Day 3: Center for Creative Leadership

October 12, 2009

Day 3: Center for Creative Leadership

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Year End Reflection #5 – To Our Congregation

January 4, 2008

Dear Brethren,

This final reflection is more of a request, a double request, as we move forward together into 2008 and beyond.

We are currently in the process of doing two related things. One is that we are undergoing an effort to try to rewrite our Vision Statement, bring it up to date, and have it be more forward-,looking from where we are today (as compared to where we were 15 years ago before there even was a CF!)

The second is that we are wanting to look at ways we can make our Sunday gathering both more reflective of that updated Vision and also, well, less the same all the time. It is worth noting that every church, even the most anti liturgical or most charismatic, has a liturgy, whether it is called that or not. Likewise every church has a creed, even if its creed is that it
has no creed. (WOW – a hawk just flew by my living room window with several crows in pursuit!) Anyway, all churches have patterns. We have patterns. These are not arbitrary, and often have arisen after much detailed practical conversations. But there is nothing set in stone that we MUST do things every Sunday the same way all the time, or the same way that we do now.

So here in this final reflection I have two requests to make of you for feedback. Before I make them I must say the obvious. Not every suggestion can be implemented or implemented immediately. Sometimes two different suggestions are polar opposites of the other. But I want you to feel free to throw lots of ideas back to give us as much as possible to chew on.

First, I would like for you to consider the totality of who we are and what we do and suggest things that you think would allow us to better reflect our core values in our life, practice, and teaching. I have listed 13 of these core values below. The list is not exhaustive but a pretty decent overview. My third year end reflection about the “gifts” that we can give, given certain fundamental commitments or values, is also a kind of expression of those core values. We are not going to be doing an overhaul of these core values so ideas and suggestions should reflect these as much as possible. And really, everything is on the table – small groups, preaching, community outreach, teaching, prayer, small groups, facility, music, the whole kit and caboodle. Just brainstorm and put it out there. Please, though, just “reply” and not “reply all.” I will compile all of this input and we will use it as we go forward. You may want to go to our web site –  (http://www.covenantfellowshipgreensboro.org/”www.covenantfellowshipgreensboro.org) – and click on “Vision” and read the Vision and Q and A to get your mental juices flowing. Or not. You don’t need to.

Second, focus your thoughts on what we do on Sundays during our Sunday gathering. We are thinking of developing some alternative formats as well as improving things we do no matter what the format. Think details, time flow, people flow, how we eat together, how we learn songs, how we may sing better together, the break, the sermons, the sermon outline, Sunday School, Open Time, how we use the physical space and arrange ourselves, how we present materials, the transition from one thing to another, communion, children, etc. For example, I would like to see us better implement our core values of
participatory and intergenerational worship when we gather. How? What would that look like? I would like to see the sermon be more accessible to everyone. How? What would that look like? I would like to see Open Time reflect what I wrote about in Year End Reflection number three in the section “the gift of our worship.” How? What would that look like?

Think about it. You don’t need to reply right away. But do give your feedback. I end this request and reflection with a needed caveat of sorts.

I remember well a time in my life when, for better or for worse, I was a catalyst for much needful change in a certain situation. I learned then that my thoughts and ideas had to be mediated as it were through others. I learned that in the end maybe 25% of my ideas were really good ideas in the first place, and maybe fewer than that were finally adopted, and those often with some changes. I was quite discouraged by this at first. Why couldn’t everyone see how brilliant my ideas were! But then I realized several things. Some of my ideas were in fact good ideas, but that the timing wasn’t right for implementing them. Other of my ideas, upon closer inspection, really just weren’t all that great after all. I had not thought of or considered this or that. Other ideas had potential but needed tweaking. I had to learn to accept the percentages. But this I knew. Unless I kept putting ideas out there – even if only 25% were adopted in the end – none of them would ever be adopted! So I kept putting out the ideas –and maybe with a better humor and attitude. This process is not unlike songs that people write, or even the hymns we sing. If, for example, Isaac Watts hadn’t cranked out hundreds and hundreds of hymns, we wouldn’t have the several dozen today that are still sung by the church. Unless a songwriter writes lots of songs he or she will never have a hit, and often it is not the expected song (or idea) that is the hit. This is the nature of creative
effort.

Here are the core values that have been compiled and reviewed by the session. Really, your ideas will be of much greater use if they reflect these core values.

I look forward to your feedback.

Joel

Core Values and Characteristics

1. Organizational Simplicity

2. Relational Ministry (as opposed to Program-Oriented Ministry) (and including specific applications of a weekly meal together and small group
ministry)

3. Commitment to being “in the world” (or 24-7 Christianity, Jesus Lord over all of life, etc), and to the significance before God of life in “non church” spheres – home, school, work, neighborhood, plus a commitment to equip people for living christianly in these spheres of life)

4. Intergenerational Corporate Life (The promotion of relationships and ministry participation across generational lines)

5. Reformed and Covenantal Theological Perspective (but patient with people “in process”)

6. Participatory Worship (Including maybe as subsets, 1) the idea of the voice as the primary instrument of praise and 2) the idea of “blended worship”

7. Personal, individual, contextual evangelism (sometimes called lifestyle evangelism, or in our lingo, “out there” evangelism)

8. An understanding of parents as having fundamental responsibility for the Christian nurture of their children

9. Leadership by elders working in a Presbyterian context with equality of authority and with a consensus approach to decision making

10. Commitment by members to worldwide missions, including this place as part of the wide world

11. Emphasis on small group ministry and participation (small groups being an outworking both of commitment to relational ministry and commitment to equipping ministry)

12. Expository biblically based preaching from a reformed perspective

13. Affiliation with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church


Year End E-Letter # 4 – To Our Congregation

January 4, 2008

Dear Church Family,

In this fourth of five year-end reflections I am going to talk about myself. I am going to share thoughts of a nature that could be shared in an Open Time, but that are, well, longer. This is personal and rather autobiographical, and I understand if you may not feel inclined to wade through it. It is my nature it seems to put such thoughts into writing.

These thoughts were inspired by a significant event in my life this past year. This even has given me pause to think about other such events that have led me to where I am today, to think about blessings God has given me in my life – blessings that were confirmed as it were by the event of this year – and to think about some challenges I have faced this year and will face going forward from here. I hope at least some of you will bear with me and read this narrative. I covet your prayers.

As to the event.…I was just driving down the road. I had thought it all through. It all seemed to have been confirmed to me as right. I was embarking on a new adventure. I was driving south. I was going to school. And then suddenly, in a moment, I knew – I was to turn around.

I felt embarrassed and a little humiliated, and in the moment I didn’t understand it. But it was a clear as anything could be. I was not to go forward with the plans to take classes at NC State. I was to come back. God reached down and touched me.

I’ve been touched by God’s special hand of mercy and direction on many occasions in my life. I remember as a young sixteen year old teenager coming home from a weekend retreat at Windy Gap, a retreat put on by the youth ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church (Team) led by John Yates with the help of his wife Susan. My friend Calvin had invited me. I was skeptical. But I paid attention. I listened. I laughed at the skits. I learned a whole lot of fun Scripture songs (many of which we still sing!) I enjoyed the trudge up and the run down the mountain. I felt the love. Back at home in my bed I prayed. It was a pretty wimpy prayer really. But I woke up a different person. I don’t want to go into details but some bad habits just melted away. I knew something had changed. I was filled with new interests. Yes, I had miles and miles to go, but a new life had begun.

But in truth it progressed with a lot of stuttering half steps. In those days people put a lot of really good books into your hand as a young Christian. So I became pretty well read. I thought of myself as a Christian. But as time went on I seemed trapped between wanting to be a Christian and the sense that I just would never get there. And on top of that the whole issue of vocation and college major weighed upon me like a hundred ton building. I had done well, too well I think, in college, and too many doors were opened. I was an emotional and spiritual wreck. So I left Clemson to take a trip over to England to study at a place called L’Abri Fellowship. Billy Peebles, a friend from Team, that youth ministry mentioned above, who had reached out to me several years before at Windy Gap, well, he had been to English L’Abri, and he recommended it. I left a lot behind when I took off half way through my junior year at Clemson. I would never go back.

When I arrived at L’Abri that hundred ton psychological/spiritual load was weighing down upon me as ever before. But my first night there at L’Abri, in Dick and Mardi Keyes’ flat, during a talk I can’t remember, the load lifted. It just went away. It was there one moment and gone the next. I felt it leave me. So I was able to devote myself to the study of Genesis and Romans and Philippians, along with several other streams of interest, unhindered. God touched me, again. I was baptized before I left, in a bathtub!

It was hard getting settled back into life in Columbia, living at home, attending a new college, having major reverse culture shock. But there I was. Now I knew I was a Christian. I knew I needed to seek out a local church. Just hanging with my Christian buds wasn’t enough. So I went here. I went there, usually alone. I stayed at one place a while, another place a while. I was feeling lost again. Someone told me about this little storefront type church meeting upstairs in rented room in down town Columbia. So I went. I knew the moment I went in that it was the place. I never went anywhere else until I moved away a couple of years later. God touched me, again.

I graduated. I got a job. I should have known better, but Ivory Wilcox was such a dear friend and brother. He worked in the warehouse and was always singing, always rejoicing. He seemed to be living the Christian life on another level. I wanted what he was selling, and he was selling the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Again a weight was on my back that I could not bear. My mind told me that something was amiss, but my heart yearned – for more? I tried speaking in tongues. I prayed for the “baptism.” It was a hard time for me. Then one day, feeling empty and barren, I went on a walk with my dog Clancey down to a lake near where I lived. I sat in the grass and flipped back and forth in the Scriptures. I landed in Matthew 11. I read and reread Jesus’ invitation to “come unto Me all you are weary and burdened.” Uh, that would be me. Suddenly the weight lifted, again. The bottom line? Jesus was enough. I had the Spirit already. I felt whole again. God touched me.

You’d think after a year at a great school getting a Certificate in Christian Studies, plus a year or more under one of the greatest preachers in the country in Glen Knecht at First Pres Columbia that I would be doing great spiritually. But again a weight had grown upon me. I had no peace. I felt distant from God. Vocational decisions loomed again. I had no deep assurance.

So one day I sat out on the balcony of our second floor Devine Street duplex, and I started turning the pages in my Bible again. I landed in Romans 5. I read the passage about that peace that we have with God having been justified by faith though our Lord Jesus Christ, and the statement following – “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Peace. Love. Spirit. Hmmm. I was just sitting there, feet up on the rail, thinking, praying. There was a large Willow Oak in the front yard that had branches that reached over to the porch railing where I sat. And then it happened. A dove (I kid you not), a dove flew from nowhere and landed on a branch maybe two or three feet from my feet. He looked right at me, right into my eyes. I looked at him. I read the passage. He flew away. Peace came over me. I was assured. I have been since. God touched me.

There were more touches here and there, some dramatic, some less. There were many lessons learned. Fast forward to the present, driving to Raleigh, like a little school kid going to school for the first time, and it happened again. “Not now. Turn around. Go home. Get to work.”

And so I did. A certain turmoil had built up in me leading to the decision to take the classes at State. I had other interests. I wanted to be prepared to do other things if need be. I wanted to be at least a semi expert at something so that I could busy myself in retirement. I had thoughts of starting an organization. I had anxiety about my future. Maybe I wanted to hedge my bets.

I had always been a bit of a reluctant pastor. I definitely believed that I was called to it based upon the process that got me there. But I never really felt up to the job. I wondered if it was worth it. I wanted to do a lot of other things too.

So God touched me. Inside something was different. Other desires faded. The calling just seemed clearer. He let me see the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of my own heart. He let me glimpse the need of the world for the basic truths of His message. And He took me on a tour down memory lane. He helped me remember the ways He had touched me in the past. He opened my eyes to all He had given to me in preparation.

Take a break, come back, and walk again with me now, briefly, down my memory lane.

When I first responded to the gospel after my weekend at Windy Gap (which I attended because of the invitation of my friend Calvin Marshall, to whom I owe a life debt of gratitude) it took me a while to do anything different on purpose. I had no idea how to go forward. Gradually, as folks from Team realized that I had responded in some real way, and as I began to attend more gatherings, many took initiative and gave to me material to read. Within my first year our two I was nurtured in CS Lewis, JI Packer, Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, John White, and GK Chesterton. Needless to say, this reading immersed me quickly into a solid stream of historic orthodox Christianity. I was deeply blessed. I was off to a good start.

I continued to read and study, though confused inwardly, until I left for England halfway through my junior year at Clemson. Again, I was so blessed in the extremely gifted people working then at English L’Abri – Dick and Mardi Keyes, John and Jill Barrs, Jerram and Vicki Barrs, and Ranald and Susan Macaulay. I mean, it really just does not get much better than that. In my studies I focused at first just on the Bible. I studied Schaeffer’s teaching from Genesis and Romans, and then branched out to other things. I heard lectures that were thought provoking and edifying. I learned a lot from very bright fellow student searchers. And I learned how to sing hymns there. “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” which we sang at breakfast many mornings, stands out.

Fast forward a year and there I am at Christ Fellowship Church in Columbia – a very small church with a half time pastor Paul Wright who otherwise taught at Columbia Bible College, and whose teaching built me up week after week. Nothing fancy, just really good solid teaching from a man who knew his stuff. I learned a huge number of hymns there. It was then when my friend Richard Greenfield took me under his wings to disciple me. I have no idea why he chose me. But he made a huge difference in my spiritual growth.

I was hungry for more, so after much soul searching I decided to head out to Regent College in Vancouver, mainly because JI Packer was there, and because it was on the Pacific coast. I wasn’t expecting Bruce Waltke, Klaus Bochmuel and the many other great teachers. Waltke’s “Old Testament Theology,” Packers “Intro to Systematic Theology” and James Houston’s “Understanding the Creator” perhaps meant the most to me. And there were the other students – including Susan!

Fast forward a few more years and we’re in Columbia attending a church that may have been one of the premier churches in America for teaching and preaching and gospel centered living. I got to sit under the teaching and preaching of Mark Ross and Glen Knecht for almost three years. I mean, one could simply not ask for more.

Again, a few years later, back at Regent College. Due to the sickness of the other systematic theology professor I had a double dose of Dr. Packer. I was also in his advisee group. It is hard to express the good fortune that was mine in having so much exposure to Dr. Packer. Susan also knew him well in her stint at Regent. She had to do her Master’s Degree oral presentations with him for her Masters in Theology, a more academically serious degree than I have. I never could have remembered enough to do well at that. But I had the good fortune to get to know dr. Packer as well as take classes from him, and to be able to go to him often with all my questions. Seriously, God’s goodness to me in that sense is off the chart. Yes, there were other great teachers during my second time at Regent, and yes immersion in the biblical languages was super, but all the classes and time with Dr. Packer stands out.

And, add to that personal tutelage under a humble and blessed PCA pastor named Doug Codling, and I was blessed even more!

And then our family came here.

My September 2007 turnaround gave me opportunity to reflect upon my call took me back to the wealth of opportunities God had provided for me over the course of my life, not only the great teaching, but real community and real godly example. I am forced to see two and two adding together. Not to make the most of these blessings and opportunities would be wrong.

But I have also had to come to grips with my own limitations and failures and some of the consequences of the sedentary office life. I am not a very good “Office Dude.” I have struggled with organizational effectiveness as a solo pastor. It has been hard for me to focus on anything whenever I am in the office, and my tendency to lose things is legendary. I have not adjusted completely well to the internet/e-mail age. And clearly, over the course of time, the sedentary life has been slowly killing me physically.

And so, in order to move forward, to make the most of what has been given to me,  I am having to address some issues in my life. Obviously my health is one of those. Six months ago my heart was kicking into an irregular pattern often, my BP was way too high, my blood sugar was high, and I was significantly overweight. I couldn’t sleep. I felt crummy almost all of the time. There was always stress and tension in my chest. I was as weak and flabby as a wet noodle. I am trying to address those issues via diet and exercise. Things have improved but I have a very long way to go.

I have also had to face the fact and truth of my organizational dysfunction. I would almost go so far as to say I am hopeless. Thus I am trying very hard to implement an improved approach to basic managerial work. It does not come naturally and is a lot of work for me to change. But the internal stress of carrying all these half finished projects and “to do’s around in my head is just too much. To be fruitful and to be able to stay at it I just have to get on top of this. I am using the book “Getting Things Done” to help me get my act together. It may take a while, but I’m trying, hard. I covet your prayers. It is hard to convey how desperate I often feel in this regard.

I also am working on finding the space in each day to have my normal “quiet times” using the St. James Devotional Guide. It is just about impossible for me to be in the “quiet time” mode while in the office, so I am trying to do that at home before I leave in the morning, or during breaks during the day. I just have to do this. You’d be surprised at how this is so much NOT easier just because one is a pastor.

I am trying to be more faithful in my communications – to you in the church, to my immediate and extended family, to old friends and local friends in other churches, and to pastoral colleagues. I want to regain some pre-internet, pre-e-mail patterns of communication. You know, writing with a pen or pencil! Remember that?

I sense a need to reconnect with the books and ministries or people who were instrumental in my own growth as a Christian. I am developing a  list of books that were especially meaningful to me early in my life as a Christian to read again in 2008, one per month. This list will include Packer, Schaeffer, Lewis, Chesterton, MacDonald, Hopkins (GM), and Dostoevsky. The latter wrote the first book on my list, “The Brothers Karamazov.” I know that that long book seems daunting but the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” story has so much insight about the temptations of Christ in the wilderness I just thought I’d start with that book and try to finish before the February sermons on the temptation. In addition, I may try to go to some seminars or conferences this year. I have had very little input other than reading over the past 14 years, and I know I need that just as does everybody else.

I hope that many of these changes will give me more time and energy to prepare for worship as well as to write and address the ongoing issues of our day in a more public setting. Much to my amazement I find that my writing opens doors, and encourages or challenges others, and I think I am supposed to stay at it. But I also want to do a better job at equipping others in our own body. The truth is I find the most joy in ministry in encouraging and helping others in their ministry. I want to do a better job at this within our own fellowship.

I also hope that I will do a better job as a husband and father as I become more organized and less stressed.

I ask for prayer for all of these things regarding myself. I do not wish to bore you or impose myself on anyone. Everyone I know has equivalent needs. I am just writing to you as a person whom you support financially (and whose family you support). I want and need to improve in many ways in my life, not all of which I have mentioned.

I give thanks, looking back on 2007, a harder year than most, for God’s mercy and kindness. Here I am at fifty, a Christian for over thirty years now, but with so much room to grow. I covet your prayers.

Thanks for reading through this. Please forgive any typos or mistakes.

In Christ,

Joel


Year End E-Letter #3 – To Our Congregation

January 4, 2008

Dear Church Family,

This is the third in a series of year end reflections. I meant to get this out by the 1st. Oh well.

When I pause to think ahead into a new year about Covenant Fellowship, I do “wish” to see the things that I spoke about before in the first reflection, all of which amount to a thriving and fruitful small church ministry. OK, so I liked EF Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful,” I confess).

But when I stop to ponder the “why” question, the reason I would wish to see these things, it is the idea of giving “gifts” that comes to my mind mostly. We have, both individually and corporately, an opportunity to give many very important things to our community and our world. I think of these things as gifts. What are some of these “gifts”?

First and foremost I think we have the opportunity to give the gift of truth. I know it is culturally uncouth to suggest that one adheres to the truth, since that implies something about what others are adhering to, but if we are Christians we do by necessity believe that. We believe it humbly. We do not deserve to be “in the truth” or guardians of it. It is a calling we perhaps did not fully understand when we signed on so to speak. But in fact there is only one reason to be a Christian, and that is because Christianity, or the word of Christ, is true, that the Bible and the Scripture speak real truth from God to us and to the world. God has given us a great gift, this gift of truth, and he wants us to cherish it, to revel in it, to love it, and to share it.

Of course many of our dear friends, neighbors, workmates, and even family members bristle (or roll their eyes) at our claim to have access to true truth. Many believe that it is the height of hubris to make any philosophical or theological truth claim. I wonder if their deeply held agnosticism is held under the same scrutiny. It should be.

When I speak of the gift of truth I personally speak of the truth of the historic orthodox Christian faith as we have received it from the apostles in the word of our New Testament Scriptures, in the great historic ecumenical creeds which we share with our conservative Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox brethren, and in the corrections and adjustments gained in the period of the reformation. There is the basic biblical story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. There is the ordered presentation of the person and work and nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. There is the invitation to seek the kingdom, the life of discipleship, justification, sanctification, and glorification, and so forth.

My dear brothers and sisters, with much sadness I have to say that even in the evangelical community itself, adherence to the truth of the word of God is slipping quickly, and even in our very own community there are deep threads of seriously bad stuff going around. Church growth schemes, prosperity gospels, Gnostic tendencies, and puny views of sanctification abound. I say none of that with any spirit of superiority or competition. I wish it weren’t so. But it is so, and thus we have a responsibility to be ambassadors of the biblical gospel all the more. We must be committed to be good and faithful stewards of what we have been given and to bear witness to the truth in our individual and corporate life. It is a gift we must give.

The second gift which we have to give is the gift of time. God has established the structures of creation by which we measure and think about time, and He has given to us insights as to how to redeem, or buy back from futility, the time we are given. Covenant Fellowship has a simple structure and fewer activities so that we may be free to give the gift of time to others.

Of course we want to see you use this opportunity to spend time with God. We want you to take time to rest. Of course we want you to spend time with your families. All this is part of life lived under the Lordship of Christ day to day. We also want to see you spend time with your friends, your workmates, and your neighbors. Being a “really serious” Christian does not equal never-ending busyness and frenetic lives on the treadmill of “Christian” activities. How can we be salt and light if we are not in the world, and if we do not give others the gift of our time? We have a longer gathering on Sundays, and fewer gatherings generally, for a reason, and that is, so we can – BOTH AT THE SAME TIME – have the ability to love and  to minister to one another, and still have enough time and energy left over for our families and neighbors. This time is a gift we have to give.

The third gift is related to the second. It is the gift of love and service. How do we redeem back time from futility? We love. We serve. Love and service in Christ’s name or motivated out of love for Him and reverence for the image of God in others. Live lived for Christ in love and service is life purchased back from the futility of the fall and the curse. It follows us forward into our future with Christ. And the difference it makes in the present, in the lives of others, is a real and truly substantial difference.

You know, when we came to name this new church the name with the second most “votes” was “Salt and Light” church. Now I am glad we didn’t adopt that name but the idea behind it is central. And I have to say, it is way easier to talk about than to do. Really reaching out to and loving and serving others, and in that is included the poor and needy in our community, is always easier to dream about than to do in real time. As has been said, it is easier to love the idea of humanity, or to daydream about some wonderful act of service, than it is to do it in reality. In reality it is work, day in and day out, necessary, crucial, and significant work. We are meant to have and to take the time for this work. We do this work day to day in our families, in and through our relationships with our neighbors, and in and through our vocations, and in and through our avocations and serve in the community, and even in and through the time we give to help and love those far away.

The fourth gift which we have to give to the watching world is the gift of our own community life. That is, we as a community following after our Master as He taught us to do. This gift is given through our love, mutual service, and forbearance and forgiveness one-to-another. Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you and by this the world may know that you are my disciples.” Related to that he prayed for us that “we would be one” and that in our oneness the world would see that Jesus is from the Father. This is serious business. In our mutual love and unity we show our community in a very real and tangible way the reality of our own profession as disciples, but more importantly, the reality of the person of Jesus as being from the Father. In giving this gift we are involved in calling the world back to its real humanity. That is what we are seeking to exemplify in our life together. We are seeking to reflect redeemed human life (which can only be reflected in community) and in and through that the person and nature of our Master, the true image of God. Because of the manner in which our culture now processes ideas or propositions (not very well), for many people it is only the tangible example of a different way of being human persons that gets through. And this is really the point. We are meant in our community as we follow Jesus together to be also showing to ourselves and others what it means to be a human being. Wow.

Even when we fail, and we hurt one another, we are given the chance to show others what difference life in Christ can make. We repent. We forgive. We have to stand against the tide of self oriented consumerist living, and we do this in our service to others outside the church as well as in our love to one another inside. We don’t walk out on other people because they are difficult or because they inconvenience us. We don’t market Christ to a small specially selected subgroup of people. We love and respect people of all ages, and honor their contributions, and their spiritual temperaments and gifts. I would mention our intergenerational emphasis here. It is not some gimmick we created to try to be different. We cannot imagine real Christian community apart from it. It is profoundly counter cultural even within the culture of the church these days. It is part and parcel of loving one another as Jesus first loved us. Being intergenerational means that everybody has to give a little and no one gets everything their way. It is the way of Jesus I believe, and the watching world needs to see it in action.

The fifth gift we can give is the gift of our worship.  The apostle Paul speaks about what non believers see and experience when they worship in our midst. Interestingly his comments are “seeker sensitive” and yet about as opposite to the seeker sensitive approach to worship these days as one could possibly imagine. He wants the church in Corinth in their gathering together to have such a transparent sense of seriousness and adoration of God and willingness to confess and repent of their sins, such a deep commitment to speaking and sharing the truth, that the watching unbeliever will be struck deep in his conscience by the truth of the gospel, brought to conviction, and caused to bow and give glory to God.

We never ever know who may show up when we gather. We are to be deeply honoring and appreciative of any who join us. We are to love them. We are not to put on a show for them. We are to do what is right to do when we gather, to do it with joy and seriousness, not to show off but to be what we are called to be. We are to worship with earnestness. People sense if we really mean it or not.

I would add that our Open Time offers unique opportunity for us to model the kind of dynamic we see in 1st Corinthians 14. I continue to pray and hope that we could see that time as being as significant as the rest of our time together, not just for sharing needs, though that is important, but also for giving thanks, making testimony of God’s work in our lives, sharing insights from Scripture, confessing our sins, seeking forgiveness, and all sorts of other things. We should never forget that people are watching and listening. It is right that they do. We do not live our lives before Christ off in a corner. We want people to come and worship with us and see that we really mean business before our great and wonderful God.

I know, I could name other gifts. But these are the five that come to my mind as I look ahead to the opportunity that God has given to us by giving us another year of life and service together. We are not given another year before Him just to kill time until He returns. Our lives, and our lives together, are filled with purpose. Let us redeem the time together, buying it back from futility, and go into this new year of life bearing gifts.

In Christ,

Joel


Year End E-Letter # 1 – To Our Congregation

January 4, 2008

Dear Congregation, 

If you would be so kind as to bear with me, and read these reflections, I feel led to offer a few pastoral thoughts at the close of 2007. Some relate to our future together, some to my past as a Christian, some to our personal and collective habits. Most include a little of each. This is reflection number one!

I wanted to talk a little in this message about giving, but not really for the reasons you might think. I realize that we have an elder reminder out there as to our year-end finances, and I do hope we can, together,  heed those words, but that’s not what this message is about.

We are a giving body. This has shown itself over and over again in a multitude of ways. Christians are to be a giving people. There are so many people and ministries and needs that pique our giving interest. I give thanks for how giving you are.

People often ask me about tithing. I have expressed my views on that subject a multitude of times, and for clarification have attached the outline of a sermon I did on the subject June a year ago as I was finishing up the series on the Ten Commandments.

You know, whatever our view about tithing, the New Testament calls us to a much more radical kind of sacrificial giving. So, however we understand tithing and its application in the church today, it is pretty much a minimum in the New Testament approach to giving.

I cannot myself say with assurance, so as to bind the conscience, that specific Old Testament tithing laws carry over to the New Testament era. However, I do strongly believe that the idea behind the tithe, that of “first fruits giving” is timeless. I spoke much of that in the attached outline.

The common practice all over the world, supported by churches of all sorts, including para-church ministries and mission agencies, is that tithing 10% to the local church provides a good solid basis (and beginning) for how we may give, and also provides a foundation from which we may expand outward in giving to include giving to the poor, giving to missionaries, giving toward special congregational needs, etc. Tithing 10% as a basis for giving has been my life practice, and I commend it highly no matter where you live or go to church. The core spiritual benefit of giving away the first tenth (as a kind of “first fruits” giving) is that of relinquishing control, of giving a thing over to God, of “letting go” of the first and the best as a symbol of God’s ownership over the whole. Thus in the OT we see the tithe being taken into the temple storehouse. In the NT we see a similar thing as people laid their gifts at the feet of the apostles to distribute as the apostles discerned need. In terms of our first fruits giving, I don’t think it is in our spiritual interest to be over calculated or meticulous about it.  Just give it up, let go of it, and let God have it. The general wisdom of the church for a very long time has been to do this “first fruits” giving via giving to the local church.

I see this level of giving as just the starting point. More and more in my life I want to see my “above and beyond” giving grow and grow. How often do we take extra income and just convert it to higher spending. I think God wants us to establish a humble basis point for our own needs, and to give generously and joyfully beyond that into the wealth of opportunities that are out there. For myself this means true sacrifice in the present as our family tries to cut back in order to be better stewards of what God has given to us. I know many are in the same boat.

A conversation recently caused me to reflect on what I would like to see in our collective future as a local church. I wrote some things out, and then realized that a good deal of it had to do with opportunities for ministry (and for giving more to others) that would be there for us if we were a little larger in people and in offerings. And no, I am not talking about a building fund or my own salary.

I think we need to do a better job communicating our official church vision, not only to people who have never visited, but also to our own congregation. Currently our church vision is being updated, and one goal of that will be to compose a summary statement that enables everyone to be able better to articulate what we’re about.  I also refer to communicating better as to the things we as a church may really want to be able to do, any or all of which may require both more people and (gasp) more money.

But what I am talking about right now, though it may overlap with the official church vision, or what the church may need to better communicate on an ongoing basis, is a different sort of thing. It is more a personal mental picture of what I would like to see looking ahead.

I have written down my own “daydream” so as to give you a sense of what I have in mind. This is not official. It’s just stuff rattling around in my head. But these are some of the things I’d like to see or envision looking down the road a bit – things I would like to see in our church future – and things that I am personally inclined to pray for. Notice how “giving” connects with a lot of this stuff:

1. A church with an updated vision!

2.  A church with maybe 10 to 20 more families than now, as many as can reasonably fit into our present meeting place, or one of similar size (in case we ever get the boot!).

3. A church with the financial ability not only to support a pastor but also with the ability to significantly help sponsor or support one or two missionaries, give more generously to the ARP general fund, fund short term mission trips, have an Erskine tuition fund,  give generously to local ministries and needs, have the means to buy or develop material to better help equip our congregation biblically and theologically.

4. A church that still has the blessings that come with being a small church (such as being able to “do outreach” without regard to how it pays for the mortgage, and such as the relational advantages).

5. A church that is able to contribute significantly to the general cause of the historic orthodox Christian faith through books, writings, web sites, etc. of many of its members.

6. A church that publishes a CD of original worship songs as a gift to the general church at large.

7. A church that is more racially and ethnically mixed, with the various blessings that that brings.

8. A church that is a little less shy about being reformed (“reformed” in the broader covenantal and “Jesus as Lord over all of life” sense, and not just in the classic “five points” sense, though being less shy regarding a kindly JI Packer version of the latter would be cool too).

9. A church that makes a real difference and which offers real leadership in standing up for Christ and for Christian orthodoxy in a city whose evangelical church as a whole, quite frankly, and most sadly, a little theologically rotten. I am still trying to figure out the deal with Greensboro, and after 18 years here I am making some progress.

10. A church that can, through literature, consulting, and perhaps very direct aid and help advance the cause of small relational churches like ours.

11. A church where the pastor (and many others too) can more easily get away for teaching and equipping, such as going to L’Abri or Ligonier conferences, Regent or RTS or Erskine Summer Schools, etc.

12. A church that has the means financially to fulfill its vision in areas of worship (sometimes equipment is needed), evangelism (sometimes brochures and advertising are needed), teaching and equipping, (sometimes more books, videos, and access to online resources or software are needed), etc.

I am sure that 12 more things could come to mind. I imagine a bustling small church really, with the opportunities that having more people and more money bring, and yet also the blessings that being small and not having huge fixed facility costs bring, that is, the blessing of doing ministry in the community and world without care as to how it contributes to our bottom line.

So, that’s what I would like to see as I look ahead.

Thus ends year end refection number one.

Joel

 

 

 


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September 16, 2007

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I Suck at Blogging

August 11, 2007

 

I suck at blogging. Or maybe I just suck. Or maybe blogging sucks. Or maybe all of the above.

I can’t find traction. I am too disorganized. I can’t stay with things. I suck at this.

Yeah, yeah, I’m smart all that, and am good at cutting up stupid arguments. So what? I mean, is that a virtue?

This is the same dilemma I faced with my life when I was 20. Did I want to be a lawyer? Did I want to spend my life arguing?

What does God want me to do here with this? Anything? I mean, ideally I would like to make a positive contribution to the well being of the reader and the community. But who am I really to do that? Half the time I need the same lift I would want to give. It is a dry time, and I walk through a desert. I’d like some sort of meaningful dialogue that does not deteriorate into the usual left/right, conservative/liberal arguments. I just don’t know if that is possible.

It seems that you’re either really controversial and feisty, or at least highly engaged and on the cutting edge of the issues and arguments and controversies of the moment, and people read you, or you’re not and they don’t. Or you’re really good at surfing the internet for clever articles to back up your viewpoints. I am totally not into that. The talking heads put me to sleep.

I don’t feel like arguing. But then, I cherish that in which I believe, and it is very hard to just sit there while people take shots at it without check. I don’t mind reasoned critique. But there seems little of that online. Mostly worn out clichés.

I’m needing to decide if it’s worth the time and effort to keep this going. Even when I am doing nothing, the bare existence of a blog unused makes me feel guilty for not using it. And if I only write every few weeks nobody will read it anyway. So, what to do…