Here we are at the end of our journey to better understand who God made us to be as a church. We are a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That is who God designed us to be for such a time and place as this. But simply being that church is not enough. If we are truly going to grow into who He made us to be, that growth has to go somewhere. Well, God has plans to take us somewhere. In this final part of our journey we’ll talk about what it takes to be the church He created us to be and where He is taking us in the days ahead of us. Thanks for reading and sharing. I would invite you to join with us on this journey.
The Ironman Triathlon is widely recognized to be one of the most grueling endurance races in the world. To complete the course, participants must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a full marathon. Doing this once in a lifetime would be a major accomplishment. Doing it more than once in a year is almost beyond imagining. Then there’s William Pruett. This endurance superstar completed the Ironman course not merely once, not even merely twice. He once did it five times. In a week. That’s right: William managed to complete 5 Ironman events in 5 days. How was your week? If you didn’t swim 12 miles, bike 560 miles, and run 131 miles, you’re falling a little short. You may need to pick up the pace some this next week.
Isn’t the human body amazing? I mean, maybe not yours, and certainly not mine, but William’s for sure. The things we are capable of accomplishing are hard to imagine. Get your hands on a Ripley’s Believe It or Not book or peruse the list of Guinness Records sometime just to get a taste of it. Or, if you enjoy having high self-esteem you probably shouldn’t do that, but it’s still pretty amazing all the same. But in order for anything like this to happen, everything has to be working just right. Now, yes, people with all manner of disabilities still accomplish incredible things, but the number of things that have to be working like they were designed is a whole lot longer than the list of things we can get away with being broken. If one human body can accomplish amazing things, though, imagine what a whole bunch of them can manage together. This morning I want to talk with you about what we can accomplish together and where God is leading us from here.
This morning we are in the final part of this four-part conversation we’ve been having over the last month called, A Fresh Look. For the past four weeks now we have been talking about who God designed us to be as a church. The basic idea is something that is prayerfully becoming more familiar to all of us. In fact, we’re going to have a little pop quiz together. I want you to say it with me: First Baptist Oakboro is a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. Now I’ll put it up on screen to see how we all did. First Baptist is a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. That’s who God made us to be. Our goal in this series of conversations has been to understand that a whole lot better than we have before.
Well, if you listen and look closely, there are three major components to that identity statement. Each of the conversations we have had together so far has unpacked each one of them in turn. We started three weeks ago talking about our design as a people with whom anyone can connect. Everyone needs a place to connect and they can find that here. But because of where the culture around us is, the odds of finding their way here on their own aren’t great. That means we have to go and invite them. If we are going to be the church God created us in Christ to be, we need to go and tell people to come and see. But it’s not just the church we want them to connect with. The goal is always Jesus. Don’t just invite people to church; invite them to Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, we don’t just want people to connect with Him. We want them to grow in Him. That was two weeks ago. Jesus didn’t just call people to follow Him and that was that. Following Him implied more than some half-hearted confession paired with minimal lifestyle change. When we sign up to follow Jesus everything changes. We are planted in the rich, fertile soil of God’s kingdom, and in that soil incredible growth can happen. At least, it will happen as long as we stay planted. When following Jesus, growth isn’t an option. So, God made us a people with whom someone can grow more fully into who Jesus made her to be.
Finally, last week we talked about the last part: Reaching. Connecting and growing are fine things. They are important things. They are necessary things. But they aren’t sufficient in and of themselves. Jesus didn’t merely call His disciples to grow, He sent them to reach out to advance His kingdom. Expanding God’s kingdom means reaching out. It means reaching out to places and into the lives of people where His kingdom has not yet taken root, showing them the love of Jesus, and inviting them to experience His love among a people who will receive them just as they are, but who will also refuse to simply leave them there. If we stay here, the kingdom doesn’t grow. Growing means going.
After all of that, then, we have a bit better of an idea who it is God has created us to be as a church. Knowing who we are, though, isn’t the end of this journey. It is important, but there’s more. There has to be more. Remember what we said about growth last week? It goes somewhere. Well, so are we. God is on the move. If we are willing to go with Him, we’ll experience the full wonder of His plans for us. Being in such a place is neither easy nor particularly safe (after all, if being in the center of God’s plans is safe and easy, then how do you explain the crucifixion?), but it is good. It will lead to our becoming more fully who He made us to be. It will lead to the world around us being moved in that direction as well. It will result in lives being transformed; a whole community made more reflective of the kingdom of God. It’s hard to imagine many things that could be better than that.
Before we can talk about where we can go together, though, we first have to talk about how we can get there. The human body can achieve remarkable things, but only when everything is working properly. What does it look like for the body of Christ to be working properly? In order to answer that question, we are going to turn to two different things Paul had to say about the church in his letters. One of them comes from his letter to the Corinithian believers, and one from his letter to the Ephesian church. Let’s start with the former.
Paul commonly used an illustration when talking about the church. This was to compare the church – the body of Christ – to the human body. Now, like any illustration, you can’t push it too far, but Paul nonetheless got quite a bit of mileage out of it. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to 1 Corinthians 12. Now, this whole chapter is just packed with incredible stuff about the church, but I want to focus our attention on his unpacking of the illustration itself. Start looking at this with me in v. 12.
“For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body – so also is Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and we were all given one Spirit to drink. Indeed, the body is not one part but many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,’ it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,’ it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ or again, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable. And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, which our respectable parts do not need.”
So, what is Paul saying here? This is one of his easier illustrations to understand. The church, the body of Christ, is like the human body. The human body is made up of many parts. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Our bodies are composed of thousands of parts. And although some of these parts are relatively similar in design and purpose – for instance, the left leg and the right leg – some are so different that it’s hard to imagine they even came from the same creature. But in order for the human body to work like it was designed to work, you need all of them. All are different, and all are necessary.
The same goes with the body of Christ. Each one of us is different from one another. Even in a church like this one that is pretty homogenous on a number of fronts, we’re all different from one another. We have different life experiences. We have different abilities and talents. We have different passions and dreams. We’re not the same. Yet if we believe the things about the church we have been saying over the past couple of weeks, we have to conclude that this variety was intentional on God’s part. If the church is His primary means of advancing His kingdom into this world, then it stands to reason He would build each local church with the tools she needs to accomplish the task He has set before her. And, if that’s not enough for you, Paul pretty well spelled it out for us there in v. 18: “But as it is, God has arranged each one of the parts in the body just as he wanted.” In other words, if you are connected with this church, it’s because God put you here on purpose. No matter how different you may feel relative to the people around you, He’s got a plan that includes you being the you He created you to be. And we need you to be that you because in His designs, we won’t be able to accomplish what He has set before us to accomplish without you as well as we will with you.
If that level of harmony, of unity amid diversity, is how God designed the body of Christ to work, the next thing we need to know is how we get it to that place. Paul points us in that direction in his letter to the Ephesian church. Flip a few pages forward in your Bible with me to Ephesians 4. Ephesians is kind of like a mini Romans. Paul starts with weighty theology in the first half, and then moves to apply it in the second. One of his special concerns throughout the letter is unity among a diversity of believers. Sound familiar at all? This unity is something that has to wash over our entire lives, but it begins in the church. So, therefore, does Paul. Paul opens Ephesians 4 with a direct appeal to this unity among believers, goes on to talk about what it cost Jesus to make it possible, and then lands squarely on how it makes its way into the church.
Look with me at Ephesians 4:11: “And he himself [that is, Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head – Christ. From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.”
Like before, what is Paul saying here? This is a little trickier to see, but it’s just as important. When the body of Christ is working like it was designed every part is playing its part. Every part. In order for that to happen, though, someone has to help existing parts play their part and new parts figure out their part to play. According to Paul here, that someone or someones is the recognized leader or leadership team of the church. Throughout most of the history of the church in at least the 20th century, most folks in most churches thought of the pastor as the chief ministry-doer in the church. If there was something to be done, he was the first to do it. If he couldn’t do it on his own, he got help from the congregation. That’s simply how things were taught to work. And that’s a perfectly fine model of ministry for a church that doesn’t want to grow or make disciples or achieve much of anything beyond what the pastor can handle by himself. As long as people think of the pastor as the chief ministry-doer, the ministry the church accomplishes will be limited to what he can manage with a little bit of help. The trouble is, that’s not what the church was designed to do. It was designed for more than that. But, you see, pastors are people too. Some have incredibly high ministry capacities and can grow enormous churches that reach from one end of the earth to the other by themselves. Some leaders really are that gifted. But most aren’t. So, most churches across the last hundred or so years of our history have been pretty small and accomplished relatively little.
What Paul envisions here is something different. The pastor’s job, or the ministry of the minister, Paul says, is not to do all the ministry himself. Rather it is to equip the saints – that would be you guys – to do the ministry of the church. There are a number of different ministries a given church is called to do. And, low and behold, God has equipped each church with a whole stock of ministers whom He has gifted to do them. When this happens, the body builds itself up in love. When each part plays its part, the whole thing works like it was designed, and the possibilities become far grander than they would otherwise be. The body gets stronger. The faith grows faster. Believers stand firmer. The hurting get better. The struggling are made wiser. The kingdom gets bigger. It’s really an incredible thing. The church who gets this right, the church in which every part is playing its part, can accomplish far more than any one individual member could imagine. The possibilities are not merely record-setting, they are world changing. God’s kingdom is expanding, and we get to be a part of it together.
Yet what does that actually mean for us? Well, the future is God’s business, not ours. That being said, we know who He has created us to be. Our future is going to involve becoming more fully that church. What exactly this is going to look like, I can’t say. But I do have a vision I’d like to share with you of what I am convinced is going to be a part of our journey in the days ahead of us.
First, Oakboro is growing. That’s probably not something I even needed to tell you. You can just look around and see the evidence of this. Let me tell you: healthy churches grow with their communities. The healthiest churches have a growth that outpaces their community. Over the next few years, there are plans for not a few, but dozens and even hundreds of new homes coming our way. Now, it would be easy to look at that and bemoan the loss of our small town intimacy. But let me offer another perspective. God is bringing people to the Oakboro area who need to experience His life-changing love and grace. Normally, when an area explodes with growth, new churches have to move in and start from scratch to reach the people who live there now. Well, guess what: We’re already here. Over the next few years there are hundreds of people moving to Oakboro who will need a people with whom they can connect so they are not alone in their new community. They will need to grow in their relationship with Jesus to weather the challenges of moving to a new place. And God has a plan to use them to expand His kingdom. Are you with me? What’s more, much of this growth is coming in the form of young families moving to town. Most small towns across the country are dying and their churches with them. We’re about to have the opposite challenge, and we are uniquely situated in the very heart of this community to play a role in seeing the Gospel ministered to the lives of each one of these. God’s kingdom is expanding, and we get to be a part of it together.
There’s more. Our call is not just to see people who are new to Oakboro (and let’s not forget those who are already here but aren’t connected with Jesus yet!) connect to the church and by that to Jesus. We are to see them grow in Christ. As we see more and more folks connecting here in the days ahead of us – and particularly as we start to see more and more students connecting here – we need to make sure we are prepared to make disciples out of all of these folks. How is this going to happen? It will happen when you take on the challenge of pouring into them. As the author of Hebrews wrote and we talked about a couple of weeks ago, if you’ve been following Jesus for long, you need to be prepared to help someone else along in their own journey. God is calling us to make more disciples together. God’s kingdom is expanding, and we get to be a part of it together.
As we talked about last week, though, everything we do can’t be done here. If we are going to expand God’s kingdom, it starts here, but it must go beyond that. In the days ahead of us, we are going to begin looking intentionally to be involved in ministering the grace and love of the kingdom not just more effectively within our community, but also outside of it. Fortunately, the North Carolina Baptist Convention makes that exceedingly easy. We have access to two different mission camps with a full-time staff who are dedicated to facilitating opportunities for us to serve others in Jesus’ name. These camps are in Shelby and Red Springs toward Lumberton. There is plenty of need within our region to expand God’s kingdom. But, we are called to the ends of the earth too, so we are going to begin prayerfully considering when, where, and how God is calling us there. God’s kingdom is expanding, and we get to be a part of it together.
Reaching out to expand God’s kingdom, though, doesn’t come only in the form of missions. It also comes in the form of new and strengthened churches. While there are still many excellent megachurches across the country and the world, the age of the megachurch is passing. The new megachurch will not be much larger than 5-600 people. In the future, once churches reach that size, they will begin looking to intentionally plant or adopt new churches where the Gospel can be unleashed in new communities to impact the lives of the people living there. Our state convention has some missions-minded folks who have worked really hard to identify “pockets of lostness” across our state. These are regions – some not far from us at all – where there is no meaningful church presence to impact the lives of the people living there. There are also communities that have churches, but mostly dying ones. As we prayerfully consider the implications of God’s creating us to be a people who reach, we need to begin prayerfully seeking out wisdom on building plans for launching new churches or, as is perhaps even more needed in this area, fostering or adopting struggling churches to help them bring new life to the mission God has given them. God’s kingdom is expanding, new and renewed churches are a key part of that expansion, and we get to be a part of it together.
There’s one more thing. Let me set before you two statements that seem like opposites, but are equally true. Number 1: We have all the space we need. Number 2: We need more space. On the first statement, we have a wonderful facility. We have the kind of space and the meeting options that come with such space that churches around here mostly just wish they had. The very fact that we have this space we are in right now played a significant role in the fact that once we reopened for live services in July of 2020, we haven’t had to shut down to go fully virtual or even simply meet in the parking lot for a season even once. I think I can count on one hand the number of churches who can say that in this area. Every single one of our groups has a space to meet and we have extra rooms that could be used but aren’t.
That being said, we need more space. We need a dedicated sanctuary. The old sanctuary, while it will and should continue to be a rightly cherished part of our history, isn’t big enough for us to use for worship. Lord willing, it won’t ever be again. At the same time, we need to have our nursery and worship spaces under the same roof again. We need more space for our kids, especially on Wednesday nights. That group has grown in size to the point there’s not a space big enough for them to meet in all together. Well, we have the plans created – and now approved by the county to build – to address all of these issues and more. In the next few months we are prayerfully looking to begin intentionally moving forward with them again. I need all of us to be praying for that specifically so that we are moving forward in God’s timing, not ours. When we stay on His terms, it is His kingdom that will expand, not ours. That’s what we want to see. God’s kingdom is expanding, and we get to be a part of it together.
God in Christ has made First Baptist Oakboro an incredible church. I brag about you guys everywhere I go. And because you are such an incredible church, the future we have together is a bright one. It will entail more connecting, more growing, and more reaching, and a new facility that will enable us to do those things to an even greater capacity, Lord willing. God’s kingdom is expanding, and we get to be a part of it together. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.