I “MISSED” GOD’S CALLING
By Tony F.
I “MISSED” GOD’S CALLING:
AFTER PROPHECIES THAT I’D PLANT A CHURCH DIDN’T COME TO PASS, I JOINED CITY LIGHTS’ BOARD AFTER WE LEFT THE NETWORK
- Author: Tony F. | Church Planter Candidate, City Lights Board Member, Small Group Leader
- Network Churches attended:
- Vine Church (Vineyard Church), Carbondale, IL | 2000-2004
- City Lights Church, St. Louis, MO | 2005-'07 / 2013-'21 (City Lights exited The Network in 2018)
- This story was published June, 2022
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
CARBONDALE VINEYARD (2000-2004)
I walked into Vineyard Church in Carbondale a couple of months after starting my undergrad in the fall of 2000. I didn’t grow up going to church and had only recently become a Christian in my last year of high school. Carbondale Vineyard was small, the people I met were genuine, and the experience was memorable in a good way. I quickly joined a small group and began making friends.
Over the next three and a half years, I would lead small groups, see friends I invited come to faith, and become more and more involved at the church. The church experienced a lot of growth in these 3 ½ years. I don’t know the precise numbers, but the church grew by many hundred people, and many new pastors came on staff (Ben Powers, Scott Joseph, Greg Darling & Aaron Khunert come to mind). All of these except Ben continue as pastors in the Network to this day. Church planting became more of a focus during this time (City Lights and Clearview were planted in 2003) and I was among those ‘identified’ as a future church planting pastor.
At some point in late-2002 I was “identified” by Steve as a future church planting pastor.
Instead of things being kept quiet, as I’ve understood from the stories that I’ve read, Steve Morgan would speak openly about what he felt God’s plan was for someone’s life. At some point in late-2002 I was “identified” by Steve as a future church planting pastor. I was included in a small group of other young men who would travel to Steve’s speaking engagements at other Vineyard retreats and conferences. I had opportunities to meet regularly with Steve and the other pastors. “Prophetic” words were shared (both publicly and privately) around my supposed church planting calling. As this word got around the relatively small church, it encouraged others to pray and speak similar things over me. I was never comfortable with public attention, but I remember having a genuine desire to lead and serve in the church.
A roadblock in fulfilling the “prophecies” about me entering into ministry was my military scholarship which obligated me to serve for at least four years after I graduated from college. While I was convinced that I was called into church planting, I was committed to the military (something they take rather seriously). The spring of 2004 came, and I parted ways with Carbondale, Vineyard Church, Steve Morgan, and the many friends I had made at SIU. In the same month, Steve and the Blue Sky plant team left for Seattle; my wife and I got married and went to an Air Force Base hundreds of miles away from the Midwest.
I was told that other churches simply “didn’t get it,” and I needed to be ready to lower my expectations, hold my nose, and find a church that was “good enough” until I could find my way back to a more familiar church.
A few specific stories continue to stick in my memory from this period. The first was how I was talked to by Steve Morgan and the other pastors about finding a new church as my time in Carbondale ended. They would regularly tell me that it would be “impossible” for me to find a church that was “like this one.” Of specific focus was the style of worship and approach to prayer ministry/prophecy. I was told that other churches simply “didn’t get it,” and I needed to be ready to lower my expectations, hold my nose, and find a church that was “good enough” until I could find my way back to a more familiar church. I look back on this time with regret that I wasn’t able to resist and push back with biblical support for why this was an arrogant and sinful way to see the Bride of Christ. I was under their influence, and instead of preparing me to be a faithful member of another local church, they continued to set the expectation that Carbondale Vineyard was right and anything outside of it was less right (and, at the extreme, downright wrong).
The other recollection that comes to mind is what Steve specifically shared with me during the months leading up to Blue Sky being planted. The night the church plant was announced (late-2003, perhaps?) Steve approached me and apologized explicitly for not telling me about this news in advance. I genuinely didn’t expect he would say anything to me before it was announced, and I told him I didn’t think it was a big deal. The second interaction that I recall was the night of the sendoff in April or May 2004. While we were saying goodbye to everyone leaving on the plant, Steve specifically told me that I was “one of his favorites.” I have a vivid recollection of this memory because it was outside of the context of our relationship to that point. Throughout my time at the church in Carbondale, my relationship with Steve was primarily focused on serving and leading in the church. Any of Steve’s attention was oriented around church work and my supposed calling as a future pastor. It was already clear that I was leaving Carbondale for the military at this point, so I don’t know what motivated him to say this. In hindsight, it seems like something that could be said to manipulate someone, although, at the time, it didn’t seem that way to me.
As my time in Carbondale ended, Steve Morgan and the other pastors would regularly tell me that it would be “impossible” for me to find a church that was “like this one.”
Before I move on, I want to pause to reflect on my time in Carbondale from 2000 to 2004. As I’ve read in a few other stories on this site, I also remember this time fondly. My recollection of the church was a group of people who genuinely and passionately followed Jesus. In hindsight, I question some of the theological stances and elitist attitudes that began to develop in my last year, including skepticism about dating relationships with Christians outside the church. In general though, it was well-meaning and life-giving. The roots of the abuse and dysfunction many of us would experience trace back to this time; I’m confident it does. However, if I end my story in May 2004, I would have hardly anything critical or negative to say. I was genuinely sad to leave.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK
CITY LIGHTS CHURCH (2005-2007)
After about a year and a half away from this group of churches (which were still associated with the Vineyard movement), I got the news that I was being reassigned to a base about 20 miles outside of St. Louis. I don’t remember concrete details of the discussions, but I was eager to share this news with Steve Morgan and Ben Powers (founding pastor of City Lights). City Lights was planted about three years before this, was still meeting in rented space, and, despite Steve Morgan’s push for Network churches to cater to college students, had not taken hold with the Washington University population.
At one of the first team meetings I attended at City Lights, I was introduced to people as a “future church planter.”
If my time in Carbondale had created the “square peg,” the circumstances in St. Louis were the “round hole” for both me and City Lights. At one of the first team meetings I attended, I was introduced to people as a “future church planter.” While I still believed this to be accurate, it certainly wasn’t a comfortable way to meet people who had been at the church for years before I arrived. I share that small story (it was one of many) because it set the tone for me and my wife’s involvement at City Lights. Even though we lived a solid 35-minute drive from the neighborhood the church was in, we immediately began serving all-in on Sundays, leading a small group and helping with whatever odds and ends needed to be done. From my recollection, there was a lot of physical, organizational, and ministry work to do. The church was planted with only a handful of people and barely any money in the bank, so it didn’t have a feeling of a stable or fully-planted church even three years in.
When I had the chance to leave active duty and join the National Guard in St. Louis in late-2006, I took it. My wife and I moved into the city, I found a new day job, and we continued to serve and lead at City Lights. During this same season, I also became a member of the board at City Lights. This was not a pastoral role, instead, I was supposed to help with decisions about best practices for running the church. However, Steve and Ben made all those decisions and the board was never empowered to make choices that didn’t align with Steve’s vision or direction. I realize this sounds crazy. In retrospect, it is a major red flag for me. At the time though it felt like Steve was helping us and City Lights really needed help to become a more established church.
While I was a board member at City Lights Church, Steve Morgan and lead pastor Ben Powers made all the decisions and the board was never empowered to make choices that didn’t align with Steve’s vision or direction.
Then, in early 2007, my father died unexpectedly. I’m not from St. Louis, which meant I was traveling regularly to be with my family and care for all the loose ends that come from a tragic situation like this one. My mother was employed part-time, and my younger brother was still in college. In addition to the grief, there was a genuine concern about being able to support my family through this massive transition for all of us. The small group I was leading at City Lights went on an indefinite pause, and I had to come off the serving schedule on Sunday mornings.
During this time in the first half of 2007, it became glaringly evident that the friendships I had with the other leaders at City Lights were based more on our mutual obligation to the organization than on our relationship through Christ as brothers. The struggle and pressure to plant the church meant that transactional relationships between leaders were the norm. Within a month after my father passed away, things went back to “business as usual” with board meetings, serving schedules, and an expectation that my attendance was needed at church functions. I don’t remember anything outright abusive happening leading up to this, but the foundation that had been built was more focused on church planting than on our shared relationship to the person and work of Jesus. During this time and the following months that I was grieving and struggling with depression, I had fewer and fewer interactions with the other leaders at City Lights. The pressure to grow the church meant I was out of the loop while they struggled to keep up with the church work, and I tried to find space to grieve.
It became glaringly evident that the friendships I had with the other leaders at City Lights were based more on our mutual obligation to the organization than on our relationship through Christ as brothers.
Given the circumstances and time that has passed since then, it is hard to remember specific details, but I know that many people from our small group and across the church brought us meals, asked us how we were, and genuinely showed love and concern. Because of the way leadership is structured in The Network, even these gracious acts were received in a way that felt transactional. I don’t believe they were intended to be that way, but the leader/follower dynamic had been so turned upside down in this situation that I didn’t know how to receive care from someone I was “leading.” After several months, I was still struggling to lead and function in the way that was expected. It led to something of a crisis of belief, which is when things took a turn for the worse.
I asked to be taken out of all leadership and serving positions to give myself space to care for my family and process the death of my dad. I had been escalated to many places of leadership, and it was public knowledge that I was ‘called’ to be a pastor. Still, I was not even 25, had only been a Christian for six years, and didn’t have any theological training to help put these challenges into context. Again, the details are fuzzy looking back 15 years, but I remember many discussions with the leaders at City Lights leading up to that decision to step down. My hope was that stepping down would allow time to recover and grow in my faith at City Lights without feeling the pressure to lead others.
I had been escalated to many places of leadership, and it was public knowledge that I was ‘called’ to be a pastor. Still, I was not even 25, had only been a Christian for six years, and didn’t have any theological training to help put these challenges into context.
After I stepped down from leadership, I almost immediately stopped hearing from the other leaders in the church. I remember attending the Sunday service immediately following the decision to step down and wasn’t even greeted by the pastors that day. I don’t think this was an intentional ‘shunning,’ but instead was a result of the heavy focus on church planting that led to transactional relationships and a focus on the work of organizational growth over the work of ministry…the actual work Jesus calls all Christians to. Things unraveled quickly after this, and by late-2007, my wife and I decided to no longer participate as members at City Lights.
To add insult to injury, after I left City Lights, I stopped hearing from anyone still at the church and was even questioned by friends still at Vine Church in Carbondale about my reasons. It was hard for anyone to believe that things went down the way they did, and there was a heavy implication that it must have all been my fault or imagination.
I have found myself wondering more recently how much of my feeling that City Lights (and The Network) had no real use for me after I stepped down from leadership was my own interpretation of the events. Without a doubt, I could have handled my exit better, but I’ve come to realize that the strain from feeling unsuccessful by Network standards under these circumstances contributed to the way we all were reacting. Having re-connected with Ben and other leaders from this time, I can now see how difficult this situation was for everyone involved. The pressure to plant a church in the image of The Network and the types of relationships that it bred made it difficult for any of us to think and act in a Christ-centered way.
The pressure to plant a church in the image of The Network and the types of relationships that it bred made it difficult for any of us to think and act in a Christ-centered way.
This all was playing out when The Network was just coming into existence. City Lights had left The Vineyard association in the year prior, but there wasn’t any organization like there is today. However, Steve Morgan still had a key leadership role as the budding overseer for the other churches that left The Vineyard during this same timeframe. I had never heard of anyone else having these types of concerns or experiences with what would become The Network, so I assumed that mine was a one-off set of circumstances that led to this. My impression was that many people believed that the leaders in this group of churches could do no wrong. In hindsight, I think this was the beginning of the types of stories we sadly hear so much about at this point.
THE NON-NETWORK YEARS (2008-2013)
The next few years that followed were a spiritual desert for me which led to some deconstruction-esque processing. In the end, I found myself still having core Christian beliefs but with less understanding of how to actually live that out, especially in the context of the local church.
Relationships at our new church developed slowly and naturally while walking a beautiful line between acceptance of those of us on the fringe and being unapologetic about what they believed the Bible said about any part of belief or practice.
In 2011, my wife and I attended a small Presbyterian church a few neighborhoods away from our house. It was pretty different from Vine or City Lights (or a few churches we went to in the years leading up to this time). The music was hymn-based, there was a strong emphasis on sound doctrine, and the preaching was focused on the Bible speaking for itself (not reading an agenda into it). The pastor had an advanced degree in theology and took his responsibility to preach seriously. He wrote his sermons down to make sure he communicated the truth from the Bible as clearly and accurately as possible. The most striking distinction between this church and the Network churches I had been involved with was their approach to relationships. Relationships developed slowly and naturally while walking a beautiful line between acceptance of those of us on the fringe and being unapologetic about what they believed the Bible said about any part of belief or practice. Through my experiences with the people at this church, I began to re-assemble and grow my faith that had started to fall apart in 2007.
CITY LIGHTS CHURCH (2013-2018)
When Jeff Miller moved to St. Louis in mid-2013 to become the lead pastor of City Lights, we began to reconnect over lunches and coffees. Jeff and I had crossed paths at Carbondale Vineyard in the early 2000s, and while we were not close friends during that time, we had a shared experience that led to us quickly making friends after he moved to St. Louis. I told him the story of what happened six years prior at City Lights, and while I don’t recall his exact response, he did share that it was a different story than the one he had heard through the Network leaders which pointed much of the cause for the falling out onto me. Nevertheless, Jeff was welcoming and didn’t hold any preconceptions against me.
After many months of reconnecting, and with no pressure from Jeff, my wife and I decided to begin attending City Lights again. When we left in 2007, this group was genuinely the no-name, loosely affiliated group of churches they still claim to be. We generally knew about the recent leadership transition at City Lights, but didn’t fully understand everything that had transpired with The Network after we left or what form The Network leadership had taken on. It would take a few years for us to experience how much the “loosely affiliated” nature of The Network had begun to shift.
From 2013 to roughly-2015, things seemed ‘normal’ at City Lights. Jeff had (and still has) a genuinely authentic, low-pressure leadership style. There was no expectation to lead, serve, or perform in any way. We had declined to attend any Network conferences as part of the boundaries and slow approach my wife and I had decided on, but I did begin leading a small group. Group nights would look familiar to anyone with a background in the Network, but I wasn’t leading in a manipulative way and wasn’t being asked or pressured to.
In what would turn out to be our last conversation, Steve Morgan asserted that I had previously been called by God to be a church planting pastor, but because of the circumstances that played out I had missed that opportunity.
This period of time also marks the last conversation I had with Steve Morgan. Steve was in the midwest for a conference or retreat and I had the chance to sit down and talk to him. Over the 2-3 years I had been back at City Lights at that point, it became impossible not to wonder what I should make of the words that had been spoken over and over back in Carbondale that I was called to be a church planting pastor. I was less interested in being a church planter at that point, but did want to make sense of how prayer and prophecy were being used and what role they had (or maybe should not have) in church life. The stand-out memory from this conversation was Steve’s assertion was that I had been called to be a church planting pastor, but because of the circumstances that played out I had missed that opportunity. (This opens a Pandora’s box around God’s sovereignty, the trustworthiness of the model of prophecy and prayer ministry in The Network, etc….a discussion for a different time, perhaps) Despite his claim that I had missed out, what happened next was to be an unprecedented re-imagining of what City Lights was.
Things changed drastically in the 2015-2016 timeframe when two new associate pastors (Stephen Putbrese & Brent Woosley) were brought on staff. Both of these men had been a part of Vine Church as college students, had moved to St. Louis for professional opportunities (in a Network Church town, of course), and at some point since arriving in St. Louis were identified by Steve Morgan as pastors and church planters (much like I had been, 15 years earlier). During this time, the approach at City Lights shifted to a much more aggressive focus on growth (attendance and giving) and reaching a goal of 500 people to plant churches out of City Lights. Discipleship Communities, an organizational structure for small groups (and a pastoral training ground, in my opinion) were established as well. My new leader was Stephen, someone I had become friends with before he was a pastor. Our friendship shifted after he took on this role, but not in a way where I sensed a new level of pastoral care. It seemed like there was a new, formal structure and “job” that now had to be done instead.
After two new pastors who were previously part of Vine Church in Carbondale were brought on staff at City Lights, the approach at City Lights shifted to a much more aggressive focus on growth (attendance and giving) and reaching a goal of 500 people to plant churches out of City Lights.
During this season, I remember attendance being tracked in small group, Membership Bible Training becoming a required event for membership, and a much more heavy-handed approach to getting members ‘on board’ with serving, being committed, etc. As a small group leader, I felt I was being asked to coerce people to change their behavior because “that’s what it means to be a member in a Network church.” I was eager to serve and lead, but I had done transactional church relationships before and wasn’t ready to return. After a year of resisting these changes (both subtly and openly), I stepped down as a small group leader. While I enjoyed leading and supporting those in my small group, this repeat of my earlier experience in The Network wasn’t something I could do with a clear conscience.
My time at City Lights in 2017 was painful. I had a sense of belonging, had made friends since returning in 2013, and was well cared for by Jeff, but I found the approach being taken by the new pastors difficult to stomach. One specific memory was during a Discipleship Community night, where Stephen was telling the group how important it was to show up on time when you were scheduled to serve on a Sunday. He went on to connect the dots between people showing up late, causing him stress, which in turn caused him to have an argument with his wife. There wasn’t even a feeble connection between serving and “the mission,” just a middle manager trying to get people to feel bad enough to serve out of compulsion.
I had a sense of belonging, had made friends since returning in 2013, and was well cared for by Jeff, but I found the approach being taken by the new pastors difficult to stomach.
Having read some of the other stories on LTN, 2017 at City Lights had some of the typical Network leadership flavors with a specifically heavy focus on “getting people on board” with how to “do church.” A lot of time and energy was spent (by the two newer pastors specifically) handing out granola bars at the local college campuses and setting up a rides team to help bring college students in the door. Some came, but the church was still made up mostly of non-students. The pressure to conform to the image of a Network church continued, and I found it draining, even in a non-leadership role. Hearing stories from others in the church in the years that would follow, this was an exhausting time for many.
WHY I LEFT THE NETWORK (AGAIN)
CITY LIGHTS' NETWORK EXIT (2018)
City Lights Church left The Network under the insistence of The Network leadership in May 2018 after Jeff Miller challenged their stance of obedience in all things great and small. Jeff reached out to me as he made his rounds through the church members a couple of days prior to the public announcement at the next Sunday service. The details shocked me. The two associate pastors that had been installed in 2015-2016 had immediately resigned from their positions at City Lights and accepted positions at Vine Church in Carbondale. I’ve not seen or spoken to either of them since before that day in May 2018. One of them was leading the youth group at City Lights, they both were leading Discipleship Communities and had oversight of dozens of members in the church (myself and my family included). The pastors didn’t attend the Sunday when their departure was announced to the church. They just left and never came back. I reached out to Stephen a number of times in the week that followed and never heard back from him. There was a rumor that the Network leaders instructed them to take this approach. That seems consistent with what I’ve read about how The Network operates, but I can’t be certain that actually happened.
When City Lights Church left The Network, the two associate pastors who had been installed in 2015-2016 (Stephen Putbrese & Brent Woosley) immediately resigned from their positions at City Lights and accepted positions at Vine Church in Carbondale.
As a very brief aside, I imagine I will always remember what it felt like immediately after that first Sunday as an independent church in May 2018. Instead of making a run for the doors, the auditorium buzzed for nearly an hour after the service ended. While most had heard the news from Jeff in the days leading up to Sunday, some were understandably still troubled at the nature of this overnight change. Tears were shed and tough questions were voiced. Others, like myself, could already sense the tangible freedom in the air. While we didn’t know exactly what the future would hold, the compulsion to conform to the image of an organization we were simply not meant to be was very likely a thing of the past. There would still be hard days and difficulty making sense of what had transpired, but I was convinced that City Lights was going to be OK after that experience that morning.
In the days and weeks that would follow, none of the Network leaders reached out to the congregation to explain to us their position on the topic or to warn us. In retrospect, I don’t believe anything was worth being warned about, but I was confused that they found it necessary to force City Lights out of their fellowship without communicating with any of the members that something serious had occurred. None of The Network pastors or leaders I had a personal relationship with all those years prior reached out to me personally either. The Network makes it seem like everyone is one big family. In City Lights’ departure there wasn’t a shred of actual, pastoral care to be found by anyone in leadership that still associates themselves with The Network. In the same way people that don’t fit the mold just perfectly are run off by their local leaders, the entire City Lights congregation was shown the door overnight and not expected to ever look back or wonder what just happened.
In the same way people that don’t fit The Network mold just perfectly are run off by their local leaders, the entire City Lights congregation was shown the door overnight and not expected to ever look back or wonder what just happened.
It makes me think about when I was written off. Was it when I first left Carbondale in 2004? Maybe when serving and leading became too much in 2007, and I had to step down from my positions of leadership? Was it when I stopped leading small groups in 2016 after challenging the Network-centric approach to behavior modification-focused leadership? Or was it the final straw in 2018 when those in power in the Network decided they had enough not just of me, but of our entire congregation?
SINCE LEAVING THE NETWORK
BECOMING AN INDEPENDENT CHURCH (2018-2021)
Although some people decided to leave City Lights as a result of the change of affiliation with The Network, the vast majority of the members and attenders continued to call City Lights home. In the second half of 2018, the members of the church nominated elder candidates to serve on the board of the church as well as operate in a pastoral role. I was nominated and installed as an elder in early 2019 along with two others. Of the five board members, I was one of three that maintained a non-church day job. Unlike my previous experience on the board at City Lights, we were all equally empowered and accountable to lead and shepherd the church together.
Unlike my previous experience on the board at City Lights, we were all equally empowered and accountable to lead and shepherd the church together.
It was humbling to serve in this role, and while I’m certain I wasn’t a perfect leader, it was exciting to help reframe the priorities of the church as well as formalize some of the systems and structures that would allow for more transparency and less possibility for hurtful leadership. There was a renewed focus on the Gospel message, our unity with other churches (even those that were very different that ours, but still held to historic, credal beliefs), and transparency in decisions that were being made by the elders.
When I stepped down from this position in late-2021 to follow what my wife and I could best understand as God’s intention for us to attend a church more local to our neighborhood, the process was loving and gracious. I was invited by the other elders to speak directly to the congregation after a Sunday service to share the news and stayed a member of the board for a few additional months to help make sure the transition was as smooth as possible. I’ve stayed friends with many of the members of City Lights and have even helped advise the board on a few areas that I had not fully transitioned before I stepped down. I’m thankful that our friendships are based in Christ and a desire for even the churches we don’t go to to be healthy and faithful.
Up until City Lights was given an ultimatum to conform or leave in 2018, I thought my negative experiences with The Network were fairly unique or mostly because of something internal to me. It is only after leaving and hearing stories from other members of City Lights about the pressure they felt to conform, the fear they experienced in disappointing a leader, or how hard it was to exert their will to say “no” to attending an event that it started to hit home for me.
Since reading the stories on LTN and reconnecting with people I attended church with in the past, it has become impossible not to speak out. In the same way I found it inconsistent that the leaders would kick City Lights out of their beloved Network and not warn the congregation or offer any explanation to those of us affected; it would be inconsistent for me to have seen and experienced everything I did and not allow this to be shared with those that are considering, involved, or recovering from their involvement in one of these churches.
It would be inconsistent for me to have seen and experienced everything I did and not allow this to be shared with those that are considering, involved, or recovering from their involvement in one of these churches.
I decided to share my story because I hope it can be a tiny reflection of the Gospel story that provides me so much grace and hope when I deserve absolutely none. If you’re reading this and can recall a time that I’ve offended, misled, or hurt you, I sincerely apologize and would be open to do so more personally. If you’re willing, I would be eager to talk about it in whatever way you feel comfortable. My phone and email haven’t changed since 2006, and I post openly on the LTN subreddit. Maybe we’ve never met and you’re trying to make sense of your experience. If you think I can help, please reach out. And as strongly as I feel that The Network’s approach and leaders are misguided at best and antithetical to the Gospel at worst, I refuse to hold a grudge. I’m willing to have a conversation and extend forgiveness in whatever imperfect way I can with anyone who is willing.