“TABLE NUMBER TWO”
September 21, 2007
“You’re doing drugs, aren’t you?” asked Flo with a tone of compassion rather than accusation. “Don’t try to deny it because I’ve been around and I know the signs.”
The young waitress just stared back at her through dilated, bloodshot eyes waiting for the expected pronouncement of her termination.
“Don’t worry,” Flo continued, “I’m not going to fire you or turn you in to the police. I’m just concerned about you and I know that whatever your problems are this is not the answer. Jesus is the answer! We need to change your work schedule so you can be here on Tuesday nights. Then you can go to church with me.”
Feeling somewhat relieved, the drug-addicted waitress responded by asking,
“Where is your church located?”
As her face erupted into a huge smile Flo pointed over to a booth in the corner of the restaurant and proudly proclaimed, “Table number two!”
This is just one of the amazing scenes which are being played out week after week in this unusual setting for a church, a local coffee shop. Flo is the exceptional night manager who has become deeply involved in the lives of those who work under her, mothering those who seem to have lost their way. In addition, she is also evolving into an effective pastor for our unique gathering which meets in her restaurant every Tuesday evening.
When we first met Flo during a gathering of our men’s accountability group a few weeks ago, we had no intention of planting a church at the sight. We had been meeting in the same place for over seven years and had never once thought of planting a church there. We were just a small group of guys gathering together to pray for one another and encourage each other in our walk with Jesus. But the Lord of the harvest, the Head of the church, had another agenda in mind.
In response to our asking if she had a need for which we could pray, Flo began to open up her life to us, and the Lord began to transform our men’s accountability group into the most unique, non-traditional, unconventional church I have ever been a part of. Since we meet during business hours the staff is unable to gather together all at the same time. So individually or in groups of two or three they sit down at “table number two” and share their lives with us and pray with us while others cover their stations for them. Flo is the director of this weekly, Tuesday night drama informing the others when it is their turn to have church and joining us throughout the evening as she is able.
We have attempted to stay after they close down the coffee shop at 10:00 pm in order to gather the entire crew for a few minutes of combined prayer but so far circumstances have prevented it. We are not really concerned about how this is all playing out since it is definitely being orchestrated by the Lord and He certainly knows how to lead His church. We are just in awe over how this has all transpired and are continually amazed at how God is transforming lives before our eyes. We will soon be planting another church in the home of the cook and hopefully reaching out to many other families he is connected with who are in desperate need of help. Like Flo mentioned to the hurting waitress, Jesus is the answer for all these people. What a different story it would be if we had been content to follow our own agenda and remain focused on being a men’s accountability group. But this is not the only amazing story of church planting coming from the harvest in this area.
In a few days we will hold our first gathering of a new house church being planted in San Ramon, the next city to the north of our hometown, Dublin, California. The family is Singaporean and is connected to us through their daughter who is taking piano lessons from me. In response to their questions I have spent some time sharing with them about simple church and they are excited about getting one started. Since I travel to their home for their daughter’s lessons it seemed only natural to begin the church in their home rather than insist they come to the gathering which meets in our own home on Sunday evenings. They already have a list of families they are inviting to our first gathering and we are all excited about what the Lord has in store for us. But don’t go away; we have another story from the harvest.
Danny and Edie Mileto, a couple who had been attending our Sunday evening gathering until we sent them out to plant a church in their own home, have also seen the Lord leading in amazing ways. Danny has been doing simple church in his workplace, a large high-tech company here in Dublin. Almost every weekday their lunchroom is transformed into a worship center as different groups of employees gather for prayer and Bible study. A young girl named Candice was led to the Lord in Danny’s office and was then asked if she would want to gather some of her friends and family to do church in her home. Less than one month ago a new church was planted in Candice’s home in Hayward. At their first meeting two people came to the Lord and they are planning for a baptismal service where at least four new converts will be buried with Christ. Are you catching the fever yet? But hold on, I’ve got yet another story from the harvest. This one will have you shaking your head for some time.
Ross Rohde, a personal friend and an apostolic partner of mine, shared a room with me at a recent simple church conference in a hotel in downtown Dallas. He had been asked to address the assembly and share some of the stories from the church planting movement he was involved in as a missionary in Spain. Ross, however, preferred to tell about what the Lord has been doing recently in the Bay Area. Due to a mix-up he was inadvertently left off the program until the final session on Monday morning. As a part of the conference the hotel provided a catered buffet breakfast for us each morning. On this last morning Ross took up a conversation with one of the waiters who happened to be from El Salvador, speaking to him in Spanish while filling up his plate with scrambled eggs and pastries. During their conversation Ross led the man to the Lord and then asked if he would like to gather a few of his friends together in his home and begin a church. The man responded affirmatively and enthusiastically. Ross then explained that he lived in California and wouldn’t be able to help him get a church started, but he knew who could. He then introduced the new believer to a house church leader from Dallas who also spoke Spanish and, just like that, in a matter of fifteen minutes, a new church was planted.
A few minutes later when Ross was speaking to the conference audience he was able to share not just what the Lord had been doing in the last few weeks in the Bay Area, but what the Lord had just accomplished less than an hour earlier right there in that very room! It was another example of how God’s timing is perfect as the Lord of the harvest added an exclamation point to Ross’s message.
So why are all of these breakthroughs happening all of a sudden? Beyond the fact that God just sovereignly seems to be moving, I have at least two ideas. First of all we have been faithfully and regularly petitioning the Lord of the harvest for workers.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Luke 10:2.
It is fascinating to me that Christ had previously sent out the twelve in Luke, chapter nine. Now, one chapter later, He appointed seventy-two and sent them out into the harvest as well. Any church growth expert would hail that as a significant increase. Yet the first thing Jesus tells these new recruits to do is to pray for more workers. Apparently the harvest was far larger than any of his disciples realized at the time. I believe that is still the case. Even though we have seen a striking decline in church attendance and a scarcity of new converts in this country there is nothing wrong with the harvest. It is plentiful and it is ripe. The problem lies in the lack of harvesters.
Ever since we have been praying the harvesters’ prayer, workers are springing up everywhere, in coffee shops, in office buildings, in homes, and in convention centers. Many of those we had been working on for quite some time believing they would be perfect for the harvest have fallen by the wayside, while the Lord is bringing us His personal recruits, people we have never met before, individuals who have not been steeped in the traditions of the institutional church, ones who are willing to learn and are eager to be used by God. We have concluded that the Lord of the harvest is far better than us when it comes to judging those who are best suited for this ministry.
The other factor which I believe has contributed to the sudden increase in new church plants lies in the direction of our focus. For years our goal was to grow our home gathering to the point where it would be obvious we needed to split off and start another group. We would then commission a few of our members and send them out to plant the next church in another home. Unfortunately, in over four years of doing simple church we were only able to send out one family, and that happened just earlier this year. It’s not that this concept is terribly wrong, it’s just terribly slow. Meanwhile, the harvest is ripe and waiting.
These days we are not asking people to join the group which meets in our home. When we discover someone interested in doing simple church, or when we lead someone to the Lord, our first instinct is to plant a new church in their home. We ask them to gather together their family and friends, especially those who are not yet Christians or who don’t attend church anywhere else, and we proceed to help them plant a church in the surroundings they know best, where Jesus can make the biggest difference, in their homes and workplaces. The results have been incredible. But why should we be surprised? This is exactly how Jesus taught us to do it.
“Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves…When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house…” – Luke 10:3-7.
We are now always on the lookout for “a man of peace.” It will be someone who is genuinely interested in our message, who invites us into their world, and who is connected to a group of people and able to bring them together. It could be someone who lives in the neighborhood, a co-worker, or even the night manager at a local coffee shop. But when we find them we know they will be the key to opening the door to another simple church plant. The Lord has taught us that if you want to reap a harvest, you need to be out in the harvest field.
For centuries the church has operated within the template that says, “If you build it they will come.” Create a better program, preach a better sermon, build a better facility, put together a better praise team, take up a better offering, offer a better children’s ministry. It has all been done in order to attract the masses to us. In years past this might have worked fairly well. But in these days there are far too many other attractions out there with which we are in competition. Perhaps it is time we return to the way the church originally began to spread, to the first three centuries of its existence when it multiplied faster than it ever has since, to a movement that is outward focused rather than inward, sending out rather than gathering in, missional rather than attractional.
I find it interesting that the Lord never commanded us to plant churches. His command is to “make disciples,” but that mission carries with it an outward thrust.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” – Matthew 28:19.
Jesus said, “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” – Matthew 16:18.
We are learning that when you follow the Lord into the harvest seeking the “man of peace,” and when you find that individual and begin to disciple him, Jesus is amazingly adept at building His church around him. The Lord will do so in spite of our bumbling mistakes, without our careful strategizing, in ways we would never have imagined, gathering people we never could have reached on our own, and in a manner which directs all the glory to Him.
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain…” – Mark 4:26-28.
I wish I could say these new churches have come about due to our cleverness, but I’m afraid we had very little to do with it. I’d write a book about it but the definitive volume has already been authored by the Holy Spirit some two thousand years ago. One truth we have discovered is that the Lord of the harvest does not exclusively reside within the stained glass cathedrals and cushioned seat sanctuaries of our community houses of worship. Nor does He solely inhabit the couches and dinner tables of our home churches. After all we are talking about the One who turned an ancient well into a classroom, transformed a nondescript hill into a sanctuary, and commandeered a smelly fishing boat to use as a pulpit.
If you have ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart that is open to His leading, you might just find the Lord having lunch with some of your co-workers, or standing in the buffet line at a convention center, or hanging out with the staff at a local coffee shop, perhaps even sitting at table number two.
Bill, a child of God sent out into His harvest field