Joining Gene Edwards' church in Atlanta, 1989 was both the culmination and beginning of a dream.
The beginning because Gene intended with us to change the face of Christianity throughout the world. From the seed of that one little church, he planned to farm seeds that the Wind of the Spirit could use to foment a whole new reformation. And I was going to be there.
The culmination because I had been working toward this dream for 8 years. I was saved in '71, and left the organized church in '81. I sat in a pew for a few months more when I was chasing a girl, but after that brief compromise my resolve was unshakeable. The forces of evil had entombed Christ's bride in a maze of power struggles, filthy money, and weapons-grade theology. I was just the man to save her.
(I leave the reader to discern whether I was an idealistic youth or an egotistical glory hound. I'm not sure there is is a difference, but I can testify that recovery is a slow process.)
I joined two or three home churches between '81 and '87, depending how you count them. They all failed. Home churches have a way of doing that. Lacking power to struggle over, money to hold people through the hard times, and a binding theology beyond home being better than church, it's tough to keep a home church breathing.
Along the way I found Gene Edwards' books.
I found "The Early Church" in '82 and devoured it and half a dozen more books as they came off the presses. I read each one over and over. He was echoing everything I'd ever felt, and extending miles beyond anything I'd thought or heard before. I fell in love. And I fell into despair. As I read his stuff, and as I read between the lines, I could see how the Lord had revealed so many things to him in scripture and history that I should have been able to find on my own. Instead, I was getting so little from the Lord and everything from a man. I began to question whether I really was the man to save the church.
I accepted that the Lord was not revealing things to me as He had to Gene Edwards and C.H. Spurgeon and Jonathon Edwards and Thomas Watson and Watchman Nee and William Bridge. (I include that little list, because one of these things was not like the others - only I didn't know it at the time.) I was not going to be the next Martin Luther, but I prayed over and over that the Lord would send me to an old man, someone who could at least make of me a decent foot soldier. When I actually did find such a man for a little while, though, he rejected me for another kid.
I was so ill-equipped life as to astound. I was a bright child, but not a sensible one. The only reason I survived those years of failure at so many things, and love the largest, was my surrogate mother in the Lord, Fay. I spent about 8 hours a day in her little Christian bookstore and we talked for hours about everything except whatever was on my mind. Theology was purposeful. Weakness was not. But she loved me anyway, and we had a grand year together talking about a hundred things that an older boy is brave enough to bring up. She was and is my mentor in all things spiritual, but she had no ambition to make war for the church so she could not cool the fire driving me. I had seen the way church ought to be, and I ached to see that vision lived out in my time.
With options closing all around me, I joined the army. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, and I've never regretted it - except one little day. I figured out which of my list of favorite authors was not like the others. Every other author in my list was dead, long dead, or almost mythical. All the authors I loved were dead. I had blindly assumed that Gene Edwards was dead, too. I had been a member of the US Army for about 6 months of my 4 year commitment when I read an invitation in the back of his latest book for all comers to join him in Portland, Maine.
I was crestfallen.
There followed a long, long 3 1/2 years of waiting for Uncle Sam release me. Getting married and having a daughter filled the time pleasantly, but I was not where I wanted to be. Still, there was a consolation. Gene announced he would be starting a new church in 1990 in Atlanta, GA. I would be getting out in Feb, '89, so there was plenty of time! My new wife knew the score before we married. When we got free of the Army, we would move East. Our life would really begin in Atlanta. Everything else had been leading there, and I would be blessed to be on the ground from the day this new church began. That was important, maybe even important enough for the Lord to keep me out of Portland.
Gene made it clear in his writings and sermons (I had volumes of his transcribed sermons by this point, and had immersed myself in them) that being in a church from the raw beginning was a prerequisite to eventually planting churches yourself. Being there from the beginning would be thrilling to boot. Getting to Atlanta and established 10 months before the church began was beyond dreamlike for me. I could not have written the story any better than it was playing out before my eyes. I simply stood in awe of the Lord's grace.
And it worked in terms of my fantasies for the Lord's plan for my life, too. There's no reason to believe Timothy was given the kinds of revelations Paul received, so maybe I didn't need to be an idea guy. Maybe I didn't need direct revelation to serve the Lord. I was tickled pink to have Timothy's chance.
I could tell stories for pages, happy, sad, scary, encouraging, funny stories about the church and everyone who came, but that really isn't the point of this writing. When things finally started there were 8 of us brothers, about as many sisters, a handful of children, and hardly two nickles to rub together between us. After we'd pooled all our wealth, there was one shared TV and VCR. We'd carry it around between our houses a couple nights a week. We shared everything, including meals and family fights. We lived so close to each other it was hard to do anything alone, and we loved every second of it. It's hard to describe the camaraderie of college-age kids in love with the Lord. Mix into our natural chemistry the certainty that we were about to turn the world upside down, and we bonded tighter than anything I've ever experienced in my life. It was love all over again.
Gene came down for a week from Maine, and officially launched the church on Dec 31st, 1989. He's a man who understands drama and circumstance, so our planting was a gorgeous affair. It was a several days long conference, in which he preached to us several founding messages. I remember all the stuff he'd want me to remember from those sermons, and several things beside. You can find his core message online if you're so inclined, so I'll not try to reproduce it here. The bottom line was that the church was God's dearest beloved, she needed to be free to love Him the way He loved her, and Atlanta was going to be a church wholly free and wholly Christ's.
I marked two scary things from those messages. I marked them, and I embraced them both. The first was that the biggest natural enemy to the church is the family. A sister whom I knew and respected, visiting from another city, called Gene on that. When the two of them were done with their discussion, Gene had made himself crystal clear. In his church, the family would need to take care of itself. Gene was not there to protect the family, but the church. On the contrary, the family naturally imposed its needs and priorities over Gene's main purpose, and God's purpose for all humanity, the bride of Christ.
I was not sure what to make of that. In retrospect, the decision should have been easy but I was obsessed with saving the world and every sacrifice sounded noble to me. I decided that the paradox was easy enough to live with. I would give myself wholly to both the church and my family, and everything would work out fine. In my wisdom I understood the problem with most people was selfishness. As long as I put both church and family in front of myself, I was sure everything would turn out hunky dory.
The second point of import was that Gene squarely addressed the "c" word. He knew, and we did too, we would spend every year of our existence trying to convince the world we were not a cult. Of course, the first order of business was naturally to convince ourselves that we weren't a cult! Gene took this concern by the horns and discussed it with us honestly.
He foreshadowed the red pill/blue pill dilema of The Matrix by telling us that home churches were like vitamin pills, only most were secretly poison. The vast majority of home churches would end in division, and the average Christian could only survive 2, maybe 3, divisions in a lifetime. So, if we joined a home church that ended up going through a church split, it could cripple us for our entire lives. He painted a picture for us of 365 vitamin pills, of which 364 were deadly poison. He was absolutely threatening about how dangerous home churches could be, and that this one he was planting would be just as dangerous as the rest. He absolutely could not promise us that this church was the one vitamin pill. We would be gambling that Gene was actually a man called, broken, and sent by the Lord, and what we would be gambling was our very spiritual lives.
It beat everything else I'd ever heard, and I loved that he faced the problem directly. I never really had to think about that one.
Who am I kidding? I loved everything. I burned every moment of that conference into my memory banks the way I had recorded the birth of my daughter. My son was born a couple days after the conference ended, so it was one of the most watersheddingest watershed weekends of my life. I don't think a soul could have been on much higher of a high than I was those few days.
In light of the very real risks, Gene gave us some warning signs to watch for. We were to constantly self-evaluate our church, and protect ourselves and our brothers and sisters from sliding into culthood. It was a kind of top-ten list of signs that a church is really a cult.
I only really remembered one. It was one of the last ones. Gene told us, "If the leader of your church ever says to you, 'We are THE work of God on Earth,' don't walk away, run."
9 years later, in November of 1998, Gene Edwards said to a small conference of us in one of our living rooms, "We are THE work of God on Earth." He listed off all the other works that had earned his respect over the years, and how they had fallen by the wayside, and told the little group gathered there that we were the last true work of God on Earth. I was running the recording equipment, and almost wept. I'd been trying to decide for months whether to leave, and that few seconds ripped the decision out of my hands. Gene's church was not a cult, but it was not a healthy place to be either, and he had finally jumped over the line.
And the church was not the only thing growing sicker.
I got sicker with each passing year. My obsession with the pure church had come to define my relationship to God, and it had quietly driven me mad. I've already told how Boromir was driven mad by the lust to power. Here is a good place to remind yourself of his story, but there is another movie that tells my story even better, even word for word.
There's a scene from, "A Beautiful Mind," I cannot forget. Our hero, Dr. Nash, has come to grips with his schizophrenia and is slowly working out how to embrace life again. Now an old man, broken but hopeful, he returns to the office of an old buddy from the school where he was once a professor and asks permission to hang around the campus. He wants to be part of school life again. He humbly pitches his case, but his old buddy hesitates to take the risk. Should he really give a madman an office on his college campus? In that brief moment of suspense, an ageless friend of Dr. Nash's dashes up to the office door. Breathless he shouts and implores, "Tell him about your work! Make him understand how important it is! You cannot let him hinder you now. Your work is too important!"
That old friend was a psychotic delusion, and so was the good doctor's work.
I cannot forget that scene because the blood rushed from my face the first time I saw it (a couple years after leaving the church.) Those exact, senseless words rushed through my mind over and over again while I considered leaving Gene's church, as I left it, and for years after I was gone. "What about your work, Kevin? You cannot abandon the church in her time of need! If you hold on just a little longer, you'll have a breakthrough. Don't quit now! Your work is too important!"
Just like Dr. Nash's delusion, mine was the product of stress interacting with my arrogance and fears. Also like Dr. Nash, finding my way back to reality has been a wearying, worrying and worthwhile experience. About 2 months ago, when I finally seemed to see the church for what she is instead of what I imagined she needed to be, I felt like maybe I had touched bedrock again. It was then that I felt it might be time to tell my story, to work through it in words and see what came up.
In my next post, I'll look at my first years under Gene Edwards.