A Testimonial: Brandon in the 1990s
I was a student of author Frank Viola at Brandon High School in Brandon Florida in the 90s. His class was my favorite of all. I took psychology from him and joined the Interact club which he sponsored. I also was part of the Fellowship of Christian Students that he sponsored.
Viola led me to the Lord. He did the same with other students also, baptizing some of them too.
I was one of the people who attended his Friday night Bible study group. I remember it was over 50 students in a crowded living room in Brandon. Students came from all over the area, not just from Brandon, but from other counties too. We’d sometimes stay at his house until 1am as we talked about the Lord, prayed for each other, worshipped. We worshipped a lot. It was an awesome time of many ‘aha’ moments and life changing events.
It was hard finding a spot on the floor because the couches and chairs were all taken up. The whole experience was amazing to me.
As a teacher, Viola was very helpful to the students. He made learning fun. Going to his class was the high point of my day, especially when I was having my own struggles at home. It was light in gray and dark. I know many other students felt the same way.
In the late 90s, Viola changed the focus of the home Bible group and it became an organic church in Brandon.
This was my favorite time of all. I learned more about God and his Word than at any other time in my life. I was on fire, and so were the rest of us who were part of the new church.
Viola did something interesting. He spent months teaching us how to follow the Lord and how to know the Lord, then he left us on our own for a very long time. We learned, we grew. It was great. He did this after Paul’s style of planting churches. Plant the church, teach, then leave it on its own without any official leaders.
It was a wonderful experience. Hard at times. But we didn’t have a pastor so we relied on God and one another and he came through for us.
I remember the excitement when we had visitors from Europe. They came from all over the USA and other places to see what was happening.
Years later, Viola started working with an older man who I won’t name. Things went sour then. Frank admitted he made a mistake working with this man and the man and one of his coworkers basically took over the group. We had a split. It was horrible. People took sides. I later learned that this older man had a history of church splits in his ministry.
I remember Frank sitting on the floor in one of our homes and apologizing for the mistakes he made with us. We quickly forgave him as he had always forgiven us when we messed up. Viola is one of the humblest and gracious people I’ve known. I was sad to see some people who were bitter make up all sorts of lies against him. But Jesus said beware when all men speak well of you. So it goes with the territory of being used by God. But it still hurt seeing people who say they are Christians act with so much evil, hate, and dishonesty. Frank taught me how to respond to accusations in a Christ like way because he never defended himself or attacked the people who were lying about him so horribly.
I ended up moving to another city outside of Brandon, but the Brandon church experience and the high school experience before that marked my life forever. It was life changing for me and for so many others.
I’ve since read all of Viola’s books and I read his blog and listen to his podcasts. I’m happy to have known him personally as a teenager and as a student at Brandon High and I’m glad to have been part of the organic church in Brandon. It was a beautiful unforgettable time.
I’m so happy to see God continue to use him today.
Testimonials from People in the Church in Brandon, Florida That Frank Viola Planted
I was raised in a Christian home and attended church every time the doors were open. I knew how to live and behave like a Christian should. You might say I was the poster child. Late in high school and early college, I met some Christians who sparked a passion in me that I never knew was possible. I saw their passion to know Christ in deep ways, and more than that, they actually seemed to know Christ much more deeply than I.
In meeting them, I discovered that my own faith and knowledge of Christ was very shallow. You see, I realized that although I enjoyed going to church to be with my family and friends, I really viewed church as an obligation to endure in order to “hang out” with them before and after Sunday school, services, or youth group meetings.
I quietly sat through sermon after sermon hoping it would hurry up so we could go to the restaurant afterwards. Minutes after the sermons I couldn’t actually remember what was said. I already heard that I needed to go to church more, I needed to tithe more, I needed to read my Bible more, and I needed to witness more. It wasn’t until I met these other Christians that I realized that all of the previous churches that I was a member of didn’t fulfill my thirst for Jesus. They gave me rules and regulations instead of something that gave life. Instead of growing in Christ, I was “dying on the vine,” filled with fear, shame, and inadequacy. I didn’t actually enjoy talking about the Lord. Nor was I near as bold to share Jesus with nonbelievers. I would ask myself, If I was such a good Christian like I thought I was, why do I feel so far behind the curve?
The more I was with these believers, the more I wanted to know Christ like they did. I was drawn to Christ like a moth to a streetlight. I gradually began to spend more time with them and started going to their meetings. Their meetings were free and open. There was no liturgy. There were no clergy. They didn’t actually need them. There were plenty of believers who had encountered the Lord and had encouraging things to share with the others.
They didn’t need someone to give them permission to speak. They didn’t need someone to bury them in rules and lifeless duties. They wrote many of their own songs. They prayed together, taking turns talking to Jesus unrehearsed and from the heart. They met together as if Jesus was actually in the room. They treated each other like a family that loved each other.
After just a short while, I realized that this organic experience of Christ was exactly what was missing from my own experience. I began to crave gathering with these believers. I would go to their meetings and see a much bigger Lord than just someone who died for my sins. I would see Him in much deeper ways.
I was no longer satisfied with watching a performance. In this organic meeting, I began to want to share with my brothers and sisters what I had seen of the Lord. Instead of being passive, I now thought it was easy to function and contribute. Every one of our meetings was free to be different. Sometimes we sang for hours. Sometimes the believers were bursting at the seams to share what Jesus had done in their lives that week. Sometimes we revered the Lord’s awesomeness in silence. No one had to tell us to do these things. The Spirit was moving in these ways and they just spontaneously happened. We often ate together as one family.
Sometimes we shared scriptures with each other. Other times we enacted scenes and stories from the Bible that shed light on Christ. We met all throughout the week. In the mornings, the brothers would find another brother or two, and the sisters would get together with sisters. And we would pursue the Lord in prayer and contemplate Scripture together. We would start our day with Christ. In the evenings, some of the members would open up their homes and share Christ over dinner. We had brothers and sisters meetings where we would collectively decide on matters relating to the church. And we would share responsibilities for caring for one another.
If there were no pressing needs, we would just sing to the Lord and pursue His presence together. If there was a member in need, we would think of ways to help them. Sometimes we would just plan ways to bless each other for the fun of it. Sometimes the single people would babysit for the parents and give them a night out on the town. Sometimes when one of the brothers or sisters went away on a long trip, the whole church would show up at the airport to greet them. And we would have a church meeting right in the airport.
There was always something happening where you could share Christ and love the Lord together. We would also have spontaneous times of outreach to the lost. Everything we did, the Spirit was free to move and change the direction of the event. When we did get together, I saw a Christ glorified and magnified. We were constantly making new discoveries in Him. Every time I saw Him in a new way, I wanted to see more.
The feeling of guilt, shame, and unworthiness was gone. I had a passion to know Christ in deeper ways. I am through with dying on the vine. I have now seen the freedom that Christians can really have in meeting together organically, just like the early church did.
David from Brandon, Florida
I never planned on leaving the old way of doing church. I wasn’t looking for a new church and couldn’t even conceive of what an organic church would look like when I was first invited to visit one. But I visited and what I found was unlike anything I had ever seen. This church wasn’t a Bible study, a prayer group, a healing/soaking prayer session, or a worship service.
Instead, this church focused on Jesus Christ. And everyone sang about Him, shared about Him, and worshipped Him. These Christians had been captivated by the beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ and, quite honestly, they didn’t desire to spend time doing anything else when they met, but sing to/with/about Him, share Him, and love one another through Him. It was their intimacy I noticed first. I had never met people with such an intimate life with the Lord. These people needed Him and were sustained by His life.
In my previous church experience, I had seen dedicated people, passionate people, and loving people. But I had never met Christians before who seemed to know the very heart of God.
Long ago I learned that the Lord is in His people, but this church was the first one I had ever seen where Christians really put this into practice. They all shared Christ in their meetings one by one so that He was brought right before my eyes. I learned through them that He is our food and our drink. I came to see who He really is in our gatherings and in our life together, and I fell in love with Him as a result.
The intimacy I saw had drawn me in, but it was the freedom that these Christians lived in that kept my attention and made me decide to keep coming back to their meetings and become part of their community life. When I saw something in the Lord that might be an encouragement, I could speak it out and they would say “Amen” or “Praise the Lord.” Their verbal encouragement made me realize that I had freedom to share, but more so, that Christ had freedom to be known in His people—including me.
It was the first time I had seen such freedom among Christians. I began to see what it looked like when Christ has the first place in the lives and meetings of His people, which brought incredible unity. For almost two years, I saw Christ fill every meeting with the truth about Himself. He never ran dry. I cannot imagine fully mining the depths of Jesus Christ. But in this church, with the combined love of my brothers and sisters, I began to discover just how glorious He really is.
Jennifer, speaking about a fellowship in Gainesville that included members from the Brandon church
For man years, Viola has worked with Jon Zens and Milt Rodriguez in the ministry of helping and planting organic churches.
If you have questions for Frank about Brandon or any other matter, contact him directly at TheDeeperJourney@gmail.com.