Making Connections

This past Sunday we began a brand new sermon series called “Who We Are.”  For the next few weeks we are going to be taking a look at who First Baptist is; at who God made us to be.  Along the way we’ll be talking about identity as a church and how we can stand firmly in line with God’s design for us.  If you want a better idea of who First Baptist is or what it looks like for a church to wrestle together with God’s plans for them, you won’t want to miss a single part of this series.  Thanks for reading and listening.

Making Connections

Do you know who you are?  We talked back before Christmas about the fact that Jesus helps us become fully who God made us to be.  As powerful a truth as that is, though, if we don’t have at least some kind of a clue as to who that might be, it’s hard to move with anything resembling intentionality in that direction.  This applies to us as individuals to be sure, but it applies every bit as much and maybe even a little bit more as a church.  The funny thing about the church is that it is made up of individuals.  It is made up of individuals who might know themselves incredibly well, but who may or may not understand who God made them to be and how God designed them to work as a group. When it comes to issues of identity, churches often fall into one of a couple of different mistakes.  The first is to not give it any thought at all.  In churches like this, people show up and do the church thing because that’s what they’re supposed to do.  Their parents did it.  Their grandparents did it.  Their great-grandparents may have even done it.  Some folks may be able to count back several generations all who did church in that church.  They’re probably still doing it the same way their ancestors did.  Oh sure, if you were to ask one of the members of a church like this what their purpose was, you might get something like, “We’re all about advancing the Gospel and evangelizing the nations!”  But, the greater likelihood is that they’re saying that because they think they are supposed to say that because the latest conference they attended or book they read said they should say that, not because the church as a whole really believes it.  Now, that doesn’t mean the person is lying.  He may be personally deeply committed to the cause of the Gospel, but this is where that funny thing about churches comes into play.  As an individual he believes it, but as a church they don’t really.  And you can tell, because if you step back and look at the kinds of things they’re doing and the energy they are bringing to those things, you get the sense that they’re just kind of spinning their wheels in some holy mud, hoping to sling as much as they can as they go.

And again, I don’t say this in criticism, but rather simply in honest observation because it probably describes a significant number of churches around the country today.  I don’t know…maybe at one time it even described this one.  Churches in this kind of a place may do a lot of things.  But most of those things are being done because either it’s what they’ve always done, or else it’s what the latest church-program salesman has convinced them that all the cool churches are doing nowadays.  In the end, most of these churches spin their tires in their ruts until they can’t any longer.  Many of them were booming in the 70s, 80s, and even into the early 90s as church culture still dominated the country, but as the culture has changed, they haven’t, and so they slowly drift toward the ground like a hot air balloon that has run out of fuel.  Today, hundreds of churches each year are finally hitting the ground and are having to make the hard decision of what to do now that they have either no members, no money, or both.

I told you there are two mistakes churches make when it comes to identity.  The first was to not even bother with it.  The second is grab hold of a generic identity that doesn’t really capture who the church is.  For many of these churches, while they do have a stated identity that may have been incorporated into their founding documents, it doesn’t really capture them.  Does that make sense?  In the highly programmed days of the 70s and 80s—especially among Southern Baptist Churches—they developed a mission statement because someone from their associational or denominational office told them that was the latest thing successful churches were doing.  But, instead of doing the hard work of figuring out exactly who God made them to be first, they followed the formula their association or convention gave them and basically reworded the sample provided into their own.  And in a day long before the “simple church” movement advanced in the last few years by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, these statements were very descriptive, but also pretty cumbersome.  They were put in various key locations around the church building and in the church’s literature, but nobody paid them much attention.  If you were to quiz the average member, while they might—might—be able to tell you that they had one, the likelihood of them being able to cite it for you was slim to none.

The net result of this was a church that from the outside seemed much more driven than the first kind of church.  But the reality was—and is—that the members aren’t any more committed to a certain identity as their driving force than the others were.  Indeed, I’ve encountered churches and even whole associations with mission statements that run something along the lines of, “We exist to advance the Gospel.”  And without fail, my first reaction to this kind of a statement presented as the identity, or mission statement for a church is, “Well, duh!  You’re a church.  Of course that’s your mission.  That’s every church’s mission.  How did God design you to do it?”

You see, there’s a difference between knowing what God designed the church to accomplish, and what God designed this church to accomplish.  Too many churches have confused those two and run off on a grand adventure to do the former (which is not a bad thing, by the way) without really understanding how to use the tools God has specifically given them to do it starting with their community and moving on out from there.  The result is too often a few flashes in the pan, and a lot of frustration.  The frustration comes because reproduced efforts that worked somewhere else won’t work here…because we’re not them.  It builds because while there may be a lot of apparent excitement during the initial rollout phase, there doesn’t seem to be quite as much buy-in (or worse, inconsistent buy-in) when it’s time later on to start putting the rubber to the road.

The inconsistent buy-in could stem from a number of different reasons, but something at least worth giving a bit of consideration is the fact that while the people have perhaps been given a big vision of where they are supposed to be going as a church, they still don’t really know how to get there.  Have you ever been around someone who you could tell didn’t really know who they were, but who was obviously trying on different identities for size to see if she could find the one that fit best?  That kind of person is really uncomfortable to be around.  What’s more, you can tell he isn’t comfortable in his own skin.  It’s kind of like that for churches too.  And when mission statements and programs which were successful somewhere else don’t work here, there is a tendency to retreat back to the way things were before all this new-fangled stuff started making a mess of our nice, comfortable church.

As perhaps you might be expecting at this point, I think there’s a better way.  We certainly can’t ignore the question of identity.  God gave us one specifically suited to the kingdom work He wants us to be doing.  To ignore it is to risk becoming the faithless, one-talent servant who buried his gift in the sand, hoping to simply stay under the radar to skate by.  That’s not an option.  But, neither is trying to retrofit somebody else’s identity onto our operation.  God made this arm of His body unique.  He has designed us with a unique set of gifts and talents and passions and experiences to be able to reach a specific people with the message of the Gospel.  Trying to do the work He’s called us to do using somebody else’s roadmap is not going to get us where we want to go.  Knowing where we should be going is fine, but unless we know the path we’ve been designed to take to get there, we haven’t helped ourselves all that much.

What we need to do is the hard work of figuring out who exactly God made us to be.  Sometimes this can take a while.  There’s really no shortcut to make it happen.  We can perhaps follow the outline another group has taken or use the same tools they have, but their answers will be no help to us because we’re not them.  Now, make no mistake: For folks who are eager to charge forward down the path, this process can be frustrating.  It can feel like we’re sitting around doing nothing when there’s so much work that could be done.  But what’s happening is like the work that goes on when you plant bamboo.  There’s a little surge of action in the beginning, but then nothing appears to be happening for months or even years.  This can be enormously trying for those disinclined to patience.  But what’s happening in the intervening period of time once our identity is clarified is vital to what comes next.  In fact, this can actually be some of the most important work that will be done.  Think again about that bamboo plant.  From the ground level, it seems like nothing is happening.  Yet there is an enormous amount of work going on below the surface.  It is developing a strong, deep root system that will be able to sustain the explosive growth that will happen when the time is right.  Indeed, if the bamboo grew tall before growing deep, it would topple under its own weight and ultimately serve no one very well.

You see, as good and important as it is to have an identity as a church, until and unless the members of the church begin thinking not only of the organization in those terms, but in fact of themselves in those terms, it’s little more than a slogan that will have little meaning in their lives.  The goal of this process, you see, is not merely to give the church an identity that will undergird and direct its kingdom actions, but to understand that in order for the church to really have that identity firmly in place, every single member has to come to think of themselves as a part of the church in those terms.  When, as a whole people of God, we are firmly convinced of who we are, we will become an unstoppable force; as unstoppable as the Gospel we are aiming to advance.  At that point, the sky really is the limit, and maybe not even that.

All of this, of course, begs a rather important question: Who are we?  Well, after several months’ worth of thinking and talking and praying by the deacons, for the next few weeks leading up to and landing on Easter, I’d like to tell you what we’ve discovered.  Frankly, I’m pretty excited about it.  I’m pretty excited about what we have uncovered about First Baptist Oakboro which I think has given us some really clear pointers as to who God made us to be.  So, for the rest of this morning and the next couple of Sundays we are going to explore together what I think are the three key pieces of our identity.  These three pieces define our disciple-making process—the pathway by which God has designed us to make disciples, which is our fundamental task as a church.  Then, on Easter Sunday morning as we celebrate the thing which gives our identity life and purpose—the resurrection—we’ll put it all together to see who God made us to be and talk a bit about where to go from there.  Are you excited?  If you aren’t yet, I think the next three weeks will fix that.  We are going to clarify exactly who God made us to be so that we can together chart a course for becoming fully that church.

This, at last, brings us to the first piece of identity.  First Baptist Church is a place where people can connect.  Now, maybe that sounds like not such a big thing, or even just a faddish thing, but I don’t think it is.  Here’s why: As humans, we were created for connections.  This is clear from the beginning and all the way throughout the record of the Scriptures.

First and foremost, God created us to connect with Himself.  He created us from the start as beings who would uniquely bear His image and could thus be in a free and loving relationship with Him.  Then, we see Him over and over again reaching out to us to pursue this connection.  He walked in the Garden in the cool of the day with Adam and Eve.  From the language of Genesis 3:9 it seems like this was a regular thing.  After the chaos of the flood and the Tower of Babel, God came to Abraham to make a special relationship with him and his ancestors that was always intended to be the medium through which He would reach out to the whole world with the blessing of a relationship.  He spoke to Jacob in a dream.  He appeared to Moses in the burning bush and had a deeply personal relationship with him throughout the rest of his lifetime.  He reassured Joshua when it was his time to take over the mantle of leadership from Moses.  He moved in the hearts of the judges during that dark season of Israel’s history.  He spoke plainly to Samuel in the days leading up the creation of Israel’s monarchy.  He sent messages to David through Nathan the prophet.  He gave an incredible vision of abundance to Solomon.  He called the people to reconnect to a relationship with Him over and over again through the various prophets.  He finally came Himself in the person of Jesus so that He could provide a pathway to make our connection with Him permanent.  He has been speaking through the Holy Spirit to His people since the day of Pentecost.  All of this has been with the goal in mind of being in a relationship with us.  God wants to connect with us more than just about anything else.  This is because He is a relational God.  We know this because of the doctrine of the Trinity.  God exists as three persons in one person who are eternally, perfectly related to one another.  In creating us in His image, we share in His relational nature.

The result of this is that we naturally connect with one another.  More than that, we need to connect with one another.  We see this from the very beginning as well.  After God had just nearly completed creation in Genesis 2, He noticed the very first thing that wasn’t good in all of the universe.  What was it?  “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  God’s solution?  “I will make him a helper fit for him.”  Now, the word “helper” there gets a bit of negative attention, but in Hebrew, the word ‘ezer refers, not to some subordinate, but to a person who uniquely compliments and completes another.  This is what God knew we needed.  Indeed, He had made us for it.  We were not created to exist in isolation from other people.  The New York Times recently ran a story about England’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, creating a Minister of Loneliness, whose job will be to help combat the loneliness epidemic among the elderly and the young in the U.K.  Researchers have found that there are significant detrimental physical and mental impacts of being lonely or feeling isolated.  What’s more, these can manifest themselves pretty powerfully in a fairly short amount of time.  The bottom line here is that we were made to connect with one another.

And, if you would believe it, this is where the church can come in rather powerfully.  The church was designed to be the place in this world where people could connect with the God who desires after them as they connect with people in a transformational community.  In other words, the church is the place where both of these inherent-to-people emphases can come together and be satisfied.  Indeed, a fair argument can be made that this connecting is fundamental to the Gospel we are supposed to be all about proclaiming as a church.  In the Gospel we call people to enter into a relationship with the God who desires deeply to connect with them primarily through their engagement with a group of people in the church.  In the church we are able to make both the horizontal and the vertical connections that give us the support and drive we need to live the lives we most desire to live.  Nowhere else can we find something that even roughly compares to this.

In theory, then, some kind of an idea of connecting should be at the heart of the personal identity of every church.  Some churches have forgotten this and become mostly focused keeping their members happy and comfortable.  If new people want to join up with them, they are technically welcome (although sometimes only technically), but they are going to need to do it on the terms of the body and they will not be welcome to come as they are.   For the churches who get this right, though (and there are many who do), there will be this constant and intentional invitation for those who are not yet a part of the body to come and make that happen.  There will be a constant invitation to connect.  As a church, I think we not only do this well, but in fact were designed by God specifically to do it well.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect.  It’s who we are.  It’s who God made us to be.

Still, saying that is one thing.  Getting our minds and hearts around it to the point that we can begin taking intentional steps toward embracing together it is another.  Let me get more concrete then, to see if by offering some examples I can help you better and more fully embrace this truth about us as a church family.  What does it mean that we are a place people can connect?

Let’s start here: First Baptist is a friendly church.  Now, hear well that every church calls itself a friendly church.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to a few churches that weren’t.  Usually what is meant by this, is that the members are friendly to one another.  And while that’s certainly a good thing, and while it would definitely be a sign of an unhealthy church if it weren’t true, as far as being part of the identity God has given us as pieces and parts of His body, it’s not all that significant of a thing.  More significant is when a church is genuinely friendly toward folks who aren’t already “our” folks.  I can say from pretty recent newcomer experience, that this church is.  It begins with our greeters.  We have some really great and committed folks who rightly consider it their ministry to greet folks who are arriving both before Sunday school and before the worship gathering.  More than that, in our worship gathering, we have folks who consider it their ministry whether they are official greeters or not to pay attention to folks who are in the room in order to give them a second, even more personal greeting than they got at the door.  And, if a guest gives us the gift of sharing just a little bit of information with us, we have folks who make sure to let them know how grateful we are that they joined us (but without totally overwhelming them!).

But hey, I’m the pastor.  I’m supposed to say that kind of stuff about us, right?  So, don’t take it from me.  Take it from a woman who visited our church not all that long ago with her husband.  They gave us the honor of sharing their email address with us.  I sent them a note the following Monday to let them know how glad we were they had joined us.  A few weeks later I got this in response: “Hi Pastor Waits.  We sincerely enjoyed our visit to your church.  I can say you all have great outreach, that’s for sure!  I work on the outreach team at our church and I was so impressed by the number of contacts your church family made to us.  If we did not have a church family, we would most definitely continue to check out First Baptist Oakboro.”  And to that I can only add this: Good work church.  You showed that couple who you were—a place where people can connect—in one visit.  You left them thinking, “Man, if we weren’t already connected, we’d connect there.”  Look, I don’t want to steal members from other churches.  There are too many people who are unchurched or de-churched out there for us to give much attention to the already-churched.  But if somebody comes and visits from another church and leaves here thinking, “I wish my church was more like them,” that’s a win in my book.  Listen: People want to go somewhere they know they can connect.  That’s just a fact of human nature.  When we get who God made us to be right as a church family, we are that place.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect.

But, we don’t just want people to connect with us here.  There is a genuine interest on the part of folks here in connecting with our community.  One of the questions that seems to be floating around in the back of the minds of a number of folks here is this: How can we be more present in our community?  Now, historically speaking, First Baptist Churches are often pretty well invested in their communities.  Too often, though, that investment has been one primarily concerned with image.  People want to be seen as being members of the First Baptist Church.  In return, the First Baptist Church wants to be seen as the church to be a part of if you are someone in the community.  Sometimes the members of a First Baptist Church have thought they were someone because of their membership.  That worked okay when cultural Christianity was still generally the name of the game.  It’s not anymore.  The folks here want to connect with our community, not because of the image it might gain for us, but because it’s what the church is supposed to do.  It’s what the church was created to do.  After all, what did Luke say about the earliest church in Jerusalem in Acts 2:47?  He said they had the favor of all the people.  People loved them whether they were a part of them or not.  When we get right who God made us to be, we don’t just connect with ourselves, we connect with our community.  We become a transformational presence that exists to equip them with Gospel tools (even if they may not realize that’s what they are!) that will enable them to do life better; to more effectively accomplish the mission God designed them to accomplish.

And again, don’t take my word for it: Look in the mirror.  Last night the Baptist Men hosted a Poor Man’s Supper.  This annual event is intended to be a fundraiser from which all the proceeds this year are going to be given to West Stanly Christian Ministries, a local ministry doing outstanding work in our community—work that we ourselves are not best equipped to do.  So instead of trying to create a program here to mimic what they’re already doing well there (which is what a church who doesn’t know or isn’t comfortable with their identity might try and do), we are going to take some things we do well (fellowship and food…because we’re Baptist), and use those things to connect with our community to the benefit of everybody.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect.

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, we want to see people connect with the Gospel.  We understand that’s where the real truth and power lies behind who we are.  And so, whether it’s through our worship, our Bible study together, Gospel-advancing efforts in our community, or serving those who need it most around the country and world, we want people to connect with the Gospel.   First Baptist is a place where people can connect.

Here’s the thing, though.  While this is who we are, who God made us to be, we’re not all the way there yet.  There are places where we are still growing; where we still need more work.  What this means is that not only is this who we are, it’s who we are becoming.  It’s who God is making us to be.  The wonderful challenge before us, then, is this: If this is who God is making us to be, why is He making us to be it?  What are His plans for us as a place where people can genuinely connect with other people, with their community, and, most importantly, with the Gospel?

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll talk about two more pieces of who God made us to be and then start putting it all together on Easter Sunday morning.  Then, in coming weeks and months, we will slowly begin looking together in various other places around the church at how we can move forward together to become more and more fully who God has designed us to be.  Some things will change.  Some things will stay the same, but will be pursued with a renewed focus and vigor.  You won’t want to miss any of it as we journey together.  For now, know well that First Baptist is a place where people can connect.  Come connect with us as we continue figuring out the rest together.

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