Quite unexpectedly, I had a “born-again” experience in September, 1979. At that time I had been an avowed agnostic for many years—from right around the time of my 13th birthday. I’ve written about that experience in several blogs as well as in my books The Unwelcome Blessing and DiosPsyTrek: But God Had a better Idea. Anyway, in some sense I’ve been a Christian for 35 years. But the question in my mind is when and exactly how did I morph from ubiquitous generic-christian to Jesus-follower? And, as that, is He indeed living in me and I in Him?
The first 14 years of my journey, from ’79 to ’93, were indeed isolated and lonely. Oh, I prayed every day, and off and on read the Bible, but I didn’t have fellowship with many believers and I didn’t attend church or Bible studies. This was a mistake that impeded my growth. It was unfortunate but not fatal. However, on May 1, 1993, I somewhat grudgingly decided I would give a nondenominational megachurch some friends attended a four-week trial. I committed to go four Sundays in a row to Northland Community Church, and then decide if it was the right place for me. At that time Northland’s attendance was about 3,000 per weekend and it was becoming one of the most attended churches in the Orlando area.
God had been lying in wait for me all along, and on that very first Sunday I knew immediately that I’d been missing something enormously important in my life for a very long time. As with my born-again experience I had been ambushed by God again. From then on I was there every Sunday to take in the inspired sermons of its pastor, Dr. Joel Hunter. However, the whole contemporary evangelical, nondenominational worship experience felt rather odd to me. My background was mainly Lutheran and Catholic. I was such a newbie that the term “praise and worship” was unfamiliar to me. I was pretty much totally unaware of contemporary Christian music. Nevertheless, I recognized that Dr. Hunter was an intellectual and that his knowledge of God, and His often inscrutable ways, was near infinite compared to mine. I got tapes of the sermons which impacted me the most and I listened to them over and over along with Christian radio on my 40-min drive to and from work. And gradually my stiffness started to yield to the Spirit and at times I became one with the worship.
I also started taking classes and Bible studies at Northland. One of the most valuable classes that I took was on spiritual warfare in 1997. The teacher, Jim Kollman, emphasized over and over the impact Galatians 2:20 had on his life: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” He said when the meaning of that fully hit him a few years earlier that it made him a “crazy man.” I knew I had heard the truth, that I’d heard something very profound, and that it should have had the same impact on me—but at that time it didn’t. But I had been given a glimpse of the omega point and I knew where I needed to grow.
Eventually, I had the urge to start giving back, and by the Autumn of 1998, I thought perhaps I had enough knowledge to offer a class of my own—something that would meld my professional expertise with my rapidly inflating sense of Christian maturity. I started teaching a class of coping with depression at Northland.
The first time I taught the class was more or less of a disaster. Being insecure as a teacher I gave the participants way too much information and didn’t allow time for sharing. I think many attended in hopes of it being a support group but it wasn’t. I started that first class with 17, and had only four or five left when it ended eight weeks later. Still, it was a learning experience, and I felt less insecure and much more relaxed for the second series of classes in the Spring of 1999, and in an act of sheer hubris I began putting together a book based on the class handouts. Then, oddly enough, I started to feel something like an anointing—and that took me completely by surprise. I could feel the Holy Spirit’s presence while I wrote and while I taught—things were coming thru me that weren’t from me. This experience was unnerving but also validating. It was my first personal experience of the Triune God, and it caused me to think that perhaps Jesus was alive in me.
As the years went by my knowledge of God and the divine economy continued to grow, but there were still vast areas of growth in my quest for maturity in Christ that were stalled. But God is as relentless as he is gracious, and in 2002, my so-called faith in God finally started to become a trust in God. At the precise time that I was contemplating a flight to California to visit my stepson I happened upon a book by Brennan Manning titled Ruthless Trust. One of Manning’s main points is that Jesus gave his life for us and that all we have to give back to Him was our trust.
Trusting God (or not) was something much on my mind at that juncture. You see, I had not been on an airplane for 33-years, and the prospect of a long flight was causing me considerable anxiety. Theoretically, I believed in God, but obviously I didn’t trust God. And to make matters worse I was a licensed psychotherapist and a Christian counselor to boot. I could quote Romans 8:28 with the best of them–pontificating on matter of faith to clients—but for all practical purposes I had little or none myself.
At around 8:30 in the morning of August 5, 2002, my life entered a whole new phase. As the 737’s landing gear left the tarmac headed for LAX I said a silent, “Into your hands I commit my soul” prayer—sad but true, my reaction was that anxiety-ridden and melodramatic. The next time I flew was 17 months later and I was on my way to a village in the remote highlands of the Dominican Republic on a construction mission trip with members of the Orlando Catholic Diocese. Since that time I’ve taken another 20 trips by air—mission trips, fun trips, trips across the pond to Europe, etc—and I’ve written books, books about what I’ve learned in my ongoing journey with the Lord.
I know that none of it would have happened if I had not stepped out in trust 12 years ago. But still I was haunted by the thought that I really hadn’t fully allowed Jesus to live in me. I knew that was the omega point in my journey, but I was clueless as to how one got there. I could at last intellectually understand John 17:20-23—the paradigm of Jesus living in me and me living in Jesus but still feel that it wasn’t a lived reality in my life. I kept feeling like there was something missing—perhaps that I hadn’t really given Christ full permission to totally occupy my heart. Perhaps it had something to do with obedience. I knew that I was very worldly, and probably not a very obedient Believer, and I knew the verse that if we love Him we’ll keep His commandments.
As a psychotherapist I understand the resistance in people to change. Many will hang on to a “sick” identity instead of risking change. The unconscious thought is, “I won’t be me any longer and that ‘me’ is all the only one I know.” And I think that same satanically abetted thought prevents many from inviting Jesus into their hearts. It’s okay to admit you’re a sinner, and to accept the salvation offered by God, but still be hesitant to fully embrace the gift of the Son. At least that’s how it appeared to me, and there was a part of me that thought I was likely guilty of that. Maybe I wanted to hang on to my worldly identity.
Then in the Spring of 2011, a book by Frank Viola Pagan Christianity spit in my institutional evangelical nondenominational megachurch soup, and I knew that the soup would never look or taste quite the same again. Thru that book and others I was introduced to the organic/simple/house church movement. These books make the point that for the first three centuries of Christianity all of the meetings were held in homes, and also that many of the traditions started after Constantine institutionalized Christianity around 350 AD were based on pagan customs. The First Century churches all met in homes and the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John were all written by men who worshipped in homes to churches that met in homes in other areas of the Roman Empire. And so THE Church, Christ’s Body (we its various organs), meeting in homes and gradually spreading to other homes in not a new paradigm.
By 2010, I had started to feel a growing restlessness in my soul. The megachurch church I had been attending for the previous 17 years was starting to feel stale. It seemed I was hearing the same message over and over in the sermons and the worship was feeling more and more like a performance by paid professional musicians. It all seemed carefully staged and increasingly stale. It also started to impress me as too “casual”—like somehow the holiness of God was being compromised. So I started mixing my attendance there with “high church” at St. Andrew’s Chapel— the very conservative, very liturgical church of the Calvinist theologian R. C. Sproul. It was around that same time that I discovered Viola’s book on organic church.
Once again God was lying in wait to ambush my spirituality and take me in a whole new direction. A friend had made a serendipitous connection with a group of folks who were starting an organic home church. Several of these people had recently connected at an event to jumpstart home churches in the Orlando area. I closely followed her experience in the home church for several months before I decided to attend a meeting myself. I finally took the plunge one Sunday in April, 2011. My intention was to go just once to see what it was like.
I should have known by then that God’s plan for me was alway one of surprises, but I was quite unprepared for my reaction to the home church. I felt very apprehensive about attending. I’m a fairly shy person and I knew that I would know only one person at the meeting, and for some odd reason I felt that I might be seen as an unwelcome interloper. After all, I was just there to satisfy my scientific curiosity—to see and measure and judge what went on. I wasn’t really into this home church thing. I was skeptical. How could a dozen lay people in someone’s livingroom supplant or even echo the worship experience of a team of professional caliber musicians and the edification of a seminary trained preacher with a D.Div. degree?
What struck me first was that everyone was amazingly friendly. I’m reticent to the point that I was almost uncomfortable with their friendliness. But I readily could see that folks were reaching out to me and that they wanted me to feel as ease. After 40-min of socializing we ate and the potluck meal was great, and I thought the food alone was worth the trip. The other thing that impressed me about that first meeting was the depth of the discussion and the emotional transparency in people’s sharing. The couple who hosted the meeting both got a bit teary-eyed when testifying about their experience of the Lord’s presence in their lives that week.
Anyway, during that first meeting I became hooked, and after just a few short weeks I was pretty well convinced that home church was the way church was meant to be conducted. I liked the sharing. I liked the food and the fellowship. I liked the sense of family. I liked the fact that it was multigenerational. Our group consisted of 10 or 11 adult regulars, 4 young kiddoes and 4 or 5 teens. Those were the weekly folks and there were a couple of others who showed up from time to time.
Music is a very important element to me. I realize that “worship” is a lifestyle and not just music, as Rick Warren noted. However, the right music seems necessary for me to truly be in worship during a meeting, and I was surprised at how much our a capella, and eventual single guitar accompaniment, set the mood for the discussion and prayer. The scriptural underpinning for how church is to go is found in I Cor. 14:26: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or interpretation. All these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”
Not every meeting was a winner, but at its best it was as good as worship and edification could be. I was often humbled by the knowledge some had of scripture. Many were able to quote verbatim significant passages, whereas I was lucky to paraphrase. The maturity in Christ of some members was far greater than mine. I tend to read more about scripture than scripture itself, and I was frequently amazed at how a discussed passage of scripture became more and more a living and breathing revelation from the Lord as each gave their own unique contribution—each member’s comment being like another lit candle that progressively illuminated the face of Christ. I previously had an intellectual understanding of spiritual gifts and of us constituting the various parts of Christ’s Body—but now I could actually see the Spirit working before my eyes.
The other thing about home churches which was different was the level of intimacy amongst the various members. There was constant contact during the week via emails and posts on the group Facebook page. Prayer requests and encouragement were very much a constant. There was additional fellowship thru social events, men’s groups, women’s groups and Bible studies. Church was far more than an hour or two on the weekend. It echoed the level of intimacy in a family and, because of that, tensions and drama arose like in any family. There were times when the anonymity of the megachurch was appealing—to just sit in the back, watch the show and not have to deal with the family would be a relief.
Well, I am now a member of two home churches. The original group underwent a couple of splits which at the time they happened were not developments welcomed by all. There were differences in geography (locale) and in style of worship. But both groups have a sincere devotion to Jesus, and per First Corinthians 3, whether we be of Paul or Apollos or Cephas, we are all of Jesus and Jesus is of God. I feel blessed to be able to be part of both churches as well as still attending the megachurch on sunday evenings. But it was in watching the Spirit of Jesus work in the members (the organs) of a small group that I became able to see Him in me. He is alive in me and I in Him. However, in some fashion, this becomes magnified for me when I see Him in the Body. I don’t think I was really able to appreciate that until experiencing the intimacy of an organic church. So, I think that was God’s game-plan for me all along. I do not think an organic house church is necessarily His plan for everyone. However, I tend to believe His plan is one of a gradual unveiling—one revealing an ever-increasing glory that transforms our lives into His likeness (2 Cor. 3:18).
William Barclay makes a point relevant to my gradual transition in his commentary on Mark 8:22-26. He is writing about the miracle unlike any other. Jesus restores a man’s sight thru a process. Every other miracle of Jesus was instantaneous. Barclay writes: “There is symbolic truth here. No man sees all God’s truth all at once. One of the dangers of a certain type of evangelism is that it encourages the idea that when a man has taken his decision for Christ he is a full-grown Christian. One of the dangers of church membership is that it can be presented in such a way as to imply that when a person becomes a pledged member of the Church he has come to the end of the road.” Barclay goes on to make the point that this is just the beginning of discovery of “the inexhaustible riches” of Jesus.
George MacDonald, the Victorian novelist and clergyman, has written about the process of God’s children becoming true sons of God. We are all His children but becoming a true son requires an act of the will—a saying yes to Jesus and a putting to death of our own ego. It is not yet a perfect singularity but I think I’ve made definite progress. Home church gave me a vision of the riches found in Jesus and how His Spirit is manifested thru us, the Body who lives in Him. But beyond that I had to choose to have Him reside in me. It required a decision to choose the Cross on which the self dies. I think one of the problems I had in fully embracing Jesus in me was the hanging-on to my ego. Echoing John the Baptist, we must decrease for Him to increase.
So, I hope I’ve finally gotten it. I know I’m not the same Christian that I was 15 years ago. Like Solomon prayed for wisdom and was granted it, I’ve prayed to know Jesus intimately—Him living in me and me alive in Him.