Reveal the Encounter Issue 2

Have you ever stopped and looked back at your life in chapters like a literary novel?  I feel that I am so fortunate to see how the different chapters in my life have worked together to get me where I am today.  I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back, you can always see the course and movement in life.  Now, don’t think that it has always been rainbows and lollipops.  Some chapters have been very painful and stressful, but I have been able to see how God has used them to help guide and prepare us.  We are going through a chapter change in our lives right now as we get ready to send our oldest son off to college and our youngest starts driving.  Sitting here writing this blog about a church plant that God has called us to launch is evidence of another.  One thing we must remember about this life, the chapters will come and go, some will be bad and some will be good, but they are only a chapter.

I believe there is way too much prosperity teaching and preaching in the world where God is rewarding people for good behavior.  “Give to the church and God will bless you!”  “Follow all the rules and you will be blessed and live a great life!”  Can you hear the voices you have heard say those things?  The problem with prosperity preaching is that when things go bad, you feel that you have done something wrong.  Isn’t that what was happening during Jesus’ day?  Jews thought that good and bad things were all blessings and curses from God for good or bad behavior.  We have lost people from the church by the fistfuls because of this form of teaching and preaching.

If this prosperity teaching was true, the chapter in my life I just walked through would make absolutely no sense.  Three years ago my life and ministry were moving at an incredible pace.  I was serving as a youth pastor to a vibrant and incredible group of teenagers at a church that was truly trying to reach out to love all people.  We had seen God move in the midst of so many of our students.  I was finally graduating with my bachelor’s degree after 5 years of going to school online part-time, and was being ordained as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene.  I was also elected district NYI President, and I accepted my first church as lead pastor.  All these things happened within about 4 weeks of each other.  My head was spinning, but God was good as He moved in our midst in such incredible ways.

The church that I had been called to as lead pastor was celebrating 80 years of ministry.  They had once been declared the largest and most successful rural church in not only Arkansas, but America.  There was an incredible history and legacy I was blessed to join and be a part of.  Unfortunately, the church had seen severe decline like so many other churches in the United States and world.  The average attendance had dropped to less than 30 with a great need for revitalization by the time I came along.  There was a great hope that maybe if this aging congregation brought in this younger pastor who was full of energy and ideas, the church could be saved.  This was a huge task and I felt the weight and burden on my shoulders because I was serving in a pastor centric model.  However, I knew that if this church was to be saved, it would have to be a movement of God and only God.  I had a great support system of fellow pastors praying for me and I felt I could call and talk to many of them anytime I needed.  I was also privileged to have a great district superintendent for guidance and support.

We dove in and went to work.  The financials of the church were a mess.  More money was going out than coming in.  There were numerous repairs and issues that needed to be taken care of on the facility and you can’t forget the most important part, the lack of people.  This was a group of incredibly loving and gracious people, but they didn’t know what to do and they were looking to me to help show them the way.  We finally got the finances under control and started making a plan to fix/update the building, and strategize how we could reach out and love the community in a new and impactful way.  As I stated earlier, the church was founded in a rural area, but the city of Little Rock had grown up and around the ministry area.  It was no longer a rural area, but a thriving urban community.

The facility was surrounded by car dealerships, medical facilities, hotels, and commercial businesses.  Upon meeting with the principal from the local elementary school, I discovered that 90% of the population directly around the school and the church was at or below poverty.  There were diverse cultures and races everywhere you looked!  We were stuck with the question of how you reach such a diverse community that has to work all the time?  Not to mention, our church was full of older members that could only offer a Sunday morning and Wednesday night service.  Now, don’t misunderstand me, this was not all the church wanted to do and be, but it was all they were capable of doing by the time I got there.  God was moving in our midst and I was seeing a burning desire in so many hearts to do something, but we were so limited, and so much of our time was devoted to trying to maintain.

When I came to the church I thought I had about 10 years to help turn things around.  Within 6 months I realized that it was more like 5 years and after just 1 year, I found myself sitting across from my district superintendent hearing the words “close” come out of my mouth.  These words were as bitter on my lips as you could imagine.  I felt as if my life and ministry were crumbling down around me.  “Who else would want me as their pastor if I had to close my first church?”  “Am I really meant to be a lead pastor?”  I will never forget as my dear  D.S. and friend didn’t argue with me, but simply asked how we could end well if this was the case?  He asked if we could see a different end than just closing the doors?  They seemed like such simple questions, but I hadn’t thought of it because closing just seemed like such a horrible thing, and how can such a horrible thing end well?  We parted ways and I told him that I would continue to pray and work through things.

I would like to stop here in our story and say that as a young pastor in his first pastorate, my world was crumbling.  If I believed in this prosperity preaching, I would be sitting here screaming at God asking, “What have I done to have such hurt and devastation thrown upon me?”  I was in the darkness of a valley, and I was trying my best to navigate through, trying to find my way back to the mountaintop.  Just like going on a hike, it’s always easier going downhill than uphill.  It can seem like so much work to make it to a mountaintop, but so easy to end up in a valley.  I’m going to be honest, there were times that I wondered if I had messed up and misheard God.  “Should I have stayed with my youth group?”  In the valley, you can begin to question anything and everything.  But, God wanted to mold me, He could use the hurt and struggle in the valley for His good.  I know that as I continue to unfold this story and vision I believe that God has for His church, you may question it.  Spoiler Alert!  I have already questioned everything.  My ideas, theology and personal self have been stripped down raw and are being built back up by the grace of God.

I stopped and looked back at my life and ministry to only realize that all the chapters in my life had been preparing me for this.  Thankfully, I had been open and allowed God to teach me a different lesson in every chapter of my life.  So, by the time I was in the middle of this valley, I felt I had tools and maps to help me make it through, as long as I leaned on and relied on God.  You see, up to this point, I had been a manager of a business who would eventually strike out on my own.  I had been attacked by my previous employer as he tried to stop customers from leaving and coming over to us when the word got out.  I had criminal charges pressed against me in a desperate last attempt to stop us, and then after accepting a call into ministry, shutting it all down.  We had lost all of our retirement and our home during this time and to add insult to injury, right before all of that hit, we were forced out of our home church from all of our friends and church family.  But, God had been faithful and taught us some very valuable lessons on what His Church needed to be and not be.  Not to mention, what we needed to be and not be as His children.  Don’t get me wrong, it was extremely painful and hard, but God used it and showed us some good that has come from it all if we look at it with His eyes.

I say all of this to say, don’t ever belittle your experiences as just good or bad because if you let God work in them and your life, they will always build you up and help build up His Kingdom.  There have been many people who have done “good” things that were disastrous because God wasn’t in them.  There is no point in trying to blame others, beat yourself up, feel useless or proud.  When these chapters come into your life, I believe we have to keep our eyes focused on God and allow Him to work in and around us.  But, the journey is never over.  God wants us to use the things we have learned so we may leave the mountain and help lead others back to the mountain, to help them move out of that chapter in their life.  But, we need to remember to not try to make others feel bad for being in a valley or lecture them out of it.  I beat myself up enough every time one of those valleys happens in my life, even if its not my fault.  I wonder how many people just need the church to love them and help show them that it’s not God to blame for their bad luck.  Maybe they just need someone to come alongside them, love them, and tell them that with God it can and will be ok.  Why do we think it’s our job to convict others or help teach them lessons when that is the Holy Spirit’s job?  I believe that we need to build a church that is there for everyone, no matter what chapter, valley or mountaintop they are at in their life.

I once had a student tell me that we needed to stop telling people what they were doing wrong and instead what they were doing right.  I believe there’s some truth to that statement as well as some fault.  We need to stop telling people what they’re doing wrong, but instead tell them who can make all things right.  God wants to do a work in and through us.  He wants to build His children back up after evil tears them down and apart, but we can’t do that if everyone stays focused on the valley and not the mountain.

To bring this full circle, we had to make a choice of how we were going to let, or not let, God use us in this valley at Rose Hill Nazarene.  Were we going to let our own insecurities and pride end the church as it was or were we going to let God use this brokenness for His good?  Spoiler Alert!  God used us in our brokenness and you won’t want to miss the coming posts on how he worked in and through us.

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