Herein lies a dramatized excerpt of my story out of the religious institutional system and into the manifestation of God’s Eternal Purpose.
The End of an Era
I stood on a low-rise stage staring out at a congregation of 90 souls, and I realized my sermon was coming to an end. “We can’t commune with God unless we spend time with Him,” I stated with great authority. “So, how do we practically spend time with God?” I asked, ready to deliver my closing statement. “By simply reading our Bible and praying.” The words sounded empty and hollow in my ears even as they protruded from my lips. I feared my facial expression might betray my thoughts: is that all there is to the Christian life?
I stood frozen for what felt like an eternal moment. I acted as if I was pausing for effect, but I was actually wrestling with whether or not to walk out of the worship theater right then and there. I was done. So many thoughts raced through my mind: I get paid to read my bible and pray, and here I am halfheartedly trying to convince these other saints to do it for free. Because they should want to. Do I even want to?
“It really is that easy,” I choked out, barely more than a whisper. I cleared my throat and said it with more confidence. “It really is that easy, and that’s all there is to it.” Lord, please don’t let that be so. I flashed a forced smile and motioned for my wife and the rest of the praise team to come back up to the stage for the closing song.
As we closed that service, I could feel the heat rising on the back of my neck and my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. I looked around the room to see the “prayer station” set up in one corner with candles and incense, the “communion station” set up in another corner with tiny wafers and shot glasses full of grape juice, my buddy sitting behind the giant wall of sound equipment in the back, and banners hanging on the walls with the different words summarizing our vision statement. Is this really what God intended? Is this really a natural progression from the new testament church?
Later that afternoon, at home, I posed those questions to my wife, Bridget. “Is this really God’s thought for the church? Paul or Jesus never said anything about a worship pastor or a youth pastor, but that’s what I am. Is all this biblical? I just don’t know anymore.” I threw up my hands and fell into the sofa.
“I don’t know, either,” Bridget replied. “When I was setting out the wafers today, all I could think about was how this is as big as we’ve made Jesus.” She held up her hand and spread her thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “We’ve made Him as big as a wafer.”
“I can’t imagine Paul giving so much for a wafer-sized Jesus,” I retorted. “I mean, as I was looking around the room at all the sound and video equipment the church has bought in the last year, I remembered Sally* saying something about not having enough money in the Helping Hearts* fund to help families pay their utility bills this month. We exhaust that monthly fund within the first two weeks every time. Yet we have money to buy new speakers.” Something within me burned. Wafer Jesus seemed small and needy. I wanted a bigger Jesus, and so did my wife.
Not long after that sermon and subsequent afternoon conversation, Bridget and I left a decade of vocational ministry in search of something more. We knew this Jesus, this Christ, had to be something worthy of the sacrifices made in the new testament, that His church had to be something worthy of His sacrifice, and neither one of us felt like what we were doing in and for “church” was cutting it. So, I got a job in “the real world” and we moved to my hometown.
The Beginning of Something New
After a few months, I ran into an old school buddy of mine. He and his wife were a part of a non-denominational charismatic church, and they invited us to visit. We loved it. It had small groups and high energy worship and the spiritual gifts! Surely this was what the Lord is after!
“Surely this isn’t what the Lord is after,” I moaned to Bridget one Sunday after the church service. We were about to lay down for our Sunday afternoon nap. Everybody – Mom, Dad, and all four kiddos – took a nap on Sunday; it was a house rule.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not,” replied Bridget. She picked up a book from her side table and handed it to me. “Toby recommends this. It outlines how a lot of our Christian traditions come from pagan practices. You might feel better after reading it.”
“Or I might not,” I scoffed. I looked at the little red book and set it over on my side table. “I’ll check it out later. Toby and I have been talking about some of that stuff already. I’m about done with all this. It feels like we’re more concerned with our own kingdoms than with God’s. This can’t be His purpose for the church.”
Little did I know how close to the mark those thoughts and feelings actually were. My wife and I stepped out of institutional, systematic christianity a few months later. Our friends followed a month after that. The next several months were glorious and agonizing all at the same time. They were glorious in that we felt free from a religious bondage, and we agonized that we didn’t have more friends; we lost several when we left that last church.
Finally, a ray of hope. A couple of authors were doing a weekend conference on organic church in Houston, TX. Having friends in the area, we booked a couple of rooms with them and attended the conference.
“I’m really looking forward to this conference,” I mentioned to the car-full of people on the drive to the city. My wife, our friends, Toby and Brenda, and myself were all loaded up with weekend provisions and high hopes and expectations.
“Yeah, me, too,” replied Toby. “It’ll be cool to learn how to do this and bring it back to our little town.”
“Agreed!” the rest of us chimed in together.
Friends, that’s not what happened at all. The four of us attended that conference expecting to learn how to do this thing called “organic church”, and what we got instead was a glorious unveiling of something we had never heard of: God’s eternal purpose.
“Can you believe this gospel?” Toby asked after the first night.
“Why have we never heard of this before?” I asked back.
“There’s just something about it that resonates in my bones, in my spirit!” Bridget responded.
“Seeing things through the lens of Christ suddenly makes everything make sense!” exclaimed Brenda.
We were spellbound by a loving, gracious God who created with a purpose in mind. And it wasn’t a purpose of salvation, but a purpose of expression and fulfillment. All of sudden, the gospel became about God and His Son, Jesus, and not about man. Christ was the center of God’s plan, and we were not. How liberating!
Back in my hometown, we were intoxicated with this new purpose. We were armed with a new revelation and understanding of Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church. We had also received personal invitations to move across the country (from Oklahoma to Florida) to be a part of an organic expression of the Lord. Since we knew that we didn’t have the foundation to start anything ourselves in Oklahoma, we all agreed to move. But that didn’t happen quickly.
I only thought the previous months were glorious and agonizing. The following months turned into a year, and they were more glorious and more agonizing. They were more glorious as our old mindsets and filters of how church was supposed to be were being stripped from us bit by bit, and we were being filled with more of this bigger-than-imagined Christ. These months were more agonizing as we realized just how alone we really were and how desperately we wanted to be in Florida.
Finally, relief and celebration occurred the following summer when Toby and Brenda managed to move to Florida. Bridget and I followed suit two months later, and we found ourselves smack in the paradox of the Lord Jesus Christ: Glory on earth in the form of His eternal purpose, and gore on all fronts in the forms being misunderstood by family and friends, the stresses of moving across country, job instability, and even being treated with suspicion by other Christians.
The Inevitable Question
Obviously, once people found out I’d moved, they inevitably asked me why. Saying that I moved to be a part of a church led to the standard follow-up questions: Which church? What’s it called? Who’s your pastor? While there were no pat answers for these questions, I finally came up with something cool. At least, I thought it was cool..
One day, while meeting with a client, the topic of my moving to Florida came up again. I was prepared this time.
“So, why did you move to Florida?” Mr. McIntosh* asked as he took another bite of his Cobb salad. I looked him over to try to discern how seriously he was asking me. Content that he was genuinely inquiring, I took a deep breath, leaned in, and responded.
“Mr. McIntosh, this may not make a lot of sense, but I moved for a woman. She is a beautiful woman! She is mysterious, glorious and betrothed, or engaged. She is, indeed, another Man’s fiancée; she is not my woman.” Mr. McIntosh cocked one eyebrow up, curiosity settling over his face. I continued, “I also moved for a house. It is an unbelievable house! It is still being built. Every stone is being fit together. It is, indeed, another Man’s house; it is not my house.” Now I could see confusion starting to seep across my audience of one’s features. “I moved to Florida, Mr. McIntosh, for a family. It is an extraordinary family! It can be dysfunctional at times, yes, but it is learning how to function together properly under the Patriarch. It is a loving, supportive and big family. It is, indeed, another Man’s lineage; it is not my own family.” Mr. McIntosh, I could see, was clearly having a hard time following. “Lastly, I moved for a better body. It is a phenomenal body! It is a body learning how to exercise, rest, move, and function under its Head. It is a body with a long reach, attentive ears, and a big heart. It is, indeed, another Man’s body; it is not my body.” I leaned back, satisfied with my answer, and awaited my client’s response. He stared blankly at me with his mouth slightly agape and a little lettuce peeking out at me.
After a few moments, Mr. McIntosh finally blinked and swallowed. “Why did you move to Florida again?” He stammered. I laughed heartily which put him at ease and caused him to chuckle. I leaned in again.
“I moved to be a part of a church, Mr. McIntosh,” I stated with a smile. “That is how I currently know to describe the Church. It is the Bride of Christ, God’s dwelling place, God’s Family, and the Body of Christ. While I am a part of all, none are mine and mine alone. They are indeed His. I moved for Jesus, not for me.”
“Ah! I see!” exclaimed my client, relieved that I wasn’t really after other people’s property. “For a moment there, I didn’t know where you were going with your story.”
Still replaying that conversation in my head later that afternoon, I turned to spend a little time with the Lord. “Lord, that’s why I feel like we moved here, but You’re the one ultimately responsible for it. So, why did You move my family and me here to Florida?” The thought had never crossed my mind to ask God why He moved us. I will never forget His response:
“To strip the seeming beauty from the idols of the earth. To show you peerless worth. To fellowship with you, so you would have nothing else to do with those idols. To draw you, win you, and fill you completely till your cup overflows the brim. To capture your heart and unveil Mine. To pour out My grace on you so that sin won’t deceive you anymore. For you to hear Me, see Me, and know Me like you never have before.”
Whoa. I was flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. Knocked to the floor. That felt so personal! While I was consumed with the grand scale of His eternal purpose, He was concerned with the grand scale of my heart.
“You are so big, Lord,” I whispered. “You are the Infinite King, yet You are so intimate with me. I see how You love Your Bride, and I see how You love every part, every inch, of Your Bride. Thank You!” I sat and wept for I don’t know how long. It was such a precious moment to me.
I basked in that little revelation for days. I shared it with anybody who was willing to listen. I was astonished how personal His grand purpose could be. But it made sense! He has to build His house with living stones. So He carefully chooses and chisels those stones together.
After some time, I asked the Lord a follow-up question. “Lord, I’ve asked You why You moved us to Florida; thank You for Your response. Now I’d like to ask, to what end?” I wasn’t sure He’d really answer. But He did:
“So that My Bride is made ready, My House built, My Family made complete, and My Body function under My Headship.”
I smiled. “You’re so amazing, Lord!”
The Incredible Answer
What I saw was how when the Lord strips away the seeming beauty from the idols of the earth for us, when He shows us His peerless worth, when He fellowships with us, when He draws, wins, and fills us, when He captures our heart and unveils His, when He pours out His grace, when He allows us to hear, see and know Him like we never have before, then He gets what He’s after: His Life is manifested and His Glory is shown throughout the earth. When we lose ourselves in Him, His will gets done on earth as it is in heaven.
We moved for a corporate reason, one I only understood in my head. He moved us for a personal reason, one that He continually reveals in my heart. When He does His work in us, we are then able to be fit together with others to form His expression on the earth. When all the individuals in the corporate body are emptied of themselves and this world, and filled by Christ with Himself, then, the Glue that forms, the Force that holds the entire universe together, lovingly, passionately, jealously fashions His people into His eternal purpose.
I had always been concerned with a method of doing church. My thought was on the end. His thought has always been on the manifestation of Christ. His thought is on the means to that end. I’ve realized that I can’t set a goal and just accomplish it. I’ve realized that I have to do all the little things it takes to make that goal a reality. A marathon runner does not start running the full 26 miles; he starts by running shorter distances to build the endurance needed to run the longer one. I moved for what I thought was the corporate end, the full 26 miles, while the Lord moved us to work in us, the shorter distances. When He accomplishes His work in us, we are more easily worked together to accomplish His corporate purpose.
Do you have questions? Are you on a journey? I don’t know that I have answers, per se, but I’ve traveled a long road. I’d be happy to connect.
*Names have been changed, natch.