The Forrest Gump of the Evangelical World

The Forrest Gump of the Evangelical World

When people ask me about my spiritual journey, I tell them that I feel a little like Forrest Gump—intuitively finding myself in the middle of some of the defining moments of American evangelical history of the last 50 years. Much of my church experience has been within the context of southern California, but what has happened here also was happening around the country. I can identify four phases in my journey (and the church’s evolution) that have lead us both to the dawn of a new movement.

PHASE 1: THE JESUS PEOPLE MOVEMENT

As a child my family went to the original Calvary Chapel where Chuck Smith held services in a big tent. It was a time when many Christians considered it radical, if not heretical, to replace the organ with drums and to have the choir director sport sandals, a beard, and a ten-inch pony tail. Our baptisms weren’t done in dark solemn sanctuaries but on public beaches at Little Corona. People didn’t take “believers classes”, they just yelled out “I believe!” and jumped into the waves.

A few years later, I moved to Berkeley and joined a Christian commune, took a vow of poverty, and wore the official Jesus People uniform of string-tied bellbottoms, sandals, and ponytail. This is where I learned that ministry is meant to be incarnational and that I could look established religion in the eye and ask, “What’s needed in a practical sense?” We led the church away from liturgy toward expository preaching, from handbells to folk bands. And we discovered that the larger the gathering or group, the more resources we could muster to work on issues like the poor and oppressed.

PHASE 2: THE MEGACHURCH MOVEMENT

That discovery about groups and resources laid the groundwork for what I experienced in seminary. We were taught that if God blessed you, you would end up at a large church. The larger the church, the more blessing had been bestowed upon you. We named it, claimed it, and framed it. So my goal was to become a teaching pastor in a non-denominational church of at least 10 thousand members, and, if I was going to pull out all the blessing stops, it would be in my hometown of Newport Beach. It took over a decade, but it happened.

It was a time of real growth for me. I took seriously the responsibility that comes with having huge influence on both local and global issues, and I learned what it took to lead a large organization with a seven-figure budget and to organize thousands of volunteers.

A church with so many resources can afford to invest in the personal development of their pastors. I was trained and mentored on how to be reflective and to develop psychological and spiritual disciplines. I discovered that the larger the crowd of people that followed you, the deeper you had to go within your own soul.

PHASE 3: THE EMERGING CHURCH MOVEMENT

After a number of years, I left the megachurch, cold-turkey. It had been an amazing experience, but it seemed as if God was on the move. The Internet was still pretty new and a group of like-minded colleagues and I hand-coded TheOOZE.com—a non-hierarchical, go-with-the-flow, see-where-God-is playful website. Soon TheOOZE had a quarter of a million readers per month from over 100 different countries, and I realized that this wasn’t just a U.S., white male phenomenon, but that it was part of a worldwide awakening. TheOOZE community spawned a gathering called Soularize, where all participants got a front row seat with the latest thinkers, authors, activists, and teachers.

TheOOZE.com website is currently being archived at Fuller Theological Seminary as a slice of church history. The message boards on TheOOZE are an archive of risk and evolution. People used avatars to ask important questions, protected from judgment by the comfort of anonymity, and the church experienced its own “Arab Spring” starting in 1998, fueled by the democratization of the internet. Looking back, it is clear that people were exploring and discussing topics that had been taboo in the past—women in leadership, gay marriage, the concept of hell and redemption… There were groups as varied as Christians for Cannabis and the Society for Freediving. In this way, the early adopters in technology helped radically shift the church in a short amount of time. Technology evened the playing field, everyone had an equal voice, and the most aggressive thing you could do was type in ALL CAPS. It brought ideas, voices, practices, and examples immediately to center stage, bypassing the censorship of boards, committees, publishers, denominations, hierarchy, and patriarchy.

By 2007, the church had essentially “emerged”, and rather than seeing the movement as a failure, we can interpret its disappearance as a sign of success.

PHASE 4: THE HATCHERIES MOVEMENT

Once again, intuitively, I felt that change was ahead. I was with a small gathering of leaders in North Carolina and went on a walk with Brian McLaren. He shared with me the idea that movements need to connect with organizations and explained how the fortuitous relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. (which was so well portrayed in Selma), accomplished much more than if they were working individually, even if the partnership seemed strained or counterproductive at times. Brian recommended that I talk with the Disciples of Christ in my region. So I met up with the co-ministers of the Pacific Southwest Region and began to ask “what if.” They shared their yearning to create new churches to reach the next generation for God and I shared my desire to rethink how to develop new models of community and retool training. Over the next six years, we listened, shared, worked, developed, dreamed, and challenged ourselves.

We agreed that we are seeing a new movement in the church—organizations that have an open, generous history and polity are connecting with movements that have positive, abundant, humble, and flexible agendas. The organization asks, “What resources do we have (relationships, networks) that are not being utilized? And how can we act out of abundance, not scarcity; out of love, not fear; out of cooperation, not competition?” Out of this relationship between the old and the new, we can incubate and launch innovative and sustainable Common Cause Communities (churches) to reach the next generation for God. It’s like composting—it’s a process that will use the old scraps and unused bits of church to create rich nutrients and soil in which fresh ideas and practices can germinate and grow.

Today, we are seeing a new movement of church planting growing out of the compost of the old church movements, and I’m redefining my journey in this way. Church planting for me now means:

  1. A network of resources and relationships that are ready for movement forward.
  2. An idea that can’t get traction without partnership.

It is a new church model called Common Cause Communities that are incubated and launched, utilizing the partnership between a mainline denomination (the Disciples of Christ), and a contextualized movement of service. This is the Hatchery process, and I am excited to once again participate in God’s larger movement to reach the next generation.

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