Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Unusual Year in Review

The year 2011 began with me beginning a new expositional preaching series through Galatians at Memorial Baptist Church. Though we'd just come through a year (2010) that saw visitors to the church nearly every Sunday and a few new members added the overall participation of members was down and giving was down. The mood at the church was mixed-- some optimism and some growing concern about the future vitality of the church. I was excited about beginning a new year-- especially about some specific outreach efforts being organized and about preaching through Galatians. However a series of circumstances had me seeking discerning counsel from a few fellow pastors. I was wrestling with how to lead the church and whether the Lord might be redirecting my life and ministry. My resolve was to continue to lead the flock the Lord had called me to and specifically lead them with expositional preaching and toward a more gospel-driven ministry. Until the Lord made clear a different direction I would stay the course.

Then February rolled around and late that month while home for a brief lunch break and almost out the door to go back to my office for sermon prep my wife caught me and uttered these few words, "Um... there's a chance I might be pregnant." It was surreal but I was careful to be excited until we were sure. Soon after we were sure and it was like 2009 all over again as we prepared for our second child. So on the homefront, things were great and the blessings were overflowing. On the church front, things were much more challenging for a variety of reasons but in hindsight the difficulties were also blessings-- the Lord was using highs and lows for my sanctification and to carry out His purposes.

March marked the third anniversary of my pastorate (I was actually voted on and "called" in late February but my first day on the job was Easter Sunday, March 23). It also brought a couple inquiries from other churches about my potential candidacy for their pastorate openings. Though nothing every developed with those churches the inquiries forced me to examine my present ministry with more discernment and pray more about my hopes and convictions about where the church should be in the future. I remember casually chatting with my wife and fellow pastors about "if I was starting from scratch" (i.e. if there were no obstacles to substantive change) here's how we would apply the Biblical convictions I have about the church at Memorial. These chats grew more frequent. Don't get me wrong, I was still (and am still) deeply burdened for my Memorial church family. It just became more obvious that the kinds of applications I wanted to make from the New Testament for the church were in stark contrast to how much change an older congregation with many established norms could handle. So the question became obvious-- am I the man to lead Memorial in these changes over many years or is the Lord prompting me to make these applications more quickly in a different context?

The week before Easter, in mid-April my wife and I (along with our friends John and Tara Jones- John pastors Jade Avenue Baptist Church nearby) trekked off to an Expository Preaching Conference in Arkansas. This conference and the church that hosted it would be a major catalyst in discerning the direction God was leading my life and ministry. To make a long story a little less long, the Lord used His godly servants David Miller, Hershael York, Derek Westmoreland, and my friend John Jones that week to challenge me in the areas of preaching, faithfulness, courage, and kingdom-focus. Blair and I soaked up a lot. We reflected on it and talked about it for days and days afterward. I knew at this point that I didn't need to go to another existing church when I was already serving one-- the Lord certainly leads pastors to different congregations but it wasn't what He had for me.

In early May I was spending time with my boy outside. He was playing and I was scribbling notes-- ideas, dreams, thoughts, convictions, etc etc. What I ended up with after that journaling session (interrupted often with calls from my son to wrestle or throw a ball around) were six "vision points". These were the refined and specific targets I wanted to lead the church but when I put the pen down I knew I had written the mapping points for a new church. I brewed over that for a few days and was afraid to tell my wife what had become obvious to me... the Lord had been preparing us and was now directing us to plant a church.

When I finally spilled my guts to my wife she was remarkably supportive and affirming. Now it should be said she has always been a remarkably supportive and affirming wife but this was a big deal to drop on her and shock or reluctance would have been understandable. We talked and prayed about it a lot. I studied the Book of Acts a lot in those critical days of discernment. I sat down with John and with Joe Worley (the pastor of FBC Groves who I'd served under and who is now our lead sponsor church) and talked to other pastors I trusted as well. These discerning men offered challenging questions but ultimately affirmed the Holy Spirit's leadership in this. Then came what Blair and I refer to as "the couch moment". We'd been talking about church planting so much it was becoming distracting to my ministry at Memorial so we had to get serious. If we were going to work toward a transition from Memorial to church planting I had to begin focusing my ministry at Memorial on preparing them for that transition and for their future without my leadership. This wasn't something to casually talk about anymore. It was decision time. So one afternoon while Asher napped we sat on the couch, prayed about it again, and I asked, "Are we going to do this or not?" Blair's response, "I'm with you all the way."

The big question was where to plant. Intitially we landed on Houston-- specifically in the Heights/ Timbergrove/ Garden Oaks area around the 610 Loop. My roots were in Houston and that area of the city, due to gentrification, had seen a boom in population. There was and still is a big need for more healthy, Biblical, and missional churches there. I met with pastors in Houston and with a local Baptist association worker-- I even took a job interview with a secualar business in the event we did a parachute-drop church plant. Everyone was helpful and encouraging but basically doors closed. I can't explain it and for about half-a-day I was discouraged. The discouragement quickly gave way to anticipation. I knew the Lord was calling us to plant a church but I saw the closed doors as Him protecting me from my ambitions to make way for His plans. The Lord used those days to teach Blair and I so much about faith.

There was a key week in June when we laid aside any talk of "how about here or there". We just prayed and waited. In quick order the Lord used godly counsel from several godly men to challenge us to consider Beaumont. Initially we'd ruled out any place close to Memorial because we didn't want the perception to be that I was mad about something and took my toys to the sandbox across the playground. However that worry was silly. The Lord planted us in Southeast Texas and given me a burden for the area-- Beaumont is the hub of this area so it made sense. There are a lot of other reasons for Beaumont but that's another blog post.

By late July it was time to tell the leadership at Memorial. I had no idea how they'd react. We were not going to begin planting the new church in earnest until January 2012 because it would take time to raise funds, gather a core group, and put together a coalition of churches to help us plant. So the risk was, what if the deacons felt this was too long a time for a "lame-duck" pastor to stay on the field. My hope was to use the remaining five months of 2011 to help Memorial prepare for the transition and give them stability in leadership through the end of the year while I simultaneously worked to get the support structure in place to plant in 2012. What if they didn't go for it? There was no plan B. There was only faith. Of course transparency was just the right thing to do. So I told the deacons and while they were saddened (and some were understandably a little angry at first) they committed to be supportive. The chairman of the deacons, Norman Russell was and is a gem-- so supportive, encouraging, and affirming-- he stood on the platform with me when I announced the news to the congregation in August.

The last five months have had their difficulties. Not everyone was supportive of the transition plan but that's okay. I didn't expect unanimity. Tears were shed at times but no blood. In the end the Lord used these last five months at Memorial to better me and I trust, to better Memorial. I actually believe they were some of the most productive months of my ministry at Memorial. I pray the Lord used my preaching and leadership to equip the saints for the work of the ministry there. He also used these months to gather a core group, connect eight partnering churches, and raise funds necessary to plant Cross Point Church in January 2012. We'll launch on January 8 (more on that in the next post). Of course the sweetest day of the year came on November 1 when my baby girl was born. I'm so thankful to the Lord for His sustaining graces and especially for His saving grace, without which nothing this year or any year would have any lasting value or meaning. I'm eager to see what God will do in 2012-- through both highs and lows-- for the advancing of His kingdom, for the stretching of my faith, and for His glory through my new church and through my home.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Five things I'll miss from Memorial

This Sunday will mark my final Sunday as pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Port Arthur. My ministry began on Easter in March of 2008 and will conclude on Christmas. Prior to my time at Memorial I served three different congregations over a ten year period as a youth pastor but the saints at Memorial were the first for me to shepherd as Pastor. I've learned a lot over these last few years, had my share of grief and joy as a pastor, and made friendships that I pray will endure for many years to come. Here are a few thoughts about what I'll especially miss when I move on in 2012:

1. Senior Adults who are excited about learning the Bible. When you are over 70 it is probably easy to assume you've heard it all or learned all you need... and they have heard and learned a lot. I was blessed with senior saints who still had youthful enthusiasm to learn about Christ.

2. Senior Adults who are committed friends. Again, I don't plan to shake loose of these friendships but I won't see them every Sunday and unfortunately church planting rarely draws in the elderly. I'm concerned that my kids won't get to see "old people" worship and learn from them as part of a church family. My wife and I are very sensitive to not wanting our kids thinking youthful strength is more valuable to the Kingdom that long-term, enduring, aged faith.

3. All the behind-the-scenes servants. There are men and women at Memorial who serve and do ministry all the time but never get noticed. They like it that way. They aren't likely to be the ones with titles or those speaking the loudest in business meetings. They just faithfully live out the gospel. I'm thinking of names and faces but if I starting naming them I'd miss one and they don't want to be named anyway.

4. The Sanctuary. Or auditorium. Or worship center. Or whatever is the trendy thing to call the place where the church gathers for worship. I know the church isn't a building but Memorial has a beautiful building that helps set the tone for a reverent time of worship. Go by and check it out sometime. It is in my top ten coolest places of worship.

5. The generous spirit of the congregation. These folks are givers. I'm not just talking about my salary though they did generously meet my family's needs. They are generous, sacrificial and cheerful givers to mission work, local ministry, benevolence ministry, etc etc. I pray Cross Point becomes such a giving church.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday Hodge-Podge (12-13-11)

  • Here is a great resource to study church history.
  • 9 Marks has a lot of great resources but I am finding their insight on congregational worship extremely helpful right now.
  • Here are twelve things to celebrate this Christmas.
  • Below is a video of Soma Communities (church) and their work in the community that adorns (doesn't substitute for) the gospel:

Soma Communities Sacred Space - Thea Foss Waterway, Tacoma, WA from Soma Communities on Vimeo.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Houston Texans: 2011 AFC South Division Champs!

(My blog post title still feels a little unreal to type)

I resist posting about sports nearly every week. It would be very easy for me to turn this into a blog on my opinions of various sports' stories. The thing is, there is very little I could talk about that would be much benefit to the church or fellow pastors-- which is my aim. So I muzzle my sports thoughts and focus my energies toward other matters.

Not today...

"My team" finally clinched a play-off birth yesterday and I was euphoric. My wife was laughing at me because of how silly the Texans' victory made me last night. I don't have a college team to root for (though my alma mater is soon to add a football program) and my childhood team moved away (the Houston Oilers). As a Houston native I was bred to have nothing but disdain for the Cowboys so for the last decade I've had to root for a team that only knew losing. I don't count 8-8 seasons or the one 9-7 non-play-off season as "winning". Nothing was really accomplished. The Oilers had some really good teams and some really epic chokes (Bills in '92 and Chiefs in '93 in my memory... I'm too young to remember the Steelers' battles of the late 70's, though I've heard the tales). The Texans however have never really choked... they just didn't breathe in the first place. They've invented new and painful ways to torture their fans-- I really can't believe the Texans have such a faithful fan base in Houston.

Now, they are winners. It is especially satisfying how they've won their division. Their best receiver (arguably one of the best in the NFL) has been injured for most of the season. Their star running back wasn't healthy for the first quarter of the season. Their best defensive player, out for the year. Their starting QB and back-up QB, out for the year. Their star middle linebacker has been hurting all year too. Their 3rd string QB is a rookie no one ever heard of from North Carolina (they play a sport other than basketball??). Yet this team is tough and determine. That's inspiring and that's my team!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

This Sunday's "Special Music" during the Offertory?

O, Holy Night is a Christmas classic and while we should not take the Lord Jesus lightly it is another thing to take ourselves lightly as this music professional did in recording the worst rendition of the song ever. Enjoy a good laugh and listen below. Also, here is the story behind this version of the song.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Responding to Disagreeable Disagreers

Not everyone thinks that the way you think is as brilliant as you think it is. That's a humbling slap in the face that is coming if it hasn't already (many times over). How should you respond to people who disagree with you or even criticize your view, beliefs, or practices? Well let's dispense with the obvious... if you are violating Scripture and you are confronted by it (even if those doing the confronting aren't nice or are "judgmental") you who are indwelt with the Spirit will repent and you who are not (because you have not put faith in Christ) must repent and believe on Christ as Lord for the redemption of your sins (1 John 1:8-9).

What about if you have certain Biblical convictions about doctrine or about how to live out said doctrine? What if--gasp--someone doesn't agree with you pastor on who you are "doing church"? I've got folks that have shared their differences with me recently so this is no foreign subject. The first reaction (but hopefully not last) is to get irritated, angry, or defensive. That can easily grow into division with Christian brothers or sisters and bitterness in your heart. Don't go there! Don't let the enemy bring further disgrace to the Body of Christ!

Consider what Proverbs 9:8-9 says, "Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning." What do you prove yourself to be when given reproof, instruction, or teaching? Even if the one communicating the instruction doesn't have all the facts, makes assumptions, seems mean-spirited, or just isn't nice about it do you prove yourself wise and righteous by your response? Here's my two cents in responding to disagreeable disagreers:

1. Hear them out and don't say anything until they are finished and you've had at least a few moments to think through the context and meat of their concerns.

2. As much as is possible, avoid responding over email or texting so that your tone is not confused (and so that you don't say things you'd never have the guts to say in person).

3. Hold their counsel up to Scripture. Even if they had in-Christlike intentions or tone is there anything in their content that the Spirit is using to correct?

4. If nothing else (even if their concerns are baseless and unkind) count it as an opportunity for the Lord to teach you humility and kindness. Christ endured far far far worse!

5. Remember it is not the end of the world if someone disagrees. It doesn't make them your enemy. It doesn't make them a reprobate. It doesn't mean you are a martyr-- so don't feel so sorry for yourself.

6. If their perception isn't reality analyze how you might be creating an inaccurate perception and correct that.

7. Be willing to invest time and friendship to foster clarity. Answer their questions with transparency and be ready to defend what you believe and what you do with Scripture.

8. Keep in mind it is possible you might be wrong.

9. Aim to please Christ. Those who likewise want to please Christ will be pleased but more importantly, He is our Lord and deserves that devotion.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Hodge-Podge (12-6-11)

  • This is an excellent article from an unlikely media source. It is titled "How to Shrink Your Church".
  • I remember reading a book that argued churches should operate like Starbucks- the supposed model for the "third place". Maybe not such good counsel after all...
  • Michael Patton talks about the trouble with C.S. Lewis and explains what it has to do with Rob Bell.
  • We need to guard against idol worship with celebrity preachers (even the good ones) but it is good to listen to those who have proven to be faithful expositors- like these.
  • I came across this a while back but forgot to link to it... some well-thought-out tips on memorizing (like Scripture, hint hint) from an expert.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It is Star Wars Saturday!

Just for fun... no redeeming value... except some good laughs!

Friday, December 2, 2011

How are you applying the "3-hour-a-day" rule?

Jim Hamilton has an excellent post to challenge mastering the Biblical languages. In the challenge there is also the sobering reality of what it takes to master anything. He cites Malcolm Gladwell and the "3-hour-a-day" rule to master anything. In essence if you want to be really excellent at something it will require you to devote 3 hours a day to it. We are willing to work at a lot for a "pay off" (jobs, hobbies, etc) but assume things like our growth in Christ, our marriage (or relationships with children), our evangelistic faithfulness, and our church fellowship should just happen with little effort. Wrong!

What of those things I just mentioned do you dedicate at least 3 hours a day to? This is convicting to me! On the flip side the average person watches 4 hours of television a day. What in those programs is being mastered in your life? If you are devoting that kind of time to it then you will master it, like it or not. We need to think about what we are devoting ourselves to, what we need to abandon or limit, and what we need to be devoting our minds and time toward to excel to the glory of God!