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The Back Story (to the next book + series) (LifeLift Intro #1)

lifelift podcast Jan 14, 2020

 

My Dad doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s ever been jaded about anything. Nonetheless, after he left seminary he began asking a few tough questions. In a healthy way. Those questions got more real and urgent as he worked his way through a few pastorates at various churches.

He wondered things like:

  • If the church is the hope of the world, then why isn’t the church more powerful? Why do we so often seem defeated, always one step behind? 
  • If Jesus said He would build His church- and that hell would not prevail- then why does it seem like the church is always holding a defensive posture rather than an offensive one (Matthew 16:18)?
  • If Jesus promised that His church would do greater works than He did, then where is that power (John 14:12)?

Questions like that led to exploration, and the exploration led to the book you hold in your hands now. Well, twenty years in the making on his end, It led to the first version of the manuscript, anyway.

This version took about twenty more. Let me pull back the curtain a bit and explain…

 

My story

For over a decade, I coasted through “church world,” playing the charade of a good Christian. Like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, I kept all the rules and frowned upon those who didn’t. (No worries if you don’t know who he is— we’ll talk about him and his rebellious younger brother later in this book.)

When I was in preschool, the Lord spoke to my heart. Yes, I was that young. That sounds early, but when you remember that God set Paul aside from birth (Galatians 1:5), that Isaiah was called before be was born (Isaiah 49:1-2), and that David says all the days of our lives are numbered (Psalm 139:13f.), it doesn’t seem that outlandish. Plus, you’ve got that story about Samuel hearing God’s audible voice when  he was a young child (1 Samuel 3:7-10). Paul concludes that God planned “good works” from before time began that we would walk in (Ephesians 2:8-10). That is, the Father has an amazing destiny for you even before you ever awaken to the reality of radical grace.

I remember my eyes being opened to His goodness when I was a small child. I walked the aisle one evening during a church service. That’s how you went public with your faith back then. In a real sense, I still think that “going public” is better than checking a box on a card, signing your name to something you drop in the offering basket, or raising your hand while no one looks. Anyway, as I scurried down the “left middle” aisle of the church I was crying— the good kind of cry. As a result, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t get the words out to express what I was feeling. 

The pastor, my Dad, sent me back down the aisle.

“Do you want to go back to your Mom?” he asked. 

The truth is that I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to step over the line into freedom, salvation, redemption. But, I couldn’t talk. So, I turned and retreated. And I kept those feelings locked inside, hidden from everyone else. 

A few years later my little brother decided he wanted to “trust Jesus” (that’s the verbiage Southern Baptist churches used with kids in the early 80s when presenting the Gospel and asking if we wanted to respond affirmatively). I saw him heading down the church pew and decided I wouldn’t be “one-upped” by him. 

We weren’t in competition. Something pulled me, though. Some sort of pride. I’d tinkered with this a long, long time ago. I’d been sitting on it for at least a year by then. In “kid time,” that’s like a decade. Plus, I’d wanted in— I’d tried to go “all in” but just couldn’t get the words out and, somehow, felt like I got excluded because of it.

So, I bounded out the pew with him, got the obligatory words out, and then “joined the church” based on my profession of faith that Jesus is Lord. (I know, more church lingo.)

A few weeks later, we sat through the mandatory baptism class, we received some “discipleship materials” from the church that I never looked at, and we got baptized. For what was supposed to be a pivotal moment, it turned out to be just another day at church.

After that, I proceeded to fake it— keeping my heart locked away and simply coasting through the “church" motions. Dress right. Act even better. Smile. 

 

But the “gifts” worked

A few years into this, merely a sixth grader, I attended an evangelism workshop with adults. That’s where we learned to share our faith with others— strangers— by using small pamphlets called Gospel tracts. 

After one day of training, we hit the streets. We drove to a nearby neighborhood and knocked on doors. 

A few houses into it, our youth minister looked at me and asked, “You got the next house?”

“Sure.”

I walked up the driveway and noticed a garage sale underway. Eight or ten adults looked through tables of secondhand coffee mugs, folded shirts, and National Geographic magazines. Undeterred, I asked whose house it was.

A kind middle-aged woman with reddish brown hair approached me.

“What can I do for you?”

“We’re from Hilldale Baptist Church,” I told her. “I’d like to talk to you for just a moment…”

I know what you’re thinking: What about the customers?

I guess a friend was helping her with the sale, because she invited me to share with her. Then, she stood spell bound for the next 7-8 minutes as I led her through The Four Spiritual Laws. 

Yes, I actually led that woman to faith in Jesus while standing in the middle of a garage sale in her own house. And we’d never met before. It was a cold call. We had been going door-to-door at the end of that training seminar.  

For the next decade, I continued leading people in a faith which I kept excluded from my heart. I believed it, but since that moment when I’d gotten sent back to my seat as a 5 year old, I kept my heart hidden. 

I taught classes, led retreats, and hosted Bible studies.

I counseled others— and I gave pretty solid advice. 

I placed two Bible verses in the placeholder for my senior quote in the high school yearbook.

But that disconnect persisted. My head was there— but not my heart. Somehow, even though everything that was taught in the Baptist church focused on our mental assent (“believe these things and you’re in, because people who don’t believe exactly like this are clearly out”), I knew something was off. I felt it.

Trouble is, I couldn’t “come clean.” Well, I could, but the longer my charade went on and the more “fruit” I had, the harder it became to just own my story. 

I looked back and wondered how the gifts— my gifts— worked at such an early age. I always thought that “our gifts” didn’t come until we were “born again.” That is, I believed God didn’t give us our spiritual gifts until we experienced the “new birth.”

Over the past few years, though, I’ve learned more about some concepts I’ll relay to you in this book, things like…

  • Godly character +  Biblical obedience. The Father always blesses both. That is, we always reap a return for walking in honor, expressing love, sacrificial giving, and other actions which demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom.
  • Creative gifts + natural talents. We’re born with a special bent, with a combination of skills and passions that are uniquely us. Some of these are developed or deepened over time, because of our life experiences.
  • Spiritual gifts + supernatural empowerment. In addition to our creative gifts and talents, the Father empowers His redeemed with the presence of the Spirit. His Presence not only enables us to know and do the His will, His Presence also empowers us to perform supernatural tasks, as if God Himself expresses Himself through us.

The same Spirit who does the third is the same Father who does the second,  and He’s the same Jesus who honors the first. He’s the One who created us… and is the One who set the very moral fabric of the universe together. He exists outside of human history yet He humbled Himself and appeared in the flesh on our timeline. He knows the end from the beginning and is the author and finisher of our faith. 

As He’s the One proactively reconciling all things to Himself, each of these areas work together. When you look back over your personal history, like me, you can probably see all of these facets fitting together.

 

Revival in the church

Fast forward a few years to Father’s Day 1995. I was on summer break from college, my junior year. It was the third Sunday of the month of  June, about sixteen years to the date I walked the aisle in my little black suit. 

Something special occurred that Sunday morning during the worship service, something I’ll simply describe as this: the Holy Spirit blew into the worship room at Hilldale Baptist Church in a gentle way, and His presence set up camp in a permanent way. I remember it like it happened today.

It’s one of those few moments you have in life which you’ll never forget. It’s the kind in which you remember every single detail, not yet knowing the significance of what’s happening until after it’s over.

  • I remember where I stood.
  • I can still hear the song being sung in my head— as if it was this morning.
  • I can still see the expression on Charlie’s face as he led the congregational singing— he was the Minister of Music who had an incredible way of leading people straight to the throne of grace.

It’s all as vivid as that night I walked in the aisle when I was five. And, in the same way that first event marked me, so also did this one.

That morning, in a Baptist church, the Holy Spirit descended like a robust cloud. I could see, sense, and feel Him in the room, filling every space and flooding every person with His goodness.

Except for me. 

Standing at my seat— just halfway back in the center section of the “right side” of the church it seemed to all happen around me but not to me. But… and this is essential… I didn’t feel excluded, I felt invited. 

That Sunday night a girl I knew invited me to go hear a Gospel singing group at a nearby church. Lonely (all my friends were coupling off and even getting married by now), confused (facing the pressure to pick a major in college and declare what I was going to do for the rest of my life), and eager to please (especially a cute girl), I went. 

Turned out, this was one of those kinds of concerts I didn’t like— the kind where the singers play a song and then talk about the song for longer than the song. My thought was that if I was attending to hear you sing,  then you should… well… sing. 

Something about the lead singer’s story resonated with me, though. The more he shared his narrative, giving us snips between songs, the more I felt something stirring in me, something coming— dare I say it— alive. 

“For years, I lived inside the church,” he confessed. “A pastor’s kid, I learned how to fake it and just coast through the routines…”

What? 

This was my story… 

He continued, “I never said anything, because the longer I continued living like this… doing all of the right things… the bigger and bigger the entire lie got. I was certain I would let people down if I told them that I was just now opening my heart to the goodness of our Father… I was afraid that they would be disappointed, that they would feel like I’d robbed them, misled them the entire time…”

He. Had. Nailed. It. 

 

Crossing the line

As soon as we jumped into my friend’s red Subaru sedan after the concert, I told her, “I’ve got to tell you something…”

I could imagine all the scenarios that raced through her head. In hindsight, I was as timid about revealing the truth to her as I would have been about telling her I’d killed someone inside that church and hidden the body in the trunk of her car during one of the songs.  

Finally— “That guy’s story,” I confessed. “I’m the exact same way. This has all been fake. And I don’t want it to be anymore. I’ve never wanted it to be. I want it to be real.”

Looking back, it was that singer’s story that broke through. In a way that no sermon ever could (and I’ve heard hundreds of great ones in my life), the power present in that story breathed life into my soul.

That girl I and spent some moments praying. I asked Jesus to take complete control. 

Then, we called my parents. It was the third week in June, so they’d travelled out of town for the annual Southern Baptist Convention. That’s when they always hold their yearly meeting. 

The following Sunday morning I sat near the front, close the aisle. On the left middle aisle again. This time I wore a grey suit and had a spring in my step when the first words of the “invitational” hymn were sung. 

I took a few steps to the front of the sanctuary and was met by a Santa Clause-shaped man named Jack (clean-shaven, though). At the time I had no idea Jack would later become part of my extended family when one of my uncles married his daughter. 

Jack led me to a counseling room— really, a room that had been used for Sunday School just an hour earlier— and reflected.

He beamed and spoke. “The Bible seems to say that we were being saved in the past, we are being saved now, and we will be saved in the future.”

True. I’ll refer to some of those concepts over the next few pages of this book…

Jack continued, “So this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m so happy for you. The Lord has a great story He’s weaving together for you— for all of us.”

Over the next few months I watched the Lord do for others what He did for me: He awakened them to the reality of His presence, that faith was more than just mentally assenting to a few theological facts. Rather, faith was an ongoing encounter, an experience with His presence. 

 

What does revival really look like?

I had a few conversations with some guys my age who said things like, “I think I’m where you were. There’s some disconnect there. I need to step forward, too.” 

They did. 

And then there were others— that vast majority— I never spoke to, people who began bearing new fruit in what were once dry places. The change was obvious.

For instance, there used to be a group of men who never attended Sunday School. They camped in the hall and sipped cheap mass-brew coffee from tiny styrofoam cups “in case someone came late and needed to know where to go.” These Sunday School hall sitters (watchers) became engaged. They began attending and even leading the classes they once skipped. Many of them became worshippers and  began singing on the front row of the choir. (We'll discuss the concept of workers, watchers, wonderers, worshipers later in the book.)

Then there’s this: I wrote a 3-man play I performed with two friends one Sunday evening. Dad gave us the entire Sunday evening service without ever reading the script. I invited a co-worker, my manager from a then-locally-owned department store named Parisian. I worked in the shoe department throughout college and was quite successful due to Andy, a manager who was 20-or-so years my senior, taking me under his wings and showing me the ropes. 

He wasn’t a regular church-goer but came to me the following day as I clocked-in and offered, “You can feel the presence on the church parking lot. I could have just sat there.”

He wasn’t the only one. Others said similar things about the church. Some people even found God in the gym. Yes, where we roller skated and played basketball.

Other “odd” things happened, too.

For instance, two years into this season it was time to reroof part of the church. The church administrator put pen to paper and figured we could save about $10,000 in labor if 10-15 men showed up and stripped the old shingles off, prepping the roof for the contractors. He made the pitch from the stage the next Sunday morning during the weekly announcements and had 100-plus men and teenage boys show up. On a Tuesday. During work hours. By the time the second wave showed up after work, everything was done. This wasn’t a church of 10,000 people (those didn’t really exist back then). This was a church of about 600.

And, with that 600 there were people being baptized every single week. In other words, we saw legitimate eternal fruit— not just emotional hype.

I’ve heard churches talk about being in “seasons of increase” and “seasons of fruit-bearing”. A lot of times when I hear those phrases they sound like nothing more than catch phrases. Every visitation of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts is characterized by baptisms of newly converted adults. Should we not expect the same today? 

Further, I suppose the measure of true revival isn’t only what happens in the moment, though. It’s what happens 5, 10, or even 20 years later as a result of that revival. The long-term fruit is what certifies that the experience wasn’t simply emotional but that it was truly supernatural. 

That said, here’s the ripple effect.

  • 5 years later, those men who used to sit in the hall actually led the church. They moved from spiritual limbo to spiritual leadership. 
  • 10 years later, men who were once businessmen transitioned mid-career, went back to school, got trained, and left to lead churches and other ministries.
  • 20 years later, over 20 men and women who were my peers— in my “college & career” group in church— still serve in full time ministry.

That’s a pretty stout wake, wouldn’t you say?

 

What is this to that?

I know. That’s a lot of story that might seem off-topic for this book.

Here’s why it’s all relevant, though: the original version of this book, the first run teaching the material and then empowering those participants to serve in the area of their unique giftedness call came before that Father’s Day in which the Spirit moved into that church like a gentle breeze. In other words— 

  • This material created sacred space where that could happen. 
  • This information is the platform upon which all of that was built.

This— what you’re reading now— leads to things like that. That’s the relationship.

Now, Dad doesn’t know how to type, well. He types, but he still studies and writes his notes long-hand with pen and paper. He still prefers books to eBooks, meaning that when we travel together I generally travel “light” and he goes robustly “heavy.”

I remember taking a quick beach trip with our family and a few friends the week he finished writing the first version of this book. He left most of the pages of his notebook behind in Birmingham with Judy, the church secretary. She was a bubbly lady who always answered the church phone as if you were her singular focus. No one had email back in that day, and websites didn’t exist, so anyone who wanted the latest info on  what was happening at the church called and spoke to her.

Between those phone calls and her other regular duties, Judy punched Dad’s handwriting into the computer and created the first draft of the book. After we brought the final pages back from the beach, she finished the manuscript, and the first group ventured through the material. 

Again, make note of the timeline: the Spirit “moved in” that Sunday morning, just after the people were empowered. Don’t miss that. 

I’m not saying there’s a formula. Rather, I am saying that when you release the Spirit to lead people, He’s free to do amazing things.

During that season Dad told me stories about his staff meetings, about how four faithful men really wrestled with what “handing the church over to Jesus” looked like. 

“We need to move the congregation to every member ministry,” he told the staff. 

That’s what they called it during the early days of this: every member ministry. The idea was that the church is the Body of Christ, and everyone is a part. As such, you need every part to function in a healthy way in order to create a vibrant community of faith. Whereas most churches view their staff as the ministers and the attenders as the “members,” this was a different paradigm. This view takes the admonition of Ephesians 4:12 seriously, that the leaders of the church are here not to do ministry themselves but to “equip the saints” to do the ministry. In other words, Dad and the 3 other main leaders on staff— the minister of music, the church administrator, and the youth minister—were not the ministers. They were the equippers.

“This means we’ve got to hand off the ministry,” he said. 

“Then what will we do?” one of the men asked.

“We’ll equip them to do the work.”

“So we won’t be needed anymore?”

“Oh, it won’t be like that at all. We’ll probably be needed more. We’ll have an even bigger task, because the reach of the church will grow exponentially. We’ll need to mentor, we’ll need to train… but we’ll let them do the work of ministry, just like we see in the Bible.”

“If we do this, we’ll lose control of the church,” one of the other men said. 

He was right. And he didn’t mean it in a negative sense— as if something was going to be taken from them. He just meant that, well, if you hand it off, you totally hand it off… 

“Let’s hope so,” another interjected.

Another concurred, “It’s the right thing. This is what we see in Scripture. Our role is to equip the saints to do ministry- not to do all of the ministry.” 

The language those four men used to describe what they saw Jesus doing in that church, where He was leading them, is incredibly beautiful. And, in fact, it’s the same language I used just a few years later when I walked back down the aisle again, on a different Sunday morning, wearing the same light grey suit.

“I’m called to be an equipper,” I told Dad. 

He knew. He’d seen it. In some sense, he’d known all along.

 

Jenkins & Jenkins

After that, at some point he told Mom, “I think you’ll see some Jenkins & Jenkins books published in the future.”

That was 25 years— and a lot of life— ago. Dad has done a lot in those twenty five years, and I’ve written a lot. But we haven’t written anything together. Not until now.

Again, that doesn’t mean I'm not familiar with the information. I actually taught this material, subbing for him a few times at our church when he was out town. 

“I feel like the guy who goes in for Michael Jordan,” I confessed to the group. 

That was back in the mid-90s, right as the Bulls were pushing through their first run of back-to-back championships. 

Then I taught these concepts for an entire summer during seminary…

About two years into the revival at the church, the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (ALSBOM) offered Dad the opportunity to open the office of “Leadership and Church Growth,” thereby providing him a platform to not only implement this material at one church but at thousands of congregations across our state. After much prayer, he took the opportunity and everyone moved from Birmingham to Montgomery.

(That meant the material that was created in the trenches of a real church was about to be taken to more churches.)

Everyone in our family moved to Montgomery except me. I remained in Birmingham, completed my final year of college, and then enrolled in seminary. 

Baylor’s seminary required a semester-long internship. I called Dad and asked about working for him free of charge for the summer. He spoke with the professor, agreed to a set of criteria whereby he would submit reports and grade me, and the deed was done. I spent the summer before my final year of school traveling with him and teaching churches in various settings how to implement the stuff you’re about to read.

I actually rewrote the material a few years later, right before Dad moved to his next ministry post at First Baptist Church of Athens. By  then, I was working on staff at a new church in downtown Birmingham. For whatever reason we never got beyond the editing phase. Furthermore, to date, I still can’t find that material anywhere on my hard-drive. 

Perhaps it's for the best, as my views on the radical work of redemptive grace, the supernatural power of the Spirit’s presence, and the outlandish call God has on your life have all changed… for the better. 

About a year ago we began to discuss this material again. Dad retired from pastoring full time about 3 years ago, thinking he’d retool the original book. He receives request for it everywhere he travels.

But the Lord had other plans. 

Church after church called Dad to operate more in his wheelhouse. He began serving as a transitional pastor, helping churches without a pastor reach deep into their history to determine who they were as a congregation, what the Lord had done in their midst, and what new thing He might do next. He preaches on Sundays, meets with the staff and deacons throughout the week, and helps them orient themselves towards important subjects like the one you’ll read in this book. Not only do they then know what kind of pastor they want to call, when the shepherding leader arrives they are ready to follow his lead and do ministry with him.

“What about the book?” I asked Dad one day.

“I don’t have time. We need it, but I don’t have the time to write it.”

I know what you’re thinking: Who has time to handwrite a rewrite, right?

Over time I explained that he could teach the material on video, that we could release a few podcast episodes where people could dive deeper, and that we could create online tools for assessments and other important parts of the book.

One day, he asked me, “Why don’t you do it? You write. You already have a podcast. You create online courses. And you know how to do the other things. So why don’t you…?”

I told him to send a printed version of the book in the mail— like the kind of books he reads. By now, no e-versions existed. All the computers used for the first version were obsolete— if you could even find the floppy disk that once stored the material. 

Mom shipped me a copy of everything immediately.

Why do I tell you all of that? 

Well, I want you to know that, first, this isn’t just another project. Not to me. As I write, I’m keenly aware that this info wasn’t created in a classroom; it emerged from a congregation of sincere people who were seeking to follow the Lord in real time and space, while doing the best they could to raise their families, manage their schedules, and do life well. Many of these precious people are significant to my spiritual formation and personal redemption in ways they may never understand. 

Second, I’ve been entrusted with my father’s legacy, something he created in the trenches of a real church that served real people. I’ve been entrusted to add to that, to take the unique expression of grace the Father has gifted me and to place it alongside some of the great truths that, really, created the space where I encountered the Presence.

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