In this second part of our conversation, What’s Next, we took a look at how the ideas of growing and reaching and help give us clarity in terms of our next steps now that we understand our identity a bit more fully. Keep reading to see how these can guide us.
Well, last week, after spending the previous four talking about our God-given identity as a church, we began a new conversation seeking to answer the question, “What’s Next?” So we know a little better than we did before who God made us to be. What are we supposed to do with that? What are some of the things we can be doing now to start moving us down the road in the direction of becoming fully that church? Certainly we’re not going to get there all at once, but what are the steps we can take now no matter who we are and where we are in order to start the ball rolling in that direction? Perhaps to ask that another way: How can we begin adjusting our behavior as a body in light of who God made us to be such that even if we’re not fully that church yet, we’re putting ourselves in a place to begin becoming that church?
We started this conversation using the threefold lens of our identity as our guide. Last week, then, we talked about how connecting can provide clarity on our next steps. The two specific things we talked about were becoming a full and formal member of the church and actually being here. You should become a member because membership matters. It allows us and you to be more intentional about pursuing the path our heavenly Father is stretching out before us. It gives us a clear and confident sense of exactly what human resources we can count on for this journey and you a greater sense of personal identity as a function of the bigger identity of this body of Christ.
But, being a member by itself isn’t enough. Too many folks refer to themselves as members of this or that church even though they haven’t been involved or invested in it for years. And too many churches allow this to happen. But, they aren’t members anywhere else, they don’t want to totally sever their rhetorical connection with a church, and big membership numbers sound really good for the church, so the situation continues. No, while we want you as a member, it’s at least as important and maybe even a little more so for you to actually be present and involved. Indeed, if you’re not here and not at any other church on a regular basis, your spiritual growth is being hamstrung. You don’t want that and neither do we.
To put a bow on all of this, and to badly paraphrase the G.I. Joes, showing up is half the battle. But it’s not the whole battle. And indeed, there are two more pieces of our identity to give us guidance on what we can be doing next to move in the direction Jesus has shaped us to go: Growing and reaching. Let’s finish our conversation about what’s next this morning by starting with growing.
Allow me to offer you a simple, but important truth about followers of Jesus: Growing isn’t an option. If you claim to be in a relationship with Jesus, growing in this relationship isn’t something you can avoid or ignore and honestly maintain this confession. This idea is actually true about all life. Consider this: A few years ago, there was a brief media buzz around an 8-year-old girl from Montana named Gabby Williams. Gabby had been affected her whole life by a rare medical condition. It’s sufficiently rare that it didn’t even have a name. Researchers could only find a handful more people who have it in the whole world. What’s more, they don’t have any idea as to what exactly is its cause. Curious what it is? Gabby doesn’t grow. In fact she’s never grown. She hasn’t grown more than a couple of inches and a few pounds in her whole life. And it’s not like she’s just really small, but otherwise developing normally. Her body hasn’t developed any. She still has the super soft skin of a baby. At eight. She is functionally locked in infancy. When this news broke, some articles came out wondering if this young girl’s genes held the secret to eternal youth, but more folks recognized quickly that there is something seriously wrong here.
The Scriptures make clear that what is true physically, is every bit as true spiritually. Paul made clear that a lack of spiritual growth is every bit as serious an issue as a lack of physical growth and, more accurately, even more so. The writer of Hebrews agreed. Last week I told you that the main section of Hebrews is a lengthy argument on why Jesus is greater than Moses and the new covenant than the Law. Several times throughout the letter the author stops and warns his readers against leaving behind the truth of the Gospel for something else. Here in chapter 5, before he gets to his warning, he chides his readers on a lack of spiritual growth making such warnings necessary.
Listen to what he says starting at v. 11: “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Now, there’s a lot of good and challenging stuff there, but what is clear is that the writer of Hebrews was scolding his audience for not growing in their understanding and practice of the Christian worldview. They had been following Jesus and learning about Him for a sufficient amount of time that the author at least believed they should be teaching others. But, they couldn’t. They still had to be taught themselves. The deep things of the faith, therefore, were inaccessible to them just as solid food would choke a baby to death. When a baby is a baby that’s normal and expected. But for an 8-year-old child to still need milk and baby food suggests something has gone badly wrong.
So then, how can we be certain we are growing spiritually at a healthy pace together? Well, there are two tracks of spiritual growth. One is personal, the other is corporate. Let’s start with the personal. Personally, there are several things you need to be doing on your own to grow in your relationship with and understanding of Jesus. Two stand out as the most important. The first is to read your Bible. Daily. Much research has confirmed that people who read the Bible regularly are significantly more likely to live and believe in ways consistent with the Christian worldview than those who don’t. That shouldn’t come as any surprise at all, but it’s true all the same. If you don’t have a plan in place to read the Scriptures every single day, you need one. You are truncating your growth in Christ without it. You are allowing yourself to be a spiritual Gabby Williams. And don’t just read it. Study it. Meditate on it. Memorize it. Make it a part of your normal patterns until it begins to become the primary shaping influence in your life. And if you need help with this, please let me know. I have resources to help if you want to grow in this way.
The other major thing you can do is to pray. Now, there are lots of ways to do this that we can talk about another time, but like with reading the Scriptures, we’ve got to do it. And it’s okay if it’s awkward and clumsy at first. That’s normal. When we were in Kansas City, my sister and nephew were there the first couple of days. Lachlan is recently turned one and is still mastering walking. He looks like this when he does it. Now, for a one-year-old, that’s really cute. If I was the one walking like that, though, you would be wondering what was wrong. It’s like that with prayer. If you’re just getting started, it’s okay if it’s ugly. The more you do it intentionally (that part’s important), the easier it will get. It may still be ugly and emotional at times depending on what’s happening in your life, but you’ll more accustomed to sharing your life with your heavenly Father and that’s the key. Now, there’s more to talk about than this when it comes to personal spiritual growth, but if you will make just these two things a consistent feature in your life, the rest will come.
But, personal spiritual growth isn’t the only important factor here. Toward the end of Solomon’s collection of Proverbs we find this little gem: “Iron sharpens iron, and one [person] sharpens another.” The point? We don’t grow alone. We need other people in order to help sharpen us in our spiritual journeys. We need the encouragement and accountability. We need the support and companionship. Remember how Paul described the church? We are the body of Christ. He meant that metaphorically, yes, but he also meant it literally. We are altogether the body of Christ. No follower of Jesus can grow well without the involvement of the larger body in her development. So what does this mean? Well, it means that if you want to be growing in your relationship with Jesus, being here like we talked about last week really is necessary. The idea that anybody can grow healthily in Christ apart from the church is a delusion.
Perhaps the better question, though, is this: How and where does growth happen best when we are connected to the body? Think about it like this: Have you ever known someone who never missed a Sunday of worship, but who wasn’t involved meaningfully in any other way and, consequently, never really seemed to be growing actively in his faith? I have. It’s really disappointing to see. I’ve known men (and, guys, we tend to be the most susceptible to this) who were wonderful guys and who were in church every single Sunday, but whose faith wasn’t more than an inch deep. The fact is, while this gathering is really important, it’s not going to be the catalyst for the kind of growth you need. Growth happens best in groups. If you want to grow in Christ, you’ve got to be in a group.
Now, I’m going to challenge you a bit. It’s going to be a really specific challenge too. If you want to be fully a part of what God is doing here at First Baptist, you’ve got to get in a group. There’s just no way around that. Growth happens best in groups. Now, many of you already are in groups. You already know and are in fact living testimonies to this fact. This isn’t for you. If you are not a regular member of one of our Sunday school groups here at First Baptist I would like to challenge you to change that. I’m going to be even more specific than that, though. I want for you to plan to join a group for four weeks. Be there every single week for four weeks. Be there with an open mind to connect to the other folks in the group. If at the end of the four weeks you just aren’t connecting with the other folks in the group, I want you to take another four weeks and visit another group. And if at the end of that four weeks you still just aren’t connecting with the group, I want you to come and see me because I want to know it. I want to know it because what we’ll do then is form a new group which is going to serve as a platform for you to invite new folks to come and connect to a group where everybody’s starting from scratch. Growth happens best in groups. If you’re connected here, but aren’t in a group, the tough truth is that you are not growing in your faith as you could and, arguably, should be. Let me add one more thing to that: If you have been coming here, even for a while, and aren’t feeling very connected, but you aren’t regularly in a group…that’s a big part of why. You won’t connect to this body very quickly or well if this is the only time you come. It’s important, certainly, but it’s not enough on its own. Get in a group.
But…don’t only be in a group. You see, being in a group is excellent. It is necessary to be fully a part of what God is doing here at FBCO. But even it is not sufficient. You’ve got to take one more step. You’ve got to be involved in reaching out. This is our whole identity. It’s not just that we are a place where people can connect to grow in Christ. It’s that they can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. The reaching, you see, is evidence that the growing is happening. Consider what James, Jesus’ brother wrote to some churches around Jerusalem. “What good is it, my brothers [and sisters], if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In other words, if you’re connected, and in a group, and growing, but aren’t doing anything with that growth to demonstrate that it is happening, you may be fooling yourself. So then, how can reaching be our guide for being fully involved in what God is up to in our midst?
I think there are two ways. First: Serve. Reaching out for the kingdom of God means reaching into the lives of the folks who need the Gospel. There are several great places to do this and we are going to be actively exploring more options in the months ahead of us. The best place to start reaching is with the Baptist Men and the Women’s Missionary Union, or WMU. Both of these groups are involved in a variety of meaningful projects to expand the kingdom through loving service. They generally get together at the Gathering Place on the first Wednesday of each month. They gather to pray together and plan ways to impact the kingdom together. Beyond that, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, there are ongoing opportunities to serve at the STEM school as we continue building our partnership there. I am fairly regularly receiving requests from them for a whole variety of things. There is something to do for just about everybody.
Beyond external opportunities, there are in-house needs. We have need for group leaders, especially for our kids. We love to give our hard-working Team Kid and even youth leaders a break when we are able. In order to do that, we need folks to take their place. If you love working with kids or youth and would be interested in leading them in Bible study, especially this summer, come and see me. There is a place for you. We won’t even make you find your own curriculum. We’ll have something fun, easy to teach, and solidly biblical for you to take and prepare. Believe it or not, VBS is coming up quickly. That means when you see Julie Castelloe or Melanie Hudson show up on your called ID or coming your way on a Sunday morning or at the Gathering Place, take the call and don’t turn the other way. Listen: For many of the kids who will be here, VBS is the only exposure to Jesus they get. It’s the only exposure to meaningful Christian community they get. Maximizing the impact of this crucial time each year takes all hands on deck.
There’s one more thing you can be doing now as we begin pursuing the path God has designed us for as a church: Give. Give of your time, yes. Give of your talents, yes. But give of your resources too. While we of course need to place all of our trust in the king of heaven whose resources are limitless, we also need to be prepared to take the world as it is. And one of the realities of the world that our king has seen fit to leave in place (probably as a means to grow the faith of His people) is that ministry in this world takes money. Having all the able and willing bodies in the world is great, but without sufficient funds, some ministries are going to stay off the table for us. We can and should trust Him to provide, but the fact is that His primary way of providing is through the generosity of you.
Rather than spending lots of time praying that God will provide for this church now and in the days ahead, consider that He has called you to be an active part of His providing through your commitment to the practice of sacrificial generosity here. More than even that, practicing the spiritual discipline of sacrificial generosity is something every follower of Jesus needs to have in place. The reason for this is that most of us would be or are terrible rich people. And this isn’t our fault. It’s because we’ve never been taught how. Now, you may not feel rich living in a culture as wealthy as ours is, and being rich may not be something at all on your horizon, but by the standards of most of the world you might as well be Jeff Bezos. With that in mind, you may as well start practicing now just in case the Publisher’s Clearing House folks ever do knock on your door.
Listen to what Paul said to Timothy about some of the wealthy folks in his own congregation in Ephesus. From 1 Timothy 6:17: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
Got all that? People who are or might become rich have to be instructed—charged or commanded—about these things because they won’t know them otherwise. And what are they to be commanded to do? To not trust in their wealth or the work they put in to achieving it. God is our provider. Everything is His and He shares generously with us so that we can enjoy the splendor of His creation. Not only this, but we are to be rich in good works. In other words, we are to use the resources God has provided us to accomplish His kingdom work. That’s why He shares them with us. He doesn’t give us what we have simply so that we can see all of our needs met. He provides for us so that we can expand the kingdom through love and good works and to meet the needs of others who are struggling as perhaps we once were. And before the question gets a chance to form in your mind: This doesn’t mean we are supposed to give to every person begging on the street or standing at the intersection with a sign. It does mean, though, that we should support ministries who have the tools, knowledge, wisdom, and organizational infrastructure to help them. We can do that directly or by supporting our local church in its efforts to do that and more. And in case you missed the contextual connection, using the resources God has provided you to build up the kingdom and help other people is the best way to enjoy them. Here’s a concept for you: You may miss dollars you waste on frivolous things, but you will never miss a single penny you use to advance the kingdom through love and good works.
Let me put this, then, as directly as I can: If you are a member here and you’re not practicing the discipline of sacrificial generosity here (that is, if you’re not giving here), you need to fix that. Even if you’re still somewhere along the journey of connecting here more fully, you can join us in this. Now, you don’t have a duty to give here as members do, but if you aren’t practicing this discipline of sacrificial generosity anywhere else, I would invite you to try it here. If you think this idea of creating a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom sounds at all compelling, consider supporting it. Invest yourself in this place and you might be surprised just how connected you start to feel. Indeed, this pathway of connecting, growing, and reaching isn’t a straight-line path that comes to an end when you reach the final stage. It’s a cycle; a cycle of blessing and life wherein the last step takes you back around to the first such that over time you will gradually come to connect even more fully, grow even stronger, and reach even further than you are right now.
And, just in case you’re not quite sure how to get into the practice of sacrificial generosity, here are three really practical ideas to guide you forward. First, make giving a priority. When you get a little money, develop the discipline of letting your first thought be of how you can give some of it away for the sake of someone else. Before you pay any bills or go anywhere or do anything, set aside some of it for giving. How much should this be? That’s part two. Become a percentage giver. When you give a set amount, there is a very good chance that at some point in the near future, that amount is not going to be an accurate reflection of your current financial status. It’ll either be too large an amount for you to handle, leaving you feeling guilty for not being able to hit your predetermined mark or else not able to make ends meet when you do it in spite of other pressing debts you have; or, it’ll let your giving become non-sacrificial at which point it doesn’t really benefit you in any meaningful way. It becomes little more than a religious exercise and the kind of thing God explicitly condemns many, many times in the Old Testament. Don’t be an amount giver. Be a percentage giver. But, don’t get stuck on a single percentage or you’ll fall into the trap of amount giving without meaning it. Thus part three: Make your giving progressive. Set your initial percentage at a level that represents a meaningful sacrifice for you. At first it will (or should if you get it right) feel pretty uncomfortable. But eventually, it won’t be so uncomfortable. Either you’ll increase your income stream somehow or else you’ll just get used to not having that money there. Whichever one happens to be the case, when you find yourself in this position, begin to progressively increase your percentage. When your initial percentage gets stale, increase it by one percent. When you get used to it again, increase it again. This way, your giving will always represent a meaningful sacrifice which means it will always dwell in the realm of generosity instead of religious exercise. Sound good? The bottom line here is that practicing sacrificial generosity will put you firmly in the path Jesus is leading us down as a church.
Now, will any of these things by themselves zoom us forward toward who God has created and called us to be as a body? No. Most of them alone will seem wildly insufficient to the task at hand. They’ll seem to be small as to be easily overlooked. But think about this: How did Jesus say the kingdom of God grows? Where does it start? It starts out like a mustard seed. Have you ever seen a mustard seed? They’re teeny-tiny. But how they grow! The kingdom of God being unleashed in our midst is going to start small. It will start with your small, individual efforts, and your small, individual efforts, and your small, individual efforts, and so on. We won’t notice anything at first. But then it will start to grow. And when it grows, no one will miss it. It will be huge beyond reckoning. If you want to experience the joy of the big, invest yourself in the small. If you want to experience the joy of the big, invest yourself in the small. This journey we are on is going to start small, but if you want to experience the full joy of where we are going, you’ve got to start investing yourself now. If you want to experience the joy of the big, invest yourself in the small. I can promise you this: You’ll be glad you did.