Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Weekend that Changed Everything

My recent posts have caused no small stir among the people who know us best. And I’m sure there are lingering questions about how we got to the place we are now. One of the reasons I’m posting this story is to lay out some of the “nail in the coffin” events that brought about the paradigm shift we made some weeks ago. (The “coffin” represents an ongoing pursuit of life within the “institutional” church setting. I mean no disrespect to anyone who chooses to remain in that context). Truthfully the seeds of organic church life have been in our lives for years, and the events of the last 20 months nourished the seedlings of change. The final decision to pursue a different course was made after a recent transformative weekend.
Because my parents are “seasoned citizens” I try to visit them at least once a quarter. Since Charlotte is US Airways’ largest hub, we have the blessing of weekly E-Savers (discounted fares to cities across the country). Of primary interest to me are the ones that pop up every 2-3 weeks for Lexington, KY. I regularly pray that they coincide with important events, like my nephew’s graduation back in May. Next I hoped for an E-Saver around my parents’ end of July birthdays. There was one on August First, but honestly I was uneasy about going. So much was going on in our lives that I wondered about the wisdom of leaving for a weekend. I was also very tired and my mind too exhausted to make a final decision. I went to sleep after 1 am that Friday night, praying that if the Lord wanted me to go, he would wake me up in time to make Saturday’s 7:35 am flight. Miraculously, I woke up at 5:30am. Even then I laid awake wavering.
Finally I threw a few things into a bag, and booked a ticket online. 6:17 a.m. I grabbed a book to read on the plane, and was out the door for Douglas International. 6:45 a.m. I walked through a non-existent line at security, and by 7:05 I had boarded the plane for Lexington. I settled in for the flight and pulled out my book. It was “Reimagining Church by Frank Viola. A few months earlier, after I had shared some of what God was doing in my heart, a friend recommended I read a book called “Pagan Christianity”. Soon after that I ordered the book, or so I thought. Instead I received “Reimagining Church”. This I believe was a Sovereign “mistake”, if ever there could be such a thing. What I was about to read on the plane that weekend would change everything. It confirmed many of the instincts the Lord has placed in my heart and has been nurturing for years.
On this last minute weekend trip, I internalized a couple lessons. First, from “Reimagining Church” I was reminded that the church is a family. The Father designed the church to mirror the Trinity. In the Trinity there is unity, and mutual submission, but there is no hierarchy. As I considered the many leadership challenges I’ve observed and experienced over the years, it hit me: our unbiblical perspective on leadership is the stumbling block to building the kind of church that truly reflects the heart of God. In His church, there is room for only ONE HEAD…Jesus Christ. I realized that for most of us Christians, this is mere lip service, little more than a mantra or slogan we can put on plaques and knick knacks to sell in Christian bookstores. Functionally, in most cases/churches there is a human head in the place where Jesus ought to reign. We elevate pastors and other Ephesians 4 leaders to a place they don’t belong. Truthfully, while many Protestants would reject the idea that the Pope is THE representative of Jesus on the earth, in practice we embrace that role for our pastors or other church leaders. We insist on setting up mediators between ourselves and Jesus, even though Scripture clearly teaches that He is the sole mediator between us and the Father. We depend on leaders to dole out responsibility and affirmation to us as if they come from the throne of God. There should be a DIRECT connection to the Father for EVERY member of the body so we can BE the functioning body parts God has called us to be.
I now believe this process is hindered by an over emphasis on the role of leaders. (To my detractors, I do not reject Ephesians 4 leadership. I do believe their role is to train and empower the BODY, not to consolidate power for themselves to lord over God’s people. I suspect this is an area where we, as leaders, think more highly of ourselves than we ought.) The Scripture is clear. Ephesians 4:12 tells us Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are given to us …to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Continue on and read verses 13-16.
Another lesson I took away concerns my immediate family. I love my wife and children, and I want so much more for them. I want my love for them to be more evident and for us all to enjoy a much richer family experience. So who could I look to for such an example? For me there is no better example than our long-time family friends, Bill and Lorraine Brooks? Bill is a retired London, KY Christian businessman with a heart for his family and for missions. He and his son Hank went to a tiny island in the Caribbean for a short term Partnership in Evangelism mission trip in the early 1980s. While in Grenada they connected with a church there and a family whose lives Bill decided to invest in by sponsoring their children to college in the United States. A wonderful godly woman, one of those children is now my dear wife of 17 years. Aside from my thankfulness for their role in bringing us together, it was always a blessing to see the closeness of the Brooks family. Most Sundays, they gather together (with their now adult children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, sponsored children and many others) for a meal after the Sunday church service. It is obvious that the foundation for this rich, welcoming fellowship time was laid many years ago.
On this my most recent visit to Kentucky, I promised my wife that I would pay the Brooks family a visit. So after attending Sunday morning service with my parents I took the roughly 1 hour drive down I-75 to visit Bill and Lorraine. I was not surprised to find Bill preparing lunch. He invited me to “help” by talking to him while he worked. Soon Lorraine emerged, and their daughters arrived for their usual Sunday fellowship over lunch. When I asked one daughter about the secret of togetherness, her reply was simple: “we always did everything we could together.” This was all the confirmation I needed. Over recent weeks since I’ve returned home, we’ve been intentionally doing more things together as a family. I hope one day our family togetherness will speak to people as does the Brooks family.
Wrapping these elements together, so much of what I learn about the church and about the family are interchangeable. As a church family we grow by being together beyond church meetings! Those of us who left the institutional church setting together in recent weeks are already experiencing the joy of this. As we gather in a living room, Jesus is the unseen Head, leading our times together. The growing body we’re relating to no longer gathers to sit for a performance, but to actively participate in our corporate worship. Yes, there will be teaching and preaching. Yes there will be leadership. But the goal, as Terry Virgo says, “is to make every person mature, not dependant.” The body is able to come together and worship without leaders dominating. If in doubt, read I Corinthians 12 and 14.
Please don’t hear what I am not saying! I am not against leadership. I believe God gives leaders to his people. Good effective leaders bring Glory to God and good to his people. However, I believe that we as leaders should be more concerned about seeing Jesus honored than about securing our positions and asserting our authority. Allow me to further drive home my perhaps misunderstood perspective on leaders. I believe that if we as leaders were half as concerned about seeing “regular people” mature, equipped, and deployed for mission, as we are about having them respect us and honor our authority (see John 5:44), we would truly see more of the manifold wisdom of God displayed in HIS church.
As in the church, the best way I can encourage my family to mirror the heart of God is to serve and lead them in love… certainly not by “asserting my authority”. In fact, I suspect they will be more inclined to listen to and maybe even respect a husband and father they know loves them, rather than one who is simply looking to tell them what to do, how to live, or who to be.
Lord, give us more servant leaders and free your people of drill sergeants and religious CEO’s. Let your glory shine through ALL of your people so the world will see YOU in us and give YOU the glory you deserve! Amen!

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