It had been a long time since I stood on a stage sharing with a roomful of people neatly lined up in rows. I felt strange accepting the invitation and even more awkward going through with it. But Bryce, the pastor of Cornerstone Chapel, had invited me to speak to his congregation about my growing relationship of trust in the Father.
I had only known Bryce at a distance through some ministerial meetings years back, so his call two months ago caught me off guard. He said he’d heard some rumors and wanted to get together and hear from me firsthand. I could only imagine what he’d heard or why he cared, but I thought it would be fun to find out. One lunch appointment had become several as I discovered he was struggling with the same frustrations about his life in Christ that I had years before.
Nothing could have shocked me more. He was a youth pastor when I had known him and since had become senior pastor. His congregation was growing rapidly as people came from two other large fellowships that were hemorrhaging after their popular pastors had left, one for a larger congregation and the other in a cloud of scandal. Bryce’s engaging and humorous speaking style, blended with musicians that rivaled professionals anywhere, made Cornerstone the hottest place for evangelicals to be seen. They already had three services in a large facility and were considering a building program. I would have thought that Bryce would have been tickled to death.
Not soat least about the tickled part. At our first meeting he told me he was dying spiritually and was concerned that most of his people were too. His relationship with God was being swallowed up by the demands of a growing congregation. “I’m coming to the conclusion that there is no correlation between the success of my ministry and the fruitfulness of my own relationship with him. In fact, I seem to preach my best sermons in the midst of my worst failures. I am beginning to think ministry is where I hide from him.”
He wanted to recapture the passion for God that had pointed him toward ministry originally, but didn’t know how to get there. When he expressed that hunger to others, they assured him that the wave of fruitfulness he was riding was proof of God’s blessing and he should ignore his doubts. That would work for a while, but his inner loneliness and struggle with ever-increasing temptation would eventually win the day and drive him toward anger and depression, most of which he’d take out unseen on his family at home.
Neither of us had any idea where this might lead, but we both knew he was taking a risk with the track he was on. However, he kept saying that he didn’t want to settle for anything less than a real relationship with God regardless of what it cost him. He had even asked me to share with his congregation at their weekend services.
Now it was over. Laurie and I had just said our goodbyes to Bryce and walked toward the parking lot squinting in the bright afternoon sun. A few people still scattered about thanked me for coming. Then I saw him. It was John walking out of the parking lot with what looked like a mischievous smile on his face. We embraced and Laurie seemed more thrilled than I to see him. I’ll have to admit I felt a bit embarrassed to be standing there.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him. “Oh, let me guess, “ I added mockingly. “You just fell out of the sky into this parking lot and saw me here.”
“No. It’s not nearly as fancy as all that. I spent the night with Diane and Jeremy. As I glanced through their newspaper I saw you were speaking here and wanted to see you. They let me off a few moments ago. They are doing really well, aren’t they?”
“That’s an understatement. I’ve never seen two people grow so quickly. We’re having a great time walking this out with them.”
“They told me that they had even been in touch with Jim and his wife again. I love when God brings real reconciliation even through betrayal and tragedy.”
“It’s a great story, “Laurie interjected, “But I wonder why they didn’t tell us you were coming to town.”
“They had no idea,” he smiled and I knew what that meant.
I asked him if we could take him to lunch, but he said he didn’t have the time. Someone from Los Angeles was going to meet him here in a few moments. “Let’s talk here as long as we can," John said motioning to a picnic table under the trees at the edge of the parking lot. As we walked over I heard the squawk of a goose above me and looked up to see a dozen of them in V formation headed south. It was a breathtaking fall day. Then I heard another flock behind me.
“So what are you doing here?” John asked.
“You caught me,” I threw up my hands in mock surrender, “consorting with the enemy.”
“You don’t really think that, ” John laughed. “At least I hope not.”
“No, I don’t. But as I prepared for this, I wondered what you would think about my being here. Some people talk about these institutions like Egyptian bondage of the Israelites. I didn’t know if you fell into that camp.”
“Not exactly,” John answered with a smile. “So how did this come about?”
I caught John up on my relationship with Bryce and his invitation to come and speak.
“So how did it go?” John asked.
“You’d have to ask some of them.”
“It was wonderful,” Laurie added. “He had them laughing one moment and crying the next as he talked about living in Father’s love.”
“But it was very awkward for me, John. I used to love those settings, but it seemed so ineffective today.”
“I’ve done it for years, John, but I’m not sure how valuable it is in helping people learn to live free. I’ve no doubt you can plant some seeds that way and there is the rare moment when a light really comes on for someone, but most people get tone deaf to it after a while. Even when they hear something that hits them hard, they forget about it when they get back to their lives. On the other hand, our conversations have been life changing. And I know it wasn’t just the words you spoke, but when you spoke them. It was in the moment of struggle trying to answer my questions or posing your own, that made them so powerful. I just don’t know how to replicate that in a sermon.”
“You can’t, of course, but that doesn’t mean what you did today was worthless. All things have their place, but as you say, this isn’t first place. Over the long haul systems like this neither help people learn to live deeply in the life of Jesus or experience the depths of Christian community, but they often introduce people to the fact that God exists."
“I know I got some truth and my hunger for God in a congregation like this,” Laurie added.
“But did it also satisfy that hunger, Laurie?”
“At times, I thought it did. Looking back, however, I think it only frustrated me. It made me hungry to know God in a way that it could not fulfill. But it also made me feel that that was my fault. I felt like I didn’t understand enough or wasn’t doing enough.”
“That’s what happens when an institution tries to do what it cannot do. By providing services to keep people coming, it unwittingly becomes a distraction to real spiritual life. It offers an illusion of spirituality in highly orchestrated experiences, but it cannot show people how to live each day in him through the real struggles of life.
“That’s one of the strangest things about Christianity locking itself into an institutional box. Who would choose to be raised in an orphanage? Our hearts hunger for family. That’s where children learn who they are and how they fit into the world. This is like an orphanage revolving around the convenience of the whole. You survive best in it by following its rules, but that’s not how Jesus connects you with his Father. For that you need a family and brothers and sisters who can respond to you in the moment, not wait for a meeting or schedule a seminar.”
“That’s how you’ve helped me so much. You always seemed to be there when I really needed you, even if you weren’t always when I wanted you. You helped me see how to follow what God put on my heart. That has helped me learn how to walk with him. I wouldn’t trade my life in him now for anything.”
“Me either.” Laurie added. “But then what good are these institutions?”
“Maybe it keeps all of those caught up in religion so busy they don’t have the energy to infect the rest of the world with it,” I offered with a smirk.
“That wouldn’t be a bad use of it.” John smiled with me, and then quickly turned serious. “But I’m afraid it’s a bit more mixed than that. As you say, good teaching can help plant seeds and it can make connections between fellow travelers that God can use for years to come. But that isn’t without a price. Over time institutions can even become abusive when the demand for conformity takes over. I always encourage people to run when that happens. But that doesn’t discount the fact that some can be relatively healthy. Family dynamics of love and compassion will weave themselves amongst the institutional elements and some community will actually happen. Remember your early days at City Centre?”
“I do!” Laurie brightened. “So it wasn’t all bad?”
“No, not at all. In fact in the first days of a new group forming the focus is usually on God, not the needs of the institution. But that usually fades over time as financial pressures and the desire for routine and order subvert the simplicity of following Jesus. Relationships grow stale in routine and when the machinery siphons off so much energy just to keep it running, it will grow increasingly irrelevant.”
“Do you think that’s how God looks at it?” I had noticed John glancing over my shoulder, in the last few seconds, but didn’t realize someone else had joined us. I turned to see Bryce standing behind me.
“How long have you been here?”
“I just walked up. I was on my way to the car when I saw you sitting here and wondered if this was the infamous John?”
I told him it was and introduced them. “May I join you? This is right where I’m struggling.”
“Of course,” John said sliding over and making room for Bryce to sit down next to him.
“Jake and I have had some great times over the last couple of months. I love what God is doing in him.”
“I only knew Jake from a distance years ago, but I found him condescending to people that didn’t think like he did. Then I heard some rumors about his leaving City Centre and not attending anywhere and I thought he’d become another bitter casualty of the ministry. Then a few months ago his name began to come up in conversations and I liked what I heard. That’s when I called him and when we met I was surprised. This was not the Jake I had known. So much had changed in him and the things he talked about stirred my deepest hungers.
“But the more I live this journey of life in Christ the less motivated I am to keep up with all this,” he said motioning at the towering facility gleaming in the sun. “I’m not at all comfortable with the growth going on here. The more people we draw, the emptier we seem to become. This is a great place to hideto come regularly, even feel blessed. I keep telling myself we’re doing some wonderful things here, which keeps me going. But in my honest moments, I question all that. I would certainly walk away if God thinks it as irrelevant as you said a minute ago.”
“Please understand that I didn’t mean you are irrelevant to God or that these people are. They’re not. By irrelevant I meant that God looks past the institution and deals with people. He wants them to know him and experience real community with each other. He’ll keep inviting them into that over their whole lives.”
“So you don’t have a problem with my speaking here, John?” I asked a bit relieved.
“Of course not, Jake. I have no problem going wherever God goes and he certainly will be here drawing people to himself.”
Bryce continued, “But for all the work that goes on here and all the money we spend the resulting spiritual fruit is pretty meager. New people aren’t coming to know God. These are transfers from other congregations that are having trouble. I don’t know anyone here who is on the journey Jake is, and only a few who share my hunger, and we’re so busy we don’t do much about it.” Bryce’s voice cracked as the struggle I’d seen so often in him surfaced.
John reached out to cover Bryce’s hand with his own. “It can’t be other than it is. Once people are in love with the program and grow dependent on it as the spiritual component of their life, they won’t see its limitations. It cannot substitute for their own life in him and it can only produce an illusion of community because it is based on people doing what it takes to sustain the institution.”
“But couldn’t it be better? I’m torn between the responsibility to reform it and the desire to leave it. Neither sound like good options. I doubt it can be reformed, or at least that I can do it. I already have some people questioning my leadership when I talk about my struggles. And I have no idea how I’d make a living if I walked away.”
John just let his words hang in the air for a moment, as did I. I knew this was the seminal question that Bryce struggled with. I had no answer for him and I was dying to know what John might say. As we waited I noticed another flock of geese over John’s shoulder calling out as they joined the other flocks moving south.
“What should I do? Is it evil and should I run from it? Can it be better if guys like Jake stayed around as counterbalancing voices to those who want to serve the machine?” He looked at me with a smile. We’d had this discussion before. He’d even asked once if I would consider coming on his staff.
“People have been trying to reform it for two thousand years, and the result is almost always the samea new system emerges to replace the old, but it eventually becomes a substitute of its own. Have you noticed that those who share your hunger don’t share your passion to reform the machinery?”
“I have noticed that. The people whose spiritual maturity I respect most seem to gravitate away from helping us run this thing. I’ve been very disappointed in them. It means we have people in leadership positions who don’t know God very well, but who have strong opinions about the way things should be done.”
“That should tell you something.”
“It told me that maybe they weren’t so spiritual after all, if they were unwilling to help me.”
“OK, that’s one possibility, or maybe they wanted to invest their time serving people instead of attending an endless supply of committee meetings.”
“I was afraid of that one.” Bryce said letting a frustrated smile peak out. “But that leaves the machinery, as you call it, to people who don’t know God’s character. They are impossible to work with.”
“That’s a problem isn’t it? Structures are about power, and getting your own way. Those who are growing to know him don’t need them.”
“And there are moments I’m not sure whether I want to use my talents to keep it going if it is not effective for the kingdom, especially if it robs my family of a dad because I’m gone all the time.”
“Is that how it feels?”
“Not to me, but my wife says it all the time. She may be right. I’ll admit to being so drawn into all the activity here at a human level, that I don’t notice stuff like that.”
“You’d do well to listen to her, but more importantly listen to Jesus. Bryce, it seems to me you’re trying to make a decision about your future based on principle instead of simple obedience. What do you think Jesus wants you to do?”
“I was hoping you’d give me some criteria that would make it easier to know.”
“And rob you of the chance to hear him breathe his will into your own heart?" John answered with a gracious smile. “Never. This is between you and him. Sorting it out with him will help your relationship grow. Don’t look for a right or wrong answer to what you’re asking. Then you have to condemn others who don’t do what you do. He may want you to stay longer, to love these people and let your hunger encourage them.”
“Or frustrate them,” Bryce corrected.
“It does do both,” John smiled. “Or, he may want you to walk away and watch him take care of you in ways you will never learn here. I have no idea which it is.”
“That’s where I’m stuck. I just don’t know. On any given day I vacillate wildly depending on the circumstance I’m in.”
“That’s why it would help to get your eyes off of the circumstances and look to him. He can take you through anything and perfect his purpose in you as he does it.”
“I just don’t know.” Bryce said shaking his head. “Maybe I’m just afraid of losing my income.”
“Are you?” John asked.
“I wouldn’t be honest if I said I don’t think about it. I trained for this; I don’t know if I’m qualified for much else.”
“You’d be surprised what Father might ask you to do and how he might resource you. But all you can do is take that fear to him and ask him to show you the way.”
“I have. A thousand times,” Bryce said shaking his head.
“Then it isn’t time,” I found myself saying to my own surprise and in the corner of my eye I saw John smile and subtly nod.
“What does that mean, Jake?”
“Part of the journey involves doing what he makes clear to you. If you’ve submitted it to him, then let him sort it out. If he were asking you to leave today, I think you’d know that, even in the face of your fears. If he hasn’t made it clear to you then wait. Just keep loving him and following him every day. I’m learning the joy of resting in him, doing what I know to do and not doing what I don’t know to do. It’s been one of the hardest lessons to learn, but also the most freeing.”
“But I want a right or wrong answer.” Bryce’s frustration was bleeding through.
“Don’t we all?” I said appreciating his frustration. “Until he becomes answer enough. This is his decision not yours and it will be clear when it is clear.”
“Just ask him who he wants you to be walking with right now?” John offered. "Don’t try to sort out what you want or what you think is best. Follow the growing conviction he’ll settle into your heart over time.”
“This may not even be your decision. Someone else may get to decide it for you.” I added.
“He often works that way, too.” John agreed.
“Well, I didn’t choose to leave City Centre, Bryce. I got fired, remember?”
“That does sound like fun.” Bryce’s voice dripped with irony.
“Jake’s right.” John spoke up. “Sometimes we don’t know what God wants because there are stories yet to play out and people’s lives still to be impacted by ours.”
“So it really is a day-to-day walk of letting Jesus sort out his way in us.” Bryce said.
“Yes it is, Bryce, and when you learn to live that way you’ll never want to go back. Jesus is really good at showing you how to do it, especially when your desire to please him is not competing with doing what you think is best or easiest.”
“Like putting my financial security above my spiritual passion.” Bryce mumbled more to himself than the rest of it.
“That’s probably the hardest one. They don’t call it the Puritan work ethic for nothing.” John smiled.
“I have so much invested here, John. I don’t know if I could walk away if I knew that’s what he was asking.”
“You’re right, you don’t know. You’ll be surprised what you’ll do when the way is clear. Some day you might just have more valuable things to do than what you’re doing here.”
“So what am I supposed to do about all of this in the meantime?”
“Keep following your hunger. Be honest about it with yourself. Do each day what he puts in your heart to do.”
“What if that creates some real conflict?”
“I don’t know. I’m already starting to hear some rumblings because I’m not hyping the offering enough or pushing people into helping with children’s church. When I encourage people to rely on God, my associate thinks I’m just trying to neglect my job.”
“Believe me, I know,” John answered with a measure of sorrow in his voice. “But you need to follow him, even when it creates conflict. Always be gentle and gracious to everyone, but never compromise what is in your heart just to get along. I have no idea how this will all play out for you, but it always does in ways we can’t imagine.”
“But I could get killed this way.”
“Yes, you could. But if you’re going to follow him, what choice do you have? Follow the hunger, Bryce. It will continue to shape you and give you courage for whatever lies ahead.”
“If I end up leaving, should I tell others to leave too?”
“Why would you do that?”
“To save them from all of this and point them to something more real.”
“Pointing them to Jesus is always helpful. Telling people to leave rarely is. What if Jake had told you to do that five years ago?”
“I would have thought him a divisive rebel and wouldn’t have had anything to do with him.”
“How would that have helped you? It would have only made you more resistant to what God has done in you in the five years since.” Bryce was deep in thought now. "You see, Bryce, truth has its time. If you tell someone the truth before they’re ready to hear it, you can push them further away no matter how well intentioned you might be.”
“How do I know they aren’t ready?”
“Do you really think hundreds of people will be ready, on the same day, some Sunday morning?” John was smiling and Bryce soon joined him.
“I get that, but what about individuals?”
“You have to let Jesus show you. He can help you sense when people are ready and when you need to hold back. Make sure you really have their best interests in mind, and not using them to validate your own choice by pushing them to agree. That never works. Also listen to the questions people are asking and it will help you know if they’re hungry for more. Even with Jake I’ve put nuggets out there and watched to see what he did with them. If he listened, struggled and asked more, I took him further. If he didn’t, I let it go! I was trying to serve him; I didn’t need to validate myself.”
I was surprised at his answer, and I couldn’t help but wonder what I had missed because I hadn’t caught where he was going. It made me wonder if this is why Jesus spoke in parables and metaphors. To help hungry people see without unnecessarily hardening those who were not ready. I’d have to explore that more.
“I guess the bottom line is that if I want to find an expression of church life that fulfills what the Scriptures talk about. I either have to change this organization or leave it.”
“Or stop looking for it.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“No institutional arrangement will ever contain all that the church is. Don’t look for it institutionally; look for it relationally. Certainly the New Testament talks about the priorities of that churchJesus as its sole head and focus, daily encouragement among believers, plural and lateral leadership, open participation, and an environment of freedom so people can grow in him.”
“Like what I have with Jake?”
“And there will be others God will give you as you simply follow him,” John added. “Some for a time will help you on your journey, others you will help on theirs but mostly you will find yourself mutually sharing his life together. ”
“But if we structured around that passion…,“ Bryce’s voice faded away as he tried to figure out how to finish that question. Finally his head cocked to one side, “Are structure and passion polar opposites?”
“No, they’re not. Not all structure is wrong. Simple structures that facilitate sharing his life together can be incredibly positive. The problem comes when structures take on a life of their own and provide a substitute for our dependence upon Jesus.”
“So I don’t need to look for the perfect church, or try to put one together?”
“How you mean that, I’d say, no. But Jesus is putting together a church without spot or wrinkle. It includes everyone in this community and around the world who lives in a growing relationship with him. It’s okay for you to look at how that church expresses itself every day in the people and events around you. Just don’t try to corral it into something you control. It just won’t work. Jesus saw the church as a reality, not an assignment for his followers to construct. She is growing, all around you. You just can’t see it now because your focal point is far short of her beauty and immensity.”
“How can I change that?”
“There’s only one waystay focused on him. Where Jesus is given first place the church simply emerges in wonderful ways. He will place you in the body exactly as he desires. And as those relationships grow, you may find yourself surrounded by a group of people who want to walk in more intentional community together. That’s an amazing thing when it happens, but still you have to keep your focus on him. Even groups that start out centered on him are easily and quickly tempted to organize themselves to death very quickly. When Jesus ceases to be the object of our pursuit, our touch with his body will fade into emptiness.”
“I don’t know what to say.” The struggle was evident on Bryce’s face. “This goes against everything I’ve been taught. I’ve been trained to do this, to stay in control. I feel so powerless to live the way you’re talking.”
“That’s how the system controls us,” John shook his head, empathizing with Bryce’s struggle. “It’s a system we think we can work through our own initiative and effort, but that is also why it cannot produce the life you hunger for. That’s only found in him.”
“And only when I give up control.”
“Or the illusion of it, Bryce,” I said. "The hardest-won lesson of this journey is that I was never in control. I only thought I was.”
John sat quietly so I continued. “Real community is not something we fabricate by any means. It is a gift God gives.”
“But doesn’t that directly conflict with most of what I do here?”
“Does it?” John asked.
“I’m wondering that. Oh, we’re generous about it. We don’t overtly manipulate people, but nothing we do directly encourages people to live this kind of life. We talk about it, we want people to do it, but our efforts are geared to the growth and success of this institution. We’re not teaching them to depend on him in any practical way, but to find their security in being part of what we do.”
“Maybe it’s time to live it differently.” John suggested.
Bryce sat quietly for a moment. “I know the best we can produce falls far short of the life I watch Jake living. We call singing together ‘worship’ and regular attendance ‘fellowship’ and we’ve convinced ourselves we’re actually doing those things just by coming, whether they’re real in our hearts or not. We’ve taught people to be committed to our services and programs and let them think that doing so validates them.”
“Whether or not they are really coming to know him.” I said.
“That’s it! I’ve had a greater depth of fellowship with you, Jake, in the last two months than with anyone I have known here for years. With you I can be honest about my hungers and not be judged. Here, people seem to be looking for ulterior motives.”
“The freedom to be honest and the freedom to struggle are key to a real friendship,” John said.
“Here we’ve tried to do it as an obligation for believers. We tell people to be committed to our gatherings and to one of our small groups.”
Wow, I remember thinking that way in what seemed a lifetime ago. “How could obligation ever produce real relationship, Bryce? Obligations are only necessary when the experience is ineffective or lifeless. When people are living in the life of Jesus, they will treasure every opportunity to connect with other brothers and sisters who are also on this journey. It will not be something they have to do, but something they wouldn’t ever want to live without.”
“It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? If we’re seeking to live in him, these other things sort out. If we’re not, no matter what else we do it will always fall short of our hungers.”
“Absolutely. He is the impetus that brings us together and without that no commitment will suffice.” As I was talking it was becoming far clearer to me than I had thought it through before. “I’m becoming convinced that the church Jesus is building transcends every human approach we’ve tried to use to replicate it or contain it.”
“You mean there isn’t some way that we can gather as God’s people that fulfills the hope of the New Testament church?”
“Oh, there’s a gathering that does that,” John said with a certainty that took me by surprise. “Really? I’d like to hear about it,” I said.
Just then another flock of squawking geese flew over the trees and drew all our eyes skyward and held our gaze as the ever-shifting V headed southward.
“They get it!” John said with a smile as we all looked back down.
“There’s a gathering going on. They are all headed south to warmer weather. It’s not so important what group they’re with at the moment, but that they’re headed in the right direction.
“So we should all fly south?” Bryce asked, clueless what John was talking about.
“You think of gatherings as meetings to go to, and trying to craft the perfect format that will guarantee results that no meeting can guarantee. But you don’t see yet that Jesus is always gathering his flock to himself. People from all over the world are finding their hunger for him eclipsing their hunger for anything else and that every substitute they try only adds to their restlessness. As they keep their eye on him, not only do they grow closer to him with each passing day, but they will find themselves alongside others who are headed that way too. Geese fly together like that not because they are obligated to do so, but because it lightens their load and lifts them closer to their goal.”
John turned his head skyward again and we joined him, now seeing at least four different flocks all heading south. “And all of those flocks will end up in the same place, together. That’s all Jesus ever wantedone flock drawn to him alone, and each helping lighten the load of others they find going the same direction as they are.
“That’s the gathering. It’s not when you meet, where you meet, or how you meet in meetings, but that you are gathering your heart to him. If that’s happening, you usually won’t find yourself going it alone very long. You’ll find others heading the same direction and by traveling together you’ll be able to help each other along the way. That’s why you only hurt yourself when you look for people who want to meet a certain way or think like you do about everything. Every person who crosses your path, be they believer or unbeliever, in an institution like this or outside of it, is a potential partner in this journey. By loving all of them to the degree that they allow, you’ll participate in his great gathering.
“But the goal remains the same. It’s him! It’s always himnot a style of meeting or a pre-planned program, not a safe salary, or a predictable future.”
None of us said anything, though something clicked deep inside me. I knew what he was saying was far more important than I could grasp at the moment. The silence hung for a moment as we watched the birds fade into the horizon.
“I still don’t know what to do,” Bryce said, cracking a smile of feigned frustration.
“Yes you do,” John said smiling back.
“I know,” Bryce smiled, “follow him, every day! As scary as that sounds, there’s a real freedom in it, isn’t there?”
“That there is. And you’ll do that best when you can relax in his working. He’s not trying to make it difficult; he wants you to experience the very kingdom itself. This is his joy he draws you to, not some tiresome duty or empty promise.”
With that, John’s ride to Los Angeles pulled up in the parking lot. As he left, Bryce turned to me,
“I see why you like him so much, Jake.”
“I’ve not met anyone else like him.”
“Neither have I, Jake, neither have I.”