Tag Archives: church planting

20 Years of Ministry

20 years is a long time to do any one thing. That’s two decades. A child grows to become an adult in that period of time (hopefully!). I am always proud of married couples who make it 10 and then 20 years and beyond. A business that continues for that long is established and usually respected. What about a church?

Come July 4th (a purposefully chosen auspicious starting date) the church I was privileged to start, and continue to pastor, will celebrate 20 years of ministry. A number of core people have been with me the entire time, and many others have joined along the way. It is not my church. It is ours.

1999 seems like a lifetime ago. I was a youth minister, and it was one of the most difficult years of my life. The back story is posted on this blog if you are interested in reading. Suffice it to say my time as a youth minister seemed to be coming to a conclusion. In a staff meeting at the church where I served I mentioned that one day I’d like to start a church. The senior pastor jumped at the idea. A few weeks later I was meeting with local and state denominational leaders. A few months later I led a few adults and about two-thirds of my youth group into uncharted waters.

The church we launched was called City of Refuge. The name comes from the Old Testament. Israel was required to have special cities where those who had unintentionally killed someone could flee for safety. The concept was our church would be a safe place, a community free of judgmental attitudes, the church where those who have made mistakes would be accepted. This is the nature of God’s grace. I believe our church still possesses it as a part of our DNA.

Wherever there is grace, there will be those who use and abuse it. Virtually everyone in our church was between the ages of 16-22. It was basically a youth/college group, only without the financial and moral support of a larger church of adults. We experienced a lot of storm and stress. People left. New people came. A small core remained. This was drama ministry. I believed it was time for a change.

The City of Refuge needed to grow and grow up. I wanted us to become a city set on a hill for all to see. In February of 2002 we officially changed our name to Zion. At first I hung on to the concept of a city. In fact, our website was cityofzion.org The name Zion has deep significance in the Bible as a reference to God’s people, often connecting them with his promises. It also had some cultural resonance at the time. We loved it. I had hoped it would help connect people to our roots and God’s promises. For some it did.

At first we didn’t have our own space. We held worship on Sunday evenings in ballrooms of hotels, and had a noon brunch and discipleship Bible study on Sunday at a house I rented. During that period we continued to do a theatrical event every Halloween called House of Judgement. Although we were a very small church, we reached a very large number of people with the Gospel. In 2000 we rented an old movie theater. This permitted us to do our activities and to produce other dramatic events. It was a great venue for those programs, less so for worship. We quickly discovered the building didn’t have heat, and that it flooded during hard rains. The landlords wouldn’t do anything about this, so at around the time we changed our name to Zion, we left the theater and become nomads.

We met in parks, and in other churches for two years. In 2004 we came to downtown Garland and began meeting at a large coffee shop. I rented an office in the same building. There was a conference room where we soon moved our worship services.

The church experienced some turnover as well as slow, steady growth. By 2006 the last of the orignal adults who had helped start our church had moved on. We grew up and began the process of becoming multi-generational. I officiated the weddings of young people who now have children of their own. They stayed and grew and now form the core of leadership in our church. I cannot help but be reminded of the children of Israel who fought to live in the Promised Land that their parents refused to enter.

We’ve always had a talented group of musicians in our church. There was turnover in the early years, but one young man stepped up and stayed. Dean Short has been the backbone of our band for many years now. He and Natasha met at our one year anniversary. I performed their wedding a few years later.

As the church broadened in age it was important to continue ministering to youth, and to start a children’s ministry. In 2002 one of our young people started serving as the first youth minister right out of college. The young lady who would be his wife served as one of our earliest children’s ministers. In 2005 I officiated Craig and Rachel Wilson’s wedding. They’ve served faithfully all these years. Rachel is one of our beautiful vocalists and does our finances.

In the days leading up to our church start back in 1999, I had discussions with young people on the patio of my apartment. We talked about the kind of church we wanted. What would our target audience be? One of the young men mentioned a girl he had dated in high school as the perfect representative. She had recently been living in Austin, had no relationship with God or church, but would likely be receptive to a church that wasn’t judgmental, legalistic or formal. Heather came to our inaugural worship service on July 4, 1999 at 111 Ranch. Over time she put her faith in Jesus and was the first person baptized in our church. She got to know Josh as they attended over the years, and I was blessed to officiate their wedding. Two more solid core people who have two wonderful boys. Heather does our finances. Josh has been the drummer for our band for many years.

I could go on. There are others who’ve been with us since they were kids too: Both Elijah and Veronica are in our band. Veronica is married to Sy, who has also been with us from the early days, another wedding I was privileged to do. They have two amazing boys. Craig officiated Elijah’s wedding to Sarah several years ago, and they have a beautiful daughter. Brooke has been with us since the early days; I officiated her wedding to Chris the same year as Craig/Rachel, and Dean/Natasha. Many others have been around for a decade or longer.

What about our kids? Our first official child is the adopted son of Craig and Rachel. His name is Jacob. He was born in 2003; we’ve watched him grow up. He’s now a teenager who runs our tech on Sundays. Then there’s Jayme, the firstborn of Dean and Natasha. We watched her grow up too. I had the privilege of taking Jayme to youth camp this year. And there’s Miss Jubilee, Craig and Rachel’s first daughter. I mention her because at the point of her birth our church began to see an explosion of kids, and they are all wonderful!

So, we’re called Lifewell now. After a decade as Zion, the church had changed. We were now multi-generational. By 2011 Craig was our Associate Pastor and we partnered with others to send him to Indonesia. This is the largest Muslim country in the world. I became concerned that our name would be misinterpreted. This concern was reinforced as I encountered people (usually older) in our own community who misunderstood and misinterpreted Zion. Lifewell comes from the passage in John’s Gospel, where Jesus spoke to the Woman at the Well and promised: ““but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”” (John 4:14, NIV). Our motto is: Live Well; Love Well. The double meaning of well is intentional. Receive the Spirit of Life in Jesus and live life well.

We’re still in downtown Garland. In 2009 we began meeting in a 100 year old building at the corner of 6th and State. For years it was McKnight’s drug store, then the Garland Opry. It’s our home, as is downtown. We seek to be good neighbors and to represent our city well. I confess I don’t know specifically what the future holds, but I believe God’s promises, and that He has promised great things for our church. It is not time for us to rest in the past but to rise to the promised future!

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. 

(Isaiah 60:1–5, NIV)

Sayonara Nissan!

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”
From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

Now I will measure my ministry in Nissans.
-Pastor D

Throughout my time at this church there have been some hard times, and many of those have been related to money, or the lack of it. But I’ve always had a nice car to drive. I’ve had a 16 year relationship with Nissan that, it appears now will end. The “why” is inexplicable. NMAC (Nissan’s finance company) simply will not offer the same loyalty lease deal they’ve given me since 1999. This is strange since I’ve leased FIVE cars from them. Oh, well, Sayonara Nissan!

This has brought me to evaluate what’s happened in our church during that time period. I can chart the changes that have taken place by going from Nissan to Nissan.

1999 Nissan Maxima
It all began in 1999. That’s when I got my first ever new car. It was a black Nissan Maxima with tan leather interior. Prior to this I had always purchased used cars, most of them were just transportation, nothing special. In 1999 Nissan advertised a lease deal on their Maxima. I had a friend who drove one and spoke highly of it. The six cylinder engine Nissan put in these had a good reputation for power and reliability. Additionally, this was the only large, four door passenger car with a standard transmission. So, in February of 1999, I started driving a Maxima. I really liked it.

I was youth minister at this time, and, of course, I wanted to show off the new car. One Sunday night a group of teenagers and youth volunteers came over to my apartment after church. We were practicing a skit for the following week. One of the adults was playing on my computer and suggested we go to Dunkin Donuts. It was late by then, but the donut shop is open 24hrs. A group of us piled into the new Maxima, and, well, the rest is history.

There were a lot of police cars at Dunkin Donuts that night. Being the responsible adult that I was, I noted the time (around 1:00 AM) and told everyone we needed to get back to the apartment. I thought everyone was over 17 (curfew would have been midnight for anyone younger), but honestly I wasn’t sure. On our way back a couple of the teens in my car wanted me to see a statue at a local “Buddhist temple” (it’s still there, and I really don’t know what religion they are, but that’s what we called it). I agreed, but had to make a (legal) u-turn to get to the street where they said I could see a statue sitting in the middle of a man-made pond. When we got there you couldn’t see anything because the fence was covered in plastic. I didn’t let anyone get out of my car, and we pulled away.

Two of Garland’s finest pulled us over as I turned onto the next street. The end result was a false arrest and my new car getting dented by the police as they wrestled with an adult passenger. The car was impounded overnight. I hadn’t had it for two weeks at that point. Btw, if you want to learn more about this incident, which is quite relevant and informative relative to bad police, you can read it here http://wp.me/p42WJH-f

As a result of this incident, my reputation was damaged, far more seriously than the new car. The pastor of the church where I served as a minister at the time stated that he planned to make my position part-time by the summer. This necessitated a change, whether I was ready or not.

On occasion prior to this incident I had considered the possibility that God might one day call me to start a church. In fact, I had even discussed this with some of the very volunteers who had been over at my apartment that fateful night. I believed I saw the need to craft a church to reach those who were unreached by traditional churches. When I broached the topic with the pastor of the church were I served, he was in favor of the idea, so much so that he facilitated its implementation.

On July 4th, 1999 we started a brand new church called City of Refuge. Our first worship service was held a a local park called 111 Ranch. The idea behind the name and the church related directly to the incident that precipitated its existence: a City of Refuge is a place where those who are presumed guilty can be free of judgement.

We met for small group Bible study in a house that doubled as the pastor’s residence, dubbed “the Baltimore house” from the street it occupied. We met for worship in the ballrooms of hotels, in parks and wherever we could find space. We spent a great deal of time, energy and money putting on a dramatic outreach called House of Judgement. This had begun many years earlier and was at its peak at this point.

2002 Nissan Maxima
My lease on the ’99 Maxima was up in 2002. If memory and my calculation is accurate it was the summer of that year when I leased a 2002 Maxima. NMAC (Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp) was kind enough to recognize my responsible payment history and pre-approve me with tier one financing without a credit application. Good thing, because I’d been through a lot of difficulty by that time.

911 had happened the previous year, and the entire nation had begun to change. Our church was changing too; many things had happened and not all of them good. Some key leaders who I had been mentoring left the church, and not all of them continued to live for Christ. In fact, I discovered that some of them had been hypocrites all along. To make things worse, these young men whom I’d spent many years teaching were saying some pretty awful things behind my back. I felt betrayed.

On December 2nd of 2002 something happened to me that continues to have a serious impact on my daily life. In the morning I woke up to a beautiful, sunny day. By 1:00pm I had lost the hearing in my right ear and was experiencing severe vertigo. I lay in bed for a week, unable to move without becoming dizzy and nauseous. To make things worse, I suffer from tinnitus; when the right ear went deaf, the ringing in it didn’t go away but increased until it was nothing less than torment. I went to several doctors, but none could help me. Eventually the vertigo subsided, but I am still deaf in my right ear to all but the loudest of outside noise. The ringing is continuous and as loud as normal conversation, which I am able to hear in my left ear. This is a constant drain on my energy as I strain to pay attention and make out what people are saying.

The church was not able to pay me a full salary and I was unable to find a full-time job to supplement the erratic income. Let’s just say, as my reputation had been damaged at the beginning, so now my credit had been damaged too. This was a dark, depressing time, and I was very grateful for my car. Everything else seemed to be falling apart, but at least I had something nice to drive.

At this time I was living with a member of our church. He had an old Geo Metro sitting behind his garage. It was an ugly, turquoise, three cylinder buzz box. However, I remember thinking that maybe I should try to buy that car instead of leasing another new one. It would have saved money. My pride got the better of me, and the Lord was merciful and gracious. Even so, I still wonder if I should have humbled myself (further) by trying to buy that car. This is all the more thought provoking when I consider my present situation. We’ll return to that at the conclusion.

In 2002 all of our church meetings were held at an old movie house called the Ridgewood Theater. We had begun to renovate the facility, but discovered many things that needed to be addressed. We continued to produced House of Judgement here. Additionally, I wrote and we produced plays for Christmas and Easter. Many people came to our theatrical events, but in spite of this numerical success, our worship service attendance was quite modest. One reason was, we discovered that the building we were leasing had no heat. Winter worship services were very cold indeed, especially since they were held on Sunday nights. I am sure there were significant spiritual reasons that trumped this problem, not the least of which was a need for more faith.

The Lord led me through a time of discovering, learning, applying and leaning on the promises he has for his people in the Bible. When God makes a promise you and I must hear it and heed it. We must have faith in God as a good and loving Father who will fulfill His promises, even when circumstances don’t support what we believe God is saying. I saw many amazing promises about me and our church during this period, but there was little happening to validate them. I still believed.

At this time I wanted us to move on from being the City of Refuge to become a city set on a hill for all to see, like Jerusalem. I wanted our church to take hold of the promises God has offered his people. Often the name Zion is attached to those promises in the Old Testament. It was another name for the city of Jerusalem and represented God’s people. That seemed like an amazing name, which had an ancient origin and resonance in the culture of 2002. We officially became Zion Church in February of 2002— three years after the incident that moved me to start City of Refuge.

I remember after picking up the new Maxima I preached a sermon on faith, and illustrated it by playing a scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In the scene Yoda is teaching Luke Skywalker how to be a Jedi when Luke’s X-Wing fighter sinks into a swamp right before their eyes. Yoda inspires Luke to attempt to use the Force to raise the ship from beneath the mire, but the apprentice Jedi fails. Why? Yoda easily raises the ship, then an astonished Luke Skywalker puts his hand out and touches it as he says, “I, I can’t believe it.” Yoda responds, “And that is why you fail.” Most of those who were at church the night I used this illustration were aware of our difficulties financially. I encouraged them to resolve their own problems by putting complete faith in a good and loving God who promises and provides for His children. Then I told them to go outside and touch the car I believed God had provided. I had parked it next to the entrance to our meeting place.

2002 was also the year that we began to have a real youth ministry again. Until that time, the church was populated with so many (older) teenagers that it seemed the entire congregation was a youth group. However, we needed a dedicated ministry to junior high and high school students. Craig Wilson had graduated from Baylor and returned to Garland. When asked, he responded to the call and began to lead our small youth group.

2006 Nissan Altima SE-R
My lease on the ’02 was up by 2006 and I really didn’t like the body style of the latest Maximas. A salesman talked me into a limited edition Altima, called the SE-R. It had a lot of the features of Nissan’s 350Z, and that sold me. Of all the Nissans that I leased, that Altima is the only one I would have purchased at the end had they offered a good enough deal (which they didn’t). In fact, in my present situation I’ve considered buying one. They made a limited number in 2005 and 2006 and they’re hard to find, but who knows? Once again Nissan offered pre-approved credit and a really good deal, and once again this is something I wouldn’t have qualified for on paper. Credit bureaus are not forgiving entities. So, I praised God for the blessing.

By 2006 we were a very different church. Young people grow up and move on. They change, their needs change, and they are impatient for things around them to change. From 1999 to 2006 we lost and gained many people. The church retained a small core of strong leaders. Yet, instead of being a church comprised largely of 16-22 year olds, we now embraced a much broader age range.

I officiated the weddings of a number of our leaders in 2005 and ‘06. We had transformed from a church of mainly singles into a church with increasing numbers of families. We had a growing number of youth by this time due to the leadership of Craig Wilson, who now had a wonderful wife to help him. Craig married Rachel in 2005.

Also, I met and began to mentor a young person in Craig’s group named Aaron Cloud. The first thing this 14 year old kid told me was that he wanted to be a pastor some day. So, I believed I needed to teach him. This was the first time I’d spent any significant amount of time with a young teenager since we started the church.

We moved to downtown Garland in 2004, where we met at the Main Street Coffee House initially. Later we leased space from a Seventh Day Adventist church (which worked out because they worship on Saturdays). Soon we began worshiping on Sunday mornings, which was, in part, an effort to meet the needs of families with young children. However, I also think we had become more comfortable with being a church. There is an element of tradition behind church. People (especially in our part of the country) expect churches to meet for worship on Sunday morning; we had probably come to share that expectation. At times we’ve tried to revive Sunday evening services, usually as an option in addition to Sunday morning, but this has been largely unsuccessful.

2006 was the last year we produced House of Judgement. The next year one of our founding members passed away suddenly from cancer. Chuck Tomasek was a dedicated youth worker and tireless volunteer for every dramatic production we did. We have missed him greatly.

2009 Nissan Maxima
NMAC made their usual loyalty offer and I turned the Altima in for a new Maxima. The body style had changed and I liked it much better. However, Nissan no longer had a manual transmission option, which I missed. This was the most luxurious car I’ve had the privilege of calling my own.

By this time the church considered downtown Garland home. For a year we sublet space from the Garland Opry in one of the oldest buildings in downtown Garland. It is right on the Square at the corner of Sixth and State. In 2009 we leased it on our own and that’s where we remain.

The church continued to grow in diversity, even if our numbers remained relatively small. What began as an outreach to young people had now become a church for people of all ages. That is not to say we had lost our youth appeal. In fact, due to the long and hard work of Craig Wilson our youth group comprised half of our typical Sunday morning worship attendance. We funded large numbers of teenagers to attend camp each year and had to rent a 55 passenger bus to get them there.

It was during this lease that I met and began to mentor three teenagers, two brothers and their friend. I’ve never come close to going over on the number of miles allotted me under a lease contract, but I added many additional miles to the ’09 Maxima picking these kids up and driving them around. For the first time, I had to be cautious about how much I drove! I spent more time and money on these kids than any I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with many young people. I’m not boasting; rather, I’m disappointed, in them, in myself. At first, they seemed to be receptive to what I taught them, and I was happy to spend the time and energy investing in their lives. As time went on, however, they each continued to get into trouble at school, to become less and less interested in Christian faith, and to become increasingly immoral. I persevered, but all they did was take advantage of my willingness to give them rides and buy them meals. The jury is still out on these kids because they haven’t yet reached maturity. I hope they are open to the Lord as he seeks to correct them by bringing on the consequences of their poor choices. Far more than that, I hope they each have a change of heart before they wreck a significant portion of their young lives.

We began leasing the upper floor in our building in 2010 to provide space for children and youth. One of our members left shortly before this because he and his wife determined that we didn’t have enough space for their kids. I have always tried to make certain that we provide for children, even if, as a single man, some have assumed that I am not concerned about our kids. Honestly, nothing infuriates me more than this misperception.

During this time period I moved to downtown Garland, first living in some new apartments that were a block away from the building our church leases, then moving above the church so that we can continue to afford the space for our kids. I was able to move out after about a year, but have had to move back in for the last two years to keep us in the space.

Our church has sought to be visible and active in downtown Garland. We have an entry in the Labor Day parade, pass out free hot chocolate during Christmas on the Square, and I participate in the Downtown Business Association. Downtown is changing and we are here for that reason.

2012 Nissan Altima
On February 14 of 2012 I turned the ’09 Maxima in early and started driving another Altima. This was strictly a financial decision. The dealership called me to take the car early, and I asked them to give me a deal with a lower payment. This has been a good car, but nothing exciting. In two weeks I’ll turn it in and not look back.

After a decade as Zion Church, I led us to change the name again. This time it was not because of changes in our church so much as changes in the world around us. The name Zion didn’t have the same cultural resonance as we sensed in the early 2000’s. Islamic extremism, cults and general misunderstanding by some older people led me to pray about a new name. Zion’s motto was “Spirit and Truth”; it came from the narrative of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. She had asked him where someone should worship, and Jesus responded: “those who worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth. Lifewell comes from the same story. Jesus told the woman that if she asked, he could give her water that would become in her a well of water springing up to eternal life (4:11 & 14). Later in John, the Lord promised that He would give water that would become “streams of living water flow(ing) from within” (John 7:38). These streams of water are identified as the Holy Spirit. “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those hwo believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:39). So, we seek to preach Jesus in order to bring that living water to people. The Holy Spirit will live within anyone who will believe in and receive and call on Jesus to save them. Therefore, not only do we receive life, but we become channels of that life for others.

Our church revised it’s founding documents, and, most importantly, it’s mission statement. The new mission statement contains phrases from each of the previous phases of the church:
City of Refuge, Zion and now Lifewell.
It reads:

Lifewell Church is called out to be a refuge, worshiping God in the Spirit and in truth, reaching the unreached with the Gospel and learning to live well through faith in
Jesus Christ.

I thought the church would experience numeric growth after we made this very significant change. We have not, yet. We have continued to persevere and mature. We have been tested and tried. People have left the church and gone on to larger congregations. But those who remain will be blessed, I believe. Indeed they already have been.

Our leaders began having children, and I have become like a grandparent. I love these kids. Although I’ve always been concerned about the kids who come to our church, I’ve not interacted with them. Over the last several years all that changed. The biggest change came when Craig and Rachel’s daughter Jubilee began to talk, and talk to me! Then they had Asher. I’ve never held a toddler who likes me as this boy does. Now all the kids like me. Dean and Tasha’s daughter Maddy asks many questions about Jesus, Ransom talks to me and shows me his toys. I love these kids. I really do.

I believe the church is in its basic final form, but there are still changes, improvements and growth coming.

Sayonara Nissan!
Well, Nissan didn’t offer me a new lease this time, and no one with NMAC can tell me exactly why. Loyalty is not rewarded any longer, it would seem. I believe in Providence, however, that God is working all things together for my good. There is a reason for this and I am seeking to discover it. There is a path to take and I am searching for it. I’m sure that’s the main reason I’ve spent all day writing this overview of our church’s history. I want to know where to go and what to do next, and that is not just a concern for what I’ll be driving in two weeks when this lease is up.

Regret is a terrible thing. We cannot change the past. There are plenty of things I’d do differently in leading our church. “Hindsight is 20/20,” as the cliche’ goes. However, I believe in a God of second chances; indeed, He offers many chances. He forgives the past when we confess, and He offers us a new future. So, here I am in a similar position to 2002 when I thought about trying to buy that old Geo Metro. This time, it appears, I don’t have the option to just slip into another new car. I checked on a Honda yesterday, and even after 14 years my credit is not tier one. Credit Bureaus are not forgiving. The initial offer before they checked my credit was great, then they came back and upped the lease price by TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS A MONTH. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and that, my friend, is an established fact. Our financial system is at fault for this. I’ve paid my car payment on time every single month for three years. I’ve never missed a payment in 16 years. I’ve paid off a student loan after 30 years. None of that matters, apparently. At least, not enough to elevate my credit to the status it was in 1999.

Providence. What is God saying? What is God preparing to do? I’ve been unwilling to humble myself by driving an old car again because I have so little in my life the looks anything like achievement. At least a new car spoke of some degree of success. Now what? Honestly, I’ve told the Lord that I’ll drive a used car again. I’m certainly not going to pay the ridiculous interest they want to charge me to lease or buy right now. But what does God want? What is His will? I doubt that I was supremely concerned about that in the financial area back in 2002. Perhaps this is a test. Well, I will drive anything He wills. My pride is withering quickly.

Most importantly, I will go anywhere, and I will do anything the Lord calls me to. I have almost no debt at this point. I may have to take a loan from my annuity to buy a car, but technically that’s not debt because it’s my money. Without debt I’m free to do what the Lord wills without restraint. So, exactly what is that? Where do we go from here, God…?

“Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”
-T.S. Eliot, Prufrock

Vindication Part 3: Dirty Cops

This is the third installment in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first two chapters in the series in my notes on Facebook.


I’ve been accused of being negative. Sorry, I’m trying to be more positive. I think faith is positive. It just seems I’m always fighting some kind of adversity. Maybe that’s the case with everyone. Probably that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If everything is going well, if I’m not fighting anything, I become comfortable and I don’t grow. Of course, if growth is predicated on conflict, I should be a spiritual giant by now! There’s more to it than just dealing with affliction, offense and opposition. I have to overcome, and that won’t happen apart from Christ working through me.

House of Judgement 1998 was the most difficult project for which I had been responsible, until I started a church. How the church got started is a story all it’s own, and I’ve written about it previously.

My church was founded under unique circumstances. I didn’t just come up with the idea one day. Really, my hand was forced. It became readily apparent that I could no longer be part of the status quo in youth ministry (as if I ever was!). A vocal but influential minority at the church where I served previously were unhappy with my unorthodox methods of reaching teenagers. I made this worse by doing stuff like bleaching my hair and doing our youth meetings at a place called the ROC (instead of at the church– as if the church is a building, but that’s another discussion).

Everything came to a head on February 15, 1999 when I was pulled over by the police at 2:00 A.M. with a car full of young adults. When asked why, the officer in charge told me I had made an illegal u-turn. Okay. We had just returned from… Dunkin Donuts. Pretty shady place to take young people, I know. When the police officer asked the ages of the people in the car, one young person was about a month short of his 17th birthday, so he was technically in violation of curfew. I should have checked before I let him go with us, I know.

It was cold outside. The 16 year old in question was not dressed for winter weather, but the officers took him out of the car, searched him and kept him shivering out there. I was frustrated and made the comment under my breath (I thought) that they’d see me in court over this. That is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. Promptly, the senior policeman, who we will just call “Officer Lurch,” appeared at my window like a quantum particle. “What did you say?” he demanded. I repeated myself. That may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

“Step out of the car,” commanded Officer Lurch. He then made me spread eagle on the hood of his cruiser where he searched me. For what, I didn’t know. He put me in the back of the police car. No handcuffs. He and his partner spoke to the young adults in my car, and continued to keep the 16 year old out in the cold. Officer Lurch got into the front passenger seat of his warm police car and lectured me through the screen. He told me that they had the right to pull anybody over for anything they pleased at any time. At this point I had become wise enough to remain silent. The lecture about putative police rights lasted about 15 minutes.

At some point I was made aware that they had called the 16, nearly 17, year old passenger’s parents to come and get him. Since I wasn’t being charged with anything, –in fact, they never wrote me a ticket for the allegedly illegal u-turn– I asked if they’d let me out of the back of the police car before the young man’s father arrived. I didn’t need the guy thinking I’d done something wrong. Officer Lurch said, “We’ll see.” I could only watch helplessly when the young man’s father arrived and stared at me sitting like a criminal in the back of a police car. The man left with his son, then things got really interesting.

Officer Lurch came to the back of the police cruiser and commanded, “Step out of the car, please.” I complied. “Step around to the front of the car please.” I complied. As I was escorted to the front of the car by Officer Lurch, his rookie partner, who we’ll call Officer Buzz, circled around behind me, pushed me down on the hood of the cruiser and snapped handcuffs tightly on my wrists. Next–as in after I was cuffed–Officer Lurch circled back to the open door of the police car (not my car), and in one fluid movement appeared to reach into the back seat to remove a small plastic baggy with a dark substance in it. He walked up to me and shook the baggy in my face. “You’re under arrest for possession of marijuana!”

Officer Lurch, then turned toward the shocked passengers in my car and waved the baggy. Taunting with a smirk, he said: “See, your youth minister is a doper!”

I thought, ‘This can’t be happening!”  It was like I’d been dropped into the middle of some B-rated cop show.  I didn’t know what to say, so I shouted, “I’m being framed!”  as the dirty cops put me back (now handcuffed) into the police car. I was being framed. I guess they figured if I was going to see them in court, they’d give me a reason.

The officers then took charge of my car to have it towed, and made the remaining young adult passengers walk back to my apartment in the cold. I spent several hours in jail before I could post bail. I didn’t sleep, I assure you.

That week I spent money getting my car out of the impound, more money on a drug test within 24 hours, which proved I was clean. I even paid for at polygraph by a respected operator used by smaller police departments. The results? I was telling the truth when I stated: “The marijuana taken from the back of that police car was not mine.” I had to hire an attorney to present all of this. Once the Dallas County prosecutors office was confronted with the evidence, along with my clean record, they declined to pursue the case. The charges were dropped even before my arraignment.

Sadly, the information about my arrest got out, and there were those intent on ruining my reputation in the community. Gossip and rumor spread. “Did you hear about the youth minister who got arrested?” A member of our church heard the news from a police officer in line at the grocery story, another member heard it from someone at the bank. I had already informed our pastor of the incident, Next I held a meeting of all the youth parents and presented my case and the evidence of my innocense. The great majority of them believed me. I had spent seven years in that church as an honest, upright (and health conscious) associate pastor and youth minister. Later the same night I made the presentation to the rest of our congregation. Most of them believed my story, but not everyone.

Apparently, the disbelieving were vocal enough to have an impact. I was told by the pastor that my position would be reduced to part-time by the onset of summer. I was called to minister full-time. I had worked hard. I had done many good things at that church. What to do? I prayed.

I determined that God was calling me to start a church where people who felt unwanted, rejected and judged could come and find grace. I presented this idea to the pastor, and he was enthusiastic and supportive. We went to the local officials of the church’s denomination and they chose to sponsor the launch of a new church. On July 4th, 1999 City of Refuge was born in Richardson, Texas. We started with about 30-40 young people and a few adults. There was no model for this church, just the philosophy found in Jesus statement:

“It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. But go learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13, NIV).

Everyone who attended received Christ’s unconditional acceptance. Many allowed his mercy and grace change there lives. There were also people who used this grace as a license to justify their bad behavior. It was a rough start. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. In fact, I could write an essay on how not to start a church.

In February of 2002 we determined that God wanted us to change the name of the church. Jesus taught that his followers are to be a light to the world like a city set on a hill. Zion is a name for Jerusalem in the Old Testament. It appears many times in connection with promises that God has made to his people. We are his people. His promises are for us. I don’t mean to say this about my church alone. All people who put their faith in Jesus have access to God’s “very great and precious promises” (see 2 Peter 2:2-4). Zion is a name that we hoped would remind the people of our church of this truth.

12 years later I started to notice that some people misunderstood the name Zion. Some thought it was Jewish, others associated it with Rastafarianism. Zion has a great biblical history, but too many organizations, good and bad, use it.  So, at the risk of appearing unstable, I proposed that we change the name one last time. I looked at the passage of Scripture from which we got our motto, “Spirit and Truth.” It is from the story about Jesus and the woman at the well. He promised a hurting outcast that if she asked, he would give her living water, water that would become a spring inside her, “welling up to eternal life.” Life Well. I want to live a Spirit filled, Christ focused life, and I want to receive the overflow of rich and satisfying life that Jesus offers to those who believe.  I want to help people to live life well. Now our church is called Lifewell and our new motto is “living life well.”

Along the way I’ve prayed that I would be vindicated, that my name would be cleared and my reputation restored. I had hoped one of those police officers somehow would have the conscience to come forward and tell the truth by now. Not yet, but I still have hope because I still believe the promises I received when I first came to Garland.

“So do not fear, for I am with you;

do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

All who rage against you

will surely be ashamed and disgraced;

those who oppose you

will be as nothing and perish.

Though you search for your enemies,

you will not find them.

Those who wage war against you

will be as nothing at all.

For I am the Lord, your God,

who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear;

I will help you.”

(Isaiah 41:10-13, NIV)

I suppose I could just forget about this terrible incident and move on, but the church I pastor is right around the corner from the church where I was youth minister when all of this occurred. We still do ministry at the ROC, a community center owned by that church. I have to believe that what happened to me was for a reason. God’s providence ensures that nothing takes place in the lives of any of his children apart from his approval. “God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I do love God. I have been called. He has and will use this incident for good. I may not have had the courage to start City of Refuge if it wasn’t for what happened to me that cold February night in ’99.