Thinking about Our Church

We are a group of baptized believers in and disciples of Jesus Christ who have voluntarily joined hearts and hands together to accomplish several purposes God has laid down for us in Scripture—worship, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and evangelism.  We do well to take inventory of whom and what we have, what we’re doing to accomplish our purposes and whom we’re trying to reach.

Let’s think a bit about whom we’re trying to reach.  We live in a rural county with lots of wide-open spaces around us. Regardless, within just a few short miles, we have several newer and older communities full of people.  Most of these people are not wealthy. Few of them are intact, nuclear families–many are single-parent families because of divorce, and many are blended families. Many of the adults around us drive away from our community to work or play and only return home to sleep, so they’re hard to find at home much of the time. All of these people, of course, fall into two categories: those who are saved and those who are lost.  Those who are saved need a church home, and we’d like to be a place where they can plug in and serve as well as find a place of fellowship, worship and discipleship, participating with us in our effort to reach the world with the Gospel.  Those who are lost need to find Jesus, the Savior, Who died to pay the price their sin requires.  Then, once they’ve been reconciled to God, they’ll have the same basic need as the saved people we’re trying to reach.

Let’s think in a little more detail about the lost people around us.  As I see them, they fall into three primary categories: indifferent, searching and religious.  Those who are indifferent never go to church and don’t care anything about God or religion.  Those who are searching are likely under conviction or, at least, have had their spiritual sensitivities stirred and heightened by some event(s) in their lives.  Unfortunately, they are often led astray by false teachers, thinking they can find the answers to their hearts’ felt need in “spirituality” rather than in Jesus Himself.  Those who are religious may attend church regularly but without a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus.

Let’s think more about the saved people around us.  As I see them, they, too, fall into three primary categories: backslidden, religious and hungry/thirsty.  Because they’re children of God, these people have the advantage of having the Holy Spirit resident in their lives, and His job is to convict and to direct, and we have His assistance in encouraging these folks to do what is right.  Those who are backslidden, though they’ve been saved, have left their first love.  They rarely, if ever, attend church, and their hearts have become hard toward the things of God.  There is little noticeable difference between them and those who are lost, and we may sometimes think that they are, in fact, lost.  Those who are religious are active in church activities, but their hearts are not in it.  Seeing, they do not see the glory of Jesus and His wonderful salvation.  Church attendance and Christian service, for them, are a tedious duty to be endured, and many of them do little more than occupy a chair for an hour or two each week, if that.  Those who are hungry/thirsty for God are faithful attendees and participants in the life of the church.  They joyfully serve God and others, and they count it a privilege to be able to do so.  When they move to a new area, they are quick to find a church family where they may continue to worship and serve God.  They look for people to encourage and for opportunities to serve.

Rick Warren, in his book The Purpose-Driven Church, identified the people in our community by placing them in five concentric circles.  In the outermost circle, he placed the community, those who live in our geographic area but are not involved in our church at all.  In the second circle in from the outside, he placed the crowd, those who attend worship services or other events at our church with any regularity.  In the next circle, he placed the congregation, those who have entered into covenant with the members of our church by joining our fellowship.  In the fourth circle, he placed the committed, those who have taken on some level of responsibility in the life of the church.  In the innermost circle, he placed the core, those who are leaders in helping the church accomplish her mission and are actively training others for leadership as they have opportunity.  Our goal is to move people from the outermost circle to the innermost circle—to reach them in the community and get them into the crowd so that, at God’s prompting, they may become a part of the congregation and, with consistent discipleship, the committed and, ultimately, the core.  As we successfully help people make these transitions, we glorify God, and His church grows.

In a future post, I’d like to help us think about some strategies we may use to reach our community, realizing just who is there and what will be successful in reaching them.  I hope you’ll keep an open mind and your eyes on God and His Word as we think on these things together.

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God and Marriage

God cares about marriage. He really does! As a matter of fact, He says in His Word that He views marriage as the best earthly illustration of the relationship that exists between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). That is certainly why He says elsewhere in His Word that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), as it destroys that picture at which the world is looking.

As I’ve counseled others during my 25+ years as a Pastor, a person who is contemplating divorce must face the fact that, when facing difficulties in marriage, each partner must acknowledge that he/she is saying one of four things about his/her own personal relationship with God in what he/she chooses to do in his/her situation.

(1) I love God and want to do what is pleasing to Him. I know that He hates divorce, so I am willing to do whatever it takes to maintain my marriage vows, made before Him. I will humble myself and ask for forgiveness where I have offended my spouse. I will grant forgiveness where my spouse has offended me. I am committed to my marriage and to my mate for life because I am committed to my God and to obedience to His Word. With God’s help, that is my vow.

(2) I love God and want to do what is pleasing to Him, but I just don’t think I can take any more of this marriage. I know God hates divorce, but I’ve tried everything I know to do, and it hasn’t worked. Surely God doesn’t want me to be miserable, does He?

(3) I don’t want God to be mad at me, but I’m out of here! I’m so unhappy, and I just need some relief. If God wants to discipline me for leaving my spouse, then I guess I’ll just have to take whatever He decides to dish out.

(4) I really couldn’t care less what God thinks about me or my marriage. I’m not even sure I believe in God any longer. I don’t deserve what I’m getting, and I’m not going to take it any more! I don’t want to be married to my spouse any longer.

Do you really think your marriage is beyond hope? Do you really think that God is unable to save it? Is His arm too short? (Jeremiah 32:17; Numbers 11:23) Put your trust in God. Commit your way to Him, and He will bring it to pass (Psalm 37:5). If your heart is loyal to Him, He will show Himself strong on your behalf (2 Chronicles 16:9).

Click here to watch a short video from Tiffany Arbuckle Lee (aka Plumb) about how God intervened to save her marriage from crumbling. Other videos of her testimony appear on the right side of this one.

Memories of Mary Elizabeth’s arrival

I received a phone call from Goldie, a church member from Sebring, on Thursday, March 22, 2007, while I was in Tampa to visit a church member from Punta Gorda at Tampa General Hospital. Her son, Hiram, and his girlfriend, Kelly, were expecting, and they were no longer together as a couple. Kelly already had three children at home as a single mom, and she was working four jobs, struggling to make ends meet. Hiram couldn’t take care of the baby by himself, and his mother couldn’t help him because of her own health issues, so she asked them to consider letting us adopt their baby. Another church member from Sebring is a good friend of hers, and she was praying hard for that to happen. I don’t know how long it took, but they finally decided to go that route, and Hiram’s mother called me. I told her we were definitely interested! I gave her Karen’s phone numbers and asked her to call Karen to share the details. I talked to Karen later that afternoon, and we made plans to go up and meet them.

We met them on Saturday, March 24, at Kelly’s house, and we all felt very comfortable with the plan. Goldie played with Desiree while we talked in the living room. The following week, we made phone calls to our social worker who helped us get Desiree and to our lawyer’s office. Our lawyer was on vacation, so we called another lawyer in Sebring with whom we were familiar. We met with her on Friday, April 6, and decided to retain her. She was a little more expensive than our previous lawyer, but she was local, and the other lawyer would have charged us to drive to Sebring for paperwork (6 hours round trip, $1200!), so we figured it was better to have the one in Sebring. On Friday, before meeting with her, we went with Kelly, Hiram and their daughter to Kelly’s appointment with her doctor and to the hospital to get information for Kelly. We went with Kelly, et al, again to her doctor’s appointment the following Thursday, April 12, and then to the hospital to get Kelly registered, as she and her doctor had decided to induce labor the next morning. We went home to pack our bags and pick up Grandmama Lanelle, and then we returned to spend the night with our cousins in Avon Park, Al & Lucy Loveless.

We were present for the birth on April 13, arriving a little before 9:00 AM. Mary Elizabeth was born at 10:11 AM, weighing 7 pounds, 10 ounces, and 20.5 inches long.  I cut the umbilical cord when she came out, and Karen was the first one to hold her after the nurse cleaned her up! That was Kelly’s desire—she wanted us to have the whole experience, since we missed it with Desiree. They moved Kelly into another room within about four hours of the birth, and she went home on Saturday. We stayed in the OB unit with the baby until we were discharged on Monday, and the hospital staff treated us as if we were the birth parents! The adoption would be final in three or four months, we hoped—Hiram and Kelly both signed the appropriate papers before we left the hospital.

Our relationship with Hiram and Kelly was amazing! We were so impressed with them—they were as grateful for us coming into their lives as we were for them! Hiram, Kelly and the three kids came to Punta Gorda for a visit on April 25, and they came again, along with Kelly’s mom, on Mother’s Day when we dedicated Mary Elizabeth to Jesus, and I took them all to Outback for lunch after church. They returned to the house for a little longer visit, and then they returned to Sebring. We saw them several times after that when we were in Sebring, and Kelly visited us in our home several other times. We don’t see them as often any more, but we stay in touch through the Internet. (Isn’t it great?!)

We visited our lawyer’s office on Friday, July 20, to sign the papers requesting the court to grant full and final custody to us with the adoption decree, and we set a court date of August 7 at 10:00 AM. When that day arrived, we took my mother and went to Sebring the night before, spending the night with our dear friend, Butchie. Desiree very vividly remembers hearing Judge John K. Stargel tell us, during the court hearing, that we could keep Mary Elizabeth forever. Immediately following the hearing, we visited Kelly at her workplace, a local surgery center, and she joined us for lunch at Red Lobster. We then went back to Butchie’s house to gather our things, and we went home to Punta Gorda.

Memories of Desiree’s arrival

I remember that day like it was yesterday, a Sunday much like every Sunday that had preceded it. I played drums for worship. I preached. I greeted folks as they left church to go eat lunch somewhere. I locked the office as I left. We went to lunch with some friends, a couple we loved who knew of our great desire to be parents and who had become dear friends since they joined our church just months earlier. We went toDean’s South of the Border for Tex-Mex, one of our favorite places to eat in Punta Gorda. We ordered our food and talked about church and life. Our food came, and we began to eat and continued to enjoy our fellowship until the moment my cell phone rang. Our adoption agent in Sebring was calling to tell us she had a baby for us, and we could take her home that night if we wanted to!

We had contracted with her to find a baby for us about six months earlier. We knew we were on the short lists of two birth mothers who were both due in late summer, so we were nowhere near ready for the arrival of a baby! When our agent called, we gathered the scant details she had to offer us about the baby, put the rest of our lunch in to-go boxes and headed to our house to change clothes, grab our cameras and drive to Avon Park (our agent had the baby at her house). I had fallen off a horse and broken my arm just over a month earlier, and I still couldn’t drive. Karen feared she’d be too emotional, so our friends agreed to drive us there in our van. We called our parents on the way to tell them the news, but Karen’s parents weren’t home.

We arrived at our agent’s home and spent a few minutes hearing her story of how she came to receive the baby, who was asleep in a bedroom. We saw the diaper bag and clothing that had come to her with the baby, and then we went back to the bedroom to meet her. She was beautiful beyond words! She woke up while we were looking at her, so Karen picked her up, and we took turns holding her and taking pictures and video. After about three hours, we signed the necessary papers, loaded her and her things into our van and headed out. We stopped first at the nearest Wal-Mart to buy some supplies (remember, we had NOTHING!), and we ran into some of our church friends from Sunridge BC (where I had pastored a few years earlier). They oohed and ahhed over our little bundle of joy and helped Karen pick out some things, including recommending Dr. Brown’s baby bottles, which we loved! We bought clothes, diapers, blankets, toys–everything we thought we’d need for the first few days. After buying out the store, we stopped and bought supper and went to some other friends’ house to eat and visit. After another hour, we left for Punta Gorda and our baby’s new home.

On our way home, I called our Youth Pastor, who was in the Fellowship Hall at our church overseeing our annual cake auction to raise money for our youth to go to summer camp. The auction hadn’t gotten started yet, so I asked him to grab a microphone and make an announcement for me. He told those who were gathered that we were on our way home with our new baby daughter! He held his cell phone up so that I could hear the cheer that went up from the crowd, and he told me later that there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Two weeks hence, they threw us a baby shower and showered us with sweet and wonderful gifts for our daughter! Karen’s parents came down that weekend for a visit and were able to be there with us for the celebration. We were so grateful for such a loving church family!

We settled into our new life (Boy, was it new and different!) and took lots of pictures and video. It took eight months, but her adoption was finalized early in 2005, and Desiree was officially (i.e., legally) a part of her forever family. What a time it’s been!

I’m blogging again!

I had a blog several years ago, but I let it lapse–got busy, you know. Now, living out in the country with only one job instead of three, I’ve decided to start up again. I’m starting out by publishing the first few posts from my old site–the things that are most important to me, namely, my testimony of salvation through Jesus Christ; my call to full-time vocational ministry, serving God’s churches as an undershepherd; and the story of how the most precious gifts of God to my wife, Karen, and me–our two daughters–came into our lives. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know me/us or reminiscing with me through these posts.

My testimony of salvation & call to ministry

At the age of seven, I became critically aware of my sinful condition and my need of a Savior. My parents had taken me to church since I came home from the hospital, and I knew no other lifestyle. They taught me the Bible and the ways of God, and they showed me that the only One capable of solving my sin problem was Jesus Christ. I received Him and believed on Him as He was presented to me—the Savior—and was baptized soon afterward. I continued my involvement in my local church as I grew and began seriously to memorize Scripture as I participated in Bible drills and structured Bible study programs for children. But with all the studying and memorizing, my heart was hardly affected. I’m convinced that I was saved then, but I didn’t understand what I had been learning by rote. It wasn’t until I entered college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia, that the truth about what had happened to me when I was saved began to break through.

I began college in the summer of 1981 and started attending the First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Under the teaching ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley, my heart began to soften, and I began to understand that there was more to being a Christian than just going to church, reading the Bible, giving a tithe, saying a prayer and being good. In the Fall of 1982, I met a man whom God would use to change my life forever. He introduced me to some of the finest preachers and writers who ever preached and wrote. I began to devour books and to long for visiting preachers to come to town. My hunger for God and His Word grew immensely, and the fellowship and discipling I was receiving from my new friend, along with the reading I was doing and the preaching I was hearing, were feeding that hunger.

In February of 1983, I learned the meaning of having Christ as my Lord and my Life, not just my Savior. I learned that I had been crucified with Him, buried with Him and had risen with Him to walk in newness of life. I was no longer a slave to sin, as I had formerly been, and I was now free to submit myself to Jesus as my Lord. I saw in the Word that it was His responsibility to keep me and that I didn’t have to worry about keeping my own salvation by my obedience or good works. My only responsibility was to continue to believe on Him. This knowledge was too wonderful for me, and I began to rejoice with an excitement about being a Christian that I had not previously known.

The College Department at First Baptist was phenomenal, and I made many friends and spiritual companions there. Out of that group had arisen a vocal ensemble called Sonlight, and I had longed to be a part of them since I first heard them. In the Fall of 1983, God opened that door, and I traveled with Sonlight for two years, getting valuable experience in witnessing, preaching and working alongside other Christians in a ministry. I saw many lives changed as a result of Sonlight, its members included. I had many hours to read and pray on the road and in people’s homes, and I took advantage of those hours.

It was in Sonlight that I heard God’s call to the ministry. Of course, every Christian is a minister, but I knew that God calls out some to preach the Gospel vocationally. I had never entertained the thought of being in vocational Christian work, but one Saturday afternoon, April 28, 1984, while on a Sonlight tour, my whole direction changed. I was rather depressed because I recently had given in to a besetting sin, and the guilt was gnawing at me during our free afternoon. A friend in our group realized that I was suffering and encouraged me to get alone with God and get things straightened out. I did, and as I read in Isaiah 6, I repented of my sin and heard God calling, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” In my heart, I replied, “Here am I; send me.” The next three verses leapt off the page, and I realized that I could do nothing with the rest of my life but follow Jesus and be His man, wherever that might lead. He continued filling my mind with visions of His plans for me and confirmed His intention for me to preach through a sermon by Dr. Stanley the following Sunday evening. I finished my education at Georgia Tech in September 1986, married that same month and began making plans to get out of debt and into seminary.