Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Let's Start Singing

This week I posted a pastoral letter to my church. 

In the middle of the letter, I shared about the moment Lewis and Clark climbed the Rocky Mountains to the headwaters of the Missouri River expecting to find on the other side the headwaters of the Columbia River and their route to the Pacific.  Instead, rugged, snow-capped, mapless mountains stretched out before them.  

I used this moment in history as a metaphor for where we are as a church.  We have invested greatly in preparing for God's future, but the future we expect is not what we see.  Instead, we find difficult, mapless obstacles lying before us.

After Sunday's letter, I found this beautiful quote from Wendell Berry.  I want to share it because it speaks to me about where we are as a church.  

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do 
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings."

Where are we as a church?  This is our singing moment.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.   

Monday, October 30, 2017

The State of the Church Letter 2017

[At the end of October, I prepare a pastoral letter for my church, First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia.  I preached this letter on Sunday, October 29, 2017.]

To the saints in Cornelia, Georgia worshipping as First Baptist Church who are faithful in Christ Jesus:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am writing to you today as a preacher and missionary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the last 26 years, serving as your pastor for the last 7 years.  I am humbled and honored to bring this state of the church message to you this morning.  

When I stood at this pulpit on the last Sunday of October 2016, I brought you this key message:  The state of First Baptist Cornelia is strong, dynamic, and forward focused.  

By 2016, we had spent 5 years envisioning God’s future together – working together to create a culture and organization as a church to love the world as God loves us.  By October we were debt free and had stepped out in faith to hire our third full time staff member focusing on children’s ministry and outreach.  We were positioned to see outward results after years of spiritual and internal growth and progress.  

Then, we didn’t.  We struggled with change.  We lost our focus but we worked hard and kept ourselves together.  

In these moments, I found myself frustrated and weary.  The outward, attractional results which I-too-often use to measure my own and our church’s successes did not equal my expectations.  

Maybe you have felt the same way.  

As I have prayed and reflected on this moment in our history as a church, I am aware that the state of the church at large has changed greatly – even in the last 5 years.  The playing field on which we do church is not the same.  This passage from my friend Mark Tidsworth’s introduction to his book, SHIFT:  Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church, paints a picture of our moment in history.  

“The church as-we-have-known-it is over.  Even in the most culturally traditional and isolated places in the country, the culture which collaborated with Christian Churches is shifting.  Many are fleeing the traditional denominationally based churches for 2 options:

1.  The largest churches in their denomination.  These faith communities still have resources to sustain church-as-we-have-known-it.  Often they will collect church refugees from mid-size or small churches who cannot sustain their way of being church.  This stream of recruits to a now older expression of Christianity grows ever smaller as people age, or walk away.

2.  Mega-churches.  Many mega churches are growing, along with their satellite locations, turning into a Christian franchise movement."  This way of doing church – high energy worship and high impact environments and programs – has become the traditional form of church for many younger church members.  

As pastor, I have led us on a journey of prayer and preparation for God’s future.   We have read church future books together.  We have prayed together.  We have dreamed together.  We worked to make many of the shifts Mark mentions in his book:  focusing on missional culture, discipleship development and worship innovation.  

Yet, we still feel the frustration that our changes are not enough and wonder if something else is missing.   

As a pastoral leader, I find myself at a loss too.  We have entered a place in the history of our church that no one could prepare me in seminary.  We have come to a point where there is no clear direction – no secret sauce, no get-big-quick pill to take.  All of our 130 years of Being the People of God in Cornelia has brought us to this point – but there is no clear road map even for the next 5 years – let alone the next 30 years.  I am reminded of a key event event from history.  

In 1804 the Lewis and Clark Expedition began their journey up the Missouri River to find an overland route across the new Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean.   When they reached the headwaters of the Missouri River, they climbed the Rocky Mountains with the expectation of seeing the Columbia River on the other side.  Instead of the Columbia River, though, they discovered MORE MOUNTAINS as far as they could see. This journey would be harder than they expected.  There were no maps; they would have make their own, discover their own routes, listen and respond quickly.

As a church, I sense that we have climbed to the top of our Rocky Mountains.  We have come as far as we know to come – depending on the information and resources we had at our disposal:  new pastor, good facilities, re-engaged organization, strong fellowship, good staff, high-quality worship.  And still - as we get to this point – we realize that the route ahead will be harder than we expected.  There is no map forward.  Instead, it will require us to dig deep into ourselves, our faith in God, and trust in this fellowship.  

In this new world – we have several resources from our past to strengthen us for the journey ahead.  We are a strong, committed congregation.  We are not afraid of hard work.  We have a strong foundation – we are debt free, we have a strong reserve fund, we have faithful givers.  We have the provisions we need for the journey.  We have a beautiful facility which is used every week to make our community better and to announce the Kingdom of God.  We are a missional people who sacrificially give ourselves in doing and telling the Good News of Jesus.  We are a praying people seeing God move in people’s lives all over the world.  

With these resources, God has prepared us to cross into our unknown future.  This new expedition will first require a different way of measuring our results.  We will no longer be able to measure ourselves by the work of the other churches around us.  Every church is making their own way through this moment – each one is different.  God will measure our journey by our faithfulness more than our attendance records.  

This expedition will also require a new way of praying for our future.  God placed the powerful prayer of Paul to the Ephesians 3 on my heart months ago.  I have been praying this prayer for us ever since.  Ephesians 3:14-21 (NRSV) says:

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,[g] 15 from whom every family[h] in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen

This is my Prayer for First Baptist Church, Cornelia, GA:  

1. God to strengthen us internally as a church.

Paul prays that the Ephesians will be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit from the inside.  We don’t need the brute strength of a powerful church to make it into this future.  Instead, we need the glorious inner strength of God’s Spirit – pulling us together as one body, one church.  We cannot make this journey on our own!  Without the Holy Spirit working from the inside out – we will fail.  

2. God to indwell each of us – rooting us deeply in God’s love.  

This new future requires us to plant our feet firmly on love.  In order to be a people rooted so deeply in love, God’s Spirit must indwell each of us.  We can’t depend just on the pastor or staff.  Our future needs each of us immersed in the glorious love of Jesus.  Without this love, we will not be able to be open to the new people God will bring out way.  

3. God to grow us in knowledge of God’s Word and the mysteries of God.

We might have entered into an expedition into a future and a land that feels uncertain and unfamiliar – yet, we do have a road map, don’t we?  God’s Word is more needed today and every day.  We need to immerse ourselves in reading, studying and discussing God’s Word and the mysteries of God.  You see, while we don’t know where we are going, God does.  We worship a wild, uncontrollable God – who is bigger and wider and larger than we ever can imagine.  God invites us to test Him – and we will find our firm footing.  

4. God’s love to surpass everything else that we do or say.

Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say we as a church will be measured by the number of members we have or the amount of money we have.  Instead, Jesus says, the world will know we are his followers by the amount of our love.  Paul knows that in the end, what the world needs from churches is the Love of God.  This love needs to surpass everything else that we do.  So – while we tweak our ministries to visitors or preaching or music or children’s ministries or youth ministries or senior adult ministries – what God (and the world) ultimately, wants to see in us in His love surpassing everything else that we do.  

This is my prayer for us as a church and as individuals.  If we allow these 4 prayers to live in us – each of us – God’s future will be realized.  God’s power will be at work among us accomplishing more in and through us that we can ever ask or imagine. 

So – let me share with you how we get there.   How do we continue a journey that just turned harder than we imagined?  We start with ourselves.  

You see, this church will not be able to reach her God-given future without the intentional, faithful work of you and me.    

Imagine sitting here next year – in these pews.  Who is here?  What do you imagine happening within us as a church?  What is God doing through our church in the community?  What is happening around our campus?  Where are we investing ourselves in the world?  Where are we succeeding?  

What does this success look like?

Did you imagine big enough?  Guess what - God wants to accomplish more that even that! 

“God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” Eph. 3:20(MSG)

And it begins with you and me.  You see, what God accomplishes in us as a church begins with the spiritual faithfulness of each of us – pastor, staff, deacons, lay leaders, and our whole congregation.  God will only accomplish as much in us as a whole as we allow God to accomplish in each one of us as individuals.  

So, now I want you to imagine what God is doing in your life on the last Sunday of October next year.  

How are you loving God more this time next year?  Are you attending or leading a Sunday school class or life group? Are you trusting more? Are you praying more?  Are you speaking kinder words? 
  
Now how are you loving other people more next year?  Are you forgiving people who hurt you?  Are you listening to people and sharing your faith?  Are you hosting friends in your home?  

Yes, there are many things we as a church leaders can do to help our church reach her future.  But in the end, the lesson of the last year has been – that our future truly lives in the spiritual lives of each of our members.  

You and I carry our church’s future in our hearts and lives. 

The past has carried us to this point.  The present seems hard and difficult.  But the future is still to be written.  Let us pray this prayer together and believe God’s word to us to be true.  And together, let us see what God will do.

And in the words of Paul to the Ephesians:

Glory to God in the church!
Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!
Glory down all the generations!
Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes! Eph 3:21(MSG)

With thanks for the opportunity to walk this expedition with each of you, I am, Your Pastor …

Eric

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Beautiful Feet


Preached on October 8, 2017 at First Baptist Cornelia
Scripture:  Romans 10:5-15

The reminder stood ready whenever the opportunity came her way.  I didn’t know it about it until after she died.   Like most of my funerals, I asked her family if I could borrow her Bible while I prepared my remarks.  I found the faded bulletin clipping taped on the front page of her Bible.

By the color of the paper and the old mimeograph quality, she had cut the clipping out long ago.  The various colored ink markings underlining words and verses publicized how often through the years she had returned to the words.  This was not just a passing curiosity a pastor distributed one Sunday, it was a trusted guide for decades of faith sharing.  

Everyone who knew Mathilda Scroggs, knew she loved Jesus.  More than just loving Jesus, though, Mathilda was driven by that love to share the good news of Jesus with people she met.  If she ever helped you secure a loan at her bank, then you know she bought and gave you the gift of a Bible when you signed your mortgage papers.  She wanted to make sure a Bible was the first thing to fill your new home.  

Sharing Jesus was vitally important to Mathilda.  That’s why long ago, after a sermon no one remembers, Mathilda cut out the Roman Road to Salvation outline and taped it into her Bible.  Mathilda knew leading someone to the Lord was more than the Pastor’s job or the youth minister's job – it was the duty and task of everyone who followed Jesus.  And she used the old clipping as a reminder of scriptures she could share with people she loved enough to share Jesus.  

Mathilda Scroggs had beautiful feet.  She was an evangelist.   

Because we are saved – by saying YES to Jesus - God calls us to tell others about Jesus too.  

Jesus Saves

During the Roman Empire, Romans built roads to connect their distant lands with their Capital City.  These roads also allowed the Gospel to spread quickly as missionaries went out from Jerusalem to the rest of the world.  Roman Roads were built to last and you can still walk on some of these roads today – 2000 years later.  

Our passage today from Romans 10 is a powerful stop on the Roman Road to Salvation.  Like the literal roads so many years ago, this road to Salvation reveals specific scriptures in Paul’s letter to the Romans to lead us to salvation in Jesus.

I remember when my dad first shared with me these scriptures from Romans.  I was an early teenager.  I accepted Christ as my Savior and Lord when I was 8 years old, years earlier.  I had heard someone mention a Roman Road to Salvation – but I didn’t know what it was.  My dad picked up a napkin and began to write down scripture passages.  The Roman Road starts at the very beginning of 
creation.

Romans 1:20-21:  "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened." 

The path of salvation begins with acknowledging God as the Creator of everything.  The earth – and you and I - began in perfect order.  In this perfect creation – we were created in the image of God.  God looks at us – his creation – through the eyes of love and purpose.  The story of creation invites us to accept our humble position in God's created order and purpose.

Unfortunately – as humans created in God’s image – we choOse not to accept our position as creation and seek to be take control over our own lives.

This is the next step on the Roman road – sin taking control of our own lives.  Romans 3:23:  “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” 

At the very beginning of creation – humanity chose to betray the love and creation of God.  We cannot blame it on Adam and Eve.  Sin remains a decision each of us makes.  Sin is not something passed down through our DNA.  Our bodies are not sin.  Instead, as created beings, we choose to walk away from God’s plan, purposes and love for us.  Paul says it clearly – all have sinned.  Every preacher, pimp, president, and murderer. Little sins, big sins – sexual sins and private sins – God looks on every sin as the same betrayal seen in the Garden of Eden.  

The ground at the cross is even.  There are no little sins or big sins in God’s eyes.  God does not measure them – they are all betrayal of his love.  Everyone sins.  

But there’s Good News!  This is where the Road begins to move out of the dark valley into the highlands of grace.  

Romans 5:8:  "But God demonstrates His love toward us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

I often miss the true power of this verse.  While, we are ugly, unfaithful, un-loyal, betrayers of the Creator and the creation – Jesus died for us.  This is GRACE.  This is the Gospel.  This is the power that changes the world. Changes lives.  Changes you.

Jesus didn’t wait for us to turn our lives around.  
Jesus didn’t wait for us to acknowledge him as Creator or Lord.  
Jesus died for the Roman centurions who crucified him.  Jesus died for the Jewish Sanhedrin that arrested him.  Jesus died for the Roman governor who sentence him.  Jesus died for the worse sinner you can name and the best preacher you’ve ever heard.  

This GRACE is the heart of the Gospel.  Without grace there is no Gospel.  There is nothing we ever add to this grace.  It stands a lone.  Jesus, God’s son, sent so that we might live – died while we wallowed in the mud of sin.  

We have one simple, vital, oftentimes difficult Task:  receive God’s grace:  Accept God’s great love and grace given to us as sinners.  

And when we do – our lives are changed.

I think of Salvation this way:  It’s like offering a beggar on the street 10 $100 bills.  It’s ours to offer, but he or she has to reach out to receive it.  

Good reaches down in the gutter of our sin and offers us love and grace – we have to reach up to receive it.  

Paul says this in Romans 6:23“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

The free gift of the love and grace of God calls us to repent of our sins – to turn from one direction and head the other way; to receive God’s free gift.  

The reality is – we don’t know the depth of our sins and our need to repent of them until we grasp the depth and power of God’s grace.  

This is when we arrive on the Road to Salvation found in Romans 10:9"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Paul tells us that something transformational happens when we acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of our lives.  We call out – we confess, we pray, we whimper, we shout – Jesus is Lord.  With “the mouth confession is made unto Salvation.”  

How we do this, when we do this – no one’s story is the same.  I made this decision in my bedroom by myself as a young boy.  For others – it happened over a long time period – a slow coming to faith.  For others – it was dramatic.

God promises us that when we do make this confession – everyone – no matter their sin, their ethnicity, their class, their education, their bank account – shall be saved.  

This is good news:  Jesus saves!  

And life with Jesus doesn’t end there – We are transformed through the continual work of God’s Grace.  Grace doesn’t stop in the baptism waters – it continues through our lives.  This is discipleship.

Romans 12:2 says:  “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Go and Tell

Paul recognizes that no one’s experience with God’s profound grace can be contained.  When we have received this Good News – we want everyone else to experience it as well. This is what Mathilda Scroggs experienced.  She was loved by and so loved Jesus – that she could not stop sharing that love with other people.  

Paul says it like this in Romans 10:14:   How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? 

The world needs evangelists and God calls all of us to be tellers of the Good News.  Evangelism comes from the Greek word for Good News.  Evangelists are simply people who tell Good News.  We don’t have to have slicked back hair or a deep, booming voice or willing to travel long distances.  We just have to be ourselves.  We simply have to be willing to care enough for others that we share our love for Jesus. 

Like all skills, we can use some simple tools to build confidence in us in how we share.  In your OOW today, I have created a simple Evangelism Toolkit (See below) for you to keep.  You can place in your Bible or keep in your car, or carry it in your purse.

On the front, you have the Roman Road to Salvation scriptures so you can share with a friend or a family member.  

On the Back I’ve given you another Gospel Talk – Called the YMCA Gospel talk based on John 3:16.  Maybe this might be easier for you to remember.

I’ve also included some really simple questions that anyone can use to start a spiritual conversation.  The greatest evangelism skill is not memorization of scripture or a loud voice – it is listening.  Listening to someone talk about their life and their spirit – and responding with care, compassion and the Gospel.  When we listen – we earn the right to share our story, our Good News.  

Finally – I’ve given you some Gospel Websites.  These are sites that can help lead a person to Jesus.  Some are simple, some are videos.  If you want to learn more about evangelism or want to help someone who’s thinking about Jesus – you can start here.  

You have Beautiful Feet

At the end of our passage today – Paul quotes Isaiah 52:7 “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  


Isaiah describes a powerful moment when a runner comes from the battlefield back to the walled city of Jerusalem after a battle.  From a long distance away, the runner begins announcing to the sentinels on the walls and to the rest of the city the results of the batter:  “Your God Reigns.  Peace has come to the city.  We have been victorious!”  

Isaiah writes:  How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

This, Paul writes, is what God calls us to do – to announce to our friends, to our neighbors, to our family, to our city – Good News, the news you have been waiting for, the news that you have longed for, the news that brings life:  Peace has come to you.  Salvation has arrived.  Jesus loves you!  

How beautiful are your feet, First Baptist Church, when you announce to the world – Jesus loves you.

God calls us to be a people of beautiful feel - People who proclaim Jesus is Lord as we serve the wounded, care for the sick, feed the hungry and shelter the stranger.  Our world needs Jesus.  And God needs people with beautiful feet to proclaim Jesus.  Will you take on the task?  

This morning – I have two specific challenges for you:

1.  If you have never accepted the grace of Jesus, repented of your sins, and confessed Jesus as Lord – then, today, Jesus invites you reach out your hand and accept it.  Will you come?

2.  If you are timid and afraid and think evangelism is for someone else, then, today, Jesus invites you to receive his power, his love and his commission:  You are being sent out as evangelists – tellers of the good news, Christians with Beautiful feet!  Today is the day – will you go?


Evangelism Tool Kit
Sunday, October 8, 2017
First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia
Dr. Eric Spivey, Pastor

The Roman Road to Salvation

1. Acknowledge God as the Creator of everything, accepting our humble position in God's created order and purpose. Romans 1:20-21

"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened." 

2.  Realize we are sinners and in need forgiveness. None are worthy.  Romans 3:23 

“For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” 

3.  Accept God’s great love and grace given to us as sinners.  Romans 5:8 

“But God demonstrates His love toward us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

4.  Repent of our sins and receive God’s free gift.  
But Romans 6:23 

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

5.  Confess Jesus Christ is Lord.   Romans 10:9-10 

“That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” 

6.  Call out to Jesus.  Romans 10:13 

“For whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” 

7. Be transformed through God’s grace (Discipleship).  Romans 12:2

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

YMCA GOSPEL TALK (John 3:16)

YOU are loved by God. “For God so loved the world…”
MAN is sinful and separated from God. “…shall not perish…”
CHRIST died on the cross as the only payment for our sin. “…that He gave His one and only Son…”
ACCEPT God’s gift of eternal life by faith. “…whoever believes in Him shall… have eternal life.”

Starting Spiritual Conversations
  1. How can I pray for you?
  2. Where are you in your spiritual pilgrimage?
  3. In your opinion, how does one become a Christian?
  4. What single thing would you like to make absolutely certain you do (if at all possible) during your lifetime?
  5. How do you know you’ll go to heaven when you die?
  6. What do you consider to be two major turning points in your life?
  7. What is the key to maintaining balance in your life?
  8. What are 2 or 3 major truths upon which you have based your decision-making?
  9. If you could know God personally, would you be interested?
  10. Have you ever read the Bible?

Gospel Presentation Websites
1.  Peace with God:  www.peacewithgod.net
2.  Steps to Life:  www.evangelismexplosion.org
3.  Beautiful Video Presentation:  www.thestoryfilm.com
4.  Powerful video presentation:  www.fallingplates.com


Monday, August 14, 2017

Get Smart: Living the Bible in Groups


Preached on August 13, 2017
First Baptist Cornelia, GA
Joshua 1:1-9

The days of Daniel were not too different from ours.  Daniel and his family and neighbors lived as Hebrew exiles in a foreign land called Babylon.  He lived in the world’s most advanced culture surrounded by the most beautiful architecture and art of the age.  The Babylonian army ruled the world with the most powerful military of the day.  The Babylonian empire stretched from horizon to horizon.

One day, Daniel and three other Israelite boys were given one of the greatest opportunities of the ancient world.  Selected because of their physical and intellectual prowess, Daniel and his friends moved into the royal palace to be taught the language and professional skills of the Babylonian bureaucracy to be sent out as its representatives.  They were to eat from the king’s table and learn under the king’s educators.

This opportunity created a crisis of faith for Daniel and his friends.  As exiles from Israel, they were raised to live in covenant with Yahweh.  As the People of God, they lived with a different set of priorities than the culture around them.  Daniel was forced to choose which of these priorities he would live by:  The priorities of the success with the Babylonian King or the priorities of faithfulness to Yahweh – the King of the world.  

We are not so different are we?  We live in the greatest empire of the age whose advanced culture spreads throughout the world.  Our armies are the greatest on the air, sea and land.  Our influence stretches across the globe.  And as free people in a free land, we are given one of the greatest opportunities of history – the opportunity to choose our own life and destiny.  And like Daniel – we are must choose the priorities of success will guide our way in the world.  

The culture of the American empire greatly influences each of us – young and old.  The power of this culture is so great that we often fail to see where God’s priorities and the cultures priorities diverge.  
This leaves us with a challenge that also faced Daniel.  How will we live in a world in which we are called to be resident aliens – in the world, but not of the world?

Peter recognized this challenge as well.  He wrote these words in his first letter:  ““Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and temporary residents not to give in to the desires of your old nature, which keep warring against you;”  

This month in worship, I’ve been preaching on the power of small groups to help us live faithful lives following Jesus.  I’ve used a different classic TV clip to introduce each topic.  Today’s topic is:  Get Smart:  Living the Bible in Groups.

Watch the Clip and see if you remember this funny sitcom of the 1960’s.  


This TV show introduced us a new kind of Television comedy – parody.  The lead character – Maxwell Smart, also known as Agent 86 – worked for a secret US government counter-intelligence agency called Control.  Smart and his partner – Agent 99 – investigated and thwarted various threats to the world.  The challenge and irony – and the place of comedy -came from the lead character’s bumbling nature and his demands to do things by the book.  Get Smart had two meanings – first, those who wished to do harm to the country wanted to “Get Smart” – to get the agent who keeps thwarting their plans.  But – there was this other idea – That Maxwell smart, agent 86 – needed to get smart in order to really excel at his job.  

It’s this second idea that helps us think of the role small group’s play in our spiritual lives as we live in a culture drawing us away from Jesus instead of towards.  Small groups help us to “Get Smart.”  
Living as followers of Jesus in this culture or any culture, requires us to commit ourselves to understanding, immersing ourselves in, and living out God’s Word to Get Smart.    

The Hebrew Challenge:  Staying faithful to God while living in the Promised Land.
Getting Smart is how Daniel was able to choose to follow the ways of Yahweh while in exile in Babylon.  Centuries before he ever stepped foot in the palace, his ancestors took God’s advice to engrain God’s Word in their lives as they moved into the Promised Land.  

This is the challenge God offers to Joshua in our passage today.  After 40 years of being transformed from slaves into the People of God, the Hebrews are poised to walk into the coveted Promised Land.  Moses has died and his lieutenant Joshua stands ready to lead them.  God instructs Joshua on how to face the greatest challenge of the Promised Land.  

God is not worried about the armies across the Jordan River. God is not worried about the military technology.  God is not worried about city walls or the weariness of battle.  God’s greatest concern is that when the People of Israel move into the Promised Land – they will forget him.  God – rightfully it turns out – worries that when the People of Israel settle among others with different cultures and different gods and different lives – they will forget all that happened in the wilderness – the giving of the 10 commandments and the law, the food and provisions God provided, and most importantly the covenant God made with them.  

Because God knows what will happen, God gives Joshua and the people instructions for how to stay tuned to Yahweh, the ways of Yahweh, and the presence of Yahweh.  Listen to these instructions:  
This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.

To be successful in the Promised Land, God tells the People of Israel to engrain God’s Word into their daily lives.  At this moment, there is no written or complete Bible.  There is only the stories and laws of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and now Moses.  This book is seen for the first time as sacred and holy.  These words have power.  

So, God says:  Speak these words, discuss in your everyday lives.

So, God says:  mediate on these words night and day – listening to them, reflecting on them, and letting them become part of your life.  

When God’s Word becomes engrained in their lives, God says, the people will be able to act and live according to them. And when they live according to them, they will find success.

This is what happens with Daniel centuries after these words were written to Joshua.  Daniel and his friends grew up with God’s word ingrained in their lives.  They grew up learning and memorizing and mediating on them night and day.  These words became more than words – they became God’s Living Word in them.

So – when Daniel and friends are chosen by the Babylonians to live in the royal palace, they are able to make choices based on God’s Word.  They choose not to eat from the King’s table. They choose not to worship the King’s gods.  They are able to do all of this because God’s Word lives in them.   

The words of God to Joshua guide us as we face the challenges of living in a world and culture which contradicts God’s way.  In order for us to live faithful lives to Jesus today – God’s Word must become as ingrained in our lives as it was in Daniels.  

Small groups allow God’s Word to be ingrained in our lives.  

Here’s what happens in small groups that allow God’s Word to become engrained in our lives.   
Small groups allow us to learn God’s Word together.  When we gather together in groups less than 10, we have the opportunity to not just hear a lesson about God’s Word, but to let God’s Word shape us.  When one person teaches a passage of scripture we assume it is right interpretation.  Yet, when we study God’s word in small groups, we hear different takes on scripture – where other life experiences allow someone else to look at it differently.  With the Holy Spirit engaging us, God’s Word becomes more than words on a page - It becomes ours.  

Small groups give us accountability in the discipline of reading God’s Word.  When we make a covenant as a small group to read a certain amount of scripture or to study a particular passage that accountability forces us to follow through with our decision.  

Small groups allow God’s Word to be ingrained in our lives.  

We see this truth in Daniel’s story.  Daniel is not alone.  He is in a group of 4 young men.  We know the others by their Babylonian names:  Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego.  This small group of Hebrew boys were shaped by God’s Word and were used by God to reveal the presence of God to an empire completely foreign to God’s ways.  

Together, these boys faced down kings and fiery furnaces and lion’s dens.  And it all began centuries earlier with  instructions to mediate and Read God’s Word.    

God want us to have tremendous impact on our community and world as individuals and as a church.  The story of Daniel reveals that God’s cultural influence will not just happen over this year, but in the years and decades to come.  God’s influence through us will begin when we also make the decision to allow God’s Word to be worked out together and lived out in the world.  

This is what God wants for you, for me, and for this church.  It will happen when we decide together to engrain our lives with God’s Word.  Let us Pray.  

Singing a New Song

Preached on July 16, 2017
First Baptist Church, Cornelia, GA

I’m learning to listen more.  That’s a hard lesson for a preacher.  

Over the last week I’ve experienced my 8th Camp Agape at FBC.  This was great camp year:  We had great leaders, great counselors and youth volunteers, and wonderful campers.  There was something different about me this year that allowed me to watch and listen more.  Maybe I was more rested, maybe I was more familiar of the camp – for whatever reason, this year I was a able to watch and listen more – to God and to the experiences of the camp.  As I listened, I heard a powerful God lesson through our campers, counselors and leaders – a spiritual lesson for me that also speaks to our church, our community and even our country.  

Camp AGAPE does not happen in a vacuum.  Instead, it happens in the context of our community and world.  This year, as I watched our campers – black, white, and Hispanic – interact with our diverse set of counselors – I witnessed a beautiful expression of the Kingdom of God where God’s AGAPE is lived out equally.  Boys and girls of different races and backgrounds played together, cared for one another, and fought for one another.  Teenagers from our church and from our community experienced community together as they served and played.

At some point this week, I placed this beautiful picture of the Kingdom being lived out in our church alongside the tragic divisions that have besieged our country over the last year.  There were the tragic shootings last summer in Louisiana and Texas of both unarmed black men and police officers. There was the divisive politics of last fall that appealed to the lesser angels of our national life.  There has been the rise of the far right and the far left that have resulted in violence and terror in our nation.
Unfortunately, this year is not the first time we have heard the sounds of mindless violence, disregard for life, racial bigotry, and discord. To a great degree, we've heard this sound before: we've heard this tune before, we've heard this song before. 

To those of us who are frustrated with our world and who desire something more, the beauty and lessons of Camp AGAPE gives us a new conviction.  We stand convinced that hope lies in the One who sits on the throne of God’s Kingdom. We gather this morning in the glow of Camp AGAPE with the conviction that there is a new song rising. 

John writes in Revelation:  “And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll / and to open its seals, / because you were slain, / and with your blood you purchased for God / persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). 

And they sang a new song 
“Sing unto the Lord a new song” the psalmist write.  In order to sing the new, we must recognize that the old song already stands played out. 

We have all heard the old song—the song of hatred, sin, racism, intolerance, fear, division, strife, and brokenness. 

We have all heard the old song—the song of moral relativism, cultural decadence, spiritual apathy, and ecclesiastical lukewarm-ness. 

We have all heard the old song—from Louisiana to Dallas, from Portland, OR to Alexandria, VA, we all heard the old song of lives prematurely taken, dreams shattered, communities broken, and the collective gasp of a nation suffocated by despair. 
We have all heard the old song. 

But praise God, we gather as followers of Christ to declare that we are not the people of the old song. We are the voices of the new song.

We are people of the new song because we understand the following truths: 

  • Today's complacency is tomorrow's captivity. 
  • We are what we tolerate. 
  • There is no such thing as “comfortable Christianity.” 
  • And silence is not an option. 

For that matter, we stand as a choir of the redeemed to declare prophetically—not out of the womb of emotional exuberance, but by the impetus of God's Spirit—that this generation carries an anointing. An anointing to do what? To sing a new song. 

We are here to declare the following: there is a new song arising. This new song will not be sung exclusively by a black chorus, a white ensemble, a Latino band, or an Asian soloist. This new song will be sung by a multi-ethnic kingdom culture choir washed by the blood of the Lamb. 
Therefore, let us be clear. To the singers of the old song; to those who raise the volume of hatred and discord; to the spirits of captivity, violence, bigotry, inequality and injustice: we raise our voices, and in perfect harmony, in the key of grace, we sing the following: “For every Pharaoh, there must be a Moses. For every Goliath, there must be a David. For every Nebuchadnezzar, there must be a Daniel. For every Jezebel, there must be an Elijah. For every Herod, there must be a Jesus. And for every devil that rises up against us, there is a mightier God that rises up for us.” 

What is the new song? 
Isaiah Writes:  “In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; / God makes salvation / its walls and ramparts” (Isa. 26:1). 
When we as followers of Jesus choose to sing this new song, our nation and world will be strong. 
What is the new song? The new song elevates the lyrics of imago dei. The creation poem in Genesis states it beautifully:  So God created humankind[e] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

If Simply stated, the new song will push back on violence, hatred, and bigotry by amplifying the eternal truth that all of us—without exception—carry the image of God. 

What is the new song? The new song exposes the light of truth, love, grace, and compassion. It empowers us to live out Matthew 5:14-16 as light on the hill. It exhorts us to "be light" in the midst of darkness, for when light stands next to darkness, light always wins. 

What is the new song? The new song invites us into confession.  It exhorts us to execute 2 Chronicles 7:14: “[I]f my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

What is the new song? The new song engages us with the rhythmic truth that the only agenda that can heal and reconcile America is an agenda of unity in the Body of Christ.  It will not be the agenda of the donkey or the elephant that sings a new song. The only agenda that can reconcile this nation is the agenda of the Lamb of God. 

Silence is not an option 
The lessons of Camp AGAPE cannot stay silent.  We sing a new song because silence is not an option. 

  • Silence is not an option when innocent lives are taken. 
  • Silence is not an option when our African American and Hispanic brothers and sisters live in fear of those sworn to protect them. 
  • Silence is not an option when men and women who risk their lives daily to keep us from harm stand slaughtered by hatred. 
  • Silence is not an option when the benefactors of division continue to advance a narrative full of dichotomies instead of juxtaposing truth with love. 

For this country, this community and our world - it's time for the new song. It's time to reconcile Billy Graham's message of salvation in Christ with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's march for justice. 
It's time to sing the song that says, “Love those that hate you. Bless those that curse you. Forgive those that offend you. Heal those that wound you. Feed those that starve you. Be light; change the world.” 

Finally, my brothers and sisters of First Baptist Cornelia, let's do this in light of our lessons from Camp AGAPE.  We cannot leave these lessons on the field of camp and move on as if we never heard them.  We cannot forget the lessons of Camp and say they are only for a week in the summer.  We cannot separate “our kids” from “those kids.”

Now is the time for a new song. Now is the time to sing the new song. Now is the time to raise the volume of truth, justice, love, and grace. Now is the time to take racism captive and unleash the unity all hell fears. 

Let us sing in one accord. Let us sing with the comforter conducting, while goodness and mercy provide the vocals. Let us sing. 

Sing, for America; sing, for Cornelia; sing, for Habersham; sing for the world – because we all need a new song.   

Sing and walk like Enoch. Sing and believe like Abraham. Sing and dress like Joseph. Sing and stretch like Moses. Sing and shout like Joshua. Sing and dance like David. Sing and fight like Gideon. Sing and pray like Daniel. Sing and build like Nehemiah. Sing and live like Jesus. 

Sing and do justice. Sing and love mercy. Sing and walk humbly before God. Sing and be light. For when light stands next to darkness, light always wins.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  
*Adapted from an original sermon by Samuel Rodriguez

Thursday, November 10, 2016

FBC Cornelia State of the Church 2016

To all the saints in Christ Jesus known as First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  The words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi come to my mind as I write this letter.  

“ I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from our first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

I am honored to be your pastor and to share in the Gospel story of this church.  One of the greatest days in my life was the Sunday in May 2010 when you called me to serve you.  Over these last 6 years, I have celebrated with you the beauty of life and joys of our church together.  We have laughed often together.  At the same time, we have walked together through the pain of death and hurt. We have cried together too many times. 

Together, we love this big, messy family of Christians called First Baptist Cornelia.  Out of love, I want to spend our moments together this morning, speaking to you about the state of our church.  There are several ways we can measure the state of our church.  

We measure First Baptist Cornelia in relation to the rapidly changing religious culture of our day.  Church researchers tell us that 8,000 to 10,000 churches in America will close their doors this year and 35% of the millennial generation (35 and below) are unaffiliated with any kind of Christian church compared to 11% of us over 70.  Compared to what is happening in culture – our very survival and our thriving children’s ministry is a sign of the dynamic work of God among us.  

We can also measure the state of First Baptist Cornelia in relation to the Global Church.  The fact is that while we don’t see it - God’s Global church is growing faster today than it has in decades.  The Jesus movement is exploding in places like Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  Compared to this radical explosion of the Holy Spirit, our faithful obedience in the same direction looks subdued.  Yet, our partnerships in Santa Emilia, Nicaragua connect us to the energy of the Global Church. 

Finally, we can measure the state of our church through statistics.  Statistics draw the outline of the picture God is painting of First Baptist Cornelia, but they can never provide the color.  For example, we can record the number of people who attend Sunday School each week, but we have to hear the testimonies of individuals to see the true spiritual growth in their lives.  

The greatest change in our traditional church metrics over the last 5 years has to do with church attendance.  15 years ago church attendance numbers gave us an accurate picture of the number of engaged members in a congregation.  This is no longer the case.  

Over the last five years, all churches - new, old, traditional, and contemporary - including ours – have seen the regular attendance in worship drop significantly.  This attendance drop is not due primarily to less members – instead, it has to do with the attendance patterns of our members.  15 year ago, regular worship attenders came to worship 3-4 times/month.  Today, the average engaged, active member of a church attends worship 1-2/month.  This means that in order to maintain the same worship attendance numbers as we had even 15 years ago we must double the actively attending members – just to keep the same worship attendance.  

For example, last year, First Baptist Cornelia had 398 active members and we averaged 175 in attendance on Sunday mornings.  No one is more aware of this trend than I am as I preach each Sunday.  Our staff has been aware of this trend for a couple of years and have worked to engage our membership in new ways to help us get to church.  

So, while the changing culture, global church, and statistics give us an outline of the state of First Baptist Cornelia at the end of 2016, they do not tell us the whole story of God’s movement among us.  

To get a more complete picture of the state of our church, we need to hear the stories of God’s work among us. 

1. Story of Survivors:  
When I look around the sanctuary today looking for stories of God’s work among us, I see a church filled with survivor stories.  The first decade of this century was difficult.  The building of our Family Ministry Center challenged us in ways we often want to forget.  Conflict made it difficult to trust and without trust nothing could be accomplished.  

Yet, in spite of these challenges, you did not give up on God’s future.  Your bravery at calling David Turner to be an intentional interim for four years cannot be overlooked.  Your wisdom in giving your pastor search committee freedom to follow God’s leading and do things differently should be applauded.  And your trust in God to allow a young pastor to lead you into new and uncharted waters is one of your strengths.  

God has been at work among us over the last 10 years rebuilding trust among our fellowship, growing a competent, experienced and faithful staff, and showing us there is nothing we cannot do when we depend on Jesus.  

2. Story of Visionaries
Besides stories of survival, the state of our church story also includes the story of our visionaries.  Beginning in 2012, First Baptist Cornelia began to dream about our future through our Walking by Faith Process.  For over 2.5 years, we sat together in small groups and town halls, in work teams and initiative groups casting a vision for our future.  Vision work is hard work because it invites us to look beyond our present to see a future that is yet here.  Often in those sessions, we used the year 2017 as our target future year.  

As we sit just a few weeks away from 2017, it thrills me to see that our vision for our Unified Mission Offering and Fund has arrived and is already guiding our mission life.  It thrills me to see the new focused ministry of our deacons which we only dream about, but could never imagine 2 years ago.  
First Baptist Cornelia does not wait for the future to arrive.  Instead, we pray and prepare and work for God’s vision to materialize. This story of visionaries is happening right now!  

3. Story of Workers
The state of our church also includes the story of our workers.  I tell prospective members of our church to be prepared to work in God’s Kingdom.  My mom who has been in lots of different Baptist churches throughout her life and always tells people with just a little pride about our church:  “This church works harder than any church I’ve ever been in.”  

It’s true!  From our dishwashers on Wednesday nights to our children’s ministry volunteers today – we are a strong church because of the many ways each of you serve God through First Baptist.  The part I love about this – this is not useless work.  You are working out of your strengths and abilities in places where your efforts matters. 

4. Story of Missionaries
The state of our church would not be complete without the story of our missionaries.  Not the people we support through SBC or CBF channels – but all of you.  Through your hard work, God is transforming Cornelia, Georgia and the world.  I have to hold back my pride when I tell friends about Camp Agape, Camp Mosaic, the Cornelia Soup Kitchen, the Cold Weather Shelter, and our children’s and youth ministries.  

You have heard God’s Great Commission and responded. At First Baptist Cornelia – missions is not something that we do, it is who we are.  This statement is now more reality than dream.   

5. Story of Disciples
Finally, we can’t forget the story of the disciples among us.  FBC is a community of faithful followers of Jesus who have decided to walk a long obedience in the same direction together.  A couple of weeks ago, I had a Sunday School teacher tell me excitedly about his class. The class had struggled together over a certain topic one Sunday.  As they struggled the class gave permission for each person to have their own opinions and ideas.  Rather than the teacher giving all the answers, God worked through the spiritual walks of each man and woman there.  This class is evidence to spiritual growth we see happening in our church.

Our love for one another and the world grows as our love for Jesus grows.  Simply, we are loving God and loving other more today than we have before.  

When view the whole picture:  The state of First Baptist Cornelia is strong, dynamic, and forward focused.  

Still, we have challenges ahead.  Here are our two most immediate challenges:

1. Facilities Usage
Through the vision, hard work, and sacrifices of many of us, God has blessed this congregation with a beautiful, functional and well maintained church campus.  AND … We are debt free.  

Our next task remains configuring these buildings for our ministry for the next decade.  Our facility, like our church, must be an evolving organism shifting to meet the needs of the next 5 years of ministry rather than the last 5 years.  

At the moment, several committees are meeting together to evaluate some short term solutions to meet the facility needs of children’s ministry.  Our Media Center Ministry team is working to transform our library into a multi-functional space for study and fellowship for individuals and groups.  

Soon, we will begin discussing longer term shifts in our facilities.  While all of this change creates some anxiety – let me assure us - this is a good thing.  We are not rearranging chairs on a sinking ship, we are building a ship to carry us to the future.  First Baptist Cornelia is healthy enough and forward thinking enough to be preparing for the future God has in store for us.  

2. Congregational Systems
The second challenge ahead of us will be building and strengthening our congregational systems – the things we do on a regular basis to communicate, reach out to, and care for one another.  Our new deacon focuses which were outlined in this month’s newsletter is one step in this direction.  Yet, we still have farther to go.

We need a stronger system for active and engaged prayer as a foundation of all we do.  
We need a stronger system for congregational inreach and outreach – letting people know they are loved.  
We need to get better at assimilating new people into our fellowship – helping people find their place.
We need a more defined discipleship process that invites everyone to participate.

Over the next year, we will be working on these systems as we strengthen our programs as a church to help us achieve our vision.  

The state of First Baptist Cornelia is strong, dynamic, and forward focused.  

We are working on the challenges that face us.  Yet – I think there is one more key ingredient for us to reach our full Kingdom potential:  Absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit.  

In the second chapter of Acts, a small remnant of Jesus followers waited and prayed in a cramped house in Jerusalem.  They were hopeful, yet uncertain, of what would happen next.  

When they least expected it, the power of the Holy Spirit rushed into this cramped space like a violent wind.  The spirit filled the entire house and each one of them empowering them to change the world.  When the spirit was done – they left the room empowered by the Holy Spirit preaching about Jesus in multiple languages.  The impossible occurred because they allowed themselves to be empowered for the ministry in front of them.  

This is the Good News for us today:  First Baptist Cornelia will accomplish God’s purposes because we are empowered for ministry.  

God is already doing great things among us through the work of the Holy Spirit.  How much more can God accomplish through us when completely depend on the Holy Spirit.  

I am certain God has even greater things in store for us.  So - let’s keep praying and preparing so that as God moves, we will be empowered for the new ministries set before us.

With much love and gratitude, I am your pastor – 

Eric

Thanks be to God.  Amen