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Monday, May 19, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 3- The Making of a Jesus Freak

(This is Chapter 3. Click Here to begin at Chapter 1)

I was God’s instrument to birth this church and there is nothing I want more than to see it prosper, “to see my children walking in the truth.”  I desperately desire to be able to know that I have left behind a living church and not a dying church.  I poured 20 years of energy, prayer and life into that goal and this is my last chance to influence TA’s legacy.  It is a legacy which I believe has been compromised and threatened by well-meaning leaders who have based their vision for TA more on a desire “to be like the nations (i.e. churches) around us” than to fulfill the vision laid out for the church in the New Testament.  This is not because they are bad people but because they simply had some serious blindspots in their own visions of what a church should be and do.

From the beginning, my oft stated goal was that TA would NOT simply be another church like all the other churches but would seek to be a radically Theo-centric church, breaking out of cultural straitjackets and constantly seeking to approach God’s ideal.  To explain what I mean by that, and to understand how it made TA what it was, and why a loss of that vision lead to the crisis that resulted in my departure, I need to go back to our roots, both the church’s roots and my own personal spiritual roots, for it was out of these that TA was born.

My Background

I was raised in a nominally Christian home. As families go ours was much better than some and not as good as others.  In high school in the late 60s I became aware of the “Jesus Movement” (aka “Jesus Freaks”) and thought, based on my minimal exposure to the Gospels, “If Jesus really is who He claimed to be, then these radical Jesus people are the true Christians and I should be like them.  But if it isn’t true, then I should just reject the whole church scene and live my life honestly as an atheist or agnostic.”

I went away to college and, true to my quest, sought out churches and Christian groups to try to discover what was or wasn’t true and real.  Many of these proved to be, by most measures, better churches and better religions than what I had grown up with, but I wasn’t looking for religion or church, I was looking for God.  I met a group of Christian students who gathered on campus once a week and who appeared to be the real deal: genuinely loving, committed to the truth, and radically committed to authentically following Jesus whatever the cost.  This is what I had sought and though it took awhile for the Lord to break down my resistance and come to a place of full surrender, eventually the "Hound of Heaven" proved to be more than up to the task!  When I finally yielded to the Lord the group leader’s first words to me were, “Great.  Meet me tomorrow afternoon and we’ll go witnessing on campus.”

That last sentence needs to be highlighted because it is a crucial part of my spiritual formation, an underlying assumption about following Jesus, that shaped and shapes all of my subsequent Christian walk and ministry.  In many ways it encapsulates what distinguished my new understanding of truly following Jesus from the tepid religiosity in which I was raised.  But it will also become crucial to this story because I did not realize that the lay elders I was working with at TA did not share this type of formative experience and thus it was not part of their spiritual DNA the way it was of mine.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is also important to our story to understand that my initial exposure to the Gospel included in-depth discipleship training in all aspects of the Christian life, hundreds of Bible memory verses, a conviction that following Jesus was an absolutely radical all-encompassing life (not just a compartment or something to be fitted into “real life”), and a fully-internalized understanding that sharing the Good News with others with a view to their salvation was a lifestyle commitment that lies at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Much of this background was not part of the elders’ backgrounds either and because I assumed that these biographical components formed a bigger part of who they were than they actually did I failed to train and disciple them in a way that would have enabled them to make decisions about the church’s ministry on the same basis that I made them.

Those convictions have abided in me ever since and were absolutely instrumental in envisioning, launching and leading TA. Anyone who doesn’t passionately share a commitment to these core beliefs and practices (and sadly, many evangelical church-goers today do not) will not understand what makes me tick and will probably eventually become frustrated by my stubbornness in holding to these convictions without compromise.

Added to this personal history was a belief that grew out of my Bible reading and seminary training that the local church was central to God’s plan and purposes on earth and must be ordered and ruled by the Bible in order to prosper.

Once more for emphasis: I do not hold any of these specific convictions as opinions but as rock-solid core beliefs, values and practices, worth uncompromising defense even if it should cost me everything to do so.

When I was converted, the change in my life was so radical that soon many of my roommates and friends were turning to Jesus and a mini-revival broke out on campus as the group doubled in size each year that I was there.

Soon I felt called to prepare for full-time ministry.  After marrying Jeanie I went to Western Seminary for three years and earned a Master of Divinity.  Later I pursued post-graduate studies at Talbot and Gordon-Conwell Seminaries.  My original plan upon graduating from Western was to serve overseas because that was where the real “action” was in terms of Kingdom growth.  From Portland we moved to Long Beach to serve an apprenticeship as inner-city missionaries among various ethnic groups.

After a couple of years there I realized that I was not yet mature enough in the Lord to deal with the challenges with which I was being confronted daily (I was the second youngest graduate in my seminary class and still relatively young in the Lord).  One day, totally out of the blue, God tapped me on the shoulder and told me to get out of full-time ministry, find a job, grow up some more, and await further instructions.

I was absolutely devastated but the Voice was so clear and unmistakable that I had no choice but to obey. After another year in school I ended up in Redding working (of all things) as a tax auditor.  We had three pre-schoolers, one old car, and lived in a fire-trap of an ancient rickety 800 square foot mobile home out in the boonies.  We got involved at Neighborhood Church, our first exposure to the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

I had a wonderful wife and three fantastic daughters but other than that I kept wondering how my life had gone so wrong.  But just as Moses, Paul and others (even Jesus) had their years of “wilderness waiting” before being launched into the special calling God had for them, so we too waited and trusted.  And served.

We launched a “young marrieds” ministry at Neighborhood Church and, like the ministry in college, it too doubled in size each year.  I was working (now as a financial investigator for the California Department of Justice) 40+ hours a week and as an unpaid lay-pastor to 20… 40… 80… 160 young adults 20+ hours a week.  God blessed us and the people we ministered to and I began to sense that the time to re-enter full-time ministry was getting close.

But how?  We had a strong sense of calling to Redding and a belief that God wanted me to pastor a church. How could this be?

After a decade of (not-so-patient) waiting followed by a series of seemingly impossible-to-overcome challenges, it finally started to come together when Neighborhood Church decided to plant a new church in town and called me to be its pastor.

Click Here for Chapter 4: Vision and Mission

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