MANY ARE CALLED, BUT FEW CAN STAND IT
In March of 1993, what came to be known as “the Toronto Blessing” hit the United States. Rodney Howard-Browne held his first convention in the Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, Florida. That convention went on for weeks. From there, it quickly spread to other parts of North America . . . most notably Toronto, Canada; Melbourne, Florida; and Pensacola, Florida.
Upon hearing about the new move of God in March of 1993, I traveled to Lakeland and sat in on the first meetings where “the blessing” was spawned in the States. Three years later, in January 1996, I traveled to Melbourne, Florida and sat in a meeting at the Tabernacle Church officiated by Randy Clark when the phenomenon had spread there in full force. (Little did I know then that exactly ten years later I would be invited to speak to that same church.)
1994 marked an important year in my life. Not because of my encounters with “the Toronto blessing,” but because of what happened as a result. One of my closest friends is a man named Frank Valdez. I met Frank in 1992. He visited our church and quickly began meeting with us.
Frank is the wisest Christian I’ve ever met. He is also the most knowledgeable and spiritually insightful. (I’ve often told people, “If you don’t want to know the answer to your question, don’t ask Frank Valdez.”) In addition, unlike many gifted Christian men, Frank is completely honest, straight-forward, and has no trace of a manipulative or deceptive spirit.
In October 1994, as we were sharing lunch together, I told Frank about my observations on “the Toronto blessing.” This led into an invaluable discussion that marked a turning point in my life. Frank said to me, “There is a Christian tradition that practices a form of prayer that employs no words. It’s beyond speaking in tongues and deeper than the Toronto blessing.” He had my attention.
As I quizzed him about his comment, Frank began to share with me about the tradition of Christian spirituality (also called “the deeper Christian life” or the “interior Christian life”). As a result of this conversation, I began reading up on this tradition and discovered new and fresh ways to commune with the Lord that were far richer than anything I learned in the charismatic/Pentecostal tradition—ways that I began to build into my own devotional life.
That same year, our church was getting so large that we couldn’t fit into the largest home among us. A decision had to be made. One option was to buy or rent a larger facility. The other was to multiply into two different parts of the city.
Up to that point, we had learned to make all major decisions by consensus.
(By the way, if you are out of your mind . . . if you’re stark-raving mad . . . if you’re a certified lunatic, your church will make decisions by consensus. I say that because it’s one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do as a Christian. Nevertheless, it’s the best way to ensure that the Lord’s mind has been secured. It’s also quite Biblical. Because of it’s transformational properties, I regard it to be a spiritual discipline right up there with fasting.)
It took us six grueling months to reach a consensus. Six months of meetings to discuss, disagree, contemplate, argue, pray, cajole, philosophize, theologize, and everything that else that goes on when a diverse group of diverse people with diverse views try to come to one mind on an issue.
The decision was finally reached. We decided to multiply into two groups. One would meet on the east side of the city; the other would meet on the west side. It was an interesting experience, indeed.
When 1995 came, we had reached eight years together. On November 5, 1995, both groups came together for a joint meeting. The brothers and sisters who were present laid hands on me and sent me out to the Lord’s work.
From 1995 to 1997, I spent most of my time doing four things. One, spying out the land to see what the Lord was doing in the city where I lived. Two, engaging in travailing prayer with a small group of young people who had caught the vision for a new church plant in our city. Three, grappling with how God was working in the traditional church, and how I was supposed to relate to it. And fourth, writing a book that would give language to much of what I learned about the church in my eight-year experience of organic church life.
The book was called Rethinking the Wineskin. I was 32 years old when it was self published. (I later revised it and it’s now called Reimagining Church, a much better book.)
From the human point of view, writing that book was purely accidental. In 1996, I began hosting a bulletin board discussion (the nascent prelude to the Internet). The subject was “Rethinking the Practice of the Early Church.” Every other week, I would post an essay on a different aspect of church practice. For instance, one week I would post an essay on the early church meeting. Another week I would write about how the early Christians took the Lord’s supper. Another week I would discuss the leadership of the first-century church. People read the articles and responded.
The response amazed me. It demonstrated that there was a broad thirst among Christians for understanding the church in a fresh light. Not long afterwards, people would request copies of the essays. So I would staple them together and mail them out. At the same time, many were asking me why I didn’t belong to a traditional church. Someone then suggested that I compile all the essays into a book.
The idea of publishing a book had never occurred to me before that point. When I investigated how much it would cost to print one, I was shocked to find that one had to print at least a thousand copies in order to get a decent rate. My immediate reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me. What am I going to do with 950 copies of this book?” (You see, I could only envision 50 people wanting to read it.)
Well, I was wrong. In March of 1997, we printed the book and within months, they were gone. (Word of mouth is one mighty phenomenon. And so is the Internet. I owe my experience with the latter to my friend Hal Miller who created my first web page. Thanks, Hal.)
Since that time, I’ve been writing books on my experience of Christ and His church. In some of them, I skate on invisible ice. In others, I get out on a limb and start sawing hard.
But behind all the provocative things I’ve written, there’s a sincere effort for clear ground toward the centrality of Jesus Christ in the lives of God’s people. If my books prod sacred cows, my motivation is singular: I’m trying to remove a great deal of debris in order to make room for the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a word, my books are trying to get Christians to ask new questions about long-held assumptions that haven’t been challenged by very many people. The goal being to chip away everything that is not Jesus Christ.
Despite what some people have told me, I don’t fancy myself a very good writer. In fact, I will shamelessly admit that whenever I pick up a book by Max Lucado, I decide on the spot that I’ll never write another word again. (The man can paint pictures with words where readers can literally see what’s being described.)
So far, I’ve always managed to overturn that decision. I suppose the reason is because I feel there’s a message that needs to get out . . . a message that’s been given far too little air-play in our day . . . a message that burns within me day and night. So while I may not be a Max Lucado in my ability to craft words with peerless elegance, I feel acutely burdened to give voice to that which God has laid on my heart.
Perhaps you might find encouragement in the above admission. Simply put, one doesn’t have to possess a golden pen in order to minister to others. Not to my mind anyway.
As a result of the broad effect that Wineskin had, doors quickly opened for invitations to speak in various places. So in 1997, I began traveling and speaking on God’s eternal purpose, of which His church stands at the center. In 1998, I began the ministry that I’m actively engaged in today: Planting, nurturing, encouraging, and equipping first-century styled churches that stand for God’s timeless purpose.
To my thinking, I could have never been involved in organic church planting until I first had experience in such a church as a non-leader. Aspiring church planters should take heed to this. It’s virtually impossible to give birth to that which you’ve never experienced yourself. En. For a detailed discussion on this principle, see my book Finding Organic Church.
For more information, see Frank Viola Author and these other links: