The Well's Journey

The Well’s Journey
http://www.leavethebuilding.com

The Well’s Story
When you tell the story of a move of God, it’s difficult to know where to begin. He is often so far ahead of us that we cannot know exactly when we enter the picture.

But, I am confident of this—God continues to transform His Church. Each movement may look a little (or a LOT) different, but that’s the beauty of the diverse Body of Christ.

Ours is a story of how God helped remove a burden that was keeping us from actually being the church instead of meeting in one. And He’s not done yet. Daily, The Well groans steadily forward, celebrating and submitting to the pains and pleasures of growth. We have only yet begun to discover what God intended for The Well when He led us to shed our building and become a community of house churches.

And this is why we share our story with you. We’re convinced that many churches today find themselves where we once were: carrying a burden that is keeping them from becoming the church. For us, and I suspect many others, it was our building that had become an anvil we drug around by our necks. While we are still openly learning what it means to be a house church in America, The Well asks these individuals and churches: Has God been writing a similar story for you?

What is keeping you from becoming the church?

The Beginning…as We Know It

The story of The Well—our church body now located in Orange County, California—actually began long before I became its pastor. Founded in 1952, the church was originally named First Southern Baptist of La Habra. For 50 years, the church experienced many ebbs and flows, growth and decline. While at one time regular attendance reached nearly 700 people, numbers dwindled to about 15 or 20 by late 2003.

But size wasn’t even the biggest concern. In more recent years, pastors seemed to come and go as if there were a revolving door at the back of the sanctuary. The members sold their current building and in turn pay rent for another property and pay a pastoral salary. But they just could not get a pastor to stay.

And here is where I entered the story. The Director of Missions for our denomination, Doyle Braden, invited me out for coffee. At that time, I was a technical director at another church in Orange County. My family and I felt settled in our roles there and were not looking for major changes. So as Doyle and I sipped our “joe” that day, I listened half-heartedly as he asked whether I would consider stepping into the senior pastor role at the struggling First Southern Baptist Church, then of North Orange County.

While I just wanted to leave that meeting and not think twice about his offer, I figured I should at least check it out. That’s the pastoral thing to do, right? So with a heavy sigh, I agreed to take my son to a youth event that the church was holding, to see the situation for myself.

From the moment I walked into the sanctuary, the word “traditional” screamed at me from every wooden pew and plastic flower bouquet adorning the platform. A monstrous, handmade oak pulpit took center stage, right next to the colossal white Bible that lay open on the altar. The place smelled like dust. Maybe that’s what kept the youth away that night, as only a handful showed up for the event.

I remember thinking, “This is sad.” And as I drove home with my son that evening, my heart was unsettled by what I had seen and heard. I quickly rejected the pastoral position and the church, assuming the opportunity to be an open and shut door. Little did I know that God still had His foot wedged in the doorstop.

Six months later, Doyle approached me again with the same request—that I consider interviewing for the pastoral position at First Southern Baptist Church. Images of that huge wood lectern and dusty plastic flowers flashed through my head. But without any eagerness, I agreed to meet with the church’s board.

The interview began as expected. Two elderly gentlemen, a man in his thirties, and two women sat around a table as I answered questions about myself and my ministry experience. As I looked at their faces, I could sense that years of highs and lows had taken their toll. From surrendering their building to the lack of consistent pastoral leadership, this congregation was beaten up.

When it came time during the interview for me to ask questions, I simply asked, “What’s next for First Southern Baptist Church of North Orange County?” Eyes darted around at each other, as if searching for an answer. While they did not seem to know where God was leading, one deep, confident voice broke the silence by saying, “The Holy Spirit is not through with us.”

His beautiful answer gripped my heart. Although many people within my denomination had warned me not to take on such a dysfunctional church, I believed with this elder that God was still moving in their midst. So, in November 2003, I became the pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church of North Orange County.

From Tension to Terror

From the first time I stepped behind that sequoia of a pulpit, I began to butt heads some in the church body. My brain was fuzzy with confusion as I attempted to reach out to a more contemporary culture, as they had requested. But every time I tried to make a change, I quickly found I had trespassed into sacred territory.

Every week, they insisted on having me include an altar call at the end of each service—even though all 20 of them had been saved for decades. The giant, white Bible stared me down each week, just daring me to take it off the altar. Even moves I thought were “wise,” like changing the Wednesday night prayer meetings or no longer paying a team to lead worship, got me into trouble.

I soon discovered that although the church had almost a million dollars in the bank, the money was untouchable. They were convinced that cash would someday buy land so they could build a new building. Perhaps they forgot that a million dollars would not even get them an acre of ground in Orange County. Nonetheless, the funds were off limits, and I was left to figure out how the church could afford its $5,000 per month rent. I felt like I was steering a sinking ship, filled with untouchable cargo that would surely capsize us sooner or later.

Despite such opposition, we grew from 20 to about 50 in the first few months. For awhile, I gave up trying to remove any sacred cows and decided to try out a few new, funky techniques I read about. We even tried a coffee-house style evening, complete with dim lighting, candles, and bluesy band. The endeavor flopped with a thud. At the most, three people showed up. I felt like I was back at square one, desperately wanting to discover something radical.

So I prayed…and prayed.

During this time, one change did stick. A congregation member approached me in the spring of 2004 with the idea of amending the church’s name. As a body, we prayed about the name change and began to throw around possibilities, finally landing on The Well. After a complete redesign to give the church a “new look,” we planned an official launch Sunday, to meet as The Well for the first time. The occasion was filled with celebration and hope.

But even with this significant step forward, one squeaky wheel was still trying to slow things down, or rather bring them to screeching halt. I decided to make a bold move. Due to her incessant opposition and calloused attitude, I approached the one-woman army and asked her directly not to come to the launch Sunday.

She came anyway, weapons drawn. I quickly pulled her husband aside and requested that they leave as to not interfere with the air of celebration and excitement brewing. The quiet man bravely respected my request and took his wife home. We never saw or heard from them again.

The name change seemed to have been a huge success, and yet I could not help but feel we were not there yet. I continued to be on my knees before God.

A little while later, in the summer of 2004, church treasurer Bonnie approached me with an idea. Sweet and supportive, she suggested that the church buy a house, in which my family and I could live and the church could meet for worship. My wife and I considered the idea, but decided that we may run into too many boundary issues.

But Bonnie’s proposal got me thinking. I got online and decided to Google the words “house” and “church.” My heart started to race as I saw thousands upon thousands of websites and articles listed before me. I dove in and couldn’t read the blogs and articles fast enough, especially those by house church advocate Wolfgang Simpson.

I was immediately obsessed and terrified all at the same time. I had no idea what this surge of energy and excitement meant, but I continued to seek out more information. I talked with a man named Mike Goff who had already begun a house church. For three hours, he described how his church family would meet in each other’s homes for corporate worship and fellowship—and then go fix the neighbor’s fence together.

I peppered Mike with questions. With every answer I became more and more convinced that God was moving behind the scenes. But the thought of bringing this idea before the congregation terrified me to my core. How could I suggest transplanting the entire congregation from the brick and mortar it knew and loved?

There are Benefits to Coming in after a Beat-down
After learning about a September 2004 house church conference in Denver, I asked five other people from the congregation to make the trek with me, including my wife Ali, our youth pastor, and a few other key members. They agreed.

I held my breath as the conference unfolded.

But after every seminar and general session, the response from our team members was the same: “We HAVE to do this!” “I love the community-focused mindset. What a better way to live out our faith!” I think I even heard one person say, “That building is standing in the way. It’s inhibiting our church from actually being the Church.”

I was blown away by their responses.

So without a clear roadblock from the five, I took another deep breath and decided to propose to the board that we leave our rented facility and begin meeting in houses. I had prepared myself for a violent storm, but was met with what felt like the first warm day after a harsh winter. Perhaps beaten down after years of struggle and lack of leadership or just eager to follow something, the board seemed to like what they heard. Our little congregation agreed.

Over the next four months, we prayed, fasted, researched, and dreamed together about what a house church model might look like. I felt like I had fallen backwards into something that was never on my radar. But as we rounded every corner, it became more obvious that God had been orchestrating this movement long before I arrived on the scene.

Strangely enough for this little traditional church, the more we pursued the house church idea, the less “sacred” everything became. The congregation members seemed to go from “Don’t you dare get rid of the plastic flowers” to “Let’s change it all.”

But we were not without opposition.

While the majority was ready to lace up their work boots and prepare for a major philosophical overhaul, a select few were intent on digging their heels in the sand. Even respected Southern Baptist pastors from other churches issued their warnings. “Don’t do it!” said some. Others even went as far as to tell me this move was “not Biblical.” How could I evangelize the masses if I did not have a place for them to “mass” to?

To be honest, I did not have a good answer for them. And yet…I couldn’t shake the hand on my back that seemed to be gently guiding us forward.

The Turning Point
In November 2004, the congregation radically voted to leave the building and become The Well, a community of house churches, beginning in February 2005.

I was scared to death. Inwardly, I wrestled with my thoughts, “This isn’t what they hired me to do! By taking these people out of their building, am I leading them off a cliff?” Night after night, I lost sleep. Like Noah building God an ark in a season of drought, I felt like God was urging us to do something that made no sense. Even after much research, I still felt clueless as to what our church might look like apart from the building and everything else that was familiar to me.

But slowly, I began to learn that neither this movement nor the church was about me.

Plans moved forward, and we began to make preparations to leave the concrete behind. With a month or so left on our rental agreement, we stayed put for the time being, but lugged in couches and chairs to make a giant living room. Neil Cole and Tony Dale, respected house church leaders, even came to share about what they had learned about being a simple church.

I watched as The Well turned an important corner. With only a month before we “jumped off the cliff,” everyone sensed we were on to something exciting. A group of older church members had already begun meeting together in a house on Wednesday nights, before we had officially moved out. Our hearts were ten steps ahead.

Wobbly Legs and Growing Pains
Finally, on a Sunday in January 2005, The Well met in its building for the last time. After taking part in a corporate fast, coordinated with the World Vision 30 Hour Famine program, we spent time singing and praying together. And then, after the service concluded, we stepped out over the threshold for the very last time…and never looked back.

The next week, The Well began in three separate homes. The already-established group of older members continued to meet together, while two other groups agreed to meet on different days and times, one of which was a meeting at my own home. Each group spent time eating, worshipping though song, and then digging into God’s Word.

At first, all three churches began studying the book of Acts, trying to stay on the same course. I wrote what I thought was a top-notch curriculum and, as the pastor, I tried to attend every gathering. But it quickly became apparent that my lofty plans were not working and my presence was unnecessary for spiritual growth to occur.

On wobbly legs, I backed off and stopped showing up at every home. This change was not easy at first, especially for the older folks who liked having a designated leader to protect them from possible “heretical ideas.” What would they do if they had a question no one could answer? Slowly, we moved closer to the answer.

We realized that the Church was everyone’s responsibility, not just the pastor’s. And everything a “normal” church did—missions, study, growth, evangelism, and so on—each person could do, because their change of venue did not negate the responsibilities and privileges of any other church.

The more we have embraced these foundational truths, the more “organic” The Well has become, growing simply and naturally by the hands of individual members. Our attitude has changed from “I have to have a plan!” to “Let’s just see what God does.”

And let me tell you: God does not disappoint.

The “House”-Schooling Never Ends
Each day The Well is transformed as we continue to discover what it really means to be the Church. While our journey is far from over, we have learned some valuable lessons along the way.

It was my first Sunday away from home—over a year after The Well had left its building. I nervously kept checking my phone, just waiting for some panicked voice on the other end to tell me that everything had fallen apart in my absence. But a call never came.

I seized the first available chance to call my wife, Ali, to see what disasters awaited my return. Her voice was full of passion and excitement as she energetically recalled to me that they had had the best Sunday yet! Someone even accepted Jesus Christ right there in the house. They did not need me at all.

Ouch. I have to admit that initial heart prick did not feel good. But it opened my eyes to realizing that even though I was a “titled” member of The Well, the church was not about me, my presence, or my planning. I was no longer the head guy; Jesus had become the head guy.

So what do I do now as “pastor” of The Well? Since our beginnings in 2005, my part has transitioned from spiritual guru to church planter. As new branches of The Well form throughout homes in Orange County, I will typically stay for a couple of months until the gathering has a solid foundation, and then let go.

But not every church plant is the same. In fact, there is one gathering whose door I have not even darkened, because I have a sense that my presence might actually snuff out what God is doing there. The Church is certainly not about me.

Having stumbled into something God already had laid out, The Well has to daily trust God for what’s next. If we would have waited for all the answers before stepping out in faith, we would still be shackled to that building—planning and strategizing but unwilling to remain open to something radical.

Staying open has become essential to our survival. We could never have released our preconceived ideas and unwrapped our potential if a few members of First Southern Baptist of North Orange County hadn’t believed that God was still moving in their midst. God used their faith to help us trade the steel and stone that had become a barrier and exchange it for a church of flesh. Although bold and terrifying, leaving our building behind has enabled us as members of Christ’s Body to see His “Kingdom come…on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Conclusion: Looking for Footprints
I am now convinced that many other congregations in America are being held back from actually being the Church because of something as simple as a building. While mortgage payments, capital campaigns, custodial duties, and even well-structured programs are not bad in and of themselves, those things can tie us down and prevent many from following God’s footprints.

God’s footprints will not lead everyone down the same path, but His desire for you to be an active member of His Body remains the same. And maybe, like The Well, God is moving in your midst, leading you to shed a building and get naked with us. Is it radical? Yes. Can I give you all the answers about what it means for you? No.

But is discovering what it means to be the living, breathing Church worth the risk? Without a doubt.

Like Lazarus, do you hear God calling you to, “Come forth!”? Is it time to strip down to the bare essentials and see your local body resurrected to become church all over again?

After all, the Holy Spirit is not through with us—any of us—yet.

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