Saturday, November 21, 2009


November 21, 2009

“Hey, do you guys know anything about a place called Evie’s?” asked Berm on his cell phone. “I had a dream last night about this name. Just now as I was on my way home from Starbuck’s and had stopped at the light on the corner, I looked across the street and saw a sign with this name above the door of what I think is some sort of restaurant. Anyway, I think you guys should check it out.”
The call came while Danny, Dave, and I, fellow organic church planters, were still sitting at a small table in Starbuck’s coffee shop finishing up our discussion and prayer time. We had been meeting there for the past few weeks on Sunday mornings talking and praying over strategy on how to advance the kingdom of God in our city. We had invited Berm, a Korean Christian friend of ours with a prophetic gift, to join us that day in order to help us listen more intently to the Holy Spirit. It had been a productive meeting reviewing images and thoughts from the prayer walk we had taken the previous week. But nothing specific leaped out and grabbed us as being from the Lord—nothing, that is, until Berm’s phone call shortly after he left our table. But was that message really from the Lord?
On the way home from the coffee shop that day I drove by Evie’s. From the street it appeared to be just some sleazy, hole-in-the-wall bar. Visiting a place like that, especially on a Sunday, would certainly not be on my list of fun things to do. Planting a church there was no where near my radar scope. I figured someday we should check the place out but right now we were all convinced God had called us to gather at Starbuck’s where we were already getting to know some of the barristers and regular customers. In fact, since we were engaged in some significant ministry there, we were humorously referring to our Sunday morning gathering as “The Church at St. Arbuck’s.” For several weeks we ignored the message from Berm and continued meeting at the coffee shop every Sunday morning. But then God confirmed the word He had given concerning Evie’s.
Berm and his family had been staying in our home for a few weeks while they were preparing to move to China for a job opportunity. On Saturday evening before their plane was to leave the next day, Berm and his wife along with Babs and I sat on our living room floor and prayed for each other. Following our prayer time Berm spoke up.
“While you were praying, Bill, I saw a vision of a pub with an ‘oikos’ inside.” (The word “oikos” is Greek for “house” or “household” and refers to an intimate group of extended family members and friends.)
“Oh, that’s kind of like the TV show, ‘Cheers,’” replied Babs.
“I suppose we ought to pay a visit to Evie’s,” I commented with resignation and not the slightest hint of enthusiasm.
I had not been feeling well and the thought of going to some bar was not at all appealing to me. However, the next day while meeting at Starbuck’s, the feeling that we should visit Evie’s was overwhelming. So reluctantly two of us, Dave and myself, drove across the street and parked in the rear of the establishment since the front parking lot was filled. Why is this place so busy on Sunday afternoon? I wondered. But as soon as we walked through the rear entrance the reason became clear.
It was football season and the walls of the pub were dominated by no less than ten TV screens all tuned to various games in progress. Many of the patrons were decked out in jerseys representing their favorite team. Occasionally a cheer would erupt from a few excited fans accompanied by groans from others. Along one wall a shelf was filled with several crock pots and bowls filled with homemade food. Chile, bread, pasta dishes, and pumpkin pie along with the usual tavern libations were in the process of being enjoyed by the hungry patrons. Everyone seemed to know each other and they were all having a great time, unless their team wasn’t living up to expectations.
We took a seat at the only empty table and surveyed the scene. Although the inside was much cleaner and nicer compared to what I had imagined still, all things considered, the place was just a bar. Silently I hoped no one who might know me as a local pastor would recognize me. As Christians involved in organic church planting we felt very much out of place and wondered what we would say if anyone inquired as to who we were and what we were doing there. A few minutes later a waitress approached us and asked us what we wanted to drink. After ordering soft drinks we inquired as to the food.
“Oh, this is stuff people bring to share on Sundays during football season,” she replied. “You are welcome to whatever you want.”
After our drinks arrived we settled down to watch our favorite game and prayed that God would connect us with whomever he wanted. Since He had brought us to this unique place we figured there must be at least one person He wanted us to meet. We didn’t have long to wait.
“Wow, you guys are just about the last people we would ever expect to meet here!” shouted a female voice coming from halfway across the room.
If I could have crawled under the table and disappeared I would have instantly done so. My worse fears were suddenly coming true. Someone had recognized us. How were we ever going to explain what we were doing there? But in a flash my fears were relieved and my faith in God was elevated to a new height.
Turning around we were greeted by two of the waitresses with whom we have built a friendship at the Church at Table #2 in Carrow’s Restaurant. Evie’s was apparently an old hangout for them when they used to work at the restaurant on Sunday mornings and would stop by to relax together before heading home. A strange set of circumstances had resulted in them sharing the same shift once again and they had decided to drop by the pub for old time’s sake. Neither one of them had been to Evie’s for months.
“This was our favorite place to come and have a leisurely drink,” they shared. “But since neither of us drink much anymore (They are both new mothers) and our schedules never allow for us to share Sunday mornings together we have stopped coming. Today was just a fluke! So what on earth would bring you guys here?”
We had an interesting time explaining to them that God had called us to be there, but since we already enjoyed a spiritual relationship with them and they were familiar with the concept of organic church planting, they understood our motive. Once our embarrassment over having been caught in a bar began to subside, the conversation turned to this unique pub. The two young women began to point out different people we might want to get to know.
“That’s Evie,” one of them proclaimed pointing to the woman behind the bar. “She’s the owner and she insists on keeping this place spotless. She knows everyone else and makes us all feel at home here. You need to take the time to get acquainted with her.”
After sharing information about the rest of the staff and a few of the patrons, the girls excused themselves and headed home. Dave and I were left to ponder in amazement what had just happened. Through Berm’s prophetic gift God had obviously, supernaturally, led us to this pub at this very time to reunite us with two individuals who were already intimately familiar with the place. Their testimony about the pub confirmed the fact that God has something in mind for our ministry there. Gradually, the progression of how the Lord of the harvest was leading us began to take shape in our minds. Two years ago our men’s accountability group which met every Tuesday evening at Carrow’s Restaurant was transformed into The Church at Table #2 as God showed us how to witness to the staff and customers. That gathering led us to other forays into the harvest and helped us understand that planting simple churches isn’t about inviting people to come to our home, but rather about inviting ourselves to go to theirs, or to their place of business, or school, or some other place where they feel comfortable.
As the Lord’s harvest workers we have learned that we can’t just open the barn doors and expect the wind to blow the wheat inside. The crop won’t harvest itself! It requires laborers to actually go into the fields and do the work. God will then bind the sheaves together into whatever gathering He desires, whether in large barns or small sheds, open fields or fenced yards, living rooms or mega churches, restaurants or even pubs. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19. Nowhere does it say we are to stay in one place and expect disciples to form around us. “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – Matthew 16:18. Building the church is strictly the Lord’s responsibility. We dare not remove this vital task from His capable shoulders no matter how much we may be convinced we know what the church should look like.
This outward focus led us to gather at Starbuck’s on Sunday mornings, a place where many people in our community love to hangout, a time when people, who are not going to church, like to go for a latté. But we never dreamed that following the Lord into the harvest would lead us to a bar. It certainly makes a lot of sense, however, when you consider that we aren’t exactly looking for saints. The following week, while sitting at Starbuck’s before venturing across the street to Evie’s, the Lord led us to read the Scripture passage which describes the calling of Matthew. After Matthew decides to leave his tax collector’s booth and follow Jesus it seems like the very next thing the Lord does is to go to Matthew’s house in order to connect with a few of the new disciple’s friends.
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” – Matthew 9:10-13.
That week at Evie’s we watched as the owner walked around the tables and stopped to visit with each patron. She was doing exactly what I used to do as a pastor of an institutional church at every potluck dinner we held. Evie was shepherding her flock. The only thing missing was Jesus. We now know why the Lord has brought us to this unlikely spot to do church. We are there to simply supply what is missing, to bring Jesus to the pub.

Bill, a child of God venturing even further into the harvest field

Saturday, November 07, 2009


November 7, 2009

We stood on the sidewalk in front of our home and watched in silent agony as our daughter’s sports car turned the corner and disappeared out of sight. After swallowing hard in order to stifle a tear, I slowly turned around and headed back indoors. Our little girl was gone. Okay, at twenty-seven years of age she wasn’t so little anymore, and ever since she got married three years ago and moved out of the house, we hardly ever saw her. But this time she was moving to another state, some twelve hours away by car. It seemed as though a significant, life-essential organ was being ripped away from my body.
Her mother, Babs, retreated into a heavy fog of depression while I was left to sort through some conflicting emotions. As a parent, after investing so many years in the life of your offspring, it is unbelievably painful to see them grow up and move away. Yet along with the hurt I was also feeling a hint of pride and accomplishment. After all, this is why we raised her, why we sacrificed so much on her account, why we spent so much time praying over her and pouring our love into her. The academy award for parents is the joy of knowing your children are able to survive on their own. Failure to realize this joy can lead to a far greater pain than separation.
As I was pondering these mixed feelings I was reminded of a passage of Scripture where Jesus is preparing His disciples for His departure. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” – John 14:12. I have struggled over this passage in the past wondering what His disciples could possibly do that could be considered greater than the Lord’s accomplishments. But now the Spirit was giving me a fresh insight into what was taking place. The Master was about to do the most important thing He could do for the future ministry of His disciples—leave!
For some three and a half years the disciples had grown accustomed to the physical presence of the Lord. Together they had witnessed some pretty amazing miracles. Water became wine; the lame walked; the blind received sight; those with diseases were cured; even the dead were raised. But it was always Jesus performing the miracles while the disciples watched in wonder. In addition they were able to absorb the greatest teachings the world had ever heard. But now Jesus was returning to His Father. Could the disciples survive without His dominating presence? Would the ministry continue without its Founder?
In truth, the disciples would never have been able to begin the Church had Jesus remained on earth. They would have been far too dependant upon Him and far too reluctant to launch out into new ministries. Yes, I realize He gave them His Spirit to empower them and to give direction. But physically He left, and He did so just days before the opening Sunday service of the new Church. I can well imagine the heartache of separation Jesus experienced as He ascended into heaven. How He must have longed to stay with them and help them through the next few critical weeks and months! Yet I bet there was also a hint of pride and accomplishment. For three and a half years He had been preparing them for this moment, teaching them, praying for them, and pouring His love into them. Finally the time had come to see if they could survive, and the ministry thrive, without His physical presence. Only then could Jesus’ ministry be judged as completely successful.
Thankfully, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples went on to do the “even greater things than these” by carrying the Gospel throughout the known world and planting churches everywhere they went. I believe there is a message here for would-be apostles and church planters today. “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” – Hebrews 3:1. Taking our example from Jesus, the greatest Apostle in history, perhaps the greatest thing we can do for those we are discipling and the churches we are planting is to leave!
Obviously we must rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the best timing for our departure, and in this modern world we can still stay connected and visit occasionally when we feel the need is warranted. But if we fail to leave we run the risk of making people dependant upon us. If they continue to feel dependant upon us they will never launch out on their own and begin to accomplish the ministries for which God has gifted and called them. And our own ministry will be drastically limited in its scope.
I believe that all of the spiritual gifts can and have been abused. A careful reading of Paul’s letters to the troubled church in Corinth will back up this belief. The gifts are abused when more attention is focused on the gifted than the Giver. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” – 1Corinthians 12:7. When the gifted steals away the glory meant for the Giver abuse is inevitable. All gifts are meant to be directed outward, to build up the church, to bring glory to God, not to build up the stature of the one using the gift.
This is especially true for those gifted individuals who make up the five-fold ministry team. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up…” – Ephesians 4:11-12. Far too many individuals who are gifted apostolically continue to gather others around their ministry, fulfilling their personal need to be needed, rather than equipping and releasing the saints to follow the Lord of the harvest wherever He leads. It is a failure to leave when it’s time to leave, to send forth when it’s time to send forth. This is an abuse of the apostolic gift, one which vastly limits ministries and stifles the growth of the church.
I shamefully remember the times when as an institutional church pastor I stood behind the pulpit and exhorted our parishioners to get involved in the ministry. “Every Christian believer is ordained by God and gifted to fulfill a ministry,” I would proclaim. Yet because I also encouraged them to return Sunday after Sunday to listen to me expound from the Scriptures I was inadvertently causing them to become dependant upon me rather than equipping them to follow the Lord and put to use the gifts He had given them. Tragically, I was enabling the very thing I was preaching against!
Letting go is one of the most difficult things to do in the ministry. It is bound to cause pain and heartaches. Yet witnessing those whom God has brought to us to teach and disciple failing to fulfill their potential in Christ is a far greater pain than that of separation. The calling of an apostle, like that of a parent, involves backing away from the spotlight and allowing our “children” to take center stage. It is a rite of spiritual passage, a building up of the next generation to take our places. It is a calling to receive the wounds of distancing ourselves from those we love. But it is also the privilege of knowing the joy of watching them do “greater things than these,” of knowing that the ministry will continue to grow long after our departure. And it will only happen if we learn to let go.

Bill, a child of God learning to let go