Waiting on God
October 1, 2003 - What was a small, struggling congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y. has grown into a mighty force for Christ during the past 30 years. "Decision" recently spoke with Pastor Jim Cymbala about the phenomenal things God has done through people who simply wait on Him for guidance and strength.
by Jim Dailey
Q: What's God doing today at the Brooklyn Tabernacle?
A: God is doing what He's been doing since we began more than 30 years ago, only on a much larger scale. In 1971 we came to a run-down building with about two dozen people in downtown Brooklyn, and the Lord started to help us and teach us a lot of things, especially about prayer. He dealt with our hearts about seeing people the way He sees them, and lives began to be changed.
That's what is still happening today. We are in a new facility, a renovated theater in Brooklyn that we moved into about a year ago. It's only about a mile from our former location and was built in 1918. At that time it was the largest theater in the United States, seating 4,100 people. We used to have four, two-hour services every Sunday for six years while we were trying to find our new church home. We now have three services, and throngs of people are coming. They are poor and needy, which is perfect for the Gospel. We're seeing lives changed and miraculous things happen. We go out into the highways and byways with literature teams and cars with sound systems to bring in people who need to come under the hearing of the Gospel.
Q: What do you sense in the hearts of people as they come to worship and seek Christ at the Tabernacle?
A: For the believers, I see gratitude, joy and a spirit of thanksgiving. They are very mindful of what God has done for them. They live in a hostile spiritual environment. They don't have much of this world's goods. Some of them live in neighborhoods where the police are not so anxious to go. When the service ends, they are not racing out of the building—you wouldn't want to race home either. Well-known Bible teachers and pastors of large churches say to me, "Where did you find these people with this kind of love and zeal for Christ?" It's God's grace that has changed them.
On the other hand, we are constantly faced with people who are in such spiritual distress. You see the ravages of sin. We just had a cross-dresser come into our church a few months ago. He came in as Francine, dressed totally in women's clothes. Wonderfully, he later received Christ as his Savior. Now he comes to church as Frank, the way God made him as a man. He's gotten rid of his female clothes, and he's being discipled. Just the other day, some of the people discipling him had a surprise birthday party for him after the last service. There has been such a dramatic change—it is something only Jesus Christ can do.
Q: Brooklyn Tabernacle is quite a diverse church, isn't it?
A: It sure is. My wife Carol leads our Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. She can't read music, but the choir has five Grammy Awards. Just in the choir, you see a microcosm of the whole church, where we have doctors and lawyers singing next to people who have lived very different lifestyles, but God has put them all together. This is the best testimony of a church.
To me, personally, I think we've really missed the mark when we want people to go home and talk about the beauty of the church building, or the pulpiteering, or anything else that takes away from the glory of God. What we are praying for and working toward is that when people leave, they are not aware so much of my name or the choir, but they say, "Wow, God is in that place, and He loves me and can change my life!"
Q: Much of your work is obviously geared to the needs and culture of the inner city. How is that different from the ministry of the suburban church?
A: The inner cities of our country are filled with needy people. In a sense, they have become a forgotten and lost mission field. When there is a strong minority population and a lot of people with problems, instead of showing the real power of the Gospel, the Church has been lukewarm in ministering the love of Christ. Franklin Graham and I discussed this when he came to speak at one of our services recently. Just because people are poor and have problems with drugs, alcohol and broken homes, that's not a thing to run from.
Charles Spurgeon said that when a jeweler shows his best diamonds, he usually lays them against black velvet because it's the contrast that brings out the luster of the diamond. That's the way it is with God. For example, God took the Apostle Paul, a persecutor of the Church and an enemy of the cross, and turned him into the greatest apostle.
Q: What are some of the ways you reach out to the poor and oppressed?
A: Right now, a great challenge that is before us is completing a 100,000 square-foot learning center across the street from the church. This will house our youth center. If you talk to any pastor in New York City who knows what's going on, reaching youth is the greatest challenge. The gangster rap culture, drugs, gangs, broken homes, lack of parental control—you stir that all together, and you have a mess. Kids are belligerent. The lure of gangs and drugs and illicit sex is so strong. The new youth center will enable us to reach kids on a 24/7 basis eventually. We will have a place where youth can come, and rather than doing crack, they can learn about Christ.
We have a powerful ministry called Mercy Ministries that offers outreaches through our church in literacy, GED and English as a Second Language. We offer classes free of charge to the community. We do it now by the hundreds, and when we get into the new facility, God willing, we'll do it by the thousands. Participants learn to read by reading the book of John. Many have found the Lord, and many have become church members. Many of these are very poor people. We treat them with dignity and love, and they hear the Gospel and are taught by Christians. They see that we have no "angle" and that we don't want their money.
We also have an outreach to young children called Royal Family Kids Camp. We recently had 100 of the worst sexually abused kids in the social services system at a camp for a week. We need almost one-to-one supervision because of the behavioral problems and pain in these kids' lives. We love them and give them each a birthday party. We collect toys from the congregation so that we can give them presents. Some of them have never had a birthday party in their lives. In this new learning center, because of the space, we will be able to hold camps several times a month instead of once a year.
Q: What led you to come in the early 1970s to what was then a struggling, run-down, inner-city church?
A: I was born and raised in Brooklyn. When I got out of college, I worked in the business world for a while and then was married to a minister's daughter. Through a long series of events, the Lord brought me into the ministry without going to seminary. But, through a lot of reading and training that continues to this day, I try to learn about God. My teachers have been people like R. A. Torrey, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody and G. Campbell Morgan.
My wife, Carol, and I began ministry with the Tabernacle in 1971. She couldn't read or write music, but she has a tremendous gift of playing, perfect pitch, and the perfect ear for music. Her music, chorally, is being sung around the country. People are performing music from the albums the choir makes. Carol still cannot read or write music, and I still have not gone to Bible school. So, when God has used us in any way, it reinforces the biblical principle that He uses the weak things and the foolish things. He is not looking for ability but for availability.
Q: How did you and Carol make it through the early years at the church when your resources were limited and the needs were so great?
A: I remember a time when I had been sick for many weeks and went to Florida to spend some time with my in-laws to rest and recuperate. The church had grown from the 18-20 people we inherited to maybe 50 or 60 people, and I was laboring to try and make it grow. In those days, it seemed you either had to have a bus ministry or a small-group fellowship to see God grow your church. Well, I couldn't buy or rent a bus, and if someone wanted to go to church, there were plenty of buses going to downtown Brooklyn. Home fellowship groups were impractical in the inner city.
I was thinking about all of this while I was recovering in Florida. One day I decided to get on a fishing boat and get away for a few hours. I went to one end of the boat and began to pray and ask God, "What do I do? I don't know homiletics from a ham sandwich. Lord, show me why You placed us here. What do I do?"
You talk about the Lord drawing near! It was the closest thing to an audible experience that I have ever had. The Spirit of God spoke to my spirit. He impressed on my heart that if Carol and I would just lead the people to pray and call out to God as people did in the book of Acts, He would take care of every sermon, provide all the money we needed, and there would never be a church large enough to contain all the people that He would bring in. Because it was the Lord speaking to me, I just began to weep. I wept for a couple of hours and couldn't stop, not out of sadness or even joy, but because the presence of God was so real to me.
Q: And God led you to establish prayer as the backbone of the church.
A: That it was the real turning point for our church, I would say. We made Tuesday night a prayer service, and it became the engine that would drive the church. We made it the most important service of the week. Things began to happen as God answered prayer and people's lives began to change. The prayer meeting grew from maybe 10 people who came to the first meeting to where now we have a prayer band of at least a hundred people who are at the church praying 24 hours a day. Thousands come on Tuesday night.
God answers prayer! We know from the Bible that when prayer is done in faith and humility, it draws greater influences of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit we can't do the work of God effectively. We know from past revivals that when people give themselves to prayer and express their needs to God and wait on Him, God shows Himself strong through preaching and through dramatic conversions. That is a fact of spiritual life that is almost nonexistent in people's minds today.
Q: You also experienced some times of real personal crisis as the church matured, didn't you?
A: My oldest daughter, Chrissy, drifted away from God when she was a teenager, and a wall went up. We lived through a 30-month nightmare. We tried everything—begging, crying, yelling, trying to use money to manipulate her, sending her away to a better environment. Nothing worked. At one point she was away from home for about three months, and we weren't sure where she was. The Lord impressed on me not to seek any more contact with her but to give myself to prayer. This was just before Thanksgiving. We had a very difficult Christmas, but we learned things about prayer and trusting God that I had never learned before.
When February came, I was in the prayer meeting on Tuesday night talking about the Book of Acts and how the Holy Spirit alone can produce boldness in us. You can't teach boldness; it's something the Holy Spirit produces. As we were praying for one another, a girl in the church sent up a note to me saying that she believed we were supposed to pray for my daughter. I called one of my associates to the pulpit, and he prayed. The whole church began to pray. It was like being in a labor room with a woman giving birth. I can't describe it any other way. I had not made a big thing about it in church because I felt that people had their own problems. I couldn't make myself the center of attention. But this night, we really prayed! The intensity was overwhelming.
The next morning when I was shaving, Carol came into the room and said that Chrissy was there. She was on her knees weeping, and she said, "Daddy, I'm so sorry. I've sinned against God, myself and you." She drew herself up to me, put her head on my chest and asked, "Who was praying for me last night? God woke me up in the middle of the night with a dream where I saw myself heading toward this pit that had no bottom. I was racing toward it, and at the last second He stopped me. And instead of yelling at me, He put His arms around me, and I knew He loved me!"
Chrissy is now in her 30s and married. She and her husband have three beautiful children. God totally transformed her, and it was through the power of prayer.
Q: What do you believe churches should focus on when it comes to church growth?
A: The last thing Jesus commanded before He went back to heaven was for believers to go into all the world and make disciples. The angels don't rejoice when we shift Christians from one church to another. They sing and rejoice when one sinner repents. We have to reestablish the primacy of evangelism. Worship is wonderful, and these things all have their place, but the reason we are on the earth is to be salt and light. Paul told Timothy to do the "work of an evangelist" (2 Timothy 4:5).
We don't have any details of what that meant to Timothy 2,000 years ago, and I don't think the books on how to do the work of evangelism really help us because only God knows the spiritual state of every church. For some churches to really do the work of an evangelist, they are going to need a revival among their members just to get to a position where they can boldly share Christ. For other churches, the next step might be something else.
We have to get before God and ask Him to teach us and lead us by the Holy Spirit. God has used Billy Graham in such a phenomenal way. But God has used Nicky Cruz in a different way. We need to ask God to help us see people the way He sees them and feel about people the way He does. That is the real origin of evangelism—you will not do it because you ought to; you will do it because you start to feel like Jesus does. When He wept over Jerusalem, it wasn't because the Father taught Him to weep over Jerusalem—it was because He loved Jerusalem.
The love of God has to be shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When you have children away from the Lord, no one has to teach you to pray for your children—it comes out of your pores. Paul told the Galatians that he travailed like a mother "in the pains of childbirth" (Galatians 4:19) until Christ was formed in their lives. No one told him he ought to do that. He did it because of the love that he had for the people. If you don't love people passionately by God's love working through you, you're not going to feel the compulsion to reach them, to go the extra mile and make the sacrifices. You will end up with a self-centered Christianity rather than a Christianity that reaches the people who are all around us without Christ.
Q: How does God encourage you, Jim?
A: The fellowship of other believers is a wonderful support, but I would say that God encourages me mostly through His Word. I try to wait on the Lord with my Bible, and He makes things come alive to me. His promises renew my hope and build up my faith, which I need constantly. I also have friends around the country who talk to me every week. Warren Wiersbe is one of them—we talk twice a week on the phone. God uses him to encourage me. God is so faithful. Even when we are at our worst, God is at His best. All we can do is give Him all the glory, honor and praise because it has nothing to do with a formula or a denomination or a pastor or musical ability. It is God working and overshadowing all of that and proving Himself faithful.