September 28, 2007
“Wow!” I declared out loud as I stared in surprise at one of the lenses from my eyeglasses which had just fallen out of their frames. With one lens resting on my desktop and the other still residing in its proper abode on my face, my office took on a rather disjointed, cartoon-like appearance. It took several seconds for the reality of what had just happened to sink in. My cheap, drug-store, reading glasses had just broken. On closer examination, through squinting eyes, I discovered that the frame surrounding the one lens had completely snapped in two.
My initial reaction was frustration over the interruption this all caused to my morning quiet time in God’s Word. But then I remembered how passionately I had prayed a few minutes earlier for God to speak to me. Although I hadn’t really heard the Lord’s voice I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a message in the timing of the demise of my glasses. As I tried to temporarily repair them with a small piece of black electrical tape I thought about what the sudden breakage might mean. Was something wrong with my vision for the ministry to which I have felt led by God? After a few minutes of vain attempts to restore my eyepiece I gave up and announced to my wife that I needed to go to the store to purchase another pair of reading glasses.
“Babs, do you suppose God is telling me my vision is broken?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied with a slight laugh, “I think He’s telling you to trust in His vision for our ministry.”
I doubt if Babs would claim to be a prophet but those words she spoke carried with them the ring of divine truth. After a trip to the drug store to purchase a new pair of glasses, one with a slightly higher magnification rating (Don’t you just love getting older and experiencing certain body parts growing steadily weaker?), I began to meditate upon God’s message to me.
My thoughts carried me back over a dozen years ago to when I first caught the vision of church planting. We were ministering in a small church in Petaluma, California (North Bay area) which had a small building and a limited amount of space to expand. Rather than throwing all our resources toward increasing the size of the existing congregation I believed God was revealing to us that we could reach more people more rapidly by planting other churches in areas more conducive to growth. I was ecstatic when the little church adopted the vision and succeeded in giving birth to two new congregations in just a few years, both of which quickly grew larger than the size of their parent organization.
When the opportunity to pastor a church in the East Bay city of Dublin arose I jumped at the chance believing that this community, given its higher population density and easy access to two major freeways, comprised a much better mission field in which to continue the vision of kingdom expansion by new church planting. Unfortunately, the extremely high cost of real estate, a growing anti-institutional-church sentiment, and an elder board highly skeptical of my vision, all combined to bring the concept to a halt. In shame and brokenness I was forced to resign my pastorate. The vision lay in pieces, broken seemingly beyond repair.
A few months later, even though other churches had expressed a desire to hire me as their pastor, I believed I heard the Lord calling me to stay in the East Bay area and start a new church. Once again we cast a vision for being a church-planting congregation and enthusiastically began working toward our launch date. Unfortunately, our own denominational church planting organization refused to fund our effort which left us having to raise all our own support. Unable to find any adequate space to house our church we ended up holding services in another church facility on Sunday evenings. Predictably, our new church never really got off the ground.
One Sunday evening after fewer than a dozen people gathered for worship and our own tithing check comprised most of the offering, I found myself crying out to God in despair.
“What’s wrong, Lord?” I whined. “What has happened to the vision you gave us to be a church-planting church? Why did you lead us to start up a new church only to see it collapse? How am I supposed to provide for my family with so little income? How can we reproduce ourselves with so few people?”
It was at this point that I clearly heard the Lord answer His whining servant, not in an audible voice, but in words which were engraved upon my troubled mind and burned into my aching heart.
“Reproduce what you have!”
Those four words have changed the entire direction of our ministry. With so few people we didn’t need to worry about finding a building to meet our needs. We just moved our worship into our home. Rather than sitting in rows facing forward we began sitting in a circle facing each other in our living room. Rather than listening to me spout off what I was hearing the Lord teach me, we began listening to each other share what the Lord was speaking into all of our hearts. Rather than having me pray for the needs of the congregation, we began praying for each other, ministering to each other, and encouraging each other as we strove to follow Jesus together. And I began teaching music lessons to provide for my family.
For awhile we thought we had discovered a new phenomenon, a brand new way to do church. However, a study of the book of Acts revealed that this new way was really just a return to the way it all began. Before too long we began to discover others who were traveling this same path. Then we learned that the house church movement was occurring world-wide in a sovereign move of the Almighty as He was drawing vast numbers of His children out of the institutional church and placing them in the midst of the harvest.
It has taken us over four years to pry ourselves loose from most of the traditions with which we grew up in the church. Compounding our journey was the fact that my ministerial training took place during the height of the church growth movement where the major emphasis was upon growing larger and larger congregations. Now we understand that the best way to grow large is to become small. Smaller, simpler organisms reproduce far more effectively and rapidly than larger, more complex ones. It takes on average one to two million dollars, eighteen months of preparation time, and a team of seminary-trained, specially qualified individuals to launch a new institutional church plant. Simple churches can reproduce in a matter of days or weeks, meet almost anywhere, get started with a bare minimum of resources, and require no professional clergy to operate.
In the last four months I know of at least ten new churches that have been planted in the Bay Area among just our own network of church planters. Several more are in the womb waiting to come forth in the near future. As I type these words I am still pumped up over having attended the first gathering of a new church plant earlier this evening in the city of San Ramon a few miles north of our home. We gathered in the home of one of my piano students, a family I never would have met had I not been cast out into the harvest field and forced to make a living by teaching music lessons. People are being won to the Lord, lives are being transformed, and the kingdom of God is advancing in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region once thought unreachable. God is opening doors of access into new people groups whom we never would have been able to reach had we remained an institutional church and continued attempting to attract these people into our traditional worship services.
So was my original vision completely off the mark? Not entirely. It was just slightly impaired. I caught on to the principle of kingdom expansion through planting church-planting churches. I was just looking at the vision through the lens of the institutional church. Although I’m certain God will continue to use the institutional church to further His cause, as He has done so well throughout the history of the church, His vision for the ministry that He has placed before Babs and me lies outside the walls of the traditions with which we grew up. Indeed, the Lord’s vision for our ministry is far more powerful, with a much higher degree of magnification, than our wildest dreams.
Is there a message here for all of us? I hope so. There will likely be many times in our lives when it seems like our dreams have broken apart and lie shattered before us. This is especially hard to take when we are convinced those dreams have come from the Lord. It may not mean that our vision is totally bogus, but rather just impaired by looking through the wrong lens. We might do well during such times to ask ourselves if we have been observing our vision through the lenses of our own culture, traditions, and experiences. The truth is God may have to break those lenses in order for us to see clearly. As I know by experience, such occurrences can be extremely painful. But it may not mean that the vision itself is broken. The Lord may simply be removing what was preventing us from seeing Him clearly and inviting us to trust in His vision.
“In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” – Proverbs 16:9.
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” –Jeremiah 29:13. It would be good to ask ourselves what we are really seeking. Is it success, fame, prestige, wealth, peer approval? Or are we truly seeking the Lord?
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:5-6.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” – Hebrews 12:2.
I am reminded of the eighth century Irish poem which was translated by Mary E. Byrne, versified by Eleanor H. Hull, and made into a popular hymn.
“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart—Nought be all else to me save that Thou art: Thou my best thought, by day or by night—waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.”
As long as our eyes are fixed on Him our vision will never be impaired.
Bill, a child of God trusting in His vision