THE FULL STORY1
Paul, with a PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland (1994),2 had been teaching at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, for just under twelve years (since January, 1995). He taught various Old Testament courses at the undergraduate and master's levels in the Religious Studies department, and also pioneered and taught in the Photography program in the Art department.3
While at Trinity Western University, Paul and Heidi were always involved in diverse forms of ministry expression, either as lay pastors and/or home group leaders in whatever church they were attending at the time, and also in more of an itinerant speaking capacity.4 And Paul clearly had a pastoral role at Trinity Western among the students (especially with those hovering on the fringe of faith or social acceptability) as a regular function of his position there. Paul and Heidi often ministered to students together in their home.
In the fall of 2005, after a series of challenging, closely proximate life events (a friend dying prematurely from cancer, another friend getting killed suddenly in a freak car accident, and Paul and Heidi's middle son contracting cancer at the age of seventeen), God began to stir up an unsettledness in both Paul and Heidi about remaining at Trinity Western, and started nudging in a variety of ways about an impending horizon of drastic change. After months of waiting, prayerful wrestling, careful listening, wisdom collecting, and testing words received, finally—on Monday, April 3, 2006, at the end of the 2005/06 academic year—Paul, at age forty-three, made a decision, in agreement with his wife Heidi. He chose not to renew his contract to continue teaching in his tenured position as Associate Professor of Religious Studies. This financial sacrifice meant not only that his own tenured position of guaranteed financial income was forfeited, but also that their three teenaged sons would not receive the free tuition given to professors' immediate family, from the highly reputed Trinity.5
Subsequent to this, Paul and Heidi did some itinerant ministry, but mostly entered a season of spiritual hiddenness,6 waiting on God in prayer and fasting in order to allow the Holy Spirit of God to do the preparatory deep heart surgery that was necessary for what was about to come next. Their purpose was also to discern what that next step would look like for their lives and subsequent ministry. After nearly a year of waiting on God, again, there ensued months of waiting, wisdom collecting, dedicated prayer and careful listening, testing words received. During the same period of waiting on God, Paul, with the strong intercessory support of Heidi, was receiving inner healing for what had been a several year struggle with anxiety and depression. Then the LORD revealed to them that they were to start a church in their house, which was confirmed through prophetic words and other means.7 They also received consistent words from diverse sources that God was going to use them among students at Trinity Western who were emotionally broken and either had lost or were losing their way.
So Paul and Heidi, as an act of obedience, planted The River in their home, first meeting on Sunday morning, June 10th, 2007, but then, for many reasons,8 changing to Saturday nights after their first few meetings together. It was beautiful to see students in the 18-25 age bracket, sacrificing the best night of their week to worship and listen to God. And he honoured their pursuit by showing up with grace and in great power.
In Paul and Heidi's words:
For the past several years, prior to planting The River, the LORD had been doing a work of personal revival in our hearts—taking us to deeper places in prayer, worship, confession, and repentance. We grew in the gift of the Spirit of God to see and speak prophetically. He gave us new perspectives on what holiness and walking in intimate fellowship with him as our heavenly Father could look like. It has been exciting to experience the Holy Spirit in new ways, and especially the process of allowing the Spirit of God to transfer knowledge from our heads into our hearts to bring about significant, life-lasting change.
This call out of Trinity Western became clarified for us as something that stood in good company with the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3, because, as with Abram, God didn't tell us what he was calling us to. When we inquired about it in prayer, the sense we got in the response was, “That's for baby Christians; just obey”. Hebrews 11:8 says “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” We didn't renew Paul's contract for the next year out of obedience to this call, even though we didn't know what specific ministry we were being called to. One thing we learned pretty quickly, however, was that God is totally into obedience and sacrifice, and puts his strong blessing on that stuff.
Heidi and Paul both have Bachelor's degrees in Biblical Studies from Providence College (formerly Winnipeg Bible College), and Heidi studied theology for two years (in German) at Bienenberg Bibelschule9 in Liestal, Switzerland (just outside Basel), along with a year of Arts at the University of Winnipeg. Paul has a Master's degree in Old Testament studies10 from Providence Seminary (formerly Winnipeg Theological Seminary), along with a PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It is not our formal training we rely on, even though that is helpful to have; rather, it is the voice and direction of the LORD that we attempt to discern. We spend most of our mornings with him each day, so that we know how to proceed into the new things God has both for us and for this body of believers. This is a work of faith, and we have been helped since the early days of The River with the Kingdom paradigm shift that Jesus invoked, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” (Matthew 11:25-26) Toppling the conventions seems to give the Father pleasure. Or, as St. Paul said, “Brothers [and sisters], think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
The vision for The River Fellowship embraces these four pillars of historic Christianity and the early church: preaching the Word, worship, prayer ministry, and discipling/mission (both equipping and releasing). A keen balance between the Word and the Spirit, between our knowledge of God through Scripture and our experience of God through his Spirit's presence and activity in our lives is a priority, as is personal growth in community. One of our collective goals is “to know this love that surpasses knowledge”, like St. Paul prays in Ephesians 3:19 (ironically, and somewhat paradoxically, he is prayerfully imploring them to seek to know something that cannot be known because it is not a cognitive knowing but an experiential one he is indicating). Sharing this sentiment, we want to experience and encounter the living God, and not retain satisfaction with a mere cerebral knowledge of him.
The trajectory of our growth up until this point has not been us casting a vision which we then implement, but instead, our seeking to hear, step by step, move by move, how the Father would have us proceed. We all have things we want to see The River implement and move forward in, but as we have sought to embrace His power, we equally need to embrace his timing.
We are not seeker-sensitive in the sense of watering things down, or oversimplifying,11 but try to teach with faithfulness the things the LORD reveals to us, and what we sense he wants us to release in our body at The River. We have a deep hunger for more of the living God in our lives. We desire to receive and release the Kingdom of God, both in the church and in the world.
Many people have flowed through The River, and now are living in and/or shifting the spiritual atmospheres of different parts of the world, from places nearby like the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, to more distant places like Burma, Cambodia, China, England, France, Greenland, Guatemala, Holland, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Ireland, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, North Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, various African countries, and places in western Asia.
The River Fellowship is an organic community of believers in and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, an extension of the early initial living room home fellowship. Pastors Paul and Heidi are now joined by a strong Leadership Team who are united in the same purpose, and also, one of Paul's former students, Randy Maas, has become their Assistant Pastor (since April 15, 2011).12
Through the journey, from the house meetings to the storefront venue in Fort Langley (August 16, 2008-April 25, 2009) to the lecture theatres and atrium at Trinity Western University (May 3, 2009-September 13, 2009) to the dance hall in Langley (West Langley Hall; September 20, 2009-August 26, 2012) to the current meeting place at the Walnut Grove Lutheran Church (September 2nd, 2012), we have been chasing after the Father heart of God, the friendship of Jesus, and the power of and intimacy with the Holy Spirit. We sometimes say that people at The River are: “Friends becoming family; hungry for God.” We really want to be a family, to learn to be in the body of Christ together in unity, to listen to and receive from one another, to love sincerely, and to pursue God with all of our hearts.
Coming out of a house church, and retaining our organic roots, we definitely have overlapping tenets with the simple church concept,13 and also connect with what has been termed the “third wave” of the Holy Spirit.14 We are not “inter-denominational” or “independent” but non-denominational—meaning that we do not forge our identity from the theological idiosyncrasies of any one particular group (often, if not usually, ethnically and historically based), but instead, want to cultivate a pastiche-like Kingdom culture that appropriates the best of all theological perspectives in the body of Christ at large.15 And we can sign all the historic statements of faith without a problem.
At The River, we advocate a strong Word and Spirit interdependency, and emphasize living as part of the Kingdom of God. Christlike character and inner healing are emphasized, as is developing the spiritual gifts we have received to help others (including sign gifts like prophecy and healing). We value solid teaching from the Word of God and desire fresh encounters with God through his Holy Spirit.16 We always desire to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit.
A typical meeting for us usually includes an hour of worshiping God. People may do this by singing, playing instruments, dancing, praying audibly, or waiting silently in God's presence (soaking) in a variety of postures. Prophetic words may be given, or someone may have something to share. Then the word of God is preached fervently, and an opportunity given for people to respond to what the Holy Spirit is saying, usually during a time of prayer or prayer ministry from our trained Ministry Team at the end of the meeting.
We call ourselves a threshold ministry, especially focused on taking people across the threshold from what could be termed a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Book into a deeper covenant with the Trinity, empowered and enlivened by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the living God. Although all are welcome here, one dimension of our particular ministry involves students, especially those who have become disillusioned with the status quo yet are hungry to encounter God. Many of us have come from more rigidly intellectual/hermeneutics of doubt types of backgrounds, but have encountered phenomena that is just too real to dismiss.17 We particularly want students to receive a vital and close relationship with the living God, through our saviour Jesus Christ, with the powerful help of the Holy Spirit of God.
Since acquiring our name, The River, in November 2007,18 two passages have informed what we do and seek to be. Ezekiel 47:1-12 is a prophetic passage that describes an image of a life-giving river that gets deeper the further it gets from the temple. For us, this is symbolic of bringing spiritual gifts to the world, not merely containing them within the gathered assembly of the church. A second passage is from Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman (= excluded outsider) in John 4:10-14, which not only describes Jesus' offer of living water (i.e. the Spirit of God) to those who are thirsty, but also narrates how recipients of this living water can actually become sources of the Spirit for others (“the water I give them will become in them a spring of water”, v.14).19
We value prayer and intercession highly, and most of us fast regularly. As a direct result of this, major breakthroughs in personal freedom and financial provision, have transpired, amongst other things. Before the Sunday night meeting, the Leadership and anyone involved in the meeting, from worship to children's ministry, will have gotten together for an hour of prayer and soaking in his presence, at which time we attempt to discern together what God is wanting to do that evening, and make declarations in prayer accordingly. We also confess Jesus as the head of his church—possessing, therefore, all rights to do what he wants. Then we submit the agenda of the meeting to the Holy Spirit, asking for sensitivity to be able to track with him, and that we will all receive the LORD however he chooses to come to us that evening (whether more boisterously, or, perhaps, gently).20 After this, whoever wants to can show up for a half hour or so of prayer and intercession at the venue before the meeting, preparing our hearts and the hearts of those who come to become that fertile soil of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), ready to receive the seed of the Word.
We are a gathering of brothers and sisters who are hungry for more of God; for a fuller revelation of him in our lives, as those who want to live in greater obedience. As we meet, his presence shows up, and as we encounter him, we are transformed in the process. Then we want to share this with others who have not experienced this.
Our desire is that everyone who comes into contact with The River will experience the invitation of a loving Father who runs towards them with arms open wide. And welcomes them lovingly into his family.
1 What follows is an interweaving of the narrative of The River Fellowship, Paul and Heidi's personal story, and a chronicling of our community's theological processing, healing, and growth.
2 His PhD thesis, entitled A Literary Reading of the Exodus Story, employed a narratological analysis of Exodus 1-14 in the Hebrew Masoretic text, with research conducted at New College in the Faculty of Divinity.
3 The foray into photography represented an integrative interest arising out of research into photographic theory and practice relating matters aesthetic, ethical, and theological. See, for example, “Wounded Vision and the Optics of Hope”, Paul Edward Hughes with Robert Paul Doede, in Miroslav Volf & Will Katerberg, eds., The Future of Hope: Essays on Christian Tradition Amid Modernity and Postmodernity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 170-199.
4 They have been actively involved in or ministered to various church denominations over the years, like Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Nazarene, Pentecostal, United, and Vineyard.
5 As well as free courses for Heidi. Trinity Western has been rated the best university in Canada by the Toronto Globe and Mail Canadian National University Rankings five years in a row, regularly granted an A+ for overall quality of teaching and learning.
6 Graham Cooke has an excellent teaching on this that would have helped Paul and Heidi immensely at the time, had they known about it, called Hiddenness & Manifestation, available on iTunes or here in the published form of an interactive journal, in which Cooke suggests that there are some things God can only teach us while we are in a wilderness phase of the spiritual journey.
7 We use the word “prophetic” to describe the process of us listening to God and speaking out what we think he is saying, either through words, pictures, dreams, or visions, along with anything else he might choose to use. For example, “Have you thought about planting a house church? High relationship and high ministry. You really had that going in many ways before” was the total content of a random email received from a faraway friend on Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 10:10 am. Various other confirming words and signs were also given during this time.
8 Like time constraints and avoidance of a more traditional and possibly religious association with the Sunday morning time slot. Since May 3, 2009, due primarily to venue convenience, The River Fellowship has been meeting on Sunday nights.
10 My Master's thesis, Ancient Israelite Law: A Methodological Critique of Albrecht Alt's Reconstruction (1990), shifted me from more traditional critical approaches to the study of the Bible towards the literary and more aesthetically-oriented treatment of the final form of the biblical text. Some of this appraisal was published later in a book chapter called “Compositional History: Source, Form, and Redaction Criticism,” by Paul Edward Hughes, in Craig C. Broyles, ed., Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, 2001, Baker, pp. 221–244 (chapter 8).
11 Sometimes we joke that we are “soaker sensitive”, sensitive to the needs of those who want to absorb more of God's presence and person through greater intimate encounters with him as a community together.
12 Both Randy and his wife Jacquelyn served as The River's first interns from March, 2009 to March, 2010, and then Randy became Assistant Pastor just over a year later. Randy and Jacquelyn were commissioned into this new area of service at The River Fellowship on May 7th, 2011.
14 As especially initiated by the neocharismatic Vineyard movement of churches in the mid- to late 70's. For more on this, see C. Peter Wagner, The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit: Encountering the Power of Signs and Wonders (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications/Vine Books, 1988).
15 What denomination was Jesus again? Hmmm . . . can't remember . . . .
Richard J. Foster, in Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), provides a helpful overview of various streams of the Christian church that he terms the Contemplative Tradition (discovering the prayer-filled life), the Holiness Tradition (discovering the virtuous life), the Charismatic Tradition (discovering the Spirit-empowered life), the Social Justice Tradition (discovering the compassionate life), the Evangelical Tradition (discovering the word-centred life), and the Incarnational Tradition (discovering the sacramental life).
16 Our high view of Scripture is characteristic of evangelicalism (although we distance ourselves from the variant of evangelicalism that seems to automatically align itself politically one direction or the other). David Bebbington, British author of Evangelicals in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin, 1989), suggests that evangelicalism is characterized by the quadrilateral of biblicism (a particular regard for the Bible), crucicentrism (a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross), conversionism (a belief in the need for human conversion to Christ), and activism (the belief that the Gospel needs to be expressed through some sort of effort). We endorse these four facets.
17 More scientifically stated, our epistemology has expanded beyond an empiricism that rests strictly on naturalistic contours and assumptions.
18 Our full legal name, The River Fellowship, came later, for our incorporation in June, 2009.
19 See also John 7:37-39: “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.' 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorifed.”
20 Like in the time of Elijah, whether in a “powerful wind”, an “earthquake”, a “fire”—all of which were previous Old Testament means of revelation—or in a “gentle whisper” (the so-called “still small voice”; see 1 Kings 19:11-13).