There is a lot happening in my life right now that is making it difficult to write posts for this blog, but I am trying. However, during this period, I've had another opportunity to preach, and that is now available below! Video captured by Stephen Hemenway, audio edited by Quenton Chestang-Pittman, video edited by me.
I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a point in the sermon that I am aware I did not adequately clarify when delivering it, regarding church membership and participating in mission. I stated at one point in the sermon that if the mission God has called an individual to and the mission of their church do not align, they should ask if they are at the right church. I stand by that statement, but I did not give any indication on what to look for when considering that issue, which feels irresponsible of me in hindsight. I do, however, have more room to explore that issue here than I would have as a tertiary point in a sermon, and I intend to take advantage of that fact.
What I mean by that statement is this: if God has called a person to a specific work, and called a person to a specific church body, then the person is also called to contribute to the specific mission that church is tasked with, and certainly not to hinder it. Likewise, the church is called to contribute to the specific mission the person is called to, and certainly not to hinder it. The Biblical statements about every member of the church needing every other member and every part of the body having a necessary function attest to this. If that is true, then it must also be true that a person who feels called to a mission that hinders, or is hindered by, the mission of their church is either on the wrong mission or at the wrong church or, in some hopefully more rare occasions, the church has the wrong mission; and it is vitally important that they find out which it is and correct it. The question is how to do that.
The first step is always going to be prayer and scripture, by the way. Going to God for wisdom and clarity, digging into the Bible for anything that may grant that wisdom and clarity, and earnestly listening for Him to speak will be necessary if you want an honest, usable answer. Every piece of advice that follows assumes you are only implementing it after spending some time in prayer and the scriptures. Also remember that this is only advice; the Bible does not give us a check list for this, and I can only share as much wisdom as I have so far.
The mission for which you are called is one which you, powered by the Holy Spirit, can do. This doesn't necessarily mean it is one you can finish, but it is certainly one you can perform for the season in which you are called to it. This simple statement gives us a few key things to look for:
Consider Moses. His gifting and skills enabled him to lead a large body of people, to judge fairly and honorably, to write the texts they would need going forward, and to face great trials. His interest in protecting his fellow children of Jacob enabled him to see their need and desire to find some freedom for them. His life experiences gave him access to Pharaoh, knowledge of the Midian desert, the skills he used leading Israel, and an unshakable faith that God would do exactly what He said He would do. His difficulty at speech meant he needed always to lean on God for his words and on his brother to deliver them, and his willingness to run when things got hairy meant he had to rely on God to be the example of strong leadership Israel needed.
Note first that this advice is only about mission compatibility. Nothing said in the sermon or here should be taken as an encouragement to leave a church over differences in style or preference. There may be times when you must leave a church for other reasons, and some of what follows may help in those situations, but this section is for a specific issue and should not be generalized.
Some initial questions:
If none of these resolve the issue (and sometimes even if they do), you need to talk to the church leadership. The exact person will vary based on your church's leadership structure and your relationships to them, but identify someone in a position to handle your questions and who you feel comfortable receiving honest answers from. Ideally, you will have been already talking to this person while analyzing your calling.
Personal mission and church mission do not have to be identical to be compatible. Our church hosts a growing food pantry which some members feel strongly called to lead or participate in; the mission statement of the church does not include that, but it does serve the church's mission goal of serving the community in a Christ-centered way that enables opportunities for us to share the gospel. Take the time to find out whether or not your calling and the church mission are actually incompatible. It is entirely possible that the church leadership will know about directions the church is going, ministry opportunities, or just detail about the mission that you don't know for one reason or another, and they can point you to a way to do what you are called to do under the umbrella of the church's mission. It is, in fact, entirely possible that what you are called to do is something that doesn't exist at the church yet because they are waiting for someone called to do it.
Seek ways to serve. Use your spiritual gifts under the guidance of the church and for the building up of the body. As much as possible, seek ways to be an active, contributing part of what your church is doing. But if all of this is not working, and it becomes apparent that you are simply not built for what the church is doing, then it may be time to prayerfully look into places where you can be active and invested.
Look, regardless of the church leadership structure where you are, the fact is that God puts leaders in His churches for a reason. The actual task of analyzing this matter should be handled primarily by the church leadership. By calling them to leadership, God has also called them to see the mission and push forward in that; and by becoming a member of a church, everyone else has submitted themselves to trust the leadership to do exactly that. There are times when questioning or even challenging the leadership is necessary, but if it is a habit or something you feel no hesitation to do, going to God about your relationship to leadership should come before your challenge is delivered.
That being said, when the leadership revisits the church mission, it will generally follow pretty similar steps to those for analyzing personal calling, with the additional understanding that church missions are generally paired with church visions; the latter being where the church is going, and the former being how it will get there. Wise church leaders will look at how the people God has called to that body can do a work that uses the available gifts, skills, and interests to engage with the church's context to participate in a work that only God can bring to fruit.
There were five breakout session options at the summit on Saturday, and I took the one on church planting. This was led by Paul Gordon, pastor of Terra Nova Church in North Adams, MA. This is of particular interest to me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the impact it had on me as addressed earlier this week.
The session was basically broken up into three parts. The first addressed some of the particular issues with small place church planting, the second went into practical notes on doing that work, and the third was a question and answer time. I took no notes on that last section so it will not be addressed here.
Church plants are nearly always high-risk ventures. There's usually very few resources available at the onset, and what resources are available frequently fall into a short window of support. There are only so many people willing to invest their time in joining the core planting team, and the average is that half of whatever people sign on to a given team will not last. Church plants in cities are often assumed to be well on their way to being self-sustaining within five years, and commitments from supporters reflect this expectation.
Small town, rural, and other unstrategic locations for church plants get even less than that. There are fewer agencies, churches, and individuals willing to take the risk to invest in a church that might never grow beyond 20-50 people simply because of location, and the few that are willing to give may still hold to their 3-5 year expectations for a plant that may take a decade or more to get to the same level of financial stability. The reasons for this longer timeframe vary, of course, by location. I had already had discussions with a pastor about how some urban (but still considered unstrategic) contexts take longer simply because they're slow to trust, while churches in rural areas may grow incredibly quickly among the people nearby but only have ten households in a close radius.
For this reason, small-place church plants require a certain degree of creativity that may exceed that demanded of large-place church planters. With less money, fewer people, fewer places to meet, and presented with an unrealistic timeline, the work is marked in a big way by how a planter sees the opportunities that exist and acts on them with the limitations they have. But, ultimately, it comes down to the work of God; beginning with the work in calling the planter.
Gordon's central thesis was that a church planter, indeed any Christian doing the work handed down to us, is called first and foremost to a place and the people in it. The church plant isn't the primary objective, it's a means of reaching the objective. In the end, the goal is to make disciples among the people to whom we are called; church planting is one tool among many available to us in the work.
One bit that came up during conversation was the frequency with which church planters appear to be focused on fulfilling the goals and requirements of their sending agencies more than dealing with the specific needs of their context. This concern may or may not be as common of a problem as it was being presented by the man who asked about it, but I can't deny that there is a degree to which this model of being called to a place first runs against what I've been taught in other church planting programs. The contrary view, that a church planter is called to the occupation first, is more obvious in some places than others. The most overt was the flagship class for my church planting minor, where choosing a town or neighborhood came a few steps into the process of preparing to plant a church. Get called to church planting, then find somewhere to do it.
I've had some reservations about this approach for some time, though I've rarely had need to state as much or even really clarify it for myself. I must admit there's a certain degree of reality to it, after all, my wife and I believe we're being called to be involved in church planting, and each place we've ended up from that point onward has had some degree of consideration about what that call might look like where we are. In that way, the call to be church planters came before a few towns we've lived in, but I think the point is in how we think about it more so than chronological order. If we make the practice of church planting our primary focus, we invest in the church plant more than we invest in the lives of the people around us. A plant that leads to the creation of an established church surely must include some investment in the community, if only to get people in the door, but where we put our focus is where we will put our hearts and I believe God loves the people we are called to serve far more than He loves the idea of having a hip new congregation.
We need to be willing to let go of the plant if it means more people will come to Christ and God will receive more glory. We need to be willing to not even start a plant if there is another avenue available that God would prefer us to take. When we enter the community with the primary objective of planting a church before we invest in the community and learn what God would see done there, we run the risk of leaning on our own understanding and ideas to get the results we think are best. I've been guilty of it. I think what Gordon articulated is something we need to hear more often: we are called to a place and the people in it, for the glory of God, first. And if God wants to plant a new church, then we should eagerly do so, in accordance with His design for it and the needs and unique traits of that community. But if we come in with our detailed plan for starting a new church in a town where we know nothing but the stats we downloaded from a community profile, we need to seriously ask whether what we're doing is our idea, or God's.
The first session was delivered by Stephen Witmer, pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship and author of A Big Gospel in Small Places, and focused on why small places warrant care and attention.
Which isn't an entirely unreasonable question to ask. As addressed in the previous post, there are good reasons so many resources are spent on places that will have a big impact on a lot of lost people very quickly. Fulfillment of the Great Commission requires that the gospel spread fast enough to reach the world, and with the size of the world's population and the rate of its growth we need to step up that effort some. Being strategic and looking for the places with the fastest growth and largest reach helps ensure as many people as possible hear the gospel as quickly as possible.
The problem is when we only put resources into those places. Because the fact is, if the gospel is going to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible, someone needs to be going into the places between the strategic launch points. Whether they go from the hub cities, or from neighboring communities, or rise up from within, the farm towns and small places will need to have someone going to them. The model that relies on pouring resources into hub cities cannot then remain in hub cities or its entire justification breaks down. If these are points chosen for their ability to expand then they must expand into the places that were not chosen. If we're focusing on Boston for its ability to impact places like Townsend and Sturbridge, at some point we need to be sending people and resources to Townsend and Sturbridge. That's the point.
Which is fine as a logical and logistical explanation for why there must be investment both in large and small places, but Witmer, as befitting a speaker at a conference for ministers, focused instead on scriptural reasons.
The primary thrust of the argument Witmer presented is not that the hub city model of church planting is wrong or that it relies on expansion, or even that it fails in some way. The argument was firmly rooted in the claim that ministry in small places is, itself, an expression of certain truths about the gospel that simply are not represented by ministry in large places. Where large-place ministry showcases the universal reach of the gospel in its scope, immediacy and power in its rate of expansion, and the wisdom of the gospel through its careful consideration of method, small-place ministry shows how the gospel is also small, slow, and unstrategic.
One of the condemnations of the gospel message I have actually received in my life is that if an all-powerful and all-wise God wanted the world to know the truth of Himself and His message, He should have had the foresight to deliver it somewhere other than a backwater corner of an ancient empire. And I've heard the counterargument that Galilee and Judea actually sit on fairly important trade routes and would therefore have some strategic value to the spread of such a message, but Witmer would appear to argue that the atheist has noticed something about the gospel that we are too quick to dismiss: that Galilee really is a backwater corner of the Roman Empire and really should raise some questions about its utility in a global mission.
Perhaps the answer is that the gospel isn't, at its core, utilitarian.
Is that not what we see in the life of Jesus Christ, anyway? We take for granted that Mary and Joseph were of the line of David, so He fulfills that prophesy, but have we just been assuming that David had no descendants at that time in a more noble position who could have raised the Son of God in some degree of pomp and splendor? Why pick the great-grandchildren that live in a dusty little town doing menial trade work? Why make arrangements for this child to be born in a stable away from the hub city of the region? They run off to Egypt and make no impression on the people there worth recording, then return to Nazareth where Jesus lives in obscurity until His mission begins in earnest and He spends most of that mission wandering around places where crowds could find nothing to eat. He consistently whittled down the number of people following Him, to the point that despite having a massive following at various times and whole cities that wanted to declare Him king and appearing after His death to hundreds of people at once, only 120 are still hanging around waiting for His promise to be fulfilled at Pentecost. How often we consider a church of 120 people to be too small to notice!
Witmer notes that the Kingdom begins very small in scripture, and that God consistently shows concern for what is small. The small places like Bethlehem, the smallest son of Jesse, the smallest bit of faith, the jots and tittles of the Law. In ministering to the small places, we are continuing the work that God has always had for these locations.
"The gospel gives us permission to have slow ministries." One thing that strikes me is that, while we do have moments of explosive growth in the church in Acts, the way in which we read the book can sometimes make us think it was always like that. One story right after another, with Paul being saved outside of Damascus and then going out and beginning to preach and going home where he's pulled by Barnabas to Antioch and then turned around and sent on their first missionary journey. But we know from his other writings that Paul spent at least 12 years coming to understand the gospel with which he had been entrusted before the vast majority of that even happened. How often we try to rush things to fit our timetable, this idealized version of the story in our heads, when God intends to take the time to make sure it's done right.
Witmer repeatedly noted that we should "want revival more and need it less." By wanting it more he wasn't saying we don't desire it hard enough; rather, the point was that we too often treat the big explosive moments as the whole picture and judge ourselves and others by whether or not these experiences are happening. But our validation shouldn't come from how quickly we outgrow our buildings or double our baptisms. These things are great, and we should value them and seek after them, but we cannot treat them as the whole picture of God's work. We should want to see everyone we've ever met come to church and make a profession of faith this Sunday; but when we consider ourselves a failure for having any less, we lose sight of the fact that our entire role is to be faithful in the task. Faithfulness is always marked more by time and consistency than by results.
According to worldly wisdom, the gospel is a mess. Sending your own son to die on behalf of people who hate him in order to win some of them over is a terrible strategy by any human standard. Having all of the work in establishing your religion happen in a place that has no strategic, economic, or cultural importance just seems like poor planning. Pouring yourself out into the lives of a handful of illiterate fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot while turning away scribes and people ready to install a new king almost sounds like planning to fail.
But this is the foundation of our faith. The gospel, and the ways it gets worked out, isn't always going to seem like it makes sense or that it's aimed at making the biggest impact in the fastest way possible. The nature of the gospel actively stops us from thinking that we can only justify the use of resources on the best available options. It gives us permission to focus and really spend time and effort on people who can bring nothing big or new to the table. In fact, it basically requires us to do so. To do anything else not only fails to showcase the way God has consistently worked across the centuries, but also kind of suggests that we think we're big enough deals to have warranted His attention. We misrepresent God and ourselves and only encourage heightened egos if we act like the gospel only belongs to the strategic few.
The last thought I have in my notes from Witmer were his words, that "if you are viewing your people as a stepping stone to somewhere bigger and better, you cannot be loving your people." Is this not what it call comes down to? If we will not love the handful who gather in the small church an hour outside of anywhere, how can we think we deserve to be shepherds over the thousands that gather under a dome in the city?
Recently I was struggling with a situation and I tried to jot down on my personal blog how I was feeling and it ended up being a lot longer and more personal than I'd expected. But I posted it anyway, and some people started to respond that it has resonating with them in some way or another. And I realized that I need accountability and encouragement on this matter, and that people reading this blog may also benefit from the things I said.
So I decided to cross-post it here with this disclaimer. I also want to note that part of it takes place at or in response to an event hosted by Small Town Summits, which is an awesome work happening in New England that I would encourage you to check out and support and learn from. A link to their website appears in the story below. I also took notes at that event that I was planning to explore some more and share what I learned on this blog; so I wanted to make you aware that while I touch on some things here that I will also touch on in later posts, the focus here is on the impact those things had on my story. Note that because this was originally written for my personal blog rather than this site, it has a somewhat different feel than some of my other posts. I have not edited it in any significant way, only added media and one little note I realized I had missed.
Click "Read More" below for the rest.
During the 2016 election campaign, I expressed concern about Donald Trump for a number of reasons, most of which were fairly widely shared by people who didn't vote for him. But there was one I said at the time I was concerned about more than any of the others, because I was concerned it offended a more important party than ourselves and would be, I believed, the hardest to counter once he was in office.
I stated that putting Donald Trump in the White House would legitimize a practice calling itself Christianity that has little, if anything, to do with Christ. That his election would not only encourage the false teachers he surrounded himself with during his campaign, but that it would embolden a host of problems that the church was harboring and failing to address. This past Sunday, the sermon touched on one of the ways I feel that concern has been realized.
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
The big question of the sermon was, do we reach out to the people around us with the same love and passion that Paul is here describing? He noted that churches in America have a particular opportunity of world evangelism based on the fact that the world is coming to us, rather than requiring we go to it. And when they come here, we have an opportunity to reach out and build relationships and show the love of Christ to them by sharing, not only the gospel, but our lives with them. But, of course, that relies on us actually welcoming them. So the sermon reminded me of some things.
God of our Sojourning
"Thus has the LORD of hosts said, 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'
Zechariah 7:9-10 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy, God repeatedly makes the case that part of the reason Israel should remember to care for the sojourner among them is that they were, themselves, sojourners in Egypt. It's worth noting that, during this address, Moses isn't speaking to people who were adults in Egypt; this is after the forty years of wandering, when the generation that came from Egypt had died out. This is not a command given to the generation that remembers Egypt. Israel as a body was a sojourner, and is told here that it must never forget that fact.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
There are two grounds on which this argument stands. The first is that, while we are not under the Mosaic law as a people redeemed by grace, the ordinances given to Israel nevertheless point to some understanding of who God is and what His people should look like and we can learn from that; in this particular case, we need not conceptualize the lesson being given, as we may with laws like those banning mixed fabrics, since the reminder to care for the foreigner is given an explanation already.
The second is the nature of that explanation, and the fact that it has not changed. That the heart of God goes out to the foreigner remains equally true as long as God's heart remains the same, and we know that He does not change. And His call to remember the days of sojourning are true for Christians who sojourn in a fallen world just as much as it was true of Israelites who sojourned in Egypt.
How can we be the people of God if we will not act how God calls us to act, and love how He has loved us?
Of the first, it should be noted that our government is not actually set up to operate that way. Whether or not the apostles would have been at the borders of the Roman Empire welcoming travelers is hardly relevant when their relationship to government was fundamentally different from ours. The simplest way to put it is this: in a governmental system designed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, what we task the government with doing is something we are doing. This also comes up in matters of social welfare, the claim that we are called to support the widow and the orphan and help the poor, sure, but we are never called to empower a government to take our money and have them do the supporting.* But this creates a division where one does not exist. When we vote for or against a program or a candidate, we are telling the government how we want it to operate on our behalf. We are directing it to function as our arms in carrying out large-scale operations beyond the scope of what we can do individually. It is no different from giving money and input to our church, or our denomination, about things we want to see happen.
As such, there is no division. If we are going to show God's love to the sojourner among us, we have a direct responsibility to support programs that allow sojourners to exist among us. Our attempts to support programs that restrict or remove sojourners from our midst are nothing less than an act of rebellion to the mission of our God.
The second is personal/national safety and, while literally all available data shows that there is no considerable threat from allowing refugees (or immigrants in general) in, the main focus for us as Christians is that our nation ultimately doesn't matter and our lives are already lost. We owe our nation no more allegiance than we owe Kazakhstan, because, as stated above, this is not our home. We have certain obligations to respect the authority that we live under, but that does not mean we give that authority more power and worth than it deserves. Nor will it be eternal. America will fall someday, whether to mortal forces or to the coming Kingdom of our Lord. What, exactly, are we preserving? And is preserving it more important than obedience to God?
As for personal safety, this is never guaranteed to us. We walk the path of martyrs. It is better for a terrorist to walk into a church and be greeted with the gospel than to allow him to continue in ignorance of the offer of salvation, even if he destroys that church and everyone in it. It is better to lose our lives by opening our doors to the unsaved than to live a long life and stand before God having never carried out His commands because we were more afraid of man than of Him.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28 (NASB)
The other two sermons will also be uploaded after they are delivered over the span of the next week or so. And in the meantime, keep an eye out for my final project in New Testament II, a survey of Paul's description of Christ!
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
Gospel Of John
Gospel Of Matthew
Small Town Summits
Stanley E Porter
The Good Place
Who Is Jesus