I love the show because I like to know what was going through the artist’s mind when they wrote the song. It helps me more fully engage and understand what is going on in the song. What were they wrestling with? Who is that song about (which has plagues Carly Simon fans for years!)? What were they thinking about and reflecting on when they wrote those lyrics?
Brett Michaels of Poison wrote his greatest love song Every Rose Has It’s Thorns while doing laundry. He was on the road and called home to talk to his girlfriend, but in the background he could hear another man’s voice. When you know the backstory, it brings more emotion and understanding to the song.
Eric Clapton’s wrote the song Tears in Heaven after his 4½ year old son fell from their apartment and died. He wanted to know if he met his son in heaven would his son recognize or even know him. He was wrestling with the guilt any parent would feel in that situation. It changes the way we hear that song.
Does it change things to know the song Hey Jude was originally written as “Hey Jules” by Paul McCartney as a song to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian when John and his wife were divorcing. Julian said: "Paul told me he'd been thinking about my circumstances, about what I was going through and what I'd have to go through...It surprises me whenever I hear the song. It's strange to think someone has written a song about you. It still touches me."
Knowing the story behind something changes our understanding. We hear the words to a song, think we understand what they mean, but when we hear the story everything changes. It is like with all forms of art. It is helpful to know what is going on in a writer’s life and times when you read their books. What is going on in an athlete’s life when their normally dominant performance is suffering.
The next few weeks we are going to be talking about our church. Where are we going? What does God want to accomplish here? What do we want to look like in a few years? This morning we are going to look at some of the back stories that will help you understand me as the planting pastor, where I come from and what has been laid on my heart. Kind of like an old fashioned testimony.
A Call to Reach the Lost
In 1992, I finally accepted God’s call on my life. When I was about 5 years old, I felt very clearly that God called me into ministry. As I grew older, I wanted nothing to do with God, the church, its rules...nothing. I tried to stay as far from God as I could, but in the spring of 1992, I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I began to wrestle with what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I wanted my life to matter. Most people in my situation did not have a life that made a difference in the world. Single-parent, welfare home in the inner-city. When I was 10 years old my mother married a man who wanted her, but didn’t really want me and my sister. I was seen as a rival, and for six years or so suffered from a great deal of verbal and emotional abuse. Finally, mercifully, I was kicked out and went to live with my grandmother.
But here I was getting ready to graduate from high school, submitting college applications, and thinking about a future. I wanted my life to matter. I wanted to make a difference...and that is when God began to speak. I felt very clearly a call to enter the ministry, but I still wanted to be sure. I was hoping that I had misheard Him. I was leaning toward business or law, and ministry...well, that wasn’t in the plans anymore.
Back then I rode my bike a lot, so I put my Bible and a devotional book in a backpack and started riding. As I rode, I prayed, “God, if you want me to enter the ministry I need more than just a feeling inside. Can you confirm Your call today in my Bible reading?” I rode for a long time, but when I finally stopped I pulled out my Bible, opened the devotional, turned to the chosen passage for the day and read Matthew 18:12-14:
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.For me that was a definitive answer. My longstanding critique of the church had been that it only catered to those who were already saved. While they wanted people to get saved, they certainly weren’t sacrificing anything to see that accomplished.
Most, if not all, of its time, money, and resources were used to care for people who should be focused on reaching a lost world for Jesus. A world of people, just like me, needed to hear about God’s love and concern, but wasn’t because Christian people were too concerned about their next church activity and not being corrupted by the people out there...not being corrupted by people like me.
Salvation messages were preached to congregations that hadn’t seen an unsaved person for years. Church people never left the safety of their churches and Sunday school classes to search for the lost. When you have been in the church for awhile, you tend to lose contact with people outside of the church. You work with them, you live next door to them, but meaningful relationship fade over time. You develop a new set of friends, and find yourself more and more alienated from people who need Jesus.
Here in Scripture was something I had never heard from my pastors. Jesus willingly left the 99 sheep...the church people...the sheep who were safe...the sheep whom He loved...the safety of the sheepfold...to go looking for the one lost sheep who had gone astray. He left the safety of this space, and went into the dark and danger of the night to find the ONE who was lost. I knew this is what being in ministry was meant to be. If Jesus, my leader and savior, was willing to do this for one, so should I because that is the mission of the whole church.
I was told to stay away from THOSE people because we were called to be holy. Which we are called to be. WE are called to be holy; to pursue God with all of our heart. Be we are called to do it in the midst of a world that is hungry for Jesus and doesn’t even realize it. I began to notice the stories of Jesus spending time with the “tax collectors and sinners.” He hung out with the sinners, the losers, the people rejected by traditional religious people. He went looking for the ONE!
Standing atop a hill, preparing to leave His disciples and ascend into heaven, Jesus gives these instructions as the marching order for the Church, Matthew 28:18-20
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”The church is an outpost for the Kingdom of God. It is a beach head, to use a military term, in hostile territory. It is a base of operations that sends us out to change the world with the Kingdom of God. For too long we have looked to the church as a place of refuge from the dangers of the world, a place to meet all my spiritual needs. It should meet our spiritual needs, but part of meeting our spiritual need is to give us a mission; a purpose. That purpose is to take what we have been given out of here and change the World with God’s love...to share the Good News of Jesus with those who need Him.
God has not called you to be part of the church so it can be about you. He is constantly inviting you to take steps forward spiritually so you can give it away to the world around you. He invites each one of us to join Him on a rescue mission to bring the Kingdom of God to the world around us. Our biggest ministry as a church happens when you take seriously God’s call to impact the world you come in contact with on an everyday basis; to lead your world one step closer to the Kingdom of God.
A few years later I was sitting in a chapel service at Mt. Vernon Nazarene College. The guest speaker for the day was an adjunct professor from the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, and he was sharing about a new program starting in the Fall focused on Church Planting. I had never heard about church planting...I didn’t even know what it meant...Who knew you could just buy a pack of seeds and “poof” a church would appear!
The more he talked, the more I liked the idea of starting a church. There were several things appealing about the idea.
First, church planting is the most effective way to reach people who are far from God. It tapped into that feeling that we are meant to leave the safety of the 99 and go searching for the 1. Between 50 and 75 U.S. churches close their doors every week. More than 80% of the churches in the U.S. have plateaued or are declining. In the United States alone, there are over 200 million unchurched people, making the U.S. the third largest mission field in the world. I felt like God was calling me to reach those far from him, and here was a great way to do just that!
Second, established church are not as able to reach those far from God. They can be unwilling or unable to reach lost people because they are turned inward on themselves, or unwilling to make the necessary changes in style, structure, culture, and budgeting to reach the lost. They are more willing to fight over their preferred style of music and whether people come appropriately dressed than whether someone has a life-giving connection with God through His church. And when they do make the changes, they often don’t make the changes in their cultures...this is why you will have a young, hip looking church that sounds just as guilt driven as your old church. Flashy screens and rock-n-roll style worship can’t cover that stuff up. We need new churches to reach a variety of people far from God.
Third, and this is confession time, I have a rebellious streak and trouble with authority. On a positive note some might call it an entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t want to tread on someone else’s path. I want to make my own. There are also some battles that I just don’t want to fight. I don’t want to fight over worship style. I don’t want to fight over spending our money on outreach. I don’t want to fight over certain things. This doesn’t mean I don’t listen to authority or respect people. It doesn’t mean that I am not teachable or above correction. I make mistakes and say I’m sorry quite a bit. I do, however, want to constantly be pushing forward in the mission God has laid out ahead of me...in front of us as a church without having to fight some of those battles that crop up in established church.
So the more I thought about church planting, the more I liked it. Lori and I, after some...discussion...decided to move to Kansas City. Thing was, I didn’t enroll in the church planting program. I pursued the idea of church planting, but found myself drawn to so many other areas where I was deficient. I grew theologically and biblically. I learned to be a pastor. I developed a love for an intelligent, well-reasoned, biblical faith and not just what was handed to me by untrained pastors and Sunday school teachers.
Little did I know this was preparing me to be a bridge of sorts. People come into the church with all kinds of baggage. There are those who have been hurt badly by past church experiences. From church history I know there times we must repent of because we just haven’t gotten it right. There are those who have left the church because of beliefs they just couldn’t agree with, and were told this is the only way for a REAL Christian to believe. From being in a place of debate and healthy discussion, I discovered that not everyone thinks alike, and that is ok. The church represents a wide diversity of beliefs on non-essential issues. And when they are essential issues we are still allowed to discuss and wrestle with Scripture in healthy ways. Some believe the church is just filled with uneducated people who buy everything they are told. I discovered the church is filled with some very intelligent people who want an educated AND biblical faith. Some people were broken and damaged by the world and want nothing to do with the church. I learned the church is founded on God’s love for us and sent out as examples of His love for others.
If there is one thing I have learned in all of this, it is that...God loves us, and wants to come him WITH all of our baggage. We can clean up our act. We can stop doing some of the things that derail our lives, but we cannot really change our hearts.
Matthew 11:28-30 says,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”Shortly after seminary I started planting my first church in Pleasant Hill, Missouri. It is just outside of Kansas City. It is a small, rural town that was growing by leaps and bounds as people moved farther and farther out from Kansas City. I learned more lessons there than I can even begin to tell you about in this message. We could plan a multi-day session and still not cover it all. But while there I made a very important connection that has stayed with me, and drive sme as we plant this church. The lesson take the form of an axiom or proverb or cliche:
It is this, “Come as you are you will be loved.” For all of those who have baggage...come as you are. No matter what your background, your problem, your sin...we will love you as a church. Our responsibility as a church is to love each person as God gives them to us...not love them as we expect them to act. Not love them as we would like them to be. Our call is to “Love our neighbor as ourselves,” teach the Bible, and allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in their lives.
Now that doesn’t mean that people who come in contact with God’s grace have the right to act as they wish. No, God’s love is by nature a transforming love that challenges us to grow...not because God wants a bunch of goodie-too-shoes or that this is just about being “good.” God’s wants to form us in the image of his Son. We call that Christlikeness. As a church we are called to exhibit that Christlikeness in our world and lead others to be more Christlike in their lives.
Back to Dayton
The church plant in Pleasant Hill was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. As I said just a minute ago, I learned a lot...mostly because I messed up a lot. There were a lot things God had to purge out of my life, and the only way to do that is in the tough times we all face. But I have learned that everything we go through, especially the tough times, have a purpose. God is leading us somewhere. He is preparing us for our next challenge...Little did I know the next challenge would lead me back to Dayton.
Once Lori and I escaped the clutches of Dayton, Ohio we had settled on the fact that we would NEVER move back here. Too much baggage. Too much family. But once God made it clear this is where He was leading...I recognized how much I resonated with the words of Michael Corleone from the Godfather movie as he tried to escape his mobster lifestyle...
But God showed me how he had been leading me here the entire time. Preparing me for what He wanted to do. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In the rest of that passage we see that Paul is reminding the Church in Rome that despite all the suffering, despite all the problems, despite what they tend to see going on around them, God is constantly working to bring about the good in each of us. His purpose is to draw us closer to Him, and to ultimately bring about good things.
I didn’t want to return to Dayton, but as I thought and prayed, I was able to see how God had been preparing me for this. God has also been preparing you for this church too. Each of us has a life story, things, both good and bad, that have happened to us along the way. They can either sit there and be forgotten history, they can be a nagging pain in our emotional well being...or they can be redeemed, used by God to draw you closer to Him and push forward His Kingdom.
The reality of a church plant is that I cannot do this by myself. I don’t have the money. I don’t have the connections. I don’t have time and talents necessary to do this by myself. This shouldn’t be a one man show...It can’t be a one man show. My past has made me who I am and plays into this church, but your past does too. The hurts and pains and baggage plays into this as well as your talents and time and treasures.
God wants to do something great in our community, and I believe He wants to use us to do that. There are hurts that need healed. There are lost that need found. And we are the ones whom God is calling to do it.
There is no such thing as not gifted enough or not talented enough...God has not made a habit of using the most gifted and talented...he hasn’t used the ones with the most time and the most money...There are only two things God looks for...willingness and sacrifice.
Are you willing to do what He calls us to do?
Are you willing to sacrifice to reach it?
But pretty early on Tom started attending. He showed up on Father’s Day with his daughter who wanted her Daddy to come to church with her. So he came to church and just never left. Over the next few years, Tom and I developed a friendship that I cherish. I was able to have dinner with him and his family just a few weeks ago as we passed through Kansas City.
When I first met Tom he hadn’t set foot in a church for more than 39 years. He wasn’t sure he wanted anything to do with God, but he kept coming back. I can count maybe 5 times he missed church in all the time I knew him, and one of those was because he had a kidney transplant.
A year or so in I was sharing the Gospel with him, I was using the bridge illustration as I talked with him about the Gospel. When I asked him where he felt he was on the diagram...still a ways away from God...ready to take the step across the bridge...he said, “I think I am down the block!”
This surprised me because I really felt he was close, but then he said, “But when I first came here I probably wasn’t even in the state!”
Then he said, “Have you seen that blue pillow I have hanging on my garage wall?”
He bought it after his first session of dialysis because when he went the first time he had to hold his arm straight, on a hard table for several hours while the dialysis ran, and it hurt. He said, “After my transplant, I hung that pillow on the wall so that every time I pulled my truck into the garage I would be reminded where I came from and what I had overcome. I’m going to hold on to this drawing and maybe, one day, I will be able to hang it up there with the pillow.”
Fastforward a few years...Tom is helping me load my moving truck to come to Ohio. We have a short time to load the truck, but Tom has another important thing he has to go to, but asks if I will take a quick ride over to his house. Time is short, but it’s Tom and I would do anything for him. He has done almost anything for me over the past few years.
He drives me to his house and pulls into the garage. When I start to get out he grabs my arm and points to the wall in front of his truck. There, hanging on the front of the pillow, is this drawing I had made a few years earlier...I cried. I still cry when I think about it.
While nothing else seemed to work in Pleasant Hill...Tom had come to faith.
When we put our stories together...when we use the time, talents, and treasures God has given us...we get to see some amazing things. We get to see people like Tom come into the church at 39 years, find meaning and purpose and a vital relationship with God. Tom and his entire family now attend church, they are active, and Tom is leading up a multi-denominational group of people that provides services for hurting, broken people. For single mothers, for the poor of the community.
When I had dinner with him he said, “I took what you taught me about serving and caring for people and have expanded it.”
I hope everyone of you gets a Tom. Because there are thousands of Toms right here in Huber Heights who need to hear God’s message of love and forgiveness and we get the privilege of taking it to them.