Gene Edwards' books and tapes are visionary. And beyond having a vision, Gene is able to help people tap into their own vision of living in deeper relationship with the Lord and other believers. On the strength of Gene's leadership, an awful lot of people have bled heart and soul out to realize their dreams. In fact, when people give up on Gene, no matter the reason, they seldom give up on his vision.
I have given up on Gene's vision.
I'd obviously refer you to Gene's writings and tapes to understand his vision, but let me summarize it enough to explain on what I've given up. This will be no attempt to downplay or insult it. I'm sure to do it injustice, but only because it's so immense.
I characterize Gene's vision as vastly-encompassing. There is nothing in Christianity Gene omits from his dream. Starting at the relationships within the Trinity before time began, Gene reinterprets everything about heaven and Earth and the boundary between the two that we call "the church." He frames the Christian life as God's Life come to Earth. Seeing church experience from his perspective changes everything.
When a church comes together, Gene portrays the meeting happening in the heavens as much as on Earth. The church loves God with the same love they receive from Him, and it's through that love that God's purpose is realized. The church, meeting at the boundary between heaven and Earth, loves God in Spirit and in Truth as much as in body and voice.
Practically, this foundation results in a uniquely unique church. That church is both more creatively expressive and more mystically quiet than others. Gene teaches the church to be led by the Spirit through its members. As such, its members plan and execute every meeting. Those meetings might be mapped out for spontaneous praise or spontaneous silence, shared meals or shared fasts, unscripted prayers or a whole scripted liturgy. Anything is possible.
And the church is more than the meetings. A lot of the above might happen as easily over dinner as at any set gathering. The members of Gene's churches live near enough to each other to help each other in physical and spiritual ways. The members pray together, too. And that prayer is as uniquely unique as the church itself. It's a church-wide implementation of the lectio divina or contemplative prayer. It's silence as a way of touching God on a church-wide scale.
And Gene presents all this beautifully.
A conference attendee first hearing and seeing Gene deliver this message, then talking face-to-face with brothers and sisters living the vision, quickly falls in love. The testimony of hundreds of conference attendees over the years absolutely confirms that experience. Very nearly everyone who attends one of Gene's conferences is overwhelmed at the beauty of his spoken vision, and of the physical vision the churches live out.
Very few people who make it as far as a conference leave disappointed.
Some want home church. Gene brings a church that meets at the boundary of heaven and Earth ... in a living room. Some want the end of the clergy and hierarchy. Gene makes every member a conduit of divine Life ... and gives them all a degree of authority. Some want a church based on relationship. Gene makes every relationship an outflow of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son ... and everyone lives near enough to each other to foster practical love.
Gene's vision answers every particular. It's a living piece of art. Like all art, it has its imperfections and flaws, but for the person who appreciates the picture the flaws only enhance its beauty. For the star-struck church-lover, an overly large personality or an occasional fuzzy doctrine only brings the core beauty of Gene's vision into more perfect focus.
I was that deeply in love 20 years ago today, and I still think that vision is beautiful. I've found a lesser one vastly more satisfying, but it's surely beautiful.
I have no bone to pick with anyone still committed to that vision, theoretically even including Gene. I can't say with certainty I'm right about the parts of that vision I've rejected, and I admire anyone still pursuing their relationship with the Lord down that path. We're all in this Christian life together, and I'm the first to point out I've been wrong before - in big ways. These are my thoughts and insights on the 20th anniversary of joining myself to Gene Edwards' vision.
Cooking on One Burner
There's an old saying, "Now we're cooking on both burners with gas!" For those of you who've not heard it, it means things are moving very quickly indeed. All the obstacles have been removed, and everyone's putting their heart and soul into getting to where they're going. Excitement is running high, and the job is being finished lickety-split. I think the saying might match up to the more modern, "He's on FIRE!"
My beef with Gene's vision is simple. Even cooking on both burners with gas can't keep up with it. His vision only cooks with all 4 burners cranked to high.
It's too much.
A romance goes through a number of stages. There's courtship, engagement, new marriage, new kids, kids moving out, etc. During the run-up from courtship to marriage the relationship advances from low to very high heat, and that's good. But then it ramps down again. It has to. Even those people who've got marriage down pat, and who continue to report passion daily in their marriages, have ramped down from those first burning months.
Life functions best for most people the same way most cooking works best, on one burner and medium heat. Everyone likes a little "four burner" time in their lives, but most of us need things to be normal more often than not.
I'd like to compare some four-burner ways of doing church with single-burner alternatives. I'm experimenting with all these, and am happy with things as they are. I'm still learning, though, and finding new things every day. The single-burner way is not as exciting, but I've found my life isn't scorched on the bottom and raw in the middle these days.
Gene describes church life as so amazingly rare as to make it unthinkable that it could possibly exist for long wherever you live. To be sure, he teaches church life springs up spontaneously everywhere, but he warns that it doesn't last. If you want church life, you'll need to relocate somewhere a real church planter has established a church that will live.
If Gene is right, then there's no alternative to relocation. And relocation is a serious four-burner life event. It's stressful and exhausting, and leaves a person unrooted from family and networks they've spent a lifetime establishing. Americans relocate an awful lot, so it's not an unthinkable burden, but it is a major stress.
If Gene is wrong, then it's an unnecessary burden. If church life can be living and edifying on a single burner, then this call to relocation is a sacrifice without cause. It's been my experience that churches are full of Christians, and we share the same life of Christ. Sharing my worship and my life with them has been a beautiful and rewarding thing.
Living Close to One Another
Living close to believers whom you trust and with whom you can share everything is a joy. We need it and everything about the idea is commendable.
Gene ups the ante by asking anyone who would experience church life to intentionally live as closely together as possible. It was educational to watch the experience of living close to believers unfold in Atlanta. We all needed time with each other, but we gave varying amounts of our time to actually doing it. Single saints spent more time with others than married saints who spent more time than couples with babies who spent more time than couples with older children. Similarly, the younger a person was, the more likely he or she was to spend a lot of time in the homes of others.
We need that closeness, but there's a slower, quieter way. You can get out and meet the neighbors you have now. There's a pretty good chance you can find two or three Christian families within a block or two, and I've seen the benefits of Christian community work well with just three families.
Being With Christians of Like Mind
One of the most attractive things about joining a group as focused as Gene's is being on a long, hard, meaningful journey together with people of like priorities to your own.
Your closest Christian neighbors, though, are also on a long, hard journey, and if you take the time to get to know them you'll find it's meaningful. They may not be of like mind on how the church should look, but it's Jesus they're wanting to serve. You can feel pretty sure they're struggling with real issues, and the Spirit is speaking in their hearts exactly like He is in yours. Everyone's fighting for their lives in this place, and everyone's searching for connection to eternity.
You will find that other people trust their pastors and distrust some author they've never heard of. And you will find that their pastors are Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Vineyard folk. You may find it takes time to get to know them, but you'll find in them the mind of Christ. You won't find in them any burning commitment to your expression of the church, but you'll find the Holy Spirit. Share a couple meals, move a little furniture, watch a movie and trade your testimonies and you will probably find you can lean on them a little bit when things are rough. I have.
Ending the Clergy/Hierarchy/Leadership
Jesus commanded his disciples not to allow themselves to be called rabbi, father, or teacher because they already had brothers, a Father and a Teacher. And yet we call men pastor, elder, or reverend and give them authority over others. This is a big one to an awful lot of saints. It was huge to me when I started down the path that brought me to Gene's church, and I still rankle to call a man by anything but his name.
The organized church's hierarchy, based as it is upon college degrees, is disappointingly pragmatic. I'm sorry it's come to that. But leadership is a fact of human existence. Jesus clearly intended there to be leaders in His kingdom, and He clearly was happy for there to be servants leading servants in His household. Being in Gene's leaderless churches was a four-burner adventure, and I loved it, but Jesus, Paul, Luke and others make it clear some kind of leadership is a part of being a worshipping body of believers.
There might be an ideal single burner alternative to church leadership, but I'm not going to spend a lot of energy looking for it. I've treated the pastors under whom I've lived since leaving Gene as human beings, and found they warmed to the idea quite quickly. It turns out that people who give several years to qualifying for the ministry are often really neat people with a sincere heart for the Lord. It's been a privilege to know them as brothers. I know this barely holds a candle to the four burners Gene offers, but I'm OK with that.
The Church Planter Must Leave
Ah yes. I wonder what this would look like if it ever happened?
This was a key foundational point in Gene's teachings, but a confusingly implemented one. He never was an integral part of his early churches, so he could not properly have "left." And then when he was a real part of his later churches, he didn't really leave. Either way, the concept was key to the upbringing of the churches and shaped our character very directly.
The single burner alternative to this is understated. If a man has work to do, he should go do it. Full stop. I like work, and I'm in favor of men standing up and getting it done. But turning every day spent with a church into a melodramatic, extended goodbye is gratuitous. Paul left Antioch-Pisidia to work in Iconium, Iconium to work in Lystra, and Lystra to work in Derbe, but we have no reason to believe he made his impending departure the emotional centerpiece of his ministry.
I recently lost a pastor when he left to start a home church. It was a refreshingly touching time, and was constructive for everyone. It just wasn't hard. He was with us while was with us and he left when he had to leave.
Again, home meetings are great. Participation by every member of the body is great. Everyone planning together, preparing in private, and delivering their best is a wonderful thing.
Making the home meeting the only meeting is not wrong; it's just cooking on four burners.
The single burner alternative is not really better so much as doable. Of my church of 80, about 10 of us meet weekly in a living room. It's a lot smaller than Gene's vision, and it's very happy. We don't try to do everything with the pregnant power of eternity, and somehow we touch each other and the Lord anyway. It's satisfying.
Learning from Old Christians
Not everyone is ever going to read books on being Christian. That's tragic to me, but it's a reality I can accept. The question is not whether everyone will read, but will the people who do read do so from books outside of Gene's genre? 2000 years of Christianity have brought an awful lot of glory and insight to the church. Limiting a church's input to Gene's books plus his highly edited reading list, was a weak thing. Reading wider and wider outside of Gene's publishing house has been a settling thing for me over this past decade, and I recommend it.
Why Cook on Four Burners?
10 years ago I'd have asked, "Why settle for one burner?"
My how things change.
Why would a man build an entire ministry on intensifying Christianity? Gene did not haphazardly stumble into this habit of choosing the fieriest expression of the church. He reminded us frequently how lucky we were to be blessed with a leader who knew how to keep the fire on high.
10 years ago I'd have said it was because Gene had "The Vision," and it drove him both to the fire and by it. I'd have said Christianity was meant to be that way. Today, those words ring false. Gene's promises consistently hurt people in the long run, and there's always a reason for things that happen consistently. His churches burn through people like a steam engine burns coal, and he keeps shoveling people into the fire. He relies on his book, tape, and conference ministry to keep a steady flow of people pouring into those churches. And when they're used up, the ashes don't even have to be shoveled out. We go away on our own. Gene just teaches the new wave of devoted souls how precious the vision of the church must be.
When a man courts a woman too insistently, with too many flowers, with too many words of flattery, with too many gifts, her friends say, "It's too good to be true." The subject of his ardor always objects, saying, "You just don't want me to be happy!" When it turns out it really was too good to be true, though, the outcome is tragic.
So here we are, believers who have experienced Gene's vision of the church and now need to decide what to do with it. Should we discard the whole thing? Should we keep it, but look for a better man to tend it? Or is there some middle path?
I've answered for myself. I decided 4 years ago the organized church was where the Christians are, and I was going to where the Christians are. I've wondered about my decision from time to time, but I'm so happy there I'm going to stay for the forseeable future. The brothers and sisters in my little church are as dear to me as brothers and sisters can be. They carry the Life of Jesus within them, and they share it with me. There are very few four burner moments, but an awful lot of good happens on a single burner.
You'll answer for yourself, and may the Lord bless your decision.