Dave Hickman was tired. He’d started CharlotteONE in 2006, a ministry geared toward young professionals that grew to become one of the largest in the Southeast.
Other cities recruited him to help launch similar efforts. He took on the role of taking the CharlotteONE model national in 2012, while still leading CharlotteOne.
He spent 2012 traveling to gear up efforts in other cities; the CityOne Network was officially founded in 2013. Hickman also spent that year traveling as groups in other cities were taking off, but funding for the national ministry network wasn’t coming together.
During this time, a pastor friend asked him to preach at two Sunday services at a growing church in Matthews, a request that would become pivotal in changing Hickman’s life and relationship with Christ.
Hickman woke up at 2 a.m. that Sunday in what he called “palatable panic.” He went jogging at 4 a.m. He took a cold shower at 5 a.m. Nothing worked. Paralyzed with fear, Hickman decided to text his pastor friend and tell him he’d gotten in an “accident” and would explain later.
“I was so frightened of failing,” Hickman said. “I thought the sermon would be terrible and people would laugh at me.”
His wife, Monica, told him he couldn’t desert his friend and he had to preach. He gave the two sermons, and on the drive home he concluded that he was done with ministry.
“(I decided) ministry was obviously not what I should be doing because it was causing me so much anxiety,” he said.
After Hickman’s panic attack, he awakened to the theological underpinnings of “union” with Christ; a doctrine of the church Hickman considers to be “lost” in our culture today.
“‘Union’ with Christ gives us more clarity on the type relationship Christ came to establish with us,” Hickman says. “Jesus never said he wanted a ‘relationship’ with us. While this can be inferred from the Gospels, they explicitly state that Jesus came so that we may be ‘in’ him and him ‘in’ us — see John 14:18-20 — and to make us ‘one’ with him.”
His journey to a healthier life with a different spiritual outlook is detailed in his new book, “Closer than Close: Awakening To The Freedom of Your Union with Christ.”
Hickman, 38, and his wife moved to Charlotte in 2003 to earn their master’s degrees at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and UNC Charlotte, respectively. Hickman began talking with friends at Gordon-Conwell about how Charlotte was exploding with people in their twenties and thirties and how the city was doing a seemingly poor job of “helping them connect with each other and things that matter.”
Those discussions led Hickman and his seminary colleagues to a four-week trial of CharlotteONE—a citywide worship event backed by business and Christian leaders in Charlotte. They brought in the nationally known speakers and met in a donated gymnasium.
Hickman hoped as many as 70 people would attend the first event. Two hundred walked through the door. By the fourth night, 400 young professionals packed into the gym. During the second week, a 28-year-old local business man donated $100,000 to get the ministry going.
Hickman led CharlotteONE, which eventually settled at First United Methodist Church, for its weekly meetings until 2013, when he left to start the national expansion called CityONE Network. CharlotteONE continues to thrive under Zac Dean, and it now meets at the Visulite Theatre.
Hickman said his upbringing in a Baptist church in the South reinforced the idea that God was “out there,” but he struggled to feel as close to God as he desired.
After CityONE Network failed, Hickman said he found himself in an identity crisis. For most of his life, he believed that his worth was defined by his performance and other people’s perception of him. Now, his new ministry failed and he didn’t have a job.
Desperate, Hickman called his doctor. He began taking anti-depressants, which he says was life changing and helped with his lifelong struggle with Tourette’s syndrome and depression.
He then called his friend Mike Moses Jr., who is the pastor of Lake Forest Church in Huntersville, and asked if he could take him out to lunch.
“I said, ‘Could you help me,’” Hickman said. “Mike replied, ‘Brother, I would love to, but I have somebody better—my father.’”
Mike Moses Sr., had left a career in the insurance business in 1992 after an “experience of brokenness” and received intensive counseling at Grace Life Office in Atlanta. The experience was so meaningful that Moses Sr. began his own discipleship counseling ministry.
The two met for two hours every Wednesday for 18 months. Hickman emerged a changed man. He began to consider the idea that instead of working so hard to build a close relationship with God, his relationship with God was already as close as it could get, like a marriage union.
“All in God’s timing, Dave began to experience these truths in his own heart and soul,” Moses Sr., said. “God revealed to Dave his true identity in Christ and his oneness and union with Christ.”
Union with Christ
Having never heard of the phrase “union with Christ,” Hickman began researching the topic. He began dreaming of sharing his story and findings in a book. He later signed a contract with NavPress, a Christian publishing house in Colorado Springs, which publishes the popular The Message Bible paraphrase.
“Now, through the actual person of Jesus, we can be united to God,” Hickman said. “It’s not hard to understand. It’s just really, really hard to believe; it’s a mystery.”
Hickman said his life changed when he internalized this concept. “I just chilled,” he said, describing his faith as “abiding” in his relationship with God rather than striving to get “closer and closer” to him. Spiritual practices such as prayer and Bible reading became methods to better understand his union with God rather than desperate attempts to draw near to God.
“My wife will tell you I’m a different person,” he said. “When I became truly happy in who I am, my home started to become a more joyful and happy place to live.”
Monica Hickman urged her husband to write the book, and she went to work fulltime after staying home with their three sons. Hickman spent two years researching and about a year writing, mostly at the Barnes & Noble in Morrison Place in SouthPark, near their home.
“It was a tough couple of years,” Hickman said. “One salary, three kids. We went into debt to write the book.”
Shift in thinking
“Closer Than Close: Awakening To The Freedom of Your Union with Christ” was published in August, and Hickman’s celebration party and book signing were held at the Morrison Barnes & Noble where he had become a familiar face. The book details Hickman’s life, including his time in Charlotte, as well as his struggle to get closer to God only to find himself “riddled with anxiety and self-hatred.”
“That simple shift in my thinking — from ‘relationship with Christ’ to ‘union with him’ — greatly changed the way I view myself, God, others, and the church,” Hickman said.
Moses Sr., said he has shared the book with many people. “I would recommend it to anyone feeling and experiencing distance from God,” he said.
Hickman now travels to lead retreats and give talks based on his book, and he is a regional president for a company that provides resident experiences and retention services for apartment communities. He said he likely will write another book.
“I’m waiting on the itch to really, really hit me,” he said. “(The next book) will be something similar. I think my gifting is to try to understand hard-to-grasp theological concepts and then communicate them to a popular audience.”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org