After the ICOC Fire: What Burned

Monday, 04 June 2007 19:00

Third in a series published reflecting on the firestorm that occurred in our family of churches and told as a parable of the Great Chicago Fire and lessons from Scripture. To read the entire series of articles, see After the Fire.

Lessons From the Fire: Part 2
 
3) Truth: Some of What We Built Burned
 
After the ICOC Fire Chicago fire by John R Chapin in Harpers WeeklyWhy did the city of Chicago burn so quickly in 1871? The city was a tinderbox--with 57 miles of wood-paved streets, 561 miles of wooden sidewalks, and tens of thousands of newly constructed wooden buildings -- and the summer had been extremely dry.
 
The people of Chicago were in a such a hurry to grow, they used the cheapest, quickest materials available. Buildings, sidewalks and even streets were mostly built from wood. Homes in the city most often kept hay and straw in their own barn to feed their animals.
 
The famous story popularized by a journalist blamed the entire Chicago fire on Mrs. O'Leary's cow for knocking over a gas lantern in their barn. The fire did start in that barn, but the cow was later exonerated in a public hearing. The fire was devastating because of the wood, haw, straw and the high winds blowing towards the rest of the city. Of course the watchman giving the wrong source of the fire and the telegraph operator refusing to address the situation didn't help either. In a fire, there can be plenty of blame to go around. Blame fuels fires more than it extinguishes them.
 
Ron Susek wrote a book called Firestorm drawing on his 10 years of experience as a consultant to churches in turmoil. He deals with how a firestorm starts, how to put one out and how to prevent future ones. He observes that unresolved relationships provide the dry wood for a firestorm of conflict often set off by a small spark: "But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire." -- James 3:5-6 (NLT).
 
The ICOC firestorm started with the building up of unresolved conflict and the breakdown of relationships many years before. In 2003 a letter lantern was carelessly kicked over in the internet barn. The letter contained a highly flammable mixture of truth and unsubstantiated accusations. It was just a match that lit timber even the author had used to build with. The prevailing winds spread the blaze quickly. However, before we blame the match, the truth is that the fire would not have burned far if there were not plenty of wood, hay, straw and wind to carry it.
 
In trying to make sense of this for myself, it occurred to me that four key elements (among many others) contributed to our firestorm.
 
First was impatience. The Evangelization Proclamation of 1994 was a great and noble idea. It was simply an expression of a way to carry out the Great Commission. God worked through us to save souls, build churches and change lives that would not have known Jesus. The Six-Year Plan to carry out the Evangelization Proclamation sounded good at the time, but the artificial deadline of the year 2000 became the driving force for decisions. Sunday attendance and mega churches became more important than Bible Talks. Sales and marketing techniques of rigid accountability and weekly performance grading originated with the top leadership and were expected to be imitated elsewhere, though not everyone did.
 
Key leaders who were actually planting the churches expressed their conscience concerns about the compromises we were making and the shifts away from faith to marketing approaches. Like early Chicagoans, we were in too big of a hurry to build, so too often we resorted to building with the cheapest and quickest materials available. Like Saul who couldn't wait for Samuel, decisions were made to sacrifice without waiting for the Lord's blessing.
 
Ironically, a second element that contributed to our firestorm was the lack of a plan to mature our churches. We had one very good model: planting churches. May we never lose the incredible faith, insight and skill that God gave us. But we had no model for maturing a church. Whenever a church would get into trouble, we would say, "What we did at first worked, so just reconstruct (replant) the church." In some cases, that might be necessary if a church were totally decimated, but many souls and hearts were wounded from repeatedly applying the church planting model to a church that was struggling to mature.
 
When your teenager has a problem, how wise and effective is it to apply discipline for a two-year-old simply because it worked before? Too often helping the weak was considered a distraction from our rush to convert more people. Shepherding efforts were tried, but rarely lasted. Our churches are now searching for models to grow and mature churches that have been around for 10 to 30 years. How do we walk in Jesus' steps as he came to seek, to save and to heal? The Chicago people had not thought much beyond their homes, barns, offices, streets and sidewalks of wood. Until they burned.
 
A third fuel to the fire was the lack of spiritual depth built into many of those converted. While answering emails for UpCyberDown in 2003, I was amazed at the intensity and the lack of spiritual connection to behavior. Christians hid behind pseudonyms to spew vicious words on the internet. One writer who had the courage to identify himself was terribly upset about our publishing two articles on forgiveness. I asked him, "How does your concern relate to the cross?" He quipped, "What has that got to do with it?" My personal conviction is that we became a fulfillment of the parable of the soils in too many cases.
 
Many more people than I expected were not rooted and grounded deeply in God and His Word. I am personally encouraged by how many people are still in our family of churches and are deeper in God and His Word than ever before. In "The Great Conflagration" of the Chicago fire, some of the people were devastated and had to leave the city. I am sure plenty of blame was spread around. But most stayed, rolled up their sleeves and built better.
 
The fourth fuel to the fire was human pride. In the 1980s our churches were built by faith because there was very little precedent for us to see. We committed to take the gospel to the whole world simply because we trusted God. We knew we didn't know how to do this and we knew that we didn't know. We had to rely on God. Remember the 20 brave souls who planted a church in Johannesburg during apartheid in 1986? Half of the mission team were black disciples and the other half were white. God not only protected them, they wound up worshipping on Sundays in City Hall in Pretoria! God worked through that church to plant over 40 other churches in Africa. This year they celebrate their 21st anniversary.

But as the 1990s went on, we grew to think we knew what we were doing and we came to increasingly rely on our own strength and talent. I regret the part I played in overly honoring people in our publications and productions at KNN. "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." -- 1 Peter 5:5 (NIV) God let us try it on our strength for awhile. Finally he reminded us, "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain." -- Psalm 127:1 (NIV)

In 2003 numerous evangelists and elders around the world publicly apologized and repented. As the official website of the movement, UpCyberDown, failed to acknowledge or directly address the firestorm leaving an information vacuum often gladly filled by angry, emotional and usually disguised voices.
 
Our fire burned differently in various parts of the world – usually according to how that region had been built. Wood, hay and straw produce hotter fires than gold, silver and precious stones. Some churches were decimated. Others simply stopped growing. Some quit giving to missions and others never stopped. Some leaderships disintegrated. Others remained intact and some even strengthened.
 
A few churches walled themselves off and pretended the fire didn't happen. Humility was the best fire extinguisher. In some places, power-seeking opportunists changed the rules of engagement so even humility of leaders could not protect these churches from inappropriate power-struggles. Everyone reevaluated their faith and convictions. Though some churches remain walled off from outside influence, most see the need for real brotherhood relationships, input and even accountability as family.

Click here to read part three of Lessons Learned:  After the ICOC Fire:  Not Everything Burned

Grace and Truth,
Roger Lamb
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To read the entire series of articles, see After the Fire

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