This is the second of a series of reflections about what I have learned in the process of trying to implement the insights from my book 6 Radical Decisions in the life of a local church.
The first radical decision is really the main one… That Jesus is first in everything. As I wrote yesterday, I actually had a lot to learn about what this meant in practise from the lead pastor of our church, Jeremy Peters.
As I have already mentioned, although Jeremy felt called to church leadership, he doesn’t fit the archetype of a North American Pastor. He is much more interested in people’s personal relationship with Jesus than how many bums are on seats on a Sunday morning. That is a good thing.
As I wrote in my book, Jesus being the centre is the central, and in many ways, the only core question of the health of a church. The fact that Jeremy was wired this way meant that there was a strong foundation at St. Albert Alliance church. The foundation though, took intentional and strategic effort.
One of the phrases that Jeremy would say repeatedly about the church is that “We don’t want Jesus to be the figurehead of this church, we want Him to be the functional head of this church.” At I was to learn, this was much more than just a motto.
Jeremy has recounted the journey of stepping into what was initially an acting leadership role after the previous senior leader left suddenly following a marriage split. He spoke both about the sense of calling associated with the moment and the sense of fear. He, and a few of the elders who were present at the meeting, relate the experience of discovering what we have come to call “listening prayer”.
As Dallas Willard writes:
Being close to God means communicating with him, which is almost always a two-way street. In our ongoing friendship with God we tell him what is on our hearts in prayer and learn to perceive what he is saying to us.
At a moment when the elders board was looking to Jeremy for an answer, he led them in prayer. His assumption was that, although he wasn’t sure personally, he was sure that Jesus had an answer so they needed to stop and ask him what it was. My interpretation of the story of that meeting was that there was almost a sense of awe as they went around the table and asked each person present what they thought they heard Jesus saying. There was resonance and harmony in each answer. As Jeremy became fond of saying “Jesus knows stuff”.
This journey had started well before I arrived at the church, and was part of the reason I ended up with a job. Jeremy and Nathan (the Associate Pastor) had prayed through what they believed the church needed from the position that would ultimately become mine.
As I mentioned yesterday, they had been on a journey which ultimately led them to name the purpose of the church as helping people to live as apprentices of Jesus. As they prayed and wrestled they knew that this trajectory needed new insight and leadership in the areas of local and global mission, but they weren’t exactly sure what that looked like. The outcome was a very broad job description with a pre-amble that said, in part:
With this in mind, we are seeking someone to give pastoral leadership to our church family in planting the Gospel in our city, region and around the world. We are looking for someone who is both theologically shaped and pastorally gifted – able to cast a biblical Kingdom-sized vision and equip people to effectively involve themselves within it. Someone whose heart for reaching and ministering to the lost will significantly shape our church culture as it is reproduced in the people that they lead.
It was an unusual Job Description, and they had an unusually challenging time filling it. As I sat across the boardroom table from the three guys in the initial interview, I had no idea that they had been searching for 18 months for someone to fill the job and that on a number of occasions they had brought potential applicants to the elders board where, in listening prayer, there was a clear sense that Jesus was saying no. They had also offered the position to a few others who had also said no. Filling my job had become, in some ways, a test case for listening prayer.
Jeremy tells me that at one point, as the elders were expressing concerns that the role wasn’t being filled, one of the elders spoke up and said “I have a sense that it is possible that the right person might not yet even be in the country.” As it turns out I wasn’t.
So “listening prayer” became the primary decision making mode at the elders board and amongst the staff. On a number of occasions the team went into a time of prayer sure of what the outcome should be, only to have the decision overturned by Jesus. It turns out that Jesus has opinions about things that don’t always align with ours. And now after a number of years making decisions like this, we can see that in fact Jesus does indeed know stuff.
We can point to a number of instances where the obvious or logical decision would have led us astray, but the decision made through listening prayer led us in the right direction. We can also point to instances where the decisions made through listening prayer still don’t quite make sense at a rational level, but somehow they were clearly right.
One of my favourite bits of poetry is about a tandem bicycle ride (you can read the full thing at faithreflections.org here). No one knows who wrote it, but I often use it when I am teaching about faith. One of the passages says:
I don’t know just when it was that He suggested we change places, but life has not been the same since. When I had control, I knew the way. It was rather boring, but predicable…….It was the shortest distance between two points.
But when he took the lead, He knew delightful long cuts, up mountains, and through rocky places at breakneck speeds, it was all I could do to hang on!
As Jesus becomes the functional head of a church, things start to shift. Things are no longer boring and predictable.
One of the big challenges for Jeremy has been to transfer this culture of listening prayer, which has become normal for the elders and staff, to the whole congregation.
He has implemented a number of strategies apart from making listening prayer a normal reference point in our preaching.
Jeremy connected with another church in Manitoba who had also been on the journey of listening prayer. From them we took two courses, one called Hearing God and one called Encounter God. One of my first experiences at the church was sitting in a room of 250 people and going through the Hearing God course together. Both courses have been very important in shaping our culture and understanding.
Another thing that Jeremy took from Southland church in Manitoba was the idea of regular prayer summit. One of the things we say regularly is that “We want to move prayer from the margins to the centre of all we are about.” The Prayer Summits are a practical outworking of this impulse. Every couple of months we gather for an hour and a half to pray together as a whole community.
The Prayer Summits were launched after a 40 days of prayer intensive focus which was based around Mark Batterson’s book Draw the Circle. Every day at 3:20, those who opted in would recieve a text message with Ephesians 3:20 which became the motif of the 40 days:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,
The stories of answered prayer were as heartening as the sight of a couple of hundred of our people gathered to pray at our first Prayer summit at the culmination of the forty days.
Some of the books that have been important in informing this aspect of our journey, in addition to Batterson’s one have been Dallas Willard’s Hearing God and John Eldredge’s Walking with God.
So, in summary, the shift that Jeremy is continuing to lead the church towards is for Jesus to be the functional head, not only of the congregation but of each one of our lives. This is made possible when we take the time to listen to him. It is not complicated but it is revolutionary.
We are still on the journey, but this impulse has been critical in shaping the emerging culture of the church.