I Confess: I Killed Ekklesia

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.

my_confessionAlthough 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.

The Need

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 communities – 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 relationships with 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).

The Answer

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 many of those books under the “organic” and “simple” church banners.

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.

Plus, as I later learned, few of those “organic” and “simple” church authors had any consistent history of actually being part of – or successfully starting on a sustained basis – the very kind of fellowships they were pushing through their books, blogs and conferences. It was a disturbing case of those who “don’t do”, telling everyone else “how to”.

Yet at the time, those books naively resonated with me, and so I went forth with the grand vision of having an “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.

Right?

Get real!

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 now 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.

Postscript

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.

~ Jim

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13 responses

  1. Honest, forthright and helpful Jim. When my wife and I left the church we had pioneered, we told the folks there that we were going to work with some other people who did not have a history with us. Why? because we did not want to experience exactly what you described. We offered to have a separate gathering for them, but they were not interested. They were upset that “their church” was being “taken” from them and frankly did not want to participate in the thing that caused their loss.

    It is the heart of a father – an elder – to share not only lessons from success, but lessons from failure.

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  2. Great blog today Jim! I believe freedom to experiment is necessary to learn the Lord’s ways, and humility is needed if we are to learn from those experiments. Imagine if the 12 never were allowed to learn from their mistakes?! Thank you for sharing and for your humble heart.

    This is also a reminder that there is only one Church, and it s locale is the New Jerusalem. Temporary, local expressions do not take its place. A failed experiment at meeting in this life will not trump the Lord’s building of His Church.

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  3. Zig Ziglar said it like this: If you want to create a cripple, give a man a crutch. Zig is gone now but his words remain. We do create dependency, quite by accident sometimes. It’s obvious your heart was in the right place Jim. Not only did you heed the call to go, you wanted to do more. Ecclesia belongs to God and never to us. We can belong also to Ecclesia, and be committed to it. Scattering of the sheep happens when the shepherd is removed, that is a true proverb. Hearing the Lord’s voice is paramount. He’s the only one that knows the way HOME. You did good Jim. Can we hear that still small voice? Maybe we need to be quiet, and just listen a little while?

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  4. Thank you for sharing this. I found myself in the same position, but with the Lord’s help, was able to fade into and be just another sharing part. The very first thing that is necessary in organic fellowship is a strong faith and confidence in the Holy spirit’s ability and willingness to be in control. In our gathering, we meet, sit and visit together on everyday affairs until someone brings up a thought and we are off and running. The sharing usually circles around and comes back to the starting point fully fledged. One thing we avoid is coming in and aiming for a ‘spiritual’ atmosphere. That is separating the secular from the spiritual. Again, Holy spirit will create His own atmosphere. As He is with us during our daily walk through life, He will be with us in the same way as we meet to share His life. One big thing is not to be afraid of periods of silence…usually short.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the humility in sharing this. I can relate and agree that some of the books set a romantic view of church meetings. It was only after I stopped trying to push the bus and get out of the way that I became free in Christ and others could too. Still leaning that lesson but am thankful for the Lord’s grace and that of my brothers and sisters who also forbear with me during those times of the “good” flesh trying to take things out of the Spirit’s hands.

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  6. The churches we’ve been involved work in this way. The pastor has a vision from God, we, the people, follow his vision. If we don’t support his vision from God, we are disobedient to God’s man. Having difficulty submitting to men leaders, I felt it was my problem when I ‘rebelled’ against a leader’s decision. After many years of being spiritually bullied by church leaders, I now realize it was the churches we were part of that were misleading us in their teachings. The discernment God gave me was to be heeded, not ignored. Had I heeded God’s warnings, much pain would have been avoided. I always believed the church should use the gifts and talents of the whole body, not only those dictated by the pastor. He is not the only one God speaks to and gives ideas to. Thank you for another great article filled with what I believe is God’s truth. If only there was a church like this in our area.

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  7. Birth, death and resurrection of the vision necessarily means birth, death and resurrection of the visionary to their own ability to pull it off, and their own integrity to carry it forward.
    If a leader can take his followers thru that process with him/her, they can corporately and exponentially do what the leader could never do alone.
    That’s a pattern throughout the bible, and of course, its fulfilled in Jesus life and never ending ministry through us.
    A dozen of my fellow teenage christian friends and I were taught this years ago, thru OT bible stories, and though we did lose sight of the vision(s) we thought God gave us, we knew from those teachings that the dark hours were interim, and not to lose hold of the Lords hand while He took us through.
    Blessings
    Greg

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  8. This is great, when’s the book coming out Jim? just kidding.
    What you’ve shared is what I have either seen or participated in. It’s hard when we’re in the midst of it we can get caught up in our good intentions and sense of what god wants to accomplish but end up inadvertently working against what we’re hoping for. What started out as vision can become rigid idealism or cookie cutter mentality.
    There is also a lot of pressure at times to make something happen, which perhaps started off as a genuine desire to initiate or encourage organic church in a locale.
    I believe there is no way to avoid death like you have described unless we are fortunate to engage in daily death that means we aren’t overly imposing our hopes or looking to someone else to follow.
    I appreciate the insight you have into your role and that of the others involved… there are those that want to lead and those that want to follow.
    I guess a follow up would be how do you now see your role and is it something you engage in with a team of equals?

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  9. “Abandoning man-made traditions is hard,” said Jim Wright.

    And abandoning man-made traditions is nigh impossible until we’re able to discern these traditions as man-made and not divinely instituted.

    I’ve only recently come out of the institutional church. And my heartbreaking exit was not of my own accord. In the last two instances I was displaced by men—ruling elders (of a small, struggling Presbyterian church) and then a founding elder (of a church plant)—who held such positions of headship over our assemblies that they effectively squeezed out of fellowship those who would (lovingly and faithfully) attempt to hold them to account for how they were leading.

    Ultimately, they were strangulating the life from the body. Yet, these elders couldn’t be checked for having assumed for themselves autonomous control over their operations.

    FYI: I’m presently in the process of pursuing and holding these men to open accountability for their abuses against the body of Christ (in the Presbyterian case), and for—get this—killing our ekklesia (in the church plant case).

    That being said, let me share with you how inversely ironic Jim’s killing of ekklesia is to the single handed killing of ours by our young pastor who planted our now defunct church:

    Where Jim’s home fellowship against his contrary intent “became an extension of him, his gifts, his vision, his ministry”. . . Our pastor against the resources he had at hand (i.e. other gifted shepherds and teachers) with full intent became, himself, the central head of our ekklesia.

    He was the gifted bus driver, with the rented bus being his personal ministry. And apparently if he perceived anyone to be “off vision,” they were left off the moving bus. Until, of course, he had left so many of us behind that all who remained onboard were nearly just he and his family. So then the young pastor turned in the keys, thus officially killing our fellowship, but only really after having already strangulated the life from our body.

    Proof that our pastor made himself the central head of our ekklesia is that I was displaced from the body. If he didn’t have full control on that account, I’m certain we’d still have a gathering of saints coming together under the banner of East End Ekklesia (E3), and I’d still be a vital member of her fellowship.

    Jim writes, “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 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.”

    I’d love for our young visionary pastor to read Jim’s confession. See, our fellowship was resource deep with extremely gifted men—so ever willing and only waiting for the green light to serve. However, in the end, these men amounted to being basically props in the pastor’s personal production.

    And because the life and health of the church had been so completely bound up with the health and life of the pastor—E3 was his baby, no one else’s—I found it (with tears and deep regret) a good thing that the young pastor would kill it. For if he hadn’t (and for the way that he had bent everyone in the body) the church would have grown up sick and deformed. . . and, actually, something other than a true ekklesia of God. As structured, E3 had to die.

    There’s so much to say on this, but I want to come back full circle to the idea of “abandoning man-made traditions.” For this is an ENORMOUS issue (both for the founding elder of E3, and for we who have since gone “organic”)—discerning the ecclesiastical difference between divinely-ordained tradition from that of man-made traditions that embody our so-called churches.

    I’m a 45 year old man who grew up (a PK) and spent his entire life inside the church. . . yes, up until our founding elder displaced me from his E3 operation in February of 2012, which has given me two and a half years on the outside. Yet, my lungs, I have to imagine, are still being cleansed from a life build-up of church toxins (i.e. ecclesiastical assumptions). More scales than I’d like to admit has since fallen from my eyes.

    The deception of the church is quite marvelous. And even though I consider myself a man of keen discernment, it wasn’t until the Big Fish had vomited me from her belly that I was able to more properly discern the difference between the faithful bride of Christ and the idolatrous whore of Babylon.

    I read these words of prophecy as applying to the institutional church today, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev 18:4).

    Jim, I appreciated reading what you wrote.
    Much thanks,
    David from Pittsburgh

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  10. No holy places, days or events, no holy people or gurus, no corporate business meetings and slick presentations…work, work, work…….then…….crash, intervention and detox…… finally resting in Christ and Him crucified. Then treat my neighbor like I want to be treated. Mutually loving one another. For real this time…..Start with my family with JESUS as my pastor.

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