I have always had a longing for God. My parents who were non-religious and didn’t attend church told me that as soon as I learned to talk I began to talk to them about God and to ask them to take me to church, which they seldom did.
However, when I was about 11, they finally started taking my brothers and me to a Presbyterian Church and we “joined” it. The services there were quite formal and rigidly programmed and the people seemed very bored with it all. How disappointed I was.
While sitting through a Presbyterian sermon during high school, this question came to my mind: “If your were born a Hindu, what would you be today?” After some thought I admitted to myself that I would be a Hindu. Then another question came to mind: “Why do you think you are a Christian?” In a moment, I realized that I only believed in Christian doctrine because I had been taught it in church. So I rejected it all, except for the belief in some form of Creator. I couldn’t buy the “Nothing + time = everything” formula.
Near the end of my freshman year in college I walked into a campus meeting and heard two guys share how they had personally encountered Jesus Christ. As they spoke I could see that Jesus was real to them and that He had changed their lives. At that moment Jesus became so real to me that I surrendered my life to Him and I’ve never been the same. For 45 years, Jesus has been more real to me than the physical world.
For the next 4 years I was part of ekklesia (an interactive, Spirit-run community of Christ-followers). It was amazing. We met weekly to worship, but we were all equal. We had no recognized leader except for the Spirit of God, yet the meetings flowed in loving community and you could see the living Jesus in ordinary people. We also hung out together with Christ during the week. My years spent in ekklesia at The University of Tennessee Martin were amazing and ever since I have longed to experience that degree of ekklesia again and been unable to settle for traditional church.
After graduating I started searching for ekklesia in churches. I moved to Southern California and frequently visited the original Calvary Chapel (one of the leading churches of the Jesus Movement). It was exciting, but everything was controlled from the platform and there was no room for open participation or interaction. I also attended Melodyland School of Theology (a charismatic seminary) but was only taught the traditional model of pastor-led church.
However, while in California I roomed for a year with 3 guys who were all passionate about following the living, resurrected Jesus Christ. We lived and worshiped together in ekklesia as equal brothers letting the Holy Spirit lead us.
The next year I entered a Presbyterian seminary in Memphis and began to pastor a tiny Presbyterian church in Truman, Arkansas. The seminary insisted that I act like a clergyman, but I resisted. The tiny Presbyterian church insisted on a bulletin, but I tried to make it interactive and participatory. They resisted and preferred to sit passively as I preached to them. So I did the preacher thing and I discovered that I absolutely love preaching and speaking to people.
After seminary I pastored Mayfield Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Mayfield, KY. After my first 6 weeks of preaching to them I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing much, so that Sunday night I gave a simple quiz on my first 6 Sunday morning sermons. To my surprise, not one person could answer even the simplest questions I asked. So I began to try to make the meetings more interactive. The people cooperated some, but after two years, I could see that they were near the end of accepting changes.
Rather than being conformed to the Presbyterian congregation’s religious expectations of me, I moved to Reno, NV to help a new church plant that I thought would be more open to Spirit-led sharing and participation. However, to my surprise it was very much one-man pastor led.
After two years, I took a job in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and settled in as a passive spectator in a pastor-led, sermon based church. A year later they invited me to teach an adult Sunday school class, so I based it on reading a Bible passage and then letting people openly discuss the passage. People loved it and the class grew. But the church stayed the same and I felt like the pastor saw my growing Sunday school class as a potential threat.
A visiting pastor from India invited me to come home with him and teach in a Bible college for 3 months. That was an incredible experience. The 50 or so students prayed together 3 times a day in open Spirit-led prayer for an hour each time. There was beautiful ekklesia among them.
When I returned to the States I a took a position as the Assistant Pastor at a non-denominational church in Paducah, KY. This time I lasted about 3 years, but the continual pressure to conform to the religious patterns finally forced me to leave. Then a friend and I tried to start a more participatory church in Paducah, but for some reason, people were not too receptive of the idea. So I got a sales job in Paducah, started listening to motivational tapes by Zig Ziglar. Then I decided that I could still do the speaking that I loved by being a professional speaker and “sneaking in” the Gospel, and forget about working in professional “ministry.”
So I moved to Nashville, Tennessee and began to make lots of free speeches in civic clubs and local professional associations. About that time I met a woman named Ernie who was a professional corporate trainer. Within 9 months we were married and with her encouragement and help, I eventually began to get paid speeches for associations and corporations around the country and wrote two self-help books. I made my living for 12 years as a speaker.
During that time my wife and I attended several churches. I tried pastoring another Cumberland Presbyterian Church on a part-time basis for about a year and even though the church grew from about 20 people to about 60, the resistance to change was so great I finally stepped down.
About 20 of the people left with us and wanted us to lead them, so we did. But they were very resistant to moving beyond the pastor-led church model. After a couple of years we moved.
Then Ernie and I started attended a Vineyard Church in Nashville and both of us received much healing at their extended altar calls where prayer teams would sometimes spend hours praying for people and the Holy Spirit did beautiful things. People would break and weep under the anointing as they were prayed for (we did, too). We were also part of a cell group that was led like an ekklesia with open sharing and interaction. However, the cell group leaders were eventually made to tighten up the meetings and make them much more structured.
Having had a fresh experience of ekklesia, we longed for more, so we started a Sunday meeting in our home with 2 other couples and that became our church for a year. The six of us came together with no program or agenda. We listened to God and then said or did whatever He told us. Rather than a human leader, we allowed the Holy Spirit to lead us. It was a wonderful time together.
After about a year, someone told us about a church called Abounding Grace that was meeting in an elementary school gym, just down the street from our home, that had an open mic on Sunday mornings and allowed anybody to speak out as they felt led by God. We went there and loved the free and expressive worship and the amazing and anointed insights that everyday people shared on the open mic. However, after a year or so the open mic was removed and more structure was applied to the meetings. We missed the open sharing.
Eventually we went to the elders of Abounding Grace and shared with them our desire to go into the housing project of Franklin, Tennessee and start an interactive church there. They listened kindly, released us, and prayed God’s blessing over us.
The next 3 years were amazing. We rented a run-down building and began to walk the streets and meet people. We joined a African-American denomination, The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and although they didn’t help us financially, they gave us lots of encouragement, friendship, and moral support. They even let me be a regular teacher in their monthly jurisdictional meetings in Chattanooga. Our Sunday meetings allowed anybody present to share as they felt led. My mother started cooking a meal once a month and serving a mid-week lunch to anybody in the community. Lots of street guys and some families came to the meals. It was beautiful how it all flowed together even though we seldom had more than 10 to 12 people on Sunday mornings. We received no salary and the time and energy and finances that it took eventually helped us get in financial trouble.
Then Ernie saw an ad for a counselor with The Salvation Army and sent in her resume. She received a call from her resume and could tell that they thought she was a man. The job was a nighttime counseling job with 86 men in a drug and alcohol rehab. Ernie came and got me and put me on the phone with them and I was hired a few days later as the counselor and chaplain of The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation (ARC) Center in Nashville.
I was given amazing spiritual freedom to work with those men. I counseled and prayed with them one on one; led ekklesia style prayer groups with them, conducted 4 classes a week, preached in Wednesday night chapel, and sometimes in Sunday morning chapel. It was an amazing experience.
After about 3 years, Ernie was hired by the Army to manage a their neighborhood community center, not far from the Adult Rehabilitation Center. A couple of years later the Army approached us about starting a “non-traditional corps (church)” in an empty chapel building. They said that we needed to do something different because over the years traditional church hadn’t worked in that neighborhood.
I shared with them about my experience in college with ekklesia and we were hired to start an open sharing and participation based corps (church). We started The Salvation Army Berry Street Worship Center in March of 2008 and so far it has been 7 1/2 exciting years. Our format is very simple. We ask a different person every week to start the meeting by reading a Scripture passage and briefly telling what it means to her/him. Then we have passionate praise and worship led by a different person each week (so far we’ve had about 100 different worship leaders and/or worship bands). After worship, we allow anybody present to share whatever God puts on their heart.
And here’s the amazing thing, every meeting comes together in a beautiful way. And we have never had anyone share anything inappropriate or contrary to biblical teaching. It is truly a miracle every week how the meetings flow. By trusting people to hear and obey the Holy Spirit rather than just sitting and being instructed, people grow spiritually stronger from week to week, right in front of our eyes.
Here are some testimonials from people about Berry Street:
“Berry Street feels like a real family, where strangers are welcome as well as the Holy Spirit. It’s a place of honesty and truth, a place where I’ve seen captives be set free, where people love Jesus and just want to come together and share Him with each other.” –Lara Landon
“My life has been changed by the power of the living God and the move of the Holy Spirit at Berry Street. I get to witness God’s power in action. It is a joy to watch people’s lives change right before your eyes each Sunday.” –Keith Easley, Sr.
“Every time Shane, Seth and I go (to Berry Street ) we feel so blessed to be a part of something so wonderful. I have been brought to tears before from sensing the power of the Holy Spirit moving in that place. You have angels in that room there and we thank you all for creating what you have there.” –Ally Gray Decker
“Berry Street is authentic, welcoming and warm. It’s Spirit led in a very unique way, without agendas except for exalting and knowing Jesus more. I love the diversity of people and the flow as things unfold. There’s intimacy and joy and it’s really encouraging to see what a church meeting can still be. It’s probably more like the churches in Acts must have operated, and what is evident is the beauty in the Body of Christ.” –Tom Cartwright
“I’ve had the opportunity to be at the Sunday meeting a couple of times at The Salvation Army Berry Street. This is not usual ‘church’. In most Sunday church meetings, the most potent and valuable voices for encouragement, challenge and growth are usually silent. But the meetings at Berry Street are not like ‘most Sunday church meetings’. The congregants often speak boldly and willingly share the pieces of God that they carry in their chests. And as I hear their words, I am closer to finding my own voice to talk and sing about the piece of God in my chest.” –Grant Norsworthy
“Berry Street is awesome! I would invite everyone to come and I challenge you to step outside of the contemporary church model and see what God is doing, you might be surprised.” –David Harper
“The entire service consisted of one testimony after another. Instead of a single sermon delivered by a pastor, we heard a dozen sermons about living the Spirit life on the streets, at work, in homes, schools and neighborhoods. Berry Street church leaves everything in the hands of the Holy Spirit and nothing happens that is not Spirit controlled.” —William Pratt
In the summer of 2014 Ernie and I were invited to start an ekklesia-style, weekly campus meeting at Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University in partnership with The Salvation Army. We used a similar format to Berry Street: a different student leads us in 3 or so worship songs, then we open up and allow the students share and encourage one another as they feel led. It is called Hart Street Worship at Trevecca. Our first year we had between 8 and 20 students every week. Week by week, we could see them growing spiritually stronger as they opened up to the Lord and to one another. We can’t wait for the second year of Hart Street to start this Fall.
Here are 3 testimonials about Hart Street from students:
Tiffany Cathcart wrote: “I loved how no matter how busy the week, Hart Street gave me and others the opportunity to rest and reflect on God’s goodness. It was also a blessing to see a group encouraging and supporting one another. People really care at Hart Street.”
Caleb Dinger wrote: “I feel like I’m at home when I’m at Hart Street. Everyone is there for Jesus and for one another. It’s an authentic Christian community that has been a place of spiritual growth and hope in my life. It’s also been a place of rest and an opportunity to be still and acknowledge God’s presence and remember God’s faithfulness. Looking forward to meeting again in the fall!”
Chaili Juneman wrote: “Hart Street was one of the highlights of my week and a great way to refocus on Jesus. Even the midst of stressful circumstances I could walk into that room and feel the wonderful atmosphere that a group of people seeking Jesus together brings. I am so thankful for Hart Street.”
You can see why that today I’m more sold on ekklesia than I have ever been before. I blog several times a week about it and talk about it every chance I get. I continually long for and pray to see more and more churches shift their focus from religious programming to Spirit-led ekklesia, if not in a complete change in what they do, at least in part. (See Jesus 12)
Come and experience ekklesia for yourself every Sunday morning at The Salvation Army Berry Street at 10:45 am. at 225 Berry St., Nashville, 37207.
Check out my new book, Beyond Church — An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible — Ekklesia; available at Amazon.