When we teach folks to be the church, God’s Kingdom can’t help but ripple out into all sorts of improbable places through improbable people – impacting whole communities, towns and cities. Here’s just one related, amazing story, among many …
A couple of weeks ago some brothers who’d recently been released from jail told me they started meeting together on Saturday evenings at “Mark’s” house. They said Mark was hoping I could show up some weekend to visit them.
I wasn’t sure who Mark was (I encounter lots of men in the jail, and although I’m very good with faces, I’m horrible with names), but we finally made contact by phone. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew who he was.
Mark has a remarkable testimony, much of which I can’t share (he owns his story, not me).
What I can say, however, is that he came to the Lord in the local jail a couple of years ago, and I had the privilege of spending one-on-one time with him as he got set free from some deep, deep issues. Mark then became a leader in a faith-based dorm at that jail, where I often minister and help lay the foundation for indigenous fellowships to emerge in that facility.
Two years ago, though, Mark was transferred to a prison near Richmond, Virginia, and we lost touch.
When Mark was at the local jail, however, he was one of the most eager, transparent and “real” men I ever met. He soaked up everything I had to give him from the Lord, and then some.
Come to find out, one of the things he soaked up was my admonishment to stop expecting others to “do” church for you, and to be the church by creating fellowship within your own community – wherever God places you.
Now, hold that thought as we jump forward to last weekend.
Mark was released from prison last October, and immediately started making contact with men he knew from the “inside” who were also now out.
As a result, those other brothers started meeting at his house in Manassas, and I got an invite to join them last weekend.
With Mark’s permission, I brought three other brothers who they knew from the jail and who are part of a fellowship that meets at my house on Sunday. There is a special bond between men who forge friendships in jail, and I knew they would all enjoy seeing each other again.
When we showed up, Mark gave us all huge bear hugs, and we went into his dining room where the other men were gathered. What an amazing reunion!
To my delight, all of them were brothers I (among others) had ministered to in the jail over the last several years, but who only recently had been released from that jail and other facilities.
We all started talking and laughing and catching up with each other. All together, there were around nine folk gathered together, expressing the authentic life of Christ in them, through then and among them.
And the stories they told blew me away.
To a man, every single one of them had taken the things we taught and reproduced among them in the local jail – about being the church and creating fellowship – and did the same when they were transferred to other units and facilities. And the most amazing thing was that they didn’t think anything of it.
Get what I just said. Each and every one of them created fellowships wherever they went, but only casually mentioned it in passing as they told about their experiences while incarcerated – as though it was not anything special or significant.
In fact, even the guys that came from the fellowship at my house told similar stories, which included them starting fellowships in different facilities, which they had not mentioned before. To them, it was nothing special or anything to emphasize.
But I heard, and I picked up on what they said. And my heart was leaping with joy.
Back to Mark’s Journey
For Mark, his “community” after I lost touch with him was in that prison near Richmond, Virginia. He was in a very bad unit, with extremely hardened men who had committed some of the worst crimes imaginable.
When Mark got there, he was dismayed but then realized he needed to find fellowship. But there wasn’t any. So he asked another brother who also had come from the local jail if the two of them could pray together each day in the yard during recreation.
From that beginning, God added to their numbers and eventually thirty men met each day in a circle in the yard, praying and praising God and ministering one to another. Lives were touched. Ekklesia happened. Folks were discipled. And God’s Kingdom advanced.
When Mark was released in October, he returned to his home in Manassas and just naturally did the same. He reached out to some other brothers and they started getting together and ekklesia again started happening.
One by one, the other men gathered at Mark’s house on Saturday shared their own stories of how God was with them in the jail or prison where they too were sent. Each story, in almost an off hand manner, included an account of how they too took the things we taught and showed them in the local jail and became a catalyst for starting a fellowship and discipling others wherever they went.
And not one of them though that was the least bit exceptional.
When I came home, I literally convulsed with tears as I wept in gratitude to the Lord for showing me some of the fruit He’s brought forth after years of ministry, struggle, learning and sowing.
Fish or Fishing?
I suspect you’ve heard the saying, “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach him to fish and he eats for life”. There’s much truth in that adage.
You see, most “prison” ministry – and most “church” in whatever other setting you want to think about (including Sunday morning) – is focused on giving folks fish and feeding them.
Our approach has been different. We do NOT “do church” for folks or or try to meet all their needs. Rather, we teach them how to be the church and minister one to another – just as the New Testament teaches.
Although that is a simple concept, it took years to figure it out, and now we are seeing it multiply way beyond our own direct efforts.
Saturday evening, I saw the fruit of that significant, but simple, shift. That fruit was in the lives of over half a dozen men, some as young as twenty something, who simply accepted at face value what should be normal Christian life.
God called us to learn to sow, and eventually we were able to plant some good seed into those men’s lives. The Lord then brought the increase as they went out and were the church wherever He sent them. As a result, they just naturally created and grew fellowships – and unassumingly discipled others – in each of those new units and facilities.
A New Church
Now that Mark and some other brothers are out, they have begun to form a new fellowship in Manassas without me starting it or even being a part of it. It meets in a modest home, hosted by an earnest brother who simply loves Jesus and other people.
Life, reproducing life – without the need for others to direct it, “cover” it, or fleece it. Yet as we share our life in Christ together, we find mutual fellowship and common encouragement through relationship.
As brothers gather together to minister one to another and participate together in expressing the life of Christ in them, among them, and through them, ekkelsia emerges, discipleship happens, and God’s Kingdom advances.
Fundamental, but simple.
Their Gift to Me
Saturday evening, those men gave me the greatest gift of all – they let me come and glory in the life of Jesus in them as we shared His life among us. And they let me see that from our meager beginnings in the local jail, God’s Kingdom is rippling out into all sorts of other facilities – and now into towns and cities when they get out – across the state (and likely elsewhere).
I am increasingly seeing how people who are shown what it means to be the church, and weaned away from church being some directed, passive experience done for them, just naturally “go” – without any pretense or thinking it is in any way unusual – and start fellowships, disciple each other, and advance God’s Kingdom.
I have personally planted many churches.
I have helped others plant churches.
But now I am seeing folks plant churches on their own, without me, simply from us having taught them and helped them be the church. So they go, and do the same, and they see nothing remarkable about it.
This, folks, is what the Great Commission, discipleship and ekklesia are all about.
~ Jim Wright