Clover Creek Bible Fellowship was once a conservative evangelical church in which solid biblical teaching was the bedrock of the ministry. So how did pastor Mike Riches cope when his congregation suddenly started reporting miraculous healings, prophetic words and angelic visitations?
It had been a typical Sunday morning at Clover Creek Bible Fellowship in Tacoma, Washington. The sanctuary was packed with people who as usual had enjoyed the vibrant worship followed by a solid, biblical message. As happened most weeks some people had gone forward for prayer at the end of the service. And then something unusual happened.
A young man who had gone forward began to shake and shout angrily. He was experiencing a demonic manifestation. This was definitely not the usual thing at Clover Creek. There was consternation among the church leaders. The pastor, Mike Riches, returning from holiday that morning, was called. With other leaders he dealt with the situation as best he could, but this sort of thing was well outside his normal realm of experience. Something strange and new was going on at the church he had led for 17 years, a fact that was confirmed that same day when another demonic episode occurred to a different individual at the evening service.
It was January 30th 2000 and these were just the first clues that Clover Creek was about to be shaken to its very core.
What made the events that began to unfold at Clover Creek so unusual is that it was not a ‘charismatic’ church. Up until the start of 2000, Riches would have described it as a typical, non-denominational, evangelical church. It had established a reputation locally for its fastgrowing attendance, which in seven years had increased from around 170 to more than 1500. He had pastored the church since 1983 and in that time had overseen the changes that had led to the numerical growth. These included a significant building programme to make room for more people, development of a contemporary worship style, and a spiritual focus that had led the small, inward- looking congregation to become a mission-minded and outwardlooking community. Now the church had a noted children’s ministry, and a vibrant young adult church, which was growing and gaining the attention of the local community.
So far, so good. Clover Creek was a success story and most pastors would have been happy to carry on in that mould. But despite the progress the church had made, he felt what he describes as a ‘holy discontent’ with the achievements.
By his own admission Riches was a conservative evangelical through and through. Verse by verse expositional preaching was the bedrock of his ministry, and Clover Creek itself had never been associated with terms like ‘charismatic’ or ‘Pentecostal’. Still, he felt there must be more than what they had. It was on holiday with his wife Cindy in June 1999 that he had the first indication that God would be taking the church in a new direction.
“I was reading the verses in 1 Corinthians 4 where it says the kingdom of God is not words but power. That passage struck me as if for the first time and I heard God say ‘you have given yourself to me through my word, now will you give yourself to me through my power?’”
This prophetic word (as he now recognises it) was a foretaste of the events that would take hold of Clover Creek six months later. If the spiritual manifestations on the 30th January had left him feeling out of his depth, the following months would leave him and the whole church community reeling.
A church shaken
From that date an outpouring began to take place. Prophetic words and dreams were released, people were freed from demonic forces, and documented physical healings occurred. A former staff member received a miraculous recovery from a debilitating condition; cancers and tumours disappeared for others. The church was asked to minister to a woman on life support, in a coma. A week later she phoned up to register her thanks. She was totally healed with no sign of the leukaemia that had brought her to the brink of death.
Mike’s own wife Cindy experienced an angelic visitation to explain what was happening and what was going to transpire. She, like him, had never been involved in the ‘charismatic’ movement, and like those around her had to learn quickly how to respond to this unexpected outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
“We were on a fast learning curve,” he recalls. “We began to learn a lot of truths about what I now refer to as the ‘two realms, one world’ view. As well as the physical there is a spirit realm to the world we live in. We recognised pretty quickly that we weren’t very effective at handling that spirit realm, and so began to learn truths such as the authority believers have in Christ, and how we can dismantle the foothold Satan has in people’s lives. We were not equipped to cope with those first demonic manifestations. God was gracious and shut those down, but we had to get ourselves ready for everything that was starting to happen.”
The crash course in hands-on Holy Spirit ministry left Riches and the leadership of the church grappling with the biblical implications of what was going on. As well as the healings and deliverance ministry, some members of the church began to hear God’s voice in very distinct, specific ways. But the dramatic change the church was experiencing left many with questions.
“We wanted to help people understand what was happening so we made sure that the door was open toanyone with concerns,” he says. “We spent a lot of time allowing people to vent their feelings one on one, or in small groups. For us it meant looking again at scripture and discerning how we should deal with these prophetic manifestations in a practical, biblical way and then shepherding others through that.”
Inevitably, not everyone was comfortable with this radical new direction in which the church was headed. “There were questions and concerns. Over a period of time people left the church. Many people had signed up for a conservative evangelical model of church and now this change had taken place. I think they were just out of their comfort zone.”
In fact, due to uncertainty, discomfort and fear, 70-80 per cent of the people who were part of Clover Creek in 2000 would ultimately leave the church. The building project came to a screeching halt while excavation had already started. For Riches, it was a time of great excitement but also challenge and discouragement.
“Even when a dearly loved member of staff was healed from a life-threatening condition, people were pleased for him but still left the church as they didn’t have a place for that kind of activity. I remember reading Mark 5 where the Gadarene demoniac is set free by Jesus. When the local people saw that he was clothed and in his right mind they were filled with fear and demanded that Jesus leave. I think when people encounter something out of their comfort zone, fear can be a natural reaction.”
Clover Creek’s experience had brought upheaval and change on an unprecedented level. Despite the fact people were leaving, the leadership stood firm about where they felt God was calling the church in this time of transition.
“That time of change did not mean we shrivelled up as a church,” says Riches. “On the contrary, many new people were coming along as they found the power and presence of God working in the church. Also, some who did leave eventually returned when they saw that the direction we had taken was healthy.”
Dealing with change
Ample opportunity was given for those who were uncomfortable with the new direction of the church to voice their concerns and have their questions answered, but ultimately Riches was certain that God’s will and the scriptural arguments were clear. Clover Creek had changed for good.
“One of the greatest lessons on change that I learned is that you have to lead by conviction rather than consensus,” he says. “Everyone has an opinion, but as a leader you have to step out in the conviction that you are following the Lord and the mandates of scripture. It’s not about being autocratic – I was always open to listening, and took the wisdom of other leaders around me – but ultimately I knew that this was the right path.”
The questions and concerns were not only coming from the church members. Clover Creek had been respected in the local community as a solid and progressive evangelical church; now all manner of stories were circulating and their reputation wasbecoming tarnished because of the unconventional ministry that was taking place.
“The community was very aware of what was happening. Some church leaders obviously thought we had lost our moorings in the word of God. Very hurtful things were said, especially since commitment to scripture is a pillar of our church. I’ll never forget the emails that contained hurtful accusations. I struggled with that, as this criticism was sometimes coming from people I had worked alongside with mutual respect at one time.”
As much as the Clover Creek leadership sought to address the concerns of those within and outside the church, he maintains that significant change will always mean making decisions that will offend some.
“We got to the point where we said, ‘The door is always open for those with questions but we must move forward on the basis of scripture, not on the basis of the past experience or opinion of individuals.’ I can’t think of much that we would have done differently in retrospect. We had to be brave. You can’t lead according to the lowest common denominator – that will always keep you in status quo.”
The new direction would prove to be permanent as the outpouring continued in full force over a number of years. The church continues in its new expression to this day.
Ministry in the UK Mike Riches felt led to step down as senior pastor of Clover Creek in 2007 (which had been renamed Destiny City Church) in order to share the lesson he has learnt with others. Now, together with Cindy, he heads up The Sycamore Commission which exists to train churches and equip believers to do the works and ministry of Jesus.
It soon became apparent that God was directing the new ministry also to have a base in the UK. Many of the invitations they were receiving had come from Britain, particularly from charismatic Anglican churches. This, along with a number of confirming circumstances, led the Riches to move to the UK in 2007 where they have been ministering ever since, worshipping at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith.
Mike is convinced that the British church is poised for a spiritual reformation that could be felt around the world. UK church leaders who have partnered with the Sycamore Commission say they have been struck by the power of the spiritual principles he seeks to convey.
Evangelist J John describes the Riches as “refreshingly different, they are humble, transparent, discerning and teach from a deep well of experience and prayer.” A fresh emphasis on healing has been a consequence in J John’s ministry. “As a result I have become more intentional in teaching about healing and praying for those who are concerned for their health.”
Rev Stuart Lees of Holy Trinity, Richmond went to Tacoma for a ministry conference in 2004 and has since been implementing the principles of spiritual warfare on home turf. “Our family, our leaders and our church changed dramatically when we began to move in the authority of Christ,” says Lees, whose church now hosts its own conferences. “This is not ‘Tacoma in London’, or importing a package, but is about recovering biblical truths that fit the DNA of every church”.
Simon Downham, senior pastor of St Paul’s, Hammersmith, also stresses that this is not the latest American ‘fad’. “This is not revivalism; rather it’s about something very important being rediscovered. The key is the emphasis on a cluster of truths enabling the church to be confident of its identity in Christ. It’s had a transforming impact, not least on me.”
‘Walking confidently in the identity of Christ’ is a principle that most UK church leaders would be ready to sign up to. If the Riches’ remarkable experience of seeing their conservative evangelical church in Tacoma, Washington ‘shaken up’ is anything to go by, then perhaps they have good reason to be confident that God can bring a new kind of reformation to the shores of the United Kingdom.
For more information on the Sycamore Commission log on to www.sycamorecommission.org
Hear the full interview with Mike Riches at www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable