Joe’s Story

There’s Got to Be More!

It must have been sometime during my early college years. I had come home from college for some reason. It was a Sunday morning, and for what seemed like the millionth time, I was sitting in the church that I had grown up in, but not the older tan brick church building that I attended as a youth growing up. That older, warmer, run-down building had been replaced by a new fancy gray stone church building.

A Church Stairway to Heaven…

The older building had been a tall rectangular-shaped building with a similarly shaped educational addition, or wing, in the back of the main building. The older building had been built long before the days of handicap accessibility and was kind of like a small-town version of an old capital building. There seemed like an eternity of steep steps leading up the two-front double-door entrances, one on either side of the building. The two double door entrances were connected by a walk-thru outer balcony.

The multi-pane glass and wooden double-doors opened to a small landing area guarded on the outside wall by a stairwell entrance that led downstairs underneath the sanctuary to a series of poorly-lit catacomb-like classrooms on either side of wide hallway- a hallway that eventually connected to the older building’s educational wing that included a fellowship hall and more classrooms.

From the entry landing, one ascended several more steep steps to the entry of the main sanctuary. Setting aside the fact that these steps had to be murder on the elderly, and perhaps caused them not to attend at all, it was as if ascending those steps gave this small town church edifice a somewhat reverent or holy mystique. It was as if one was ascending the steps to a sacred temple, and with each new step, the worshiper was brought closer and closer to God himself.

As one finally reached the top landing there was another stairwell entrance, to the right if one had entered through the right-sided double doors, which was mostly normally the case due to the fact most attenders parked their cars to the right of the church versus the left due to the Methodist church which was immediately to the Baptist church’s left, save an older former parsonage that stood between the two, but now, most often served as the music minister’ home or perhaps extra Sunday School classrooms for the Baptists. That same stairwell on the right side of the church had its mirrored image on the left side. And in fact, in a nice bit of architecture, these stairwells existed over the lower stairwells leading to the downstairs classrooms.

The Church Balcony…

These upper stairwells then led to the balcony with its noisy wooden floors and closely-tiered wooden pews. As is the case with most balconies, when one sat in the balcony you felt as if  you were sitting on top of person sitting in the row just in front of you.  And while it was fun to be late and perhaps get the chance to sit up  in the balcony, it was either in the balcony or just underneath the balcony that could get a kid in major trouble. I suppose it had something to do with being at the farthest conceivable place away from either the preacher, or minister, who was positioned on a long upraised main platform, or one’s mother, who could often be found sitting and singing in the choir loft behind the minister. Singing in the choir was almost sacred. My mom sang a beautiful alto, which also meant a choir practice in preparation for the Sunday service after the Wednesday evening services. Since there were usually not enough people to open up the upper balcony on Sunday nights, it was in the last row UNDER the balcony, where most of the older high school youth would sit—once again, that position being the furthest from the spiritual action as possible. The youth would chew gum, pass notes and on occasion just plain get into trouble with their parents.

The Church Floor that Sloped Forward…

It may sound strange to describe the  main sanctuary this way, but  it wasn’t as big as it seemed high or tall. There were three sections of pews–a center section and two wings. There were no pads on the pews, but the wood seemed soft and worn. The pews had a gentle curve to them, thus almost, but not quite, forming a semi-circle around the main raised plat-form where the pastor and minister of music sat. Much like theater seating, the floor sloped downward, from back to front. This seemed to have the added affect of urging a wayward sinner under conviction into getting out of his seat and walking forward to visit the minister who, after his sermon, would extend an invitation to anyone from the congregation to step forward, and while the music was being played or the choir was softly singing, to privately unburden his soul of some important spiritual decision or private confession to the awaiting minister.

The walls of the old church seem to be textured with a kind of chalk-like stucco or plaster painted white. The plaster had a rough, almost sharp, texture to it when one rubbed one’s hand over the walls. I often remember doing this as a child. The plaster  seemed to flake off rather easily, thus making the walls always in need of patching and repainting.

Church Stained Glass Beauty…

On both sides of the sanctuary, within the outer walls, there were a series of three brightly-colored stain glass windows, dedicated to former members of the church long-since departed, and I assume, for the most-part, forgotten. I can’t remember exactly, but the scenes seem to depict Jesus with a baby lamb or small child or the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears. On sunny Sunday mornings, as the sun would crest over the Methodist church to the east–and it almost always had by the time the eleven o’clock service started–the stain glass windows on the east side of the building would light up brilliantly exposing their vast array of beautiful colors and images.

A Church Baptistry Fall…

On the floor, to the left side of the raised platform sat a baby-grand piano, and just to the upper right of the piano behind the railed choir loft was the organ. Behind the choir loft was large wall with an opening just behind the loft. This opening had a partial glass front running across its front edge that prevented the baptistry water from splashing onto the choir members whenever a new convert, or someone who just had recently walked the aisle and had professed faith in Christ as their personal Savior, was baptized or immersed in the baptistry. I remember on the night of my own baptism as a child, I slipped down the steps that led down into the baptistry’s water-filled tank. A thud, thud, thud was heard behind the closed curtains as I slipped down each of the water-soaked steps and went splash right into the middle of the tank. Fortunately, because the curtains in front of the baptistry were closed, most had assumed the pastor had fallen. The curtains were pulled, and there I was, standing beside the pastor, fully clothed and soaking wet, having already been self-baptized, so to speak.

There Goes My Church Innocence!

As a young child, before my mother had joined the choir and while the minister was droning on and on it seemed, I can still remember sitting in one of the pews on the right side of the sanctuary. I was leaned over on my mother’s lap, slightly facing away from the minister. She was sitting to my right slightly turned to the minister with her outer right leg crossed over her inner left leg, thus forming a great lap for me as a young child, not only to rest on, but more importantly, to lay my father’s prescription pad on, and with pencil in hand, keep myself entertained during what seemed like an eternity of preaching. No doubt, I was cranking out great religious art, and besides, this had been our pattern for as long as I could  remember, which was wasn’t really very long at all. Suddenly, my mom, no doubt convicted by the Spirit, made a painful executive decision. This was the day that young Joe Cross had to start learning to listen to the minister’s message. She gently lifted the drawing pad and pencil from my hand and to my shock placed the pad and pencil inside her purse.   It was time to grow up and at least try to pay attention and understand what was being said. In other words, it was time to learn how to absorb a spiritual Bible-based lecture, for that’s what preaching was, a lecture filled with emotion and spiritual exhortation–at least that it what it seemed to me at the time. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden discovering they were naked after having eaten the forbidden fruit, my childhood spiritual innocence had ended.

It was perhaps ten-twelve years later. I was a young college student, home from college, and once again, for what seemed like the millionth time since I was a young child and my mother had taken away that pad and pencil in hopes I would learn to listen to a lectured message, I was listening to a lectured sermon. After all, this was our church tradition. This is what I knew. This WAS church. This was all I knew. This was all I had EVER known. But then something CHANGED had changed, something besides the newer building.

Like Mixing Oil and Water: Old Worship in a New Building!

The new church building had been built on the back of the old church property. In other words, the church had been flipped to the other side of the block, facing now in the entirely opposite direction, and strangely enough, this backward flipping of the new building location had  seemed to do the same for the church.

Because it had allowed the congregation to still worship in the old building while the new was still under construction, it had made sense to build the new church building this way. But something was not right.

The rectangular box-shaped brownstone building with it’s flat-corniced roof-line had been replace instead with an A-framed cathedral that too rose even higher to the heavens, but it rose in a different manner.

Cold and Lifeless…

Some, rightly or wrongly, remarked that the new edifice had been built as a monument to its builder, a long-time church member and bank president. It had started out as good idea. The old facility probably needed replacing, but there was just something about the new church that left me feeling cold and empty. The architecture was plain, not like the old church which resembled an older public-building style of architecture. On the newer building’s outer edges, the roof line began near the ground, above a long columned portico covered walkway. The two sides of the A-framed roof then rose majestically into the sky and met in the middle. It seems like there was a huge bell tower out front that had its twin behind the choir loft and new baptistery inside the church. While the older church had a bell or at least a bell sound, I never knew where the bell was, if it existed. I somehow doubt it did exist.

On the inside of the newer building, the inner, peeling stucco plaster white walls with brightly colored stain-glassed windows depicting scenes of Jesus with children, baby lambs and kneeling devoted women and been replaced by, while beautiful in its own right, a dark, windowless hardwood ceiling that rose from the outer edges of the outer pews to the high A-frame center.

Swimming in Jesus’ Blood…

The carpet was blood-red. I can’t even remember the color of the carpet in the older church. Perhaps a worn out or faded red, almost a dull rose, I think, but more importantly, it was just not noticeable. It blended in. Now in this dark cathedral, one felt he was swimming in the blood of Jesus. The sanctuary was vast, expansive and hardly ever filled. For me, the dynamic social and spiritual life that had been such a vibrant part of the older church had been somehow drained from this newer facility.

And so I sat there on this particular Sunday morning, singing the same old hymns that I had sung as a child, but now everything seemed different and strangely unfamiliar. At the same time, while the place in which we worshiped had been updated, how we worshiped had not. Like oil in water, the new and old were not mixing very well.

The Same Old Ritual…Southern Baptist Soul Sleep! 

It seemed that for years every Sunday morning and Sunday night had always been the same old ritual with a few slight variations; there was a welcome, a deacon’s often long-winded prayer, three very old hymns, a special music, sung or perhaps played by the pianist or organist, during, or just after, the offering plate had been passed around, and then the minister or pastor would stand up to read a portion of Scripture. As the minister would finish reading his selected Scripture and then launch into his lecture or sermon, most of the congregation, as if it had been psychologically conditioned by years of boring lectures, right on cue, would fall into this kind of half-awake, half-asleep trance or daze. Then thirty minutes later, just as the minister would begin to bring his sermon or message to a close, the few who had been able to remain wake, would begin to stir just a bit, perhaps closing their Bibles, rustling their bulletins or just moving ever so slightly. This subtle movement then triggered the rest of the light-sleeping congregation to awaken. It was time to go home. And what  was the tip off to those that had remained awake through the lecture that the minister was wrapping up his message? Easy, regardless of the that morning’s sermon’s topic—loving your neighbor, serving God, being a good mother or father, honoring your parents, not lying or stealing, becoming a missionary etc.–the minister always had this unique way of segueing or transitioning from whatever his topic had been that morning to what we called the invitation (to respond to his message).

Walking the Aisle: The Invitation to Meet Jesus…

It was during the invitation, when the choir would begin to softly sing a familiar encouraging hymn and that the pastor would encourage those within the congregation to leave their seats, come forward and quietly express some deeply-felt or conscience-inspired response to the Spirit’s urging. While I suppose anyone could have shared anything that they would have wanted to share or confess, most of the responses usually took the form of a few standardized, publicly-accepted or reinforced responses: 1) a public affirmation of one’s coming to faith–making a decision to trust or follow Christ as one’s personal Savior—or 2) if someone had already made that decision, but had never been baptized as a symbol of that decision in a Baptist church (which made it official, at least according to the Baptists) then one could go forward and let the pastor know.

But since most of the congregation had already made these two major decisions, salvation or baptism (since most congregations are less than two hundred people, it doesn’t take long with 2-3 services a week for everyone to have made these two decisions), most would come down the aisle to rededicate their life to following the Lord more closely. Perhaps they had gotten off the spiritual beaten path, or not been attending church as regularly as they should have, or were not as fervent in their daily spiritual walk, i.e. not reading their Bible regularly, not praying as often as they should have, or not serving within the church in some capacity, or perhaps not witnessing to their friends about Jesus, or maybe they had just lost their spiritual passion. But by walking down the aisle and confessing it to the pastor, they seemed to feel better. They had gotten it off their chests and were ready to renew their walk in Christ.

For some this public act of rededication seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. It seemed that the penitent person’s renewed dedication never wavered after that. He or she began to teach Sunday School, were at church every time the doors opened and just basically led a very dedicated or spiritually-devoted life. But for the rest of us, the vitality of our spiritual walks were always kind of an up and down thing. So about once every few years, it was just kind of the thing to do. Time to walk the aisle, confess and start all over, until it was time to do it all over again. Some made this walk and profession so frequently, I know I was tempted to label them or ask, was something wrong with them? But really, who was I to judge? But I did and was. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was watching and observing everything, apparently trying to understand people, life and culture…why do people do what they do?

As the invitation was being given and it became an apparent no one else was going to coming forward, the pastor would close the invitation and announce the really important decisions to the congregation—those that had stayed down front, making decisions to follow Christ or be baptized. Most of those that had rededicated their lives to Christ or has ask for prayer had returned to their seats, but if for some reason the person really needed his rededication announced to the church body, the pastor, functioning as a spiritual intermediary or protective attorney between his client and the congregation, would speak on the repentant sinner’s behalf, informing a sympathetic congregation of the now rededicated believer’s fresh desire to be more faithful to his or her Lord once again.

The Really Big Decision!

On a rare occasion, and perhaps of even greater significance than the invitation and decision to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior from hell, was the really big decision to give one’s life to missions, or even greater, foreign missions service. This was the mother load of all decisions it seemed, to give one’s life to God for the rest of your life. To deny yourself the worldly pleasures that the rest of us enjoyed, at the expense of spending the rest of one’s life going from village to village telling natives or indigenous cultures in Africa or South America that Jesus loves them. This was the whole enchilada! This is what the church seemed to live for. The church had done something. The spiritual process had worked. From nursery to pew, all the programs, services, classes, choir specials, sermons, moving invitations, retreats, summer camps, Vacation Bible Schools, week-long revivals and guest missionary speakers had worked its magic. One of the church’s own was going out there in the real world to serve God. Out there to spread Jesus’ gospel.

Now there was a long road from walking the aisle to actually becoming a missionary or pastor. One had to finish school, go off to college, survive college and all its temptations. Then after college, it was off to seminary for several more years of special training. And then if one was accepted into the missionary program, there were additional years of culture and language training. Finally, after completion of all this study and training, one would be assigned some place in the world to serve as a missionary. For anyone, much less a younger person, to remain committed to such a long-term call or decision, was indeed a challenge. But despite the congregation’s  implicit understanding that the chances were slim to none that the person making this decision would make it that far, the congregation, acting like one, would nod in an approving affirmation as the pastor announced the well-intended member’s decision or call to serve God.

My Life to God: I Made All the Big Four Spiritual Decisions!

And in fact, in my youth, being as spiritually sensitive as I was, I had made all the big four decisions at one time or another, salvation and baptism as a nine-year old, baptism again as a college senior, rededication and the big banana, full-time missions. I was twelve years old, and on three closely separate occasions or evenings, I walked the aisle, once for sensing God’s call, the second time for being a medical missionary and the third time, specifically to a place called Biafra in Nigeria. Biafra was caught up in a civil war with Nigeria and children were starving and dying.

My Father’s Profound Spiritual Influence: A Methodist Becomes a Baptist!

My father was one of the town’s two main physicians. In addition, there were two older physicians, but for the most part they were each retired, perhaps seeing just a few patients a week. In addition, my mother was a nurse—that is how she met my dad. He was in medical school, and she had finished her nurses’ training when they had gotten married. And while she worked for my dad, it was as his practice’s office manager, and not as a nurse. So medicine is what I knew in my family. I saw the great respect it afforded my father. Most people felt he was a very smart man, as well as, a little different and agitated…at just how stupid people could be. When I was young, my father had not attended church very much. When he did begin to attend more and sing in the choir, it was the redbrick Methodist church, located on the other end of the block, facing the same direction as the older Baptist church had faced.

After my youngest brother was  born, we three boys would accompany my mother as she would drive the one block to the great big Baptist church (my mom having grown up Baptist) on the corner and park across the street in the Westside Elementary graveled playground, and my dad would attend the church on the other end of the block, closer to town and the main square, the Methodist church. Both would teach youth and both would sing in their respective choirs.

And then that all changed. My father was brought up before the state medical society for some bizarre behaviors. I suppose some thought he was on drugs. So he had to go to and obtain signed affidavits from every patient he had written a class I narcotic prescription for pain in the past so many years to, stating that they had indeed received the prescribed medication. There were sixty in all. All signed, but one. That person had died in the interim. Thus became a crack down on doctors not just scribbling off prescriptions in what seemed a quick, almost haphazardly-written scrawl that only the pharmacist could interpret.

My father ended up voluntarily surrendering his narcotic license for a period of six months. He also told the chairman of the state medical board in a public hearing that in his heart he had every reason to hate the chairman. This was the second time my father had had to go before the medical board to defend himself. The first time involved a hospital patient that he had sent on over to Little Rock to be looked after rather than attempt to treat her himself. She was not his patient, but apparently he was on call that weekend. At some point in the process she had expired, and so the state medical board looked into the matter. An interesting footnote to all of this was that the other main doctor in our small community was on the board too. My dad had come to our small town to practice with him, but that relationship ended rather quickly, and so my dad rented space from one of the older retired doctors and began his own practice. Before my dad had come to town, there had been many that had been lobbying for another doctor. Now they feared they would lose their viable second option so they came to my dad’s support, helping to raise up attorney’s fees and making the trip to the hearings. He was exonerated, but it had wiped out our family’s savings and perhaps caused my mother to miscarry. Now for the second time, my dad was standing before the board and his medical rival at the time. But instead of hating, he said, “Hate would only hurt me. Instead,  I am going to kill you with kindness. I am choosing to love you as Jesus would.” I guess this is what I mean that my dad was different and unpredictable. About the time you thought you had him figured out, he would think out of the box and throw you a curve ball. I am sure that the board thought he was nuts in his response. But the end result was that our family was together spiritually, worshiping under the same roof. Everyday before we kids went off to school, we would read a chapter of the Bible, quite often from a large-print Bible.

My dad had taught and lived some great moral examples. When humbled, turn to God, no matter how smart or arrogant you think you are…because he was really really smart. But perhaps, deep down, he was even wiser because in his family’s pain, he turned to God for support and strength.

And so perhaps combining the spirits of both my heavenly and earthly fathers, I thought or presumed that this was God’s call on my life to help the desperately needy in a medical capacity.

Back to the Invitation… Again and Again: Something’s Not Working Here!

Now while all these decision, and perhaps a few more were open and fair game for anyone from the congregation to make, it was not like a lot of people were rushing down the aisle to make or declare these decisions. Most of the congregation had already been saved and baptized (some more than once even. Some felt that they had not done it for the right reasons the first time, perhaps they were a child at the time of their decision or perhaps they had not lead a very godly life after making their decision to follow Christ, so before they tried  rededication they would accept Christ a second time and be rebaptized, thinking that perhaps they had really never been a Christian in the first place. If making the decision to accept Christ as their savior didn’t work a second or third time even, then there was the fall back position of walking the aisle to rededicate one’s life to Christ). Few ever committed their life to serving Christ on a full-time basis. So that really on left rededication, but if one did this too much, one might risk being labeled as troubled or emotional. So in reality, many a Sunday, a discouraged minister would stand up at the front of the church, awaiting some response to his message as the church and choir sang the invitation song, and I suppose, even a few faithful were praying, and no one would come forward. I can only imagine this weekly programmed disappointment felt by many a pastor when no one would come forward. Finally, when the minister probably seemed as his breaking point and perhaps out of mercy, some faithful saint, who everyone knew had no business coming forward because they never missed a spiritual step to begin with, or it was assumed that did not because of their spiritual stature, might mercifully step forward, walk down the aisle and ask for prayer, thus sparing the congregation the possibility that the church would lose another pastor due to the lack of spiritual response to his messages and/or ministry.

Two Years and a Ministerial Cloud of Dust…

And in fact, when I got to seminary, we were told that the average pastoral tenure for our seminary’s graduate was two and a half years, and for the denomination I was from, but my seminary was not associated with, it was a whopping two years! Two years! Two years is nothing in a pastorate! Having now served at the same church for twenty-three years, and perhaps too long, I am not sure, two years is nothing. In fact, it was my goal just to last those first two years. Now, twenty-three years later, I feel almost as lost as ever.

This Church Pastoring Thing We Seek to Undertake is a Darn Near Impossible Task!

Pastoring is hard. It is not an exact science, or if it is, I feel sure we still must be in spiritually prehistoric times. The church is still so ignorant when it comes to shepherding sheep. People are complicated. Their families, lives, values, decision patterns and motivations are complicated, and pastoring them can feel like nailing Jello to a tree. I have often told our congregation that what we are doing is hard, especially in the seemingly affluent, as well as, morally-eroding culture we live in today. In comparing it to what retailers are attempting to do, it would be like someone loving Wal-mart so much that they want to come back to shop at Wal-Mart again and again, as well as, telling their friends that they need to shop at Wal-Mart too. And in fact, they love shopping at Wal-Mart so much that one day, they apply to work for Wal-Mart and refuse to accept pay. That is what volunteer organizations such as churches are up against. No wonder so many ministers feel like failures even after only two years on the job. What we are doing is not just hard, it is down right impossible! So for a kindly older believer to have mercy on a struggling young pastor and walk the aisle during his invitation in order to keep that young pastor motivated just one more week until a real decision is made, well, it’s just a mercifully wise act.

The Obligatory Ministerial Handshake…

Finally, the minister would pray the benedictory prayer. The congregation would dismiss, perhaps visit with their neighbor or another friend for a moment, find their hat and coat and file out through the very same doors which an hour earlier they had made their grand entrance through. As they exited, the minister would be there to greet them and thank them for coming. There was the obligatory shaking of hands with the minister, as well as, lying to him, telling him that he had preached a good message, even if they had slept through most of it and even just a few minutes later couldn’t tell you one thing he had just preached his heart out about. I mean what else do you say to they guy in that brief uncomfortable three seconds? And if the minister had any kind of savvy whatsoever and had paid any attention, he knew who he had caught sleeping, and were thus telling him only what they thought he wanted to hear—that he had done a good job.

Those Darn Methodists! A Defeated Glance–Beaten Again!

After the obligatory handshake with the minister and a few more causal goodbyes to friends, most were destined for one of the two local restaurants, but already disappointed even before they had reached their cars. For even as one was making the obligatory ministerial handshake, with one quick glance down the street and to the right at the old church, one could see that Methodist’s parking spaces which joined that the parking spaces Baptist’s parking spaces, thus forming one tree-lined continuous block of parking in front of both churches, was almost empty, thus meaning for all intent and purposes, the Methodist had BEATEN the Baptist to the restaurants, meaning the Baptists would have to wait longer for their lunch orders or would be at the tail end of the buffet lines. In all actuality, it was a rare Sunday that the Baptists would ever beat the Methodist to the lunch tables. The Methodist were more interested in you being a good person and thus their minister’s message was shorter. The Baptists were interested in saving your soul, thus the stakes to them were higher and their minister’s message longer. Add to that the invitation, and well, the Baptists never had a chance.

One Incredible Sunday Dinner Spread…

Knowing this, my mom, would put a roast in the oven before we left for church at 9:30, and most usually, we would return home for an incredible Sunday dinner. I mean did we eat well. Pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, corn, dinner rolls, ice tea and lemon icebox pie. Often we would eat in the dining room next to the kitchen on my great grandmother’s ornately-decorated beveled-edged dining room table–which also doubled as a ping-pong table for my middle brother and myself from time to time. One could murder his opponent with some incredible ricochet shots off those edges.

After dinner, since mom would destroy her kitchen in the process of making such an elaborate dinner, especially so soon after attending church, my brothers and I would look to the kitchen with an incredible incredulity. How could we, as eager young boys wanting to go outside, meet up with our friends and ride our bikes around town, ever possibly imagine to clean it up the massive devastation that had brought us such a delectable and satisfying feast, because after all it was our responsibility to help clean up? But then our mother, sensing our despair and utter contempt for the chore at hand, would kindly and mercifully tell us that we could go on and play. Are you sure, Mom? Sure, go, run along and play. And out we would dash. My mother would clean up, rest a few hours, and then it was time for Sunday night church, which was just a more causal version of the Sunday morning. Not everyone came back for the Sunday night service. Heathens! But there was no option for my mom. We were going back! And about half the congregation did as well. And this was a routine we would repeat year in and year out. It was our duty, our obligation. This was what we thought church was or all about. This was the informal ritual we had learned.

There Has Got to Be More!

Now here I was, as a young college student, bored to death in the church that I had grown up in, but also in the new church building that I had helped to pay for, and not the old one that I had forged most all of my earliest spiritual memories within. Like oil and water, the same old format wasn’t mixing with this new cathedral-like monument to an affluent banker. It wasn’t working spiritually, at least not for me. It didn’t fit. Nothing fit. Finally, in my frustration and confusion, I leaned over to my mom and spoke these now landmark words, at least landmark with respect to the spiritual odyssey I was about to embark on, “There has got to be more than this!” More than just three hymns, a special, an offering, a boring message about salvation—something that ninety-nine percent of the congregation had already done, an invitation, prayer and then go home. Is this all that God had designed us for? Be saved, struggle and die, with little relevancy, power and insight to this life that we were now living? Dry, lifeless worship? The same old same old, every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night? THERE HAD TO BE MORE! THERE JUST HAD TO BE MORE!

Later, while attending several churches in college, I was to find out that there was more. Much more![1]

I. There Was MORE! Much More! The Bible Still Lives:  Three Life-Changing Events Concerning the Bible’s Relevancy and Understanding Make an Incredible Difference!

In fact, there would be three key events that would end up changing my life’s course completely.

1) Trashing the Quarterly! The Bible Becomes More Relevant! 

Within the church that I had grown up in, there was a group of young adults, about an half-generation older than myself that begin to meet on Sunday nights to ACTUALLY read, study and apply the Bible to their daily lives. Before, in my church, a teacher would read or teach out of the denomination’s Sunday School lesson book. Actually, it was referred to as the quarterly because it was published on a quarterly basis. Most lessons were about three pages long, broke all laws of learning and boring as all get out.

But these young adults had taken a radical departure from the sacred quarterly. They were using a different book to study from. It was from a series entitled Neighborhood Bible Studies, and for the most part, it took an actual book of the Bible—in this case, the book of First Corinthians—and instead of the quarterly author filling every page with words, for the teacher to literally read to bored students, it had just a few questions on the page, with blank spaces in between for the student to fill in their own answers.

Starting from the beginning of the actual letter of First Corinthians, the group would read a passage of perhaps 8-10 verses or sentences, then stop and discuss what they had just read, using the Bible study booklet’s questions only as a guide.

For the most part the questions weren’t as much fact-based as they were discussional in nature—What do you think the author is saying here? What does this mean to you? How does this relate to your life?

People could actually think and talk for themselves, as opposed to just hearing a teacher read the lesson to them or lecture to the class.  People were actually talking, opening up and sharing, AND it was based from the Scripture text itself, not from some dry denominational quarterly. For perhaps the first time in my life, the Bible had become relevant for me. There was more. God’s word could speak to my life. I could share my struggles with others and compare this with others’ thoughts on what the passage was saying. There was more, and I was Spiritually growing up.

2) A Trip to Bountiful! The Bible Becomes More Real! 

At about that same time that I was starting to grasp that I could understand the Scriptures for myself and apply them to my life, my father undertook another out of the box experience. The old converted Methodist, along with a group from our church, took my family on a trip to the Holy Land.

It was here in the Holy Land, that for the first time in my life, the Bible’s stories were no longer just Sunday School stories. They were real places. I walked on a flower-covered hillside where many scholars believe that Jesus had taught his famous Sermon on the Mount. I rode in a boat on the same small sea that Jesus had calmed a storm upon. I prayed in the same garden where he prayed to his Father “To take this cup” (of suffering, the Cross) “away, if it be Your will” (obviously, this did not turn out not to be the case…and to mankind’s benefit!). I walked many of the same streets where he might have walked, visited two different places where he might have been crucified, and possibly walked in and out of his very tomb, or one very much similar to it. Now the Bible was not only becoming more relevant, it was becoming more REAL to me!

3) It’s Greek to Me! The Bible Becomes More Understandable! 

Having experienced that there was much much more, that the Bible was not only relevant to my life and struggles and that it spoke of real places, places that I had seen and walked upon, all the while still pursuing a pre-med degree in college, I decided I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to learn more about the Bible. The Bible was the key for me. It held all the clues, the original writings and truths. If I was to truly understand this God and Jesus thing, I had to read and understand the Bible for myself, not just depend upon what some fancy teacher or preacher might be saying.

The only problem was that the college I was attending in order to go to medical school and also the college my father had graduated from taught that Jesus was only a good man. He was not God. I needed to attend a school where not only could I pursue my pre-medical degree—remember when I was twelve I had walked aisle and committed my life to serving God on a medical mission field—but where I could also feed my hunger to study God’s word, but from a standpoint that respected its claims to begin with. Why read it if you were going to tear it down to begin with? Why read it, it if wasn’t true? The reason I was wanting to read it was because I did believe in a real God who had sent his Son Jesus to die for my sins and who after dying for my sins, was resurrected back to life, ascended to heaven and sent his Spirit to be with us until his return. I believed in the basics. I was not wanting to read it as fiction or myth. What would be the point, if God was not real and he had not inspired godly men, men authenticated by Christ to record the truth? And if these fundamental presumptions were not true, then for the most part, this book called the Bible has little real value to anyone. It’s a fairy tale. Myth.

I thought about one of the premier Baptist colleges in the south. In fact, I had almost gone there to begin with, but alas, for a second time it was not to be. My brother told me about a Bible institute program at his college church at the University of Arkansas. I was transferring anyway, in hopes of making A’s instead of B’s within my premed studies. So why not? And that is just what I did. I became a real Razorback. I continued on with my chemistry major at the university, but I also took courses in the Bible institute as well.

The first course I took in the Bible institute was the Book of Romans, or Paul’s letter to the early first-century Roman church. The next course I took was a course in Biblical interpretation. I soon discovered that the New Testament had been written in Koine Greek, or the commonly-spoken Greek of Jesus’ day, and that one could actually learn to read the Greek New Testament for oneself, so I soon asked for and that fall enrolled in, along with four other students, a course in New Testament Greek.

A Change in Heart: From Medicine to Seminary!

Something changed in me that junior year. I was growing spiritually. My dry roots had begun to be watered and I was growing like a weed. Finally, just before my senior year in college, as I was finishing up a pre-med chemistry degree, and feeling led by God, I chose instead not to apply to medical school along with all my friends, but rather, to apply to seminary so that I could feed my spiritual hunger of wanting to know more, specifically how to study the Bible as an expert for myself. I was tired of hearing everyone else say what it meant. I wanted to know for myself. I wanted to know the truth.

After I graduated from college and had gotten married, I applied, was narrowly accepted and enrolled in what I felt was the best of the Bible-based seminaries in the world. It was the Harvard of biblical seminaries, Dallas Theological Seminary.

From the first day of classes to now almost thirty years later, I began to not only learn how to observe Scripture, but how to more accurately interpret a passage of scripture, within its context (in English) and within its original language (New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew).

And if that wasn’t enough, I received the greatest gift of all—I was learning not only how to understand what I was reading in context, but how to find its timeless truths and personally and spiritually apply its truths to my daily life. I had learned, no matter the time, place or passage, how to credibly and spiritually connect with the Creator of the Universe through his timeless Word. This meant that every time I read his Word, I could have a dynamic spiritual experience; I could change; I could encounter God. For me, reading/studying God’s word, if only for a few minutes, with someone else, without someone else, had become credibly transformational. On a very real and practical basis, applying the truths that I had credibly mined for myself embodied what Paul describes in Romans 12:1-2 as “In view of God’s incredible mercy…offer yourselves as living sacrifices, no longer being conformed to the pattern [or molds] of this world, but being transformed by the renewing [or exchanging] of your mind”—the way and what one thinks, feels and wills or chooses to act–through a credible, accurate, Scripture-based, dead-on honest, applicational and spiritual encounter with God’s Spirit and truth. I no longer was eating the world’s uncooked slop, I was eating well-cooked spiritual food that I had helped learn to prepare myself. I had been empowered. I had learned to change…the right way, the healthy way, the godly way, and there was no going back!

II. And More! A New Church Platform From Which to Grow and Teach: the Fellowship Bible Church Model!

Naturally, after having found out that there was a lot more to both the Bible and Church than I have ever imagined—that the Bible’s stories were relevant, that I could read, understand and apply the Bible’s truths for myself and that the church experience could be both fun and relevant, I was interested in giving away what had become life-changing to me, and what I felt could be life-changing to others. I was now sitting on what I felt were some incredible truths, truths that if others understood them in the way that I was learning to understand them would dramatically change and impact their lives as they had impacted mine.

At the same time, I felt I needed a church form or platform from which to share what I was learning about the Scriptures and the Church’s dynamic relevancy. Was there a “church form” out there that would not only allow me to freely teach others how to read, study and apply the Scriptures for themselves, and, as opposed to traditional church culture, was there a “church form” out there that I felt was more consistent with what I was learning concerning the early first-century New Testament church?

Once again, I was blessed by God’s favor. While, attending seminary, along with my new wife, I was blessed to attend many churches, but it was Fellowship Bible Church’s Church Renewal model that captured my imagination and intrigued me the most. Within the Fellowship model, biblical purpose seemed to trump tradition. It was in the Fellowship model where I felt that there was an attempt being made to creatively consider how the forms of a church (its specific programs and ministries) should seek to accomplish the church’s stated function or purpose—as opposed to forms shaping function. In other words, within the Fellowship model, I felt that there was at least an attempt to pursue what the modern church had seemingly lost connection with–the church’s original purpose or function.

For me, even more was coming. More had come with respect to the Scriptures, and now, more was coming with respect to the Church as well. The church could change, and because of this freedom to change within moral-theological boundaries, the church was free to become a spiritually dynamic, relevant, purposeful and meaningful place—a place that could be as entertaining as the movies, but unlike the movies, the church could have a potentially much more lasting and satisfying value to its members. There was hope for a dead, lifeless church, perhaps stuck in meaningless, dated traditions! Not only could I credibly and spiritually change, but if it returned to its original purpose and roots, the church could too.

So where had this Fellowship model come from, and how had it rediscovered the Church’s originalpurpose?

How it All Began: The Sixties–A New Generation Asks Why? About Everything, Including the Church…

Living off the fruits and prosperity of their grandparents and parent’s successes in overcoming the Great Depression and winning two World Wars, there arose in the late 1960s a generation of American students that began to question everything, including many of the presumed traditional constants of society, such as the inevitability of war and discrimination based upon one’s race or gender. Traditions were flying out the windows! Tradition was no longer an accepted fact of culture. A new generation of younger Americans were asking Why? about everything. Little was sacred, including God and his Word, the Scriptures, as well as, the Church. What had been assumed for so long was now under assault. And regardless of how one interprets the overall net affect of this questioning, our country changed, and so did the Church. As a new generation asked Why? about everything else, the Church was not immune. Students came to Dallas Seminary asking Why? about the Church as well. Were pews, hymnbooks, stain glass, choirs, pulpits, Sunday schools and Wednesday night prayer meetings church necessities or evolving man-made traditions? Were they benefiting the Church’s mission and purpose or cluttering it up?

Learning the Real Meaning of  ‘Church’: A Seminary Professor Goes Home and Opens up his Bible.

It sounds so simple now, but at the time, it seems few others had taken the time to simply do what one Dallas Seminary professor named Dr. Gene Getz rather simply chose to undertake one weekend after his classes—and that was NOT to undertake another complicated doctorial dissertation about the topic at hand, but instead, armed with his Bible and a simple Bible concordance, Dr. Getz went home and began to look up every NT reference of the word church (what Dr. Getz undertook really isn’t very hard. In fact, anyone can do it. It does not take a Bible scholar or knowledge of the biblical languages. There are barely more than a hundred references of the word church in the New Testament, with many of the references being used next to each other within the same passage or context).

A Scriptural Revelation: Within Biblical Boundaries the Church Was Not Only Free to Change  and Adapt to Newer Generations and Different Cultures, But it Would be a Crime Not To!

Dr. Getz was amazed by what he discovered! He realized that many of the Church’s traditions were NOT FIXED CONSTANTS, but rather man-made alterations and adaptations.[2] What had started out as perhaps just another form to better accomplish the church’s functions of worship and discipleship had, by later generations, become sacred entrenched traditions. Thus religion–cathedrals, priests, ecclesiastical offices, robes, choirs, rituals, liturgies, sacred holy days and many more man-made religious traditions and trappings had come to replace Christ’s simple gospel message, as well as, the Bible being read and studied by the common man in a language he could understand.

The overall result of man’s religion replacing Christ’s simple gospel had been to dull and erode the church’s spiritual impact from one generation to the next. With each succeeding generation, the true New Testament church was becoming more and more removed from its NT roots and thus, its true spiritual power.

On top of all this, setting aside the gradual erosion of the few supra-cultural constants that had made the church unique and powerful, not knowing any better, the church found itself shackled to worn-out and historically-dated tools of ministry. The Church had lost its edge and was not keeping up with history’s learning curve. Instead of constantly and prayerfully remaking itself over into the eternal image of Christ’s living, timeless and purposeful Spiritual body, the Church was becoming an antiquated worn-out religious relic.

Updated Bible Translations…

This out-datedness could most clearly been seen even in the Church’s use of Scripture. For almost four centuries after its translation, up until recently, many churches were still using an early 17th century King James Version of the Bible, with all its poetical, but difficult-to-read and difficult-to-understand Elizabethan English thees and thous. There was nothing sacred about the KJV Bible. I am sure it served its purpose in its day, and it is a literarily beautiful translation, but due to it’s datedness, it had long since lost it’s communicative edge to the common man, who speaks with words like I, me and you, not Thee, Thou and Thy. There needed to be new original translations—translations that were still derived from the early NT manuscripts, but translations that new generations of believers could understand. One of the divine geniuses of the NT was that it had come along and was birthed and written in what amounted to the common universal language at the time, Koine Greek. Now later translations were becoming sacred and thus entrenched in stone. Once again, the Church was falling behind, lost in a sea of irrelevance.

New Songs!

The same was true with many of the songs sung within Christian worship. Simple songs or poems that had started out as praise songs and choruses had over time evolved into sacred hymns. And while there is nothing wrong with a hymn, and hymns can teach us memorable theological truths, at the same time, they are not sacred. They are Scriptures. As long as God’s Word and timeless theological truths are being taught and upheld, new generations of writers and composers should always continue to be moved and inspired to compose new expressions of worship to God. It is in our soul.  This doesn’t mean that songs, books, drama, works of art, various thoughts and ideas that rise above the ordinary can’t be maintained or even recreated or recycled for later generations. In fact, if they are worthy, they should be highly regarded as effective ministry tools—that is if they get the job done, if they still stir the heart and mind. It is just that they are not Scripture; they are not absolutes, and they should not be treated as such. If they still communicate and communicate well, or, if in some hybrid or recycled version, they get the job done for later generations, then by all means, employ them to communicate God’s truth. It is just that they are not timeless and should not be treated as such. New songs for new generation. The psalmist spoke of such when he sang, “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 96:1).

Timeless Absolutes!

Instead of gradually, and over time and centuries, being reduced to a antiquated religious relic, the Church, built on a few timeless biblical constants, ought to be a life-giving organism that is constantly being redressed or made-over to meet the changing needs of new generations of believers. Instead of trailing culture, the church out to be leading or transforming culture.

Outside a few biblical constants, everything else, more than likely, is cultural adaptation or man-made tradition, including stain-glass cathedrals, pews and pulpits!  This means that the church, outside a few supra-cultural morals or constants, is free to change—change and adapt–to meet the needs of changing cultures and different audiences. It means, in all reality, the church has no excuse to be boring or blasé—something that I had already begun to experience as a young, maturing believer, both in college and seminary, although I had not grasped the particular Whys?

At the same time, like so many others, I began to discover there were other newer flavors of ice cream or Christian orthodoxy out there, not just the traditional three or four, and that some tasted better than others. Now understanding
Why? some forms or flavors were more appealing or tasted better than others, I was only beginning to explore and understand.

A Church Relevant!

What I was discovering was the church was not just an antiquated form with very little relevance for the late twentieth-century. Going a step further, the church was not just a support group to keep the early New Testament followers of Jesus Christ faithful to his gospel, but through God’s timeless, eternal, life-giving and life-sustaining Spirit and Word, the church was a timeless and flexible tool or form by which God’s people of all generations might always and all occasions find encouragement, hope and truth—encouragement, hope and truth to spiritually survive, while resisting Evil’s many deceptions.

In other words, THE CHURCH was not only timeless, it had a timeless purpose! The church was not to be form first, and, “Oh, by the way, let’s find a way to make this antiquated thing relevant again.” The Church had always been RELEVANT. Why? Because it had a timeless purpose—timeless that is, I presume until Christ returns! But without a passion for the Scriptures and what the Scriptures were speaking to each new generation, MAN was obscuring the church’s relevancy and spiritual effectiveness! What a victory for the EVIL ONE! One of the great con jobs of all time! The church irrelevant! The church powerless! The church impotent! The church bound by man-made tradition, instead of remaining true to its purpose changing the heart of man. What a vast waste of time, energy, effort and thought the Church was risking becoming!

Function Over Form…

When it comes to modern church tradition and culture, the implications are profound.  If a choir (a form; one form out of many thousands of forms) met one culture’s needs to accomplish the church’s supra-cultural function of worship, then so be it, but if a 5-piece rock band met another culture or audience’s needs to worship, then so be it.  In other words, within moral and theological boundaries, the church was free to be relevant to each succeeding generation and culture. For so long the church had been defined by its forms, out-dated, man-made and time-evolved as they might have been, but no longer. With Dr. Getz’s ground breaking work, Sharpening the Focus of the Church, and other contemporary writers of the time, the church was being reattached to its biblical mandate, the church would be redefined by its function first, forms and traditions second.

This also meant that as long as churches remained true to their Scriptural foundations, even churches from different cultures at the same time in history could appear to be different from one another. In other words, a rural southern Texas church might worship differently, use different musical instruments or even sing different songs than a church a few miles away in suburban Houston, or a church in nearby Mexico, or on the island nation of Haiti. This amazing, yet simple discovery that Dr. Getz had reminded us all was that the church had always been free to be biblically relevant.

A New Church Movement is Born…

Soon Dr. Getz was asked to begin a church that reflected his new-found insights. He took off his tie, got rid of the pulpit, organ, stain glass and hymn books, adorned a turtle-neck sweater, sat on stool, brought in a guitar and via an overhead projector, put the words to the praise songs and hymns up on the wall, and the rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t because the older forms weren’t good tools at some point in time in their history. It just meant if Dr. Getz was going to attract a new generation of believers or interested seekers to God’s timeless, fresh, relevant and living Word, there were better, newer tools to get the job done. And that message, my friends, WILL NEVER EVER CHANGE!

III. And Yet More! A Student Does his Own Study and Applies the Concepts of Form and Function to the Church…

Dr. Getz’s new Fellowship experiment had begun seven or eight years before I had arrived at  Dallas Seminary where Dr. Getz was an adjunct professor, but before I left Dallas Seminary, I had undertaken the same study as Dr. Getz had and had come up with my own, very similar but-said-in-Joe’s-own-practical-manner, philosophy or theology of a the church. Borrowing from a Ford Thunderbird magazine advertisement, I referred to my biblical philosophy of a church as Form Follows Function.[3] In other words, the forms of a church should follow the functions of a church, and not vice versa. Decide your function, then create or design your form to accomplish that function. Then, as time goes by, keep evaluating, adapting, adjusting and improving the form to better accomplish your function, while at the same time, never losing touch with your original purpose or function—or why you are doing what you are doing. Do not WASTE PEOPLE’S TIME! Make every minute count. Accomplish your purpose or Shut The Doors!

Upon graduation from seminary, it then became my goal to combine my love for understanding and applying the Scriptures to my own life, as well as, teaching others how to do this as well, with a passion to plant a church or churches with a forms follows biblical function ministry philosophy.

(Note: In Chapter 1 of our Fellowship 101 Notebook–Form Follows Function: the Purpose of a Church–we explain not only how does Form Follows Function applies to all of life, but to the church as well. The problem occurs when we don’t apply this universal law of life to church practice and ministry–when forms precede function.)

A Prophet is Without Honor in His Home Town! …So What’s New? Going Back Home and Home Not Being Ready for Change! 

As I was finishing seminary, my father passed away and my wife, Rhonda, became pregnant with our first child, Jordan, so we decided to go back home to be near my mother and youngest brother. I farmed for two years and taught high school science for one year.

But now, having been trained in how to both credibly understand and teach the Scriptures, as well as, being equipped with a much clearer understanding of how a church’s forms should accomplish its function—something that I no clue about seven years earlier when I had expressed my frustrations to my mom and had remarked that there had to be something more–I now pondered starting what had been so absent from my youth—a form follows function style of church, so I rounded up that group of young adults whom God has used to turn me on to Bible study eight years earlier and we began a Bible study on the purpose of the church.

I soon realized that while they were enjoying the study, they were not really ready to begin a church. And while we continued the Bible study, after a year I discerned that a new church was not going to happen (interestingly enough, almost twenty years later, one of those couples did start a Purpose-Driven church).

Fellowship at Cross Creek: Breaking New Ground in a New Place and Beginning a Form Follows Function Church of My Own…

So in December 1985, I put some ministry feelers out, and eventually, was given the opportunity to remold a very new, but struggling Evangelical Free[4] church in southwest Missouri.

In January of 1986, at my first board meeting of what was then Evangelical Free Church of Branson, but would later become Fellowship Bible Church of Branson, I told the other two board members to “forget that they had ever seen a church.  We are going back to the Bible and starting from scratch.”  And that is what we did. Those three men did much the same study many of you who have gone through Fellowship’s 101 class are doing today with respect to the function and forms of a church.

IV. And Still Yet More to Come! The Fellowship Lab: Home of Applied Christianity: An Ongoing Experiment in Form Follows Function Church Ministry…

Twenty-three years later, Fellowship at Cross Creek is still trying to figure out how to connect the Scripture’s truths to real life, and to do it in the setting of the early New Testament house church.

What we have discovered is that the biblical function we are attempting to accomplish—the long-term changing of human hearts and souls–is significantly more difficult than we could have ever imagined!

But guided by the same Spirit who lit the church’s flame almost two thousand years ago, as well as, his divinely-inspired Scriptures and tons and tons of prayerful life experiences, as Paul wrote, “…we press on towards the goal in order to win the prize for which God has called (us) heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14)—and that is to create an genuinely honest, as well as, biblically and spiritually authentic church environment and experience by which to grow and mature Christ-like servant-leaders.

An Invitation to Grow and Learn…

What you have seen and experienced here at Fellowship so far is the ongoing development of this noble quest. THERE IS SOMETHING BETTER, and we here at Fellowship are dedicated to that biblical pursuit. Our goal is to grow Christians into mature Christ-like servant leaders. That simple and that difficult.

This class or study is your invitation to discover the Spirit’s mystery, the church. Our prayer is that, for having begun this journey, you will never be the same.

Joseph M. Cross
Th. M. Dallas Theological Seminary
Senior Teaching Pastor
Fellowship at Cross Creek
An Imperfect Church for Imperfect People

[1] Apparently, a part of my struggle may have been the more rural nature of my going-to-church experience. As I was growing up, my small-town church, when in actuality was the largest church in the community, did provide me with very safe and secure religious upbringing. I have fond memories of spending summer mornings attending church-led vacation Bible schools, eating Nabisco Vanilla Wafers and drinking raspberry Kool-Aid during snack breaks, running across the street to play at the local elementary playground, learning about missionaries who had dedicated their lives to taking the story of Jesus’ love to other cultures, hearing Bible stories and making crafts out of seashells and Popsicle Sticks.

I came to faith and was baptized in that church. I remember Wednesday night potlucks where the whole church came together to eat meals prepared by three large African-America women who knew how to cook—and I mean cook well. Even today, I can still have dreams from time to time of the old church auditorium with its overhanging balcony. I can almost go row by row and tell you where everyone sat.

But as I grew up, what held my attention and was a safe place to consider God as a child, began to lose its relevancy to me. The old church auditorium came down for a new one, and it was never the same for me. The building was fancy, but the message, the performance, the execution of worship didn’t match.

Perhaps when we were in the old church, our expectations were lower. Perhaps it was just the changing times. It was the 1970s in the South, and everything was changing. Perhaps it was just me growing up. I was searching for something more, something better, something more spiritually relevant.

As I moved off to college and began attending churches in more-educated college communities, there was a tendency towards a not only a more progressive and relevant worship service, but a better level of Bible teaching.

It is not that a more rural church can’t compete with a larger more urban church setting, but with a greater talent pool of people to draw from, as well as, more giving dollars to pull from, larger, more urban churches can tend to afford to hire more talented, communicationally-gifted ministers, as well as, being able to afford other things that smaller, more rural churches usually cannot afford.

I suppose the church is not immune from the laws of supply and demand as well. Larger, more affluent churches can hire better personnel, as well as, offer more ministry resources than smaller churches. Thus smaller churches, it would seem to me, have to be more creative, think smarter, as well as, emphasize their community nature if they are going to able to compete as far as a higher quality of ministry with larger more affluent churches.

At the same time, larger churches have their built-in handicaps as well. After all the NT church in Acts, not only met in the temple courts, but in homes as well. And as the church expanded from Jerusalem, it was the home that offered the first meeting places. And in smaller settings, I believe believers were better able to practice all the “One another” commands left behind by Jesus and his NT writers.

[2] Dr. Getz eventually published his landmark book, Sharpening the Focus of the Church in 1975. Dr. Getz literally changed or sharpened the focus of the church via three lenses: Scripture, being the most important lens, then Church History and Contemporary Culture. Ironically, I never read Dr. Getz’s landmark work, but by 1979, when I arrived at seminary, it was not hard to figure out where all this was going. The church was being liberated from tradition and empowered to do what it was created for: to encourage and grow believers to be workers in God’s kingdom fields.

Eventually, fed by steady stream of eager young Dallas Seminary graduates,  several hundred new churches would be birthed and attempted to model themselves after Getz’s Fellowship Bible Church template. Fellowship Bible Church became a movement, a movement that seemed to be a part of a larger movement, a movement Dr. Getz would later refer to as the “Church Renewal Movement.” (Note: Portions of this section were taken from a newsletter in which Dr. Getz, years later, summarized how it all began.)

[3] I first applied the terminology of Form Follows Function to the relationship of a church’s purpose to its ministry forms  in 1982. I borrowed the phrase from a magazine advertisement of the newly redesigned Ford Thunderbird.

In 1995, Rick Warren, wrote and published several wildly successful books that partially described the concept of Form Follows Function in more attractive terms: the Purpose-Driven Church and the Purpose-Driven Life. Ironically, while I never read, and certainly did not borrow Form Follows Function from his attractive book titles, I did borrow his 101 terminology for Fellowship Bible’s new members’ class. Other Fellowship Bible Churches tended to use the term Discovery. Both seemed to accomplish their intended purposes—to familiarize newcomers with the basics of the church. After our church fractured in 1995, it was apparent that many who had been attending our church did not know the basics of our church. So afterwards our 101 classes became mandatory. We wanted no one saying, “I didn’t know.”

[4] I would describe the Evangelical Free Church in the mid-1980s as a northern version of the Southern Baptist Church. The EFC was a denomination that was very strong in the upper Midwest. In fact, it had it origins in the Scandinavians who, like the Pilgrims and Puritans, left Europe to escape a state-run church, thus the word Free within the name of their denomination.

Members of upper mid-western Scandinavian Free Churchers were retiring to what was being referred to at the time as the Sun Belt, along the Missouri-Oklahoma-Arkansas borders.  Apparently, with its members not comfortable with what was being offered to them in the way of church tradition and experience in the South, the Evangelical Free Church began planting churches within the Bible Belt. Several of these churches, in my opinion, had been poorly planted. To complicate matters further, due to a lack of member interest and participation, as well as, my desire to shepherd a church more in line with my ministry philosophy and beliefs, such as a form-follows-function and an elder-led Fellowship Bible Church model, as opposed to a congregationally-led Free Church model, after several years the church plant I was pastoring chose to withdrew from the denomination’s district and thus became incorporated as Fellowship Bible Church of Branson.

Fellowship Bible Church of Branson is still Fellowship’s incorporated title today, even though we go by the name Fellowship at Cross Creek, having dropped the Bible Church terminology but not the Bible Church philosophy. We did this for two strategic reasons: 1) to sound more contemporary because Bible Church could come across as a little too old fashion and archaic, and 2) to identify our church with our location, near the Cross Creek development site, just east of Branson. We are still a strongly Bible-based church, and most certainly resemble, in our own way, what the Fellowship Bible Church intends to model: elder-led, purpose-driven, an equipping church, contemporary worship without hymns books, a relaxed teaching approach, sharing by the Body, a Learning Center for kids and small group house churches for adults. It should also be noted that Fellowship Bible Churches never became a denomination. Getz never designed or intended it to be a denomination. It was just a movement.

Also ironically, I had intended to name the creek bed behind the church Cross Creek. At the same time, a more-visible commercial development across from our old location–the corner of T and East 76–held a radio contest to name its development. Coincidently, I was told, the title Cross Creek, won the contest, and the development was so named, thus since our new facility was now around the corner and a little further off the beaten track (Hwy T-10 or Cedarpark Road), it seemed a natural course of events to identify our location with the more visible, but eventually slow-developing Cross Creek development. Now you know the rest of the story.