From the time we arrived just over a year ago, I’ve had a desire to write a series of pastoral letters to our church community. There’s so much we have experienced as a church over the last few years, and there’s something about a letter that creates space for reflection and connection that can be hard to come by. I will clumsily move between “I” and “we” throughout these letters, as I relate stories from my perspective, but also try to express what’s in mine and Dani’s hearts together as well as the efforts and perspective of a wonderful team.
My hope in writing this letter, and those which are to follow, is to be able to shepherd us as a congregation, mindful of the failings and achievements of the past, and looking forward having learned from it all. There is a lot to learn from our challenges and shortcomings as a church, as well as the challenges that we have faced as a broader society and as individuals. Dani and I, along with our team, also share an awareness of the powerful ways in which God has used us as a community to draw people to His love, and that there is a unique part we play as a church in the greater body of Christ. I am confident that some of what has looked like challenge or opposition, will one day, become evident as God’s guidance and provision, as the Father, in His mercy, giving us the opportunity to change and grow, that we might continue to bear fruit.
When Dani and I were first approached to come to NYC and lead our church on the East Coast, it seemed to have come ‘out of the blue’. We were pastoring a Hillsong Church in Perth, Western Australia, that we had planted alongside a great team. From the people, to the sense of home, to the city itself (which is nothing short of gorgeous), we absolutely loved our time there. We also had the opportunity to be involved with planting our church in parts of Asia, and that was where we had thought we would sow at least the next ten years of our lives, perhaps even moving to live in Asia with our family.
When I received the phone call to ask whether we would consider moving to NYC, and become part of Hillsong East Coast, I knew it would be a significant change of course, a huge step into the unknown for us and our young family. I also knew we needed to stay open to how we believed God might be leading us and do our best to respond in ways that continued to put our trust in Him. Dani and I had always had the perspective that if we were needed anywhere in the world, we would go. We had gotten the call in the middle of a young adult’s retreat, and late into the night when the session was over and we had finished preparing for the next day, we stopped to talk. I’ll never forget the look in Dani’s eyes late that night as we talked about what we’d been asked. There were tears in those eyes, and down her cheeks, and she simply but confidently said, “we have to go, we have to be there for the people.” And that was it. The biggest decision of our lives had also been the quickest.
In February of this year, we received the news that Ps Brian had resigned amidst a maelstrom of accusations. Given what had taken place with leadership here on the East Coast, it was an even more bitter blow. It was a compounded loss and heartbreak on heartbreak. We gathered together with some of the church leaders at Marc and Robins’ house in New Jersey to process. We talked about the days ahead, the way forward, and what we hoped for our church community here. We looked around the room full of people we were coming to know, and who we already loved. There were so many questions from every part of that room, and underneath some of those questions was a deeper question. Are you going to stay? Over the coming weeks, I got asked that same question in a number of different ways. I had even sent an email with the subject line “we love you church”, which some had seen and thought it to mean that Dani and I were leaving! It was meant to be an encouragement that we did love our church, and we wanted everyone to hear that in the midst of what we knew were painful times! Ultimately we had come for people, and those people were still here.
So back to that living room in New Jersey. We shared and talked for a while, but what stood out to me most that night, and that I still remember, came towards the end while Marc was speaking. He said that even though there was so much challenge, he felt like he was born for this, born for days of challenge, when things needed to be rebuilt, and reformed and brought out of the ground. And as he talked, a fire within me was being fanned. Ever since becoming a pastor I had felt drawn to be involved where things seemed tough, where seeking wisdom and summoning courage was the order of the day. I resonated with what Marc said, I too was born for this. This time. These people. This hope-finding adventure.
Feeling called to it, and loving the people of our church, was a great start, but I also knew I had gone past the limits of my existing capacity. Whatever emotional capacity I had to stand in the midst of challenge was proving insufficient for this new task, along with all the ways I had learned to rest and be refreshed. In the years we lived in Perth I had become an open water swimmer (albeit a slow one), and I now missed the camaraderie of training, the freedom of ocean swims, and the joy of completing a challenge. And yes there are sharks in Australia! But honestly, I was usually more worried about hypothermia or swimming into stingers (invisible jellyfish with painful tentacles!). (And yes, also for those wondering, I still want to swim the Hudson River!) I needed now to find new ways to rest and rejuvenate, (I still do), but I also needed to grow in the practices needed to flourish in emotional and spiritual health (although emotional health is part of our spiritual health, it is all spiritual!). Thankfully, Drew Hyun, a pastor in NYC, had reached out and welcomed us and said if we needed anything he was there to help. True to his word, Drew introduced us to others, prayed for us and with us, (as many did), and also connected us with a course called Emotionally Healthy Relationships (EHR). We jumped into the course and had the privilege of being in a group with Geri Scazzero who, along with her husband Pete, had put together much of the material. It was a joy to get to know Pete and Geri, and it was a meeting laced with the kind of coincidences that God seems to love to orchestrate. Pete and Geri have four daughters like us, and one of their daughters had gotten married and was living in Perth in Australia! What are the chances?! It became one of the highlights of our first few months and one of the most significant things that helped us not just survive a difficult season but grow in the midst of it.
As difficult as any international move can be, and combined with the challenges we faced as a church, I can honestly say that I believe I’m better for this last season. I’ve grown. I feel like I’m a better husband, a more understanding father (hopefully my kids share this perspective!), and a more well-differentiated leader (more on this in a future letter). The EHR course started to introduce us to new ways of relating in our marriage and family, as well as to help me better process what was going on internally. I had never been big on talking or thinking about my feelings. I don’t know that I’d ever seen a man model anything emotional in a significant way, outside of anger. Now I was sitting in a course on emotional health and one of the exercises was to be able to identify and articulate what emotions I was feeling. I was lost for words, I literally didn’t have the vocabulary at hand to describe anything like that, I had to turn to the appendix with a list of emotions just so I could consider which ones might apply to me! One of the most powerful moments in that course was seeing another man, husband, father, and pastor, speak to his wife about what was going on within him in the midst of a heart-wrenching situation, and how he felt about it. I was in tears at his tears, and his knowledge of himself, and it was changing me.
In a conversation with Pete Scazzero, he challenged me to build back in ways that aligned with the “Charism” or gift of God on our church, and there is certainly something unique and profound that we bring to the body of Christ here in the Northeast and I believe globally. There has been a lot in our church over the years that has been good. We have been a part of seeing God do something absolutely remarkable here in the Northeast, where hundreds of thousands of people have made decisions for Christ in our services. In Perth where Dani and I pastored, the new pastors are Andy and Lauren, and Lauren’s own powerful story includes coming back to Christ at our church in NYC. What are the chances!? So despite every challenge of the last season, we don’t want to neglect what God has placed on our church.
There is a grace on our church to reach a new generation, and to reach people in urban centers, a grace for corporate worship, and “welcome home” and calling out the call of God on people’s lives, and seeing the Spirit move and people be empowered. We are committed to the ways in which we take those good gifts into the future and are going to articulate some of that in these letters to come.
I want to begin, however, by looking at what needs addressing in the foundations. What else do we need have in place to ensure that as we move forward we are building in ways that are stronger? What needs to be present in the seedbed as we grow and bear new fruit? As we have considered this, we have drawn on a few key questions. What represents the best of who we have been till now? What represents the best of who we were in our origin story right back when church started? What do we need to draw on from the broader church that we have neglected and/or need to engage with in fresh ways?
In considering the last of those questions I believe that we need to be strengthened by engaging in some of the spiritual practices that have underpinned the life of individuals and church communities for hundreds and even thousands of years. This is the work of formation. The formation that creates lasting change in the way we relate to God, understand ourselves, love others and see the world. The formation that empowers us as a community to be a part of the continued work of Christ in the world. I think we have often had a somewhat dichotomous view of some of these practices of Spiritual formation: we can think ‘we are this type of church and so we just don’t do those kinds of things’. We have too easily eschewed what is birthed within different church traditions when in reality there is a lot of rich beauty and thinking and experience in some ancient Christian practices. Many of these began in the church before there was any idea of different streams of Christianity, they are our common heritage!
A word used frequently in churches for what I am talking about here is discipleship. For us as a church, this has tended to be predominantly through corporate gatherings, and through the relationships built and community formed as leaders volunteer to facilitate small groups where people share meals and talk about the Word and pray. This relational aspect of discipleship is important and is seen in what it meant for disciples in the first century to follow a Rabbi. Disciples would learn what a Rabbi thought about God not just by what they said, but by how they behaved. One learned a theology of how to treat one’s family by watching how your Rabbi treated their family, or a theology of how to engage in the marketplace by watching how a Rabbi engaged in the marketplace, or a theology of how to pray, by how a Rabbi prayed. Hence the disciples’ question to Jesus in Luke 11, “teach us to pray”, would be similar to “teach us how to do what we see you doing”. And of course, Jesus who has been exemplifying all this time begins with a series of examples of how NOT to pray. How we are formed into and by a community is a huge part of what it means to be disciples. However, many of us have lost touch with the rhythms and practices that were commonplace in the times of Jesus, as well as some of what has been commonplace for much of church history. It takes now an intentional work to engage in those ways, or practices, of relating to God and each other. Those ways of worship. Community remains vital, but how we practice community and what we practice in community requires intentional work. This work must begin with our leadership, in order that what we embody and exemplify might be an example truly worth following. Ultimately we are all following Jesus, but we want to be able to say with the apostle Paul “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
This example of Jesus, and the humility to grow towards that, should be what sets apart leadership in the church, (and the leadership of Christians), from any other type of leadership in the world. It’s also why the shortcomings and failures of leadership in our church have been so heartbreaking. These shortcomings can’t just be addressed on the surface, they need to be addressed at a formative level.
With regards to formation, we can also be tempted to think that if we just knew more, we would be stronger disciples. We can come to believe that greater knowledge about God, and His word, will cause us to become better followers of Him. Such an increase in knowledge is certainly an indispensable part of what it means to be a disciple, and follow Jesus, but it’s not everything. James K.A. Smith in Imagining the Kingdom writes: “if a Christian education is going to be holistic and formative, it needs to attend to much more than the intellect—which is why I emphasize that there is a unique “understanding” that is “carried” in Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship. It is in such practices that our love is trained, disciplined, shaped, and formed.” What he is suggesting is that it is the practices we engage in that help form who we are in ways that affect how we respond. We need more than knowledge, we need a ‘second nature response’ that is Kingdom-oriented. Smith goes on to suggest that the world is already at work shaping us in a “secular liturgy”, forming our way of thinking about who we are and what we need and what happiness and fulfillment looks like through a thousand different avenues capturing our imagination. We need intentional work to be captured instead by the ways and imaginings of His Kingdom. Romans 12:2 puts it like this, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This is connected to how N.T. Wright talks about virtue, and writes in After You Believe: “virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become “second nature.” Not “first nature,” as though they happened “naturally.” Rather, a kind of second-order level of “naturalness.” Like an acquired taste, such choices and actions, which started off being practiced with difficulty, ended up being, yes, “second nature.” James Clear in Atomic Habits says “Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest beliefs about yourself.”
What I’m trying to say is that I believe we need to greatly strengthen the work of discipleship and spiritual formation in our church by engaging more intentionally with practices of worship, including, and going beyond, the powerful worship we encounter in church when we gather. One of the great challenges of the pandemic was that, in not gathering together, many of us lost the only worship practice in which we had regularly engaged, and may have since lost some of our capacity for worship overall. I pray we would regain that capacity, and not just to the extent to which it once burned most bright in our lives, but that it would burn more brightly than ever.
I pray these aspects of discipleship won’t be set at odds with one another, but that we will hold strong to the power of community in formation as well as the importance of growing in knowledge, while engaging in the crucial value of practices that help us become, and desire to become, who God reveals we are. I pray that corporate and private practices might grow us and allow us to more powerfully experience God’s Spirit and presence and transformation.
You might be aware that as a staff, we recently completed the first subject in a postgraduate course on well-being focused on emotions. We wanted to better understand what the current research is saying about well-being so we are better equipped to lead people and create cultures that will produce health, while staying true to what the Bible teaches us about how to find real life! What was astounding to us during the course was to discover the ways in which so many ancient Christian disciplines reflect practices that we now understand to produce growth in emotional health and well-being. EHR, and its sister course EHS (“Emotionally Healthy Spirituality”), have been a treasure trove of such practices and were originally put together and road-tested right here in NYC. We’re excited to start making these courses available for our church. Everything in me wants to move fast and have things done yesterday, but implementing some of these things has taken, and is going to take, time. Pete and Geri would often say to me “slow down”, which just made me want to speed up even more! But I understand what they are saying. If we really want these practices to change us as a community, then they have to be present in the leadership. We have to be engaging with them and living them out ourselves. Now, they are still relatively new for many of us, and we will certainly always need to grow and change in these areas: “progress, not perfection” is the motto. But we have given, and are giving, focus and time to put them into practice. We have sown time into taking our staff through the EHR course, and in the middle of the year, we took over seventy people from our church through the course as well. The exciting thing is that we are in the midst of running the course right now with over a hundred and fifty people inolved across all three campuses. Over time I believe that engaging in the practices that these courses help facilitate, will help form our culture in a variety of ways. I believe it will help us establish healthy boundaries, work lovingly through conflict, live with more joy, and draw closer to God. I am still far from perfect in all of these areas, as I’m sure anyone who knows me could tell you, but I’m progressing, and I pray we all will.
I still feel born for this, as I know many of you do. We find ourselves in a moment of history where there is a tangible hunger around us for real spirituality, a longing for purpose, as well as God’s heart that people would know his incredible love for them. All these things compel me to believe that this is a pivotal time for the church and a “for such a time as this” moment for our church. As we strengthen our foundations in the area of formation, my prayer is that we would grow through challenge, stay tender towards God and people, and remain passionate about His call on our lives.
In my first letter, I wrote of the work of formation in our lives. It’s a work of formation as God is working in us, and as we align with God’s will and God’s ways, we are co-workers in His good work. Though breakthrough and revelation can come in an instant and have likely been a part of all of our journeys, formation is different. When potters, farmers, or builders form something, it is a moment of potential meeting the actual, and the application of imagination, planning, pressure and time. Uniquely as human beings, we have the opportunity to be co-laborers in our own formation and not just the subjects of it. Formation requires grace, discipline, and taking up our cross daily and following Jesus.
As we commit to the work of formation, my prayer is that we will all be able to reflect on the challenges we are facing and be grateful to God for the ways in which He has grown us in the midst of it all, working all things together for good. Nothing is ever wasted when it is committed to Him.
As we address some of that foundational work in our discipleship and draw on some of the riches of our shared history with the church, we also want to consider the strengths of our own origin story as a church.
Each of us has our own story. My family started attending our church when I was around seven. Before that time, I have no memory of going to church in Australia, though my family on both sides had been Christian for a number of generations. My Mum described our faith as a family as “nominal”, even though she had made a personal commitment to Christ in her college years. We had been part of churches in the past, but what we were experiencing now was something different, and what took place in our family the year after that highlighted the grace of God in bringing our family to our church.
In 1986 my Dad had a stroke. He had been in hospital for surgery to remove kidney stones, and ten days into his recovery he collapsed, unconscious, in the shower. As an eight-year-old, I can remember going to the hospital and seeing my Dad through a glass window in the Intensive Care Unit, machines around his bed, and tubes and wires coming from his body. Mum told me later that the doctors had said that blood clots had formed, and we were going to have to wait until tomorrow to see what would happen.
We arrived back at the hospital the next day, to be informed that overnight Dad had suffered a major stroke. He was still unresponsive, a ventilator was doing his breathing for him, and he was paralyzed down his right-hand side. The doctors gave my Mum a grim prognosis: best case, he would be in a vegetative state needing everything done for him for the rest of his life. Likely case, he wouldn’t make it. One of the nurses was more direct: we needed to get our house in order and make funeral preparations.
My Mum reflects on the timing and the grace of God to bring us to a church environment that taught that we can still encounter God today. We can be filled with His Spirit, graced to bear fruit and empowered to contribute with gifts and strength beyond our own. We could have faith that He is still working miracles. And so we began to pray.
We asked anyone we knew to join us in prayer, as we believed for God to do a miracle in my Dad’s life. Our broader family scattered in all parts of the world prayed, prayer ministries prayed, our church prayed. And slowly we started to see signs of the miraculous.
I remember on one visit I took a Lego spaceship in with me when I went to see Dad. I’d gotten it for my birthday just before Dad had gone to the hospital, and I’d asked him to help me make it because it looked too daunting to do it on my own. Now, I had done it on my own because that was the only option left. Before showing him the model Dad had seemed unresponsive. But I put it in front of him and took his hand, and as I told him about it, all of a sudden he squeezed my hand! He had no speech yet, but he was speaking to me.
We were told he’d have to learn how to speak again like a child, but I can still remember a night when a lady came and prayed for him. I was sitting near his bed and heard her pray specifically for his speech to be restored, and he began to speak in a whisper! Full sentences, fully articulate, just in a whisper!
Over the next few weeks and months, Dad continued to make progress, and when his progress stalled, my Mum intuited that he needed to be at home and around his family for his recovery to be spurred on. So Mum got the nurses to show her how to care for him and transport him such that he could do weekends with us. He continued to strengthen and heal and when we’d take him back to the hospital they would call him “the miracle man”!
Within a few months, he was back at home, and a couple of months later back at work, and some time after that even driving again (which honestly was a little bit scary because he drove an automatic with both feet, one for the gas pedal one for the brake, and on occasion, he’d hit the wrong pedal!). I believe God was at work in my Dad’s life.
However, I have found in my Dad’s healing, in my own life, and in my experience as a pastor, that we live between miracle and mystery.
There are miracles we witness, and at the same time, there are mysteries.
There are prayers that seem unanswered, situations that seem incomprehensible, and heartache that seems beyond our ability to bear.
We live between miracle and mystery.
My Dad walked with a limp from the time he came home from the hospital until his passing. And the limp that we could see on the outside was also reflected on the inside. My dad was conscious of all that his mind had been capable of before the stroke, but also the ways in which he now felt limited. Dad was an accountant, and in the late 1980s when he was returning to work, there was a lot of computerization taking place in accounting. There were a whole lot of new things for him to learn, and he felt the weight of not being capable of it all.
I asked him once how he lived with the realization that he was healed, that God had done a miracle, but at the same time he wasn’t completely healed. He was living between miracle and mystery and I wanted to know how he was processing that.
He said to me that his limp, both literally and figuratively, was like Jacob’s limp. It was a reminder for him that he had encountered God. It was also a grace, a gift. He explained that because he wasn’t able to turn up to work and get the job done in his own strength, he had to rely on God. He asked each day for the Holy Spirit to empower him to do what he could not do. It was almost like he looked at me with a degree of pity. It was as if he knew that in my youthful confidence (or arrogance!) I had never been forced to rely on God like that, and instead was settling for a second best, a reliance on myself, when all the while I could instead live each day walking in the power of the Spirit.
Living between miracle and mystery for me hasn’t always contained the kind of clarity that my Dad was able to articulate that day. Perhaps he was just able to articulate the learnings and gratitude because he had walked in this difficult grace for so many years: it’s certainly easier for me to recount his learnings than it must have been for him to learn them. However, even in the mysteries for which I don’t yet have clear learnings, I can trust that God is able to work all situations for good, that though He does not cause tragedy, He is able to use it to produce something in our lives, and that He is present to us, often more in our weakness than in our strength.
This was what my Mum was grateful for: that God had brought us to a church where we had encountered His Spirit. We had learnt that God is still at work today, that we can pray and believe for answers to prayer, and that God gifts and strengthens and transforms and sustains and empowers us. This is what my Dad had learnt. And this is what I believe we need to take as a community into the future.
God is real. I know that might not be shocking coming from a pastor, it sounds like the kind of thing I have to say or believe. However, it’s not just that He is real that’s important, but the type of real He is, His character. He is not distant and disinterested, nor is He just waiting for us to mess up so He can punish us. I believe that He is loving, and personal, and wants to be known. I believe He wants to fill us with His presence, and not just us but the whole of the world, as Habakkuk 2:14 puts it, “but the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”. NT Wright comments in Surprised by Hope:
How can the waters cover the sea? They are the sea. It looks as though God intends to flood the universe with himself; as though the universe, the entire cosmos, was designed as a receptacle for his love…the world is beautiful, not just because it hauntingly reminds us of its creator, but because it is pointing forwards: it is designed to be filled, flooded, drenched in God; as a chalice is beautiful not least because of what we know it is designed to contain, or as a violin is beautiful not least because we know the music of which it is capable.
We have prayed often for the presence of the Lord to fill our services, but it’s so much more than that. He is longing to fill our lives, and fill the streets and fill the communities and the cities and towns we live in. He is longing to fill the world. And we are called to be a part of that filling.
When John the Baptist was baptizing with water in the Jordan river, he said of Jesus that “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”, (Mt 3:11). This is the baptism that we experience. Holy Spirit and fire.
What is that fire? The Bible goes on to speak of clearing the threshing floor, the wheat gathered together and the chaff (what’s not beneficial from the harvest), is burned away. The fire does this same cleansing work in our life, preparing us even as God prepared the prophet Isaiah, who was terrified in the throne room before hot coals were touched to his mouth and he was purified and emboldened to carry God’s words for His people (Isaiah 6).
It’s all of these things together, the empowering and comfort and leading of the Spirit, and the purity of the fire. It’s the empowering with the gifts of the Spirit as well as the empowering to bear the fruit of the Spirit. It’s the desire to partner with God’s work in the world as well as God’s work in our lives. It’s both and, not either/or, and it is all the work of the Spirit. He leads us to repentance, and graces us to change, and draws us to community, and empowers us to contribute. The gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit are meant to go hand in hand.
The gifts of the Spirit include things like wisdom, knowledge, healing, miracles, discernment, tongues, teaching, giving and leadership (1 Cor 12 and Rom 12). The fruit of the Spirit includes virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5). It’s easy to develop a culture, or a theology, that emphasizes one more than the other, but we need both to be at work in our lives and in our community. We are called to become more like Jesus in character as well as to do the works that He did and is still doing. The Holy Spirit leads us in both, but character formation is ultimately instrumental for the gifts to be effective, be it in building up a community, or for a gift to be beneficial to the individual in whom it is outworked.
From the time of the early church, it seems to have always been tempting for the empowering of the Spirit to become something that builds up the individual instead of building up the community. In the early letters to the church that are part of the New Testament, we find this issue being addressed. Paul challenges the Corinthian church that the gifts must be outworked with love, and for others. He even gave them instruction about their orderly usage in services.
We can probably all think of the disordered ways we have seen gifts outworked. Our natural reaction to that can be to withdraw from speaking about or engaging in what it means to be filled with the Spirit. We can seek to remove our association from something that has appeared so strange or felt so uncomfortable. In distancing ourselves from that disordered reality, we can fail to train and equip towards what it might look like for a healthy community to be filled with the Spirit. And in failing to equip people, those we do end up encountering – those that have a passion for the work of the Holy Spirit, but maybe haven’t been trained or discipled in it — can seem to confirm our suspicions that this is weird and is something to avoid! However, what would happen if instead of avoiding it we trained around it? What if we discipled around it? If we gave one another the kind of loving feedback that would help nurture and form a life filled with the Spirit.
This is the second foundation we want to build on as we move forward. We want to be a community that is filled. Filled with the Spirit, for continual transformation in our own lives that we might be a part of God’s transformation in our world.
There are two aspects that we want to focus on as we establish foundations in this area: one is discernment and the other is prophecy. I want to talk about why we’re focusing on these areas in particular.
Over this last year, there has been a huge need for discernment, and as we’ve sought wisdom and asked questions, the work of the Jesuits in this area has really stood out. While the Jesuits have a long history that includes many failures, some of their practices have inspired faith and sustained them as an impactful movement for over 450 years. In Heroic Leadership, Jesuit seminarian for seven years turned J.P. Morgan executive Chris Lowney writes:
Harry Truman called leadership ‘the art of persuading people to do what they should have done in the first place.’ Good for Harry. But the early Jesuits do him one better. The job of Jesuit managers was not to persuade recruits what to do but to equip them with the skills to discern on their own what needed to be done.
I was fascinated by what this equipping looked like, and so asked a new friend in NYC, Father George JP, to help me learn. George first pointed me to an app to help with this practice, but I replied I was trying to spend less time on my phone not more! He smiled and started to explain the practice called Examen, giving me some principles to apply it. He spoke to me about AACTS. A for adoration, A for ask for help, C for confession, T for thanksgiving, and S for supplication. I spoke about it recently in a message called “Encountering God” if you wanted to hear more about it, but one of the things that really stood out was that right from the beginning of the practice there is an encounter with God taking place.
As we sat in a small park on Bowery in NOHO, George started us toward adoration and we looked in wonder at the trees and creation around us, filled with awe that the God who created such beauty and did so on such a grand scale, knew us personally and lovingly. My heart was filled with something real. I was being moved by adoration and not just ticking a box of adoring. And the same as we went through the rest of the process, when I took the time to really ask for God’s help, and engage in confession and thanksgiving I was moved as I sensed the reality of God’s love and care for me, and as I invited Him to bring to my attention the things He wanted to.
George constantly spoke about the practice in experiential ways, so I asked him whether he expected that every time he went through it he would feel God’s presence, experience His goodness and be moved in his heart. He replied with words to the effect “Well it’s not that the practice only has value if I am moved, but yes I expect to encounter God”.
I don’t know when I stopped actively expecting that I would encounter God like that on the daily. In my youth, I was passionate about that, but over time a learning about God had replaced an encounter with Him. Partly I think, having grown up in a relatively new and unconventional church, I constantly found myself wanting to prove to other Christians that I was also one of them, I was a brother. I can remember a conversation I had when I was a young Pastor: I was in a meeting where a Pastor from another church wouldn’t take a seat at the table with me until I had given account for the trinitarian theology of a guest preacher that had once been to our church. That was an awkward introduction! It became easier to focus on how I too had a quiet time, read scripture, prayed and believed that if God never did another thing for me everything he had already done was enough. Partly it was wrestling with discipleship for myself and what it meant to build the kind of foundation that was Godly. In a desire to try and course correct, it was easy to move away from what I had known, and embrace something more “intellectually rigorous”. However, what I knew and had experienced back at the start, was still incredibly important, and I was discovering a new language for it, a new form for it, and new traditions around it as I spoke with Father George.
Discernment had always been important. Largely it had looked like reading and meditating on the word, praying, worshipping, and asking God to gift me with discernment for the decisions ahead. Much of it was so similar. However, what I was starting to see is that discernment starts with discerning our own hearts.
Discerning where we are already following the Spirit of God and responding with thanksgiving and discerning where we were in line with the spirit of the age, or the enemy of human nature, and responding with confession. It is this regular practice of creating the space to encounter God and invite Him to examine our hearts and motives and ask Him to help us to change that will be invaluable for us as we desire to be a Spirit filled community. It is this work of the Spirit transforming our character that makes possible the sustained outworking of the gifts of the Spirit. Without these types of disciplines and practices in place (alongside accountability in our lives), the gifting lacks endurance. However just because it is a discipline or a practice, it doesn’t mean it isn’t full of the experience of God’s love!
A week after talking with Father George, I did download the app he initially recommended, and have absolutely loved it. It’s called “Reimagining the Examen” and well worth giving a try!
The second element of being Filled we want to focus on is prophecy. The Bible in 1 Corinthians 14:1 says: “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophecy”. Prophecy is singled out among the gifts as something to be pursued and is highlighted as being of particular benefit to building up the church. Moses says “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” (Num 11:29). I believe we are living in the days of the fulfillment of Moses’ longing. Imagine all the Lord’s people as prophets. Not just those who take the platform, or are leaders in church, but all the Lord’s people. Imagine what our homes and workplaces and communities would be like if being filled with the Spirit wasn’t just something for our Sundays, but for our every days.
I want what Moses wanted, what Paul desired, and what I believe God is longing to do in us through His Spirit. Prophecy is often imagined only as future foretelling, but in 1 Corinthians 14:3 the Bible says “those who prophecy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Imagine if we were all prophets and that was the fruit of what we spoke into the lives of those in our world. Upbuilding, encouragement and consolation. The work of empowering the prophetic in our environment, like the work of formation, will take time.
In spending time with Kris Vallotton recently and others from his team, we found ourselves deeply impacted by the prophetic gift. It’s a team that has been built over time, with training, testing and being willing to give and receive feedback. A team with the kindness and maturity to challenge what’s being said when they don’t resonate with it, or when it is creating disorder. And there was a powerful humility present in the team and an openness to growing and learning and even getting it wrong from time to time. We are looking at some of Kris’ training material to adapt for our context and are excited about what might be empowered in our community as a result.
I had the chance to speak to Pete Scazzero recently about these focuses of Formed and Filled, and he told me that was one of the great benefits of the Emotionally Healthy coursework. Once we are better equipped to discern our own hearts, we can more clearly hear and communicate what God is saying and doing. Without the work of discernment, it’s too easy to prophesy, or lead, or teach, or help, or be generous … or any of the other gifts … out of our own unresolved issues or unhealed pasts. If, on the other hand, we can commit to the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, the character of Christ and the works of Christ, the heart of the Father and His authority, then maybe we can witness the power of God at work in ways that bring all glory to Him. So we will work to begin with discernment and the prophetic, and trust that God will continue to guide us as we seek to steward well the gifting He has placed in our community.
We are praying in this season that we might be formed more deeply, and also that we might be filled more powerfully, for all that God has ahead for us as a community. I pray that what my family encountered in those early days, and what my father learned through challenge, would be the experience of those who walk into church community now. I pray that those in our broader communities would be beneficiaries of the overflow of it all. In the early days of our church in New York, we had a saying — “occupy all streets”! At its heart, it’s ultimately not about us occupying anything, but about Him occupying everything. “And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:5). I pray that we all might have the privilege of becoming co-workers – to be conduits of exactly that.
In the first two letters we looked at two key components of the foundation upon which we are building as we move forward as a church. These were:
In this letter I want to write about the third foundation stone. In the midst of all that is changing within and around us as we move towards the Church that God wants us to be, we are also aware that it is vital that we stay true to what we uniquely bring as a church to the broader body of Christ. Where the first stone looks at what we can learn from the broader church, and the second looks at what we can learn from our own origin story, the third is about what we need to remain true to. What is the charism, the gift or grace of God on our church? As we’ve spent time hearing stories, seeking wisdom and reflecting on our own experience in our church, we keep coming to the ideas that resonate with being
One of the greatest joys of being a part of our church over the last thirty seven years has been seeing people come and encounter God’s presence and His love for them, and respond to that love by putting their faith in Jesus. God has used many movements and churches over the history of the Church to do exactly that, but I believe that this is one of the significant contributions our church has made to the wider church in more recent times. There has been a ‘gift’ on our church to establish communities that gather in worship where people have been able to come in and feel like they have ‘come home’, and to do so in some of the cities of the world that have at times have been challenging to reach with the good news of Jesus.
Right from its beginnings, our church in NYC has been a place where that has happened in such a powerful way that it seems fair to use the word revival to describe what has taken place. Since our church began in the North East, over two hundred thousand people have made decisions for Christ across Hillsong East Coast. In restarting weekly services in NYC, NJ and Boston, we have seen that same charism continue to be present. We want to take forward that remarkable gift of God on our church for people to be found in Him and by Him.
The Northeast has a historically powerful legacy of reaching people with the love of Christ. In the early 1800s a college prayer meeting under a haystack during a storm, gave birth to a revival (the Haystack Revival), in Massachusetts, that resulted in many young people becoming passionate about taking the Gospel into the world.
It was people in the Northeast who generously gave to send and support others to share the Gospel abroad, and build hospitals and schools and churches. In the 1830s it was young people and young families from the Northeast who left their homes hoping to share the Gospel in places where it might not yet have been heard. They were turned away from their first destination in India, but persevered in finding a way to accomplish what God had placed in their hearts and so came to Sri Lanka. This is where some of my ancestors heard the Gospel for the first time and responded to it, creating a legacy in my family that has spanned over six generations and continues to bear fruit to this day.
These people from the Northeast buried family members in Sri Lanka, losing husbands, wives, and children, and yet they still wrote home saying “there is opportunity here for the Gospel”, and encouraged others to come. Dr John Scutter was the first American Medical Missionary to arrive. He landed with his wife and two year old daughter. His daughter fell ill and died, and John wrote home “May our losses be made up by spiritual children.” I can remember reading about their story when our oldest daughter was just two years old. She had just for the first time (while sitting in the parents’ room at Church with Dani) raised her hand in response to an altar call inviting people to put their faith in Jesus. I was reduced to tears considering the challenges and heartaches that people had endured in order to bring the good news to my family. And now generations later I was still living in the blessing of what they had sown.
George Champion and Benjamin Rice were brothers and second generation believers in my family. They both became reverends and there are records showing that in 1835 the Ceylon Education Society in Princeton gave $60 for Benjamin to complete his studies. My family has been impacted by both those who were sent, as well as those that did the sending, and generously gave for the Gospel to be shared, and for people to be trained and equipped to continue the work.
It feels special to be called to the region from which has had such an impact on my spiritual heritage. While this part of the world might not have a reputation as a place of deep spirituality or Christian influence these days, I believe it can once again be a place of revival, where God will light a fire in the hearts of people to reach the North East, and also to go into all the world. It will likely look different to what it has looked like in the past. We see people come from every nation to live for a season in the North East, to study or work here and I suspect it will be these same people who are going to carry a passion for God back to their nations and follow his calling and do something courageous for Him. Our church has a significant part to play in that future.
There are two key aspects of what it means to stay true to this ‘gift’ of God on our church. The first is a commitment to continue to be a church gathered around worship each week where people can encounter God’s love for them. Songs of worship undoubtedly have been and will have a massive role to play in who we are as a community and what we bring to the whole Church. Corporate worship and the songs that have emerged from our church, specifically written for congregations to be able to sing together, has been at the heart of creating ‘thin spaces’ where people can easily be found in a tangible sense of presence and be impacted by a breakthrough vision of what God is like, of God’s glory. This regular part of our gathering practice shapes what we are confessing, connects us to one another, and forms our character. In the midst of the challenges of everyday life in NYC and NJ and Boston, creating sacred worship space that is relatable and accessible to the community, has been a significant part of what we bring to the cities we are in. The kind of grace and encouragement and peace that people encounter in that environment is powerful.
In Beauty will save the world, Brian Zahnd begins by recounting the report brought from Constantinople to Prince Vladimir of Kiev as he looked for a faith to unify the people: After reporting on other religions, his emissaries reported that:
Then they went to Constantinople and they led us to the place where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we only know that God dwells among men. We cannot forget that beauty.
While we have not always met in spaces shaped by soaring architecture, or with the kind of classical grandeur that might have represented the type of vision that these envoys described, we have always endeavored to create an experience in worship with which people easily resonate, and feel at home in. It is our desire for this contemporary experience of worship to be impacting for everyday people, particularly a generation that has not connected as easily with the more traditional expressions. Beauty and belonging that connects us with the goodness of God. Inspiring and comforting.
The second aspect of what it means to be true to
is how we are equipped to be the church we need to be to reach those among our friends and families who aren’t walking with God. The services that we can invite others to are a powerful part of reaching people, but so are the ways in which God calls us to personally be a witness, loving and leading in ‘The Way’, painting the picture of what Jesus is like. In a recent conversation with evangelist J. John, he was encouraging us along the lines of three key things: Care, Prayer and Share.
Care is looking at the practical ways we can be a blessing to those around us. How can we live generous lives towards those in our world? Generous with our words, our time, our finances? How can we love people in generous ways that demonstrate in a small way the love that God has for them?
Prayer is about remembering to take time to actually pray for those in our world we are believing to have an encounter with God. J. Sidlow Baxter said that people: “may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons, but they are helpless against our prayers.”
Share is how we are equipped personally to be able to share about what God has done in our lives, our testimony, and share the good news of Jesus, the Gospel. There are some wonderful resources for small group meetings, like the Alpha course, that can help create an environment where people can discuss faith and share testimonies, as well as ways to equip one another and grow our confidence in sharing the Gospel personally.
This focus on
has been a huge part of our church historically, and a profound part of our church in the North East. This C.T. Studd quote has often resonated with our mission:
“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop
Within a yard of hell.”
It’s a quote expressing a desire to do everything within our means to continue to reach a generation that isn’t connecting with the good news.
This love for and passion to reach those who are distant from a relationship with their Heavenly Father is expressed by Jesus over and over. Jesus said of His own purpose in Luke 19:10 “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” And in his trilogy of parables about lost things in Luke 15, Jesus tells us about: the shepherd who goes “after the one that is lost, until he finds it”, the woman who “search(es) carefully until she finds” the lost coin, and the father who says to the older brother “we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”. Fred Craddock writes of this found son:
The reader might have expected on the literary principle of end stress, that the final phrase would have been “was dead, is alive” on the assumption that no condition is worse than death, no condition is better than life. But such is not the climax in this parable’s scale of values. There is a condition worse than death, to be lost; there is a condition better than life, to be found.
Could there be anything better to which we might give our lives in service?
While some might see the Northeast as a challenging place to build the church, (though there are many tougher places in the world), I can’t think of a better place to be called. I know many of us would resonate with that. We know we’re born to be light, and light does its best work in the dark.
God doesn’t leave us alone in this mission. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And in Acts 1:8
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We are called to a place which has seen God break through. We are called to a place where we see God breaking through in our worship services. And I believe we are called to partner with God in the work that He is doing to prepare us as a community to steward well the Charism that He has given us as a church.
Samuel Mills who convened the first Haystack prayer meeting, is renowned for saying “We can do this, if we will”. I believe we still can, for we know He wills it.