My annual report as delivered to the Clinton Church of the Nazarene on Sunday, May 8, 2011.
My brothers and sisters in Christ,
My brothers and sisters in Christ,
It is truly an honor to stand before you today and give my fourth report as your pastor. I know it is customary for me to begin my report by saying how much I love and appreciate all of you but I hope that you know that it is more than just a custom. My appreciation for all of you, for your faithfulness and dedication to Jesus Christ, continues to grow.
My appreciation for you has grown much in the same way that a young couple’s love might grow for one another after a few years of marriage. After all, the relationship between a pastor and a congregation can be a sort of marriage; my family has been wed to this church family for a time being. And while this relationship is certainly not of the “until death do us part” kind that a real marriage is, we do promise to share life with one another “for richer for poor, in sickness and in health”. We have bound ourselves to one another promising that we will be there for each other in the good times and the bad because we believe it is not just our own preferences but the will of God which has brought us together.
Of course, we all know that honeymoons are not marriages. There comes a point where the sheer bliss and joy of being newlywed begins to fade and the couple must get about the nitty-gritty, everyday challenge of being in relationship with one another. That love which at first was reflected mostly as emotion, must now be manifested in the hard work of compromise, sacrifice, patience, and faithfulness.
After four years of ministry together, I think it is safe to say that the honeymoon is over for us. While there may be a bit of sadness with this reality, it is also a good sign that our relationship is maturing as it should. It means we now trust each other enough to be honest with one another. It means we can be less concerned about whether or not this relationship will work and more focused on how we will continue to work within it for the mission of the Church and the glory of God.
It is in that deeper, fuller, more mature sense of appreciation that I wish to say to you this morning that it is a privilege to minister with all of you, to live along side of you, to see the parts of your life that perhaps few others get to see simply because I am your pastor. The more I minister with you and the more I reflect on our relationships with one another; the more God reveals to me that He knew what he was doing when he brought us together. In short, it is not just a blessing to be a pastor but specifically to be your pastor. I continue to give thanks to God for allowing me to be a part of the ministry of the Church of the Nazarene in Clinton, IL.
It is also a blessing to be a part of this church family because of the ways that God is continuing to work among us. Over the past year, we have successfully given a maintained focus to two areas of ministry: (1) Greater involvement in the lives of our children and teens and (2) outreach.
Our focus on involvement in the lives of our children and teens began with Baby/Children’s day last year which also served as the kickoff to our VBS which was every Sunday throughout the summer instead of just one week. I personally thought that VBS was a huge success this year both in the discipleship of our children and in meeting this goal of greater involvement. Many of us who might not otherwise be involved in VBS or children’s ministry participated in VBS this year and many of us who had participated in the past gave even more time this year. In addition to VBS, several people have also stepped up to help out with Children’s Church as well. Over this past year, several of our kids have memorized Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer, and Philippians 2:5-11 in Children’s Church. The scriptural knowledge of our children and teens has also been enhanced through Bible quizzing. In March, several of us stepped out of our comfort zones and into children’s and teen’s Sunday School classes in order to be more involved in their lives. In addition to all of this, there have been children’s events and several teen outings which many of us have hosted or chaperoned. And perhaps the largest contribution of all to the lives of our teens hasn’t even happened yet. In just a few months, Lance and I will be going with three of our teens to Louisville, KY for Nazarene Youth Congress; an event which was important for me when I was a teen as I wrestled with my own call to ministry. This would not be possible if it were not for the generous contributions of time and money by many people in this room.
These acts of discipleship are not small or inconsequential things. I know that visiting a child’s Sunday School class or hosting a teen event may not seem like world-changing stuff but when it is done in the Spirit of Christ, it can be. Making disciples of Jesus Christ is our mission as the Church, it is what God has called us to. We do that when we spend time with our children and teens and show them what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus. I have no doubt that the things our kids and teens have learned over the past year, the examples of Christ-likeness they have been shown will stick with them for many years to come, enabling them to be faithful disciples of Jesus themselves.
The other area on which we focused this past year was outreach. Once again, the outreach committee has done a tremendous job of organizing events to give us opportunities to reach out to others. We repeated some of the events we had in the past such as block parties, refreshments for the 4th of July fireworks viewing, the Kid’s Carnival, handing out water at Apple and Pork, and Trunk or Treat and those events have continued to be successful ways of interacting with our community. We also participated in several events for the first time this past year such as May Days, the 175th anniversary of our town, and the concerts on the square.
In addition to reaching out in these community events, we also did several new things here at our church. We’ve started having fellowship nights on the second Sunday night of every month, not only as an opportunity for us to fellowship with one another but also as an opportunity to invite others who do not attend church to come and fellowship with us as well. We’ve also hosted three “friend days” throughout the past year as specific opportunities to invite someone who does not attend our church regularly. In December, we hosted “A Taste of Sunday School” after our children’s Christmas musical which gave the opportunity to socialize and connect with a large number of visitors, thereby planting a seed for Christ. And just in these last few weeks we have started a new outreach ministry open to anyone but designed specifically for those who attend our 4th Wednesday meal. These are workshops which will teach a series of life skills such as cooking, gardening, managing finances, and other similar topics. In addition to teaching these skills, it also gives us a chance to get to know some of those who can get lost in the crowd of 4th Wednesday on a more personal level, hopefully beginning a redemptive relationship that may ultimately lead them closer to Christ. I believe we have continued to take some very significant and positive strides as a church in the area of outreach over this past year.
Of course, the most obvious change in our church over the past year in the area of outreach has been our change in service times. A year ago, we decided to place Sunday School after Worship in hopes of making stronger connections with our visitors. The thinking in this change was that a visitor might make a stronger connection with a small group of people in a Sunday School class than they would in a crowd of people during worship and therefore would be more likely to return the next week. Obviously, we have already participated in evaluating this change together to some extent this morning in the poll that we took together earlier. However, I would like to share with you just a few of my own very brief observations. This is not necessarily an attempt to persuade you to share in these opinions. It is simply to share my perspective with you as a part of my report.
First, while the change in service times may not have had precisely the impact for which we were hoping, it has been statistically positive nonetheless. In comparing Sunday School attendance for the 34 Sundays from May – Decemeber 2010 to the same Sundays in 2009, there were nineteen Sundays which had an increase of five or more in attendance from the previous years. There were eight Sundays that had little or no change and only four Sundays which had a decrease in attendance of five or greater from the previous year. In other words, Sunday School attendance saw a significant increase on well over half the Sundays in that time period without a corresponding decrease in worship attendance. Obviously, these numbers are not the whole story or even the most important part of the story. I only share them so that we can be aware of them.
Second, I think the change in service times has been positive simply because it has broken up some of our routine as a church. I remember when the grocery story that I worked at when I was in high school changed the layout of the store. Of course, at first all the customers were confused because they couldn’t find the products they were looking for where they had always found them in their years of shopping at the same store. However, the reason the store did this was because research had found that this caused shoppers to see new products that they normally didn’t notice. In other words, when you know where everything is, you go right to that spot and get it and don’t pay any attention to anything else along the way. But if you actually have to look for what you need then you notice new things along the way and might buy something you otherwise would not have noticed. I believe our change in service times has worked like that for us as well. We had a set routine when we came to church. For many of us, that meant heading straight to our Sunday School classes as soon as we walked in the door and then straight to our seats in the sanctuary. As a result, we were so stuck in our routine that we often failed to notice anyone new. I believe that now, even though we might feel a bit more confused and out of sorts ourselves, our eyes are more open to when someone new walks in our doors.
My third and final observation has very little to do with the change itself and more to do with our attitudes about the change. I trust that we all recognize that the health and future of our church does not rest on something as insignificant as when we meet for worship. So whether we continue as it is now or at some point decide it would be better to go back to the old way doesn’t really matter a whole lot. After all, it is God who is building his Church, not us by deciding when to meet for worship. However, what does matter a whole lot is the kind of attitudes we exhibit as we discuss these matters. Essentially, what I am getting at is what Jesus was getting at when he said “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Likewise, the Church is not an institution that exists to serve us and our preferences. We are the Church called to serve the Lord in reaching our lost world. We are not here to simply consume a religious product and to have our needs met. We are here to carry out the mission that God has given us. We can have vigorous disagreements about the best way to carry out that mission but we must settle those disagreements not based on our desires and opinions but by seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness and trusting that all of these things will added unto as well.
Finally, however, I cannot give a complete and meaningful review of this past year without sharing with you what God has been doing in me personally. It is difficult to describe exactly what it is that God has done and is doing except to say that it is undeniable that God is teaching me to trust him in new ways. Of course, most of you know how much of a theology nerd I am so it will come as no surprise to you that this transformation began with a book. About a year ago I began reading The Works of John Wesley. While God has often used study as an important spiritual discipline in my life, God was especially present somehow in my reading of Wesley. As I read Wesley’s journal, where he records the significant episodes of his years of ministry, I was struck by Wesley’s remarkable trust in God. Wesley exhibited this amazing confidence that as long as he did his part, he knew God would act. So he preached, no matter how small or how large the crowd, whether it was an attentive crowd or a mob, even when he got hit square in the forehead by a stone, Wesley kept preaching because he believed that if the Word of God was proclaimed then it had the power to change people in any circumstance.
While I was still reading Wesley, we also started to work through the book of Ezekiel here on Sunday mornings. Similar themes arose out of this prophetic book as well. God calls Ezekiel to proclaim the message God has given him while also telling him that the people won’t listen to what he is saying. Ezekiel’s job was simply to proclaim the message regardless of the results. In chapter 37 especially, we get this incredible image of God’s Word at work so powerfully that it can raise up an army of audience to hear Ezekiel’s message where previously there had been only dry bones.
Throughout this same time, God had also been speaking to me about having more accountability and consistency in my prayer life. It wasn’t that I wasn’t praying. I just wasn’t making it a consistent priority; it wasn’t central to my identity and ministry as a pastor. Janet Crawley was the first to help move me in this direction by meeting with me on Monday mornings for prayer. Last fall, I also committed to having a time of prayer and scripture every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as well. I know that many of you cannot make these times because you work and several others have attended these prayer gatherings at some time or another and I thank you for your presence there. However, this morning I would like to specifically recognize Shirley DeJaynes, Myra Stroud, and Marie Blue for their continued faithfulness in meeting with me for several months now for this time of prayer. Their faithfulness has helped to bring me closer to Jesus and I believe it will yield fruit for this church as well.
Even in more recent months, God has continued to remind me of this same theme. After reading Wesley, I began to read a theologian named Karl Barth who was one of the few pastors in Germany who opposed Hitler’s regime. Wesley and Barth are not at all similar theologically and yet Barth’s systematic theology began with this same theme I had seen in Wesley; the power of the Word of God. Barth wrote forcefully about how all our words and actions as the Church are basically useless unless God himself is at work among us revealing himself to us. However, if God is revealing himself to us then we cannot be left unchanged. Around the same time, I was preaching from the first chapter of Ephesians and the first five chapters of 1 Corinthians and those chapters seemed to be stark reminders as well that it is God who is building his Church. It was not Paul or Peter or Apollos or the Corinthians and it is not us but God who calls his people by his Word and his Spirit. On Sunday nights, in the book of Revelation we have seen over and over again that it is God who sits on the throne and only asks that we be faithful; indeed, we are conquerors and overcomers not by bigger and better accomplishments and ministries but simply by being faithful. Even in this recent season of Lent, God spoke to me about trust through the stories of Abraham, Moses, David, and again Ezekiel.
When I look over this past year, I am utterly astounded by the singularity of this theme. Whether it has been through Wesley or Barth, Paul, John, or Ezekiel, or even through some of you in this congregation, It is as if God has been saying the same thing to me every week for the past year. God’s single message to me has been this: “Just trust me. My Word and My Spirit are enough. My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” My brothers and sisters, this is my testimony to you this morning; that God has done a gradual but undeniable work in my heart over this past year. I testify to you this morning that God’s Word and God’s Spirit are still enough to transform us as his people.
With all of that in mind, I have known for several months now that God is calling us to something new and radical as a congregation. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what it was but I knew that God was going to call us to really take a step of faith and place our trust in him in ways that we had not before. God kept saying to me over this past year “Trust me.” And I kept asking “Trust you for what? What is it that you want us to do? What is this huge step of faith you are going to call us to, Lord?” But God just kept saying “Trust me.” I thought maybe God was calling us to some new ministry we had never done before or to do something completely new and unexpected, maybe even something we would think was crazy.
Finally, all of this came into clearer focus for me just about a month ago at a district event in Sherman, IL. At first, I wasn’t even sure I really had time to go to this event but I eventually decided I needed to be there and so I made the time to go. The speaker at the event turned out to be a man some of you know from a summer internship he did here at this church several years ago. His name is Corey Jones and he now pastors a church in Texas. He spoke that day about the struggles that he had been through with his church. It was a very small church with just a few families and Corey had been the pastor there for three years and things were just going nowhere. To make a long story short, Corey went away on a trip one week thinking that when he came back he would resign as the pastor of this church but when he got back he felt like God was calling them to commit themselves to prayer in a new way. Corey shared this with his church and when he did the last tithing family in the church walked out saying that they prayed enough already. Nevertheless, those who stayed committed themselves to simply seeking God together and today Crossroads Tabernacle is a thriving community of faith. Don’t get the wrong idea. They still aren’t the largest church in the neighborhood. This wasn’t about just finding another church growth strategy. They sought God simply for the purpose of drawing closer to God and Corey shared with us story after story of lives that were transformed as a result.
I left that event feeling like God was saying to me “This is an example of what I’ve been talking to you about. This is how I have been calling you to trust me; to trust me enough to just seek me as your God and know that everything else will be taken care of.” So, my brothers and sisters, we have only one goal, one focus area for this coming year. We will seek God through corporate prayer and the reading of God’s Word.
Now maybe your first thought is similar to what mine was: we already do that. Maybe you are thinking this isn’t that radical at all, this isn’t anything new or crazy. How is just praying and reading our Bibles some amazing act of trust in God? Or maybe you are wondering “How this is going to help our church at all? What difference is praying and reading our bibles going to make? How is this going to get any more people in our church’s doors? We need to be out doing more outreach and getting people to come to church!”
But I think that is part of the irony of what God is calling us to. God is calling upon us to stop worrying about all that other stuff, to stop worrying about whether or not we have “enough” people in our pews and to just seek him because he is God and he is worth seeking regardless of how many other people are seeking him with us. And that is how things as simple as prayer and reading scripture can become radical acts of trust; because in prayer and scripture we are simply seeking God for the sake of seeking God and we are trusting that God will provide everything else. We are trusting that God’s Word and God’s Spirit are enough. We are trusting that it is God who is building his Church and not us.
This morning I am calling us as a congregation not simply to more prayer and Bible reading in some general sense but specifically for us to commit to times of corporate prayer and individual study of Scripture. (If the ushers would come forward, I have two sheets of paper I would like them to pass out to you.) One of the two sheets you are receiving says “Seeking God through Corporate Prayer”. I know that we all pray individually and that we pray corporately for a few minutes when we gather for worship. However, I believe the time has come for us to set aside an entire service in which we pray together as a body of believers. By that, I don’t mean that we will sing some songs and then pray for a few minutes at the end or have a devotional and then pray. I mean that we will come and do nothing other than seek God in prayer together during that time. You can see there are several options from which to choose. I encourage to mark as many of these time as you will commit to attending but please do not circle a time unless you plan to be here at that time on a regular basis. You can give these sheets back to me after we have concluded service this morning and I will present them to the church board and we will discuss together where God is leading us from there.
The second piece of paper you are receiving says “Seeking God through the Reading of His Word”. This sheet has several different Bible Reading plans listed on it to help you stay in the Word over the next year. I would encourage you to prayerfully consider which of these plans will work best for you. You don’t have to turn this into me today if you need more time to think about it. If you would like to follow one of the plans on this sheet, you can circle it and print your name on the back of the paper and give this paper back to me and I will get the details of that reading plan to you in the next week or two. You’ll see there that you can also go online and find reading plans over the internet or for your smart phone if that is easier for you.
This is only the beginning. In addition to these two initial steps, I will be working with our newly elected leadership to make sure that prayer plays an even more central role in our workings as a church board than it has up to this point. I will also work with all of our leaders in the coming year to see how we can make seeking God through prayer and scripture more central to everything we do as a church. However, please recognize that this is not just up to those who are elected to church office this morning. It is a call to every single one of us to commit ourselves to gathering here with our brothers and sisters in Christ to seek our Lord and savior.
Of course, I hope it goes without saying that this doesn’t mean we are going to just drop everything else we do as a church. Obviously, the discipleship of our children and teens, reaching out to our community in Christ’s name, serving others; these things are a part of who we are and do not change. However, it is my hope that in this coming year we will simply seek God for the sake of seeking God like we never have before as a church. I believe, due to my personal experience over this past year, that if we will simply seek God and trust that His Word and His Spirit are enough, then everything else will be taken care of. I believe that if we will commit ourselves to prayer and to the Word then years from now we will be able to look back over this time and say with those disciples on the road to Emmaus “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” and we will know that our Lord is not dead but alive and that he wants to give us life in his name.
Your pastor and brother in Christ