Around six years ago I found myself growing more and more disillusioned with my childhood religion. Eventually I was forced out by the leadership, when I mentally disconnected from the unbreaking dogma and the rigid structure. On the outside, I realized that I wasn’t a unique case, and that so many more were leaving their churches in droves. What impressed me were those that held their Christianity and tried to work outside the system, to chase after something more pure, and perhaps closer to the genetic source material of the Christian faith. That is how I first ran across Orange County’s Keith Giles. Though I personally have mixed feelings about Christianity, I absolutely respect Keith and his genuine approach to his faith. Honestly, when I see animosity or indifference toward Christianity for its faults and abuses, I wish more non-believers could be exposed to someone like him. It was my absolute privilege to interview Keith and I sincerely hope that no matter what your personal beliefs are, you’ll hear him out.
* * * *
You’ve been self-publishing books for a while and making them available for free. This is something that I’ve always admired. What are your reasons for choosing this approach?
I think it’s partially the Holy Spirit and partially my own reluctance to charge people money to read the truth. First of all, I started out writing my blog as a way to use my gift of writing for the Kingdom back in 2005. Over time the content on the blog sort of blossomed into several themes which became my first three books (Nobody Follows Jesus (So Why Should You?); The Top 10 Things Every Christian Should Know (But Probably Doesn’t) and The Gospel:For Here or to Go?), so when I self-published those through Lulu.com I had the option to set prices for the PDF versions of each book. I think I saw those PDF’s as opportunities to share what God had taught me with everyone without charging them for it.
See? This is probably why I will never be a full-time author, because I just can’t get comfortable with the idea that the Gospel has to be purchased. Of course, I have a day job (as a copywriter for an in-house marketing agency), so I don’t need to sell books to support my family. I guess because of this I have the luxury of such convictions, but if I can share what God has given me with everyone I’d rather do that and make nothing than only share it with a few and make something.
Now, earlier this year I started publishing eBooks on Amazon.com. After a friend of mine convinced me this might be something worth exploring I self-published War Is Not Christian, How To Start A Ministry To The Poor In Your Community and The Power of Weakness as Kindle-exclusive eBooks. Those are not free, and with the exception of The Power of Weakness the first two are simply compilations of my articles of the same title over at my blog. So, technically you can still read those two for free, minus the Jon Zens foreword to War Is Not Christian that is.
The Power of Weakness is a book that I’ve had on the back burner for about four years or so. It’s about how God loves to do extraordinary things through ordinary people. The eBook option gave me the opportunity to release it after all this time and based on the testimonies I’ve received from people so far, I’m very glad I was able to share that one with everyone.
Going forward I plan to publish two or three more Kindle exclusive eBooks like this, (Subversive Interviews Volume 2, How Many Christians Does It Take To Unscrew The Church? and Raging Against Your Own Machine), but my next major book project will be available as a free Ebook download.
You’ve held Pacifist Fight Club events in California. If it’s not against the rules, can you talk about it?
This started off as a joke, actually. It was about the time that a certain infamous pastor from Seattle made another sad comment about (I think) worship leaders being too girly or something. This spawned a brief Twitter flurry of comments and I think I tweeted something like, “For the record, I could totally take Brandt Russo and Chase Andre in a cage match.” Then Chase responded by saying, “We could call it Pacifist Fight Club” and then I started creating the rules of PFC like, “Rule #1: You do not talk about PFC” and then when I got to the second one “Rule #2: You do not talk about PFC but must move from talk to action” I realized that we were on to something real.
So, I started brainstorming this as an actual event called “Pacifist Fight Club” where we would gather other Christians who would fight for justice but do no violence. I think I purchased PacifistFightClub.com next day and started putting together a location about a week later.
What it turned into was a series of quarterly gatherings in Orange County where like-minded believers who follow Jesus into a lifestyle of non-violence could gather and share ideas and support one another in this direction. We’ve tackled topics like “Nationalism”, “Poverty”, “Injustice”, “War”, and similar topics so far.
Our second gathering was called “This Time It’s War” and anyone interested can watch the videos presentations by Brandt Russo, Chase Andre and myself from that day over at PacifistFightClub.com.
Our next event is coming up on September 15th and it’s at Biola. Our theme is “The Least of These” and we’ll hear from a mostly female team on issues like Homelessness, Immigration, Torture and the Prisoner. The cool thing is that this thing has a life of its own now. I mean, I’m not even speaking at this third event. It’s awesome! All I have to do is to show up and engage in the dialog.
The format for each event is a short twenty minute presentation followed by dialog and interaction on the topic. It’s very conversational.
I think the best thing that has come out of these events so far has been providing a voice and a sense of community for those Christians who feel passionate about these issues. The most often repeated statement in our first gathering of PFC was, “I’m the only Christian in my Church who thinks like this.” So, we knew right away that there was a serious need for PFC.
Now that we see more Nationalism and Pro-War rhetoric in our Churches today, not to mention the overt Political nature of most Christian dialog, the need for Pacifist Fight Club is more evident than ever.
Could you give an overview of your church history and religious background?
Wow. That’s a long one. I’ll try to shorten it if I can: I’m a follower of Jesus. There. How’s that?
Ok, seriously now. I was always spiritually aware, I guess. Probably went to church once (that I can remember) before I was nine years old, but I still always thought about God and talked to Him. One of my earliest memories was from around kindergarten or first grade when I asked my Mom about Heaven and how we know if we’re going to go there after we die. When she confessed that she didn’t know the answer I broke down in tears and sobbed, “But we have to find out!”
So, eventually my family ended up at the Lighthouse Free Will Baptist Church in Eagle Pass, Texas. Before that we visited a Methodist church for a while, and even almost became Mormons – but my Dad kicked those guys out of our living room one night after he suddenly realized that they weren’t talking about the same Jesus he was raised to believe in.
Anyway, to fast forward a bit, after I surrendered my life to Christ at age 9, I was raised Southern Baptist, met my wife in college at the Baptist Student Union ministry and was licensed and ordained to the Ministry of the Gospel in a Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas.
Fast forward another 25 years or so and I’ve since walked away from my paid, on-staff position as a pastor in order to serve in full-time ministry every day of my life as an unpaid member of the Body of Christ.
Essentially what happened was that God called my wife and I to step away from traditional church in order to plant a church where 100 percent of the offerings could go to help the poor in our community. The only way to make that happen was to meet in homes and for me to take a real job in the real workforce. That was six years ago. I still say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done with the word “Church” on it.
So, with this small group of about twenty or so people we’ve been able to give away thousands of dollars every year to help buy groceries and pay rent for actual people living in poverty or in need here in our community – and sometimes even in our own church family. No one takes a salary. Every penny goes to help people. We don’t even use the money in the basket for paper plates or coffee. All of it goes to help actual people in need.
Just before this calling to step out and plant a house church (which was pretty far outside my comfort zone, by the way), I had my world rocked pretty hard when I heard the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Yes, after being licensed and ordained over 20 years and serving as a full-time pastor I was suddenly blown away when I heard the Gospel that Jesus preached for the first time. That Gospel was not the Gospel I heard at the age of nine. It wasn’t the Gospel preached at any church I had ever been to or served at. It wasn’t the Gospel I myself was preaching. It was the Gospel that Jesus preached which was “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
After realizing that I had been trying to follow Jesus without taking up my cross daily (which is the only way anyone can ever follow Jesus, according to him), I had to fall on my knees and surrender everything. I literally had to “think different” (which is what the word “Repent” actually means – “Metanoia” in the Greek) in order to re-imagine what it meant to be a Christian.
Suddenly everything I thought I knew was wrong. I had to re-read the New Testament with new eyes. Honestly, I am still recovering from that initial Kingdom shock today. It changed everything for me. The way I understood being a disciple, and making disciples, and leadership, service, compassion, poverty, suffering, community, church – everything changed for the better. I’ll never go back.
In your book This Is My Body: Ekklesia as God Intended you write, “I believe it’s time the Church went out of business.” I’m sorry, but I’ve got to ask, what do you have against the Church?
You’re not the first one to ask me that question, Anthony. Hopefully those who actually read this book will not ask me that by the time the reach the last page. It took me 3 years to write that book and that’s mostly because my wife, Wendy, was honest enough to admit to me that I had a better book inside of me than the one I had first written. That first draft would have charged up those who already agreed with my premise, but it would have alienated everyone I really hoped to communicate to. So as painful as it was to do so, I trashed that draft and started over from scratch. That first introduction (which is in the current version of the book) explains that I love the Church and because of that what I cannot do is to stand aside while She eats from the dumpster when I can see the beautiful banquet Her Lord Jesus has prepared for her to feast upon. That’s why I wrote the book.
So, by the time I get to the chapter in the book where I say, “I believe it’s time the Church went out of business” I’ve already laid a whole lot of runway in advance to lift that idea into the air and keep it soaring in everyone’s mind. At least, I hope so. The feedback I’ve received so far has been very positive and it seems that my strategy to bring people along with me on a journey was successful.
Even if the reader doesn’t agree with me by the time they reach the end of my book, I hope they can see my heart for the Body of Christ and my sincere love for the Ecclessia of God.
To answer your question, I simply don’t see anywhere in the Scriptures where the Church is referred to as a Business. It’s a Body, a Bride, a Family, an Army, a Priesthood, etc., but it’s not a Business. Now, the reason that matters is that if you think of the Church as a business it will change how you treat your brothers and sisters, as opposed to how you would treat them if you think of the Church as a Family, or as a Priesthood, or as a Body.
Simply put, if the Church doesn’t operate the way Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, then it’s not a Body, it’s something else. We can only accurately call the Church a Body if Christ is actually, functionally the Head of everyone, and if all of us are working together to serve one another and encourage one another as Paul’s metaphor describes. To be a Body there have to be a variety of gifts working through everyone in the assembly for the strengthening of the Church. That’s how a Body operates, but sadly it’s not how most Churches operate today.
In This Is My Body you write against the idea of a paid clergy. How difficult was it for you to transition from a paid position in the church institution?
It took me about a year to find a full-time job that would support our family after walking away from paid staff at our previous church. That was a tough year, and our entire church family got to see us endure that season as a family. We depended on God for our daily bread and He provided faithfully. I think it was something God wanted us to go through as a church family too.
Honestly, this is probably one of the hardest things for most pastors to figure out. I know a few who have done it, but frankly I know more that have not. At least, not yet.
In my case I was lucky in that my Bachelor’s degree was from a secular college in creative writing, and I had extensive free-lance writing experience in my background, and I had worked for Soul Survivor USA as their Marketing Coordinator for about 3 years so that helped me create a pretty extensive portfolio, which I used to get the copywriting job I have right now. Most pastors aren’t that lucky. They have an MDiv degree and their resume is nothing but church staff positions so it’s very hard to find work outside the Church.
You know I feel, personally, that no one should ever be paid to serve their brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, so I’d say that it’s worth it to leave that position and ask the Lord to lead you to that job in the regular workforce, but that’s just me.
The great thing for me, now, is that I’m learning to be just another functional member of the Body of Christ. I’m not the leader in our house church family. No one is except Jesus. They don’t need me or my family around to meet together or to hear from the Lord. In fact, sometimes we’re not even there because we’re teaching at the motel church.
I have really loved learning how to “be the church” over the last six years with these dear people. God is still teaching us how to seek Him and how to allow Jesus to be our Head every time we gather. It’s exhilarating!
Can you walk me through one your home church gatherings?
Actually, I’ve been meaning to write this out anyway, so thanks for the opportunity to do this.Essentially, what we try to do is to come together and “take hold of Christ” as a Body. In other words, try to imagine that your church was sitting together in someone’s living room and suddenly Jesus walks in the door and stands in the center of the room.
Would you guys keep talking to one another about the weather, or sports, or even Bible verses? Hopefully you’d all sit quietly and lean forward to hear what Jesus wanted to say to you. You’d talk to Him, not to each other. You’d meet with Him, not have a meeting about Him while He watched. That’s basically what we’re trying to do every time we meet.
Now, it might look different each time. And sometimes, honestly, we’re better at it than at other times. But, usually our times together go something like this:
Some of us meet about thirty minutes early for prayer before the meeting starts. A brother once noted that an open meeting requires more prayer together, not less. Because an open meeting is lead by the Spirit, not by any one person or persons. Everyone is invited to this prayer time, but no one has to come if they don’t want to.
After prayer everyone else shows up for a shared, potluck meal together. Eating is an essential ingredient, I believe. It helps us to get to know one another and to be together without being pretentious. It’s also how we build community and find out what people are like, what they’re going through, etc. Real ministry can take place during the meal times, or we can just laugh together and eat some great food. Either way it’s worth the investment of time.
Eventually we’ll gather around the sofas and set out the communion elements and wait quietly for a while to pray together before we start singing songs. The singing is always suggested by the members of the Body, or anyone in the room. We have a set of worship songs put together in a songbook format, and we also have a set of old Baptist Hymnals. Or someone can bring a CD with a song to share, or they can just start singing a song that they love a cappella and either teach it to all of us, or let those who know it join in.
There’s lots of flexibility, as you’ll notice. We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re not putting on a show. We’re not trying to shush the children or keep to a program. We just try to allow the Holy Spirit to move however He likes and get out of His way.
During the singing time someone might feel led to read a scripture out loud, or to pray for someone else in the group, or to call out to God in thanksgiving and praise. We never know how that might work, but we’re open to whatever happens.
I think this can only work if you’re with a group of people, a family of believers, that you can trust. You have to know that everyone in that meeting cares for you and loves you. They’re not trying to control you or to manipulate you. Over the last six years we’ve been developing that level of trust together and it’s great, really.
Eventually we’ll move from the singing and prayer time to “open share time” where everyone (young, old, male, female, visitor, regular, etc.) is free to share with everyone else what God has been teaching them during the week, or to share something that the Lord spoke to them during worship, etc. But not everyone has to share. It’s ok to be quiet and listen, too.
Transition from the singing to the open share time is very fluid and sometimes we’ll drift back into singing songs again, or spend the whole time praying for one another, or maybe share with one another over a single passage of scripture, or a variety of scriptures if there are a lot of people who have something to share. It varies week to week.
What I really love is when the seemingly random verses and testimonies that each person brings suddenly begin to emerge as a complete teaching on a single topic. Sometimes someone will say, “What is Jesus trying to teach us this morning?” and we’ll realize “Oh, it’s about letting go and trusting Him” or “It’s about forgiveness”, and then we’ll try to respond to Him and thank Him for teaching us this lesson as a Body.
Our meetings usually run from about 9am for morning prayer to around 1pm or so. Sometimes it goes to 2pm but usually 12:30pm to 1pm. We usually end with Communion together and sing a song before we depart.
Do you identify with the so-called “house church movement” and what do you see as its strengths and weaknesses?
Yes, I suppose I do. I’m not like some others who want to draw hard lines in the sand between “Organic” and “House Church” or “Simple Church” or “New Testament Church” or what have you. The labels mean less to me than the practice.
What I can say I most believe in when it comes to the House Church Movement is that it’s a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s what God is doing and as long as it’s something that God is doing it’s a movement. When men and women try to put their hands on it and own it or market it or charge admission for it, then to me it ceases to be a Movement and it becomes another denomination. I’m not interested in that.
I’ve written about this before on my blog and shared my concerns about elevating leaders within the House Church/Organic Church movement to become our own versions of “Pastors” and “Bishops”. If we do that we’ve now become as guilty as the rest of the traditional church we left behind in order to pursue Christ as our only Head.
This is a two way street, by the way. It can be the Leader who seeks the fame and the name, or it can be the people who seek after a guru who will tell them what to believe and how to behave. Or, it can be a little of both.
As someone whose personal sin is pride, I have to admit that I’m very aware of this tendency in myself and I work very hard to sit in the background of our own church family and not take the Lord’s place in the Body. I used to limit myself to only two “soap box moments” every meeting. Then my goal was to try not to share a comment on what every person shared during the meeting. Now my goal is to keep silent unless the Lord really prompts me to share something. Otherwise, I sit quietly and I listen.
I know that sometimes people who read my blog or my books will visit our house church and they’ll expect that I’ll have some cool teaching to share every time. But that’s not what happens. If anything, I’ll rarely talk at all unless the Lord has given me something to teach or to share.
My goal is really to encourage everyone else to share. I really want to hear what my two teenage boys have to say. I want to hear from those quiet wives who never speak out. I want hear what that five year old boy has to say about Jesus. Those are always the most profound things, really. I’ve learned so much from the most unlikely sources. It’s amazing, really.
This kind of thing is a movement of God. No man can take credit for this. When I hear from people all over the nation, and even the world, that God is leading them in this same New Testament model of “being Church” it excites me. Because we’re not moving in this direction because we read a blog or a book or attended a conference. Every one I’ve spoken to shares their story about how God did this to them. God called them to step outside the traditional model of Church and they obeyed Him and followed His leading, even at a great cost – usually friendships, or salaries, or the respect of others, etc. But when I hear those testimonies I rejoice because I know that God is purifying His Bride and He’s doing something marvelous that no man can dare take credit for.
You have also been active in a motel ministry in Orange County. What exactly do you there?
Well, about sixteen years ago my wife and I were on staff at this little church plant in Tustin, California. I was the Compassion Ministries and Children’s pastor. We were trying to reach the poor in our community and we got connected to the Orange County Rescue Mission. Their chaplain at the time, my dear brother Ray Green, helped me to see the poor families that were living in motels all around us.
At first we volunteered and helped out as they took Laundry Baskets to pass out to needy families there in this one motel in Santa Ana called “The California Studio Inn”. I’ll never forget knocking on doors and seeing welcome mats in front of these little motel rooms, and kids toys and shoes in the doorway, and wind chimes hanging outside the doors. There were people living here. Like, all the time. This was their home. It really blew me away.
I can remember the moment exactly when God spoke to me about this place. I was standing on the second floor balcony waiting for someone from our team to come back with more laundry baskets of goodies to pass out. There were little kids playing in the hallways outside. I was just standing there, taking it all in when I heard the Lord say, “If you want this place I’ll give it you.”
It really shocked me, actually. And I always say if I had any idea what I was saying “yes” to I might not have done it, but in that moment I said “Ok, Lord. I’ll take it if you’ll give it to me.”
So, what I thought this meant at first was that God was going to give me this huge motel ministry that would end up getting everyone saved and turn that place upside down and we’d have this amazing ministry everyone would talk about. But that’s not what God did.
Once we got permission to serve there, and that was a miracle in itself, the first thing the Lord did was to shine a spotlight on this one family and He said, “Love this family.” So, for the first few years we did that. We shared in their sufferings, we had them over to our house for dinner and lunch. We let their kids play with our kids. We drove them around looking for affordable housing. We prayed for them. We cried with them when loved ones died suddenly. We counseled them about bad decisions they were making. We just loved them.
Sure, we still continued to serve all the people at the motel – we brought a bounce house for the kids and we played games with them and we shared clothing and food as the Lord provided, but essentially our first phase was just to love that one family.
Now, everyone always asks me what God did to change that family. The truth is, that family is still living in a motel (they’ve moved to another motel farther away) and they’re still struggling with the same challenges. But God did change a family – He changed my family.
See, that’s the beauty of this kind of ministry. You start off thinking that it’s all about changing them, and then you realize that God is using them to change your heart and your perspective. We’re the one’s who need them, just as much, maybe more, than they need bread and friendship. We all need the same Jesus, and by sharing in the sufferings of others we learn what it really means to love Jesus as He loved us. Because Jesus said whatever we did for the least of these we did it unto Him.
So, after sixteen years we’ve seen several turn their hearts to Christ, and be baptized, and start living for Christ daily. We’ve started planting a church there on Sunday mornings in partnership with Saddleback and a few other churches too. The story continues.
Who are your heroes?
Quick list: Jesus (of course); my wife Wendy; Jackie Pullinger; David Ruis; A.W. Tozer; W.C. Ketcherside; Fenelon; Gandhi; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Crissy Brooks (the founder of MIKA); and a few other people you wouldn’t know but who inspire me daily to be more like Jesus.
What do you feel is a person’s purpose on this planet?
I suppose I’d say a person’s purpose on this planet is to know God and His Son by daily surrender of our will to His perfect will.
* * * *