will be dishonest.” “He who walks with those who love God will love God,” etc.
In short, we typically become the very people who we hang out with. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote, “Do not be deceived: evil company corrupts good habits.” 1 Corinthians 15:33, NKJV.
The first century Christians were fanatics. I think it was Mike Bickle who said that a fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do. Many of our Christian forefathers in the first century were fanatics. They lived and died for their faith.
The apostles were ultra fanatics. Those men were driven by a God who burned with them. They were unstoppable. They were utterly consumed with Jesus Christ and His ultimate purpose. So much so that they were stapled, bent, mutilated, pulverized, stomped on, and steam rolled repeatedly. Yet they got right back up again and put their hands to the plow of God’s work. The only way they could be stopped is if someone killed them. And that eventually happened.
By contrast, I’ve met Christians who didn’t seem to have any spiritual pulse whatsoever. They appeared blissfully content to own their fire insurance policy. There was no spiritual hunger or thirst beyond their conversion. I could never relate to that. And I guess I still can’t.
Presumably, their eyes have never been opened to see Him. Because when you see Him . . . even a glimpse of Him . . something happens to you that you can’t easily get over. (I trust you understand that I’m not speaking of a physical seeing of Christ, but of something that happens inside of us.) EN Galatians 1:16
It was that first sighting of my Lord that eventually got me out of the traditional church. More on that later.
At seventeen years of age, I went off to college and studied to be a teacher. I strongly considered getting a theological education and going to Bible college and seminary, but somehow, I steered away from it. I don’t know why exactly, except that I felt it was a poor fit for me. As I look back, I’m thankful that I didn’t invest my time acquiring a formal theological education. I don’t think seminary hill would have benefited me, to be honest. (Your mileage may vary of course.)
I have met many people who matriculated from Bible college and seminary. Every time I meet such people, my analysis is that the spiritual preparation that I received outside of formal theological training was better suited for me than what I would have gained in those institutions. So it seems to me anyway.
From the ages of sixteen to twenty-three, I traversed the landscape of evangelical Christianity. I became part of the following denominations: Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist (a completely different species from the Southern Baptists), Mennonite, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of Christ (non-instrumental), Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Assemblies of God, Church of God, and countless stripes of charismatic Christianity, including Word-Faith, Third-Wave, Open Bible, and Vineyard.
Granted, it’s a queer mix. But it gave me a broad view of the existing theological terrain. And it furnished me with some rich ground for future spiritual exploration.
In addition to the litany of denominations I sampled, I was part of five parachurch organizations at the University that I attended. In addition, I (along with some other students) created our own parachurch organization.
Why had I moved through so many different Christian organizations? The answer is that I was on a journey. I was looking for more of my Lord. And although I didn’t realize it back then, I was on a quest for the church after God’s own heart.
My journey followed a consistent pattern. I would find Christ in one group, but as time went on, the group couldn’t take me any further into Him. The experience quickly wore out, and I was left hungering for more of the Lord. So I would join another group that held promise of teaching me a new aspect of Christ. But as time went on, that new adventure grew perfunctory. This cycle continued unabated for years.
I was a desperate young man wanting to learn Christ in all of His depths. It was this desperation that led me across the Protestant landscape. When I was twenty years old, however, something was placed into my hands that gave me hope that my cycle of church hopping would one day come to an end.
It was June of 1985. A friend of mine handed me a book by a Chinese Christian named Watchman Nee. The title of the book—The Normal Christian Life.
I devoured it. It was unlike anything I have ever heard or read. I found Nee’s remarkable gift for presenting spiritual truth in a clear and practical way to be extremely refreshing and challenging. But there was something more that I discovered in reading the book. I tasted that for which I had hungered. “Deep was calling unto deep,” and I connected with some intangible element that I was searching for in the deepest parts of my being.
I didn’t know it then, but Jesus Christ was ministered to me through that book.
Indeed, The Normal Christian Life proved life changing for me. It introduced me to an uncommon insight into the Lord that I didn’t know existed. (Many years would pass before I read more of Watchman Nee’s books.)
That book left a deep imprint on me. It brought me face-to-face with a new dimension of spiritual life and understanding. One that would mark the rest of my Christian life.
Viola spent time in the denominations in which he forged relationships with numerous pastors. Two in particular. He tells about the experience:
During the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, I got to know two pastors rather well. One was a Pentecostal pastor; the other was a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor. I would visit their homes and watch them during “off” hours, when they weren’t behind the pulpit. I got involved with various ministry programs in the church as well, and I watched them like a hawk in those settings.
Watching these men taught me something about the underbelly of the religious system. I intuitively picked up the inherent dualism that marks the modern clergy. These men were under tremendous pressure to always “be on” and to meet a certain expectation.
This troubled me quite a bit. But it didn’t appear to bother anyone else. The long of it is that I’m thankful for the eight years I spent in the traditional church. And I’m grateful for my time with those pastors. The reason is quite simple. There is no way that I could have written some of the books I’ve penned if I didn’t get a first-hand look at the religious system and understand some of its inner-workings.
This leads me to a valuable lesson. Namely, God sometimes leads His servants into arenas that He doesn’t endorse or approve. But He does it so that they may learn and be prepared for future ministry.
As I write these words, I can think of ten men that I know personally who left the professional ministry after concluding that it didn’t reflect God’s will. Yet all of these men felt “called” to enter into that ministry at one time.
Paul of Tarsus could speak with authority to his fellow Jews who were bound to the system of organized religion in his day because he himself was once a part of that system.
While I felt called of the Lord to work for Him at a young age, I never became part of the clergy. But I did get to work very closely with a number of clergymen, and I learned more than I wanted to know about the system that they served.
Please understand that I had respect for all the pastors in my life. Including the youth ministers who I came to know. That said, I want to pass on to you an observation I’ve made over the years. If you are one of those brave souls who has cut the cord on the traditional church and you now gather with Christians in a non-traditional setting, I think you will appreciate what I’m about to write.
One of the most effective ways to dismiss anyone who challenges the traditional church structure is to utter this one simple sentence: “This person was hurt by some pastor. They are bitter, and that’s why they’re challenging the status quo.”
Very effective, indeed. Except there’s one problem with it. To make that statement is to play God and judge the inner motives of a person’s heart. The last time I read the New Testament, Jesus Christ made a very chilling assessment about this practice (Matthew 7:1-4).
I can’t speak for others, but I’ve never been hurt by a pastor or a leader in the traditional church. While I will admit to having cleat marks up and down my back, they didn’t come from anyone in the traditional church.
To my mind, the traditional church is the safest place for a Christian to be. Two hours on Sunday morning and (possibly) two hours on Wednesday night—and there’s little chance of getting close enough to the anyone for them to hurt you. Let alone the pastor.
(There is an exception to the above. If a Christian gets involved in the leadership of a traditional church, there is a possibility that they will get burned. Political maneuvers, position jockeying, and heavy-handed leadership have caused many traditional churches to split, hurting those who served the system.)
This reminds me of a story I heard an ex-pastor once tell. He was pastoring a rather large congregation in Tennessee. He was a very evangelistic fellow, often sharing the gospel with strangers in restaurants, department stores, and the like. One day after the church service, he and his wife went to Morrison’s Cafe for lunch. While he was in line with his tray, he struck up a conversation with the woman who stood behind him.
“How are you today?” he asked.
“Fine, thank you,” she replied.
“Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?,” he inquired.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” she said.
“That’s wonderful . . . who’s your pastor?,” he asked.
“You are!,” she replied.
Of course, your experience may be different. You may attend a traditional church and be best friends with the pastor and intimately know everyone who attends your church. But this is not the case for scores of church-going Christians today.
In 1988, Viola left the institutional church. He recounts this decision saying,
Grown men don’t cry. If that’s true, then I’m a royal failure. Several things make me weep. I weep when I see other human beings grieving because of tragedy (my eyes brim with tears whenever I’m at a funeral). I weep when my heart is broken. I weep when I watch romantic films, especially at the end. (I cried for a solid week after I saw The Titanic. Call me a “sentimental fool,” if you like.) And I weep whenever I see a Biblical story portrayed on film, including animated ones.
I also break into tears when I sense the Lord’s presence. This often happens when I hear the pure simplicity of a simple group of Christians singing to their Lord from their hearts. I used to be embarrassed about shedding tears during such times (I also know how to hide it quite well). I guess I’m still learning to accept it. (I’ve learned that tears are a precious gift. They open up our hearts, wash away resentful feelings, and soften our wills.)
At the age of seventeen, I moved to Tampa and enrolled in college. During my university years, I tasted something of the experience of the Body of Christ. I met a small group of Christians who had the same hungry heart for the Lord as I had. We spent a great deal of time together.
Dorm-room prayer meetings were a common occurrence. Sometimes, we would pour out our hearts to the Lord all night. We shared our struggles, our victories, our discoveries, and our endless questions. Many a meeting we would sing till our throats were horse.
And sometimes I would weep.
At the time, I didn’t know what we were experiencing. But looking back, it was an organic experience of church life in techno-color.
A few years later, we discovered that each of us had played the same disenchanting tape of traditional church experience. So we formed an on-campus organization where we attempted to fill in what was missing.
Under the banner of a campus-approved Christian organization, we held a weekly Bible discussion group that drew people from a slew of distinct theological traditions.
For some, these open discussions turned into an exercise in abstract Biblicism and arcane academic reflection. For others, they were no more than a religious free-for-all where others got roped into endless (and mostly fruitless) debates over a variety of theological minutia.
To my mind, they represented a profitable learning experience. They taught me the immense benefit of having an “interpretive community” to provide a rich and nuanced understanding of the Biblical text.
Some people have the idea that only Bible scholars and theological sophisticates are qualified to rightly understand the Bible. I certainly believe that Biblical scholarship and theological sophistication are important components for interpreting the Scripture, but they aren’t the only components. I learned back then that a diverse group of Christians who possessed the Spirit of God is another important component. As my friend Hal Miller once said, “Just as war is too destructive to be left to the generals, so the Bible is too rich to be left to the scholars.” It requires an interpretive community.
The Bible discussion group taught me the tremendous need for “judging all things” by Scripture. It also helped me to value the insights of other Christians, most of whom stood outside of the safe parameters of my own theological comfort zone. (Seeing through our own biases is not a strong suit for most of us. So it does us well when we are stretched in this regard.) The group also showed me the utter fruitlessness of swapping “proof texts” in order to win an argument.
But perhaps most important, the discussion group gave me a taste of the spiritual dynamics of mutual ministry and open gatherings. They also urged me to try and master the rudiments of politeness and tact—something that doesn’t get enough air-time in modern religious circles.
Through our mutual study of Scripture, I discovered the problem of confusing bookish knowledge with being grasped by the Word of life. And I came to see the specific tragedy of substituting the vitality of God’s voice in Scripture with certain rhetorical forms of argumentation and pulpiteering.
In effect, it was through my experience with on-campus ministry that the Lord began to reveal to me something of the oneness of His Body, the principle of mutual ministry, and the importance of studying/expounding Christ through the Scriptures in a group setting. In looking back, I can readily see that the Holy Spirit was planting the seeds of Body life into my heart.
Some years later, I made the surprising discovery that the times when I was growing the most as a Christian was when I was outside traditional church services. The strides I made in the Lord all seemed to take place in home meetings, dorm-room meetings, park meetings, restaurant meetings, coffee shops, on-campus meetings—all of them occurring outside church buildings. And oddly enough, all of those meetings were void of the presence of a professional clergyman.
Viola’s observations about youth are incisive. He’s written about them in his book Finding Organic Church. He reflects on this theme saying the following:
I was twenty-one years old when I graduated college. I quickly launched into a full-time teaching position in the public school system. (If you happen to be a teacher, I have one thing to say to you—I’m so sorry.) I taught for sixteen years. Overall, it was a profitable experience (not financially, but in many other ways). The first four years, I taught junior high. That was boot camp. (I’m being kind; it was actually a nightmare.) I was then delivered by angels to be a high school teacher, which was God’s gracious answer to my prayer for deliverance. My good fortune as a high school teacher brought many spiritual opportunities my way, along with some valued friendships that have continued till this day.
During my first year as a teacher, I got involved in ministry to senior citizens. My friends and I would visit a nearby convalescent home where we would care for those who were getting ready to die. We would sing songs to them and pray for them. It was an interesting ministry. Not easy by an stretch. It was during that time that I learned to play the guitar. I wanted to be able to bless my elderly friends with music.
In July of 1986, the staff of the church which I attended asked me to take the position of youth minister. But I declined. So they asked me to teach a Bible class for college and career students, and I accepted.
The next year, this same church asked me to teach the young adult singles class, which I did. I was 22 years old at the time, and most of the people in the class were in their 30s and 40s. At the time, I felt that the staff’s decision to have me teach folks older than myself showed great wisdom and insight on their part (soft pat on back). Looking back, however, it was absolute insanity. I was massively ignorant of the deeper things of God. I held them in my head, but they exceeded my experience. The truth is, I had no business ministering in this capacity at so young an age. But I was too young to realize that at the time.
I’m of the strong opinion that young men in their 20s shouldn’t be ministering at all, no matter how gifted or knowledgeable they may be. They should instead be getting to know the Lord experientially and learning all they can about Him—and that’s all.
There’s Scriptural precedent for this. In both the Old and New Testaments, men didn’t begin serving the Lord until they were 30 years of age. The years before 30 were for learning, education, experience, and discovery. The same was true in our Lord’s case. Jesus didn’t begin His ministry until He was 30. Luke 3:23. I believe this is a mark of the wisdom of God.
Youthful enthusiasm is a very powerful thing. And it is commonly exploited. In their excitement, young people don’t just jump on the horse. They jump over it. And when they hit 30, or close to it, they will often burn out.
In her timeless classic, Passages, Gail Sheehy demonstrated that during the ages of 18 to 22, people are seeking a hero—a mentor to follow. They are also avidly searching for a cause greater than themselves to throw their lives into. It is for this reason that many Christians were converted between the ages of 18 and 22. They don’t know their doing this, but they are exploring options for the rest of their lives.
However, when a person reaches the ages of 28 through 32, they question and reappraise every major commitment they made during their 20s. Those commitments are either abandoned or deepened. It is for this reason that many who hit 30 end up tearing up the lives that they built during their 20s. That includes shedding themselves of their mentor (in some cases, they turn against them). Sheehy calls this the “Catch-30″ crisis. Illusions are shaken. It’s the time to break or deepen commitments—to dig in or bail out.
I have lost count of the number of people I knew in their 20s who loved the Lord passionately and would seemingly do anything to serve Him. Yet when they hit 30, those same people turned their backs on Christ and elected to no longer be invested in the Christian faith. When the embers of youthful zeal died out, the engine that had run their Christian lives skid to a screeching halt. And there was nothing left for them to keep running on.
Frank Viola explains why he left the institutional church with these words:
In October of that same year, another opportunity for ministry arose. Only this time, I wisely declined. A pastor who was starting a new church in town asked me and my friend to co-work with him. He offered to ordain us both, and we would share in the ministry. Given my frustration with the traditional church, his offer proved tempting. I thought it over for a month. However, my spiritual instincts urged me to say no to the offer. So in November, I declined.
I had a strong desire to serve the Lord. And while I didn’t have enough spiritual sense to decline teaching a Sunday school class for young adults, I did have enough sense to know that I wasn’t ready to co-pastor a congregation. Regarding that offer to do public ministry, I wrote in my journal the following words, “I must not rush even if others do. I need more time and experience.”
1988 marked an unforgettable year for me. It was the year that I took the terrifying step of leaving the traditional church. It was not my intention to try and carve out another way of doing church. It was simply a move born out of conviction and desperation. My disaffection with traditional Christianity had come to a certain threshold of discontentment, and I saw no other alternative but to leave.
If I had to nail it down to a list, there were essentially four things that led me out of the traditional church. I’ll walk through each of them briefly.
First, I had become a serious student of Scripture. I figured that if I wanted to know the Lord, I needed to understand the Good Book. That led me to devour Scripture on a regular basis.
If you met me back in those days, I was the kind of guy who would quiz my pastors about all those thorny passages in the Bible. And if they preached something that didn’t jive with my understanding, I would pelt them with questions. (I was no doubt a modest pain to them; though to their credit, they never let that on.)
Sometimes after the church service, I would ask the pastor a barbed question that sounded something like this: I read this in the New Testament the other day, and I was wondering why we don’t practice this in our church?
I wish I could tell you that I remembered their answers. I don’t. But I do have the distinct impression that I was often unsatisfied. I came to discover, like so many other thoughtful Christians, that what I saw in the New Testament was galaxies apart from what I was experiencing in all the churches to which I belonged. That discovery only intensified as the years passed by.
The more I read Scripture, the more I became convinced that God was not silent regarding how His church should function. I concluded that the church wasn’t something for us humans to tamper with and create in our own image.
Some years later, my studies in church history led me to believe that many of our contemporary church practices are based on human tradition rather than on the Bible. And they have been passed on from generation to generation like paternal blood. Consequently, the more I read church history, the more the traditional church structure began to sag under the weight of historical scrutiny.
In my personal judgment, when it comes to church practice, we’ve thrown out the baby and kept the bath water. My book, Pagan Christianity, is an early run in that direction. The book is a sober dismantling of our modern church practices. It strikes at the root of why we do what we do on Sunday mornings and challenges those Christian traditions that are imprinted into the circuits of our minds. En – See my book, Pagan Christianity, for details.
The second thing that got me out of the traditional church had to do with what I felt to be the shallowness and superficiality of modern Christianity. According to my own frail assessment, contemporary Christianity is ten miles high and less than an inch deep. In fact, it’s so shallow that I question if a gnat could drown in it.
In this regard, reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life had forever marked me. After reading that book, I looked for that same depth, that same flavor, that same life, and that same unveiling of Christ in every sermon I heard. Sadly, however, I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere.
Warning: What I’m about to say in the next few paragraphs is not “religiously correct.”
To be quite candid, I became increasingly bored with attending church services. I mean bored with a capital B—as in bored to tears. As in bored to the point that I had mastered the thousand-yard stare. Bored to the point that my right leg would shake through the entire sermon, as if I had Parkinson’s Disease.
I came to the point that I would rather paint my garage, pull up a chair, and watch the paint dry than to sit through another Sunday morning church service. They became that dull for me. A genuine snorefest. To help alleviate the anguish, I developed a habit of sneaking books into the building and inconspicuously read them during the sermon.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who had been numbed by the roteness of the liturgy (order of worship). As I panned the congregation every Sunday morning, I noticed that others were being lulled to sleep by it also. So many times I wanted to put the sermon on pause and have the congregation engage the subject. But that was never an option.
As I reflect back on my years in the traditional church, I can’t remember one sermon that I’ve ever heard. I know that some of them were good. The first few years of my Christian life, I took copious notes on all the sermons I heard. But today, I can’t recall any of them. I find that interesting to say the least.
Most sermons make a splash and then fade from the memory banks. So it’s been for me at least. (A Spirit-inspired message, however, is quite a different thing. I remember many of those. Interestingly, the ones I remember were all delivered outside traditional church services.)
To sum up, I felt like the little boy who was in the foyer of the church building, looking at a large plaque that hung on the wall. The names of thirty men were printed on the plaque. Next to each name was an American flag. The boy was mesmerized. He stood for five solid minutes starring at all the names and the flags. The pastor walked into the foyer and stood next to the boy. Both of them pensively gazed at the plaque in quiet respect. Then the boy spoke and asked, “What is this, Pastor?”
The pastor replied, “These are the names of all members of our church who died in the service.”
The little boy was dumbfounded. His lips began to quiver and he asked ever so reverently (but with fluid honestly), “Which service . . . the 9 a.m. or the 11 a.m.?”
That story sums up my dilemma fairly well.
In all the experiences I had in the charismatic movement (and some of them were quite dramatic), there was some part of me deep within that was starving to death. I dipped from the well of charismatic Christianity until it went dry. I later came to summarize my experience in the movement as “outer garment Christianity.” In my experience at least, most of what I encountered dealt with outward power. But it lacked those intangible spiritual realities that were necessary to nourish the inner man.
Consequently, the third reason had to do with how ill-equipped the traditional church was in delivering those who were suffering from spiritual oppression. In those days, myself and another young man made ourselves available to God 24/7. I recall receiving phone calls at 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. from people who were in dire straits. We were in our early twenties, so we didn’t know a great deal. But our faith exceeded our knowledge. We would pray for anything that moved. That would include your dog if you wanted us to.
Our reputations for ministering to those in need quickly spread among our peers. And that’s how I met my first demon. Let me tell you the story.
His name was Derick. He was a young African American man, probably twenty-two or twenty-three years old. He had a small frame, standing around five-foot six inches. When in his right mind, he had a pleasant personality. He was, however, authentically demon possessed. I’ll save the high drama, but I’ll try to give you the flavor of what it was like being around him. My memories are quite vivid.
He would be coherent at one point. And then, suddenly, he would begin “manifesting.” This is the term we used to describe those episodes when the alien entities living inside him seized control. It looked something like this: His eyes would turn glassy, his voice would become guttural, and other personalities would begin speaking through him. It was profoundly eerie. Sometimes he would shriek and scream. Other times he would exhibit clairvoyance (knowing things outside natural means).
Even more disturbing, he would sometimes mimic the genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit. He would speak in tongues for example; but these were no ordinary tongues. They were demonic utterances. If you heard them, they would send chill bumps up your spine.
So Derick was brought to us. I had never witnessed anything like it in-all-my-natural-born-put-together. We immediately contacted the Pentecostal church that we were attending.
Here’s what we told the church secretary: “My friend and I know a young man, and we believe he’s demon-possessed. We are in our twenties, and we are inexperienced at casting out demons. Can pastor Fielding or assistant pastor Melvin help him?” (I’ve changed the pastors’ names to protect their identities.)
Here’s what we were told. “You need to get him psychiatric care.” Our answer: “He’s been to a psychiatrist, but it’s not solved the problem. We are convinced that the problem is spiritual and not physical or mental.”
The answer: “I’m sorry, we can’t help him.”
We were stunned.
This was one of the largest and most famous Pentecostal churches in the state of Florida. To our minds, the answer we received was unacceptable. Especially given the fact that this church claimed to believe in the supernatural.
So we began calling all the charismatic/Pentecostal churches in our city. Now this may shock you, but we received the same answer from virtually every one of them. Here’s what it was:
“Is this man a member of our church?”
Our answer: “No, he’s not. But if someone from your church can set him free, we will join your church. We’re in our twenties, and we want to learn how to help people like this. So if someone in your church can minister healing and deliverance to him, you will have at least two new members.”
The response: “I’m sorry, but if he’s not a member of our church, we cannot help him.”
If you’re amazed, so were we.
There was only one church who gave us a different answer. I remember the conversation quite well. The secretary gave me the phone number of someone on the pastoral staff who I was told was very experienced in dealing with spiritually tormented people. We’ll call him Ed.
I spoke with Ed at length about the situation. When I hung up the phone, I was hopeful. He sounded both knowledgeable about demon possession and confident that Derick would be made whole. He asked me to bring him to the next Sunday evening service.
So we did. I was so excited, thinking to myself, “Derick will be delivered, and we’re going to learn how to cast out demons!”
When the service ended and everyone left, Ed asked us to bring Derick to the front stage. So we did. Ed walked over to Derick, looked at him, put his hand on his head, and yelled something that sounded like, “El Shundai.” Derick fell to the ground. (I’m quite certain that Ed pushed him to the floor.) My friend and I looked at each other quizzically.
Ed looked at us and said, “That’s it. It’s done.”
When we pulled Derick up to his feet, we noticed that he still had that classic glassy-eyed look in his eyes.
“He looks the same,” we said.
Ed matter-of-factly replied: “You just have to believe.”
Well, we didn’t believe that Ed’s prayer (or whatever it was) had delivered Derick. We felt that Ed presumed too much. Unfortunately, we turned out to be right. Shortly afterward, Derick began “manifesting” again.
The sad but sober truth is that no one in the traditional church would or could help us. All the churches and so called experts in our city seemed ill-equipped to handle a genuine case of demon possession. Consequently, we concluded that if Derick was going to be delivered, it was upon us to minister the Lord’s healing to him. The problem . . . we had no experience. And precious little knowledge.
What ended up happening, however, was the summary witness to me that the Lord Jesus Christ does not need a clergy or a professional ministry to manifest His power and to show principalities and powers that He is still Lord.
So we set up an evening meeting with Derick in one of our homes. We called all our Christian friends, told them what was happening, and asked them to pray. As I recall, some of us fasted a day or two beforehand. There were two brothers, myself, and Derick. Of their own accord, the sisters we knew stayed home and prayed.
The date was July 18, 1987. I remember opening up the New Testament to Mark 16:17. Our prayer was both innocent and simple. Perhaps naive even: “Lord, we have no idea what we’re doing, but you said, ‘These signs shall follow them that believe. They shall cast out demons in my name.’ Lord, we believe.”
In effect, we were setting out to “prove” the Lord and His Word.
In the beginning, Derick was in a normal state of mind. Nothing unusual was happening. So we started to engage him by praying for him. Immediately he started manifesting. This launched us into a four hour tug-of-war with unseen powers. I had never been so drained in my life.
I’ll give you a few snapshots of that evening. The memories are burned into the circuitry of my brain.
Not having any clue what we were doing, we would repeat things that Jesus said to demons, such as: “What’s your name?” To my surprise, the demons responded and began telling us their names. As I recall, Derick was possessed by six or seven spirits. I can only remember one of their names, however. It was “Gunge.”
We would ask other questions like, “How did you get inside him.” They answered by listing a battery of sins that Derick had committed. The sins they mentioned weren’t things like smoking, cussing, or kicking cats. They were gross sins. The sorts of things that Paul told God’s people never to talk about. Ephesians 5:12.
My most vivid memory was when we began invoking the name of Jesus. The reaction was violent. The demons would scream out, “Don’t say that! No, don’t say that! He belongs to us. You have no right to do this. He’s ours. We live here. Don’t say that! Shut up!”
That only provoked us all the more to declare, “We adjure you by the blood of Jesus Christ and by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, come out of him” . . . and the spirits inside Derick would scream and yell all the more. I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, my goodness, it’s real. It’s all real.”
They would also repeatedly say to us, “You’re afraid of us.” And we would reply, “No we’re not. We have authority over you.”
It was like watching a movie. I kid you not.
Another brother named Paul walked into the room late while Derick was “manifesting” at full force. When Paul walked into the house and saw and heard what was taking place, his face turned ashen. The whole event scared the life and liver out of him. (Looking back, I have no idea why I wasn’t scared.) Derick had just finished telling us how afraid we were of him; but when Paul walked in the room, he look straight at him and said “he’s afraid.” Paul was so stunned that he almost turned into a pillar of salt.
That was a chilling moment for our friend.
Four hours into this spiritual tug-of-war, Derick began vomiting. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like ectoplasm from the movie Ghost Busters. It was a putrid green color. One of the brothers named Rodney ran to grab whatever he could lay hold of to catch the vomit. It was an old brown box.
From that moment on, Derick was totally delivered. Jesus Christ had shown Himself to be alive and well—and still mighty over demonic powers. And He exercised that might through inexperienced, non-professional, poor, ignorant “laymen” in their early twenties.
It was a sobering experience for me to say the least, but the drama taught me a great deal. Before our very eyes, we had witnessed a real-life encounter where Christ’s resurrection power was displayed and found triumphant. As I stepped back from that experience, I discovered that God used us without the help (or hindrance) of the traditional church. This made a deep impression on me to say the least. It was an electric night, indeed.
I define faith as trusting in God when the odds don’t appear in your favor. People of faith cling to God’s promise, God’s love, and His benevolent character despite what the odds are against them. And they expect Him to act in accordance with each in the face of those odds.
I had believed in the Lord before this event. But when I saw firsthand the invisible powers of God’s enemy being overcome by an invisible Lord, my faith was raised to a new level. Fresh meaning was poured into Paul’s words, “We move from faith to faith” Romans 1:17.
I lived in the afterglow of that experience for weeks and months.
The fourth thing that led me out the traditional church is rather sad. As I said, I belonged to one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the State of Florida. It was incredibly wealthy. I was good friends with a family who attended there. They were very poor.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in my friend’s home with his wife and four children. We all sat in the living room in the dark with a flashlight and some candles. The reason? They couldn’t meet their electric bill that month so the power had been turned off. That wealthy church (the one we all belonged to) didn’t give this man a red cent. At the time, I thought that was outrageous. Funny thing . . . I still do.
For me, this episode was the nail in the coffin. I left the traditional church shortly afterward, and I’ve never returned.
To put all four ingredients in a sentence: I had been captured by a higher vision. I envisioned the church to be something far beyond what I had experienced those eight years in traditional Christianity. And that vision sent me on a 25-year odyssey. And the clock is still ticking. In the next chapter, I’ll unfold the rest of the story.
Speaking of Viola’s first experience of body life, he writes,
For us humans, the family is genetic to our species. There will always be a father, a mother, and children. That cannot be broken. It’s written in the arteries of creation.
In the same way, Body life . . . the experience of the Body of Christ . . . is instinctive to our species as Christians. It’s woven into the bloodstream of God’s universe. Provided that certain bare ingredients are in place, Body life will organically and spontaneously break forth in the midst of a group of believers.
The problem we have is in getting all the baggage out of the way so that Body life can arise naturally. This puts us on a collision course with the principle of church planting.
The great challenge for those who plant churches is to provide the necessary ingredients for organic church life to be born. But it’s also to prevent foreign elements from entering into the church. Elements that will choke church life.
An admirer once asked Michelangelo how he sculpted the famous statue of David that now sits in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo responded by offering this simple explanation: “I first fixed my attention on the slab of raw marble. I studied it, and then I chipped away all that wasn’t David.”
Michaelangelo’s description can be applied to the task of planting organic churches. The goal of those who plant churches is to remove everything that isn’t Jesus Christ.
My introduction to this principle began in 1988 when I left the traditional church and found myself in the midst of a spontaneous burst of church life. There were about six of us. We all loved the Lord and spontaneously gravitated toward one another. No one organized it. No one promoted it. It just happened. It was organic . . . primitive even.
We began meeting rotationally in our homes. Starting with six adults, we grew rapidly. Throughout the course of eight years, we fluctuated between twenty adults and fifty adults (and a few thousand children.). We went through two very bloody church splits. We multiplied into two separate groups. And we became involved in many different ministry endeavors. It was an intense experience to say the least. I’ve often told people that we crammed sixteen years into eight.
Our meetings were simple. They were void of the presence of clergy and the (artificial) “covering” of the traditional church. We encouraged one another to participate in Spirit-endowed gifts. And we sought to put ourselves under the exclusive Headship of Jesus. As a result, the Lord honored our efforts. The Holy Spirit revealed a different aspect of Christ in virtually every meeting.
The freshness of relational Christianity and mutual ministry thrived among us. Without fully realizing it, we were tasting the culture of first-century church life. In many respects, we lived as a family. (Later, I learned that the New Testament is packed to the gills with the language and imagery of family when describing the church. But at the time, we were just living it.)
We knew full well that we had much to learn. Yet we were keenly aware that despite our ignorance, God was with us in a special way. Admittedly, in our naivety, we mistakenly assumed that we were the only ones meeting in such simplicity. But it didn’t take long for the Lord to shatter that notion.
During our first two years, we wrestled with the searching question of who we were and what we were doing. We knew that God had called us to meet around Christ in the beauty of New Testament simplicity, but we were all green. With no one to lead us, no model to follow, and no friends who were doing something similar, we found ourselves walking through a forest not clearly blazed.
We were living on the raw, bleeding edge of a limited but profound vision. So rather than seeking to adhere to some putative New Testament model of church organization, we forged onward to follow faithfully the present leading of the Holy Spirit through Scripture.
Note that because we refused to capitulate to the traditional church system, we received our fair share of opposition, relational tensions, apathetic dismissal, misunderstanding, and raised eyebrows. No one was beating a path to our door in those days. Some of our friends looked at us as if we had come from Planet 10 when they learned what we were doing.
But since I’m not looking at our story with an eye to emphasizing the hardships right now, I’ll spare the maudlin side. So bracketing the times where we had a rough go of it, those days were precious. As we sought fidelity to New Testament practice, God began to teach us many precious lessons.
What is more, the Lord sovereignly chose to pour out His Spirit upon us in great power. We had many occasions where people would visit our fellowship with severe problems—bondages to specific sins, mental illnesses, depression, etc. Oftentimes, we prayed with these individuals and saw them melt in the presence of the Lord’s love. We witnessed firsthand a few extraordinary cases of deliverance. Those encounters served to increase our belief that the path we had taken was indeed carved out by God.
I remember our first Lord’s supper. Some of us were terrified because there was no one “officiating.” As time went on, we discovered that the Lord’s supper was a Christ-centered fellowship meal rather than a token ritual. This moved it from a high-and-lofty clergy-authorized religious rite to a pot luck dinner shared by lesser mortals.
Thus we began taking the Lord’s supper as a meal regularly. It was an important part of many of our meetings. What did it look like? A simple yet joyful potluck dinner that included the bread and the cup. A celebration feast remembering and honoring the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, participating in His body and blood.
In the early years, we faced the problem of some believers contributing a great deal to the meal, while others contributed nothing at all. One brother in particular had a ministry to young people. So he would often bring a bundle of young people to the meetings without bringing any food for the Lord’s Supper. Many sisters in the church were quite troubled by this, and they eventually gave voice to it. (When the sisters are unhappy, the church had better do something quick or else. I won’t finish that sentence.)
We eventually ironed the problem out. However, it was encouraging for us to know that the early Christians faced this same challenge. According to 1 Corinthians 11, there was tension between the rich Christians and the poor Christians in regard to the Lord’s Supper. This was but one example of a principle I learned early on: That if you gather in a New Testament fashion, you will begin to have New Testament problems.
I also remember when we started baptizing people. It was a scary thing because we didn’t have a pastor or a clergyman overseeing us. A Scripture that helped us a great deal was in 1 Corinthians where Paul said that the brothers and sisters in Corinth did most of the baptizing in that town. He, the great apostle, baptized few. 1 Corinthians 1:14-17.
So that first year was wonderful. But in the year that followed, things started to get dicey. We began to grate on one another’s nerves. At one point, churching together became so difficult that I resolved to leave. But on August 18, 1989, something happened that would prevent that. The Lord gave me a dream which revealed that I was not to entertain thoughts of leaving the group. So I stayed. Part of me was glad I did. Another part of me wished the dream was the result of bad pizza the night before.
From 1988 to 1990, we sought to discover how to meet. We had two things going for us—a love for the Lord and a spirit of experimentation. We had hearts that were very open to learn. I later discovered this one thing. That if a group of people have open hearts toward God, and they are willing to be stretched in their views, beliefs, and practices, the Lord will have a clear path to work among them. If your heart is truly open to learn, He’ll actually teach you more than you wish to know.
Throughout the years of 1990 and 1992, a specific burden for the poor began to grow within us. We helped one of the brothers purchase a home to house and minister to homeless men. More than a few homeless people were brought into Rodney’s house during those years.
During that season, I learned everything I wanted to know (and what I didn’t want to know) about working with street people. It was a world I didn’t know existed. The church grew pretty quickly as a result. We brought a number of homeless men to the Lord, baptized them, and had special meetings where we instructed them in the faith. Not to mention doing all we could to rid them of their drug habits and helping them to land work (some of our efforts failed miserably).
Two major lessons came out of that experience. The first was that it dawned on me that so many contemporary Christians separate individual piety from social concern. Yet the two go hand in hand.
Echoing the words of Paul in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Interestingly, many Christians have focused on clause B “especially to those of the household of faith” and have ignored clause A “let us do good to all.” See also Titus 2:14. Significantly, Paul’s words to the Galatian Christians are the same that Luke used to describe the ministry of Jesus while He was on earth:
“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” Acts 10:38, NKJV.
In the gospel of Luke, the ministry of Jesus is clearly outlined. Luke 4:18-19, NKJV
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
The above words came out of the Lord’s own mouth. He was referring to His unique mission on earth. Luke 4:20-22. The interesting thing is that Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. Consequently, a church cannot boast that it is expressing Christ if it has no concern for the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, the oppressed and if it’s not engaged in “doing good to all.”
The reality is, Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. What He did on earth reflects His unchanging nature. He still wishes to do the same things through His Body today. Please notice that I didn’t say that He wants us to do these things. Not so. He wants to continue to do them through us.
Doing good is not an activity. It’s the expression of a life form. Only God is good, and what He does is good. When the church lives by the Divine life that inhabits her, she also does good. So when a church truly lives by Christ, it will express Him in the same way that He expressed His Father on earth.
The second lesson I learned had to do with the affinities and antipathies between the “ministry” and the “church” (albeit, some of these lessons came out of much conflict and dialogue over the issue).
Once a week, we would go out to a park in the city to play butler to the homeless. We would feed them and share Christ with them. As time went on, one of the brothers became increasingly passionate about ministry to the homeless. So much so that he felt it should be the central focus of the church. Most of the other saints didn’t agree. This created a conflict, and it grew more tense as the days passed on.
I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. It was this: People in the church need to feel free to pursue their dreams and their callings.
If your dream is to feed the homeless, you should be free to pursue it. If your dream is to share the gospel on the streets, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to work for social justice in your neighborhood, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to help pregnant teens, or to help curb abortion, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to engage in apologetics with college students, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to care for children or bless the elderly, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to fight pornography, you should feel free to pursue it. And as much as it lies within the other brothers and sisters, they should support you.
But here’s the rub. Not everyone in the church may share your specific burden. And that’s okay. They should be free not to pursue your dream. And if they don’t, that doesn’t make them less spiritual than you are.
This poses a serious test for many devoted Christians. Your reaction to those who don’t share your specific passion could mean the destruction of your church. It could also mean a bloody split. Or it could mean that the Lord will get His way in you.
Point of advice: Be faithful to your burden, but never pressure others to embrace it. And never present ultimatums over it. Your reaction is everything. It will either build the church or destroy it.
Pursue your dreams in the church. But do not demand or pressure your brothers and sisters to share those dreams. They may not. Just as you have the freedom to pursue your burden, they have the freedom to pursue theirs. And they may not be the same. It took us a long while and lots of hurt feelings to learn that lesson.
(Years later, I learned a related lesson that had to with the seasons of an organic church. We’ll discuss that lesson in another chapter. I also discovered what I call “servant groups.” A servant group is a group of two to six people in the church who share the same burden to serve a specific group of people in the community or to take on a specific redemptive mission. A church, therefore, may have a servant group for the elderly, a servant group for the homeless, a servant group for pregnant teens, etc.)
During that season of ministry to the homeless, I discovered another important principle. There’s a beautiful illustration of it at the end of John 21. In that passage, we find Jesus charging Peter with some specific responsibilities. In so doing, He also mentions how Peter will die. Peter’s response is all too human. He points to John and asks Jesus, “What about him?”
The Lord’s reply is telling. He essentially says, “What I do with John is not your concern. You have but one concern—that you follow me.”
These words have echoed within me virtually every time I’ve been tempted to concern myself with what others are doing (or not doing) for the Lord. Especially in those areas where I felt wronged or where I was shouldering the full responsibility for something, when others were shirking it.
I am the steward of my own obedience to the Lord, not the steward of someone else’s. You and I are the master of our own obedience. The lord of our own self-denial. Our part is to follow Christ. That should be our concentration. What others do (or not do) is the Lord’s business, not ours. As Paul said, “But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load.”
Of course, this principle doesn’t apply to situations when someone is committing gross sin in the church. The New Testament is clear that in such cases, it is the responsibility of the members to take responsibility for such problems (1 Corinthians 5; Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:13-14).
Viola found encouragement by the testimony of witnesses. He speaks about several here:
Another event occurred in 1990 that would mark the rest of my life. My sister gave me another book by Watchman Nee as a birthday present. The book was called, The Normal Christian Church Life.
This particular volume made a profound impact on my thinking. It’s a classic treatment of God’s heart, God’s thought, and God’s will for how churches should be planted and nurtured. The book confirmed and crystallized much of what the Lord sovereignly taught us in our life together. But it also gave us far superior language for explaining it. Even more than that, it opened up an entirely new world for me. Namely, it revealed God’s way of church planting.
In the summer of 1991, the church entered into a season of evangelism. Some of us began sharing the gospel at the nearby university. We baptized a number of new converts, and the church grew as a result.
The most vivid memory I have about that season is of a Chinese woman who we met at the college. Her name was Jean. She was suicidal. She had seen many psychiatrists—all to no avail. We brought Jean to our meetings, and the Lord Jesus Christ fully delivered her. Her healing was visibly evident. When we first met her, she would always talk with her head down, and she never smiled. After the Lord touched her, she could look straight into your eye and show you her teeth with a smile that filled the room. The change was remarkable.
Jean remained with us for many years. She was living proof of God’s power to deliver the mentally oppressed.
On December 8th of that same year, another significant event occurred. Two men visited our church. They knew nothing about us as individuals . . . nothing at all. They attended only one meeting, after which I never saw or heard from them again.
The two men sat quietly throughout the entire meeting. As it neared the end, they asked, “We would like to pray for everybody in this room. Is that okay?”
We had never had anyone make such a request. But we were open to it. In fact, openness to others was one of the hallmarks of our church. If somebody wanted to do something, we stood with him or her. We heavily tilted toward saying “yes” to them.
I believe that this attitude is crucial for the survival of any group of Christians who are gathering outside conventional church structures. Arming yourself with a spirit of experimentation and a willingness to say “yes” to the ideas of others (provided that they don’t steal your freedom in Christ) is critical on many levels.
What’s the worse that could happen? It may turn out to be the worst meeting you’ve ever had in your entire lives. But you’ll survive it. Everyone will eventually recover. And you will have learned a valuable lesson—”Let’s never try that again.”
Saying yes to one another builds trust. It also builds love. That’s one of the lessons I took away from that experience.
Back to my story. As was our custom with each other, we said “yes” to our two visitors. So they prayed for every person in the room. We had operated in spiritual gifts since we began meeting, but I had never seen anything like this before. These two men prayed for each person, and then they spoke about what was going on in each of our lives in great detail. It was unbelievable. Shocking even. It was clear that the Lord was speaking to us.
What they said to me is something that I have kept to myself for the last fifteen years. This is the first time I’m divulging it in public.
In essence, they said that the Lord had called me to the apostolic work. They said I would plant churches, but the churches I planted would be strikingly different from the typical church. They also told me that I was in a time of spiritual evaluation . . . which was dead on the money. And they brought out some of my interior thoughts on that score.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons by mistake. And as a church, we did some very foolish things in our zeal. We made many mistakes. Mistakes shouldn’t be feared because the Lord will teach you wonderful things through them. So it’s okay to make mistakes. They are the learning tools of your God. I’ve always appreciated Thomas Edison’s pithy remark about mistakes: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Yet while I’ve learned a great deal by mistake, there have been a few times when I stumbled onto a wonderful lesson that didn’t come by mistake. I think I can safely say that the decision I made in regard to our two visitors fits that bill.
I decided what I would with the prophetic words that they had spoken over me. It was this: Absolutely nothing. Actually, that’s not true. I did one thing. I made sure that I kept the audio tape of what was said. (In those days, we recorded many of our meetings.) And I determined that if what was said was from the Lord, it would come to pass without any effort of mine.
So I put that prophecy in a drawer and literally forgot about it for years. Seven years later, I opened the drawer and the word that they spoke began to come to pass in my life.
While I’m on the subject, let me make an observation about “personal prophecy.” I’ve met numerous Christians who “lived off” of personal prophecies. They live from one personal prophesy to the next. A pathological dependence upon prophetic words begins to develop, and it leads them down a rather tragic path.
Seeking personal prophecies is a foolish thing in my opinion. It has landed more Christians into trouble than can be counted. And it invariably always derails a person from the centrality of Jesus Christ in their life. Not to mention that it tends to breed very unstable people. I can’t find anything in the New Testament, either by precept or example, that would lead one to seek personal prophecies. That’s how the terrain looks from my hill anyway.
I received a few other personal prophecies since 1991. Strikingly, they all confirmed what those two visitors said to me that day. Yet I have never acted on them. And I’m glad I didn’t. They have simply come to pass on their own accord.
Methinks this is the way it should be, but me isn’t positive. I tend to be cautious about obsessing over personal prophecy. To a fault, perhaps.
Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
The point of course is that older we get, the greater our perspectives change. I remember my 9th grade English teacher telling our class that the older a person gets, the faster time goes by. I thought it was a fascinating statement at the time.
Well, she was right on the money. As a high school kid, summers felt like half an eternity. Today, they seem like a half-an-hour.
On that score, I can remember the early 1990s as if they happened last year. Particularly 1992. That year marked a turning point in my life and ministry. The direction of the church took a turbulent twist, and I discovered what a cross was. I’m not speaking about the event of Calvary and the Lord’s sacrificial death. I’m speaking about the principle of the cross . . . where God comes to break you, to shatter you, and to devastate you.
The cross is not comfortable. It’s painful. Sometimes painful beyond measure. But herein lies a mighty truth: Strength doesn’t bring us to God, weakness does.
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NKJV.
Pain and suffering provoke us to stretch our hands to the hem of Christ’s garment. An ancient proverb says, “Out of the muck, the lotus grows beautiful blooms.” The famous portrait photographer Yousurf Karsh echoed the same thought when he said, “Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.”
To accept the cross is to sit under the breaking of God and not be destroyed. That means taking the hurt, the pain, and the suffering that others have caused us to Calvary and leaving it there.
As I’ve watched the passing parade, I’ve observed some Christians confuse repressing hurt feelings with going to the cross. When this happens, the hurt feelings and the repressed anger are still present in the person’s heart. But they come out in passive aggressive behaviors. They will leak out in the form of sideways jabs at other people nestled under the cloak of humor. And if a sore spot is touched, the person will explode in a torrent of uncontrollable rage and deafening clamor.
Point: If a person hasn’t dealt with their own hurt feelings, those negative emotions will end up controlling their behavior in some pretty bizarre ways.
God always deals with us in His Son, and He always deals with the problem of evil in the cross of His Son. The cross has a substitutionary side (He took evil for us), and a participatory side (He gives us His righteousness). But it also has a conformity side (the cross shapes our lives.)
The years 1992 to 1994 were pure hell for many of us in the church. One of the most important lessons I learned during that speck of time was this: The Lord builds His House through death, suffering, and dying.
You can find this principle all throughout Scripture.
It was a pretty traumatic three years for me. But when the smoke cleared, I had learned one of the greatest lessons in life. It was this: As high as God plans to elevate someone is as deep as He will bury them first.
Many (if not most) of us have a false image of what a spiritual leader should look like. We expect them to be without flaws and mistakes. I used to put leaders on a pedestal just like many of us do. But when I began to read the Scriptures carefully, I realized that every person whom God used mightily made mistakes. Some of them were colossal. This includes Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, and every leader in church history that I’m aware of.
Consequently, the mistakes we make do not define who we are. Nor does the pain we experience. What defines who we are is how well we rise after we have fallen. What defines us is if we can rise again after we have suffered and gone to the cross. In that connection, I don’t trust leaders who don’t walk with a limp.
It is for this reason that God comes to shatter the lives of those whom He wishes to use. They must be broken bread in His hands, for that is what He feeds His people with. Luke 9:16-17.
This is one of the main reasons for the cross. To make you and I useful for God’s service.
Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, NKJV.
Do you remember the tabernacle of Moses? The first thing that was built was the brazen altar of sacrifice . . . an apt picture of the cross. The actual tabernacle, a depiction of God’s House, was built after the altar. When you come over to the New Testament, you find the same principle. First it was Calvary, then Pentecost. First the cross, then the church.
Organic churches attract two main types of people: High commitment and high maintenance. If you ever hold your nose and take the plunge of churching with others in an organic way, I can assure you of this one thing. God will send you some of the most . . . interesting . . . people your way. And when they arrive, please don’t make the convenient mistake of concluding that these people were sent by the devil. Your God is sovereign, and He authors every person who comes into your midst. In time, you will discover that everyone who comes in, especially the “difficult” ones, are for your transformation.
Sometimes He will send those whom I call “black holes of ministry.” Do you know what a black hole of ministry is? It’s a person who you pour your life into . . . a person who you spend hours upon hours of your time counseling, encouraging, instructing, cajoling, serving, correcting even, and yet . . . week after week, month after month, year after year, there is absolutely no change whatsoever in that person’s life.
Most churches run such people out of the narthex in a few days. But if you’re part of a church that is inclusive and open to all people, you will meet the black hole of ministry. And how you treat them is going to test the limits of your compassion, your patience, and your wisdom, and even your sanity.
I remember one Sunday evening, a sister in the church called me on the phone. She was crying hysterically. Her words were simple: “Frank, you must come over here immediately.”
I replied, “What’s going on?”
She said, “I can’t tell you. Come over here right now, please.” And she hung up the phone.
I got dressed and drove over to her home. When I opened the door, her husband had a shotgun aimed straight at his oldest son. This sister, who was the man’s wife, and her four children were crying hysterically.
That scene is seared in my mind.
I remember silently asking the Lord to be my wisdom. I spoke softly to the man and told him to put his gun down and to come outside with me, assuring him that everything was under control. Thankfully, with a little bit of gentle prodding from me, he dropped the gun and we talked outside.
Every time I look back on that night, one sentence comes floating through my head repeatedly: Welcome to the Lord’s work. This phrase has become a favorite saying of mine. I use it whenever I encounter those who have laid their hand to the plow of God’s work and have come unglued after finding out what it entails.
Those of you who aspire to serve the Lord’s people, especially those of you who feel called to plant organic churches, please reflect on that story. I’m not going to rehearse the gory details as to why this man wanted to shoot his boy in his own home, but the story isn’t pretty. I wish I could tell you that this was the only crisis that fell into my lap in that church life experience. It wasn’t . . . welcome to the Lord’s work.
In the summer of 1992, a very unusual woman came into our midst. I’m not going to probe this nerve too deeply, but I’ll just recount some of the major events of the drama in a general way.
If I was ever tempted to say that the devil sent someone to us, it would have been in the case of this woman. She was probably in her mid-50’s. She told us that her husband and daughter had been killed in a car accident. One of the brothers in the church, a well-respected man, took her into his home. She quickly won his trust.
Slowly . . . and quite cleverly I might add . . . this woman began constructing wedges between some of the brothers and sisters. There is a Scripture in Proverbs that warns against those who sow seeds of discord among brethren. Proverbs 6:19. This woman had a Ph.D. in this type of sowing.
Her pattern became predictable. She would go to someone’s house, and then complain about another brother or sister to them. Her tactic was to clothe the gossip with an “I’m-concerned-so-I-want-you-to-pray-for-them” garment.
She would make people feel that she was “confiding” in them out of genuine concern. She had the act down to a fine science. A negative seed would be planted in the listener, and not long afterwards, there would be hard feelings between brothers and sisters who formerly had no issues with one another.
It was during her time with us that we learned the horrible art of pushing one another’s buttons. Misunderstandings turned into impugning motives, and it devolved into something even more cruel. Her influence continued to spread. As a result, some of the brothers locked horns and went after one another tooth and claw.
A few of the saints expressed grave concern and suspicion about this woman. Unfortunately, however, little could be done because some would rise to her defense whenever she was questioned. No one had any hard proof that something was amiss.
This threw a number of us, including myself, into a snit and a blue funk.
God is very good at building tailor-made crosses. Jesus Christ was a carpenter, and He knows how to build them quite well. This woman created much harm in the church. But we were powerless to do anything about it because opinions were divided over her.
I learned two valuable lessons through this experience. The first is that if a stranger comes into your church and someone sniffs that something is amiss, trace where that person came from. The early Christians had a practice of writing letters of commendation. I’ve always thought there was great wisdom in that.
The second lesson I learned is unalterable. It will not move. Those who exalt others tend to be the same ones who end up slaying them. Beware of the person who lauds you with high praises and flowery compliments. For it is those same people who have the capacity to destroy you with slander and criticism. Fail to meet their expectations, and watch how they react.
Recall that the people who wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas were the same ones who in an unmercifully short period of time later picked up stones to kill them. Acts 14:11-19. This woman was a master at flattery. She used it quite effectively. Yet if the victim of her flattering words didn’t meet her expectation in some way, she headed for the warpath. With venom dripping from her lips, should would begin slandering them behind their back.
After struggling through this particular thicket of church life for exactly one year, the woman was exposed. In July of 1993, we discovered that she had lied about her husband and her child. They had never been killed in a car accident. She left them.
After she was confronted with what we discovered, she took off to parts unknown. In the final analysis, this painful piece of history proved to be both profitable and necessary to my spiritual development. It taught me a great deal about myself and about God’s transcendent ways. I had learned something of the invaluable lesson of suffering with the Lord and bearing the spirit of the Lamb in the midst of criticism and false accusation. And I wasn’t the only one.
It was at this time that the Lord taught me the little-known lesson of never defending oneself. Jesus Himself was silent in the face of attack, and He encourages His sheep to react the same way. En – Matthew 27:13-14; Mark 15:3-5; 1 Peter 2:23.
Jesus didn’t counterattack nor did He retreat. He stood . . . quietly.
I observed the following words of Watchman Nee’s to be all too true: “If people trust us, there is no need to explain; if people do not trust us, there is no use in explaining.”
What I’m about to tell you is beyond bloodless research and analysis. It’s a lesson from experience. If you gather with Christians outside the traditional church, there is a very good chance that the Lord will see to it that you have your own personally designed, tailor-fitted cross to bear. This is especially true if you are called to His work.
What is God’s will for you when the heat is turned up? It’s for you to die instead of fight. To lose instead of win. To lay your life down instead of insisting on your own way. To let go instead of seizing the reins.
These lessons were learned over and over again in the church. Which leads me to a very simple assertion. If you have authentic Body life, there is a cross right in the center of it.
On a positive note, God often gives His children tests. But you can never fail them. If you fail the first time, He’ll simply give you the same test over and over again until you pass.
I look back at that experience and I thank the Lord for the crosses He placed in my life. Each person who I had a difficult time with were Divine instruments that God used to bring brokenness into certain areas of my life.
Body life can get so intense and so agonizing that every fiber in one’s being wishes to retreat in relief. Thankfully, I never threw in the towel. And today, I’m grateful that I didn’t. For I believe the Lord was able to gain something in me during those years. Even if it was something small.
At the heart of it, the main reason why I didn’t leave is because I didn’t have any options. I was out of options. This was one of critical lessons the Lord taught me through the dream I had in 1989.
I couldn’t go back to the traditional church . . . not with the light that I had been given. My conscience would not allow it. In addition, after tasting the sweetness of open-participatory meetings, the wisdom of decision-making by consensus, the joy of community, and the freedom and life that I knew outside traditional church structures, there was nothing in me that wanted to return to what I had left.
By the way, if the traditional church doesn’t bother you, don’t worry about it. Just know that some of us had no choice but to leave. (At the time of this writing, at least five million adults are meeting outside the traditional church. And thirteen to fifteen million born-again Christians do not attend church at all.)
If you have options, you will probably leave the group that you’re with when the going gets rough. This is why most groups who gather outside the traditional church disintegrate. It’s because people still have options. Or so they think they do.
The fact of the matter is, from heaven’s viewpoint, the church of the living God is not optional for you as a Christian. You and I belong in the counter-cultural community called the ekklesia. Unfortunately, we live in day where selecting a church is like trying on bathing suits. There are fifty-seven (or more) varieties from which to choose. Consequently, many contemporary Christians are church-hoppers and sermon-sippers. There’s little to no commitment or devotion to the Body of Christ in a given place.
Paul bemoaned the apathy among Christians in his day toward God’s passion for His church saying, “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” Philippians 2:21.
I’ll say it again: The church of Jesus Christ is not optional. As a child of the living God, it’s your responsibility to discover from Scripture what the church after His own heart looks like. And then search for it until you find it. To do any less is not only to miss out on the blessings of God. It’s also to find yourself in direct conflict with His revealed will.
God doesn’t lead you or me by our comfort zones nor by what feels good to us. He leads us in line with His will.
In John 6, we are told that many of Jesus’ disciples stopped following Him when they discovered that being a disciple was far more than what they had signed up for. The Lord then turned to the Twelve and said, “Will you leave also?” Peter’s response nicely sums up my sentiments about organic church life. He replied, “There’s no where else to go.”
Peter was a man out of options.
Perhaps the real lesson here is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only real option for us Christians. Everything else is a poor choice.
As Christians, we are spiritual creatures. We possess God’s life. As such, we have biological instincts. That’s the meaning of the new birth. Birth is the impartation of life. The new birth is the impartation of Divine life. God in Christ dwells in you and me by the Holy Spirit. To quote Peter, “we are partakers of the Divine nature.” 1 Peter 1:4
Because the Lord dwells inside of us, we have new instincts, new longings, and new urgings that the unregenerate do not have. These instincts, longings, and urges are biological. They are in us because God lives in us.
Before we met the Lord, there was a hollowing emptiness inside each of us. When we found Christ, that hallowing emptiness was filled. It was filled by Christ Himself. You’ve heard the popular evangelistic pitch that we all have a God-shaped hole deep within us, and only Christ can fill that God-shaped hole. Nothing else will satisfy it. That’s true. But it’s not the whole truth.
When I met the Lord Jesus Christ, one half of my being was fulfilled. But because I live in a day when Jesus Christ has been “split up” so to speak, there’s another half of me that went unfulfilled for years.
You see, when I got saved, I met the Head. But . . . I didn’t know the Body.
In the first century, the Head and the Body were not separated. When you met Christ, you met His Body, and you were immediately immersed into the experience of the Body of Christ.
In other words, when you were added to Christ, you were added to His church. When you found Christ, you found the community of the believers at the same time.
Today, however, the Head and the Body have been separated. Many know the Lord, but they do not know the experience of His Body.
Instead, they have adopted the Puritan covenantal view that the church is a voluntary association that helps Christians live a better individual Christian life. The New Testament, however, envisions the church to be the very Body of Christ wherein we live out our Christian lives together with other believers. A profoundly different view.
In the former view, church attendance is optional, though it’s encouraged. In the latter view, the church is not optional at all. And it’s not just about meetings. The church is a community. It’s a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a family . . . the very context in which we live our Christian life.
Augustine rightly called the Head and the Body the totus Christus, which means “the whole Christ.” In the words of N.T. Wright, “The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community.”
Sadly, the Biblical idea of church represents little more than a footnote in the modern evangelical gospel. Yet if one surveys the topography of Paul’s thought in the New Testament, they will discover that the church fills the whole volume and appears on every page.
So at my conversion, I met half of the Lord—I met the Head. But I didn’t know the Body until thirteen years later. And for that reason there was a deep longing inside me that yearned for spiritual fulfillment.
Based on my travels . . . as well as the mail I receive . . . scores of Christians who are in the traditional church experience this same unfulfillment. There is a longing, a tugging, a spiritual urge deep within that seeks fulfillment. Could it be that it’s the longing for the other half of Christ—the experience of His Body?
Methinks that it very well may be.
A large part of Frank Viola’s ministry is about God’s Eternal Purpose. Viola even wrote a full book about the subject called From Eternity to Here. Viola’s podcast also contains many episodes on the topic. Here’s how Viola describes his first experience with God’s Eternal Purpose:
Western Christianity has been preoccupied with two things. One is getting people to heaven. The other is getting those who are going to heaven to live good Christian lives on the earth.
For years I sought these two pursuits. I never questioned them. The gospel that was preached to me since I was a child was about saving souls and being a good Christian with a tiny footnote on the Kingdom of God, and an even tinier footnote on the church, and an even tinier footnote on knowing Christ deeply. And as far as God’s ultimate purpose went, well, there was no footnote.
In April 1992, that all changed. I was introduced to a gospel that was infinitely higher than anything I had ever heard before. I had taken a full dose of the gospel of Jesus Christ. According to Romans 16:25-26, Ephesians 3:1-11, and Ephesians 6:19, the full gospel includes the mystery of God’s eternal purpose. As a result, my understanding of the Christian life was profoundly upgraded.
Having a mission creates a certain euphoria. I discovered that God’s ultimate purpose — His central mission — was not to save souls. God created humans not in need of salvation. Go back and read Genesis 1 and 2 and you will discover that there was no sin in the universe when human beings made their appearance. God had a purpose for men and women before the Fall. And it’s His pulsebeat.
The Lord in His good mercy gave me a ground breaking revelation of what Paul called “the eternal purpose.” That revelation floored me. It struck me deaf and dumb. It set my soul on fire and my heart to dancing. I was spiritually intoxicated, enthralled, and shaken to my core.
But it did more than that. It marked me for life, opening up an entirely new universe that I never knew existed. In a word, it ignited a still-burning fire with me.
I’m well aware that some Christians find the word “revelation” to be quite mysterious. Perhaps spooky even. This is understandable. I’ve been in several Christian movements where there was an unspoken segregation between those who “had revelation” and those who didn’t. I’ve always found this to be as silly, let alone harmful.
The New Testament authors use the word quite frequently. Hopefully, I can de-mystify (and defang) the word here. A revelation is simply an unveiling or an uncovering. When God “reveals” a spiritual truth to one of His children, whether it be through the reading of Scripture, listening to someone preach, or through another avenue, they are receiving revelation.
What does it look like? Have you ever heard someone preach a message and you’re reaction was, “Oh my goodness, it’s true.” Or have you ever read something in a book or in the Bible, and you thought to yourself (or you blurted it out), “Wow. That’s awesome. That’s incredible. I never saw that before.” Well, you just received revelation. The Holy Spirit “uncovered” and “unveiled” something of Jesus Christ to you.
There are those revelations that cause us to say “Oh my goodness, it’s true. What a Lord.” And there are others which bowl us over, knock us to the ground, and forever ruin our lives. The latter is what I call an “earth-shattering” or “ground breaking” revelation. The revelation of the Lord that I received in 1992 was of that type.
The revelation of God’s eternal purpose came to be like a blinding vision. In one flash of light, I saw that everything in the Bible shared one common thread. It was all connected by one controlling narrative.
The spiritual gears within me began to drop into their proper slots. Deeply cemented paradigms began to shatter, and a storm of change took root in my entire understanding of Christianity.
I realized that God had an eternal purpose and being a Christian was joining in that purpose. In addition, I saw that the purpose of God was His central passion. It was the missing ingredient that explained everything—the Christian life, the church, the creation of the universe, mission, etc. I have never recovered from that first sighting. It’s become an ever-growing unfolding within me.
Sadly, I, as well as most of the Christians that I knew, were blissfully ignorant of the Divine purpose.
Some fourteen years later, I attempted to set forth in print the vision of God’s ultimate purpose with the same power and incise clarity with which it was revealed to me. That setting forth is contained in my book, From Eternity to Here.
The book is a retelling of the Biblical story to contemporary ears. It’s a stab at narrative theology—a theology that flows out of reflecting on the broad story that Scripture tells. And that story is the story of God’s eternal purpose.
I will simply say that no church, whether traditional or non-traditional, should exist for any other reason than to fulfill the eternal purpose of the living God. To do otherwise is a scandalous failure in my opinion. Indeed, the church after God’s own heart is a church that has the eternal purpose flowing through its veins.
Viola has had several mentors in his life. He recounts meeting a few of them saying,
1993 was an extraordinary year. I began devouring all of Watchman Nee’s books that I could get my hands on. I also began reading the works of T. Austin-Sparks, Nee’s friend and mentor.
In my personal judgment, T. Austin-Sparks and Watchman Nee had the most profound revelation of God’s eternal purpose in Christ since the apostle Paul. Perhaps what impressed me most about both men was that each had a tremendous grasp of Scripture, theology, and church history. At the same time, they both had a unique experience with the Lord and a deep knowledge of His ways. To put it in Biblical terms, both men “knew the Scriptures as well as the power of God” Matthew 22:29.
Biblical scholarship is important. But one shouldn’t drink it on the rocks. It goes down much smoother with a mixer. The best mixer for Biblical scholarship is the deeper Christian life (also called “Christian spirituality”). Both Sparks and Nee held both in beautiful tension.
(Incidentally, I’ve met people who tried valiantly to polarize these two elements, suggesting that those who are students of Scripture and theology couldn’t possibly know the Lord very well. And those who know the Lord well don’t give a hoot about Scripture or theology. This is spurious thinking at best.)
Reading both Nee and Austin-Sparks sent me on a spiritual odyssey. I wanted to find out all I could about both men. I wanted to learn what they learned. And more importantly, I wanted to experience what they experienced of the Lord.
So I began writing letters to people in England who were part of the Honor Oak Fellowship where Austin-Sparks ministered. I heard wonderful stories. Some were flat out fascinating. A number of years later, I flew up to Louisville, Kentucky and met Austin-Sparks’ daughter. An interesting experience to say the least.
I followed the same path with Watchman Nee. I got my hands on every biography of his that was written in English, and I sought out those who knew him personally.
In this connection, I met two men who would greatly influence my life. In meeting them, I discovered that our little non-traditional church wasn’t alone in our quest to recover New Testament simplicity.
I met both men in the summer of 1993. One man was trained by and had co-worked with Watchman Nee. The other man had co-worked with T. Austin-Sparks.
Both men would become personal friends and mentors. What impressed me most about them was not only their extraordinary revelation of Christ and the depth of their walk with the Lord. It was their character. Both men emitted the meekness, the graciousness, the honesty, and the humility of Jesus Himself.
These men not only spoke of a glorious Christ; they lived Christ. And that’s what separates sheep from sheep.
Since then, I’ve met others who were Christ-centered in their message, but who were also egocentric, self-indulgent, disingenuous, sectarian, cruel and harsh in their characters. And the latter betrays the former.
In my opinion, these two men are giants in the land, and I am privileged to know them. Only the Lord knows how much they have contributed to the Kingdom of God. They are mostly hidden vessels, but choice servants of the Lord worthy of emulation.
They taught me a great deal. I shall always be grateful for them and for the two men—Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks—whose shoulders they stood upon.
In knowing these two men—both of whom are in their 90s and 80s respectively—I learned the immense value of drawing from experienced Christian workers who know the cross deeply and who possess the riches of Christ to build the church. I also discovered that churches that gather outside traditional lines need outside help from such Christians if they wish to grow in the Lord’s fullness.
The truth is that organic church life is a high-maintenance undertaking. It requires continual energy from lots of people over an unmercifully long period of time.
Science gives us a wonderful illustration of this. The second law of thermodynamics says that all things left to themselves tend toward entropy. Entropy is disorder, breakdown, and disintegration. This law applies not only to physical systems, but also to people groups.
In time, entropy degrades every human endeavor. Every person runs out of steam over time. We all burn out of fuel. The persistent energy that’s required to keep a group of Christians moving forward without an institutional structure is immensely taxing.
When entropy sets into a non-traditional church, the Type A personalities begin to fill the vacuum. This is the pattern of church history, and it’s how we got the so-called “institutional church.” As a result of the powerful force of entropy, the early church moved from an organic, shared-life community to a hierarchal, one up/one down, top-heavy organization. It’s also the reason why organic churches, over time, tend to lose their first love. Revelation 2:4.
I’ve concluded that an important remedy to the on-going threat of entropy is to restore the place of itinerant Christian workers. Having someone spiritually mature to visit the church who is not part of the local mix can have a tremendous effect on defying the second law of thermodynamics, recentering and reenergizing the church toward Christ, and giving it fresh direction.
If you gather outside the traditional church, your group will take a nose dive. And when it does, it’s infinitely wise to bring someone in from the outside to raise Christ before the church’s eyes and help turn the tide. Those who are part of the local group typically can’t see clear enough to identify the root problem. So an outside view is needed.
Point: Do not make the mistake of underestimating and undervaluing the role of outside help from other brothers and sisters who are more experienced than you are. That’s what I learned from meeting Stephen and DeVern.
In the mid 1990s, the Toronto Blessing took North America by storm. Viola recounts his experience with this event:
In March of 1993, what came to be known as “the Toronto Blessing” hit the United States. Rodney Howard-Browne held his first convention in the Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, Florida. That convention went on for weeks. From there, it quickly spread to other parts of North America . . . most notably Toronto, Canada; Melbourne, Florida; and Pensacola, Florida.
Upon hearing about the new move of God in March of 1993, I traveled to Lakeland and sat in on the first meetings where “the blessing” was spawned in the States. Three years later, in January 1996, I traveled to Melbourne, Florida and sat in a meeting at the Tabernacle Church officiated by Randy Clark when the phenomenon had spread there in full force. (Little did I know then that exactly ten years later I would be invited to speak to that same church.)
1994 marked an important year in my life. Not because of my encounters with “the Toronto blessing,” but because of what happened as a result. One of my closest friends is a man named Frank Valdez. I met Frank in 1992. He visited our church and quickly began meeting with us.
Frank is the wisest Christian I’ve ever met. He is also the most knowledgeable and spiritually insightful. (I’ve often told people, “If you don’t want to know the answer to your question, don’t ask Frank Valdez.”) In addition, unlike many gifted Christian men, Frank is completely honest, straight-forward, and has no trace of a manipulative or deceptive spirit.
In October 1994, as we were sharing lunch together, I told Frank about my observations on “the Toronto blessing.” This led into an invaluable discussion that marked a turning point in my life. Frank said to me, “There is a Christian tradition that practices a form of prayer that employs no words. It’s beyond speaking in tongues and deeper than the Toronto blessing.” He had my attention.
As I quizzed him about his comment, Frank began to share with me about the tradition of Christian spirituality (also called “the deeper Christian life” or the “interior Christian life”). As a result of this conversation, I began reading up on this tradition and discovered new and fresh ways to commune with the Lord that were far richer than anything I learned in the charismatic/Pentecostal tradition—ways that I began to build into my own devotional life.
That same year, our church was getting so large that we couldn’t fit into the largest home among us. A decision had to be made. One option was to buy or rent a larger facility. The other was to multiply into two different parts of the city.
Up to that point, we had learned to make all major decisions by consensus.
(By the way, if you are out of your mind . . . if you’re stark-raving mad . . . if you’re a certified lunatic, your church will make decisions by consensus. I say that because it’s one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do as a Christian. Nevertheless, it’s the best way to ensure that the Lord’s mind has been secured. It’s also quite Biblical. Because of it’s transformational properties, I regard it to be a spiritual discipline right up there with fasting.)
It took us six grueling months to reach a consensus. Six months of meetings to discuss, disagree, contemplate, argue, pray, cajole, philosophize, theologize, and everything that else that goes on when a diverse group of diverse people with diverse views try to come to one mind on an issue.
The decision was finally reached. We decided to multiply into two groups. One would meet on the east side of the city; the other would meet on the west side. It was an interesting experience, indeed.
When 1995 came, we had reached eight years together. On November 5, 1995, both groups came together for a joint meeting. The brothers and sisters who were present laid hands on me and sent me out to the Lord’s work.
From 1995 to 1997, I spent most of my time doing four things. One, spying out the land to see what the Lord was doing in the city where I lived. Two, engaging in travailing prayer with a small group of young people who had caught the vision for a new church plant in our city. Three, grappling with how God was working in the traditional church, and how I was supposed to relate to it. And fourth, writing about what I had learned about the church in my eight-year experience of organic church life.
In 2005 I became published, and I’ve been writing books on my experience of Christ and His church since. In some of them, I skate on invisible ice. In others, I get out on a limb and start sawing hard.
But behind all the provocative things I’ve written, there’s a sincere effort for clear ground toward the centrality of Jesus Christ in the lives of God’s people. If my books prod sacred cows, my motivation is singular: I’m trying to remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a word, my books are trying to get Christians to ask new questions about long-held assumptions that haven’t been challenged by very many people. The goal being to chip away everything that is not Jesus Christ.
In 1997, I began traveling and speaking on God’s eternal purpose, of which His church stands at the center. In 1998, I began the ministry that I’m actively engaged in today: Planting, nurturing, encouraging, and equipping first-century styled churches that stand for God’s timeless purpose.
To my thinking, I could have never been involved in organic church planting until I first had experience in such a church as a non-leader. Aspiring church planters should take heed to this. It’s virtually impossible to give birth to that which you’ve never experienced yourself. (For a detailed discussion on this principle, see my book Finding Organic Church.)
Rehearsing the lessons I learned from 1998 to the present would fill another volume. (If I ever tell that story, it will be when I’m much older.)
Suffice it to say that church life is a holy wedding of glory and gore. When you experience a gathering of believers who are free to know Christ together and who are free to make decisions collectively under His Headship, you’ve tasted something that will forever wreck your life. “Church” will never be the same after that.
The ekklesia . . . the experience of the Body of Christ . . . is the playground of God and His children. It’s the foretaste of the New Jerusalem. It’s the habitat of the new humanity . . . the new species . . . the new man. It’s the community of the redeemed. It’s where the spiritual realm and the physical realm touch one another. It’s the place where heaven and earth meet. And it’s were you and I belong.
Viola reflects on the glory and gore of body life. He writes,
I will simply say the Bride of Jesus Christ, when she’s expressed in Christian community, is beautiful. She’s addictive even. I’ve not only seen her in revelation and vision, but I’ve known her in practice and experience. And I shall give myself to her as long as there is breath in my body. For this reason, deep within the subterranean parts of our hearts, every Christian longs to experience her.
On the other hand, the experience of the Body of Christ is the most painful ordeal you may ever know as a Christian. That’s because we are deeply fallen and sin-diseased creatures. This becomes unmistakably evident when we begin living in community. As I’ve often said, God created the church to kill you.
Indeed, His sword is deep, His grinding is thorough, and His breaking is complete. To live in the tension of organic Body life will test your metal.
In such a context, you get to know one another really well. Too well in fact. Many (if not most) Christians in the traditional church don’t realize how deep the Fall goes. I certainly didn’t when I was a part of it. The flesh knows how to hide itself underneath one’s “Sunday best” clothing. It’s unmistakable stench is hidden fairly well beneath layers of perfume and cologne (whichever the case may be).
In the traditional church, we are all insulated from one another. To be more candid, we’re protected from killing each other. Think about it—how deeply can you know your fellow brothers and sisters when you are only with them in a non-participatory meeting once or twice a week for a few hours? Your knowledge of them rarely gets beyond becoming an expert at inspecting the back of their necks.
But if you put them together in close-knit community where they share their lives together, well, that’s when you get popcorn. Truthfully, organic church is a high risk endeavor. The ekklesia is a vulnerable organism. It’s always fragile, even on its best day.
Throughout the years of 1988 to 1995, my motives for serving God were deeply excavated. My character flaws were unceremoniously exposed and dealt with drastically. My patience was tried beyond measure. And I learned to know my Lord in ways that were beyond the dreams of my imagination.
Someone once wrote a book entitled, Everybody’s Normal ‘Til You Get to Know Them. That about sums up my first eight years of church life. To put it in (somewhat) more Biblical language, “Many are called, but few can stand it.”
Henry Nouwen said it beautifully when he wrote, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Such is the inimitable arrangement of our God.
One of the most daunting realities I learned during my spiritual journey is that Body life demands a titanic amount of flex to adapt to the theological mindsets of others, let alone to their oddities. Church life is messy. It’s messy because relationships are messy. We humans are messy and (in many ways) messed-up.
Every Christian is eccentric in some way. On the surface, they may appear to be the model of normality. But spend a few years living with them in community and you just might conclude that they are weirder than a seven dollar bill.
We all engage in impression management. We try to create a good impression by masking our dark edges. But that won’t last long in Body life. One day when you least expect it, the mask refuses to stay on, and you discover that church life is a hall of mirrors.
Consequently, when you step outside the traditional church and begin meeting in the simplicity of Christian community, you enter into the messy corner of the universe. (Sometimes that corner can become a blood-curdling mess.) But it is through such an atmosphere that the Lord will be able to extract from you what He wants. And He will be able to gain territory in your life.
Allow me to introduce you to some of the people who you will doubtlessly encounter if you take the plunge with other Christians into the turbulent waters of organic church life.
Some in the group will own a pet theological rock that they wish to show everyone else. They’ll do all they can to put the other members in a corner so they can turn down the screws on their heads with their hobby-horse doctrine.
Others have personalities so intense that they will paralyze everyone else from voicing their opinions. Others are control-freaks at heart. If things don’t go their away, they either melt down, blow a fuse, or they start manipulating at high gear. Still others are terminally offensive. They have Ph.Ds. in rudeness.
Some have explosive personalities. They will shoot in the knee caps anyone who pushes their buttons. “Rage-aholics,” I believe they’re called. Others are classic fence-sitters. They attend the church’s meetings only when it’s convenient for them. They hang around so they may warm their hands over the church’s flame, but they never commit themselves.
Some are legalists at heart. They have a penchant for judging others and for hurling insults at the less righteous. Others have fallen off the other side of that horse. They are the libertines. To their minds, anything goes because the church is “under grace.”
Some are loafers, refusing to work. Yet they will gladly receive money and food from the other members. Others suffer from an extreme guilt complex. They are so burdened down with guilt that nothing under heaven can shake them loose from it. Some are passive-aggressives. Others are expert blamers. Some go through life having some unhealed psychological wound that controls their behavior. Others suffer from neurosis. Still others are extremely pushy when it comes to getting their own way.
I can expand the list. But I trust you get the idea. The problems that our fallen humanity has created show up in living color in church life. And they are enormous and formidable.
Consequently, if people can’t handle the skirmishness, heartbreak, and pain that is required to get on in the war of love, they will not survive outside the traditional church. Those who can’t tolerate the foibles of others quickly leave after the first flare of conflict. In this regard, I’ve found Teresa of Avila’s advice to be one of the important survival skills for enduring Body life: “Take God seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.”
Unfortunately, I’ve watched many people make their exit out of Body life only to hide out in a safe campsite in the wilderness. Truthfully, it’s much easier to do that than to deal with the complicated business of loving one another. It’s much harder to sort through the melange of messy problems that’s part and parcel of being built together into the Head, who is Christ.
Although church life is the one of the most difficult adventures that a Christian may walk through, it’s the most rewarding in my opinion. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
To be sure, the presence of the Lord can be experienced in the traditional church. His blessing can be found there as well. But you will be hard pressed to find the cross in its fury. By virtue of the institution and the organizational structure, there is a great deal of human control present. For that reason, there’s little fire, little heat, and little pressure present for God’s people to be molded and refined.
If you ever take the noble step of gathering with an organic church, I can promise you one thing: God will press your grapes.
Countless Christians who have gathered outside the traditional church have made the following statement: “That way of meeting made me into somebody I never was. It turned me into somebody else. I had temper tantrums. Sometimes I’d get madder than a wet hen at my brothers and sisters in the Lord.”
My response? You had those things inside of you all along. The church simply brought them out into the light.
Observation: Until you rub elbows with other Christians and live as a family with them, you’ll never see the capacities of your flesh. The old man will stay neatly tucked away and hidden, resting prim and proper in a suit or dress, singing songs for thirty minutes, listening to a sermon, throwing money into the offering plate, and walking out of the building.
The crucible of Body life is God’s brilliant method of transforming you and the chief means of fulfilling His eternal purpose.
I like to think of it this way. You and I are like a pile of crooked sticks that point in all directions. God’s intention is to bundle those sticks together. When that happens, each stick has a fascinating way of straightening each other out where they don’t look so crooked after all. To change the metaphor, we are wrinkled people. But together, we iron each other out. And that’s what the experience of the Body of Christ is all about.
You’ve just read excerpts of Frank Viola’s upcoming book Rethinking the Church.
For more information, you can find Frank Viola author on LinkedIn.