Saying Yes to God Over and Over
Kingdomcity founder Mark Varughese shares how taking risks with God and saying ‘yes’ grew his faith and compassion, leading to an expansion of God’s kingdom across different cities in the world.
Looking at the seemingly headstrong founder of a multi-site church movement in several continents, anyone would assume that leaders like him have always been men of great faith. But Mark Varughese, founder and leader of Kingdomcity, describes his early years in the Lord as characteristic of an eldest son in an Asian family: conservative, attention-shy and the furthest thing from a risk-taker.
When asked about his journey with the Lord, one of the pivotal moments he references is a church service he attended when he was 15. He already considered himself a Christian at that point, but when a preacher went up to the pulpit and said, “Tonight my message is entitled, ‘Following Jesus is an Adventure,’” he couldn’t help feeling skeptical. Not only was he not adventurous by nature, he also questioned, Following Jesus, an adventure? That was hardly a word he would choose to describe his relationship with God—which he felt, at that time, was full of rules and do’s and don’ts that were out to steal his fun.
But the word gripped his heart. The Lord told him gently that he would be the first to get up front during the altar call. This was hardly the kind of thing that this particular teenager would do. But sure enough, when the call came, Mark found his way at the front. Looking back, he connects that experience with the way the Lord called His disciples, “Follow Me,” and they all followed without really knowing where or why or how.
Staying Faithful Even While Hungry and Broken
Reflecting on the first 15 years of his involvement in ministry, Mark can pinpoint periods of encounters with the Lord, as well as specific prophetic words that propelled him to a deep hunger for intimacy with God.
“I had no dream to do what I’m doing now, nor did I long for church leadership of any kind, but I really wanted to know God,” he shares. “I wanted to hear Him, serve Him, be with Him and enjoy encounters with Him, because I had tasted His presence and there was nothing like it in the world.”
He struggled with feelings of inferiority, wondering if the Lord could use him in his brokenness. He firmly believed that God would change him before he would be worthy to serve. Thankfully, he started to see that this was untrue, but learned a concept that has shaped his life and leadership since: God can use you while He changes you.
When this reality hit his heart, it freed him to serve God, letting his desires draw himself closer to God and letting his brokenness draw God to himself. Did this therefore lead to a relaxed walk, a license to remain in weakness and sin? Mark insists on the opposite.
“When the all-knowing and gracious God chooses to use you while at the same time continuing to massage out the knots in your character, and to deal with your attitudes and yet still use you for His glory,” he explains, “your only response is worship and awe of the only one who would do things this way.”
Starting His Adventure
Despite his faithfulness in serving the Lord through his brokenness, the hunger for ‘adventure’ that was birthed many years ago continued to beat in his heart. And one day, Mark saw an opportunity to step out of his comfort zone: in 2001, his pastor David Storer gave him the blessing to serve in another church in the suburbs of Perth.
“I had no dream to do what I’m doing now, nor did I long for church leadership of any kind, but I really wanted to know God.” – Mark Varughese
He served, again faithfully, his new church, while still working as a lawyer. But after two years, his new pastor Neil Smith dropped another risk to take into his lap, asking him to pray about joining the church not just as a volunteer but as a full-time staff.
“It was easily the biggest decision of my life to that point,” Mark says, “but I felt God was in it. The wrestle of mind and heart, emotion and logic, call and career was very real.” With the counsel of his godly parents, Mark said yes, ’stepped out of the boat’, and in 2003, embarked on an adventure as a full-time minister.
After a couple of years in ministry, Mark recognised what he describes as a ‘restlessness’ that had been building up for some time. With no explanation why, he bought a world map that he stuck onto his desk, spending periods of time each day just looking at the countries and cities of the world.Mark brought up this inexplicable interest in a conversation with Neil Smith, describing a strange desire of ‘going on a roller-coaster.’ Mark refers to Neil as among the first people who took a risk with him in ministry. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see myself, and I will always honour him for that.”
Adventure Demands a Response
In that particular incident, Neil responded to Mark’s strange desire with an invitation to go to the Gold Coast, which, incidentally, had great roller coasters. He proposed for Mark to join a two-day series of meetings with pastor friends of his, and afterwards, he could have all the roller coaster rides he wanted.
During the first afternoon at the Gold Coast, Mark sat politely listening as a group of about ten pastors shared their different journeys. Somehow, Russell Evans, founder of renowned music ministry and church Planetshakers, turned to Mark (who had been sitting outside of the group) and asked him what he felt about life. Mark recalls stumbling through an unclear answer, but he remembers summing it up with, “I don’t know what it looks like, but all I know, is that while I’ve got breath in my lungs and strength in my bones, I want to serve the Lord.”
At that point, the presence of the Lord fell in the room: it was as if time stopped, and for the next half hour or more, Mark found himself weeping. Russell, also overcome by the Holy Spirit, started to prophesy over him. Mark, overwhelmed in that moment, heard clearly to “go to Malaysia, and start a church.”
It was an explosion in Mark’s spirit.
The group of pastors there gathered around and prayed for him, clearly understanding that something big was going on in the spirit realm. After prayer, several of the pastors pledged to support him financially, and others made promises to visit him and help in any way they could. Many of those pastors are now great friends.
Mark recalls how the next three days had him feeling the touch of God tangibly enveloping him. While he was greatly conscious of his feeling of being unqualified to go and start a church in another country with no Bible School training, no visa, and no experience, he felt that these hindrances were insignificant in light of the unusually strong sense of God’s presence.
My journey of hearing God came with more mistakes and laughs than you will ever know, but underneath every risk was a deeper desire to know God more. – Mark Varughese
By early 2006, Mark sold his house, bought a ticket, and bid farewell to his family and friends in Perth, embarking on one of the biggest risks he had taken thus far.
It would have been easy for other people to scratch their heads at this decision: his family moved from Malaysia to Australia more than twenty years ago, why in the world was he moving back?
But for Mark, it seemed as though the pieces were starting to click. He suddenly understood why he had felt an unusual restlessness even while faithfully serving the church. He also understood why he had felt the desire to buy and study the world map, or even the desire to ride on a roller coaster. The Gold Coast roller coaster was but a picture of the adventure that the Lord had set him up for.
But, looking at his journey, it was not always about the big, dramatic steps of faith that he took. Instead, it played out as a series of invitations from the Lord, both big and seemingly small steps. Mark puts it succinctly, “Underneath every risk was a deeper desire to know God more.”
Part 2: Mark and Jemima’s Unusual Love Story
One of his favourite stories of a risk he had to take was related to how he met and married his wife. Jemima Aiton had first visited Mark’s church in Malaysia in December 2006, but he hardly paid any attention to her or the team of missionaries from Brisbane she had come with, except for a quick introduction. Four months later, they were reintroduced, and as a single, eligible bachelor often being set up with ladies, he thought he might as well invite her to coffee “and get this out of the way.”
Although the first two hours of conversation was mostly small talk, Mark was surprised when the impression came to him, “This is your wife, this is your wife.” It kept resonating so strongly in his heart for the next hour, that he finally decided he had to take another ‘step out of the boat.’
With that being their very first coffee together, he started by asking Jemima, “Uhm, how do you feel?” Jemima must have been puzzled, as she answered with a question, “What do you mean?”
Not knowing how to lead casually up to what he wanted to communicate, Mark found himself saying, “I feel like… I’m having coffee with my wife.”
As soon as the words were out his mouth, he thought she would slap him—what a presumptuous thing to say on a first coffee, and worse, it sounded like some inappropriate pick-up line!
The next few moments were like eternity, as a most awkward pause fell between them. But to his absolute surprise, Jemima leaned back in her chair, smiled, and said, “I think you are having coffee with your wife!”
As it turned out, Jemima had already spent the past few months wrestling with the Lord: from that first meeting, she had gotten an impression from the Lord that Mark was to be her husband. After multiple words and confirmation, she had actually come to this coffee meeting with him anticipating something!
On Mark’s side, he knew it was the Lord telling him she was his wife because he recognised the same voice that had called him to take other risks. Mark describes his journey with the Lord as a series of increasing risk, and he doesn’t claim to get everything right; but thankfully, that particular risk he took with Jemima was on track: they chose a date over that first coffee, and got married within five months.
“On September 14, that year, we both exchanged vows to a person we barely knew because of a God we deeply knew,” Mark says. “What’s ‘crazy risk’ to a stranger is a ‘God-adventure’ to a son.”
So how does he deal with the questions that constantly plague believers, “Am I doing the right thing?”; “How can I be sure that was God?” and “What if I heard wrong?”
“As we step out in faith in any area of life in simple trust and obedience to what God said, the ‘aim’ is our childlike trust,” Mark says, “a trust that my ongoing relationship with God auto-corrects my course whenever I’m drifting.”