Real Church 101. Learning to Practice the Presence of God.

Today’s Eugene Peterson Quote:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its’ great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor. And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating precedence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (Quoting preacher George Arthur Buttrick) ‘Pastors think people come to church to hear sermons. They don’t; they come to pray and to learn to pray. Abba, Father.’  Eugene Peterson (from Chapter Eight, The Contemplative Pastor pp. 96, 97, 100)

One of the greatest revelations in my Christian walk came during a season of my life when my wife and I first ran across John Wimber and the Vineyard churches. It was the early winter months of 1985. One of our elders at Christ Church of the North Shore, a small community of faith in Evanston, IL (which we had been with since its inception in 1976), had talked with a relative from Southern California who was attending the Vineyard Church in Anaheim, California. The senior pastor, John Wimber, was teaching a Masters class at Fuller Seminary at the time. The class was MC510: Signs and Wonders and Church Growth. It’s that course at Fuller that eventually brought the attention of the entire evangelical church world to John Wimber, the Anaheim Vineyard, and the Kingdom of God message and ministry pegged as Power Evangelism.

Our leadership team in Evanston was quite impressed with the biblically-based messages that Wimber was teaching and before long my good friend and one of our church elders, Bill Hanawalt, ordered up a bunch of teaching and music cassettes from the Vineyard in Anaheim. As it turned out, Bill, who was also my next-door neighbor in a four-flat in Evanston, asked me to get his mail for him while he and his family made their annual mid-winter trek to Florida to visit family.

And wouldn’t you know it? Bill’s package from the Vineyard came in the mail a day or two after he left town. Knowing what was inside, I thought to myself. “Gosh, I bet Bill won’t mind me opening up this package and getting an early listen to some of these Wimber tapes.”  Now, I know what I did is considered by some as federal mail-tampering but I reasoned it out this way. Bill had borrowed my mini-van to take his family to Florida, so I thought it only fair that I could open his mail while he was gone!

Fortunately for me, Bill didn’t hold a grudge for opening that package! I’m fortunate as well that as soon as I plugged in one or two of those cassette tapes of worship music recorded from one of the evening services at the Anaheim Vineyard, I was hooked. As a long-time lover of old-time hymns, I’d never heard the kind of music I was hearing on these tapes. There it was. An acoustic guitar or two, a nice lead male vocal, a couple of melodic female backup vocals, some light drums, a bass, and oh yes, an electric piano. The songs were very simple. The arrangements were very basic. The team would move from one song to the next, flowing from tune to tune with very little break between the songs. For a guy used to singing a hymn, sitting down, standing up, singing another hymn, sitting down, listening to a message, and then singing a final hymn, this was really unusual.

I finished up the first cassette, put in a second, and then a third. I was enthralled at what I was hearing. Each song was penetrating a deeper level of my heart. I found myself crying as each tape played. I was caught up in God’s presence and had no language for what was happening to me. I was particularly moved by songs sung by the electric keyboard player. His voice was so mellow, so sincere, and so full of gentle love for Jesus. It was months later, as I attended my first Vineyard conference in Indianapolis when I finally realized that the keyboard player who was melting my heart through worship was John Wimber himself.

Now you might be wondering why I’m telling you this old story of mine about hearing Vineyard worship music for the first time.

The reason is that Eugene Peterson’s realization that people don’t come to church to hear good sermons or be taught information, but to pray and be taught to pray reminds me of the ahh-hah moments I had when I first heard a Vineyard worship song. As I sat in my living room, crying my eyes out, listening to John Wimber sing his simple love songs to Jesus, it hit me. I had been a church-attender at that time (1985) for much of my 34 years of life. And in all of my years of church-going and hymn-singing, I don’t ever remember singing a song to Jesus. Somehow, someway, the thought of singing a love song to Jesus had never crossed my mind. The only songs I could recall singing in church were hymns that we, the congregation, sang to one another. Songs about God, but never to Him!

And suddenly, there I was. Singing simple love songs to Jesus and crying my heart out to Him at the same time. It was, as I said earlier, a whole new revelation of intimacy with God that was opening up to me. Suddenly, like Peterson, I found myself unprepared for the new place God was taking me.

Church is not about sermons and ministry programming. It’s not a place where the training of our minds is the highest priority. It’s a place for, first and foremost, finding intimate relationship with the God of the Universe; Jesus Christ, His beloved Son; through the powerful in-dwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Never again, would I go back to being satisfied with second-hand information taught to me by a preacher. Never again would I see church as a place for dry knowledge or high theological ideas. Once I heard Wimber sing an intimate love song to Jesus, I knew I’d come home. I’d finally found a place where my heart and God’s heart could meet.

My friends, as I see it, that’s what real church is all about.

(In June 2019, I had a chance to share my John Wimber story at Heartland Vineyard in Waterloo, Iowa. Click here to watch the 33-minute video.)

My prayer: Jesus, I’m so sorry for all the times I’ve made my job as a pastor and church life all about sermonizing, developing impressive programming, and keeping the crowd entertained so that they’d come back again next week. I forsake those practices now in order to be completely involved in coming alongside God’s people, and together, learning the fine art of practicing the presence of God. For Your name’s sake. Amen.

My questions to ponder: What needs to change in the way I perceive successful ‘church life?’ Am I, like Peterson states, focused exclusively on the programming aspects of Sunday morning, or am I listening carefully to the Spirit right now as He woos His church back into the basics of worshipping God, learning how to love and serve Jesus, and following the truths found in God’s Word, for the sake of God’s Kingdom?

So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together The Contemplative Pastor?

Over a 37-blog series, you and I will take a deeper look at Eugene Peterson’s classic, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. In order to keep all the blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our blog series home page for ease of use. Keep in mind that one of the best ways to explore the on-going applications of this blog series is to walk alongside a biblically-based, Christ-centered spiritual director who is familiar with how to make material like this part of your overall spiritual formation in God. Many of our directors in our Contemplative Activist network are available to companion you in your journey with Jesus. Click here for more info.

If you like what you’re reading, might we suggest you share this page with others!

Click here to continue to the next blog in this series…

1 thought on “Real Church 101. Learning to Practice the Presence of God.

  1. Pingback: Praying With Eyes Wide Open. | The Contemplative Activist

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