A Passion for God’s House

“For zeal for your house has consumed me.”   (King David, Psalm 69:9)

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I love this image of the St Patrick’s Cathedral standing between tall sky-scrapers in New York City:  a sanctuary for God in a busy, godless city.  Here the broken-hearted can find their Comforter and the oppressed their Deliverer.  Here the lonely can meet their Friend, the sinner can find Mercy and the troubled can find Peace. Here New Yorkers can escape the business and noise of the city and hear the still voice of God. And here the Creator of the universe can meet his beloved creatures and receive his rightful worship.  This is a church – the House of God.  And this image reminds me of a sermon I heard in 2002 by Fred May – a message that has not left my heart.[i]

The House of God had such a prominent place in the heart of king David amidst the business of his demanding life.  This beloved shepherd-king of Israel was a general of an active army, the ruler of a vastly expanding kingdom, a husband of several wives and a father of many children.  David was a brilliant architect, a skilful musician, songwriter and poet, as well as a prophet.  David’s life was not free from disappointment and pain: his childhood was marked by paternal negligence and sibling rivalry; his youth was celebrated by heroism which caused him to be hunted down and exiled by a jealous monarch; he buried (at least) three of his own children; and he experienced severe betrayal during the revolt lead by his own son Absalom who sought the crown.  But David was not without fault either: the Scriptures clearly record moments of rage and pride, an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, as well as David’s passive fatherhood which lead to violent incest, murder and eventually the revolt lead by his son Absalom.

But amidst these moral and ethical failures David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) – why?  This phrase from the famous Shepherd-psalm reveals why: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:4-6).   Although this iconic king had the affection and even heroic worship of the people, the respect of both his army and his enemies, all the wealth and pleasures he could dream of, David had a zealous passion for the House of God more than anything this world could offer (Psalm 69:9; compare John 2:17).  Especially during times of hardship, during his days of exile from Israel, David would long for the comfort and security he experienced alongside other worshipers in the House of God.  And that was the key to David’s enduring legacy.

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David really experienced the house of God as a special place where he met with God – alongside other believers.  What do the Psalms reveal of his experience in God’s house?

First, we read that David experienced something special in the House of God (although it was a tent in his days!) –  he experienced favour (a benevolent attitude) before God and mercy (undeserved goodness) from God towards him.  [Psalm 5:7]

Secondly, David experienced real security and strength in God’s House [Psalm 27:4-6]. While hiding in the wilderness, in caves from King Saul David longed to be in God’s House – because there in God’s presence he felt safe and secure.

Thirdly David associated the House of God with abundance of provision [Psalm 36:7-8].  In the presence of God there is no lack, and in the House of God there is always enough for the one who is hungry.  The house of God was – and is – always a place where the poor get helped with practical provision, displaying the gracious generosity of God.

Fourthly, for David the House of God was a place of fellowship and friendship – a place where deep bonds were formed in the presence of God [Psalm 55:12-14].  In Psalm 55 David laments in anguish how he had been betrayed by Ahithophel, his friend and wise advisor who had defected to Absalom’s insurgence.  But we read that the worse part of the betrayal for David was that they “used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house [they] walked in the throng.” (verse 14).

The fifth thing we learn about David’s observation of those who love the House of God is how they live a long, healthy and productive life as recorded in Psalm 92:12-15:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

I know several old people who love God and His House, and although they grow old but their spirits remain young.  They remain joyful and friendly, full of life and faith.  Truly, God renews their youth!

The sixth thing we note in Psalm 122 is that David and his decedents remained faithful to the House of God for the goodwill of the nation; i.e. their worship of God in the House of God resulted in God’s blessing on their kingdom.  The same remains true today: to see the Kingdom of God come and extend in our nation, our devotion should be to the House of God.

Lastly we read how David loved the house of God because it was God’s Home – a resting place for God [Psalm 132] – a place where His name was revered, where He could receive the worship due to Him.  A place where people could meet him away from the business of everyday life.  David knew that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and that God fills the whole expanse with His presence.  But although God is omnipresent, His House is the one place that is set aside for Him – a place that is sanctified for Him and his worship.  “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” (Romans 2:24), yet in his House, among His people, he is revered.  It is His “resting place.”

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This passion for God’s house kept the shepherd-king up at night, especially once his wars had ceased, his enemies were conquered and he was crowned king over Israel, ruling from his beautiful palace in Jerusalem.  One night he called Nathan the prophet to share his burden and dream to build God a Temple – a structure which will host and display the greatness and glory of God: Now when [David] lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent…’” (2 Samuel 7:1-2)  The Lord’s reply was so telling of his honor for David’s love for the House of God; God said that because David had it in his heart to build Him a house, he will reward him with the following (2 Samuel 7:9-16):

  • A great name for David.
  • Rest from his enemies.
  • God will build David a house (legacy).
  • David’s children will reign.
  • God will instruct David’s children and take care of them.
  • Goodness towards David’s offspring.
  • An eternal kingship (fulfilled in his descendent Jesus the Christ).

And the Scriptures reveal that these all came to pass; although God did not permit David to build God’s temple because of his reputation of war and bloodshed, God clearly honoured and rewarded David’s passion for his House, amidst all his business and success.

But God is no respecter of persons – how he honoured David because of his love for God’s house, so he has honoured countless others who “had it in their heart to build God a house”.

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Amidst the business of life, the terrors of our times and the delights this world offers, what priority does God’s house – the assembly of his people – have in your heart?  When you go through hardships or when you can’t fall asleep at night, does your flights of fantasy take you into the house of God where God’s presence meets God’s people in worship? Can you pray with this psalmist?

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.  Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

[Sons of Korah, Psalm 84:1-4,10]

[i] Fred May of the principle pastor of Shofar Christian Church in Stellenbosch, South Africa – www.shofaronline.org

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What is Church? God’s Special People

“This is a big old ship, Bill.  She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up.  But she gets where we’re going.  Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you.” [i]

If you’ve been in church long enough you would probably smile and nod at J.F. Power’s comment quoted above.  To say that the church is imperfect is a euphemism.  But to walk away from church is silly, if you understand the nature of church.  The church is made up by redeemed, but broken people.  And therein lies the tension between the expectation of Christ-like perfection and the reality of sinful, selfish people.  Church is messy, but church is glorious.

It is easy to get so busy with the activities, meetings and politics of church organization that one lose sight of the identity and nature of church.  When that happens, these necessary activities drain the life and joy out of church life, and we miss the beauty we once knew within Christ’ community.  So, what is church?

Simply put, church is GOD’S SPECIAL PEOPLE.

GOD’S people

Church begins with God: a community created and chosen, redeemed and reconciled by God and for God. It is in every respect God’s Church – a God-owned people.  Consequently, the church is and should be preoccupied with God and live God-conscious lives.  Thus we are people who live in the fear of God – we live in the knowledge that he exists, he sees all things and he will judge every person.  Moreover, because we are God-conscience we also live in hope because we know God hears every call and God saves everyone who cries out to him – we are not alone in this world!  The church is a God-worshipping community that live in thankful response to Christ’s work of redemption and in constant awareness of God’s gracious providence.  These thankful worshippers form a God-serving community who devote their lives on this earth to serve God’s His redemptive purpose, and a God-declaring people who preach the message of his coming kingdom. Most importantly, the church is God’s church because we are a God-abiding people, set aside by God to dwell in eternally.  As such the church community is a God-empowered and God-revealing people through whom the world knows the loving and righteous character of our God.

a SPECIAL people

The church is a special community, a people chosen by God.  We are God’s “ekklesia” – a posterity “called-out” by God, for God’s purposes.  We are separate, not part of this world; set apart by God, for his delight.  God has sanctified us for himself – we are holy to God, and unto God.  As such we are a counter-cultural community living differently because we do not values this world or the things of this world.  We are a special people because we are a people inhabited by God.  The God of creation, the God of the universe has made his dwelling place among us.  We have become an eternal community who live forever since the Eternal God has become our home, sharing his life with us.

no ordinary PEOPLE

The church is made up of people – humans who live ordinary lives here on earth.  A gathering of redeemed, but still imperfect, broken, mortal people.  But the church is God’s new race, God’s new humanity where there is no male or female, neither slave nor freeman, no distinction between Jew or Greek – a people who value life and identity in Christ more than economic, gender, race or education distinctions.  We are more than mere mortals – the church is God’s new creation, the restored Eden, the New Jerusalem where God is always in her midst and he is her perpetual light.  As Staney Grenz writes “the church is… a new humanity… who are seeking to point toward the future God has in store for creation.” [ii]  With his presence among us and his Spirit transforming us into his image, the church is God’s own representation as we have become partakers his divine nature.  Or as Grenz puts it [we are an] ‘eschatological people,’ a company who ‘pioneer’ in the present what the future will be like.”[iii]  The church is a foretaste of what the New Creation will be like when Christ returns.

But most importantly, the church is God’s own family – the privileged posterity who can rightly call him Dad as we have been born again of Him.  As such we are his favored offspring, his beloved children who bring joy to his face.  It is in the atmosphere of a local church that the loving nature and grace of God our Father is experienced and displayed.  It is through his family – imperfect as the humans therein – that God chooses to make himself and his mission known.  And that is the perpetual business of church: the gentle, purposeful redemption and restoration of individuals, families and society at large as God’s children go about representing the love of God our Father.  That is the privileged of being part of church.

[i] J.F. Powers, Wheat that Springeth Green, (NYRB Classics, 1988)

[ii] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, (Baker Academic, 1998), p207

[iii] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community, (Baker Academic, 1998), p213

Lessons learned from church planting 5 – the blessing of a planting church

I remember a specific Sunday in the first few months when we planted Shofar Pretoria.   The group was still very small, and on top of that it was holiday season, so on that particular Sunday morning we had only seven members in our small, dark theatre-church.  However, as always we were prepared for a big service – ready for when the masses of visitors would come to church.    It was a comical scene: Richard Wade and two others were leading worship on the small stage, Jaco Wagenaar was behind the sound desk, and I think Magriet was handling the flimsies on the rear view projector (old school style!), leaving two in the “congregation” to worship.  After that one would get up to lead and motivate us in giving an offering, two would take up the offering leaving four in the congregation… Then I would get up to preach while Magriet would work the projector, with Jaco still manning the sound desk, leaving four members in the congregation… There were always more people facilitating the service than those actually being served!  Looking back I think we were really silly doing small church like that, but that’s the way we did church, because that was the only way we knew how,

An example to follow after

Although copying the “big church” model was obviously unnecessary and impersonal within such a small congregation, it brought such a sense of security and stability since the young congregation and this inexperienced pastor had a model to follow – a model in which they were brought up and a model which brought them life back in their student days. In a strange way it made us feel at home and safe.

But it was not only in our services did we copy the planting church’s model – we copied the model of ministry from Shofar Stellenbosch in all our church activities. In our Sunday services, intercession meetings, mid-week small groups gatherings, discipleship courses, Bible School and even evangelistic outreaches we modeled everything we did on the content and manner of ministry of Shofar in Stellenbosch.  In the beginning I even copied the sermons of Pss Fred and Lucille May and Sias le Roux (with their knowledge off course) until I had confidence in pulpit ministry.  With no surprise we experienced the same life in our meetings and effectiveness in our discipleship of new members as we ourselves experienced while being members in Stellenbosch.

The benefits of having an example to follow after incorporates more than the security and comfort of “going in the right direction” – it actually sets the young ministry team on the right direction that has proven productive and good.  Although we did not initially understand the motive for all these church activities we reaped the benefits of a healthy, growing church because we copied the design of a healthy church model.

The blessing of a covenant relationship. The leadership team of Shofar Stellenbosch always saw Shofar Pretoria (as well as the other young congregations which were planted in the same time) as an extension of itself, which meant that they were as committed to the welfare of this church plant, its leaders and its members as they were of their own congregation (if not more).  Their devotion to me and the congregation were sincere and commendable, as you might see in the rest of the post.

Support, protect and care.  Being inexperienced in planting, leading and pastoring a church, the newly planted Shofar Pretoria benefited immensely from the frequent visits, phone calls and emails, visiting mission teams and regular prayer cover of the apostolic leadership team.  During those early days I had frequent and long phone calls with Pss Fred May and Sias le Roux as I bounced my thoughts and ideas with them, and as they checked in to see how I was coping with my work and ministry load.  Especially the frequent weekend ministry visits by the mature apostolic team members strengthened and comforted the young church.

But the support and care was always first to me, the pastor (and Magriet once we married), then to the church.  Although it might sound selfish and even ignoble at first, this wisdom ensured that the pastor never “lead on empty”.  I recall a particular Tuesday three and a half years into the church plant.  I was recently married, bought a house, just resigned from the Air Force.  The church grew well and the ministry program was very busy.  My wife Magriet was in her fourth year of medical studies and busy with clinical work.  I remember coming into the office that day feeling very empty and emotional; I closed the door to the office as started crying for no apparent reason, and hid in my office from sheer embarrassment.  At first I thought it was a deep spiritual thing that happened to me and started praying, but that just felt fake and made everything worse, so I called Ps Fred, the principle pastor. He walked out of a meeting, listened to me and said I must get on the first flight down so they could spend time ministering to me. (I negotiated to wait until the next morning since I reasoned that it’s good to first inform and consult with my wife – she was working a 24hr shift in the hospital and I have not seen her since the previous day). I flew down and was so blown away by the fact that Ps Fred and Lucille May as well as Ps Sias le Roux had cleared their schedules to spend the day with me – talking, listening, counselling, praying – a day devoted in support and care of me. (Apparently my emotional outburst as the result of burn-out because I never stopped to rest and refresh… Simple diagnoses with simple solution – a good lesson to learn early-on in life and ministry!)

Always held before the Lord.  During that time I had the sense that we, the young church, was always brought before the Lord in prayer.  I recall that almost on a weekly basis I received messages or phone calls with words of encouragement, often very accurate as to the current challenges I or we faced.  We knew that the church in Stellenbosch prayed for us, and it was tangible in the grace we experienced as we met and ministered.  We were so encouraged by the love we felt and the help we received!

Direction and structure. Shofar Christian Church is known for its well planned and documented administration and ministry support system; since we are a church planting movement, the apostolic team always thinks ahead, making sure everything is easily to duplicate and imitate at a church-plant level.  Even in those early days when we planted Shofar Pretoria we benefited from the “Church in a Box” concept – a compilation of administrative, ministerial and training templates with additional resources designed to free the hands of the church-planter, allowing all the possible help to focus on relationships and personal actual ministry – to build into the people.

Wisdom and support in handling difficult situations graciously.  A notable situation early in the church plant had the potential to snuff the passion and scatter the congregation when an assistant pastor with an extraordinary ministry gift fell into secret moral sin.  While being away on holiday in Namibia I was warned through disturbing dreams that there was “an outbreak” of sexual perversion in the church.  Upon returning home I was troubled at the news that things were as I dreamed, and our local leadership team started praying.  I first suspected that something impure was imparted when a mission team came to visit just before I left, but after enquiry with the team leader and prayer I felt at ease about them.  But then Ps Sias le Roux from Stellenbosch phoned with a word of knowledge regarding a particular sinful habit in the assistant pastor’s life, and after gentle confrontation he confessed everything to me.  This lead to the suspension and support towards restoration of the pastor and his marriage, but sadly his persistence in this destructive habit and the resulting shame lead to his estrangement from his wife, the church and his ministry.

During this difficult season for the young, intimate congregation, the confident and compassionate leadership of apostolic team in Stellenbosch proved very comforting and encouraging.  Rather than being a demoralizing experience, this episode proved to be a great teaching moment of the destructiveness of sin and graceful restoration of Christ in and through the church, leading to the fear of God and intimate accountability of one another.  Furthermore the church as a whole (and myself as pastor) felt really safe and cared for, knowing that the leadership of this young church was not left to themselves.

The blessing of inheritance.  As children inherit houses they did not build, money they have not earned, identity they have not established and traditions they have not started, so Shofar Pretoria received a big kick start in life simply by being planted by Shofar Pretoria.

One of the most cherished blessings we have inherited was the “DNA” of the Shofar Christian Church.  The initial planting group were all discipled and mentored in Stellenbosch through the apostolic leaders, as we attended and participated in all the ministry opportunities.  Through those relationships, the passions and values that lived in their leadership team’s hearts also lived in our hearts.  These passions and values include: a passion for the lost and unreached people; a sincere love for people leading to selfless service of people; a life devoted to worship Christ in everything we do; being sensitive to the leading and empowerment of the Holy Spirit; as well as living deliberately in pursuit of purpose God has for each one, with a willingness to be prepared for that life.

Because of the many personal ministry visits of the apostolic leaders as well as the visiting mission teams from Stellenbosch, these values and passions were transferred to the new members in a relatively short space of time.  And once these values were installed in our hearts, our culture and training courses merely needed to strengthen it so that it lived in every member and directed our thought, dreams and efforts of our congregation.

Discipleship courses and structures we did not build. Being part of Shofar Christian Church means that – as in other church groups – every member has the privileged of going through a well-structured discipleship course to lay foundations in your spiritual and relational life through carefully facilitated encounters with the Lord and His Truth – all in community.  Often in those early days I smiled at how blessed we are, the initial planting group, firstly because we have gone through these discipleship courses which set us on a true and proven path of life, and secondly because we had the experience and material and training to disciple others through this foundational course.  Every new member were invited and ministered to in relationship along a sure path.  We saw many, many new members burst with joy and freedom as they received healing and deliverance, or hear the voice of God for the first time.  And yet we never labored for these discipleship courses – we simply used it and the church grew healthy and steadily.

Moreover, very early on in the church plant we could start teaching and hosting a Shofar Bible School, both 1st and 2nd year.  We went through these rich courses ourselves while being students in Stellenbosch and it blessed us greatly.  Now we grow leaders in our church by presenting these courses because we had all the material an training tools given to us by Shofar in Stellenbosch, with some ministry experience gained in campus ministry and missions Now and had ample opportunity in facilitating and teaching and preaching in campus ministry and missions.

Other training material and guidelines inherited from the Shofar in Stellenbosch included the facilitation of small groups, church services and worship ministry.  These guidelines and policies also prevented some serious potential disasters within this young, vulnerable church as many schemers and false apostles and false prophets sought opportunity to minister or even take leadership in the church.  Good guidelines and policies really preserved the purity and directed the passion towards productive growth in the congregation.

Even the governance structures and policies – such as Eldership, Governance Board, Finance Board and Advisory Board and Human Resource policies were naturally inherited from Shofar Stellenbosch, allowing to follow established best practices and leaving us to focus on ministry.
In conclusion, I am convinced more than ever that one of the primary reasons why Shofar Pretoria survived and thrived in those early days was because of the living relationship with its planting church, the generous provision of its resources and ministry practices, with the unselfish devotion to care and support of Shofar Christian Church’s apostolic leaders in serving and protecting this young pastor and congregation.

I say to these men and women what the Lord said to me one, early in the church plant while I was praying or the church: The LORD will record, When He registers the peoples: “This one was born there.”” (Psalm 87:6) and you will receive your reward.

Lessons learned from church planting 4 – the blessing of relational influence

The blessing of influence

In the early years of Shofar Pretoria the church grew almost exclusively through salvation of new believers.  The first adult who salvation in church was Danie Ferreira – a heart-broken young man who were referred by a mutual friend to visit us.  That day Danie met Jesus his Saviour and his life was radically transformed.  He became a pillar in the church, was ordained and today Danie and Jacomin Ferreira pastor Shofar Christian Church in Secunda.

Evangelical outreach

Because we had a burning passion for the lost to meet Jesus, we did many outreaches in the city.  At times we did attractional style outreaches with dances and music in the parks; we would do do two-by-two outreaches, or make hot dogs and give free hand-outs to start conversations and witness to everyone who would listen. In addition, Shofar in Stellenbosch would send outreach teams every six months to come help edify the church, also doing outreaches in the city.  Although many people prayed the sinner’s prayer during those three years of frequent outreaches, only three of those converts became members of our congregation (in spite of very deliberate follow-up and invitations).

Relational growth

So how did the church grow in Pretoria intially?  The church primarily grew through relational influence as each member impacted the environment in which he or she lived.  It was very visible through the groups of people that made up the early church, for instance there was a big component of Air Force engineers, because I was an Air Force engineer, and my friends brought some more.   Magriet, who later became my wife, was a medical student, and therefore from the very start we had several medical students in the church – which is still the case today.

My brother Conrad came because I invited him, and he brought a big group of Military Medical students.  I was with him when he invited the first students one Friday afternoon very early on in the church plant.  We were having coffee in his cafeteria at work when a few young nursing students were giggling in the corner. My brother, their superior, got up and sternly rebuked them for their immaturity, then promptly told them they must be ready at 8:30 on Sunday – he will pick them up for church. That Sunday they reported for church on time, but he sent them up again to dress more appropriately.  They obeyed their lieutenant, and that Sunday they became part of the church plant.  And because these initial military students were young girls, we soon had young military men who came to church for the girls, met Jesus and stayed on for other more noble motives.

Ester Venter was part of the church plant right from the offset and brought friends whom she stayed with and some who studied with at the dancing academy.  Some of the graduated engineers like Braam Visser, Thinus van As, Jaco Wagenaar and Jaco Kirstein invited their friends and collogues.  Thinus Olivier connected with the church via family friends in Shofar Stellenbosch and recommitted his life to the Lord.  He worked at Mugg & Bean in Centurion, and invited all his colleagues; a group of them stayed on.

Charné Bloem started with a student ministry, deliberately connecting with students on the Pretoria University campus.  When Phillip Boshoff joined the church as youth pastor the campus ministry took off and brought great momentum to our church – but mainly because the students brought their friends to small group and church.

Later, when Annerie Logan (formally Strohfeldt) joined the church via her sister in Shofar Cape Town, a big part of her Performing Arts class at the Tswane University of Technology joined because of her influence.  Today she is part of the staff and ministry team at Shofar Cape Town.

The church also grew through members from Shofar Stellenbosch who relocated to Gauteng after their studies and subsequently invited their friends, families and colleagues to church.

The names mentioned above are just a few to give an example of how each member in our church plant had the power to bring a whole sector in their community into church where they would meet Jesus and grow in godliness.

Pale hearts

It is interesting to note that, in spite of the location of the church and in spite of all the outreaches the church did in the inner city of Pretoria, that the congregation consisted of primarily white, higher educated people.  This, in spite of the services that were deliberately conducted in English, and the many, many black people who prayed the sinners’ prayer and accepted Christ as Lord.  Our conclusion was simple: we had no black friends, and therefore our church had no black members (apart from Robert Ramwisa mentioned in an earlier post).  Only later, when our members (and notably the students on campus first) had friends across cultural and racial boundaries, did it reflect in our congregation.  As our hearts grew wider to welcome different people in our lives and homes, so the church grew bigger and more diverse.  Hospitality flows from generous hearts.

So Shofar Pretoria grew via relational influence, in sincerity and love.  The church grew as members witnessed to and invited their friends where they were.  As our friendships grew more diverse so did our congregation.  The people who felt comfortable and stayed on in our church were the people we felt comfortable with and invited to our homes.  After all – church lives in our relationships, and church is family.

In the next two posts we will consider the blessing of an anointed and humble worship leader in a church plant, and the blessing of having a mother church supporting a church plant.

Lessons learned from Church Planting 3 – the blessing of friendship-partnership

This is the third post in a series reflecting on the lessons learned while planting church.  The previous two were on the blessings of confident humility and the blessing of being clueless.

The benefits of a working pastor

I will always cherish the first 3½ years of planting and pastoring Shofar Pretoria – the time when I was still working as engineer in the Air Force.  It was a busy time for me – I worked during the day, studied post-graduate engineering part time, and also pursued relationship with Magriet whom I later married.  So my ministry in the church was really “part-time”:  leading prayer meetings on Monday evening, teaching in Bible School on Tuesdays, attending small group meetings on Wednesday evenings, regular outreaches or discipleship courses on Saturdays, ending with Sunday services.  The reason why I cherished this memory is for two reasons: firstly I did not get paid to do for a long time; I did it because I loved God and his church.  And secondly this “part-time” ministry inspired everyone in church to value and participate in our times together.  Since I did not “work for the church” everyone “worked in the church” – we all pulled together and shared responsibility.  There was such a joyful, selfless spirit of serving in the church!

Also, the pastor who worked – as everyone else – meant there was no elitism, no class difference between the “spiritual” and the “secular” people.  It made not just “volunteering” and “activities” in church normative – it made every type of ministry in church normative.

So the fact that the pastor worked inspired unreserved partnership in and ownership of the congregation – each pulled their weight joyfully. And this high degree of involvement and service set the tone for a growing, learning church.  There were no passive, stagnant church members – every member was minister.

A warm environment

One of the key characteristics in Shofar Pretoria right from the offset was the warm and authentic relationships.  It usually takes a while to cultivate such an accepting, loving relational environment, but this was true form the offset in the church.

Very early in the church plant I boldly approached six of my very close Air Force engineering friends (who served God and studied with me in Stellenbosch) to help us in the church plant.  One by one they agreed and came in to help with the church plant.

A photo taken during our studies.  here you can see some of the legendary Air Force friends who had such a big influence on teh church plant.  In this photo: myself, Hendrik Redelinghuys, Henno Kriel, Wim van der Merwe, and Corne Smith.   Johan Appelgrein is not on this photo. SG Ferreira, Barry Drotche, Christo Versteeg also joined later.
A photo taken during our studies. here you can see some of the legendary Air Force friends who had such a big influence on teh church plant. In this photo: myself, Hendrik Redelinghuys, Henno Kriel, Wim van der Merwe, and Corne Smith. Johan Appelgrein is not on this photo. SG Ferreira, Barry Drotche, Christo Versteeg also joined later.

Our friendship was cultivated over a period of six years by that time, having gone through Basic Military Training, Officers Course and engineering studies together.  Our friendship was robust and sincere, having been forged in good times and hard times.  By then we really knew each other well and loved each other sincerely.  That meant there was no pretense among us; we were well aware of one another’s strengths and weaknesses and we had the habit of watching out for one another.

So when these young men joined the church they did so exclusively to help build the church – they “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).  When I asked them they were already attending other congregations, but they came over to help build a church in which a friend – whom they knew well, fully aware of all his flaws and mistakes – was pastoring. Their loyalty and devotion to a friend caused them one by one to prayerfully join the church to help build the church.

Another man is worth mentioning here: my brother Conrad van Niekerk.  When we started with services in Pretoria Conrad served as Lieutenant in the Military Medical School in Pretoria.  He was frustrated with his work, not really seeing a future career there, and not in a good space.  He was on the point of leaving for greener fields in the UK when he made a vow to God to put his career and life on hold to serve and help me, his younger brother, to build the church.

I must mention that most of the initial church planting team also knew each other really well from our days in Shofar in Stellenbosch from years together in campus ministry and medium term outreaches.  But when these men joined with their tight working relationships and the sole motive to help build, it added much momentum.

The coming of this “band of brothers” early in the church plant set the tone for the culture in the church: a warm relational culture of loyalty, service, transparency and accountability was formed. From the offset these Christian values were visible and normative in the relationships of the young congregation.  And because they were a relatively large in the beginning the new members who joined the church were disciple in this warm, honest and selfless culture.

In the next post “the blessings of influence” I will reflect on my insights gained as I reflected on how the church grew, and it might challenge some people’s view of church-growth a little.

Lessons learned from church planting 2 – the blessing of being clueless

This is the second post in a series on “lessons learned from church planting” – the previous one was on the blessing of confident humility.

A street view of the Moonbox Theater, annexed to the bigger Breytenbach Theater in Sunnyside, Pretoria
A street view of the Moonbox Theater, annexed to the bigger Breytenbach Theater in Sunnyside, Pretoria

Our first meeting place was a dark little boutique theatre in the heart of Sunnyside called the Moonbox Theatre.  At times this quaint little theatre caused for some amusing and very embarrassing moments as the décor of the current production had to be left untouched.   For instance, during Halloween there would be spider webs in the corners, witches on brooms hanging from the ceiling and smiling lit pumpkins all around; during Easter bunnies and bright eggs decorated the dark theatre; during valentine the lights would be red, hearts and balloons on the walls and a bright mouth-shaped couch filled the preaching place…  Yet this never seemed to bother the early members of Shofar Pretoria who confessed they came back into this unsafe part of the city to a small, dark hall for times of intimate fellowship with God and one another.

Dependence on God

When we came together there was so much joy, excitement and hunger for God.  Yet we were clueless – none of us had any idea how to do this thing called church planting.  I had no experience in church-planting, pastoring or administering a church, but I had no need to fake it, since everyone else aslo knew I was clueless – but so were they!  There was no pretense, no false confidence – we all knew that we needed God’s grace and leading.  During this period I truly learned that “God gives grace to the humble” (James 4:5), and what grace did we walk in!

That sense of dependence lead us to pray a lot; since we had no education or experience in church-planting we needed hear everything from God.  Even with sermon preparation: I remember praying every Saturday for hours on end to hear the Word of the Lord for the church meeting on Sunday, recording everything the Lord was saying to the church. (During the initial 3.5 years of the church plant I was employed in the Air Force).  But it was not just me praying – the church prayed continually: before our services members would pray that everyone who entered would have a life-changing encounter with God – which they did.  The whole church rocked up for our midweek prayer meetings and we also had regular weekends dedicated to prayer and fasting. We prayed so much because we were clueless and knew that “unless the Lord builds the house” our efforts would be in vain (Psalm 127:1).

A house of prayer for all nations

In the first year of the church-plant we noticed that we were a very white, educated group of people meeting in the inner city of Pretoria – not at all representing or reaching the community we worshipped in.  In times of prayer we strongly felt God lead us to become “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7).  So I ministered on that one Sunday and we prayed sincerely throughout the week that God would add people from the inner city to our congregation.  The very next Sunday, as I ministered, I noticed a tall, handsome black man walk into the small theatre where we met.  He was clearly moved in the service but tried to slip away during the closing prayer.  But Hendrik Redelinghuys quickly jumped up and greeted him and offered him coffee. He then told us that in the week he was alone in his room, frustrated with his life and betrayed by the people around him, praying with a rosary to God for help.  Frustrated at his lifeless religion he grabbed the rosary, threw it in the corner, and when lightning did not strike him down he cried out to God to lead him to people who knew Him and could teach him. So this particular Sunday morning Robert Ramwisa, a student from Rwanda walked out of his flat and (miraculously) heard our singing as we worshipped from within our little theatre-church.  He asked the guard at the gate to allow him inside, and although the man warned him “this is a white church”, Robert felt drawn inside.  That day Bob was overwhelmed by the presence of God and felt His love in the congregation, and the next Sunday Robert met Jesus his Savior and became part of the family. With that we started to grow into God’s “house of prayer for all nations.”  He was a pillar in the church-plant, later became a small group leader, and today he is back in Rwanda heading up a small group and church plant.

A recent photo of Robert Ramwisa in Kigali, Rwanda with a few mission team members from Shofar Johannesburg visiting him.
A recent photo of Robert Ramwisa in Kigali, Rwanda with a few mission team members from Shofar Johannesburg visiting him.

Power to transform

One of the major benefits of this dependent, prayer-driven congregation was the resulting prophetic ministry within the church – not by some “elect prophets” but by everyone.  I do not recall one service that passed without someone sharing a word of knowledge to an individual, or a word of prophesy from the Lord to either the church or an individual.  Because we waited on the Lord in prayer and worship God spoke faithfully, clearly, personally.  Our gatherings were characterized by a liberating freedom and holiness in respectful fear in the presence of God.  Each time we met, the Lord “sent forth his word and healed” (Psalm 107:20) and lives were forever transformed by the Lord.

One such an example is how Handré Verreyne became a member of our young congregation.  That day he was not looking for spirituality or God, and he was not at all interested in attending church, even though he was brought up as a “Christian”.  But Handré loved beautiful young women, and we had beautiful young women in our small congregation.  So Handre came to church on that Sunday wanting to win the heart of Meson Osborn, but God had a meeting planned with him.  That day God spoke into Handré’s heart and he became a member of the church.  As an added extra Handré did win Meson over, got married, and today Handre is serving as assistant pastor in Shofar Pretoria.

Avoiding bloodshed in church

Living in prayerful dependence on God saved us from various disasters in those days – some more literal and some more spiritual.  For instance, one evening as we prayed before the church service I heard the Lord instruct us to lock the doors.  So I asked Danie Ferreira to lock the doors when the service started.  Early in the sermon, I looked up and saw two men stand at the security gates trying to open the gate.  I asked Danie to open the gate for them, supposing they were visitors who did not know what time services started. But as they entered my spirit felt very uneasy.  The two “visitors” went to sit on the opposite sides of the hall, and immediately four or five of the men in church got up and went to pray in the foyer at the back – you could hear the deep rumbling as they prayed ardently. Several others bowed their heads and prayed softly in their chairs.  Something was not right!

At some point the uneasiness was so great that I stopped preaching and asked the congregation to pray together. We continued the ministry, but as we closed the service in prayer and everyone stood up, the men who prayed at the back gently removed the two “visitors” form the congregation and confronted them in the foyer as to their motives for coming here. Their story was fickle and their demeanor evasive, but we discovered they had guns and asked them to leave.  We suspected their motive was to rob the church during offering time (as was reported regularly in Pretoria Central during that time).  The next day we heard that two other congregations up the street were robbed on that Sunday by two gunmen who “visited” the churches.  Our prayerful dependence and sensitivity to God’s leading protected the church that day.

Birthing the purposes of God

In the months leading up to the church plant about 10 of us prayed fervently until we were convinced that God mandated a church plant in Pretoria.  Moreover, as we prayed we understood that the church were to be characterized by a few things: the healing of sexually broken people, a “well of salvation” (Isaiah 45:8), to restore “peace in the city” (Zechariah 8:4-5), “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7) and influence in government.

As I got underway in the pastoring and administration of the church I had forgotten to focus on these things the Lord had said about the church.  So as time went on and the church grew with new people being added there was much ministry in the area of sexual brokenness, and the prevalence thereof really concerned me, until I recalled the mandate given to the church.  From that moment on I cherished and celebrated the redemptive work the Lord was doing, to bring the sexually broken to the church for healing and restoration.

Today as I look at the photos of the people from those early days of Shofar Pretoria and I see their flourishing friendships, marriages and families, I cherish the fact that the Lord had birthed in Shofar Pretoria a well of salvation, a place where the broken can find Jesus their Healer.

Safety in the counsel of many

The last benefit I wish to mention regarding the blessing of being cluelessness was our experience of “safety in the counsel of many” (Proverbs 11:14).  Since no one had experience in planting, pastoring or administrating a church – but all had some experience and ample passion for ministry – there was a great degree of praying and planning together.  We were all learning, we were all praying, we were all working together. Although I was the leader and made the final call God spoke to us all and though us all.  Looking back, I find this extremely necessary since I was much younger, much more gullible and much more emotionally lead.  This was indeed safer for both the church and myself!

But there were other benefits: because everyone participated in the planning and discussions, people felt that their opinions were valued and therefore they were valuable, that their contributions mattered.  It truly stirred the faith and passion of the young group who saw that they were part in building God a house, and that the Lord was working through them.  This lead to tremendous buy-in and ownership of the church plant, resulting in a strong unity, crazy creativity, a freedom to minister and a willingness to serve, because God worked through us.

In the next post we will consider the benefits to the church when the pastor was still working.

Lessons learned from church planting 1 – the blessings of confident humility

“Accidental” Church Planters

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them… who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.” Acts 11:19-21

This account by Luke is so simple and challenging at the same time: Christians fled Jerusalem due to persecution and suffering after Stephen the first martyr died at the hands of the Jews.  As they fled, they gladly shared their new-found faith with the Jews in every city and town they went through.  But in Antioch these Christians for the first time shared the gospel of Jesus with Greeks, “pagans”, and many believed.  And thus the most influential church in the first century was birthed – the church in which Paul grew into the apostle we know, and the church from where he and Barnabas was sent as missionaries to the gentiles.

So fearful, fleeing, young Christians “accidentally” planted the most influential church in the first century.

This could have been me and you.  Better still – it can be me and you.

When I think about the first church-plant I was involved in, this Scripture comes to mind, because on all accounts we were as clueless as the young Christians mentioned above.  We were young, passionate, inexperienced and without formal theologically education. But like them, we knew Jesus and his Gospel.

The birth of Shofar Pretoria

In 2002 a hand-full of young working Christians who used to be part of Shofar Christian Church in Stellenbosch found themselves in Johannesburg and Pretoria, longing for the vibrant worship, tight-knit fellowship with honest accountability in which the Holy Spirit freely ministered.  After a few months of prayer and a purposeful visits from the leaders in Stellenbosch there was agreement that the Holy Spirit mandated a church plant in Pretoria.

Today, more than thirteen years after the first service in the small, dark Moonbox Theatre in Sunny Side, Shofar Pretoria is a vibrant, multi-generation, missional church that has been key to the salvation, healing and discipleship of hundreds of individuals, as well as the planting of several other congregations in the North of South Africa.

I intend to tell the story in another blogpost, but in the next six posts I wish to share the lessons learned as we planted Shofar Christian Church in Pretoria.

  1. The blessing of confident humility

Nothing will happen without someone taking initiative, without someone person taking the risk.  If a church is going to be planted, somebody, or some group of people, needs to do it.  This requires leadership, and leadership requires belief not just in the necessity and feasibility of the cause, but also in his/ her own ability to facilitate and coordinate the activities required for a life-giving church wherein people will forever be transformed through the powerful working of the Spirit and Word of God.  You need to believe that your mortal activities will lead to the eternal, salvivic consequences of yourself and others.  The proverb is true: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7).

For me that shift to what I call “confident humility” happened when I was a student.  I was studying for another re-write of some notoriously difficult engineering subject.  On a coffee break, walking back to the study hall contemplated the quote there is a God, and I am not him!” [see the inbedded clip below].  In that moment this truth settled in my heart and gave me such a freedom from the pressure of “making something happen” and delivered me from of the fear of failure!  God exists – so not everything depends on my effort.  Yet at the same time, this God lives in me and works through me.

In that moment a song was planted in my heart:

“I know who am I, and who I am not…

I know my Redeemer – the Almighty God

His Spirit will guide me in all of my days

Lord Jesus – it’s you that I praise!”

Confidence grounded in God – his omnipotent power, faithful and benevolent character.  Humility founded in my limited abilities, dependability on God’s providence, always with a sober awareness of my fallibility.  So liberating!

“I said you are the leader”

During my student years in Shofar Stellenbosch we had plenty of opportunities to grow into responsibility, allowing for character and skills development though ministry opportunities such as campus outreaches, small group leading, personal ministry facilitation such as emotional healing and deliverance, leading prayer meetings, and short term mission outreaches.  All with oversight and coaching – each opportunity allowing for discipleship growth in a safe environment.  In preparation of one of those summer mission trips myself and a friend Antoinette Woods (nee Bosch) were assigned to lead the 6-week GO!SA evangelism and ministry tour around the borders of South Africa.  Upon hearing the news I was struck with the paralyzing feeling of utter incompetence, much like Gideon of old (Judges 6:14-15).  While spilling my feelings to God in my room I remember the Lord clearly saying “Read Genesis 1”.  As I read aloud I came to verse three and heard the Lord say to me “I said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. Now I say to you “You are the leader!” and that you are!”  God assigns and creates capacity and provides grace with the appointment.  That day something shifted in my heart – eradicating fear and insecurity pertaining to leadership and ministry.  I was young and inexperienced, but I knew that when God sets one aside for leadership or another assignment, he provides grace to complete the task.  You are never left to you yourself – His grace is sufficient for all he calls you to.

angry-bear-standing

“The Lion and the Bear”

So when the principle pastor of Shofar Christian Church, Fred May, asked me in 2002 if I would lead the church plant in Pretoria I felt like David who said to King Saul before facing Goliath Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:36).  I had a reference for God’s grace at work in spite of my human inadequacies.  I have gained confidence in seeing what I have accomplished, and grown in humility as I have come to know “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Confidence in the face of opposition

After the commissioning in Cape Town I returned to the prayer group in Pretoria and announced that I have been commissioned to lead the church plant.  The news was met with mixed feelings, and some of the older members of the group resisted and outright rejected the decision, saying “you are too young” or “you have not been in the church long enough”.  Some left the church plant initiative during that time.  Amazingly, those conflicting moments and combative statements did not shake my heart the least, although I knew that the statements were true – I was young, I had limited experience in ministry, I studied engineering and not theology.

Yet, I knew what God had said to me previously.  I knew I was not perfect, I was not God – but I knew God, and I knew he is for me and with me.  I knew I was called to plant the church, and I knew that it did not all depend on me – I knew the “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Today, after more than thirteen years the church in Pretoria is still flourishing and growing at the hands of Phillip Boshoff and the team.  Truly I can witness that God gives grace to the humble, and that those who know their God will accomplish great things. So let your faith be in God, not your expertise, experience or effort. After all,

“Unless the Lord does not build the House, those who labor, labor in vain.”  (Psalm 127:1)

In the next post we will consider the second lesson I learned – The blessing of being clueless.