Just Let Me Die
Do not resuscitate is a healthcare decision many people make when they have a serious illness. You will see the occasional sign on the door of a hospital patient, or over their bed, that reads, DNR. That indicates the patient does not want to be revived if their heart stops beating. The medical staff is not allowed to use any method to try to start it again. The DNR is usually put in effect when the patient, or family, believes there is no hope for a cure or they are so advanced in age that they don’t wish their life prolonged any further. Basically, the patient has decided, “Just let me die.”
I had such an experience but it had nothing to do with my healthcare or that of any other person. The order to let the patient die came from Jesus Himself. The patient was a church I thought He wanted me to start in Mitchell, South Dakota.
This is part of my series “Behind the Curtain“. It gives the reader insight into things that happen in the organized church out of the sight of the general “membership” of the church. The point of the series is to bring light to the darkness that is prevalent in these situations and to provide more evidence that the institutional church is seriously defective. Jesus wants to build His assembly of believers into a force that even the gates of hell cannot stand against. The man-made church system that has evolved since the 4th century is not even a shadow of what He started on the day of Pentecost. It’s time for radical change.
Note 1: all names are changed for privacy.
Note 2: I try not to use the word Church anymore. It’s a man-made term to describe a religious system. The correct term would be to call it “the assembly”. To help readers who don’t fully understand that I have used the word Church. To identify the difference between the religious system of man and the church Jesus builds I have used the term institutional church. Click the link and read about why the better term to use is an assembly.
When Ya Need a Church, Start One!
I was a pastor, teacher and worship leader in various churches for almost four decades. In March of 2016, I thought He was opening an opportunity for me to be a pastor at a local denominational church. My wife Laurel and I had been attending there for over a year and the current pastor decided to relocate to another church. You can read about that in this article, Saved from Church – Just in Time.
Quickly I discovered that working within a denomination was not for me at all. However, I learned some valuable lessons and I won’t ever repeat a situation like that again.
So what’s next. Well, I thought there was an obvious solution to the “I have spiritual gifts and nowhere to use them” predicament. It seemed like God was presenting me with the challenge to start a new church. I had done this once before, back in 1979, in Amsterdam, New York. There I served for eleven years.
To me, this looked like a perfect situation. There would be a new expression of Jesus in the city. I would seek Him and ask Him to build His Church His way. He knew I desired a gathering where people could use their spiritual gifts in the church. I didn’t want everything to revolve around me. It was my desire that all the attention be focused on Jesus. More than anything, I wanted the Holy Spirit to move without restraint in any way He desired. I prayed diligently about the possibilities and I even felt He gave me a name for the church, His Church in Mitchell. In my heart, the name clearly represented what God wanted to do.
I shared my thoughts with a couple of the families that had been displaced by the closure of the previous denominational church we all attended. They had been involved in non-denominational churches before so they were very receptive to the possibility. So we planned to meet at Ron and Marge’s home on Sunday to begin our new adventure together.
We had our first gathering and it was a really special time. It could not have gone any better unless Jesus had returned to earth to set up His Kingdom. Our worship was precious. We read and discussed the Word (Bible) together. The emphasis was wanting to be different and to be led by the Spirit. We agreed to meet the following Sunday at Bart and Jean’s house. God was going to do something fresh with us. There was excitement in the air, especially for me.
Being Non-Traditional in a Very Traditional Way
One of the things you always do when you start a church is to form a religious corporation. To do that there must be a board of directors. I asked Bart and Ron if they wanted to serve in that capacity and they agreed. We had a meeting and established the corporation. I filed the papers with the state that week. We opened a bank account after we got our official documentation.
A few days later we had another business meeting to discuss pursuing tax-exempt status for the church. That is important for a church because it allows donors to receive a tax deduction for their contributions. That often encourages regular giving and even donations from those outside the church.
I found a Christian organization that would do all the work for us for about $2,500. That didn’t seem like a lot of money to me. After all, four families were committed to the new church. There would be enough money to do it. We didn’t have to pay for salaries or building expenses. We could spend any funds received on obtaining the tax-exempt status. However, Bart and Ron weren’t so enthused about spending that much money.
Another option was for me to do all the paperwork and pay a $750 fee to the IRS. I honestly didn’t want to do all that work. It was a very detailed and intense project. I had done it before in Amsterdam. It also would involve a lot of correspondence back and forth between me and the IRS as they asked various questions and wanted additional information to validate our organization. It’s not a particularly enjoyable task, but I was willing to follow Bart and Ron’s input and do it the less expensive way.
The organization I wanted to use also had a do it yourself packet, so I downloaded it and started to consider what steps to take. But I put the whole thing on the back burner as I focused on more immediate needs like seeking God, preparing music, and teaching the people.
I also started looking at buildings to lease in the area. There were some nice ones and some that were in need of some serious cleaning. Bart had seen 120 stacking chairs for sale on Craig’s List from a Methodist Church that had closed down. He made arrangements to buy them for less than $200. Bart and Ron drove to Sioux Falls to pick them up. We would eventually need lots of chairs because God was going to do a great work.
So I was dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s”. When you start a church you follow these procedures. That’s how it is done. So I was meandering down the traditional church path even though my desire was to have a very non-traditional church. I just wanted to get the official organizational stuff out of the way. Then I could get in tune with Jesus regarding which way He wanted us to go.
The Zoning Board – A Roadblock
The group decided to continue meeting weekly, but we moved the location to Bart and Jean’s house. They had a really nice room in the basement and we could get up to 30 or 40 people in it as we grew numerically. Once we had more in attendance we could afford a better location.
Bart and Ron were very enthusiastic about inviting people they knew in the community. Occasionally someone would respond and hang out with us a couple of weeks, but no permanent connections were formed.
After several weeks passed Bart and I decided we needed to advertise our new church. I went to the administrator of the city zoning board and asked if we could promote a church that met in the basement of a house in a residential area. He told us that would not be appropriate and that gathering a number of people in a basement could be a violation of the Fire Code. He said that if there was a fire it would be difficult to evacuate everyone quickly and safely. Meeting in the living room would be more acceptable, but once numbers approached about 14 or more it would not be an approved activity for a residential neighborhood.
I asked about advertising the location of our service in Bart’s home in the newspaper. That was not acceptable. Nor could we put a sign in the yard. Now understand, the administrator was not anti-church in any way. He was actually very supportive of what I was doing. It’s just that the things we wanted to do would violate the city’s zoning ordinances. Of course, I wanted everything to be legal, which is why I met with him in the first place.
He wished me well, we parted on great terms and I started to contemplate what the church would need in the days ahead. The results were disappointing. I wanted an easy solution. However, I knew God had something better. There didn’t seem to be any indication for now that more than 14 people were going to come, so we just kept gathering in Bart’s home and encountered the Lord together in some very precious ways.
Praying for the “Dones”
Soon Bart, Laurel and I started meeting on Tuesday night for prayer. Good churches always have a prayer meeting. That’s the way it is. We presented many needs to the Father and also continued to ask Him to build His Church in Mitchell His way in His time.
Almost every week I also led in prayer for a specific group of Christians I had been reading about called the “dones”. I learned that there were multitudes of people who were done with the institutional church, but not with Jesus. I was sure there had to be some dones in our area. So I asked God to lead them to our church. I knew that once they discovered how different our church life was that the dones would want to undo their doneness and celebrate Jesus with us. The prayers only intensified as I learned more about them.
During the week I prayed for the dones, for the city of Mitchell, and for those who didn’t know Jesus. I also prayed for those who didn’t go to church at all. I had read about them, too. Of course I knew there were thousands of those, but now they had an official name. They are called the “nones”.
Several times I sat outside the Corn Palace, a tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the city, and prayed. There I asked God to exalt Jesus and make Him more famous than the Corn Palace. A few times I prayed that inside the building, too. My heart was committed to seeing God do awesome things.
We Must do More
Ron, the third member of the board of directors, ran a prosperous business that required his presence basically every weekend. After a few weeks, he and his wife stopped attending because he needed to work and she didn’t want to come alone. Another family moved away due to the relocation of the husband’s employer. That left only two families; four adults and a child.
In spite of these events, we pressed onward with enthusiasm. We asked the Holy Spirit to draw people to Jesus and give us the opportunity to care for them and fellowship with them. There was no “do not resuscitate” sign on our door. We believed God would move to keep the church alive.
It wasn’t long until Bart and I decided that we needed to get the church out of his house and rent a room somewhere. Then we could advertise and not have to be concerned with zoning restrictions. The city owns a very nice community center that has rooms available to rent at reasonable rates, so I made arrangements to do that on a month to month basis.
I contacted the local newspaper and had our church listed in the weekly church directory. My next step was to create a very informative website for the church and try to clearly lay out what we felt God wanted to do in Mitchell. Then I added the church to an internet directory that people would find if they looked for “churches in Mitchell”. On Facebook, I created a business page and started advertising there, too. I purchased portable signs and set them up in front of the building. I knew all that would surely change our situation. With all that promotion, people would surely find us and want to come check us out.
Some Interesting Visitors
We did manage to attract a few people. Dean was looking for a pastor who was a dynamic superstar. Someone who would generate thrills and chills and call down the power. That’s not me. I’m all about exalting Jesus, not myself. He brings the power when He desires, not because someone works up the crowd.
Elizabeth, a lesbian, was hoping the young church would be soft on gay and lesbian issues so she could continue in her lifestyle without challenge and still attend a “good” church. She enjoyed the first service she attended and told me she had lots of friends she planned to invite. The next week she brought her girlfriend. We welcomed them with enthusiasm. But they quickly discovered that I did not believe what they wanted me to believe. We were open to all but we were not going to ignore the parts of the bible that spoke against their life choice.
A very sweet couple, Tom and Nancy, came a few times, but the Tom was into conspiracy theories. He was convinced the government is trying to poison us and big business is out to get us. That’s basically all he talked about after church. They hadn’t been to a church for a long time and it seemed they wanted to reconnect with believers again. But when I mentioned how the conspiracy theories could be a distraction from focusing on Jesus, they never returned. It was sad. They were so hungry for fellowship but the conspiracies were more important.
Joni, a younger female believer came with Tom and Nancy. They were all good friends. She was on disability for a traumatic brain injury. Her benefits didn’t last long enough to meet her spending habits. Basically, she seemed to be looking for the church family to support her financially. She also wanted me to be a personal taxi for her. Her disability was nominal and earning income was not a goal. She faded away when I suggested she try to get back in the workforce part-time to change her circumstances.
The people who came to check out the church were truly interesting. They were looking for validation and inspiration but there appeared to be little or no hunger for change. How do I know that? Because they didn’t stay long enough for the truth to saturate their hearts and turn them from darkness to light. They didn’t get their perceived needs met immediately so they left. It’s important to understand that I did not confront these people and demand they change. Casual conversation consisting of answers to their questions brought out the things they didn’t want to hear. Much of the institutional church will tell people what they want to hear to get them to attend.
It was encouraging to see some people come even though they didn’t stay. It showed us that God was capable of drawing those who were hungry and passionate about Jesus into our family when He was ready to add them.
The Day of Small Things
As summer came to Mitchell, there were a few times when Laurel and I were in the building alone on Sunday. Sometimes Bart took his family on weekend camping trips. That’s a good thing. Family bonding times are very necessary and special. On those days, Laurel and I pressed forward. Just as if the room was full of passionate believers we chose to worship and pray.
We sincerely believed there would be a breakthrough. We only had to be patient. The Bible verse in Zechariah 4:10 ran through our minds. There God tells the prophet not to despise the day of small things. Well, we were as small as it could be so it could only get bigger. However, that didn’t happen.
Do Not Resuscitate
A few more months passed and it became clear. The church was alive, but it was on man-made life support. It kept going because I kept showing up. It was time to pull the plug and let it die. The DNR order was over the door and it took me a while to see it. The time had come to let go and do not resuscitate.
My first step was to terminate the room rental, cancel all the advertising and put the signs in my basement. I closed down the website and the Facebook page. Fortunately, I never started the tax-exemption application process. I was never motivated to do it. That turned out to be a God thing. That saved both time and money.
To be done with the church felt very liberating in my heart. As it took its final breath I felt no grief or sense of loss. There wasn’t even a funeral. I felt like its existence never happened. Over the next few weeks, I asked God to show me His purpose in allowing me to go through that situation. His answer changed my life and altered my concepts of His Church in the days that followed.
Unchurching – A Better Way
One day I came across this book on the internet called, Unchurching – Christianity without Churchianity. It is written by Richard Jacobson, a former pastor who is done with church. That book opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of how to function outside the institutional church.
As I read that book and others like it, I realized that the only way to effectively be a part of the church Jesus is building is to get out of the one man has built. All of the traditions, religious politics, abuse, control, arrogance, and entertainment that takes place today is not from the Spirit of God. It is actually evidence of a very sad reality. Jesus is not able to operate freely by the Spirit in the church that bears His Name. The programs and gimmicks of people who set themselves up as leaders over the people have replaced Him.
Man’s church tries to satisfy the people by giving them what they want so they will return and feed more money into the system. You need money to have an institutional church. Well, Jesus sets people free from sin in the church He builds. There is no compromise. He doesn’t water down the truth. He exposes the darkness in a broken life and replaces it with the light of His love, grace, and truth.
So what did I learn from starting a church in Mitchell? Well, the city didn’t need another “cookie cutter” church. That is a recipe for sameness. You can use different ingredients for each cookie, but if you use the same cookie cutter it will look like all the rest of them.
Letting Jesus build the church was my emphasis, but I was still operating out of the old playbook. Incorporate, obtain tax-exempt status, advertise, get in a building, sing a few songs, teach the word, pray for people, and send them home. That is the way you “do church”. It’s a flawed system. Tradition is the focus. There is little or no impartation from the Spirit because it’s all routine.
Now it is true that my goal was different than most. I desired to help people discover their spiritual gifts and provide an atmosphere that encouraged their use. I did not want to be the celebrity pastor, the star of the show. But I realized that following the usual church pattern is like trying to pour fresh wine into an old, leaky bottle. It will not hold what is put in it. The wine will be wasted. It’s time for new wine bottles. The new wine bottle will be the church Jesus builds. He will build it primarily outside the institutional church. Why? Because those who run the system hinder His work. They have taken over what rightfully belongs to Him.
So Jesus used that whole experience to get me totally free of the system once and for all. First He drained me of desiring any further connection to a denominational church. Then He took away any ambition I had left to ever get connected to a non-denominational church. I will also make sure I never try to start one again either. It’s all institutional. It all turns Jesus into a spectator instead of letting Him be the Head. It all functions out of the good, or bad, intentions of humans who try to build His Church for Him.
Our focus as the assembly of believers (also called the Body of Christ) must be Jesus alone. He must have full control. We are to seek out and yield to His Spirit when we gather. He must be free to express Himself through any and all believers as He chooses.
He doesn’t need the church to be a business. We can function quite well in smaller gatherings in homes, at a restaurant, or in a park. We don’t need the buildings, the gimmicks, the advertising or all the flashy stuff to attract people. Our love for each other will draw people to Him.
We don’t need salaries, benefits, and pensions for His servants either. Why? Because we are all empowered to minister. We are all responsible to share the burden of the church. As each one does his/her part, the burden is widely distributed. There does not need to be a paid, primary leader. In fact, the primary responsibility of the apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd/teacher is to equip the believers who gather for the work of the ministry. Not do the ministry for them.
I also know that it was a big mistake to take the church out of Bart’s home and go into a building. Our main goal should have been developing our family ties. Over time the Spirit would have added those He chose to be part of that assembly. If the gathering ever exceeded the zoning boards guidelines, we could have split it into another group and continued to grow there. Multiple times that pattern can be followed in any region.
Today I am still believing that Jesus will build His Church His way in Mitchell. I want to be a part of it. So I will continue to pray and seek Him. I know He will bring the right people into my life. There are believers in this region who are done with the institutional church. They are looking for more.
Until He makes that connection for me I will continue this journey in faith and joy. I will keep my heart open to Him so He can drain the decades of religious tradition from within me. As I embrace the freedom He has worked into my soul, I know He will build an assembly of believers that will accomplish His will in this region.
The church I started in 2016 had to die. Do not resuscitate was the order from Jesus. My efforts were noble and my motives were pure. However, the traditions I learned led to death. Jesus is searching for those He can build into His Church today. He can work wherever people lay down their agendas and their shallow works and let Him lead. His Church will be alive and well with a strong heartbeat. There will be no need for life support.
Those of us who want to be a part of His Church must let go of the past, let go of the institutions, and grab on to Jesus. It’s a new day! He will move in a new way! It’s actually an old way to Him, but new to us. He is building a church today that will function more like the church He birthed in the first century. The entire New Testament gives tremendous insight into what He did as the believers yielded to the Holy Spirit. What they accomplished was so radical it turned the world upside-down. The church is way overdue for that kind of power.
Are you ready to be a part of what Jesus is doing? Do you want to be free from the old and captured by the new? Open your heart to Him and respond to His Spirit. You will be forever grateful that you chose to be a part of His Church.
– Randy Hartwig
(c) 2017 Randy Hartwig Ministries