Barry Shoemake has been the senior minister of Whitesburg Christian Church, Whitesburg, Georgia, since 2006. Prior to his Georgia pastorate, Barry was pastor of the First Christian Church in Borden, Indiana for 22 years. Barry and I, with two other ministerial colleagues, met weekly for prayer and fellowship for a number of years until the Lord led us to a change in our respective fields of service. We will long cherish those special times together. The following is an account of how Barry experienced a deep life-changing encounter with God. One church member remarked on Barry’s pulpit ministry before and after his post-conversion experience: “His preaching is as different as night and day.” (Ralph I. Tilley)
IN OCTOBER OF 2002, I went over to my study to work like I did almost every morning. As I sat at my desk, my mind began to wander, and I found myself thinking, “My daughter has a basketball game tonight, and tomorrow I’m playing golf.” Suddenly, the still small voice of God said to my heart, “Yeah, you’d rather do those things than to spend time with me.”
It was a very gentle and tender message. I think I could have ignored it and gone on as usual. But for some reason, this time I listened. And this became the biggest turning point in my ministry and perhaps in my life. I said, “Lord, I know You’re right. Help me. I don’t know what to do.” And He began to lead me to a restored relationship with Himself.
You see, I had been a minister for seventeen years. I went right out of high school into Bible college and then to seminary. I started preaching at a small church in southern Indiana while I was in seminary, and had been there ever since. I loved the church, loved the people, loved the town, but I didn’t love the Lord. I was trying to serve the Lord and wanted to do what’s right, but I didn’t love Him. I could remember times in my late teens and in Bible college when I had felt close to God. A small group of us used to have some awesome prayer times in dorm rooms or on camping trips.
I remember one time in particular, the students and faculty were having a forty-eight hour prayer chain, and I had signed up for 3:00 a.m. Walking up the hill toward the prayer room in the middle of the night, God was just so near. I was in awe. Remembering that moment still brings tears to my eyes. But I had not valued those moments. I didn’t realize that God wanted to have those moments with me. In my practical mind, I wasn’t accomplishing anything. I wasn’t teaching a class or witnessing to a lost person or writing a sermon. So the relationship with God took a back seat to the work of the ministry.
It’ll be no surprise to most of you that, since I wasn’t allowing God to fill my heart with His Spirit, I ended up trying to fill that void with other things—television, eating out, golf, my children’s sports teams, a growing church attendance, lust, tobacco, pride, image. The list is almost endless.
The heart affects every area of life, and my ministry was not an exception. My focus was on people rather than on the Lord. There was almost no vertical dimension. Sometimes I leaned toward legalism, and other times toward entertainment. I wrote the sermons but I knew almost nothing of waiting for a word from the Lord. If the attendance was up, I was up. And if the attendance was down, so was I. I don’t mean to imply that nothing good happened during those years. At least I knew enough to keep things Biblical. And God was gracious enough to work in spite of my shortcomings. He is such an awesome God.
And on that wonderful morning in 2002, He stepped in. That was over six years ago [at the time when this article was first written], so in my description, I may get some details out of order. But let me try to describe what happened following that encounter.
I began to listen, to be open to God’s leading. He had pointed out my problem, and I was inviting Him to point me to the solution. I developed a hunger to read—something I had never had before. In the book store, my attention was drawn to a book by David Yongi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in Sol, Korea. The book was called Prayer That Brings Revival. I read the entire book, but one paragraph stood out like a light. Cho said that he prays for an hour a day because he has two options: he can operate out of his own strength and resources or he can operate out of the strength and resources of God. And there is no way he can lead a church of 700,000 with his own resources. My first reaction to that was, “An hour! I don’t have an hour! I’m busy. I’ve got sermons to write, and lessons to prepare, and a preschool ministry to manage, and people to . . .” Then it hit me. He has 700,000 people to minister to, and he has an hour. And I’ve got 120 people, and I don’t have an hour. Something about that doesn’t make sense. After a few days of resisting, I finally said, “Okay, Lord, I’m just going to do it. I can’t imagine how I’m going to get everything done, but I’m just going to trust You.”
I still remember the first time I took my Bible and a lawn chair and went to the lake. I sat in the sun, but I bathed in the Presence of the Lord. He ministered to me, restoring my soul. After that, I started making my time with God my first priority. When I walked into the church, Satan would throw a dozen tasks in front of me. “These things have got to be done!” he would shout. And I would have to close my ears and eyes to those distractions. My Lord had called me to spend time with Him. Oh, bless His name!
For the first several months, I would often spend all morning in prayer. I was on my knees and on my face. I was desperate for His presence. He pointed me toward those “rivers of living water” that He promised, and I said, “Lord, I don’t have anything like that in my life. Please help me!” He reminded me of the fruit of the Spirit, and I cried for Him to produce them in me. I spent a great deal of time repenting in agony. I saw how selfish I was and how prideful. I begged Him to change me. I remember being curled up on the floor, pleading, “Oh, God, change my heart. Please, change my heart.”
My sermon preparation began to change drastically. Before, I would pray for a few minutes, and then say, “That’s all the time I’ve got, Lord. I’ve got a sermon to write.” Now my sermons began to come out of my prayer time. I wrote many sermons on my knees as thoughts and images would come to me. The most prominent image was of a church building, with people inside. I saw horizontal lines from the people to the world. God was saying, “This is what you’ve been doing wrong. The church has been trying to impact the world without being impacted by Me. The result is that the world has come into the church rather than the church changing the world.”
Then I saw vertical arrows coming from God into the church, and then out to the world. God was showing me that we’ve got to call on Him, depend on Him, seek Him. It has to be Him working in us and through us. I knew that I was saved by grace, that it was only by the shed blood of Jesus that I could come into the Kingdom. But I thought that after that it was pretty much up to me—my determination, my commitment, my effort.
God was showing me that, just like I was totally dependent on God to save me, I am still dependent on God to give me the ability to live for Him and to obey Him. I was talking to a fellow minister about this, and he said, “It’s not determination, it’s dependence, isn’t it?” I said, “That’s exactly what it is.” God is looking for people with broken and contrite hearts, who know that they can’t do anything without Him.
God began to give me regular confirmation that He was leading me in my preaching. I wanted to preach exactly what He wanted on a given Sunday. I remember one week I was feeling led to preach from Luke 17, about Jesus returning “like lightning which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” I asked God to show me that He was leading. No one knew what I was preparing.
On Friday morning, I was praying with a small group. The first words out of the mouth of the first lady who prayed were these: “Oh, Lord, I see you returning like lightning flashing from the east to the west.” When she said this, I just burst into laughter, as I knew God was talking to me. That season of regular confirmation only lasted for about a year or two. Now He seems to be saying, “Just trust me.”
After God had dealt with me personally for several months, there came a time when He seemed to open up the blinds and say, “Now look at my church. They are just like you were. They don’t love me. They love everything else. They are materialistic. They are prideful. They are self-absorbed. They are idolatrous.” (God was so gentle and kind with me, that He didn’t even use the word “idolatry” when He was dealing with me. But later I realized that that is exactly what I was practicing.) One verse that was constantly before me was Matt. 15:8, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
The most powerful communication came a few years ago. I had preached two Sundays in a row on the subject, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which to me was bad news and good news. The bad news is that we have to turn from something. We have to turn from what we’ve been holding on to. But the good news is that we can turn to something better—the Kingdom of God. But the message was heavy on the people. I could see it.
The second Sunday, when I got home, I went for a walk. I said, “Father, You know that I want to say whatever You are telling me to say. But please let me know this is You, because these people don’t want to hear what I’m saying.” The next morning when I woke up, in my mind was a Scripture reference and a phrase. The Scripture reference was Ezekiel 33:11 (and one other verse that was for me), and the phrase was “God consciousness/gold consciousness.” I went to my study, took my Bible, and began to open. My hands were trembling. I didn’t even know if Ezekiel had 33 chapters. I found chapter 33. I read verse 11: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’”
That was the morning that Hurricane Katrina hit. I said, “Lord, what about the phrase, ‘God consciousness/gold consciousness.’ What does that mean?” What came to me was, “During the gold rush, what were peoples’ hearts set on? Gold. They had other things to do, but their hearts were always on gold. That’s what I want—a people whose hearts are always on Me.”
You understand that these are some highlights of several years of process. Most of the time I’m grappling to understand what God is saying. I’m still asking God to crucify my flesh. Sometimes the process is excruciating. I can remember riding in my truck, yelling, “Don’t let me quit, God! Don’t let me quit!” Sometimes I’m broken, and sometimes I’m proud of how broken I’ve been. Sometimes I’m praying for revival, and sometimes I need it more than anybody, and often I’m frustrated that He is not pouring out what He’s had me praying for. But I do see Him working. I keep meeting people from different places and different churches who are being stirred up spiritually. And I can say this: Our God is an awesome God. He’s for real, and He is working. Praise His Holy Name!