I sat transfixed as addicts, ex-cons, and formerly homeless people shared their testimonies of how Jesus had changed their lives. It was the five year anniversary of the church I’d planted in urban Long Beach. Most of the people in the room didn’t know who I was anymore. God was continuing to move forward as many of us had moved out to plant churches, or in my case, train church planters.
The environment was supercharged with a mixture of down-to-earth gritty grace-bathed realism as people who “didn’t know the rules” shared about Jesus in street language. My favorite quote stands out “They asked me once if I knew anything about computers…all I knew was how to run down the street with them.” That was Tommy, a 38-year veteran of the prison system, formerly on the FBI’s Most Wanted list now tamed into a pussycat. He wouldn’t be the first killer turned kitten in our midst. Each testimony piled a crown at the feet of Jesus, their victories tracing His victory earned for them at the cross. While middle-class churches debate the atonement, embracing the latest fads and theories, these refugees from the front-lines cling to the cross like a life raft that keeps them from sinking back into addiction, prostitution, prison, or death.
Each testimony was like setting off a Holy Spirit bomb rippling outwards to the glory of Christ.
I couldn’t sit during the service. I rarely can at Refuge. I have to get up and stand, pace, or move chairs. It’s not a Pentecostal or charismatic thing either. Not being from that tradition, I’m afraid that it’s something else. It’s excitement. It’s the sense of being on the edge of my seat. Lloyd-Jones once said that the number one thing people ought to sense when they come into church is expectancy. The sense that “you never know what’s going to happen. You are ready for surprises”.
As a church planting trainer, I come across a lot of theory about “how to do church”. I listen to people’s seminars about “reaching excellence” in running a church service. The New Testament knows nothing of this. The New Testament talks about the Spirit being present among the people of God. But the one thing needful is often the thing that’s missing.
Paul spoke about it in regards to the Corinthians. He said that when somebody prophesied, the unbeliever would experience God’s presence amidst trepidation, proclaiming “God is among you”. The catalyst for that doesn’t have to be prophecy. It can be so many different things; preaching, worship, and nearly anything else that we do…but why is that not often our experience?
You know when it’s there. Unmistakably.
Once you’ve experienced it, you’re hooked.
When it’s not, and you’ve had it, you go through withdrawls.
Services reduced to being a finely run show, or a well-crafted performance are cheap substitutes for the real deal. You can’t manufacture the presence of God, but you can substitute it with something else. One of the problems with the seeker sensitive movement was that we allowed a consumer driven mentality to control what we did on a Sunday Morning. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Or as Steve Jobs put it, “A lot of the time people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
What happened on Sunday wasn’t unusual for us at Refuge Long Beach, it was just amplified. All over the world, on Sunday mornings, there are churches focused on putting on a show, tirelessly running an enterprise, and all the while they’re people sit bored, frustrated, and dormant. They yearn for mission. They long to experience what they’re reading in the Bible on their laps. They’re longing to experience His presence.
Church planters, I don’t know what you’re aiming for when you gather, but if it ain’t that, you might need to rethink what you’ve been called to do. Don’t imitate what everybody else is doing. Do the one thing needful by sitting at His feet. Your people will notice the difference.