A Good Church: From 1992-2004 Lana and I served as pastor and wife of the International Baptist Church in Singapore. These writings are a collection of personal memories and reflections of those years and about the general topic of serving in an international church overseas.
God Beginning to Move: the Impact of Experiencing God
Experiencing God, the study by Henry Blackaby and Claude King, has been a tool that God has used around the world. This is just a small section of their story that has many, many other chapters written, being written now, and others that will be written in the future, if the Lord delays His return.
When we first came to Singapore, August 1992, Experiencing God had only recently been released. It was originally printed 1990 by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (which later changed its name to LifeWay) and found immediate success. As many of the ideas that have come my way over the years, my wife Lana first pointed this out to me and told me that we should be doing this. So we began our own home group to lead the study early in 1993, during the first year we were in Singapore. We met in our apartment in Cashew Heights and about eight of us completed the twelve weeks.
Roger Butts was in this original group and after the study was completed, gave me a little frame of John 15:9 that sits on my desk to this day. “Dear David,” it reads, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” And it is signed, “Jesus.” I have kept this before me for now these almost twenty years to remind me constantly of its truth, and to recall the kindness of Roger, but also to remind me of the power of the biblical truth that God is at work in our midst.
The principles of Experiencing God are biblical principles, and among Evangelicals are not completely new, though Blackaby stated them uniquely well. When I was just fresh out of university, I worked for one year in the Division of Student Work of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, 1972-73, and this was during what was later called “The Jesus Movement.” It was a revival among college students, teenagers, and young adults in America, that spread from campus to campus, and from city to city. I was blessed beyond my ability to convey to be a part of that ministry and to be associated with these students. Dr. M. Thomas Starkes was a popular speaking on college campuses in those days and he summed up the business of Christians in these memorable words: Our job is to find out where God is at work, to be there, and to try not to get in His way. Of course, he meant more than just to be observers.
Attending seminary for master level studies in the 1970’s, I found there was a similar assumption with regard to what the Bible said about mission work. We were to focus our attention on where the Spirit of God was at work. Going as missionaries to the Philippines in the latter 70’s and 80’s, this ideology was the way we prioritized our mission work. Wherever God was at work, wherever the Holy Spirit was moving – through conversions and new church starts – this was where we needed to be. So the Philippines and South Korea, with their great response to the gospel, were high priorities for world missions. I completed my doctor of ministry degree in World Missions in the 1980’s and that ideology or value was still shaping thoughts about world missions. I find it interesting today that the focus on “World A” has led mission agencies in almost the exact opposite direction – that wherever God is not moving, that is where missionaries should be. I assume at some point in the future these competing thoughts will find some balance and rectitude.
It is interesting that with this much emphasis on the movement of the Spirit of God, one would think that the Pentecostals would be the first on the Experiencing God bandwagon. But that was not the case. The reason is that these principles are more clearly from the teachings of the sovereignty of God and more from a Calvinistic perspective than from an Armenian perspective. For example, in the Perspectives book we read in an article by Stanley A. Ellisen,
The Bible describes God as an eternal King: “The Lord is King forever” (Psa. 10:16). It also declares that he is sovereign over all things (Psa. 103:19). Being infinite, he is everywhere. So, at every time and place, in all the vast reaches of his universe, God has been in full control. He has never compromised this supreme prerogative of his Godhood. To do so would make him less than God. It is essential to recognize his undiminished sovereignty if we are to have a proper view of his kingdom.
So the basic perspective of world evangelization and of the growth and development of the church is that it is an expression of the sovereignty of God and not of the ingenuity of humanity.
The work of world evangelization can only be done effectively in the power of God, and God’s power may only be rightly used for His purposes; this is not power we use for our own selfish purposes. When His kingdom expands and His church grows it is always the sovereign power and authority of Almighty God that accomplishes this. To be sure He moves within His people and then through His people, but He also operates in a mysterious way in the world at large. The only proper response to His sovereignty is humility and obedience, only then will we be operating as God intended.
When the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and begins to administer the Lordship of Christ, a new dynamic will enter their lives, and under his leadership they will be borne along ever onward in the program of God. However, should his sovereign authority be resisted and refused, being replaced with self-will and self-direction, the momentum of moving forward and outward will diminish, and inevitably the program of God will come to a standstill.
What Christ said to the early disciples, “Follow me!” still applies to every believer and every church today. He leads and we follow. Every missionary knows this truth (or should know it), yet many individual churches and pastors seem not to. They seem to languish amid the distractions of running programs, pleasing people (or trying to please them), and trying to get what they understand to be the tasks of the church accomplished. The only time prayer is entered into is when someone is sick. Rarely do people gather in prayer expecting Christ to show up through His Spirit and show them where He is leading and how they are to follow.
From these theological and biblical concepts of the sovereignty of God the study Experiencing God emerged. Henry Blackaby, with his years of pastoring and starting churches in Canada, had a practical, hands-on approach to this matter of seeing where God was at work. Like most great ideas, Blackaby’s principles had some developmental history behind them, but there is no doubt that God used him to bring these principles to light. He had written an earlier book, What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches, where he had first told the story of God moving in the churches of Western Canada. Henry had served as pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Saskatoon for twelve years and during that time, in spite of their meager human resources, their church helped to start 38 new churches and missions.
The Seven Principles are:
1. God is always at work around you.
2. God pursues a continuing love relationship with you that is real and personal.
3. God invites you to become involved with Him in His work.
4. God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
5. God’s invitation for you to work with Him always leads you to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action.
6. You must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
7. You come to know God by experience as you obey Him and He accomplishes His work through you.
The key biblical passage that God used to open up Henry’s mind to grasp these concepts was John 5:17, 19-20:
Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working … I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these.”
As his book then explains, here is Blackaby’s summary of Jesus’ example.
- The Father has been working right up until now.
- Now God has Me working.
- I do nothing on My own initiative.
- I watch to see what the Father is doing.
- I do what I see the Father already is doing.
- You see, the Father loves Me.
- He shows Me everything that He, Himself, is doing.
Then he brings the point home to the individual believer, to the pastor of a church, to the leaders of a church, and even to the church itself.
This model is for your life personally and for your church. It is not just a step-by-step approach for knowing and doing the will of God. It describes a love relationship through which God accomplishes His purposes. I would sum it up this was: Watch to see where God is working and join Him!
These words struck home to my heart. Here was a study that put in understandable, applicable language the biblical principles I had first heard and came to accept in 1972. I was ecstatic, moved, blessed, and excited about the future.
The First Studies
On several occasions I have been blessed to sit down and have conversations with Henry Blackaby. Later in our church, his brother-in-law, Melvin Wells, served as our worship music leader while he taught at Singapore Bible College. So, IBC Singapore was privileged to be part of the larger Blackaby world-wide family. The word “Experiencing” came to him as he studied the meaning of the biblical word translated “to know,” ginosko in Greek. As I recall, he noted that The Amplified Bible used the word “experience” to explain or amplify our understanding of this word. For example, in 1 John 4:6 we read
We are [children] of God. Whoever is learning to know God [progressively to perceive, recognize, and understand God by observation and experience, and to get an ever-clearer knowledge of Him] listens to us …
W.E. Vine defines ginosko as “to come to know, recognize, understand, or to understand completely” and he adds, “Such knowledge is obtained, not by mere intellectual activity, but by operation of the Holy Spirit consequent upon acceptance of Christ.” So the title “Experiencing God” emerged out of this biblical word and concept.
Going through this first study I was impressed with how many things in church are so easy to be misunderstood. We so often do things because they had always been done that way before, without ever thinking of the purpose, or if they fit into the plan of God, or if they should be done at all.
I recall one member of our home study group who struggled with the issue of the church spending money. When we came to the Unit 7 in the study, “The Crises of Belief,” the issue of money brought a fairly strong reaction from her. Blackaby tells the story of his church in Saskatoon developing a faith budget, that rather than merely set the budget based on what they think they can do, they set it on what they believed God was telling them to do. It was a radical idea for her. Her only approach to church spending had been that we should avoid spending all the money we can. It was a very cordial conversation, but also a fairly open sharing of ideas.
I finally said, “You know our purpose as a church is not to save money. If that were the purpose, then we could turn out all of the lights, lock the doors, fire the pastor, and save it all! But, of course, we would not have a ministry or not have the ability to make any impact for Christ in the world. Our purpose is to be witnesses for Christ, and we will spend our resources carefully, but we do not apologize for asking people to give financially to the church. After all, I have given my entire life.” I believe she still struggled with the idea but she did agree to my point.
Following the first group, Lana and I recommended the study to others. I confess that we did very little other than recommend, for many in the church were ready and eager to use the study. Some missionaries with the International Mission Board were in our church in those years and the IMB was promoting this book among its missionaries, so they were keen and ready to lead groups.
By the end of 1993, I noticed that the language had begun to change around the church. I heard people using “Experiencing God” phrases, such as “God-sized” vision and “Crisis of Belief.” This is one of the great benefits of the study that it begins to seep into the thought and language of the people. “God-sized” means that the vision we have as a church of our ministry and our potential should be out of obedience to God’s leadership and based on His abilities and not just on our own. Too often we only plan to our own ability to accomplish what we know, or think we know, that we can do. Blackaby’s and King’s study got into our hearts to the point where we began to think and plan on the basis of what God was doing and what we believed He would continue to do.
Long Range Planning Process
Due to the growth in attendance in 1992-93, in May of 1993, we elected a “Long Range Planning Committee” and using the guide written by Truman Brown, and developed by the Southern Baptist Convention, we processed through the material. The members were: Lance Beckett, Lim Siew Hua, Harry Chan, Dottie McEuen, Pat Stone, with myself, Su Weir, and Ken Sapp serving ex officio. Not all of the members of the committee had been through Experiencing God so the conversation at the committee meetings did not always reflect understanding of or commitment to these principles. But it was interesting to me to look back at the reports from different ministries that were involved in Blackaby’s study. This is where “God-sized” language began to pick up.
We surveyed the church one Sunday morning in late 1993 and from 254 surveys returned we discovered these facts:
The remainder comprising many nations around the world.
“I heard about IBC through …”
12.9% Yellow Pages
12.1% Driving by
4.7% Bible Study Fellowship
6.2% some other way
“What I like most about IBC…”
3rd Sunday School
6th Convenient Location
7th Youth Program
The survey helped us identify what programs God was using, where people were responding and where they were not. We admitted that God was omnipotent and we were not, that we had limited time and energy and we should spend them wisely, and not waste them in areas where God was not moving. One of these decisions related to Wednesday night. We had had a Wednesday night meal and Southern Baptist mission programs – R.A.’s and G.A.’s and Mission Friends – with just a handful of people responding. The amount of energy we were expending here seemed unwise, especially with the way God was moving in our Sunday School. So we re-focused.
One of the first things that the committee did was to recommend the following Mission Statement to the church for consideration:
As a fellowship of baptized believers, existing under the Lordship of Christ and empowered by His Spirit, we endeavor to be an international community of prayer which worships the triune God, evangelizes the world, disciples believers, and serves the spiritual and physical needs of people.
One of the more interesting findings of the committee was the limitations of our facility. The final report was presented to the church in April, 1994, and it stated:
The Committee reviewed the use of existing physical facilities and space at IBC. Our overall conclusion is that IBC has essentially reached the limits of its existing capacity. A church’s ability to grow is typically defined by the capacity of its largest key organization. At IBC, Sunday School is the largest organization which is already experiencing a significant space shortfall. The LRPC believes this situation will inhibit our ability to grow much beyond where we are today. In addition, we are short of space in vital areas which is putting considerable strain on our ability to provide effective worship, educational and other programming activities even today.
In addition the report went on to report that there was a need for an associate pastor and a fulltime Minister of Music. It is interesting to me that these recommendations took several years to be accepted and adopted by the church. Not everybody was enrolled in Experiencing God.
But the program leadership was into Experiencing God, and the report was very interesting, for here it stated:
Leaders for each program and ministry were asked, as part of our study, to evaluate their program’s or ministry’s potential. This included providing input on its present size, plans for the future, where they believe God is leading their organization, and what specific resources are needed to help God accomplish His plans. Organization leaders were virtually unanimous in their vision of continued growth at IBC …
They also noted the need for more training and more frequent church-wide activities. The confidence that the church was expressing was coming not just from the growth of the church, but it was also coming from the teaching of the Bible and the principles that Blackaby espoused in his book.
Some a Hundredfold
The Lord was incredibly patient with His disciples who were so often slow to understand and to believe. He is also very patient with us – thank God! Were He to strike me down every time that I had doubted, had stubbornly resisted, had strayed from the leadership of the Good Shepherd, well, I would have been dead long, long ago. Since our Lord is so patient with us, we should also be patient and loving with one another. I believe the goodness of the Lord indwelling in the hearts of the leadership and coming out in patient insistence, allowed us to move ahead as a united church on so many issues. And, of course, this is precisely what Blackaby taught in his study and modeled in his ministry.
Jesus told the parable of the soils to help us grasp the issue of rejection of His word. A sower went forth with precious seed, but some of the seed fell on the path where the birds ate it. Some other seed fell on shallow soil in rocky places and sprang up quickly but wilted in the hot sun because it had no root. Other seed fell among the thorns and was choked out by them. But some of the seed fell on the good soil, “Where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty time what was sown” (Matthew 13:8).
This is always the way it is in the preaching and teaching of the word of God. Though many resist the truth, others receive it. The one who receives the word, who “hears the word and understands it” (Matthew 13:23), plants the seed further and produces a growing crop of disciples. Within a few years we began to see Experiencing God not only taught with commitment and enthusiasm in our own church, but we began to hear of some of our people, when transferred to live in a new place, took the study with them and introduced it there. One former IBC-er wrote to us from England that they had led a new group there. It was a new concept for Britons to sit down and go through a study in a workbook and it did not go over well with all, but, as she wrote, “Those that did the homework, and liked the structure, got a lot out of it.” (Not all the seed falls on fertile soil, but some does.) Another former IBC-er wrote about leading a group in Scotland, several others from many states in the USA (coast to coast), others from Hong Kong, Australia – these were just some of the places I heard that our people went to and led an Experiencing God study. Lana went to lead a group from another denomination in Singapore, which in turn led others.
Lana and I estimated in 1998 that in five years since we introduced it, more than 500 people had gone through an Experiencing God study in IBC. Only God knows the total impact made in the world through IBC, but it is His work and He alone is able to truly accomplish it and to sustain it. In hindsight I would say that this study did more for the spirit and service of our church than any other single factor or program or person. It was, of course, just a biblical tool in the hands of God, but it challenged us as a church and as individuals to expect God to be God, to dream bigger than we were, to think in terms of what God can do and not just what we can do.
This led us to identify those things that God was simply not using in our church. Like every church, we had some programs had “always been there” or at least it seemed so. But we began to realize that we needed to use our energy and resources wisely. We assumed that God was speaking to us about what were His priorities by showing us where He was moving. So we went to where God was and tried not to get in His way. It was in the spirit that we made the decision to stop the Sunday night service that only ministered to about fifty to seventy people on average, so that we could make more room for the growing AWANA program that even in the early stages averaged more than 100 children per week.
It also led us to do such things as to add a second Christmas Eve service, when it was clear that one was not enough, because God was moving there. Also, to increase our Easter Programs, for people were responding. For me personally it took the pressure off of trying to keep a dead program propped up, and gave me the freedom to “launch out into the deep” and to simply follow where God was leading. It helped ministry to become fun for me again.
Comparing Experiencing God to Other Programs
There were, of course, other programs that God used in IBC. I had already mentioned AWANA. There was the Precepts, ESL, Cell Group ministry, the Alpha course, and many other programs as well. The reason I singled out Experiencing God was that it changed the way people were thinking more than any other single thing we did. It was not just about learning something or doing something or completing a book. It was about seeing life and ministry biblically. It was about thinking as a church the way God would have us to think.
In Unit 10 Blackaby deals with the important factor of church involvement in recognizing where God was moving and where He was not. He wrote,
When God wants to reveal His will to a church, He will begin by speaking to one or more individuals. Their job is to bear witness to the church about what they sense God is saying. Other members may then express what they sense God is saying. Then the whole body looks to Christ – the Head of the church – for guidance. He guides all the members of the body to understand His will fully.
You may have questions about how to practice that in your church. A church of 50 members would do this somewhat differently than one with 5,000 members. The most important factor is not a method but a relationship with a Person. Christ is the Head of His church and He knows how each one can work uniquely with Him to understand His will. The Jerusalem church had over 3,000 members and Christ was able to do His work through them.
This is, of course, the real challenge of leading a church. Do we stop and listen to everyone? Do we only listen to the leadership? In the story of Moses, once his own siblings challenged his authority saying, “Hasn’t God also spoke through us?” (Numbers 12:2) We are commanded in 1 John 4:1 to “test the spirits to see if they are from God.” Because we serve a risen Savior, we should expect to hear His voice leading us. But because we live in a fallen world, we should prepare to test the spirits, for there will often be other voices in the church that compete with the voice of God’s Spirit. Here is the challenge for every church, but especially for an international church. In the margin of my Experiencing God book beside these two paragraphs quoted above I wrote in 1993:
The Dynamics of IBC
1. A Large Church –
a. God will work through the leadership
b. The leadership should listen to the congregation – be sensitive
2. High Turnover Rate
a. We need to avoid quick changes or we will be changing every two years or so
b. We need to effect directions in basic areas so we will remain focused and can still involve newcomers.
a. We need to maintain our focus/leadership with an open mind to future direction.
These thoughts that I used imperfectly over the years as the church faced many different decisions and challenges were hammered out in 1993, in that first Experiencing God study as we discussed these issues as a group of eight.
Stanley A. Ellison, “Everyone’s Question: What is God Trying to Do?,” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement,
edited by Ralph. D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne (Pasadena: The Institute of International Studies, 1981), p. 19.
 Arthur Glasser, “The Missionary Task, an Introduction,” Crucial Dimensions in World Evangelization, Arthur Glasser, Paul G. Hiebert, C. Peter Wagner, and Ralph D. Winter (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1976), p. 8-9.
 Henry Blackaby and Claude King, Experiencing God (Nashville: LifeWay, 1993), p. 15.
 Experiencing God, p. 15.
 The Amplified Bible, 1 John 4:6a
 W.E. Vines, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. II (London: Oliphants, Ltd, 1940), p 297-98.
 J. Truman Brown, Planning for the Next Five Years in a Southern Baptist Church (Nashville: Convention Press, 1989).
 Experiencing God, p. 166.