Growing Stronger

This past Sunday as we continued our conversation about who God made us to be as a church, the next key element of our identity is growth.  Keep reading to see how growing people has always been a part of God’s approach to humanity and how it is, could be, and should be fleshed out in our community.  Thanks for reading.

Growing Stronger

Growth is natural.  As it was nearing the first summer Lisa and I spent in Virginia, we decided we wanted to plant a garden.  Neither of us really had any idea what we were doing.  We got some help and advice from folks in the church who were themselves avid gardeners, but much beyond help with the plowing of a 30 by 60 plot in our backyard, we pretty much did all the work ourselves.  We planted way too much.  We wound up spending almost every evening and Saturday morning pulling weeds and picking produce (and trying desperately to give away the hundreds of squash and zucchini and cucumbers we had).  We canned more green beans than would fit in our meager pantry.  But, by the time it was all said and done, we had successfully grown a pretty nice garden.  Here’s the funny part, though, and if you’re a gardener you know this to be true: The work we did had almost no impact on the actual growth of the garden.  Sure, by pruning and pulling weeds and spraying for bugs and watering when it got dry we might have extended the life of the plants and increased the size of the harvest, but there was not a single thing we did to cause the garden to grow save putting the seeds in the ground.  Once they were in the ground and covered with dirt, the rest happened all on its own.  Again: growth is natural. If you have kids, you know this to be true.  Once they’re out and in the world, if you feed and water them, they grow.  Sometimes too fast.  The point here, again, is that growth is natural.  Given a bare minimum set of conditions, is it going to happen.  And as we continue our conversation about who God made us to be this morning, I want to explore with you the idea that part of this identity is that we are a place where some of the essential ingredients for personal and spiritual growth come together such that if a person spends much time here, she is going to grow more and more fully into who God made her to be.

We started this conversation last week by talking about the importance of identity generally for a church and the first part of the identity we think God has built into this particular church: Connecting.  First Baptist is a place where people can connect.  And, far from being some kind of a faddish idea that lots of churches claim, we talked about the fact that God created us from the beginning for connecting in relationships with Him and with other people.  Ever since Pentecost, the church is the place He intends for this to happen above and before anywhere else in the world.  What this means is that every church is going to have some element of this idea of connecting as a part of their foundational identity.  This doesn’t make us like everyone else, though, because this is only part of our identity.  What’s more, there are way too many churches out there that are not places where people can safely or easily connect because they’ve either lost sight of or even simply never considered who God made them to be.  Because of this, the very fact that we understand this at all makes us stand out from the pack.

Simply connecting somewhere, though, isn’t good enough.  If, when Lisa and I were planting our garden so many years ago, we had simply dumped the seeds out on the ground so that they were connected with it, nothing would have happened.  Well, that isn’t exactly true.  Maybe a hard rain would have washed some of them into the ground so that they started to develop, but any growth that happened would have been sporadic, unfocused, and ultimately unhelpful.  And, most of them would likely have been gobbled up by hungry birds grateful to us for setting out such a smorgasbord for them.

You see, we as people don’t want to just connect somewhere.  We want our lives to have path and purpose.  We want…we need…something more than merely a place to connect.  We need a place to grow.  And over the course of the conversations the deacons have had about all of these ideas, it became clear that this is another key part of who God has designed us as a church to be.

Why does this matter?  Because God designed us to grow.  He designed us with the ability to learn and explore and set us loose on a planet that is precisely located to make such things possible.  The fact is, He has been growing us ever since the Garden.  Look for a second with me at how He has done this.  From the moment of the Fall onward, God has been in the business of growing people.  Think about it.  God had essentially three options before Him as the dust of the Fall was settling.  He could have scrapped the whole project of creation and gone back to being perfectly content among Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit as He was before He got started.  He could have snapped His metaphorical fingers and put everything back like He had intended for it to be, essentially calling a mulligan for us (but this time with a bit more time spent on the importance of obedience to the one command He had given us).  Or, He could have done what He did: Taking us from right where we were, lying in the rubble of sin’s explosion, and begin the long, winding process of growing us back to where He had made us to be in the beginning.

Imagine with me for a minute that as you were going on a walk, you came upon a garden that was simply resplendent in beauty.  Your jaw dropped, and you couldn’t help but to stand there and stare, marveling at the scene you were beholding.  But then, somebody came up alongside you and said, “This thing?  Oh, some landscape artists came and put this all in the ground yesterday.”  You might still marvel at their artistry, but your impression of the garden would be diminished a bit, wouldn’t it?  But, imagine instead that this same observer came alongside you and said, “Amazing isn’t it?  This project has been 50 years in the making.  I remember when he moved in and planted the first bed.  It was exquisite.  After about a week, though, some kid came and drove his car through the yard and salted the earth behind him after he did it.  He’s been working ever since to bring it back.  In 50 years there hasn’t been a day he hasn’t worked on it in some way.”  It would make your wonder increase all the more, wouldn’t it?  Because now, instead of merely marveling at the garden itself, you’re marveling at the gardener too and the incredible labor of love that had been invested to make this what it was.  Folks, this is what God has been doing with us.  He started in the Garden and He hasn’t stopped pursuing growth in us any day since.

We see God’s commitment to growth as well in the way He has gradually revealed Himself and the nature of life in His kingdom to us over the centuries.  Consider this: When it came to revealing what life with Him was supposed to look like after the Fall, God could have just packed all the knowledge into our heads and set us on our way.  Our minds probably would have been blown to bits and we’d have never recovered, but He could have done it.  Instead, He pulled back the curtain for us in steps and stages, allowing us to grow fully into each phase before revealing the next.  For example, in the Old Testament law, we find what is often called the law of the tooth, lex talionis in Latin.  The name comes from the law itself from Exodus 21:23: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…”  In its day, this was a huge leap forward in human justice.  Prior to then things had operated on the principle of strength and vengeance.  If you break my arm, I’m going to kill you.  If you poke out my eye, I’m going to cut off your head.  If you kill my son, I’m going to kill your entire village.  As you can perhaps imagine, that didn’t solve any problems.  It created them.  But, this wasn’t where God ultimately wanted us to be.  And when the idea had been given plenty of time to soak down to the roots of our understanding of justice, Jesus came along and took things a huge step forward.  No longer were we to respond in kind, but rather with kindness, returning grace for injury and love for hatred.

Speaking of Jesus, we see this principle of growth illustrated beautifully in the way He constantly received people just as they were, but was never willing to leave them there.  He accepted them as the sinners they were, but never left them the option of remaining in their sin.  He refused to join the religious authorities in condemning the woman caught in the act of adultery, but He also told her directly to not sin any longer.  Jesus unfailingly accepted people just as they were.  But He also never failed to call them to become more; to become more fully who they had been designed by God to be.  The fact is, many churches today are committed to receiving people as they are.  This is a good thing.  It is a great improvement over churches insisting that people get their lives together before coming in the back doors.  But, too many churches stop there.  They don’t intentionally call people forward from there to become who God designed them to be.  Hear me well: As a church, while we must be absolutely committed to receiving people just as they are, as the song goes, we must be equally committed to refusing to leave them there.  If we are not similarly committed to the same growth that our heavenly Father has invested so much of Himself in seeing happen, we will fail to be faithful either to the task He has given us as a church, or to the identity He has given us as this church.

The simple reality is: The proper functioning of the church depends on this kind of growth happening.  If it is not happening, we’re not being the church.  Period.  And I’ll be candid with you this morning, according to the Scriptures, my number one job in the church is to make sure this is happening.  Listen to some words Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that have had a huge impact on my understanding of how to do church.  These are found in Ephesians 4:11: “And he [Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers [that is, guys like me], to equip the saints [that would be, you guys] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to mature [personhood], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 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.”  In other words, the job of the pastor is to equip the members of the body to do the work of ministry so that, with everyone focused on and united around the ideas ministry and not other things that might divide us, we become able to stand firm in our faith, a fitting reflection of the image of Christ.  We are not to be immature in our faith and its practice.  But rather—v. 15 now—“speaking the truth in love, we are to…[ what? ]…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 [meaning it has grown healthily], makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Do you see what Paul is saying here?  When the church gets its job right, the members of the body grow properly and healthily, which in turn causes the whole body to grow properly and healthily.  This growth thing, it’s not an option.  It is fundamental to the church.  It’s who we are as a church.  First Baptist is a place where people can grow.

So then, let’s get more specific.  What does this look like here?  What could this look like here?  What should this look like here?  Well, most simply, as a group, we want to grow.  I mean that in several different ways.  There are a whole bunch of people around here who have a genuine love for the Scriptures and a desire to grow in their understanding and application of what they proclaim.  We want to grow more fully in the direction of who God made us to be.  There are lots of ways to do this.  First, and most obviously, is this gathering.  The whole framing of this time is aimed in the direction of seeing you grow more fully into a wholly committed disciple of Jesus.  We will seek Him together in prayer.  We will sing His praises and bask in His pleasure.  And my promise to you is that I will bring messages each week designed and intended to help you understand your faith better, how it works, how to put it into practice, and that will call you intentionally to do just that.

There are also our weekly small groups.  Each week, on Sunday mornings, we gather in small groups to study the Scriptures and how they apply to our lives together.  What’s more, we have these groups for every age group in the church.  If you are a parent, have you ever thought: “Grow in my faith and study the Scriptures?  Yeah, I’d love that…if I could ever get five seconds away from my kids to be able to open my Bible and actually read what it says…”  Well, here you go.  The fact that we have small groups on Sunday mornings for every age group means that if you are a parent, every single week we will provide for you, free of charge, child care so that you can connect with other believers and the Scriptures so that you can grow in your faith.  What’s more, while our efforts will not come anywhere close to overtaking the value and importance of your own efforts, if you trust your kids with us, while we are busy providing you a child-less space to pursue your own growth in Christ under the faithful guidance of a great teacher, we will pour into your kids as well, equipping them with some of the tools they will need for their own growth in Christ.

As if that weren’t enough, for folks who want the opportunity to dive in a bit deeper to accelerate their growth that much faster, on Wednesday nights at the Gathering Place, after enjoying a wonderful time of fellowship together, we have discipleship groups for kids, youth, and adults, where we dig in a little deeper to the nuts and bolts of being a fully committed disciple of Jesus.  First Baptist is a place where people can grow.

And if it seems like I’m spending a lot of time talking about groups, let me be clear: We are a groups-focused church.  What I mean by that is this: Small groups are important here.  By the way, just so my language doesn’t lead to any confusion, when I talk about “small groups,” I’m talking about a more intimate gathering than this one which convenes on a regular basis for the purposes of fellowship, accountability, and growth in Christ.  Here at FBCO, the shape these happen to take now is a pretty traditional Sunday school.  That’s not because it’s only or even necessarily the best model, but it is the model we’ve used for about 100 years and it’s the model that works best for us right now.  The point, though, is that for a significant part of our community, groups are really important.  This is right and proper too, because a crucial fact about Christian growth is that growth happens best in groups.

That’s not to say being here isn’t really important.  This gathering is necessary and vital for a number of reasons.  But, the real, deep, personal growth that a committed follower of Jesus desires to see happen in her life comes mostly in the context of small groups of varying sorts.  In a small group you can build deeper, more satisfying relationships than you can in the worship gathering.  In a small group you can find the accountability you need to walk the path of Christ with greater consistency than you could muster if you tried to do it on your own, or even if you tried to do it by just attending this gathering.  And if it sounds like I’m saying you can’t grow as quickly or healthily in your faith if you skip out on Sunday school and just come to worship, let me be clear: I am.  If you really want to grow as a disciple of Christ, you’ve got to be a regular, participating member of a small group.  Without that, you won’t.  You will be a seed simply dropped on the ground instead of being planted properly.  Maybe you’ll grow when a good, hard rain of the Spirit drives you into the word and to your knees in prayer, but the greater likelihood is that you won’t.  Even if you should benefit from a Spirit-rain, the chances are high that you won’t be planted deeply enough to develop the kind of root system you’ll need to sustain your faith through times of drought or struggle.  Now, none of this is to say that we’re doing all of this perfectly well.  We’re not all the way there yet.  But this is who we are.  It’s who God made us to be.  First Baptist is a place where people can grow.

With the recognition that growing people is our first and highest priority, that’s not the only kind of growth that beats in the heart of this church.  We have for some time now been in the process of developing plans to build a new sanctuary.  This room is wonderful, but it wasn’t made for this purpose.  It will sustain us sufficiently for the time being, but meeting here for worship is not a long-term solution.  Many of you were reminded of that and commented to me on that fact when just last week we met across the street in the old sanctuary because of the weather.  But, while the old sanctuary is wonderful, and in many ways a more reverent room than this one, as well as a beautiful reminder of this church’s rich history, for a number of different reasons, moving back there is not a good long-term solution for us either.

Now, while building this new building will challenge both our faith and our finances as a church, there are a number of challenges the new sanctuary building will resolve.  Among these, to be pretty candid with you, is the fact that new young couples with nursery-age kids do not want to come to a church where they have to leave their precious little ones across the street, in a totally different building from where they are, with total strangers (however nice-looking they may be), and with no real way of contacting them should the need arise.  More importantly, though, if God is calling us to this—and I think He is—He’ll make sure we can do it.  He’ll make sure we have the resources to do it.  More to the point: As I have talked to a variety of folks about the new building, perhaps the biggest reason people want to see it happen is that it will give us room to grow.  We want to grow.  It’s who God made us to be.

Speaking of growing like this, there are a lot of churches around here.  A lot.  But the fact is, most of them, because of the choices they have made, are competing for the same group of people: the already-churched.  If we focus on the already-churched too, we’ll be competing with just about every other church around here for the same dwindling pool of people.  And if it sounds like I’m just trying to scare you, the numbers bear this out.  Recent demographic studies make clear that the number of churched people within a five-mile radius of this church has shrunk just over 8% in the last 10 years.  The statistical truth about our immediate neighborhood is that 56% of the people in it do not claim a church home at all.  That means when you walk down the road or drive through the town every other person isn’t going to church anywhere.  Or perhaps to put some harder numbers to that, there are about 1,000 people just in Oakboro who don’t go to church anywhere.  Look, I get we’re a small community and aren’t quite the trendy location for people bailing on the hullaballoo of Charlotte that, say, Locust is, but the potential for growth around us is huge.  Think about it: We could be a church of 1,200 without leaving the borders of Oakboro and without taking a single member from another church.  And when we lean into the fact that God has made us a place where people can grow, we will gradually come to see this piece of our character fleshed out externally through a growing church; through a church that grows in every way.  First Baptist is a place where people can grow.

Okay, but where can we go from here?  Well, growth can happen in a couple of different ways.  We talked about this at the beginning of this conversation.  It can happen naturally.  We understand natural growth.  We see it all the time.  The weeds in your driveway cracks grow naturally.  You don’t have to do a thing about them and they get bigger.  Lots of things grow naturally.  But, some things don’t.  More specifically, things that grow naturally are generally the things we either don’t want at all or don’t want a lot of.  On the other hand, the best things grow properly only by intentionality.  When we planted that garden, had we relied only on things that grew naturally, we’d have never enjoyed the bounty we did.  It was only by intentionally guiding and shaping; by making a plan and executing that plan that it became the feast we enjoyed and shared.  As you raise your kids, if you want them to be happy, healthy, mature, and godly, it takes an enormous amount of intentionality.  Left to their own devices, kids grow up every way in the world except straight.  Growing godly children takes consistent discipline, scads of time, more patience than you have on a good day, regular training in the faith, and a firm eye set on where you are guiding them.  Growing a strong school or business or habit or just about anything else takes intentionality.

Do you know what?  Growing a strong, healthy, kingdomly-successful church does too.  And in the coming months, we are going to begin laying in place and setting into action an intentional pathway toward becoming fully the church God designed us to be–a place, along with one more thing we’ll talk about next week, where people can connect and grow.  First Baptist is a place where people can grow.  See you next week as we talk about what comes next.

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