Monday, December 13, 2010

Getting Real at Christmas Time

(Adapted from the sermon, He Comes to Bring Joy. An audio of the sermon can be found here)

I am always struck at how bossy people can be at Christmas-time: “Have a Merry Christmas!” “Happy Holidays!” I feel as if people are commanding me to be joyful just because winter is arriving.

Well… I am not quite that ‘hum-bug’ about Christmas. But there is no escaping the fact that many people have a hard time being cheerful either because very hard things are happening at the moment or the holiday season brings family together and family tensions to the surface. Just when we hear choruses of “Joy to the World” we presently feel a persistent sadness.

Jeremiah, a prophet and contributor of the writings found in the Old Testament (The Book of Jeremiah, Lamentations), even though he lived, taught and wrote thousands of years ago, knew what is was to feel anguish as we feel it. In his poetry found in Lamentations, he pours out his heart after his capitol city, Jerusalem, has been attacked and destroyed by an invading army.

He knew loneliness:
Lamentations 3:2
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light....

There are certainly places in the world where Christians are persecuted and driven from their homes and they will be able to relate immediately to Jeremiah’s circumstance. However, those of us who live in religious freedom are not free from these feelings of hardship. There are times when our feelings of heartbreak drive us into isolation… and we are walking in darkness… lost. Jeremiah knew loneliness and so do we.

Jeremiah knew humiliation:
Lamentations 3:14
I became the laughingstock of all my people;
they mock me in song all day long.

Jeremiah’s country, Israel, was supposed to be “chosen” by the Lord Almighty for great things: to serve as a bright light to the world. Now, Jerusalem was a smoldering ruin… humiliated… shown to be a phony… apparently abandoned by God… right?

The pain of being exposed… of being rejected… of being “passed over”… can be unbearable. We know this kind of pain and some of you are experiencing even though its Christmas

And Jeremiah knew the bitterness of loss.
Lamentations 3:15
He has filled me with bitter herbs
and given me gall to drink.

Undoubtedly Jeremiah lost friends and family in siege of Jerusalem. But he also felt the bitterness of the lost hope he had for his nation and people. He had given his life, fighting with but also for a people he loved. Now that dream seemed dead.

Some dismiss the Bible as an ancient book irrelevant to modern times. Does the struggle with heartbreak, the perplexing questions of suffering, and the apparent futility of living seem like an irrelevant experience to you? They are all too familiar. So perhaps these people of ancient faith may have something relevant to say to our modern experience.

What do they have to tell us? First (and this is by implication) they “say” acknowledge the present sadness. Jeremiah spends nearly 2000 words (in the English Standard Version’s translation) spilling his sadness and heartbreak before he gets to a profession of trust in God v. 21 (the famous "Great is your faithfulness... your mercies are new every morning"). There are hard things in life and its appropriate to be sadeven if it is Christmas!

“Isn’t this a contradiction? What are Christans saying to the world if we don’t smile at this time of the year?” You tell the world that you can acknowledge reality! And there is no contradiction between acknowledging our present sadness and celebrating the coming of Christ. Its because of this sadness that Christ has come!

As fantastic as it sounds, God took on flesh that He might enter into our sufferings and overcome them through his life, death and resurrection. “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” If we can keep this line of "Joy to the World" in mind, perhaps we can get real this Christmas about our present sadness as we look to Him to replace our sadness… with joy!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Does Faith Make a Difference? Overlooking an Offense

"Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense"
Proverbs 19:11

This past Sunday at West County Fellowship, Pastor Dan Doriani asked the question: "does faith make a difference?" Does putting our trust in Christ... espousing the ancient creed of Jesus risen from the dead and sins forgiven... have any impact on our daily life? Well, the simple answer was: it should. I was struck by a proverb quoted during the message: "Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense." Overlooking an offense is hard indeed and something our surrounding culture does not fully embrace. According to popular culture, our identity is wrapped up with our accomplishments and reputation. An offense strikes at those things and so stikes our our sense of self. How can this be overlooked?

Because when our trust is in Christ, we come to believe that our sense of self comes, not from our accomplishments, but from being relationally and mystically connected to Christ who was perfect in every way and deeply loves us. Do you believe that? Do you believe that when God looks at you, He sees the perfection of Christ and accepts you as a dearly loved son... a dearly loved daughter? The profound sense of satisfaction and grounding this provides is a glorious thing and made manifest when we can overlook offenses against us. It is our glory to overlook an offense because we reflect that same glory of God that led Him to send Christ, redeem us, and therefore overlook our offenses. In Christ you are loved! It should make a difference.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Reflections on the First Year

I can hardly believe it but I am fast approaching my first anniversary of working with the wonderful people of West County Fellowship (November 16th is the exact date). When I think that one year ago, Merry and I were packing up our house in South Carolina, surrounded by boxes and wondering what lay ahead, I realize how far things have come for us and our fledgling fellowship. I thought I might share with you some of those reflections (and some statistics) that you might share in the excitement I have as we enter our second year of ministry together.

When Merry and I arrived in St. Louis in mid-November of 2009, I must confess that the folks of West County Fellowship (back then, we were Central-Chesterfield) seemed dispirited. The West County campus of Central seemed to have a great start in the previous spring but the late summer and fall saw a decline in attendance and there was a bit of soul searching. From my perspective, there were so many things that were right and good about the Chesterfield site but clearly some things were going wrong. Many folks who started with the project had either returned to the Clayton campus or left altogether for different churches. Attendance had dropped from the 90s to the low 60s. The core that remained was weary with the labor required to setup every Sunday and wondering if these efforts were all in vain. Morale was low last November.

In retrospect, some of our missteps seem very clear now. A study of successful church planting conducted by Stephen Gray found that new works did much better when there was a full-time pastor. Admittedly, we are not a church plant, but our ministry effort is significantly different from the Clayton campus in style and community culture by design. This disjunction between the West County and Clayton campuses also created some “grinding of gears” not fully anticipated. So despite the good start, there were some significant missteps.

Under the elder leadership of Rex Dunlap, Jay Barrington and David Klotz, the West County campus began to make some course corrections. Central hired a full-time pastor (yours truly) and we entered into a period of refining the vision and practices of the ministry. Our re-affirmed mission was “to see the people of West County enjoy a life changing relationship with God and His people.” To that end, we expanded our small group ministry (adding two for a total of six), brought a better balance between in-person and video preaching, and further developed the worship service (creating variety in the order of worship, beginning weekly communion, starting a children’s message time in the service and introducing other special events). We re-launched as West County Fellowship at Easter 2010.

Since that time, we have witnessed an exciting turnaround in our trajectory. There are, of course, the statistics. We have gone from an average attendance in the low 60s in October of 2009 to and average attendance of almost 90 this October (and for a time in August our attendance average over 100). Compared to most other start-up works, this is quite remarkable. The South Baptist Convention’s Study on Church Plant Survivability and Health noted that the average attendance of a church plant in its first year was ~42 and reaching only ~83 by its fourth year! The Lord has put us way ahead in the game by this measurement. If we measure by giving, the same study noted that the average church receipts (not counting outside fund-raising) during the first year was ~$38,000 and reached ~$90,000 by the fourth year. During our first full financial year (July 2009 to June 2010) giving to West County Fellowship was ~$95,000.

While these numbers are certainly encouraging, I am much more excited about the personal stories of folks who are attending: a dad with a young family who had attended Clayton for years but not really involved with ministry now has a crucial role in out outreach efforts at West County; a couple who recently moved to the St. Louis area stumbling across our Easter Celebration in Chesterfield’s Central Park while taking their daughter for a walk who are now part of the core; a young man from a Jewish background looking for a place to belong who was received by our folks and is now considering the claims of Christ.

Since last November, West County Fellowship has added 14 families (going from 22 committed families to 36), 7 of whom had no previous connection to the Clayton campus. However we look at things from this time last year, we see serious progress. There is reason to think that God is moving through our fledgling ministry.

So what lies ahead for the second year? As much progress as we have made, many exciting opportunities/challenges are still in front of us. We continue to look for a worship and music director to replace Eric Stiller so he can focus more on his primary duty of pastoring Trio. We continue to need help with set-up and tear down and the children’s ministry is always looking for people willing to help out with kids. The Stephen Gray study on fast growing church plants pointed out that we have some notable gaps in our ministry. A proactive stewardship program, conducting leadership training for members, having a new members class and providing a fully developed children’s program and teen ministry all contribute to growth in church plants. So, our leadership is examining all these possibilities and some of these programs will be added very soon (e.g. we will start a new members class in January). If you are interested in any of these existing or potential new ministries, let me know and we will get you plugged in as soon as we can.

Whenever the people of God start something new, there are always serious and heart-felt questions: 'Where are we going to get the resources to do this? What if this doesn’t work?' Certainly, we will have those questions as we face the challenges of this second year. But I want to remind you that one year ago, some were asking these questions, not about some new program we might add to West County Fellowship, but about our very existence! God has been faithful over this past year. There is every reason to think He will remain the same over the coming year. And just think where that faithfulness might take us!

To God be the glory!

Your Pastor,

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"I Need to Believe Something Extraordinary Can Happen"

In 2001, Russel Crowe and Jennifer Connelly appeared in the movie A Beautiful Mind. The film chronicled the tortured but ultimately triumphant love story between mathematicians Alicia Nash and her schizophrenic husband, John Nash. Anyone who has had a loved one suffer with mental illness knows the anguish wanting desperately to help but also feeling completely powerless before the disease... watching your own life pulled apart by the illness of the person you love.

There is a scene in the movie where Russell Crowe's character almost accidentally drowns his infant son in the bathtub because of his delusions. His wife is now at her wits end and gets in the car to leave her husband and the insanity behind. But he pleads with her to stay and there is the powerful and touching conversation between the two. She says "I need to believe that something extraordinary can happen."

That is what I hope this blog and the ministry of West County Fellowship will be about: holding out an extraordinary hope. Its not that the people of West County Fellowship are extraordinary... in fact, we are quite ordinary folk in many ways... but even ordinary people need extraordinary hope. And these ordinary people in turn are holding out this extraordinary hope to others who need it.

This blog will often follow the sermon series at West County Fellowship, elaborating on ideas from those messages. Sometimes we will discuss the things that matter to us as a ministry or just give updates on events. But it is our design that this will be a forum where you can hear about the extraodinary hope the God offers in the life, death and resurrection of Christ as well as asks questions and react to the things you read. We "hope" you will find it encouraging and perhaps even life changing!