The General Contractor
Introduction – Experience is Not Enough
August 25, 2013
I’m a very blessed man. In 2005, I had the opportunity to launch an undergraduate program in worship leadership at Huntington University. I had long desired to teach on the college level and Diane was just as excited as I was. It was a good match to my teaching gifts and my ambition. I taught for five years and I am grateful for each course I was assigned and especially for each student that I was privileged to teach and, in some cases, mentor.
My tenure as a college professor was also an intense time of learning and stretching. It dramatically changed my life. I have an insatiable desire for learning and growing that I didn’t have before I started at Huntington. Every month or so, a little newsletter that contained short essays on teaching in higher education would be circulated through the department. I don’t think most profs read it, but as one who was new to the profession, I scanned it for helpful hints. I remember one essay in particular that made a profound impact on me. It was entitled, “Experience is Not Enough.” It caught my attention because my formal educational training promoted student experience as the most important factor in the learning equation. The premise of the essay was simple: reflection must follow experience or the learning process is incomplete.
Wow! That is so true. So I began to assign and weigh reflection papers or interviews with students as an essential part of their learning journey. What is good practice in education is also applicable in every-day life. As parents we are the primary teachers of our children. I believed in spanking my children when they willfully disobeyed us. But before they bent over, we always had a “little chat” where we talked about what they did, why it was wrong, and what they would do next time. Without that important little reflection talk, spanking is marginally effective and could even potentially become abusive. When Diane and I have had disagreements or when I’ve done something that upset her, after we resolved the tension, we would reflect on the experience. That’s how we grow together in our marriage. Jesus would frequently seek solitude for himself or retreat with his disciples after they experienced a significant ministry event. It wasn’t just physical rest they needed. They needed to reflect on what they had done. Sometimes, the Gospels even let us in on Jesus’ reflection and unpacking of what they had experienced.
Our first anniversary together passed just last week. It has been a good year and God has certainly blessed us. That we remain together is a testament to many good things, not the least is God’s grace. One of my favorite “party tricks” in the last year when I would reconnect with old friends was to tell them that I was following a pastor who had been in the role for fifty-two years. I loved to measure how far their jaws would drop! They usually said, “Good luck with that!” I’m supposed to be the “sacrificial lamb,” but God willing, Diane and I will have a long – though not fifty-two years – ministry together with you. This morning, in recognition of our completing one year together, I thought it would be good to reflect on our experience and to project a little bit down the road.
Review of the Year’s Significant Developments Through My Lens
I almost hesitate to walk down a path of remembrance because I am certain to leave someone or something out. What I remember and highlight is limited by my own perspective and time this morning. This message wasn’t vetted or crafted by a number of committees and then approved by the deacon board. Sermon prep is intensive enough! That would be too much. So, understand that what follows is my perspective, imperfect as it is.
I don’t think it was even twenty-four hours since I had agreed to serve as lead pastor in June of 2012 that I received an urgent phone call from a deacon who said we needed to change the pulpit, now! I’m still amused. It was one of the first changes we made and it wasn’t without some controversy. But I think the updated result has been good.
Right out of the gate, I tried your patience by being gone on a teaching trip to Africa for two weeks. But we survived and some of you even got involved by helping support the mission financially. Since then, you’ve raised funds to help purchase property and just this week, we used some of the residual money to assist the pastor with a medical emergency. Not only have you blessed me, but you impact and bless Christians around the world. You are indeed a big-hearted people.
One of my biggest joys since coming here is to be friends with Pastor Harold Salem. I love to see him each Sunday and I usually make one pilgrimage to the Christian Worship Hour offices to chat with him during the week. His friendship is an unexpected joy to serving as your lead pastor. Such a relationship with a previous pastor is not always the case – especially one with such a long tenure. But in October of 2012, when I was formally installed as your lead pastor, we also honored Pastor Salem as our pastor emeritus.
I have to tell you, no one has ever played it better. I am so grateful for his friendship and support. He is a treasure to me and to our church. May God grant us many more years together, my friend.
I began my preaching in Ephesians with a series entitled, Living the Father’s Grand Story.
Ephesians is a book that is rich in its theology of the church and it was great place for us to start. From time to time, I hear people talk about the Father’s Grand Story
. We are privileged to be in the same story as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, King David, Daniel, Peter and Paul. We are part of the cast that includes all of the great saints throughout church history. God has written us all into his Script. Our part is to play our role in the great Redemption Story.
Women’s Bible studies continue to be one of the strongest ministries of our church. I’m grateful for Colleen Jark’s leadership and have learned not to interrupt Diane when she is doing her homework for the study. They take their studies seriously. Well, since the women were meeting on Monday nights in the fall, I thought the men ought to do the same. I offered a study in spiritual leadership on Monday nights and Tuesday mornings for men last fall. We used Henry Blackaby’s book, Spiritual Leadership
. The principles in that book have become guideposts in developing a culture of spiritual leadership and discernment on the deacon board. Friends, the health of this church will rise or fall on the quality and spiritual depth of your leaders. We have spiritual men and they are continually being stretched to grow in their ability to lead us where God is working.
During the fall of 2012 we were also fortunate to have Josh Dirnberger serve us as worship leader. Josh had such a winning way with people. He was a good musician and he exuded sincerity and genuineness as he led us in worship each week. Under Josh’s leadership, our worship team stabilized and we established a blended approach to worship and embraced a more updated and contemporary style.
Last fall, we also instituted two special services in November: All Saints and Thanksgiving Sundays. All Saints was a new concept for us, but it provides the opportunity to remember that we are in a much greater Story than just our own and that those who have gone before us still remain alive in Christ’s presence. We are not alone. We have a great “cloud of witnesses” cheering us on in our journey of faith. We also broke new ground in December by intentionally observing Advent. As we discovered, Advent is more than just a prelude to Christmas, but a season of reflection, repentance and renewal. It took some adjustment. We didn’t sing too many Christmas carols until about the third week. But the waiting (which is a big part of Advent) cultivated a richer experience throughout the season.
When you were searching for a senior pastor in early 2012, I was filling out paperwork with the denomination describing my ministry priorities. One of my highest priorities centers around understanding and experiencing the Lord’s Table together. It probably didn’t get much attention. Most Baptists don’t focus too much on the Table. But my deepening understanding of the Lord’s Table has richly enhanced my spiritual life and I want to share that with you as well. I fondly remember the first time I introduced a new way of observing the Table with you. It was on New Year’s Eve and I had spread a long table in front of the sanctuary where each member of the congregation would come and kneel, reflect, and receive the elements. Prior to the service, you could almost feel the resistance in the air. Some folks said, “We’re not Lutherans. I’m not going forward for Communion.” Diane told me I was in trouble, but the die was cast and we proceeded. The Lord met us in a powerful way as people had to take the initiative to come to the Table. There, many lingered. We’ve done it at least once that way since with similar impact. I’m glad you didn’t fire me. I’m glad you tried it. It was a good step forward – literally and figuratively – for us.
Winter and the early spring brought more blessings. Pastor Knute took a mission trip to India with some of our regional leaders. You covered all of his expenses and even over and above his needs which were passed on directly to the mission. It was another example of your big-hearted generosity. Two Northern State students from Korea began to attend here every week. Those who knew Bin and Jesse were blessed by their charm. Jesse eventually came to Christ shortly after she left to go home. It was exciting to watch her spiritual journey and engage her honest questions. I hope God sends us more!
In early 2013, Aberdeen Christian School began to seek a new home in earnest. They had long talked about relocating but had never really taken concrete steps. When what seemed to be a sure thing fell through with the Washington building, God opened an exciting new door with Avera’s Midland Campus. We now stand on the brink of the realization of that dream. This is no small doing. The relationship between churches and resident schools are always a breeding ground for deep tensions and misunderstandings. I believe that God has moved us through that minefield with clear direction and grace into this new day for both the school and church.
Throughout the year, we’ve been blessed with the relationship with our sister Karen church. For over a year, we had maintained a storage site to gather and disperse household goods for Karen immigrants. When the need for such assistance began to dwindle in spring we determined to give away all that remained through the great community give-a-way in early May. We gathered many other items as well and blessed a lot of needy people with things they needed for their homes. It was a wonderful demonstration of love and service to the local community.
Along the way, you’ve listened to and received the different sermon series that I’ve brought to you: The Lord’s Prayer, Elements of a Christian Conversion, and now, The Attributes of God. Some of those sermons have been challenging, but you’ve allowed the Spirit of God to plant his Word in your heart to cultivate a life of discipleship. On Easter Sunday, we celebrated as four people illustrated the power of the Resurrection through the baptismal waters and all along, we’ve had new folks coming; we just received seven into membership last month. And then, just a few weeks ago, the whole church pulled together to offer another wonderful Vacation Bible School.
General Assessment of the State of the Church
So that’s what God has been doing in us during this last year. It’s quite a story. What are the signposts that tell us God is at work among us? These are the things I see:
· We are friendly and welcoming
. I’ve heard it from guests that we’ve visited and even from the special choir that came through in March. You are warm and welcoming. I hope we never lose that quality. In the Midwest where it seems that everyone’s relationship plate is full, it is important that we genuinely welcome those who are new to our church – not just with a handshake – but invite them into our lives. I’ve been lonely on the other side before. It is a terrible feeling. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep reaching out.
· For a church that recently experienced a painful split, you are remarkably forgiving
. I love that about you. We are not superior to anyone. We need forgiveness all the time. We have learned to be generous in our forgiveness. I praise God’s grace for that!
· Believe it or not, you are adaptable!
I know change is hard and there is usually some resistance to every change we make. This is the Midwest, after all. Someone told me that I have brought more change in one year than you’ve experienced in twenty. I’ve asked others and they’ve pretty much affirmed that assessment. I suppose it’s true. New bulletin. Communication cards. Fill My Cup Café’….the list goes on. Each change we’ve made has been for good reason. We are not infatuated with change for change’s sake. But I am also concerned about the pace of change. Too much change can be a bad thing, even if it is good change. We’ll monitor the pace. We don’t want to become disoriented by too much change too fast.
· Everyone notices that there is good feeling tone when we are together.
You know it hasn’t always been that way. It there will be times when positive morale may wane. Cherish what we have friends. Psalm 133 reminds us: “Behold, how good and pleasant is it when brothers dwell in unity!...For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
· The greatest asset any church can have is not her buildings, her financial reserves, or a preacher who can pack the seats. I’ve served a lot of churches. I’ve experienced all those things. The greatest asset of any church is the spiritual quality of the governing board.
Our deacons are not perfect. And we have a long way to grow in learning to lead and discern spiritually. But they have set that as their priority and they continually grow in their role as spiritual leaders. Aside from preaching, cultivating spiritual depth and understanding on the board has been my highest priority. And the men are responding.
· Though there will always be some tension in worship and music, we have reached a place of stability and identity in our corporate worship.
We are a multi-generational church, so we will employ a blended worship style. That means few will be happy all the time. But we love each other. We serve each other. We sing the songs we don’t like because we love the people who do like them.
· We have a challenging budget. For most of this year, we have fallen quite short on our giving each week. But have you noticed? Our giving is improving.
Giving during the month of August has just about met budget each week. That is very remarkable and encouraging, given that we are still in the summer months. Regular and generous giving is the mark of faith and maturity. Something is happening in you. I commend you and thank you.
· Perhaps the biggest news of the year is that Aberdeen Christian School is relocating.
This development will open up brand new vistas of opportunity in ministry for us. But we must not rush ahead. We need to be discerning and seek God’s leading. Let’s not make the mistake of asking God to bless our plans. Instead, let’s join God in the work that he is already doing. If we seek him and look for him, we’ll find him.
· As our opportunities expand according to God’s leading, we need more workers. I’ve seen this before in churches that are growing. Generally, it will not be the old-timers that will fill those roles. It will be the new folks that God is bringing to us. That means two things: 1) established people need to make room for new folks. Let’s welcome people not only through our doors, but also into our ministry. 2) New folks do need to step up. Church is community – being and working together. It is not just coming on Sunday mornings. As opportunities arise and God prompts you, step up and serve. God didn’t bring you to First Baptist just to sit and watch.
There are at least two things I believe we need to consider and do in the coming year. First, we need to be engaged in local mission. We need to serve our community in Jesus’ name. It is so easy to be satisfied with our own little warm community. But the love of Christ compels us to share what we have or what we have is of no real value. It is Christ’s way. A church that wraps itself up in its own little world will become stagnant, stale, and proud. We need to go in and out – just like breathing to be spiritually vibrant and healthy. What are you doing to share the love of Christ in your sphere of influence? Aberdeen is our sphere of influence. What are we doing to share the love of Christ in our sphere of influence? The great community give-away was a good start. We need to do more and sustain our witness in the community.
Second, we need to open our lives to each other. When I preached on the Lord’s Prayer, I became very aware that we are a very private people. It doesn’t matter that being reserved is part of the upper-Midwest culture. We must be counter-cultural in this regard or our growth will be limited. Your spiritual growth will be stunted. My spiritual growth will be stunted. Our church’s spiritual growth will be stunted. We must open our lives up to each other or there will be no transformation. We must be authentic and real with each other.
That usually doesn’t happen in a church building, but it does happen in homes where people can let their guard down and relax. This fall, we will be launching small groups that will be meeting in homes. It is a vitally important step for us. We need to learn to pray together. We’re not very good at that. We can learn to do that in homes. We need to bear one another’s burdens. We do pretty well with that, but we will do even more as we open our lives to each other and allow God to work through others.
Psalm 127 says,
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Dangers and Exhortations
The psalmist isn’t talking about some kind of physical structure. He is talking about a family, a household, a legacy. That is what the church is. It is the household of God. But because it is made up of human beings, it is also a human institution. Sometimes we allow too much of the institution into the family of God. Christ is the head of the church. Not the pastor. Not the deacon board.
When you have positive organizational momentum (like we do right now), it is very tempting to resort to human efforts to control and move things forward. We get excited. We start thinking, “O, we should do that” and “we should do this.” Expectations are raised. That’s not all bad. It’s part of human dynamics. It is a good place to be; but it is also a dangerous place to be. We want to see things happen and in order to make sure they happen we resort to our own tactics like manipulation and gossip to empower ourselves. We’ve crossed the line. And let’s be honest. That happens here at times. Ruth Haley Barton wisely observes in her book, Pursuing God’s Will Together,
“When decisions need to be made and action needs to be taken, it is hard to trust that the Spirit’s presence and activity can bring about unity. So we capitulate to posturing and maneuvering, secret meetings, heavy-handed tactics and top-down pronouncements. It isn’t God we trust in such moments. When push comes to shove, we trust in familiar methods that make us feel safe and in control. There is not a lot of space for God to work in these methods, and I suspect that, at times, that is exactly what we want.” (111)
We forget that the church is God’s enterprise. It is his house to build. He is the General Contractor. God is more concerned with our “being” than with our “doing.” It is natural to be consumed with doing – doing programs and services – and doing them well and right. We can throw staff and money at those without having to personally change. And the results may be really exciting with more people coming and everything getting bigger and bigger. God is not in that. God want to change you. He wants to change me. And you and I will resist that and substitute program and activity any time in order to avoid personal change. But God is persistent. He wants us to change – to be transformed into people who carry the character of Christ. You see, when we become like Christ, there is no question about what we will be doing. When we become like Christ, we will be doing the Father’s will. And that’s what the church is to be.
We Are His Masterpiece
We began this year by studying the book of Ephesians. It is a fitting place to close this reflection:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.