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Dangerous ChurchRisking Everything to Reach Everyone
By John Bishop
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 John Bishop
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFROM A MOMENT TO A MOMENT
MY DAD DIED WHEN I WAS FOUR YEARS OLD, and even as a young child I was marked by bitterness and anger. Not only did our family never attend a church; I never wanted to go to church! I had little contact with Christians in my youth and saw even less need for the church in my life. All this worked great for me — that is, until I met a gorgeous, five-foot-tall blonde who forced me to quickly reevaluate my willingness to go to church. When you meet someone like that, things change quickly! If she wants you to go to church, you go to church, whenever, whatever, and however she says. At the time, I made an outward decision for Christ, a decision that had very little to do with my heart. I wasn't living surrendered to Christ, and honestly, I was more interested in sealing the deal with the girl of my dreams than following Jesus Christ. But I was given a simple ultimatum: "I can't marry you unless you are a Christian." Without hesitating, I asked her, "Where do I go to do that?" In my mind, becoming a Christian was no different than joining the Boy Scouts or becoming an Elks club member. Let's get some Jesus, grab the tux, and get on with the honeymoon. Jesus was nothing more than a line on my checklist for realizing my future dreams.
So I went to church, I prayed a prayer, but I never truly surrendered my heart, my plans, and my will to Christ. I was your typical twenty-five-year-old guy focused on pleasing myself. I was a living, breathing illustration of the person Jesus describes in Matthew 7: outwardly religious, willing to do the church thing, but lacking a real relationship with Jesus. Sadly, when the time came for the man described in Matthew 7 to finally stand before Jesus, he heard Jesus say the four most frightening words in the Bible: "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23). His story was my story. I was acting like a Christian, but I didn't really know God. I knew about him and was even doing things for him, but in all my knowledge and activity I had somehow missed the person.
By God's grace, I had a tragic accident that nearly ended my life. I know that sounds unusual, but it truly was a gift of God's grace. I was taking a martial arts lesson, engaged in full-contact sparring with an old friend, and was kicked twice in the nose. At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal — except that I had severed a main artery and was bleeding out my nose and in my throat! By the time I finally got home, I couldn't stop my bloody nose. My wife drove me to the hospital, and I passed out in the waiting room. Doctors discovered that I had already lost almost five pints of blood. They called in a specialist to examine my injuries, and to this day I remember his name: Doctor Faust. You don't forget people who save your life!
That day, had I died, I would have faced a Christless eternity. Despite my regular attendance at church and my religious activities, I did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. As I began to consider the reality of my death, the life I was living, and the many ways I fell short of God's standard, it was all too much for me. I thought of my little two-year-old son, standing by the bed, who would never see his daddy again. I pictured him growing up, as I had, without a father — bitter and angry at his life and at God. And I desperately wished for a second chance, an opportunity to do things differently.
So there I was, lying on my deathbed (or so we thought at the time), and the medical professionals with all their skill and wisdom could not stop the bleeding. In that moment, we called a pastor to come and pray with us. His name was Neal Curtiss (again, you don't forget people who save your life). I'd never given the church a dime, and I really didn't even like the church, but Pastor Neal answered the call at 2:00 a.m. without hesitating and came to pray for me.
I know it's a bit of a cliché to say this, but it's still true: people don't care what you know until they know that you care. Neal's act of grace and kindness, visiting me in the hospital and praying for me at two o'clock in the morning, catalyzed the beginning of my journey to God. Though I almost lost my life, my family, and everything that mattered to me, I thank God often for that day. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I experienced firsthand that our accidents, failures, and tragedies can also be divine opportunities. The loss of something dear to us can end up saving our life in the end. I have learned that even when I can't see the end and don't know how things will turn out, God is still faithful. I didn't need or want God in my life, and I certainly didn't want him to ruin my plans. Little did I know that God wasn't going to give up on me. He wasn't interested in bringing incremental changes to my life. Instead he chose to use an event that would teach me that he loves me. Looking back, I clearly see that my "accident" that day was less accidental and far more purposeful than I ever could have imagined. God had a plan for me, a plan that was just beginning to unfold.
I started going to church again, but something had changed in me. I began to listen at a different level. After only a few weeks, I joined a small group led by Pastor Neal. Neal was straight with me and asked me up front if I thought I would go to heaven if I died, and without hesitating I said no. I knew the truth in my soul, and I wanted things to be different. So on that day — October 4, 1988 — I asked Christ into my heart. But it was more than an empty prayer this time. As I cried out to God to save me, I sensed an insatiable desire to walk with Jesus, to follow him, and to surrender my life to him.
So that's what I did.
Shortly afterward I started volunteering in the youth department of our little church. I couldn't learn fast enough and wanted to know everything I could about the One to whom I'd surrendered my life. I was hungry for truth, and I began reading everything I could find about God, about Jesus, and about the church. It was all so new to me, and I was so impatient to know more. At the same time, I also sensed a new desire, something I had never asked for but a distinct passion to share the message of God's love and to serve people who didn't know God. Not knowing exactly where God was leading me, I worked to finish my undergraduate degree and decided to enter seminary. (Don't be too impressed; it took me fourteen years to finish what takes most people three years!) I simply knew three things, three unshakeable convictions that guided my passions and decisions. First, I knew beyond a doubt that I was a hopeless sinner and would have spent eternity in hell because my choices had separated me from God forever. Second, I knew that while I was living blindly in my sin, Christ died for me. While I was making fun of Christians and looking down on the church, Christ was right there pursuing me. His grace eventually hit me like a hammer and saved my life: a divine interruption that destroyed my selfish bent and won my heart. Third, I knew that I could do nothing else with my life now but give it up to serve the God who had pursued me. I knew that there were thousands of people just like me who still needed to know the truth about God and experience his love. God was calling me to seek the lost, and he was calling me to serve his church.
THE EARLY DAYS
Stepping out in faith, I and several of my friends from the church began an evangelistic ministry called Focus One. We developed the ministry based on 2 Corinthians 4:18: "We don't look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever." Fixing our gaze on the unseen, we sent a letter to each of the four hundred churches in our county, letting them know about our ministry and our amazing plan to reach the world for Christ, and then we manned the phones, waiting for the calls. We waited. And waited some more. But not one invitation came. Nada. Nothing. Zip. Talk about your dreams being flushed down the toilet. I had been filled with optimism and faith and had been completely confident that God had called me to evangelize the entire world — and my big, audacious plans were met with complete rejection. Thankfully, Pastor Neal graciously asked (allowed) us to do a three-night crusade over Easter weekend. It wasn't what we had hoped for, but it was a start.
It was also my first lesson in learning that God's plans don't always match ours. That three-night crusade led to a moment I won't forget. At the end of the final ser vice on the last day of our one (and likely only) evangelistic crusade, I stood up and asked if anyone was ready to surrender their life to Christ. I shared a teaching from Luke 12, the parable Jesus told about the guy who stored up everything for this life and failed to think about the next life. God called him a fool because his soul would be required of him that very night. As you might guess, I shared this parable as part of my testimony, because it was a retelling of my own story. I shared how I would have likely heard those same words — "You fool!" — and how I had been spared by God's grace.
I gave the altar call, the music began to play, and suddenly my grandpa, the man who had raised me after the death of my father, came walking down the aisle. There I was, standing at the front of the auditorium, dressed up in my best suit, watching my grandfather make his way toward me. I had no words. This was a man who had lived as I had, far from God, and here he was, in front of me — the man who had sacrificed so much of his own life to raise me — about to receive eternal life.
As he came forward that day, we embraced and he began to cry. I said to him, "Pop, you're going to receive Christ!" and in that very moment God put a vision in my heart — a vision to start a church for people like my grandfather, people who aren't about church and don't want anything to do with God. And that's what we did. Nine months later we had given birth to a new church: five families (ten adults), no money, and a consuming passion to reach lost people.
We didn't have a building, and we didn't have a clue what we were doing. There was no church-planting strategy and no denominational support. We were just convinced that lost people mattered to God, and I could look at my own life and the life of my grandfather as living proof that God can change hard hearts. That was it! We knew that for our church ser vices to reach people for Christ, we had to be deeply convinced of that truth and just keep it real simple.
Still, because I was inexperienced and lacked confidence (both in myself and in God), there were plenty of doubts and questions. Practically, we had no idea where to begin, who to talk to, or how to make decisions. So we began by copying what others had done. I copied sermons from other pastors, and I tried to preach like my heroes — Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Billy Graham, just to name a few. Somehow I thought that if I just did exactly what they had done, I would be as successful as they were. It took almost seven years of this for us to learn who we were. Sure, we were a good church, filled with passion and energy, but in our attempts to be like other churches, we were missing God's unique call for our ministry. Eventually I realized I couldn't just keep copying what others had done, and decided it was time to let God guide our future and shape our identity as a church. Instead of trying to do what everyone else was doing, we decided to be who we were and step into the opportunities that God was opening up for us.
LIVING HOPE: A CHURCH FOR THE LOST
When we first started Living Hope Church, I remember hearing Bill Hybels say, "The local church is the hope of the world, and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders." Those simple words radically changed my heart and shaped my perspective on ministry. I believe that the local church is the real hope for the world, not because of who we are but because of who God is. We are nothing more than a simple church in the Pacific Northwest that has received some attention because of what God is doing here. Our story is really God's story being told through us. We are led by broken people who desperately want to bring Jesus to the world and make his name famous.
Even though our church was birthed in 1996, our story actually begins in 2004. For those first seven or eight years, we did a lot of good things: we loved people, grew a bit, had small groups, did spiritual gift surveys, had ministries to meet needs, and gathered for worship each week. We saw people saved and connected in community. We saw people give, serve, and love others. We saw marriages restored and relationships renewed. We made plans to build a building, change the world, and increase our ministry effectiveness. We were a good church with lots of plans. But that was our biggest problem: our plans.
Dangerous churches are willing to look back in order to take the next step forward. Unfortunately, often we get caught looking at the past, at our accomplishments and failures, and our vision is limited and determined by what we have already done. We stay where we are, stuck in our old ways of doing things, or we expect a miracle of the distant past to happen again. We stick with what is comfortable and normal. We allow for God's work, but only in the ways we have seen him work in the past.
The greatest changes in our church began with shifts in my own heart. It all began with a commitment I made, a determination to stop looking at what other churches were doing and start listening to God, focusing my heart on the mission he had given to me. I began reading and thinking about what it means to be the church. I studied the example of the early church in the book of Acts and compared my own experience as a church leader with what I read in the pages of Scripture. And as I grew in my willingness to address the shortcomings I saw in my own life, I began to tackle those hard issues in the church as well.
THE CHURCH IN ACTS
As we began moving in this new direction as a church, I had to start by asking myself some fundamental questions about our identity as a church and what we could learn about the early church in the book of Acts. What is the church? What are we supposed to be about? Who is the church for? What mattered most to those leaders of the early church? And what lessons can we learn from their experiences in the book of Acts, principles that are applicable to our world today? I believe that if we are to be relevant to our community, we need to look to the past; we need to return to the example of that first church. As I studied the Scriptures, I noticed some clear differences between the life of the early church and the life of the church we find in America today.
The early church had a culture of reaching its community, but the contemporary church seems to be focused on keeping the people already saved. The early church was controlled by the Holy Spirit, while the church of our generation seems to be controlled by its leaders. The early church was marked by the supernatural — they saw and lived in the miraculous — but the contemporary church is often focused on superficial things that don't matter to the lost. Today some churches are driven by comfort and convenience, while the church in Acts was marked by sacrifice.
In the early church, there was one, clear, encompassing mission — spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church did other things, of course, but these things were done to strengthen the church and build up the community so they were able and equipped to do the one thing that defined their primary mission: seeking the lost and sharing the gospel. We find Peter and Stephen preaching about the need for repentance and urging people to come to Christ; we see the Word of God being proclaimed in the midst of persecution; we see committed witnesses to the truth, courageous and on fire for God; we see brokenness mixed with grace; and we see people getting saved and baptized on the same day.
Excerpted from Dangerous Church by John Bishop Copyright © 2011 by John Bishop . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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