This past Sunday was my first sermon at FBC Oakboro. We talked about the church and how it was designed to work from the beginning. Here’s the audio and the transcript.
This day has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? But I am glad it is finally here. When Robbie first reached out to us by email over six months ago, while Lisa and I were prepared to go where and when God called us, moving honestly wasn’t something that really was on our radar. We had been at Central for nearly nine years and had seen the church community there really hit its stride over the past 2-3 years. The community was seeing sweet fruit coming to bear from the work we had done together and leaving just wasn’t something we were chomping at the bit to do. And yet we felt drawn to say, “Yeah, sure; let’s have a conversation,” because who knows what God had planned.
And so we started talking. Then we talked some more. And some more. We came down to visit and met with six, just really incredible people. And somewhere inside our hearts, something started to move. We still couldn’t very well imagine leaving the place that had been home for so long and the only home our boys had ever known, but there was this small but growing whisper that God was up to something and were we prepared to step out into the unknown in order to experience it. After a couple more visits and a whole lot more prayer (in fact, at one point we both prayed: alright Lord, if this is something You’re doing, we need to get a phone call in the next 24 hours,” and would you believe Danny Poplin called at about hour 22?) we finally said, “Okay God, we’ll go.” And though it was still a struggle to imagine being somewhere else, we both had a peace about the decision and a confidence that has grown more and more each day that this is something God was doing from the start. We are without any doubts that God wants our family here ministering alongside your families to the Oakboro community and beyond.
As we begin this adventure together this morning what I want to say first, foremost, and before anything else is thank you. Thank you for what you have done to play a part in making this happen. Thank you to Danny, Tracy, Julie, Ashley, Robbie, and Jim for reaching out to us. Thank you for your gracious hospitality throughout the process of discerning whether or not this really was something God was doing. Thank you to the folks who helped move us in. Moving was a big job—maybe a little bigger than we were prepared for—and you (along with indispensable help from our Central family on the loading end) helped make it easier. Thank you to Marilyn, Melanie, and Meredith for helping get keys straight and making sure we felt at home from the moment we walked in the door. Thank you to Joyce and Betty and their crew for a great lunch that afternoon. Thank you to the folks like Ashley and Julie (who we have texted a great deal more than perhaps they planned on!) who have been our ambassadors, helping us to figure out how to live in this area. Thank you in advance to the folks who will help take me around to visit and get to know the folks in our community better. Thank you for being willing to trust somebody you’ve never met before with a cultural background and set of life experiences that are no doubt pretty different from what any of you have known or experienced with the leadership and direction of your community. Thank you to the community as a whole for extending such a warm welcome to us and to our kids. They were nervous coming here, and it’s still not home to them. That’ll take time. But when we brought them out to visit over Memorial Day Weekend, as we were driving back to our hotel that Thursday night after having a great dinner and just time to play with the search team and their families, I had all the boys in the car with me—we had to drive both vans in order to transport all the books in my office. And as we drove, I glanced back at them and asked, “Do you guys think we could live here?” Noah, our oldest, replied, “Those were some really nice people.” I said, “Yeah, Buddy, I think so too.” So thank you. We’re here with you because of what God’s done, but He did a lot of it through you.
With that all said, let me start this morning by telling you a story. We headed home on Friday from our Memorial Day Weekend trip. Well, over the previous few weeks we had begun to notice that our old van wasn’t performing quite up to snuff. It was making some weird squeaks and squawks and the air conditioner wasn’t always reliable (usually only when it was exceptionally hot outside like it is now). We had had our mechanic take a look at the AC a couple of times, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with it. We just chalked it up to it being an old van that was running mostly on prayer until we could replace it.
As we got started, Lisa was driving the old van with Noah, and I was driving the new van with the other two. Right from the start the AC in the old van wouldn’t work. We decided that she and Noah would try to tough it out for as long as they could with the windows down rather than making a stop. That went okay for a while, but eventually Noah was getting pretty tired of sitting in a wind tunnel and to make matters worse, the battery light came on. Great. We stopped at a rest area and swapped vehicles, but when we got ready to go again, the old van wouldn’t start. And it was after noon on the Friday before Memorial Day. Perfect timing. So, we called AAA to get them to tow us to a nearby shop to figure out what was wrong. Low and behold, about the time the guy called to confirm our location, I gave the van another try and it fired right up. With some trepidation, we headed out again to see how far we could go. Along about Henderson, NC, the battery light came on again. Fortunately, we were able to get to a Toyota dealership for them to take a look at it. After much waiting and trying to entertain three tired, hot, and cranky boys, they were able to fix it. The battery was indeed bad—a marked relief over the starter or alternator having failed—but they found something else wrong too: the drive belt was shredded. They were, frankly, surprised the thing hadn’t flown apart on us while we were racing down the road. Well before the end of the day I was able to pay the man much less than I was prepared to pay and get back on the road for home a great deal more safely—and comfortably—than before.
A vehicle is a remarkable thing, is it not? In our culture out here you really can’t get by without a vehicle. Maybe in a big city you could make it work, but not out here. But, in order for a vehicle to work properly, there are a whole bunch of parts that have to all be working properly themselves at the same time. Maybe you can get by with one or two of them breaking down, maybe even three or four, but the vehicle is not going to work as well as it should if this happens (our old van being a notable example). Eventually, it’s not going to work at all. Well, the church is a lot like a vehicle in this regard. In order for the church to work like it should, there are a whole bunch of different parts that all have to be not only working, but working well.
This morning we are starting something new together. Yet what exactly is it that’s new? It’s not the church. You just celebrated your 100th anniversary last year. That’s a big deal. This church has a great history of impacting the Oakboro community and beyond. That’s not new. I’m not really new either. I’ve been pastoring for almost a decade. Now, granted, for some of you a decade is barely a blip on the map, but for me, if you count seminary, I’ve spent over a third of my life doing this. What is new is our relationship. We haven’t done this together yet. Well, here we are. Now what?
This morning, I want to start our journey together by talking about the church. That is, after all, who we are. It’s what we’re here together doing. It’s the community that we are becoming. Over the course of this week and next I want to begin this great new adventure with you by taking a look at how the church was designed to work from the beginning and what the results of getting this right can be. As we do this, I want to cast a vision with you of where we’re going, what it will take to get there, and what we can look forward to when we do. And lest there be any fears in the room that here I am from day one announcing that we’re making dramatic changes or setting a firm direction that may or may not be where the body as a whole wants to go, this morning is not about any of that. This morning and next week are about the big picture of what God designed His church to be and to do. The details of what that means for this church we will figure out together in the coming months.
Of all the places in the Scriptures that talk about the church and how it should work, one that has always stood out to me as particularly important is what Paul had to say to the Ephesian church. If you would like to follow along with me, grab your Bibles and open them up to Ephesians 4. Paul makes some comments here in Ephesians 4 about the church that are absolutely critical to understand if we are going to get it right.
Start reading with me here at v. 11, and just for your information, I will be reading today and most mornings from the ESV—the English Standard Version. Paul writes: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” Let’s pause right there for just a minute. What’s Paul talking about here?
This little section of text is often included in studies of the spiritual gifts along with 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. The argument being made is that these things are spiritual gifts God gives to some believers for the sake of the body. And this is true. But, I don’t think it’s the whole picture. Look at the context with me for just a minute. In the first three chapters of the letter Paul is offering a theological exposition of the Gospel along the lines of what he does in Romans 1-11. Starting in chapter 4 here Paul shifts gears and begins offering some applications of the theology. It begins at the beginning of the chapter with a declaration of the importance of unity in the body of Christ. If we don’t have that, we really don’t have anything. But, it is important to note that this is a unity centered on the person of Jesus Christ. If we are united around any other ideal, we are probably going to run off the rails at some point along the journey. How that unity plays itself out in a given church is going to flux some, but the basic element for every church is faithfulness to Christ together.
At v. 11 Paul starts to get a bit more specific about how this unity is conveyed to the church. It is conveyed primarily by the leaders of the church. In particular, God equips some members of the church with these gifts—apostleship, prophecy (which today can be thought of more in terms of preaching), evangelism, shepherding and teaching. What Paul seems to be saying here is not that these are gifts given to everybody, but that these are gifts given specifically to people whom God has called to take part in leading the church to embrace this holy unity he’s been talking about. Included in this group as far as our particular faith tradition is constructed would be the pastor—me. This doesn’t at all mean the pastor has all of these gifts—I can tell you with confidence that I don’t—but rather that every pastor has some combination of them, given by God for the particular role He has designed him to play in the leadership of the church.
The more important question for us, though, is exactly why God has given these gifts to these folks. Well, Paul tells us. He’s given these gifts to equip the saints—that would be you guys (even on the days you don’t feel it)—for the work of ministry. In other words, while the pastor is a minister, his primary work of ministry is to equip the body to do what is perhaps traditionally thought of as the work of ministry. Perhaps to put that still another way: If the pastor of a church is the only one doing any ministry, that’s not a healthy church. It’s not a healthy church and he isn’t doing ministry very well. There are unfortunately a lot of church members out there who carry the attitude that they don’t really have to do much at the church other than show up regularly because “that’s what we pay the pastor for.” Those are invariably unhealthy churches with members who are living in blatant violation of this text.
So, in the church working like it was designed to work, the leader has been equipped by God to empower the members of the body to do the work of ministry among the members of the body and in the community around them, the result of which is the building up of the body of Christ. In fact, that’s the specific purpose of this empowerment as Paul said there in v. 12. This is how the church was designed to work in the beginning. One person can’t do it. It’s not even possible for a small group out of the whole to do it. You’ve perhaps heard about the 80-20 rule where 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people? Not in healthy churches. That’s not how it was designed. If the church is going to work like it’s supposed to work every part has to play its part. Those chairs are going to stay on the floor thanks to gravity whether you sit in them or not. The church works best when every part plays its part. The church works best when every part plays its part.
The results of this are pretty spectacular. Check this out with me back in the text starting at v. 13 to see the goal of all of this. I’m here to equip you for the work of ministry which builds up the body, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” See! When we get this right, unity is the result. Now, just so we’re clear, that’s unity, not uniformity. Sometimes churches get those confused and treat them as interchangeable ideas. They’re not. If a church achieves uniformity it probably isn’t reaching its community very well because you can rest assured its community is not uniform. Communities are made up of people from many different background, with different life experiences, different career paths, different income levels, different races and ethnicities, different political beliefs, and the like. If we successfully fill our churches with a single kind of people there’s a whole spectrum of the community that we’re necessarily not reaching. No, the Biblical ideal for the church is never looking the same, but coming together from out of all our different places with the single goal of pursuing Christ as Lord. When we get the church right, that’s what happens.
And when that happens…maybe you’ve heard about or seen churches that seemed to be rocking along when all of a sudden they embraced an unorthodox theological position and soon after the wheels fell off the thing. There was a church outside of Denver when I was in seminary that was the happening place to be in town. A famous Christian author, Phillip Yancy, whose works were well known to the students was a member there and many of them visited at least once. Their pastor at the time was known as a showman when he preached and in a lot of ways the church kind of became about him. Well, about my second year in seminary word began to spread that he had embraced a theological position called universalism which holds that in the end, everybody is going to go to Heaven. It sounds really nice, but it’s an unorthodox, unscriptural, theological mess. Within months he had been run off and this former megachurch was reduced to a handful of people meeting on Sunday nights in the basement because they couldn’t afford to pay the light bill on the sanctuary.
But for the church in which the members are being thoroughly equipped by the leaders to do well the work of ministry such that the body is strengthened, united around the person of Christ, it is filled with mature men and women of the faith. They have attained “to mature [personhood], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” And why? “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Look, there are a ton of voices in our culture today calling us away from the beliefs and values of historic, Christian orthodoxy. There are voices telling us to embrace this or that position instead of what the Scriptures proclaim and that if we don’t we are judgmental, bigoted haters. There are also voices calling much more sweetly with tear-jerker stories about times when the church got off track in its mission, pleading with us to just broaden our horizons a bit and allow for more diversity among our accepted beliefs. We’ll fit in so much better with the modern world if we do this. These winds blow this way and that, but always away from the kingdom of God. In the church that gets it right, in the church in which every part is playing its part, we remain anchored to the rock of our salvation. The church works best when every part plays its part.
That’s exactly what Paul points to at the end of this section. Look with me at vv. 15-16: “Rather [in other words, instead of being blown around by the changing winds of false doctrine], speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Do you see it? The church works best when every part plays its part. The church works best and Jesus is at the center of it all. He is at one and the same time the root from which we are growing, the target at which we are aiming, and the engine that drives us from one place to the next. But, with Him at the center, we can only get there like He wants us to when every part plays its part. The church works best when every part plays its part.
There’s even more here. Check this out: I read a blog yesterday from the pastor of a megachurch up in Canada. He wrote about how he transitioned a couple of years ago from the main pastor to an almost pastor emeritus-type of role. Since then, while he still does most of the preaching, he has more Sundays a year than he’s ever had where he is able to go and simply be there like everybody else. Do you know what he—the pastor!—started struggling with when this happened: Why bother going? He wrote that after a lot of thought, he could only think of two reasons to go to church. In a culture in which people who aren’t already church people don’t go to church anymore out of any kind of obligation this is important. The two reasons people go to church today are to be the church—in other words, they engaged with the mission of the church in a personal, meaningful way—and in order to create space for somebody else—anybody else—to experience Jesus because of the church accomplishing its mission. That’s it. Today, not much of anybody goes to church for long absent one of those two reasons: They are part of the mission and they are seeing that mission accomplished in the lives of other people. Do you know the only way either of those things can happen? Every part of the church plays its part. The church not only works best when every part plays its part, but we give non-church-people—that would be our target audience—a reason to be here in the first place. If we aren’t doing that we might deserve the label “club,” but not “church.” The church works best when every part plays its part.
Listen, if you are part of this church, it’s because God has led you here for a very specific purpose. You are a part of what He is doing here at FBC, in the Oakboro community, and the world around us. He has given you a set of gifts that He intends for you to use in and through this body to make it stronger and more able to accomplish its kingdom mission by creating an actual church that gives people a reason to connect and not simply come every now and then to see a good show. Over the next few weeks we are going to clarify together exactly what the shape of that mission is; we will give word and structure to the unique identity God has given FBC Oakboro to accomplish the larger task of proclaiming the Gospel and advancing His kingdom from this little corner of His world. That’s my role. That’s a big part of why I believe God has called my family here to start this new ministry adventure with you. He’s got some great plans for this church. In the next few weeks and months we are going to together bring some clarity to what exactly those are and how we can go about seeing them accomplished. What is clear now is this: It’s going to take everybody to make it happen. The church works best when every part plays its part. This church will work best when every part is playing its part.
If I do what God has called me here to do, and if each of you does what God has called you here to do, the things we can accomplish together will go beyond what you can even imagine sitting there right now. And if you don’t know what God has called you here to do, then let’s get together and we’ll figure that out. Again, that’s my job: To make sure you can do what God has called you to do to the best of your ability. But here’s the thing: I’m going to need your help to do that. I may not be new to pastoring a church, but I am new to pastoring this church. I don’t know everybody yet. I don’t know all your rhythms. I don’t know your lifecycles. I don’t know yet which ministries are working and which are broken. I don’t know what things you value most. I don’t know what your individual gifts are. I don’t know a lot. What I do know is this: God has called my family and me here to serve with you, and you’ve loved us well so far. I can go a long way with just that. But in order to go all the way, it’s going to take all of us. The church works best when every part plays its part. And when that happens, the body grows and builds itself up in love.
Let me close our time this morning where we started a bit ago: We are beginning something new this morning. Both you and my family are in a season of transition. Transitions, especially disruptive transitions, take time to accept even when you are very excited about them as we all are. Allow me to offer some observations that will help make things go as smoothly as possible. First, there are five of us and a whole lot of you. For the next few weeks, please don’t assume we know your name. We are quick learners and are going to work our hardest to get them all down as quickly as we can, but in the meantime, patiently remind us of your names as we talk until long after you think we should have it down. Reintroduce yourselves to us as often as you can. Second, Lisa and I tend to be a little introverted in our personalities. We are content to stand off to the side quietly and observe, but rest assured we are eagerly awaiting getting to know each of you personally. That being said, we are in a season of learning right now. We are learning the goings on of FBC Oakboro and want to be sensitive to not step on anybody’s toes as we go. Don’t ever be afraid to ask us to help or get involved. We are here for you, to see you become fully who God made you to be. Our goal will never be to take over, but to be a part of the family here, learning, growing, and bearing fruit right alongside you. Third, and to take that a step further, I not only enjoy getting to know people and learning all about them, I also have really thick skin. I’m really hard to offend. What that means is that if you have feedback for me that is good, bad, or otherwise, on just about anything from how the church is doing to how I’m doing to your thoughts on my latest sermon, I would love to hear it from you. Please don’t ever hesitate to bring it directly to me. You can catch me in the office, on my phone, by text, by email, or even by Facebook. I will strive to quickly address any issues I know about. In fact, the only issues I won’t address are the ones I don’t know about. So, make sure I know about them. One more thing and this may sound odd: Give our kids grace. You’ve heard—and many of you know—that boys will be boys…Well, our boys are boys! Lisa and I are absolutely certain of God’s call to be here and we are as excited as we can be for what God has planned. We would not have left our former church apart from that. We loved that church and the people in it—we still do—just like we will love this church and all of you. But, just because we felt that call so clearly does not mean our boys did. They are placing their trust in us that God is going to take care of them in this new place where they don’t know anybody and don’t see all their buddies regularly anymore. Some of you know what that’s like. They are all three mourning what they lost in their own ways even as they are excited at what lies ahead and the new friends they’ll make. If they seem shy or squirmy or even squirrely, give them grace. Keep on loving them as you already have and they will love you and this place right on back. And together we will enjoy the wonder of what God is going to do in our midst. You won’t want to miss a single second of the adventure.