The story actually starts 11 years ago.
October 2006, A Dream
On October 16, 2006, I had the most vivid dream of my life. The dream had three scenes. In the Scene 1, I was traveling through the countryside. It was harvest time and all around me people were hard at work harvesting the fields.
In Scene 2, I was in a gigantic, spectacular building. Everything was sensational and there was more marble than I had ever seen. I remember thinking, “Where am I? Why am I here? Where are these people taking me?” I was led to a small room in the center of this huge, elegant building. It looked just like a funeral home parlor and they said, “Jim, lead the funeral.” Their request was repulsive to me. And I realized I must get out of this place of death.
In Scene 3, I was in Morton, IL, the town I grew up in, and I had my bicycle on my car and I was going to the trailhead, the beginning, of the River Trail, a beautiful, paved bike trail that goes from Morton down to the Illinois River. But I kept going around the block because I could not find the driveway to the trailhead parking lot. So I could not get onto the trail.
When I woke up I knew immediately what God was saying to me through the dream. “Jim, it’s harvest time in the rural areas. People in the towns and cities around you need Jesus. You must blanket the countryside with vibrant, new churches. Get out of your church’s big, beautiful, new building. Go out to where the harvest is and plant new churches. These are my orders but I am not telling you how to do this. You are going to go in circles trying to figure out how to accomplish this.”
The dream changed the direction of my life. I started reading books on church planting and multi-site church. Then my wife Vicki and I started traveling to church planting and multi-site church training events and taking others with us. Soon after that God began speaking to our senior pastor Happy as well, and he announced his “10-10-10 Vision” for our church to plant ten new churches, start ten new campuses, and send out ten new missionaries. So my role at our church changed from “Small Group Pastor” to “Leadership & Missions Pastor.”
Living It Out?
And that is what we have been doing as a church. We have launched 7 new campuses, planted five new churches, and sent out several new missionaries since then. Each time, however, that we sent out a new church planter I heard God’s Spirit ask me, “Jim, would you do what these people are doing? Would you leave your wonderful, secure job to do something wild and risky for me?” And each time we sent out a missionary, I heard the question, “Jim, would you be willing to do what these people are doing? Would you be willing to quit your job and raise your support if I asked you to?”
In April of last year, 2016, Vicki and I took a week away to pray and on that prayer retreat I pondered that fact that I was turning 60 years old and I asked God, “You gave me that dream 10 years ago. What’s the expiration date on the dream? Is that dream still for today? What are your instructions for me now?” I didn’t get an answer.
Ambushed in Africa
Then in February of this year, 2017, I traveled to Côte d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast) in West Africa where the Maryville, Tennessee, Vineyard is planting new churches in Muslim villages with the help of an international disciple-making ministry called New Generations.
We hired a young Muslim driver there named Ahmed and zig-zagged from village to village across rough, dusty roads in a little diesel Mitsubishi SUV. Because I had the shortest legs I sat in the back with the luggage. It was exciting to see the amazing things that God is doing there as dozens of new Discovery Bible Studies have been launched and hundreds of people have given their lives to Christ. Everyplace we went sick people asked for prayer and many people were immediately healed. Ahmed was very impressed with how Jesus was healing people.
It was a great week, but it was 100 degrees each day and we didn’t have air conditioning. Our village visits ended on Friday and all that was left was to get a good night’s sleep, drive the five hours to Abidjan, take showers at a friend’s house, and get to the airport to fly to Belgium and then catch another flight home. But before we went to bed Friday night, Josh—our energetic, young team leader—said, “Hey, let’s get up early tomorrow so that we can stop half-way to Abidjan to see the world’s largest church building in Yamoussoukro.” I told him, “Josh, I am not here to go sight-seeing. I say, let’s go straight to Abidjan and take showers and head to the airport.” (I was ready to get home.) But he was the team leader, so we got up early on Saturday and headed to the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. I was expecting to see a very large but unimpressive building, but the building is not only gigantic it is stunning. Completed in 1989, it’s cost was kept a secret but some people think the first president of Côte d’Ivoire might have spent more than half a billion dollars on its design and construction.
It has more stained glass than any other building in the world and the world’s tallest dome. 180,000 people can stand on its plaza and 11,000 people can sit in its auditorium. When we stepped inside I suddenly realized that I had been in this building before. It was the building I walked through in my dream 11 years ago! So I was kind of freaking out, but the other three team members didn’t realize what I was experiencing as our tour guide explained the fascinating details of the building, like the elevators hidden in the huge columns. At one point the guide led us behind the altar and said, “We have to be quiet in the next room that we go in. No talking. So I’ll explain it to you now. We are going to the crypt. In a basilica, the crypt is where you keep the bones of saints. But we don’t have any saints’ bones here, we have a plate glass replica of the Shroud of Turin.” Then we walked down the stairs into the crypt. It looked just like an elegant funeral parlor. It was the very room I was led to in my dream.
God had my attention. The meaning of it all was immediately clear to me though figuring out the path and next steps has been a process. The message was, “Jim, I told you to plant churches in rural areas and you thought that meant rural Illinois. But I told you that you would go in circles before you got on the trail I had for you. The real trail begins here. You are to get involved in planting churches in the Muslim villages of West Africa and follow that trail to wherever it leads.”
A New Direction
So after being in pastoral ministry for 27 years—19 of them here in the Urbana, IL, Vineyard—I am shifting to being a missionary full-time starting in January of 2018. Vicki and I will be the curriculum and training coordinators for New Generations, which is planting churches among more than 400 people groups in 51 countries, and helping hundreds of other ministries do the same type of highly effective, discipleship-based church planting.
Vicki and I don’t need to move for the type of work we will be doing. We’ll travel all over Asia and Africa in our new ministry roles. (The job description includes the phrase “willing to travel to dangerous places”!) But our home base can stay right here. Stay tuned. I think there are some adventures ahead!