If it is true that “the current structure of the church will not accommodate what God is about to do”, 

Should we tear down the existing church and build new structures?

And here, I issue a resounding “NO!” “NEVER!” We must not touch God’s anointed. But you ask, “how can something so fraught with error and so void of God’s presence be ‘God’s anointed?’”

Remember the season when Saul, the anointed King of Israel was in pursuit of David, God’s chosen successor to the failed administration of the flesh? In the cave, in the darkness, in the shadow, where nobody saw, where nobody would know, David realized the golden opportunity to “tear down the existing structure” of leadership in Israel and claim his rightful place on the throne of the nation.

And when the opportune moment arrived, David reflected His ultimate devotion and submission to God when he said, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord."

Remember the occasion when David sought to bring the Ark of the Covenant – the tangible symbol of God’s abiding presence back to its rightful place? The convoy of hope was moving along well, the recently constructed cart carrying the ark creaking and groaning as new wood sought adjustment against new wood. Oxen strained as they moved uphill and dug in hooves as they were pushed downhill by the burden they drew.

And then they arrived at Chidon’s threshing floor; the oxen stumbled; Uzza put out his hand to steady the load – and Uzza died.

Did this conveyance, this great procession of anticipation bear God’s stamp of approval? No. In the first verses of the narrative is the fatal flaw: "If it seems good to you, and if it is of the Lord our God, let us send out to our brethren and let us bring the ark of our God back to us, (1 Chron. 13:1,3). “If it seems good to you, and if it is of the Lord our God...” There is assumption that “it is of the Lord our God” but no request for permission from God. When the second attempt to recover the ark is made, David repented to the Lord and asked God for approval and endorsement to move the ark. When God granted permission, the second attempt to return the ark resulted in success because David followed the instructions God had given Moses for the transportation of the ark.

Again, the lesson is clear: Don’t touch it! God knows better than we how to initiate necessary change. Some of us are pioneers; as John the Baptist was a forerunner of great change to come,  many of us have emerged from a desert experience where our meat has been meager, our surroundings austere as God Himself has initiated the sculpting necessary to engrave on our hearts His compassion, His grace and mercy and patience and goodness and His truth.

We see what others may not yet see. We hear what others cannot perceive. We envision the change. We have touched God’s heart and He has touched ours and has shown us the way.

And we must be patient while pointing the way. We must allow God to do what man cannot do. To attack the institution of the church is to waste away precious time and energy and faith, and to bring injury to the Body of Christ. Use your zeal to point to the future and not to denounce the past.

We must not deconstruct any structure or system, regardless of what we believe and know about the weakness and faultiness of that system.

The Hebrew writer promises: “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven. "Now this, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.”

God’s consuming fire will eventually burn out every thing that is shaken loose when He shakes both heaven and earth. Until that moment, God will use existing structures the same way we use an automobile that may be old and worn and is costly to operate and is often in the garage for repair and never is a reliable and cost-effective vehicle, but it works! One day we say “Enough!” and visit the car salesman. So too, one day (soon) God will say, “Enough!” and the New Vehicle will replace the Old Vehicle. And we must wait for God’s timing and action. We must keep our hands off what only God may touch.

 And the next question:

“Where do we go from here?”

This is the big question; the foreboding massif of mystery that causes even the strongest heart to cower and drives doubt into courageous souls.

Where we go from here will no doubt determine the final tally of souls that are swept into the heart of God in the final days of this current dispensation of time on earth.

Where we go from here will be determined by “hearing ears” and by “seeing eyes.” The warning is clear, “Let him that has an ear hear what the Spirit says.”

Jesus recalls Isaiah when he declares “the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.”

 Where we go from here is dependent upon our utter dependency upon Him. Let me say it again, clearly:

 A ministry friend is currently ministering out of a passion she calls “Obsessed with Sanctuary” – an intriguing title.

In her communication with me she wrote: “There is a new fragrance in the wind...the smell of fresh rain and refreshing of some dry, dry soil! Let’s keep our fingerprints off of it! “

So we lean upon Him. We desperately reject old ways and old systems – not out of rebellion or out of caustic anger – but out of desperate desire to know Him, to see Him, to abide with Him, to experience the immediacy of a risen Christ and a parakaletos – a friend that sticks closer than a brother. We must, if we are to know the “there I am in the midst of them” promise as reality, cling wholly and only to Him, in purity and in simplicity; in the childlikeness of open and waiting hearts until He comes and reveals to us His ways and His order that is without confusion and is filled with peace.

 So, back to our question: “Where do we go from here?”

 And this question spawns others:

- What is the true structure of “church?”

- What does biblical government look like?

- If a better “church” appears what will prevent us from spoiling it as others before us spoiled it?

Jesus said the religious leaders of His day were “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do" Mark 7:13. 

This is the essence of religion: To strip God’s word of its efficacious power by replacing the pure word of life with the traditions – the regulations and systems and governments of men – essentially, religion.

Our tendency is to put our fingerprints on whatever new form the church may take. Our inclination is to touch the thing God has forbidden us to touch.

As with first man and first woman in the Garden, “There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” The ways that seem right in our limited understanding will eventually and certainly bring death.

The things we reject within the institution-bound church, we will most certainly do ourselves. We will have new names and new descriptions for our so-called “freedom,” but the net effect of our mishandling of things holy will be the same as those who have gone before us.

Therefore we must be always alert to the propensity of the best of us to re-fashion God’s creation in our own image.

With this reality in mind then, allow me to suggest some things I have observed; others I have received by revelation from the Holy Spirit; and some truths many others are saying and writing, independent of me or of others, as the Holy Spirit speaks in clarity to the Body of Christ in the earth.

For several years I have been praying, meditating, searching, reading, listening, experimenting, asking about, enquiring into and otherwise been consumed by a passion to understand “where we go from here.” 

I have processed through any number of theories, rejected dozens of “this is the answer” edicts, and probably have driven to near insanity many dear friends and family members in my quest for “where do we go from here?”
The following is a partial result of the process – not merely of a few years, but as I have realized, my entire journey with God for the past thirty-four years.

Please allow me to digress to the beginning of my ministry, and draw an outline of the process that I now realize God has led me through for these three decades.

I began full time pastoral ministry in the rural and remote farm lands of Northwest Iowa in the Midwest United States. I was assigned a church that boasted some 67 regular attendees. When I left that church three and a half years later, we were probably averaging something like 125 people on any given Sunday morning.

My ministry there was unlike anything my seminary courses had prepared me for. I spent time chasing down stray sheep (the animal kind, with wool coats) that had gotten through the broken fence of an 80 year-old parishioner. I helped a farmer inoculate cattle against black leg fever, and spent days driving a gigantic tractor, chisel-plowing for the same man when one of his sons injured a leg during spring plowing.

In those days, I found myself deliberating about the differences between what I had been trained to do as a pastor and what I found myself actually doing as a pastor.

I didn’t see what was literally being shown me in those years: The church was more “family” than it was “institution.” It was Clint and Ruth Hoferman, on the night of Clint’s birthday, when the family had gathered to share birthday cake, leaving the party and driving out into a cold winter’s night to help me track down a deer I had shot with my bow and arrow that afternoon.

It was Arlene Driver, making fresh coffee for me and plying me with homemade pastries as I sat in the Driver kitchen entertaining her two youngest children while waiting for Bob and the boys to return from the fields a few miles away.

My memories of that first pastorate and our small congregation take the form of homes and living rooms and kitchens and sitting together along a river enjoying a picnic and thanking God for sunny weather to shine on those picnic gatherings. I did not enjoy those years as I should have, because my training painted pictures of large sanctuaries, mass choirs, vast parking lots and first-class sound systems and I was merely a young pastor in a tiny farm community with a small, white-sided wooden “church” building.

Our second pastorate was located in a rain forest, in the “logging capital of the world.” Again, we were in a remote area. There was no Big City, only something like five thousand folks in our little town in the middle of nowhere and everywhere.

As we first began ministry there, I became excited about a new concept in church practice: It was known as the “cell group” or “growth group” in our case. American churches had grown wild about what Dr. Paul Yonggi Cho was doing in Seoul, Korea, and like any good American Christian Leader should do, Pastors trekked to Korea, took copious notes from Dr. Cho’s staff, came back home and started the “cell phenomenon.”

What few church leaders recognized at the time was that they were not only importing a “new way” to disciple and meet the needs of the church; they also were attempting to import Korean culture along with this “new” phenomenon called the “cell.” The resulting failures of the “cell movement” were largely the result of a failure to consider culture as an element of the way we worship.

And so the “cell concept” enjoyed limited success in America and in other western nations. But we were excited about small groups of people meeting in homes on Thursday nights to study a curriculum known as Lay Leadership Institute, or LLI. This was really good material! The “course” began with “New Life Studies,” designed specifically for new believers, but was also good to establish a common foundation for more mature Christians. The material then moved to levels called “101,” “102” “103” and so on. The heart of the teaching of the one hundred-level material was the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5. The “graduate level” material focused on soul-winning. And as I mentioned, this was very good material. But it lasted only about sixteen weeks from start to finish. The question in my mind when we completed the “course” was, “what now?” Already I was forming a question that remains with me today, “where do we go from here?”

It was then that I began looking at a map of our city. I began to form questions in my mind such as “what would happen if we divided our city into “areas of responsibility” and gave an area to each Growth Group? “What would happen if we told the Groups that each was responsible to observe their area and note when a widow woman, for example, had a car that needed repair, or a neighbor suffered a stroke and couldn’t cut firewood for winter heat? What would happen if a Group noticed a family with children who were ill-clothed or didn’t have enough food to eat and the Group just went out and fixed the car or cut the wood or bought the clothes or food and gave their assistance away without a fee or even the requirement that these hurting people attend “our” church?”
In short, I will tell you it worked. It worked so well, in fact that at least one of those groups, begun in 1981 is still functioning twenty-plus years later!

Later we accepted leadership of a larger church in a larger city. There we saw growth on a much greater level than we had ever experienced. We began to experience “growing pains” and I attended “How to Break the 800 Barrier” conferences. We began a second Sunday morning worship service. We were filling both morning services and some of the men in leadership suggested we purchase land along the Interstate and build a new church. That’s what “successful churches” tend to do, so why not us?

As I contemplated the kinds of costs we would incur, I shuddered. We were talking in the millions of dollars. We didn’t have that kind of money, but of course, like most churches, we could borrow the necessary funds. That would mean a monthly mortgage, but we would have our new church and we would have the status of a “super church” or a “mega church!”

During that time I learned that the City Hall, across the street from our existing church might soon become available for purchase from the City. We could build a skywalk over the busy street below and so “attach” both buildings. We already owned a former Catholic church on another side of the church, and we could “own” three blocks of prime real estate in the heart of our city!

But while I was struggling with our options, I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say to me, “Start Branch Offices.” Confused, I asked, “I don’t understand, what do you mean, ‘Branch Offices’?”

The Lord then asked, “Where do you bank?” I told Him the name of my bank and He asked, “Where is that bank?” I said, “It’s just a couple of blocks from here.” He then said, “No, it’s not. Your bank is headquartered in San Francisco, California. You bank at a Branch Office.”

And it hit me! I had no need to even know the location of the “mother bank” I was associated with. Even if the Bank was in downtown Seattle I didn’t need that bank. A Branch of the bank had been opened in my neighborhood that allowed me to conduct all my financial business without ever going to the “mother bank.”

So we started “Branch Offices.” Our church was called City of Hope; and before long I was meeting new believers at various functions who told me happily that they attended “City of Hope” – but I had never seen them before! They didn’t know me and had no need to know me! They knew the men and women we had released to lead them and to worship with them in houses and in community center rooms and in open parks!

What I didn’t know then was that God was beginning to teach me about the rising and emerging structure His church would flow into: A new structure as old as the Book of Acts itself.

 We want our audiences, our overflowing sanctuaries. We want to see our names in Charisma magazine or Christianity Today and we want to see our own faces on Christian television. Our “bigger is better” mentality, our craving for success defined by largeness – all this is contrary and diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus and the experience of the early Disciples and the primitive church. If big crowds and bulging membership rosters were signs of success, the Apostle Paul would have gone down in history as an abysmal failure. Even Jesus, after teaching the multitudes, healing the masses and offering the only true Life left the planet with perhaps eleven men and a few quiet women as His “congregation” and ensuing leadership. Yet to suggest that Jesus somehow failed in His ministry would be ludicrous.

There is another philosophy of “bigness” hidden in the statement: “You must get smaller to get bigger.” This is the attitude espoused by John the Baptist when he declares, “I must decrease that He might increase.”

Jesus didn’t call us to be Forests, but Branches!

He is the Vine – the progenitor of our faith and practice. We are not “stand-alone” trees. We are branches of something of substance. We are “arms of a body”, the Body of Christ. We are extensions of His life-flow that is grace and mercy and patience and goodness and truth.

As “offshoots” of His nature, we extend into neighborhoods and offices and fields of labor and schools and grocery stores carrying Who He is – and being literally, “The Church!”

But what do we do with the Scripture that counsels us to “forsake not the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is”?

Am I suggesting the church abandon its gatherings? Forsake its assemblies? Again, NO! NEVER!

But what I am suggesting is that we examine the “how” and the “why” and the “where” and the “when” of our meetings as well as the content and conduct of those meetings.

In our next session, I’ll return to that third and possibly most mysterious question: “Where do we go from here?”


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