Here is the video of my message from Sunday, followed by the article I wrote for our newsletter, RoadSigns.
December 4, 2016, I walked into The Gathering for the very first time, excited with anticipation and hopeful for the future, but having little idea of what I was really walking into. Of course, then it was Memorial Baptist Church, a 55 year-old church that, like most Baptist churches in the south, experienced a season of growth and expansion before ultimately growing stagnant and becoming identified more for inward fighting than outward ministry. To say the least, it was not the most enticing offer a pastor could receive, but one I was certain God had led me to.
Now, after all these years full of victories, trials, growth, pain, mistakes and ministry, God has brought us to where we are today. To look at the numbers, one would say we haven’t done much in ten years. We’re a congregation with 150 on a really good day. To some, that is considered outright failure. To me, not at all. One of the things I felt committed to from day one was worrying less about growing wide and more focused on growing deep, though I must admit that reading the annual issue of Outreach magazine’s “100 Fastest-growing churches” could, at times, be very depressing.
These “fast-growing” churches spread quickly, adding programs and buildings and, to be honest, that’s very appealing. Just imagine having no real financial worries or no concern about keeping the doors open or the lights on. Seems nice. I have been tempted, throughout the years, to adopt some of those practices until I realize that quite often (though not always), those churches are a big crowd of people and little more than that. Discipling people is hard in any church, but it’s exceptionally hard in large churches. I cannot be satisfied with growing a large crowd of people that I can preach at each week, but cannot disciple. So, I have to re-center myself on the ideas of “calling” and “church” and what that means and what that looks like.
Over the years, I’ve “retaught” myself that lesson over and over. I remind myself of our purpose and the Truth of what the church is. Many of the lessons I’ve learned along with that have been painful. I’ve made many mistakes; I have many regrets, but I know that’s a part of life and that is why I need a Savior. Fortunately, most of those who have stuck with us have been patient and full of grace, and I’m grateful. As we’ve grown in being a church, I’ve grown in being a pastor, and hopefully, a person. Yes, I have much more to learn with much growing yet to do, but God has taught me that His grace is sufficient throughout it all.
So, I’d like to share a few of the major lessons I’ve learned over the last ten years that I hope will help us to continue growing in the years to come, should God be pleased to grant it.
- Christ must build His church and the Word of God must be its foundation
Matthew 16:13-19 reads:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”
17 And Jesus responded, “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”
The first important fact about this revelation of Jesus is that Peter was not the builder – Jesus was. Yes, Peter (and the apostles) would be instrumental in the building of the church, but that’s just it: they were instruments. They were to be the agents used, but the architect and builder is Christ, alone! Why? Because Peter was not equipped to be the builder! He had no idea how to do that. Peter couldn’t even know who Jesus was unless God had made it clear to him. That’s what Jesus said in verse 17. So, if he couldn’t even know Jesus as God without the Father telling him, how is he supposed to build the church that he’s never even heard of before? The knowledge was given through revelation.
That revelation is the Word of God. Here is a truth you need to hold onto: We cannot know the Son of God rightly unless we know the Word of God thoroughly, and we cannot follow the Son of God faithfully unless we are committed to the Word of God exclusively. This is what is meant by Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).
People have often asked me how you take an old, dying church and re-plant or revitalize it to become a healthy church. I’ve always said, “I have no idea.” I don’t. I’m the first to admit that. Again, Peter didn’t, either. Jesus did, though! He must build His church in His way, in His time and according to His blueprint or it’s just another man-made edifice, created for the pastor’s glory. I think that might be one reason we stay small because that keeps us humble and it keeps us depending on HIM for our lifeblood rather than our money and ingenuity. That’s not to say all big churches are proud and self-sufficient, but many are and all of them face that temptation.
What I have learned over the years is that the main thing we can do…the thing we MUST do, is to stand faithfully, unshakably and unashamedly on the Word of God. If we compromise the Gospel, we have forfeited our right to be called a church of the Lord, Jesus, regardless of size.
I have also learned that to do that is costly. It has cost us potential members who disagree with one or more teachings or doctrines in Scripture. It has cost us former members who have agreed with Scripture in theory until it actually meant life-change and forsaking of particular sin they weren’t prepared to give up. Put simply, standing on the Word of God is always going to cost us and that cost will continue to rise.
As the acceptance and embrace of secularism grows in American culture, it will be more difficult for us in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 10 years. Of this I am convinced: Churches may come and they may go, but if we determine to stand on the Word of God with boldness and grace, The Gathering will stand because God will uphold us.
- Real ministry must happen with the entire church or doesn’t really happen at all
Ephesians 4:11-17 provides the core of our ministry philosophy in that God has given church leaders (elders, deacons, teachers, etc.) for the purpose of equipping the church for ministry. That has been the core of what we believe since day one. What I have learned over the years is that saying it’s your ministry philosophy doesn’t make it so in practice. Ten years later, there is still a small group of people doing the majority of ministry at The Gathering, though it is certainly a larger number of people than it has been. We have tried many things over the years, some things more successful than others. What we have seen is that those things that have made a real impact; that have changed lives have, without exception, have been those things that were championed by someone within the church. More times than not, the way we identify new leaders that God is raising up in the church is the involvement they have and the leadership qualities they display as they just get busy serving the Lord through His Body, the Church.
The only way this church or any church is going to survive and thrive is for every single member of the Body to find a place of ministry and “own” it. Real ministry cannot happen any other way because no one person, nor one small group of people, can do all of the ministry and when they try, real ministry ceases to happen. For the sake of our ministry in the world, find your place and begin pouring yourself into it.
- Unity is fragile and can only be maintained when we serve each other and are focused on the same goal
One of my favorite passages is Philippians 2: 1-4:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, 2 fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. 3 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
I love these verses because they put unity in such simple terms. If there is any encouragement in Christ, consolation of love, fellowship with the Spirit, affection and mercy…any at all, it says. In other words, if God is doing anything in your midst, then unify around that, focused on the one goal of honoring Christ with the benefit of receiving the blessing that results. Be the Church! How can this happen? How can we be unified? There is only one way and this passage explains it: You have to take your eyes off of yourself. You have to give up the notion that you are the most important person in the room and look around for ways that you can “show family affection to one another with brotherly love [and] outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)
I have learned that this is a tall order, even in the church. We are, by nature, self-serving. Even when we are giving ourselves selflessly in ministry, we can still hold onto the attitude that this ministry should be done my way. I’ve been accused of that many times over the last 10 years (mostly during the first 6 or so!). Many of those times were nothing more than being clear on certain things that I knew Christ wanted done in His church and I couldn’t compromise…but not all the time. There have been times that I’ve either been afraid, stubborn, or just short-sighted, and it’s resulted in disunity, sometimes with people even leaving the church over it. I regret those times. Other times, the roles were reversed. Either way, the hard lesson is that unity is a hard lesson. It’s extremely fragile and is always just one hurt feeling caused by one careless word taken the wrong way for everything to fall apart. If we’re going to thrive for the long haul, it’s going to be because we are committed to each other in covenant membership, determined to weather the storms together, having the hard conversations when necessary, extending mutual grace and mercy, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Christ is not honored when His body is splintered. As we move forward, I am committing myself anew to the hard task of becoming thick-skinned and tender-hearted rather than thin-skinned and hard-hearted.
I believe that if we are unified, ministry-oriented, self-sacrificing, and committed to the Word of Truth, Christ will build a church out of this little rag-tag bunch of disciples that can and will impact, not only Chattanooga, but indeed, the entire world.
To God be the glory in our next ten years together!