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Airline seating is under the control of heaven

Flying constantly to lead seminars and meet with client churches, I prayed for God to arrange the seating on the airplanes.  On one such trip, from my window seat, I watched as my next seatmate placed his briefcase overhead.  When he looked down, he was startled to see who I was.

My fellow traveler was none other than the very pastor who had energetically and publicly attacked me at a pastor’s fellowship meeting seven years earlier.  He protested our opening our church and school to black families and children.  Those were in the closing “separate but equal” days of the Jim Crow South.

He was flustered.  “Brother George, I perceive that God arranged the seating reservations today.”

I thought he was probably right, but I waited quietly, until he continued.

“I owe you a long overdue apology.  Actually, two apologies.  I was wrong to attack you in the manner that I did.  I should have come to you privately, and I regret challenging you the way I did. Please forgive me.”

“The second apology concerns my attitudes about race.  I was wrong.  I went home to face a group of five families in my school who embodied the same attitude I held toward you.  They were so troublesome they took five years out of my life in that next year.  I came to seriously regret what I had said about you, as God dealt with me through them.”

He went on to explain that our host pastor had delivered a strongly prejudicial sermon the night before I spoke, and feared that my remarks were so contradictory that they would create a very damaging schism among his membership.  Vowing to rescue our host, my assailant had mounted the pulpit to obliterate my presentation, which he did quite effectively. Prejudice had found an ally, but it was out of step with history or biblical values.

In the words of my mentor, missiologist Donald McGavran, Christ has sent us to take the Gospel to “ta ethne,” all the people groups, tribes and races of mankind. And He is watching our work.

I had not protested the attack, because I was at peace that we were following a proper course.  But I would never have imagined the resolution as it unfolded.  God had once again shown He takes more interest in our affairs in more ways than I could conceive.

Under observation from heaven

The early ’70’s were turbulent times, mixing war protests, civil rights advances and ugly confrontations on campuses and sometimes in churches. I stumbled into the fray during one of my infrequent addresses to my pastor colleagues. I causally mentioned our ministry among black families. It was a footnote to another point, but it ignited a firestorm.
The speaker who followed me was respected for his energy and the rapid growth of his church and schools. He took issue with my remarks, devoting his entire 45 minutes to a defense of segregation and his declaration that my openness to working with blacks could not be of God.
My seat was on the second row, an awkward place to endure a verbal beating. Mid-sermon, an usher handed me a note: “You have a phone call, please follow me.”
Walking behind him out of the auditorium, I wondered if I might be facing a physical altercation with angry defenders of a threatened way of life. To my relief, he led to the office and handed me a phone. “It’s your wife,” he said.
“What’s the matter, honey?” I asked her, concerned at the unexpected call.. “Is anything wrong at home?”
“God told me to call you. Are you all right?”
Heaven was witnessing the events of that day!
“One of my colleagues is, right now, expressing his strong objection to our work with blacks. Thankfully, your call moved me away from the front of the room. Not a comfortable place to be right now.”
It would be seven years before another encounter pulled back the curtain on that day’s attack.

Exponential East 2017 – my first exposure.

When my long time collaborator, Warren Bird, insisted we should both participate, I was willing. Warren’s advice on books has carried us through six titles and helped countless pastors. The late April 2017 event would be in Orlando just a couple of weeks after Baker Books released our new edition of “How to Break Growth Barriers.”
With Exponential.org on my radar, information began trickling in. Their web site told part of their remarkable story, and phone interviews with the leadership filled in more.
Exponential is led by Dave Ferguson and Todd Wilson. A multi-site church planter and a former nuclear submarine engineer teamed to reset the bar for church planting efforts everywhere. Together, they intend to move the current level (estimated at 4%) of congregations involved in new church planting to above 10%. And they are very effectively doing what must be done to make it so.
Their strategy is straightforward: engage as many church leaders as possible in a conversation that leads to an inescapable conclusion. Since congregations have a predictable life span, and age and die, more and more new churches must be planted or the Christian faith will be hard to find within a very few generations.
In my experience, the engagement in Exponential began with the web site visit. Those who opened the site were offered free short books on conference themes going back several years, with access to well written and illustrated papers.
A walk around the display areas during the event exposed one to an impressive array of organizations and publishers who support church planting efforts.
Every attendee was invited to participate in five main sessions with two or three inspirational speakers and contemporary worship music in each, and five workshop sessions, chosen from a menu of 150.  More than five thousand attended the event. The range of topics and quality of the presentations was excellent. The schedule, though rich, was time limited, so that participants could take evenings for family outings at nearby attractions if they chose. And the final session included an altar time for anointing and prayers that benefited hundreds of church planter leaders.
Two main conferences and several regional ones put the Exponential emphasis within reach of much of the nation. The free downloads and modest enrollment fee make participation an easy decision. Exponential’s teams of staff and volunteers facilitated every aspect of the event very impressively. Good seminar design, well executed by highly motivated and capable teams, made the experience a delight, from bonus preconference sessions to the main event.

The God of Samuel spoke again

Dave and Louise Okken just celebrated another wedding anniversary on Facebook. They were in our church in Gainesville, Florida. His father, Paul, returned from Rwanda for medical treatment. Since missionaries are heroes in my family, meeting him was high on my agenda. He told of a twenty five year career, operating a trade school for the black citizens of Rwanda, followed by a recent burst of church planting activity.

How does a missionary work for more than two decades and suddenly, in the past five years, plant fifty churches?
I wondered if he had become Pentecostal, but as he was a Baptist, might be unwilling to admit it.
His story went back further than Pentecost, to a young Jewish understudy to ancient Israel’s high priest, Samuel. He heard the voice of God and received instruction he would follow to great success.

Okken, alive in our time, told of a day when he was driving on a mountain road, overlooking a valley filled with cooking fires from resettled refugees from the civil war in the Congo. He groaned in his spirit, with a burden that an evangelist would feel: “What’s to become of all those people?” He heard a voice from the empty front seat: “Ask Me for them.” Startled, he tried to ignore what he thought he might have heard, and drove on down the road.
At another curve, he once again caught sight of the valley with it’s scattered villages. Once again he questioned himself, wondering what was to happen to all those he could see. And once again he heard. very clearly, the Voice, instructing him to ask for their souls. Unsure of exactly how to proceed, Paul Okken prayed, then made a pledge: “Lord, in case this is You, I’ll go down and preach in that valley. If anyone responds, I’ll take it as guidance to return there to preach the Gospel further.”
He drove to the nearest village, preached Jesus, and saw eleven adults ask Christ to save them. Return visits followed, taking him from village to village, discovering pastors to train, until over fifty pastors were coming for training each week and returning to their villages to preach and lead village congregations. Eventually, his successors told me, over 200 churches were to be founded in that valley.
My response to Okken’s story was to experience a complete loss of peace. For weeks that followed, my wife would watch me pace the floor in our bedroom. She finally asked, “Why are you pacing the floor again? If you were doing what God has gifted and called you to do, besides leading and teaching this church, what would you be doing? My response surprised me more than her. “I’d be a church growth consultant!”
She asked what a next step would look like. I replied that I had no idea whatever, but that we could start by getting on our knees and telling God that I had heard Him, and that the next move was His. We didn’t know what to do next. “Show us the way, and we’ll follow it,” I promised.
The next day, just ten hours later, I was invited to Pasadena by Peter Wagner and John Wimber, to lead the Church Growth Department of the Fuller Evangelistic Association. I would spend the next 17 years teaching and consulting and coaching pastors in over a hundred denominations.
The God of Samuel, and of Paul Okken, was still speaking, and could be relied on to clarify a call and give guidance where needed.

Lifting the curtain on a spiritual battlefield

Our plans and hopes for moving forward were dashed by the stagflation of 1973. The project adviser explained why, and my stomach shut down. Four days later, I discovered I was in a fast, without knowing when it might end. My associate, Elmer Rund, retired USAF, and one of the most godly men I ever knew, said I could preach that weekend without breaking the fast.
After the last morning Service, I was called to my study, where one of the largest women I have ever known was waiting, with her husband. Staff had found her wandering about the campus, muttering and peeping, unresponsive to questions. She was known to me as a confessing Christian, and worked for a Christian day school as a bus driver. Now, semiconscious, we could all hear a conversation coming from her mouth, using several voices, alternatively cursing and threatening us. It was a scene worthy of “The Exorcist.” The voices responded to my questions with threats and taunts. We silenced them with the authority given to us by Christ, sent them away, and found a reasonable person controlling her body to complete the session.
That was the opening of a twelve month window that involved twenty different persons and a crash course in demonology and deliverance. Through hissing and screeching demon voices we learned that our work was being carefully watched and opposed in families and many neighborhoods. We learned that every passage in the Bible that described such experiences was helpful and needed. We found contemporary authors whose experiences were similar. The year came to a close only after a retired missionary from Japan observed our conflict and showed us how to escape the frequent entrapment.
It was a year of learning the usefulness of fasting, of the power of Christ over the evil, and the need for daily practice of prayers. It was a year of preparation for the much wider ministry that was soon to come, as we were called to Pasadena to undertake in-service training of thousands of pastors. The subject would be Church Growth. The reality would be beyond any set of propositions we might convey through lectures.

Accidentally diverse outreach; enduring fruit

My longtime friend, Sam Jones, Jr., with his son, Timothy, who now pastors their church, shared brunch recently in Gainesville, Florida.

Back when Segregation in Gainesville, Florida, was still pretty much in effect, we stumbled into a diverse future. Although I was culturally color blind and most of our university students were also, our community was still being educated in segregated classrooms and few churches were diverse, including ours.
Without intending to do anything about the racial divide, we envisioned a city-wide effort of childrens’ evangelism, whereby we would put a flyer on every doorstep and a chartered school bus at every street corner for a week. The promotional flyers were distributed by teams of collegians, who proudly reported success everywhere, including every white and black home in the area. Bus routes were mapped to cover every corner, regardless of color, and we waited that weekend with some anxiety as to what kind of response we could get. When the buses pulled in, the school director groaned “Oh, no!” I asked why. He said “these buses are almost full and we will double by tomorrow! We have to replan and restock tonight for we’ll be overwhelmed tomorrow.” He wasn’t aware that another factor was also in play – that these children would be experiencing diversity for the first time in their lives, or in the life of any group in Gainesville that we were involved with. They and we survived.
But the challenge didn’t stop when the week ended. Over a thousand children had come, many trusting Christ from their first hearing of the Gospel. How would we ever make disciples of those from black homes, when we knew so little of their families or how the cross-culture factors would impact whatever we did?
Sunday School was our imagined tool for training, but the numbers so overwhelmed our facilities that we had to move everything in our children’s ministry from Sunday to Saturday morning, including buses and classes.
That covered us for the present, but the long term responsibility was still looming. How would we take children into Christian adulthood without parents to help? We had strength enough to transport and teach for the time being, but we knew that effort would be unsustainable for the decades it would be needed.
Prayerfully, Ross Juneau, my intern, and I searched for a strategy that might lead us to a better resolution.
We found a way forward by searching for households in the community in which two parents were present with their children. We reasoned that if those parents found Christ, they could help us raise their own children to be disciples of Jesus. Furthermore, they knew the cultural turf better than we, so they could also help children from other homes that would be beyond our ability to sustain. Within a year, Ross had found more than a dozen families, which he evangelized and organized into a congregation. That church still exists, with forty years of ministry behind it and with the original pastor’s son as the successor pastor!
Our efforts to create a diverse congregation failed, not from our prejudice, but because they preferred to enjoy their own style in worship and teaching. They were invited, but declined. They were always willing to sing or preach for us, however, but felt the energy level in the white church services inadequate for their needs or their taste.
When I complained that we were failing to model the integration I thought they sought, our collegians took me aside and explained that I was behind the times, that true diversity was to be found in respecting and honoring the preferences of the minorities involved, even if their preferences did not align with my expectations. Learning to listen is step one in reconciling races. Noted.

Truth is not enough; Endorsement required

As a young minister, unproven but zealous, I would wonder about claims my fellow ministers would make about Our Movement.

They referred to us as “the most effective church planting” group in our State. That claim was made so often, I began to wonder how they ever came up with that.  If it were so, if we were the best there was, our State really needed help.  If it were not so, we needed to amend our ways and become more intentional about sponsoring new churches.

Some of the numbers were close at hand.  We were a fellowship of nearly 120 churches.  We were currently sponsoring six church plants.  Therefore, it took 20 of our churches to start a new work?  If new churches were underwritten for three years, we should be able to count seven new works every year. But we had not started even one new work in nearly a year. Hmmm.

The data was not all easy to come by.  The Internet and Google were not available yet.  I travelled to repositories at phone companies and eventually had photocopied the yellow pages of every phone book in the State.  I counted every church similar to our kind that had listed a phone.  Obviously ethnic ones were counted as of their own type. The big denominations were tallied separately from the unaffiliated ones.  And, of course, our movement was there, as well.

And what about that big denomination against which we compared ourselves? They had nine hundred churches and over one hundred new church-type missions. It only took nine of them to produce a new church!  It would be really awkward to embrace data that said we were not even half as good as the people we said we were better than.

I conceived a plan for data sharing, that would not draw negative conclusions from the data, but just post the data, often in a crude infographic form.  I made up “fact sheets” that I duplicated and attempted to hand out at the door as our fellowship meetings began.

Few pastors would even take one from me.  I puzzled over their lack of curiosity, smiled at those who took them, and went undaunted into the next information search.

About six months into this apparently fruitless effort, the chairman, from the platform, unbeknownst to me, held up one of my earlier fact sheets and quoted from it, saying it had been prepared by “our fellowship statistician,” and that it was time we carefully considered its implications.

The next meeting, every pastor who came through the door reached for a fact sheet.  Some even smiled.  I was amazed.  Endorsement. Wow.

I did not realize it was the beginning of the end.  Within the year, I would be called to Fuller, where my next seventeen years of ministry to pastors and denominational leaders would build on interests and skills I did not realize had been already in use, in preparation in those local fellowship meetings.  I had begun before I started.

Discovering Wilberforce and the roots of freedom

For a Master’s Recital, I was tasked with writing an original monodrama that I would present in costume, live, onstage. Choosing a character from history who contributed significantly to our current worldview. I considered Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln.
At long last it occurred to me that the American experience with the end of slavery, however significant here, was not an early effort in global emancipation. Nearly fifty years before our Civil War, England had already stopped slave trading, and thirty years earlier had abolished most slavery.
How was it possible that England could do that? It came several years after John Wesley and his Methodist revivals, so was there a connection? John Newton, former slave trader ship captain, later clergyman and author of “Amazing Grace,” had been influenced by John Wesley. But it was a young member of Parliament and close friend of the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who actually carried the cause forward. William Wilberforce spent over twenty years advocating the end of the slave trade, before the 1807 Act of Parliament passed that abolished it. His call to this cause was profoundly spiritual and fueled by a persistence that made me choose to focus on him. He was vilified and referred to as a friend and patron of black slaves. His life was threatened by commercial interests. He became my hero.
I traveled to Wilberforce University in Ohio, interviewed retired professors there. Everything in print I could find about Wilberforce I collected. No movie about him existed yet, and no biography by such an esteemed author as Eric Metaxas. Ironically, the school in which I was studying was the notoriously segregationist Bob Jones University, more known for Shakespeare than diversity. It was a credit to BJU that not once did I hear anyone say it was strange that Wilberforce would be featured there.
But Wilberforce put me on a path to become aware of what lay behind the Civil Rights Movement here in America.
I was on track to becoming a friend to a people I did not know.

Starting before I began…

When my mentor, Peter Wagner, discovered Dr. Houts’ article about spiritual gifts in a 1976 Eternity magazine article, which included an inventory or test to identify ones gifts, he immediately saw its usefulness. Based on a simple premise, Dr. Houts had asked readers to report their previous experiences, arranged under topics called out in the New Testament as “spiritual gifts.” To the extent they reported positive experiences, readers were asked to examine those areas closely, because what they experiences was the result of unrealized giftedness. Peter Wagner added a few more of the gifts listed by St. Paul, and the Wagner-Houts Questionnaire was born, and with it a host of look alike inventories.
Before we begin to use our gifts, which we recognize to be from God, we have already started using them, consciously or not. My experience with church consulting and racial reconciliation were found working together even before I was conscious of either.
While still in post grad studies at the University of Florida, as a sociology student, I was approached by a black pastor from Ocala, who led a study group of black pastors while he worked on a degree in sociology. Since my church had high visibility, this pastor asked that he be allowed to bring his study group for a time to understand how to lead their congregations more effectively. One of my professors at UF heard of it and strongly endorsed my participating in this way. I took my staff intern, Ross Juneau, and we embarked on a voyage of discovery. We conducted group sessions and also went into the field with these pastors. We had become church growth consultants and racial reconciliation advocates before we knew we were. Those themes continue forty years later. We had stumbled into ministry, unsure of ourselves, but the fruit was good.
Now, using this knowledge – that many gifts of the spirit are experienced before they are recognized – I continually seek to affirm gifted behaviors in rising leaders, knowing that such affirmations can encourage them to become aware of and therefore to utilize their gifts more intentionally in ministering.

Island of knowledge, shoreline of wonder…

Spiritual darkness was alluded to, but not well defined, in our circles in the early 1960’s. For decades, visiting missionaries at our dinner table had tipped us off. They told of ominous encounters with an unseen world, but privately, seldom in public meetings.
A summer mission team assignment to Hawaii led to early hints of spiritual warfare. My cottage was behind a dune at this beachside on Maui’s North Coast, near Paia.  Eight of us, mostly grad students, conducted Bible schools for Islander children, toured on weekends and worshiped with the sponsoring church. The children were easy to love, but they did not respond as Stateside children had when the Gospel was shared with them.
One Sunday afternoon our team had a massive confrontation. Everyone had a gripe about the non-performance of others. Even the missionary reported his wife was oddly unhappy with us. Her health was why they relocated to Maui, to find a safer place for her.  In those days, we were not equipped to help her find healing and freedom.
As we met and prayed, it occurred to me that our experience was a result of an attack by the enemy of our souls. The dissention and complaining had come upon all of us, all at once, and was obviously a vicious blow to our morale.  As a team, we confessed our faults to one another, asked for forgiveness, and specifically rebuked all spirits opposing our mission in the authority given us by Jesus Christ.
The Monday that followed was unremarkable to any observer, except that at day’s end, when we recounted our contacts with the children throughout that day, we recorded 29 conversations in which a child had asked to pray and received Christ as Savior!
We had stumbled into a spiritual ambush, recognized it for what it was, used the authority and tools given to us by our Savior, and witnessed the outcome to which our mission was dedicated.
We did not understand how demonization works, nor did we have the insights and tools that might had led to freedom for our missionary hosts. That was still to come. But our island of knowledge had grown, and with it the shoreline of wonder was enlarged, preparing us for next learning steps that continue even now.