Yup. It’s true. I killed ekklesia (the Greek word often translated in the New Testament to mean a local “church”). Now, several years later, it’s time to finally come clean and confess.
Although we all love the “glory stories”, we also need to tell of our failures – because it’s our failures which often teach the most.
So here’s my sorry story of having killed a fellowship.
Maybe, by owning up to my failures, it will help others trying to form an organic fellowship, home group, simple church – or whatever you want to call an open, participatory gathering of believers ministering one to another in smaller, relational fellowships.
In my own defense, our journeys with the Lord are seldom a straight line. We feel Him prompting us in a certain direction, and step out in obedience only to fail. But in our failure, He teaches us what we need to then move forward.
That was the case several years ago in my own journey away from the institutional church into a more open, relational and participatory understanding of the Body of Christ – where folks could fully express the life of Jesus in them, among them and through them in simple gatherings and active community as they encouraged and ministered one to another.
At the time, I had been heavily involved for nearly ten years – on my own time without pay, title or position – in very demanding but exciting ministry to extremely needy people: inmates and ex-inmates.
Many were coming to the Lord as I ministered in the jail, but were finding it difficult to fit into a traditional church setting when they got out.
They just didn’t feel at home within the very tidy, somewhat self-content and generally non-relational middle-class culture of most traditional churches (whether mainline, pentecostal, charismatic or whatever).
Plus, to be honest, most churches – although polite and friendly – really didn’t want them except as arms-length objects of “ministry”, although that was never said out loud. The guys sensed it, though.
The men were too rough and uncut, too “street”, too resource intensive, too unpredictable, and just plain too “other” to ever be fully accepted into most church’s settled societies – even though the men had great zeal for the Lord and amazing potential in His Kingdom.
They needed a place where they could find acceptance, forge community among others who understood their joys and struggles, and generally express Christ in ways that resonated with their own unique means of relating and interacting (i.e., culture).
Around that time, I’d been reading some of the leading “how to” books on “organic church”, and that seemed like a perfect solution.
I had a centrally located house with a large living room and lots of parking…
They had a need…
The answer was obvious.
My First Mistake
So I opened my home and we formed an “organic” fellowship – but despite my best efforts to the contrary, it became an extension of me, my gifts, my vision and my ministry.
The men in our new fellowship, by and large, had committed their lives to the Lord as an outgrowth of my somewhat traditional but nonetheless very dynamic ministry in the jail. (See Pentecost in the Local Jail).
Inside the jail, for ten years I had been seeing amazing fruit in terms of new believers, miraculous healings, dramatic outpourings of the Holy Spirit, powerful teaching, and anointed ministry – all as unto the Lord, but nonetheless instigated and directed by me.
I didn’t realize at the time, however, how much that had conditioned guys in the jail to be spiritual consumers who depended on me, rather than spiritual producers.
So when they got out of jail, what was their perception? It was Jim Wright: God’s man of faith and power, anointed teacher, super leader. (As I say this now, it makes me cringe.)
Lest you think I was on an ego trip, I wasn’t. I truly didn’t care about promoting me or anything about me, and I was simply trying to do the right thing – without compensation or any desire for personal gain or recognition. In fact, those who know me know that I hate pedestals.
All I ever wanted to do was quietly serve the Lord and see lives transformed.
I had been faithfully ministering in the jail, as best I knew. God had blessed it, faults and all.
Now I was simply taking the next step, with no fanfare, by hosting a fellowship in my home for the guys.
God was beginning to move me away from directed ministry that revolved around me and my gifts and towards organic participatory fellowships where folks could encourage and minister to each other as He directed. I “got” it (at least in general terms), but the guys gathering at my house each week weren’t able to make the transition.
In the jail, I inadvertently allowed them to become dependent on me – and so they put me on a pedestal. When they got out, I remained God’s man with the plan – even though that’s not what I consciously wanted.
I wanted our new fellowship to bear the organic fruit of participatory, multi-gifted, one-another ekklesia, but I was building from the inorganic roots of my previously anointed but directed ministry which had revolved around my own spiritual gifts, calling and motivations.
It didn’t work.
It’s the same problem any “celebrity” church planter has (although my celebrity status was very, very localized and limited to a very small sub-culture). The “workers” are put on a pedestal, and unfortunately, few are willing to climb down. The “work” then starts to revolve around their own peculiarities, sensibilities, motivations, pet doctrines and ministry focus.
In fact, I seriously doubt that any “spiritual celebrity” – whether they put themselves on a pedestal or others do it to them, and no matter how large or small their sphere of influence – can ever, within that sphere, be an effective on-the-ground “organic” church planter.
With us, the inevitable happened: The men gathered each week in my living room to be fed by me, taught by me and inspired by me – even though I didn’t want to be the focal point and was sincerely urging them to come forth in ministry to each other.
Because of how I related to them in the jail, I had conditioned them to be spiritual consumers who wanted to be dependent on me – even though I didn’t intend it or want it. Try as I could to develop a participatory gathering where folks ministered one to another, I just couldn’t figure out how to get off that pedestal.
With time, our fellowship likely could have overcome that obstacle, except for my other mistakes.
My Second Mistake
Abandoning man-made traditions is hard. I’m not making light of that.
But the fact remained: Despite my best efforts, the idea of an active, participatory fellowship that facilitates everyone’s gifts, and where we minister one to another, generally wasn’t taking hold.
A few “got it”, but most folks could not make the transition from being spiritual consumers who always looked to and depended on me, to now being co-heirs in Christ and spiritual producers.
At the time, I could see all this. But I didn’t know how to get off that pedestal and break their need for me to be the “pastor” (or some other such de facto head) of our new fellowship.
This led to my next big mistake.
I am a man of big vision and direct action. It’s my strength, and sometimes my failing.
Where before, I had the faith and courage go into the jail and see many men come to the Lord, He was now calling me away from directed ministry into organic, participatory, multi-gifted fellowship – where folks could minister one to another and find true community.
I read the books, had it all figured out (or so I thought), and was confident of moving forward because so and so big name author said it was so.
The problem was this: Although God was showing me very legitimate core principles, I bought into the “cookie-cutter” mentality and some of the other extraneous “stuff” promoted in some of those books under the “organic” banner.
Their homogenized approach and other “stuff”, however, had more to do with each author’s own aspirational motivations, perceptions and expectations than healthy foundation laying.
Yet at the time, those books resonated with me, and so I now had the grand vision for “organic” fellowship: Come one, come all!
After all, what’s wrong with that? Nearly every church, ministry, program or whatever is built around some grand “vision”.
But there is an inherent contradiction in building ekklesia – in the form of open, participatory, multi-gifted ministry one to another – around some external cookie-cutter vision of what ekklesia must be and how it must function.
That’s the problem with so many of the books, and so many of the self-proclaimed itinerant “organic” church planters out there today – they don’t create diverse fellowships rooted in diverse communities, but rather create clones of themselves. And I was going down that same road.
Like some of those authors, I made the mistake of trying to make our fellowship conform to what I thought “ekklesia” should do and be – which came out of my own giftings, calling and motivations – and thus failed to let things uniquely evolve as God wanted .
I also had taken some core truths from scripture about relational, participatory fellowships where we minister one to another, and wrapped lots of extraneous concepts, sensibilities, motivations and vision around it.
All that did was compound the problem of folks depending on me – because not only was I on a pedestal (although not of my choosing), but now I was the man with the grand plan (which was of my choosing).
My Third Mistake
When things didn’t start clicking according to some cookie-cutter “grand vision” like I saw in the books, I became more anxious to make it happen.
That’s a common mistake in moving towards true ekklesia: You read a few books on “organic” church (or maybe this blog!) and buy into this or that author’s “vision” on what it is and how to do it. You then set out to “make it happen” – after all, the books say “organic” is just a natural expression of our spiritual DNA, so their ways of “being the church” should just “naturally” develop when we gather together.
When it doesn’t just naturally happen like they say in all of those God-awful books (I have come to believe most of those books have done more harm than good), we get anxious and frustrated.
So we push harder to advance some over-arching, cookie-cutter “vision” – because, in the books, the authors deceptively make it sound like they’ve had lots of success planting churches around the self-referential perception of Christ and His Church which they’re peddling. (In fact, those claims of success – implied or otherwise – often are not true.)
Worse yet, when that doesn’t work, we invite them to come make their “vision” happen among us. (As I’ve said before, you really, really, really need to check out any self-proclaimed itinerant “worker” or church planter before opening your fellowship to them.)
Like so many others, I then fell into the trap of thinking it was my fault that the grand cookie-cutter “vision” wasn’t working, so I needed to work even harder to make it happen.
That was my third big mistake.
For example, in our meetings I’d put different folks on the spot by asking them to share a testimony, song, verse or teaching – because, after all, that’s what they’re suppose to do in “organic” church.
Folks sharing a testimony, song, verse or teaching is all good, and should happen. But not in some specific way, not at my constant initiative, and not driven by my own anxieties over making it happen.
I also wanted the fellowship to be “missional” – but I didn’t see at the time that I was really pushing my own motivations, approach and calling.
And I wanted the fellowship to express community, but more as a reflection of my own cultural biases and sensibilities.
All of this was inadvertent and not intentional. But, if truth be told, many “organic” fellowships are not much more than imperialistic extensions of someone pushing their grand “vision” on others – rather than letting things “organically” develop based on the unique culture, circumstances and characteristics of each fellowship.
Here’s the issue, though: Even if your “organic” goals are correct, when you are anxious to “make it happen”, folks will sense it, sit back and let you – well - make it happen. They will then fall into the very passivity you seek to prevent.
So there I was, anxious to do organic church the “right way”, and striving to make it happen. Yet all the time my internal anxiety over feeling it was my responsibility was contradicting my external encouragement for others to come forth.
The Dastardly Blow
That fellowship had three strikes against it:
- I had conditioned the guys to be spiritual consumers who depended on me, and so they placed me on a pedestal;
- I adopted a cookie-cutter “vision” that went beyond simply affirming the core principles and letting God take it from there, based on the unique circumstances and characteristics of our own fellowship; and
- Even if the “vision” had been right, my own anxiety over needing to make it happen was the very thing preventing it from happening.
Despite my mistakes, folks kept coming and for about a year we grew. But the growth was more about me – and them wanting me to feed them – than about anything else. And that was more my fault than theirs.
So, after much agony, I shut it down.
I killed ekklesia.
Life from Death
Some might protest that I had no right to unilaterally kill that fellowship – but the fact that I could is the best evidence I can offer about the underlying problem…
… which was the focus on me, my vision, and my good intentions.
In hindsight, it was naive to expect that a new, nascent “organic” fellowship could endure my intense vision and my compulsion to make it happen. That might work to build a traditional church, but not a participatory, organic church!
In shutting it down, I finally had to surrender all pre-conceptions about what the Lord wanted to do in us and through us. I had to die to my vision, and in so doing, let God burn out of me the impulse to make it happen as a reflection of my own gifts, calling and motivations.
It was painful, but once that impulse died and I learned to just chill out so God could do His own unique work in His own unique way, about six months later He started opening doors and using me again to help start new fellowships.
I no longer do “traditional” ministry, but help create and strengthen indigenous churches in existing communities – while leaving behind all the cookie-cutter “how to’s”, external “grand visions”, and other extraneous “stuff”.
The core Biblical concepts of participatory fellowship – where we can minister one to another and express the life of Christ in us, among us and through us – are good. But I’ve now learned that God doesn’t rely on anyone’s homogenous aspirations of how those core principles should work in deciding how to make them actually work – because He delights in expressing Himself in very diverse ways among very diverse communities.
Now, as I go into existing communities and sub-cultures, I take a low key approach by letting them own whatever God uniquely wants to do among them – by laying a simple foundation of Christ and His Word and then getting out of the way.
I’ve learned to just be a resource, rather than a bottleneck.
So there it is – my true confession.
I killed ekklesia, and in so doing, God killed something in me. But from it, something of Him took root.
Isn’t that the way He often works? Despite our best intentions, He lovingly let’s us fail so His life ultimately springs forth His way, in His timing.