Danny Silk. I could listen to that guy talk about apostles all day long. As it happened, he only gave us 90 minutes, and I was riveted. So much to think about and go back to the bible for, but his perspective is fresh as a daisy and very inspiring. Jesus wasn’t against structures. Look at how He arranged the 5000 before He fed them. But the structure was there to channel the blessing that was coming from Heaven, not control it.
Chris Overstreet is quickly becoming a new hero. He is a healing evangelist who has courage almost beyond belief, but the humility to be vulnerable about how scared he is a lot of the time. He describes a battle against fear that is uncomfortably close to my own experiences, but he also has stories of breathtaking victory on the other side. It is like being in the presence of one of David’s mighty men. His encouragements to witness are uncompromising but soaked in grace. Indeed, for all their ‘pursuing’ and ‘pressing in’, I haven’t detected a trace of striving in anything that happens at Bethel. Instead, their focus on our identity in Christ, and Christ’s desire to work through us is astounding.
The evidence that Overstreet’s core values are more than a personal life plan comes in the seminar, where we hear from an evangelist who works at Bethel who hasn’t written a book (there are still a few). His perspective on preaching the gospel is ridiculously simple, but biblical and profound.
We are learning so much here that I’m afraid I’m unable to communicate anything beyond the headlines in each session. Bethel is indeed a remarkable local church, but I must tell you that I am missing Hope. What is happening out here is the product of years of thinking, praying, discussing, weeping and risk taking. We don’t have as much experience under our belts, but I tell you we are going in the right direction and we will get there. Many more risks will need to be taken but listen to me when I say that one day Glasgow will be famous throughout the world as a centre of revival. We will see our communities changed and great light will dawn on our people who have dwelt for too long in darkness. The devil has had a free run in our city for too long and we are going to be the generation who draws a line in the sand. Jesus rose from the dead and now sits enthroned in Heaven. All things are possible for those who believe. Let us be strong and very courageous!
After yesterday’s rest, this morning brings the beginning of the “Revival Lifestyle” Conference. Though this is, in a sense, the main reason for our visit, on the way to the church, I can’t help thinking that I’ve already experienced what I came here for: Bethel Church on a Sunday. But, having done so with such positive effects, I’m happy to treat everything else as a bonus.
The first speaker is Chris Overstreet. The other day, Johnny and I talked about the way in which the reality of war must have shaped the people of God in the Old Testament. Many of the attributes that we prize in church leaders – good people skills, the ability to communicate well and make people feel welcome – would surely have been of little consequence back then. Leadership promotions must have come, above almost anything else, on the basis of loyalty and courage, because the most relevant question was not, who makes me feel comfortable, or even who has the correct doctrine, but whom would I want to stand at my side as we advanced on the enemy? The reason I mention this is because I reckon I’d want Chris Overstreet beside me in the battle. Saved in jail at 18, Overstreet has become a powerful man in the Kingdom of God. He is bold as a lion and has a wild look in his eyes. He seems to have a limitless supply of stories about advancing the Kingdom forcefully in unlikely places. He promotes his book on evangelism, but adds that 100% of the profits are going to an African charity.
As I listen to him talk – brilliantly and vulnerably on the subject of identity – I realise that I am in the presence of someone authentic. Someone consecrated. Someone who seems to have truly died to everything but Jesus. I leave feeling that if I can’t be like this when I talk, then I’d rather shut up.
The second session is Kevin Dedmon giving what seems like his signature message on drinking and leaking. Watching this man in his context is very helpful. Though I remain unconvinced that the “joy of the Lord” equates to choosing to laugh when there is nothing funny happening, I did appreciate his teaching more than the last time I heard him at Mission School last year. He also said that most challenging thing I have heard all week: “most Christians are taught far beyond their obedience.” Ouch. That hurt.
The evening session was Kris Valloton, whom I have really warmed to, speaking on his view of eschatology. Some of what we’re hearing from Bethel seems to sit comfortably alongside what we have learned from Newfrontiers and some stuff builds wonderfully on our Newfrontiers foundation. But there are some messages from Bethel which are radically different to anything we have heard before. Valloton’s talk last night was one such message. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it is wrong, only that it requires a great deal of consideration. One thing he did say at the end that stuck with me though was this: “make sure your eschatology doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to bring Heaven to earth now.” That much, I agree with.
It’s hard to properly understand a person until you visit their home and meet their family. Spending time in the atmosphere in which they were raised and getting to know the others who inhabit that atmosphere brings insights that almost nothing else can match. On this basis, a Sunday at Bethel Church was, on reflection, always going to be fascinating.
As with yesterday, it’s the normality that initially impresses most. For all the books, DVDs and conferences, the reminder that Bethel is essentially a local church that gathers for three services on Sundays, with all the challenges and joys that this brings, came as a surprise. Like bumping into Lady Gaga in the freezer section at Morrisons, deep down I knew they had to do this at some point, but never before had I imagined them in this way.
We decided on the second of the morning meetings, but arrived almost an hour early in order to avoid the horrific prospect of the overflow room. You read it correctly, folks, Phil Ford an hour early. This afforded an opportunity to people watch, and observe the little details that add up to an awful lot: the easy familiarity that people have with the leaders; the family atmosphere in spite of the many visitors and the TV cameras recording for the internet; the clear instruction on the offering envelopes not to go into debt in order to give – things that, in spite of the unfamiliar surroundings, frankly made me feel at home.
And this sense of familiarity extends to the service itself, not simply on a basic level (the structure and length of the meeting is almost identical to Hope), but also in the priorities that are communicated in the worship time, where the lack of volume, flashing lights, smoke machines, and the impression that the band are having to get through a set list all keeps the focus where it should be: on God.
The sense of His presence is clear, though certainly no clearer than at Hope, but what impresses me most is that this church seems to have remained true to this priority in worship in the midst of massive growth. I imagine it’s frighteningly easy to deviate from the ‘one thing’ when suddenly you have resources, opportunities, and their associated pressures, but on this evidence they haven’t allowed their prominence to compromise the very thing that brought them to this position: their prizing of the presence of God.
One of the reasons why this compromise doesn’t seem to have happened appears next on the platform. His name is Kris Vallotton. I loved him. He was funny, courageous, passionate and biblical. He spoke from Acts on Paul’s time in Athens, sounding, at times, like he was part of the current breed of missional church leaders, but his emphasis on love motivation added something fresh and vital. I could have listened to him all day long.
However, it is Danny Silk’s preach at the evening service that will be swilling around in my head for the next few months. He spoke like the pastor he is into the time of transition which Bethel Church is currently experiencing. Bill Johnson, their apostle, was 60 last Monday and changes are afoot in their structures and personnel with the intention of passing the baton of revival to the next generation in the coming years. It was particularly fascinating because two weeks ago Andy and I attended the Brighton Leadership Conference where our family of churches arrived at the end of this same process, and our apostolic father, Terry Virgo, passed the baton he has so magnificently carried throughout his life to the next generation.
Danny Silk’s talk got to the heart of this issue, when he identified both the massive difficulty, and the massive need, to identify apostles within the church. Many, he commented, would be comfortable calling a 28 year old an evangelist, a pastor, or a teacher, but who would feel the same confidence with the vital gift of the apostle?
As I listened to how they are going about this process, and the scale of the apostolic vision that they are seeking to bestow on the coming generation – my generation – for societal transformation, in America first and then throughout the whole world, I found my own heart burning for that same Kingdom transformation in Hope Church, Glasgow, Scotland, and the ends of the earth. I remember when I first heard Terry Virgo talk about a biblical vision of the local church: God ignited something in me that none of the struggles that church planting can, at times, bring has been able to extinguish. I was undone and left without option. Last night, Danny Silk’s word touched the same place in my heart and added to it. What will I do now?
Crawling into Redding (surely a misspelling of Reading) after 28 hours on the road I’m struck by how remote this place is. Indeed, from behind the wheel of the hire car, it seems little more than a collection of industrial estates and motels clinging tenaciously to Highway 5. The map says this is California, but there’s nothing here that recalls the O.C. or the Beach Boys. Considering all that is ahead of us this week, I find it strangely reassuring: it’s hard to imagine people flocking here for any other reason than a genuine move of God.
In the morning, I have a Sozo appointment at 9am in the intriguingly named “Transformation Center” (surely they meant Centre). Though my body clock wakes me before the alarm sounds, breakfast passes in a jetlagged haze, and it is only as I settle into the chair opposite the elderly woman who is leading my session that I realise how little I know about this ministry.
Two hours later, I emerge into the midmorning heat having learned more about God, myself and Sozo itself. I suppose I reserve the right to change any or all of these opinions at a later and more considered point in the future, but here’s what I’m thinking today: Sozo is an unusual name to our ears and this is perhaps unhelpful, because there’s nothing particularly revolutionary or even unusual about the process. For those who haven’t experienced Sozo before, it works like this: you turn up wanting to know God better, and keen to hear Him speak to you about anything in your life that might be hindering this. You sit down with someone who seems to have done this before and decide that you’re going to be honest and vulnerable because, after all, you’re unlikely to bump into this person next week in Dumbarton Road Tesco. You answer a few questions about your life, and this helps you and your new friend to ask God some questions and then pray together about things that He has shown you.
It’s not intense, super-spiritual, or weird and it did allow God to surprise me with some things I needed to know to get to know Him better. Yet, if I’m honest, I also came away wondering why this process needed a name like Sozo at all, and why this kind of thing doesn’t happen in church all the time between trusted friends or spiritual parents with their spiritual kids. Surely this would better reflect the community “one-another-ing” ethic of the NT than praying with a stranger?
After Sozo, I head to Bethel’s main building to meet Lizzie at the Saturday morning Healing Room. There is more to say about this than time allows, but like Redding and Sozo it is the ordinary that most impresses. A bunch of Christians loving their local community enough to throw open the door of their church and their hearts every week to pray for sick people: not a new, a weird or a complicated idea, but a good one.
Welcome to my blog. This month me, Lizzie and Johnny & Elli are going to back to Bethel church in America.
Here I'll talk about my experiences and what I'm looking forward to when we get back.
Please feel free to leave comments or questions.