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.