Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

5 Lessons I’ve learned as a Pastor

pewsBy Matt Sapp

This Sunday our church will celebrate its 22nd anniversary. I’ve been at Heritage for two of those twenty-two years, and in those two years I’ve learned a lot.

To celebrate our anniversary, I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned as your pastor.

1.      Slow and steady wins the race. Our work as Christians is best described as a “long obedience in the same direction.” Our life’s work is just one link in a much larger chain. We pick up where others have left off and others will come along to advance the work when we’re no longer here to do it.

The work of the church is not a sprint. It won’t be accomplished in a few months, a few years or even a few generations. Our job is to push the ball forward just a few feet. It’s not flashy. It won’t usually make the news. But over time it will lead to great progress.

As easy as it sounds to just do our small part, there are a thousand ways to stay where you are and only one way to move forward: develop a plan and see it through with discipline, focus and patience.

The reward of discipline, focus and patience is progress. It’s easy to wander from one idea or one program or one vision to the next. The only way to stay the course is to firmly believe that God is leading in the process and to trust that God will be present in the results, too.

2.      People matter. Nothing else does. Programs, plans, buildings, worship styles, strategies—Jesus didn’t come to save any of them. In fact, God hasn’t brought eternal salvation to a church building yet. As far as I know, no electric guitars or pipe organs have professed their faith in Jesus Christ yet, either.

Our biggest assets as churches are the people who serve in them. So our greatest investments should be in our people. Our time and energy and resources ought to be invested in building up and encouraging and equipping people for ministry.  

We think of buildings and programs and worship traditions as legacies that we can leave as enduring monuments to our faithfulness. But here’s the truth. In Jesus Christ, we’ll outlive them all.

What we do to bring people into the presence of God and to turn them into fully-functioning followers of Christ is the only thing that matters.

3.      The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding. It always has been and it still is. There was a time when we were excluded from the faith, when people like us—Gentiles—were universally considered to be beyond the scope of God’s love and salvation. But our understanding of God’s love and God’s kingdom has expanded over time so that we now understand that God had intended to include us all along.

One of the best ways to understand scripture is as a record of our expanding understanding of who God is and as a record of our growing awareness of the scope of God’s love.

One of the best ways to understand the incarnation is as God’s ultimate effort to explode every boundary we’d put up to contain and limit God’s love, and Christ still works among us to do the same.

We don’t have to wonder where Christ is at work in the world. Just like on nearly every page of scripture, God is at work among the people we’ve overlooked or excluded. I become more convinced of that truth—and it gains more power in my life—every day.

4.      What local churches choose to do in the next few years will be EXTREMELY important. The future of the church in the United States–its effectiveness, its impact, it size, and what it looks like to future generations—depends entirely on the independent, individual decisions of thousands of churches like ours. If most of us choose faithful, God-inspired paths forward in the next few years, the sky’s the limit.

But, if we choose to carry on with business as usual, doing the same things we’ve always done, the church in America is undeniably in real trouble. The statistics about the decline of the church in America are staggering. If we don’t do something new, then we’re facing a spiritual dark age in the near future in the United States.

The choice is real. The stakes are high. But here’s what’s so exciting. What we choose to do really matters!!! We have a real chance to make a real kingdom difference from right where we are. We can be one of the churches that tips the balance and turns the tide.

We could be on the leading edge of America’s next great spiritual revival.

5.      We serve a remarkable God. God is guiding the church. God is guiding Heritage. I honestly believe that. In the fleeting moments when I fully grasp that truth, it is genuinely awe-inspiring.

I’ll be honest. It can be disheartening at times to serve what is a shrinking—some say dying—institution. But in my best moments, I see a future for the church that is better and more completely God-revealing and God-inspired than anything we’ve experienced yet.

I believe God is moving among us, preparing us to do something amazing. And when I say us, I mean us at HERITAGE, but not just us. I mean little pockets of people like us all over the nation and all over the world. I’m not sure we even glimpse the possibilities yet.

Our tendency is always toward a smaller vision of what is possible. But God’s vision tends toward resurrection, toward new life where once there was only death.

So whenever you’re gripped by a small vision or find yourself with a deficit of courage, remember that you serve a remarkable God whose vision for you and for the kingdom is grander than anything we’ve yet imagined.

 

A Cross, but no Church

HayBy Joe LaGuardia

I am a minister in limbo, what Will Campbell might call a preacher without a pulpit.  My wife said today that I am like one of those folks who wear a cross but don’t have a church.

It’s true: it has been over a week since I left my old church, Trinity Baptist; and I have one week until I start my new call at First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, Florida.

Of course, some of this is hyperbole.  I am still working on some loose ends at Trinity, specifically an internship program in which we are getting involved.  And my first official day at First Baptist is on a Monday: May 16th, to be exact.  They already have me listed as “senior pastor” on the bulletin, a sweet and encouraging sentiment.

But, as they say, perception is reality, and for these two weeks I really do feel lost without a place to call home.

I don’t know how other Christians can do it.  You know, those Christians who do not have any real commitment to a body of believers, a place to go every week and share concerns or pray for others, get involved and eat at potlucks or play bingo.  I know it sounds cheesy, but there is something about church that really makes me feel like I belong.

The other day, I joined a group of people from First Baptist for lunch in a local Italian restaurant.  They go every Thursday, and I was thankful for the invite despite my “unemployed” status.

One of the first people to greet me, Ms. Becky, gave me a hug.  I don’t know Becky that well and she doesn’t know me, but we both know what church is like.  It’s like that hug, and I desperately needed it, especially since the previous night was Wednesday, a day I would have spent with my church family at Trinity.

The hug healed a home-sick soul.

Playing hooky from church and job has not been all bad, mind you.  I’ve been able to endorse a political candidate in the local commissioner’s race in Rockdale County.  I do not endorse candidates as a pastor and when the clock struck (close to) midnight on May 1st–my first day unemployed–I put out a status on social media declaring my support for a friend.

I also have been getting plenty of rest.  I have been pastor for over six years, associate pastor for years before that, and we ministers rarely get a Sunday off.  Ministry, furthermore, is not a job, but a lifestyle.  You do not do ministry when you are called and ordained; you are a minister.

I have had the ability to just be since I left Trinity.  I haven’t had to prepare for a Bible study, sermon, prayer group, small group, Sunday School class, prayer meeting, committee meeting, leadership meeting, or any other meeting for that matter, and it has been nice to sit around and read a book for pleasure.

Well, that too is not entirely true either, I guess.  I have been reading up on the Holy Spirit–one book by Charles Spurgeon, a going-away gift from one of our associate pastors at Trinity–in order to prepare for my first sermon series at First Baptist Church.

That kind of reading has been sparse, however.  If I’m not ready to write a sermon there is no use reading beforehand.  Usually ideas that come this early depart just as quickly, so why bother?

Perhaps the greatest struggle in all of this is not the loss of pulpit or parishioner, or the lack of hugs for that matter.  It has been the lack of routine.

My Christian life is a rhythm of “regular business hours,” Sunday routines, scheduled prayer and devotional times, and the like.  Not going to “work” at a church means sleeping in (or, in my case, waking up) at odd hours, going to bed way too early, and mulling around with nothing much to do.

Just this morning my wife asked me why I was pacing in circles.  I was literally pacing in circles, no kidding.  When I came to, I told her I intended to do something, but I couldn’t remember what it was I set out to do.  Now that’s a scary prospect.  I never was able to recall the task, so I did a load of laundry for the fun of it.

I’m sure many of my friends who read this will say, “Hey, enjoy the time off–you’ll be busy when you start at your new call.”  I have taken that advice, I assure you.  We’ve gone to the beach nearly every (other) night, have eaten too much pizza, and have been trying to help my son learn to skimboard; but, being the guy in the room who wears a cross and doesn’t have a church is not me.  I don’t recognize that guy.

For now, I’ll live with it, but Monday May 16th could not come fast enough.  Lord, have mercy–and give me the patience of a pastor.