Frank Viola Author Meets CoWorkers of Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks

From the bio of Frank Viola Author

      1993 was an extraordinary year. I began devouring all of Watchman Nee’s books that I could get my hands on. I also began reading the works of T. Austin-Sparks, Nee’s friend and mentor.

      In my personal judgment, T. Austin-Sparks and Watchman Nee had the most profound revelation of God’s eternal purpose in Christ since the apostle Paul. Perhaps what impressed me most about both men was that each had a tremendous grasp of Scripture, theology, and church history. At the same time, they both had a unique experience with the Lord and a deep knowledge of His ways. To put it in Biblical terms, both men “knew the Scriptures as well as the power of God” En. Matthew 22:29.

      Biblical scholarship is important. But one shouldn’t drink it on the rocks. It goes down much smoother with a mixer. The best mixer for Biblical scholarship is the deeper Christian life (also called “Christian spirituality”). Both Sparks and Nee held both in beautiful tension.

      (Incidentally, I’ve met people who tried valiantly to polarize these two elements, suggesting that those who are students of Scripture and theology couldn’t possibly know the Lord very well. And those who know the Lord well don’t give a hoot about Scripture or theology. This is spurious thinking at best.)

      Reading both Nee and Austin-Sparks sent me on a spiritual odyssey. I wanted to find out all I could about both men. I wanted to learn what they learned. And more importantly, I wanted to experience what they experienced of the Lord.

      So I began writing letters to people in England who were part of the Honor Oak Fellowship where Austin-Sparks ministered. I heard wonderful stories. Some were flat out fascinating. A number of years later, I flew up to Louisville, Kentucky and met Austin-Sparks’ daughter. An interesting experience to say the least.

      I followed the same path with Watchman Nee. I got my hands on every biography of his that was written in English, and I sought out those who knew him personally.

      In this connection, I met two men who would greatly influence my life. In meeting them, I discovered that our little non-traditional church wasn’t alone in our quest to recover New Testament simplicity.

      I met both men in the summer of 1993. One man was trained by and had co-worked with Watchman Nee. The other man had co-worked with T. Austin-Sparks.

      Both men would become personal friends and mentors. What impressed me most about them was not only their extraordinary revelation of Christ and the depth of their walk with the Lord. It was their character. Both men emitted the meekness, the graciousness, the honesty, and the humility of Jesus Himself.

      These men not only spoke of a glorious Christ; they lived Christ. And that’s what separates sheep from sheep.

      Since then, I’ve met others who were Christ-centered in their message, but who were also egocentric, self-indulgent, disingenuous, sectarian, cruel and harsh in their characters. And the latter betrays the former.

      In my opinion, these two men are giants in the land, and I am privileged to know them. Only the Lord knows how much they have contributed to the Kingdom of God. They are mostly hidden vessels, but choice servants of the Lord worthy of emulation.

      They taught me a great deal. I shall always be grateful for them and for the two men—Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks—whose shoulders they stood upon.

      In knowing these two men—both of whom are in their 90s and 80s respectively—I learned the immense value of drawing from experienced Christian workers who know the cross deeply and who possess the riches of Christ to build the church. I also discovered that churches that gather outside traditional lines need outside help from such Christians if they wish to grow in the Lord’s fullness.

      The truth is that organic church life is a high-maintenance undertaking. It requires continual energy from lots of people over an unmercifully long period of time.

      Science gives us a wonderful illustration of this. The second law of thermodynamics says that all things left to themselves tend toward entropy. Entropy is disorder, breakdown, and disintegration. This law applies not only to physical systems, but also to people groups.

      In time, entropy degrades every human endeavor. Every person runs out of steam over time. We all burn out of fuel. The persistent energy that’s required to keep a group of Christians moving forward without an institutional structure is immensely taxing.

      When entropy sets into a non-traditional church, the Type A personalities begin to fill the vacuum. This is the pattern of church history, and it’s how we got the so-called “institutional church.” As a result of the powerful force of entropy, the early church moved from an organic, shared-life community to a hierarchal, one up/one down, top-heavy organization. It’s also the reason why organic churches, over time, tend to lose their first love. En Revelation 2:4.

      I’ve concluded that an important remedy to the on-going threat of entropy is to restore the place of itinerant Christian workers. Having someone spiritually mature to visit the church who is not part of the local mix can have a tremendous effect on defying the second law of thermodynamics, recentering and reenergizing the church toward Christ, and giving it fresh direction.

      If you gather outside the traditional church, your group will take a nose dive. And when it does, it’s infinitely wise to bring someone in from the outside to raise Christ before the church’s eyes and help turn the tide. Those who are part of the local group typically can’t see clear enough to identify the root problem. So an outside view is needed.

      Point: Do not make the mistake of underestimating and undervaluing the role of outside help from other brothers and sisters who are more experienced than you are. That’s what I learned from meeting Stephen and DeVern.

For more, see Frank Viola Author

Lessons from a Stranger

In the summer of 1992, a very unusual woman came into our midst. I’m not going to probe this nerve too deeply, but I’ll just recount some of the major events of the drama in a general way.

If I was ever tempted to say that the devil sent someone to us, it would have been in the case of this woman. She was probably in her mid-50’s. She told us that her husband and daughter had been killed in a car accident. One of the brothers in the church, a well-respected man, took her into his home. She quickly won his trust.

Slowly . . . and quite cleverly I might add . . . this woman began constructing wedges between some of the brothers and sisters. There is a Scripture in Proverbs that warns against those who sow seeds of discord among brethren. En. Proverbs 6:19. This woman had a Ph.D. in this type of sowing.

Her pattern became predictable. She would go to someone’s house, and then complain about another brother or sister to them. Her tactic was to clothe the gossip with an “I’m-concerned-so-I-want-you-to-pray-for-them” garment.

She would make people feel that she was “confiding” in them out of genuine concern. She had the act down to a fine science. A negative seed would be planted in the listener, and not long afterwards, there would be hard feelings between brothers and sisters who formerly had no issues with one another.

It was during her time with us that we learned the horrible art of pushing one another’s buttons. Misunderstandings turned into impugning motives, and it devolved into something even more cruel. Her influence continued to spread. As a result, some of the brothers locked horns and went after one another tooth and claw.

A few of the saints expressed grave concern and suspicion about this woman. Unfortunately, however, little could be done because some would rise to her defense whenever she was questioned. No one had any hard proof that something was amiss.

This threw a number of us, including myself, into a snit and a blue funk.

God is very good at building tailor-made crosses. Jesus Christ was a carpenter, and He knows how to build them quite well. This woman created much harm in the church. But we were powerless to do anything about it because opinions were divided over her.

I learned two valuable lessons through this experience. The first is that if a stranger comes into your church and someone sniffs that something is amiss, trace where that person came from. The early Christians had a practice of writing letters of commendation. I’ve always thought there was great wisdom in that.

The second lesson I learned is unalterable. It will not move. Those who exalt others tend to be the same ones who end up slaying them. Beware of the person who lauds you with high praises and flowery compliments. For it is those same people who have the capacity to destroy you with slander and criticism. Fail to meet their expectations, and watch how they react.

Recall that the people who wanted to worship Paul and Barnabas were the same ones who in an unmercifully short period of time later picked up stones to kill them. En. Acts 14:11-19. This woman was a master at flattery. She used it quite effectively. Yet if the victim of her flattering words didn’t meet her expectation in some way, she headed for the warpath. With venom dripping from her lips, should would begin slandering them behind their back.

After struggling through this particular thicket of church life for exactly one year, the woman was exposed. In July of 1993, we discovered that she had lied about her husband and her child. They had never been killed in a car accident. She left them.

After she was confronted with what we discovered, she took off to parts unknown. In the final analysis, this painful piece of history proved to be both profitable and necessary to my spiritual development. It taught me a great deal about myself and about God’s transcendent ways. I had learned something of the invaluable lesson of suffering with the Lord and bearing the spirit of the Lamb in the midst of criticism and false accusation. And I wasn’t the only one.

It was at this time that the Lord taught me the little-known lesson of never defending oneself. Jesus Himself was silent in the face of attack, and He encourages His sheep to react the same way. En – Matthew 27:13-14; Mark 15:3-5; 1 Peter 2:23.

Jesus didn’t counterattack nor did He retreat. He stood . . . quietly.

I observed the following words of Watchman Nee’s to be all too true: “If people trust us, there is no need to explain; if people do not trust us, there is no use in explaining.”

What I’m about to tell you is beyond bloodless research and analysis. It’s a lesson from experience. If you gather with Christians outside the traditional church, there is a very good chance that the Lord will see to it that you have your own personally designed, tailor-fitted cross to bear. This is especially true if you are called to His work.

What is God’s will for you when the heat is turned up? It’s for you to die instead of fight. To lose instead of win. To lay your life down instead of insisting on your own way. To let go instead of seizing the reins.

These lessons were learned over and over again in the church. Which leads me to a very simple assertion. If you have authentic Body life, there is a cross right in the center of it.

On a positive note, God often gives His children tests. But you can never fail them. If you fail the first time, He’ll simply give you the same test over and over again until you pass.

I look back at that experience and I thank the Lord for the crosses He placed in my life. Each person who I had a difficult time with were Divine instruments that God used to bring brokenness into certain areas of my life.

Church life can get so intense and so agonizing that every fiber in one’s being wishes to retreat in relief. Thankfully, I never threw in the towel. And today, I’m grateful that I didn’t. For I believe the Lord was able to gain something in me during those years. Even if it was something small.

At the heart of it, the main reason why I didn’t leave is because I didn’t have any options. I was out of options. This was one of critical lessons the Lord taught me through the dream I had in 1989.

I couldn’t go back to the traditional church . . . not with the light that I had been given. My conscience would not allow it. In addition, after tasting the sweetness of open-participatory meetings, the wisdom of decision-making by consensus, the joy of community, and the freedom and life that I knew outside traditional church structures, there was nothing in me that wanted to return to what I had left.

By the way, if the traditional church doesn’t bother you, don’t worry about it. Just know that some of us had no choice but to leave. (At the time of this writing, at least five million adults are meeting outside the traditional church. And thirteen to fifteen million born-again Christians do not attend church at all.)

If you have options, you will probably leave the group that you’re with when the going gets rough. This is why most groups who gather outside the traditional church disintegrate. It’s because people still have options. Or so they think they do.

The fact of the matter is, from heaven’s viewpoint, the church of the living God is not optional for you as a Christian. You and I belong in the counter-cultural community called the ekklesia. Unfortunately, we live in day where selecting a church is like trying on bathing suits. There are fifty-seven (or more) varieties from which to choose. Consequently, many contemporary Christians are church-hoppers and sermon-sippers. There’s little to no commitment or devotion to the Body of Christ in a given place.

Paul bemoaned the apathy among Christians in his day toward God’s passion for His church saying, “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” En. Philippians 2:21.

I’ll say it again: The church of Jesus Christ is not optional. As a child of the living God, it’s your responsibility to discover from Scripture what the church after His own heart looks like. And then search for it until you find it. To do any less is not only to miss out on the blessings of God. It’s also to find yourself in direct conflict with His revealed will.

God doesn’t lead you or me by our comfort zones nor by what feels good to us. He leads us in line with His will.

In John 6, we are told that many of Jesus’ disciples stopped following Him when they discovered that being a disciple was far more than what they had signed up for. The Lord then turned to the Twelve and said, “Will you leave also?” Peter’s response nicely sums up my sentiments about organic church life. He replied, “There’s no where else to go.”

      Peter was a man out of options.  

Perhaps the real lesson here is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only real option for us Christians. Everything else is a poor choice.

As Christians, we are spiritual creatures. We possess God’s life. As such, we have biological instincts. That’s the meaning of the new birth. Birth is the impartation of life. The new birth is the impartation of Divine life. God in Christ dwells in you and me by the Holy Spirit. To quote Peter, “we are partakers of the Divine nature.” En. 1 Peter 1:4

Because the Lord dwells inside of us, we have new instincts, new longings, and new urgings that the unregenerate do not have. These instincts, longings, and urges are biological. They are in us because God lives in us.

Before we met the Lord, there was a hollowing emptiness inside each of us. When we found Christ, that hallowing emptiness was filled. It was filled by Christ Himself. You’ve heard the popular evangelistic pitch that we all have a God-shaped hole deep within us, and only Christ can fill that God-shaped hole. Nothing else will satisfy it. That’s true. But it’s not the whole truth.

When I met the Lord Jesus Christ, one half of my being was fulfilled. But because I live in a day when Jesus Christ has been “split up” so to speak, there’s another half of me that went unfulfilled for years.

You see, when I got saved, I met the Head. But . . . I didn’t know the Body.

In the first century, the Head and the Body were not separated. When you met Christ, you met His Body, and you were immediately immersed into the experience of the Body of Christ.

In other words, when you were added to Christ, you were added to His church. When you found Christ, you found the community of the believers at the same time.

Today, however, the Head and the Body have been separated. Many know the Lord, but they do not know the experience of His Body.

Instead, they have adopted the Puritan covenantal view that the church is a voluntary association that helps Christians live a better individual Christian life. The New Testament, however, envisions the church to be the very Body of Christ wherein we live out our Christian lives together with other believers. A profoundly different view.

In the former view, church attendance is optional, though it’s encouraged. In the latter view, the church is not optional at all. And it’s not just about meetings. The church is a community. It’s a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a family . . . the very context in which we live our Christian life.

Augustine rightly called the Head and the Body the totus Christus, which means “the whole Christ.” In the words of N.T. Wright, “The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community.”

Sadly, the Biblical idea of church represents little more than a footnote in the modern evangelical gospel. Yet if one surveys the topography of Paul’s thought in the New Testament, they will discover that the church fills the whole volume and appears on every page.

So at my conversion, I met half of the Lord—I met the Head. But I didn’t know the Body until thirteen years later. And for that reason there was a deep longing inside me that yearned for spiritual fulfillment.

Based on my travels . . . as well as the mail I receive . . . scores of Christians who are in the traditional church experience this same unfulfillment. There is a longing, a tugging, a spiritual urge deep within that seeks fulfillment. Could it be that it’s the longing for the other half of Christ—the experience of His Body?

Methinks that it very well may be.

Our First Lord’s Supper

      I remember our first Lord’s supper. Some of us were terrified because there was no one “officiating.” As time went on, we discovered that the Lord’s supper was a Christ-centered fellowship meal rather than a token ritual. This moved it from a high-and-lofty clergy-authorized religious rite to a pot luck dinner shared by lesser mortals.

      Thus we began taking the Lord’s supper as a meal regularly. It was an important part of many of our meetings. What did it look like? A simple yet joyful potluck dinner that included the bread and the cup. A celebration feast remembering and honoring the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, participating in His body and blood.

      In the early years, we faced the problem of some believers contributing a great deal to the meal, while others contributed nothing at all. One brother in particular had a ministry to young people. So he would often bring a bundle of young people to the meetings without bringing any food for the Lord’s Supper. Many sisters in the church were quite troubled by this, and they eventually gave voice to it. (When the sisters are unhappy, the church had better do something quick or else. I won’t finish that sentence.)

      We eventually ironed the problem out. However, it was encouraging for us to know that the early Christians faced this same challenge. En. According to 1 Corinthians 11, there was tension between the rich Christians and the poor Christians in regard to the Lord’s Supper. This was but one example of a principle I learned early on: That if you gather in a New Testament fashion, you will begin to have New Testament problems.

      I also remember when we started baptizing people. It was a scary thing because we didn’t have a pastor or a clergyman overseeing us. A Scripture that helped us a great deal was in 1 Corinthians where Paul said that the brothers and sisters in Corinth did most of the baptizing in that town. He, the great apostle, baptized few. En. 1 Corinthians 1:14-17.

      So that first year was wonderful. But in the year that followed, things started to get dicey. We began to grate on one another’s nerves. At one point, churching together became so difficult that I resolved to leave. But on August 18, 1989, something happened that would prevent that. The Lord gave me a dream which revealed that I was not to entertain thoughts of leaving the group. So I stayed. Part of me was glad I did. Another part of me wished the dream was the result of bad pizza the night before.

      From 1988 to 1990, we sought to discover how to meet. We had two things going for us—a love for the Lord and a spirit of experimentation. We had hearts that were very open to learn. I later discovered this one thing. That if a group of people have open hearts toward God, and they are willing to be stretched in their views, beliefs, and practices, the Lord will have a clear path to work among them. If your heart is truly open to learn, He’ll actually teach you more than you wish to know.

      Throughout the years of 1990 and 1992, a specific burden for the poor began to grow within us. We helped one of the brothers purchase a home to house and minister to homeless men. More than a few homeless people were brought into Rodney’s house during those years.

      During that season, I learned everything I wanted to know (and what I didn’t want to know) about working with street people. It was a world I didn’t know existed. The church grew pretty quickly as a result. We brought a number of homeless men to the Lord, baptized them, and had special meetings where we instructed them in the faith. Not to mention doing all we could to rid them of their drug habits and helping them to land work (some of our efforts failed miserably).

      Two major lessons came out of that experience. The first was that it dawned on me that so many contemporary Christians separate individual piety from social concern. Yet the two go hand in hand.

      Echoing the words of Paul in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Interestingly, many Christians have focused on clause B “especially to those of the household of faith” and have ignored clause A “let us do good to all.” En. See also Titus 2:14. Significantly, Paul’s words to the Galatian Christians are the same that Luke used to describe the ministry of Jesus while He was on earth:


“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” En. Acts 10:38, NKJV.


      In the gospel of Luke, the ministry of Jesus is clearly outlined. En. Luke 4:18-19, NKJV


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”


      The above words came out of the Lord’s own mouth. He was referring to His unique mission on earth. En. Luke 4:20-22. The interesting thing is that Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. He is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” En. Hebrews 13:8. Consequently, a church cannot boast that it is expressing Christ if it has no concern for the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, the oppressed and if it’s not engaged in “doing good to all.”

      The reality is, Jesus Christ hasn’t changed. What He did on earth reflects His unchanging nature. He still wishes to do the same things through His Body today. Please notice that I didn’t say that He wants us to do these things. Not so. He wants to continue to do them through us.

      Doing good is not an activity. It’s the expression of a life form. Only God is good, and what He does is good. When the church lives by the Divine life that inhabits her, she also does good. So when a church truly lives by Christ, it will express Him in the same way that He expressed His Father on earth.

      The second lesson I learned had to do with the affinities and antipathies between the “ministry” and the “church” (albeit, some of these lessons came out of much conflict and dialogue over the issue).

      Once a week, we would go out to a park in the city to play butler to the homeless. We would feed them and share Christ with them. As time went on, one of the brothers became increasingly passionate about ministry to the homeless. So much so that he felt it should be the central focus of the church. Most of the other saints didn’t agree. This created a conflict, and it grew more tense as the days passed on.

      I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. It was this: People in the church need to feel free to pursue their dreams and their callings.

      If your dream is to feed the homeless, you should be free to pursue it. If your dream is to share the gospel on the streets, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to work for social justice in your neighborhood, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to help pregnant teens, or to help curb abortion, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to engage in apologetics with college students, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to care for children or bless the elderly, you should feel free to pursue it. If your dream is to fight pornography, you should feel free to pursue it. And as much as it lies within the other brothers and sisters, they should support you.

      But here’s the rub. Not everyone in the church may share your specific burden. And that’s okay. They should be free not to pursue your dream. And if they don’t, that doesn’t make them less spiritual than you are.

      This poses a serious test for many devoted Christians. Your reaction to those who don’t share your specific passion could mean the destruction of your church. It could also mean a bloody split. Or it could mean that the Lord will get His way in you.

      Point of advice: Be faithful to your burden, but never pressure others to embrace it. And never present ultimatums over it. Your reaction is everything. It will either build the church or destroy it.

      Pursue your dreams in the church. But do not demand or pressure your brothers and sisters to share those dreams. They may not. Just as you have the freedom to pursue your burden, they have the freedom to pursue theirs. And they may not be the same. It took us a long while and lots of hurt feelings to learn that lesson.

      (Years later, I learned a related lesson that had to with the seasons of an organic church. We’ll discuss that lesson in Chapter 12. I also discovered what I call “servant groups.” A servant group is a group of two to six people in the church who share the same burden to serve a specific group of people in the community or to take on a specific redemptive mission. A church, therefore, may have a servant group for the elderly, a servant group for the homeless, a servant group for pregnant teens, etc.)

      During that season of ministry to the homeless, I discovered another important principle. There’s a beautiful illustration of it at the end of John 21. In that passage, we find Jesus charging Peter with some specific responsibilities. In so doing, He also mentions how Peter will die. Peter’s response is all too human. He points to John and asks Jesus, “What about him?”

      The Lord’s reply is telling. He essentially says, “What I do with John is not your concern. You have but one concern—that you follow me.”

      These words have echoed within me virtually every time I’ve been tempted to concern myself with what others are doing (or not doing) for the Lord. Especially in those areas where I felt wronged or where I was shouldering the full responsibility for something, when others were shirking it.

      I am the steward of my own obedience to the Lord, not the steward of someone else’s. You and I are the master of our own obedience. The lord of our own self-denial. Our part is to follow Christ. That should be our concentration. What others do (or not do) is the Lord’s business, not ours. As Paul said, “But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load.” En. Of course, this principle doesn’t apply to situations when someone is committing gross sin in the church. The New Testament is clear that in such cases, it is the responsibility of the members to take responsibility for such problems (1 Corinthians 5; Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:13-14). 

See also: 

The origin of the term organic church goes back to T.A. Sparks.


Frank Viola’s Early Testimony


      From the ages of sixteen to twenty-three, I traversed the landscape of evangelical Christianity. I became part of the following denominations: Southern Baptist, Independent Baptist (a completely different species from the Southern Baptists), Mennonite, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of Christ (non-instrumental), Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Assemblies of God, Church of God, and countless stripes of charismatic Christianity, including Word-Faith, Third-Wave, Open Bible, and Vineyard.

      Granted, it’s a queer mix. But it gave me a broad view of the existing theological terrain. And it furnished me with some rich ground for future spiritual exploration.

      In addition to the litany of denominations I sampled, I was part of five parachurch organizations at the University that I attended. In addition, I (along with some other students) created our own parachurch organization.

      Why had I moved through so many different Christian organizations? The answer is that I was on a journey. I was looking for more of my Lord. And although I didn’t realize it back then, I was on a quest for the church after God’s own heart.

      My journey followed a consistent pattern. I would find Christ in one group, but as time went on, the group couldn’t take me any further into Him. The experience quickly wore out, and I was left hungering for more of the Lord. So I would join another group that held promise of teaching me a new aspect of Christ. But as time went on, that new adventure grew perfunctory. This cycle continued unabated for years.

      I was a desperate young man wanting to learn Christ in all of His depths. It was this desperation that led me across the Protestant landscape. When I was twenty years old, however, something was placed into my hands that gave me hope that my cycle of church hopping would one day come to an end.

      It was June of 1985. A friend of mine handed me a book by a Chinese Christian named Watchman Nee. The title of the book—The Normal Christian Life.

      I devoured it. It was unlike anything I have ever heard or read. I found Nee’s remarkable gift for presenting spiritual truth in a clear and practical way to be extremely refreshing and challenging. But there was something more that I discovered in reading the book. I tasted that for which I had hungered. “Deep was calling unto deep,” and I connected with some intangible element that I was searching for in the deepest parts of my being.

      I didn’t know it then, but Jesus Christ was ministered to me through that book.

      Indeed, The Normal Christian Life proved life changing for me. It introduced me to an uncommon insight into the Lord that I didn’t know existed. (Many years would pass before I read more of Watchman Nee’s books.)

      That book left a deep imprint on me. It brought me face-to-face with a new dimension of spiritual life and understanding. One that would mark the rest of my Christian life.