Thursday, January 16, 2014

Looking Ahead at 2014: I Am Excited!

As we stand at the head of a brand new year, I am taking the time to do some evaluation. I'm looking at my personal life, my family, my ministry, and I'm taking note of where things are, where they need to be, and what it is going to take to get there. I'm also looking at the church I have been blessed to serve as pastor for the last 8-plus years: Immanuel Baptist Church of Greensboro, North Carolina. And I can honestly say, I have never been more excited about this church than I am right now.

Don't get me wrong -- I am by no means saying that we have "arrived," and that there is not room for improvement. There always is. One of the mottoes of the Protestant Reformation has been abbreviated familiarly as "Semper Reformanda" ("always reforming"). But that does not mean "always changing," as if "change" in and of itself is the thing we are aiming at. As Michael Horton has pointed out, the complete phrase is “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.” Horton notes, "The verb is passive: the church is not 'always reforming,' but is 'always being reformed' by the Spirit of God through the Word." As I look at Immanuel Baptist Church today, I see evidence that the Spirit of God is reforming His church (this local expression of it) by the Word of God, and is working in and through us in powerful ways.

A couple of important disclaimers are necessary here. I am most assuredly not saying that I am responsible for these things. Nor am I saying that any single member or group of members are responsible. I want to say loudly and clearly that the things God is doing in our midst are being done in such a way that only God Himself can receive the glory for it. My philosophy of ministry is very simple: "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:1-2). That is my job. It is not to preach my ideas or my "vision," but the revelation that is disclosed to us graciously in the pages of the Holy Bible. That's it. That is what I do. But, it is God who gives me the ability to do that, it is God who opens hearts and ears to hear it, and it is God who gloriously moves in us and through us to bring us to obedience to His word and engagement in His mission. What God is doing here today, He can do without me. I am not promised tomorrow anymore than you are. If I am removed by death or the call of God to another field tomorrow, there is no reason that God would not, could not, and should not continue doing what He is doing in our midst, and even greater things than these! Nor am I saying that things are better than they have ever been. This church has a rich and glorious history, notwithstanding the fact that, like all churches, there have been chapters of that history that have been rather inglorious. I am not trying to make any comparisons with the past. My view is on the present and the future. And, neither am I saying that things are as good as they can get. We have a long way to go. I do not claim that we are a "perfect church," or that the time has come for us to rest at ease in Zion. We must labor in the vineyard 'til the Master comes, and all the moreso with renewed energy and zeal that ought to be present within us because of what God is doing presently.

Now, let me get right down to the matter. What is going on that excites me so much? Let me enumerate a few of the many things that God is doing here. Undoubtedly, I will not be able to present an exhaustive list, but these are some of the reasons I am so excited.

I. Our "Jerusalem." A number of years ago, we identified a "local mission field." We know that we cannot reach all of Greensboro. So we asked God to burden us, to mobilize us, and to use us for His glorious purposes here in this community. In the intervening time, here are a few things we have seen happen.

(A) The Coliseum Motel is now closed. I attribute this to God. True, the City of Greensboro was the agent He chose to use to make it happen, but God was the one doing it. While it stood, it was a great mission field for us, but it was also a harmful influence in our community. It was a den of prostitution and drug abuse, and was the leading location for 911 calls in our city. I viewed our responsibility before God as two-fold: (1) to be a witness to the people there; (2) to be a watchman on the wall for the well-being of our community. Numerous Immanuel members served on the citizens' committee which ultimately led the effort to get the city to demolish this motel. We prayed, and we worked. And God did it.

(B) Community Outreach is taking place on a consistent and regular basis. We have begun an annual outreach to the Ardmore Park Community for National Night Out, and it has been a great success. We continue to draw more and more children from our community to Vacation Bible School every summer. Several times a year, we mobilize our members to knock on 400 doors in our community to place the gospel into the hands of every resident. And we are beginning to see fruit. The firstfruits of this field are coming in. Surely, if we continue to be faithful in sowing, a greater harvest will come.

(C) We continue to look out of our front doors and see a strip-club across the street. For years, we have looked at it and wondered why the city would not shut it down. There have been multiple murders on the premises, and God only knows the iniquity that takes place within the long shadow of our steeple there. But today, God is doing a work there. Through this church and others who share the vision, there is a concerted prayer effort for those who own it, manage it, disrobe in it, and lust in it. And moreover, God is raising up an army of women to go into the club in His name to show His love to the women who are trapped in that lifestyle.

(D) We continue to see God drawing in students from UNC-G. Eight years ago, there was not a single college student at Immanuel. How did it happen? God did it. They simply began to come. And they brought their friends. And they are still doing it. But they aren't just coming in; they are going out. They are going out to the campus and out to the nations to make Jesus Christ known. Many of them graduate and move elsewhere, and they plug into faithful, Bible-teaching churches, and serve Him there.

II. Our "Judea and Samaria." Several years ago, God led this church to focus our "Home Missions" efforts on the state of Vermont, statistically the most unevangelized and least religious state in America. God has opened the door for partnerships there, and He is sending out Immanuel's members to serve there on short-term volunteer trips. The first trip was in 2012, and there were only three of us. In 2013, there were eleven of us, and interest is already building for 2014.

III. The Ends of the Earth.

(A) God is sending Immanuel to the nations. In 2011, six of us embarked on a vision trip to Nepal. In 2013, four more went back. In 2015, Lord willing, we will go again. But we are not just going on a "holy vacation." Through these trips, God is developing a heart for the nations in His people here, and fueling our prayer efforts for Nepal and the rest of the world. Through the 2013 team, numerous pastors from mountain villages were equipped to plant even more churches, and they are doing it, praise God! Because of this focus on South Asia, Immanuel has paid for wells to be dug, for clean-water filtration devices to be given to families, for cottage-industries to be developed, for women to be trained with job skills, and a host of other wonderful things. A Christian orphanage has been outfitted with new toys, and uplifted with many prayers. And God has given us a heart for Nepalis living in Greensboro. Relationships are being built, and miraculously, plans are in the works for the planting of a Nepali Church here.

(B) God is enlarging our focus. Immanuel's students are spending their summers in South Africa and other places. They are sensing God calling them to the nations -- some for short term, some for longer terms. And by God's grace, in 2013, the invitation came to bring a team to Dubai. Immanuel sent three, and through our providential relationships, God raised a team of sixteen! This team ministered to children, teaching them about missions and challenging them to consider how God might use them to reach their friends for Jesus, or how He might call them out in their young adulthood to invest their lives overseas as missionaries. As we were doing this, their parents were being challenged similarly by others. And, if God wills, the opportunity may arise in 2014 to return and do the same. God has brought our way a sister church from a neighboring state who are burdened to reach a West African people group that is one of the most unreached on the continent of Africa. There are nearly 1,500 of them in our city. As God leads, we will begin working with them as partners to facilitate the advance of the Gospel to these people in our city.

IV. Internal Reformation

God is not just working "outside the walls." He is working inside as well. A meaningful fellowship is being enriched daily as Immanuel members pour into one another. God-glorifying relationships are being forged between "Old Immanuel" members and "New Immanuel" members. There is harmony and joy among the members. Prayer has become, not something we talk about on Wednesday nights, but something we DO. Attendance at these prayer meetings has waned, because many prefer "the old way," but for those who come, there is a powerful meeting with God as prayers are poured out from the heart in intercession and worship. There is a unity and sweet fellowship among our deacons that is simply marvelous to behold. God is raising up new leaders, new singers, new workers, new missionaries going out in our community and the world with the gospel.

The year ahead will not be without its challenges. One of them is staring us squarely in the face. The departure of the Greensboro Chinese Church from our facility is imminent. We are saddened to see them go, but after 25-plus years, we are proud to see them venturing out in faith. It is like a parent seeing their child move away. There are tears of sadness intermingled with the tears of joy. This will mean great changes for our children's ministry, which presently consists predominantly of Chinese children. There will be changes and challenges for us financially. The Chinese Church presently contributes over ten percent of our annual operating budget. We will feel the pinch of it. But with these challenges comes opportunity. We will have a newfound freedom in planning activities and using space that heretofore has been occupied by the Chinese Church's ministries. It will be up to us to decide how to use that for God's greatest glory. Undoubtedly, in the year ahead, there will be funerals. Past years have taught us that death is no respecter of persons. It strikes the young and the old. It will visit us again in 2014. But God is the One who has promised us that HE will never leave us nor forsake us. He has kept that promise. He has not forsaken us. He has not left us. Rather, He has visited us afresh in recent days and poured out blessings. This is a day for all Immanuel family to rejoice in Him and give Him glory.

As I survey all that God is doing in our midst, I am snapped back by one seemingly ever-present frustration. Many in the Immanuel family are discouraged. Their children, their grandchildren, some of their closest friends have, over the last several decades, gone out from us and have not returned. Some, praise God, are faithfully involved in other churches. Others, sadly, are not. We grieve and pray along with them for the spiritual well-being of those. Many look around at a sanctuary that was once filled to capacity, and see only the empty seats of seventy-five percent of the room. They think to themselves, and not a few will say out loud, "The church is dying." My friends, I hope that the words I am sharing here will encourage you. The church is not dying. If I have any discouragement at all in these days, it is that so many are so discouraged, not seeing or participating in the glorious work that God is doing in our midst. I am reminded of that account in 2 Kings 6, when the servant of Elisha was perplexed because all he could see was gloom and defeat on the horizon. He said to Elisha, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" But Elisha prayed to the Lord, "O Lord, I pray, open his eyes." And the Bible says that the Lord "opened the servant's eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." Friends, do you see those horses and chariots of fire? The army of the Lord is advancing on our behalf! Please do not miss it because discouragement has blinded your eyes. My prayer for 2014 is the same as Elisha's: "O Lord, I pray, open our eyes!" 

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Oh Russ! This was so inspiring to me. I agree wholeheartedly that God is doing a great work in and through IBC. I also pray that God will open the eyes of the whole congregation and they will see what He is doing. Praise be to God!!!