Following Jesus: A Brief Look at the Word of Life Church Story

People are crazy and times are strange 
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
– Bob Dylan

Come follow me.
 – Jesus

The Word of Life Church story has been 33 years in the making. It has been a story filled with drama, mystery, certitude, and searching and seeking with an evolving cast of characters. I have been on staff, serving as the Pastor of Discipleship, for only three years, but I know the story. I attended this church in the 1990s during a  time of numeric growth and now I have the privilege of serving this church as one of the pastors during a more mature time of spiritual growth. It has been nothing more than the story of a people following Jesus.

Our church began in St. Joseph, Missouri without much fanfare in 1981. Brian Zahnd, our lead pastor, was 22 years-old and he, and his wife Peri, hadn’t been married very long when they started the church. Brian had been leading Bible studies since he was 15 and as a young adult he was one of the leaders of a coffee house style ministry in St. Joseph. Brian and Peri started the church because they were following Jesus. They were products of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, a nation-wide resurgence of vibrant Christian faith among young people interested in all things Jesus. Our church was born out of the hearts of people who were enthusiastically following Jesus. The atmosphere in those days was revivalistic. Jesus was capturing the attention of so many and we wanted so desperately to be a part of what he was doing. The mood was electric among the meager congregation who believed God was at work in our church.

The close affinity between the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Renewal led us to incorporate charismatic distinctives into our faith and practice. In the late 80s and early 90s the church began to experience numeric growth which was accompanied by changes. Staff was added. We relocated to a larger venue for our worship services. Our journey through charismatic Christianity brought us into the “word of faith” branch of that movement. We wanted to follow Jesus in what we saw him doing: preaching the gospel, healing the sick, establishing people in the victory of God, and bringing people into an authentic experience with God. By the mid-1990s the atmosphere was thick with excitement. The general tone of our preaching and teaching was one of faith and victory. It wasn’t long before we became a mega church of the charismatic word-of-faith variety. We bought land. Built (through much struggle) a large ministry complex and continued to add people who wanted to be a part of our church.

By the turn of the century, we had experienced success as a church, at least “success” as defined by the church growth experts of the 1990s. In 2004, things began to change…again. In the midst of our outward success, there was a growing longing for something more substantive than we were experiencing. Our lead pastor had for some time been reading historical theology and the church fathers, men who were following Jesus a long time ago. He started with Augustine and then moved on to Athanasius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, and the other Cappadocian Fathers. He stumbled on a deeper, richer, sacramental faith. We began to remove layers of varnish from the Jesus we were following and we found a Jesus much more compelling, much more challenging than the Jesus we knew. Without the cultural assumptions we had thrust upon him, we discovered a beautiful Jesus and a beautiful Gospel. We couldn’t stay the same; things had changed. So we packed our bags and moved on from the charismatic/word of faith movement. Some people wrestled with the changes and stayed; others wrestled and left. Jesus has continued to be gracious to us and we are beginning to see a depth of growth and spiritual formation we hadn’t seen in years past. It seems like we are growing up.

So what has changed in the last ten or eleven years? The simple answer is much has changed, but one thing has remained consistent: our desire to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he is leading.

We learned much from the charismatic movement, but we discovered that Jesus’ work is not limited to that one single stream. Jesus has been building his church for 2,000 years and it is filled with diverse beauty. We have come to discover Jesus among the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical, and Charismatic Christians. We have rediscovered the central and essential practice of communion in our worship gatherings. We have seen Jesus in his reign over a peaceable kingdom. We have rejected the divisive “us vs. them” way of looking at people and conflicts. We have learned to be quiet and contemplative in addition to being raucous and celebratory. We have grown in appreciation of the liturgical calendar and the ancient practices that have sustained the church from the beginning. We have grown to see God’s work in community within our church instead of measuring success by the crowds at our events. We have rejected certitude and embraced mystery, while being guided by the creeds and ecumenical councils of the church. We now hear the Gospel not as the instructions on how to go to heaven when we die, but a bold proclamation of a new day, a new creation coming with the reign of Jesus as the world’s true Lord. We have learned to love the Bible as the inspired witness to Jesus who is the Word made flesh. We have not arrived, so we continue to pray the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. We continue to learn and grow and struggle as Jesus is being formed in us. So we wait to see where Jesus will lead us next.

For more information on our journey, check out this interview by Trevin Wax: