Thursday, November 1, 2018

Church Plant in the Larsen Community

Several years ago, Southside Baptist Church adopted the 2020 Vision Plan. This document has served as our road map in several critical areas, including reshaping our governance, clarifying our statement of beliefs, and affirming our mission to reach the lost in Jacksonville and around the world. One of the goals outlined is that we will “plant churches to meet the needs of specific cultures and language groups that God brings into our community.” I specifically challenged our congregation to plant five new churches by the year 2020.

By God’s grace, Southside has already served as the sending church for two new churches in Jacksonville -- Southside Karen Baptist Church (2012) and The City Church (2015). In addition, we are supporting church plants in Toronto, Canada (Hamilton Fellowship) and Orlando (Grace Alive Church). Because of your generosity and commitment to the Gospel, Southside is continuing to make a huge impact for the Kingdom through church planting.

We have also been involved on the other end of two churches’ lifecycles. In 2017 we assumed the property of the Silver Glyn Baptist Church in Arlington which now serves as the home of Southside Karen Baptist Church. In 2009, we acquired the property of the Paul Avenue Baptist Church in the Larsen community. For several years now, we have used this property to operate the Larsen Outreach Center. We have ministered to the residents of Larsen by offering Bible studies, recovery groups, clinics, food distribution, Backyard Bible Clubs, and various other ministries. We also played an integral role in getting clean potable water into this long-forgotten neighborhood. While these ministry efforts have been positive, it has been a challenge to connect the residents of Larsen with the church and ultimately with the Gospel without a physical church presence in the community.

Meanwhile, one of our daughter churches from the 1950’s, San Jose Baptist Church, has also been faithfully building the Kingdom through church planting. One of San Jose’s efforts has been to establish a house church in the Englewood community called Immersion Fellowship. This new work began in January of this year and within a few short months has already outgrown the house of their pastor, Ted Corby. Since Englewood and Larsen are so close in proximity, a conversation started between Ted, San Jose Baptist, and Southside about the possibility of partnering to expand the ministry of Immersion Fellowship into the Larsen community while offering them a facility in which to continue their ministry. 

We have developed a Church Sending Agreement that would bring Immersion Fellowship under the umbrella of Southside Baptist Church. As part of this agreement, Immersion would move to the Larsen Outreach Center and help us continue to reach the residents of Larsen with the Gospel. We will vote to adopt this agreement at our Annual Church Members Meeting on Sunday, November 18, at 10:30 a.m. I will have the pleasure of introducing Ted and Marie Corby to you this Sunday, November 4, at 11 a.m,. during this week’s ministry moment. Please join me in praying for Immersion Fellowship and the residents of the Larsen community as together we seek to build the Kingdom across the street and around the world.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

What's Next?

Ten years as the pastor of Southside Baptist Church

In October of 2008 Sheri and I returned to Southside where I had been called to serve as senior pastor. I had never been a senior pastor, nor had I sought that position. My reasons for coming were fairly simple. First, I believed God was calling my family here. Reading Nehemiah 1 and 2, God confirmed that it was His will for me to join friends and family in rebuilding the walls of Southside Baptist Church. Second, I believed that I was uniquely positioned for the task. Not because of special gifting or talent, but because Southside had been my home, and that created a level of trust that would be necessary for any leader hoping to navigate treacherous waters. Third, I believed my previous experience as an associate pastor in an established church (130 years old) and in a church plant offered a balanced perspective that might serve Southside well. And finally, my wife, Sheri, whom God often uses in my life as the fourth voice of the Trinity, lovingly counseled me to take the step of faith. 

My approach to the work at Southside was also born from Nehemiah. After assessing the situation and developing a plan, we began to execute the plan to the best of our ability. Brick by brick, however, it became increasingly obvious that the goal could only be accomplished with God’s help. I made many mistakes along the way, but His faithfulness and the partnership of numerous men and women equally dedicated to the task, led us to accomplish much:

1.    Eliminated nearly $600,000 of debt that had crippled the church and was threatening to strangle it to death.
2.    Addressed nearly $1,000,000 of deferred maintenance without incurring additional debt. 
3.    Resolved the racial and ethnic tension that was setting in as the attendance of the Karen people increased while many English-speaking families had left or were leaving.
4.    Aligned our ministry processes around the priorities of Gather (worship), Grow (discipleship), and Go (Missions and evangelism).
5.    Acquired the Paul Avenue Baptist Church property and established the Larsen Outreach Center in 2010.
6.    Established the Southside Karen Baptist Church in 2012.
7.    Established The City Church in 2015.
8.    Established a Church Constitution outlining Southside’s first unique statement of faith.
9.    Completely revised the church bylaws, establishing a new form of governance that simplified our organization and better aligned it with the Biblical model.
10.  Established the “Invested Initiative” to address the church’s ongoing capital needs while creating a unified mission funding source.
11.  Aligned our deacon ministry with our small group strategy to more effectively provide member care while stressing the importance of small group discipleship.

This is not a list of my accomplishments. Rather, it is a list of what God has done through the faithful collaboration and cooperation of His people. I am honestly humbled and grateful to have been a part of this work. Many, if not most, of these tasks were outside of my experience and skill set. Looking back, I recognize that much of what has been required of me as senior pastor involved systems, strategies, and organizational planning. Those aren’t passions of mine and don’t necessarily lie in my areas of gifting. I like music. I like the theatre, and choirs, and orchestras. I like to read and write and create things. That being said, God clearly chose me for this position. Only He would get the glory for what has been accomplished. 

I praise Him for His faithfulness over these last ten years.

These “foundational building blocks” were essential for the good of the church and for her effectiveness in fulfilling Christ’s mission in the world. And foundations are an interesting thing. When they fulfill their purpose, they are unseen and underappreciated, yet essential to the integrity of the entire structure. In many ways, I feel like the work done over the last 10 years has been foundational -- critical, difficult, strategic -- but ultimately and correctly, hidden beneath the surface.

As I began to reflect on my ten years at Southside and what might lie ahead, I asked God to speak in the way He spoke in 2008. I spent time with other local pastors who had served their congregations for more than ten years and asked what they had learned. I read books by long-tenured pastors and executives who had effectively lead their organizations over many years and through numerous changes. I would love to tell you that all these efforts have led to some great discovery. They have not. They have, however, led me back to the same God who called me to Southside. If some “secret sauce” for successfully entering a second decade of leadership is to be found, it will be a recipe of His making.

Through prayer, I came to believe that Southside doesn’t need the leader they called 10 years ago. They need a leader for the next decade. The work that was done, while important, will not be the work necessary for the future. The question confronting me now is, “Can I be that leader?” Honestly, I cannot answer that question with any more confidence than I could in 2008. I just don’t know.

During my initial interview back in 2008, sitting in Tom and NeeCee Lee’s house, the search committee described the church’s dire circumstances. Someone asked me directly, “How would you fix this?” That was the easiest question I was asked all night. “I can’t fix it,” I said. “But neither can any other leader, regardless of what they say in an interview. Only God can fix this.” 

Ten years later, even though I do not think Southside needs to be “fixed,” I still stand by that answer. I still have no idea what I’m doing. My only hope and confidence is in the same Savior who calls His bride and who called me to serve her. If He doesn’t show up and lead us, we are in serious trouble, no matter who sits in my office. 

Am I the person best suited to shepherd Southside going forward? My best answer is: I hope so. I would love nothing more than to invest myself in one local church for the rest of my life. However, there is a lot of selfishness in that desire, so I hold it with open hands. I had that same desire when I was living in Huntsville, and in Marietta, before that. If I had held too tightly to that desire then, I wouldn’t be here now. So I’ve surrendered that desire to the Lord and am allowing Him to direct me however He sees fit. I believe He called me here and I do not believe that call has changed. And so, I get up every day and try to do the next right thing. 

Decades are built with years, years are made of months and weeks, weeks are made of days, and days are filled with moments. While I am thankful for a decade full of moments, I recognize that we are here, together, now, in thismoment. We are accountable for what we will do with it and all the moments that may follow. Long range plans, compelling visions, and goals are important, but looking back to 2008, I don’t remember having a compelling vision or clear goals. I just remember praying a lot. I don’t mean hours of intense mountaintop prayer retreats where angels attended my needs while manna fell from heaven. I mean “Jesus help us!” prayers whispered under my breath and out loud in the middle of whatever crisis we were facing!

So, if God allows me to serve as Southside’s senior pastor for another day, another week, month, year, or decade, here is how I’d like my time here to be remembered:

1.    He was a man of Christ-like integrity and character who loved God, his wife, family, friends and community well.
2.    He continued to faithfully teach and preach the full counsel of God.
3.    He launched a house church network where people were engaged, equipped, and empowered to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in their homes and neighborhoods.
4.    He shifted his focus from systems and structures to people and relationships.
5.    He helped Southside fulfill her 2020 Vision[1].
6.    He led Southside to pray, dream, and seek God for a “Second-Century Vision.”
7.    He led Southside to become an increasingly healthy church that reproduced healthy churches and helped other churches become healthier.
8.    He enlisted, equipped, and empowered vocational and lay leaders who are faithfully serving the Church in Jacksonville and around the world.
9.    He never stopped praying, “Jesus, help us.”
10.  He finished well.

Perhaps it is unfair that I’m not required to stand for re-election. After all, Southside has changed a lot in ten years. Many of our current members were not here in 2008 and had no say in the matter. I am also not the same man I was ten years ago. When Sheri and I returned to Jacksonville, our kids were 11, 9, 6, and 5. Two are now in college and the other two in high school. Sheri was a stay-at-home mom. She now has a career and is pursuing a graduate degree. We’ve all changed. We’ve been blessed and tested over the years. The challenges have been immense, the opportunities have been plentiful, and through it all, God has remained faithful. We have learned, loved, cried, grown, and tried. We’ve really tried. If God gives us another ten years together, we cannot promise success, but can assure you that God will be faithful as He always is. I can also say that I will do my utmost to honor Him and love His church until He comes or calls me home.

On behalf of myself, Sheri, and our children, I would like to thank you for your love, prayers, and support. We are blessed beyond measure and we love you all.

“But I do not account my life of any value or as precious to myself if only I may finish my race and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus to testify to the Gospel of the grace of God.” – Acts 20:24

Grace and Peace,
Gary



[1]For a description of the current status of the 2020 Vision Plan and my recommendations for finishing the vision, please read the document titled, “2018 Update of the 2020 Vision Plan.”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Day 88 – Proximity

Read: John 13:31-38

Proximity control is a technique many teachers use to manage the behavior of their students. The concept is rather simple: as a student becomes more disruptive or deviates from the assigned task, the teacher moves nearer to that student. The closer the proximity, the greater the likelihood the student will stop the unwanted behavior. Proximity control works as long as the teacher stays nearby.
Religion is sometimes used as a form of spiritual proximity control. As long as religious institutions, symbols and friends are nearby; we tend to toe the ethical line, but as the distance from these reminders increases, so can our awareness of God. But God is not satisfied with proximity nor does proximity to God mollify the deepest longing of our hearts. The human heart was designed for more than proximity; it was designed for intimacy.
Some seek intimacy through irreligious means: sex, wealth, security, power, fame. Perhaps the disciple who most reflected this approach was Judas. His financial greed, coupled with his disappointment in Jesus' failure to seize power, revealed his irreligious motives.  Others, like Peter, seek intimacy through religion, attempting to put themselves in proximity to God by going to church and doing religious things. Peter had correct theology, right answers, and was zealous (see Matthew. 14:29; 16:16 and John 18:10). It is easy to assume that God prefers the religious over the irreligious efforts, but while religion can make us aware of our proximity to God, it doesn't necessarily guarantee intimacy with Him. Proximity to God is not a substitute for intimacy with Him.
One of the most striking features of John 13 is the juxtaposition of love and betrayal, glory and treachery. These opposites are never as far apart as we think. The difference between them may be the difference between proximity and intimacy. Both Judas and Peter, perhaps the two disciples in closest proximity to Jesus, left the upper room and betrayed Him. Judas, for 30 pieces of silver, and Peter to save face. 
While Judas and Peter offer examples of the failures of proximity, both religious and irreligious, there was another disciple present in the upper room who demonstrated the power of intimacy: “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask who it was of whom He spoke. Then, leaning back on Jesus’ breast, he said to Him, ‘Lord, who is it?’” (13:23-24, NKJV, italics mine).
Over the past 90 days, we have journeyed together with the Gospel writer John to this critical moment, the moment that I believe defines "the disciple Jesus loved." Which disciple was that? Was it Peter with his bold proclamations of faith, or Andrew with his consistent witness? Perhaps it was Nathanael or Thomas and their questioning spirits, or Judas and his frugality? No, it was none of these. Please don't misunderstand. Jesus loved all of these men. But "the Disciple Jesus loved" was the disciple who drew near enough to rest his head on Jesus' chest.
I've thought a lot about this. I've asked myself, "When was the last time I rested my head on a man's chest?" As a man, I find that to be an awkward question. After all, men don't typically rest their heads on other men's chests. What would it take for me to assume such a posture? Trust, humility, love, surrender, freedom, and security are just a few of the words that come to mind.
While John doesn't specifically name this disciple, we know that the Gospel writer is talking about himself. We also know that John's intimate relationship with Jesus led him to be the only disciple to follow Jesus all the way to the cross physically. The intimacy of their relationship also led Jesus to entrust the care of His mother to John.
What about you? Have you confused proximity to Christ for intimacy with Him? Have you allowed religious rituals and correct theology to replace your need to draw near to Jesus, to lay your head on His chest? If you are more like Peter than John, perhaps you should read Peter's warning very carefully: "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). Even though Peter's denial happened years earlier, it was surely on his mind as he wrote these words. Words that echoed the warning Jesus gave just hours before Peter's denial, "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41). Peter thought that his proximity to Jesus was sufficient to protect him. It was not, and he bore the scars to prove it.
The disciple Jesus loves encourages us to seek real intimacy with God through Jesus. "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8). Rest your head on His chest. Draw near enough to Him that you can rest your head on His chest. Be still and hear the rhythm of His heart.
Jesus,

May I never be satisfied with proximity when You have invited me into an intimate relationship. Forgive me for my religious and irreligious attempts to find that intimacy. Like John, I want to draw near to You, to hear Your voice and feel the beat of Your heart. Thank You for making intimacy possible. Thank You for the price You paid so that I might be able to know You and draw near to You.


Amen

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Day 87 – Judas’s Feet

Read: John 13:1-30

One of the great ironies captured in John's Gospel is Judas's participation in the events that took place in the Upper Room.  John doesn't mention that any of the disciples, other than Peter, refused or even resisted Jesus as He knelt to wash their feet.  Perhaps Peter was the first person Jesus approached. Maybe their exchange defused any resistance the others might have had.  Maybe the disciples were all too shocked to say anything. Whatever the reason, there is no evidence that anyone other than Peter argued with Jesus, not even Judas, whose feet were certainly among those Jesus washed that evening.  That had to be difficult for both men.  Judas, knowing what he was about to do; Jesus, knowing that not only was Judas going to betray Him but that he was willing to sit and allow his feet to be washed by the Man he was about to betray. Why didn't Judas resist Jesus' attempt? He had not failed to voice opposition when Mary knelt to wash Jesus' feet (John 12:4-8).
Maybe Judas saw the act of foot washing as the final straw. Maybe it was all Judas needed to finalize his decision to betray Him.  After all, a real Messiah would never bow down to perform such a lowly task. Perhaps Judas reasoned that if Jesus was stupid enough to wash his feet, He apparently couldn't know what was in his heart, and if He didn't know what was in his heart, He couldn't be who He claimed to be.
Of course, Jesus did know, and after washing all 24 feet, Jesus revealed that He would soon be betrayed. The revelation stirred the group, who tasked John with asking Jesus about the identity of His betrayer.  Jesus chose to quietly expose Judas to John by discreetly handing him a piece of bread. John tells us that as soon as Judas took the bread from Jesus, "Satan entered into him" (John 13:27).  What had only moments before served as a foreshadowing and symbol of Jesus' broken body, was now the very thing used to expose the one whose betrayal would result in Jesus' body being broken.
Judas, with his feet cleansed by Jesus' hands, with his belly full of the bread that symbolized Jesus' broken body, with his mouth moist with the wine representing Jesus' blood, left to betray the Savior of the world.  John punctuates his account of these events with the simple sentence, "And it was night." John's phrase is more than a reference to the time of day.  It takes us back to John's prolog where he told us that Jesus came to bring light into our darkness.  John warned us, however, that some preferred darkness. Some still do.
Jesus,

Because Your hands have washed my feet, may my feet walk in Your ways.
Because my hunger has been satisfied by You, the Bread of Life,
may I use the strength of my body to serve You.
Because my deepest thirst has been quenched by Your blood,
may my mouth speak forth Your praise for all of my days.


Amen

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Day 86 – The Other Foot

Read: John 13:1-9

I have spent my entire adult life in a career in which I am privileged to help other people. Responding to the needs and crises of others is a big part of what I do, and I love doing it. So in 2003 when the proverbial shoe was on the other foot, I struggled to accept the kind of help I had found so much joy in offering others. My mom’s unexpected illness and death, my wife’s prolonged bed rest with our fourth child, that child’s premature birth, and another child’s diagnosis with a chronic disease all left our family reeling and desperate for help. Because we have been blessed to be a part of loving, Christ-like congregations, there was never a shortage of individuals willing, wanting and even demanding to help us. But even as they joyfully and willingly served my family, I couldn't help feeling bad about the help they were offering.
That may be the way the disciples felt as Jesus knelt to wash their feet. It was certainly how Peter felt. His unwillingness to allow Jesus to wash his feet was a protest against the very humility Jesus said is essential to enter His Kingdom.  Peter rightfully acknowledged that Jesus should not be the one washing feet.  The idea that the God of the universe, the One who formed the stars and holds the planets in place, whose hands had made the mountains and carved out the depths of the oceans, that this very God would kneel before twelve men and wash their dirty feet is scandalous! It was Peter and the rest of the disciples who should have been washing Jesus’ feet.  I suspect that Peter knew that if he allowed Jesus to wash his feet, the tables would be turned, signifying a radically different world order. A world in which power is not derived by being served, but by serving.
And there was the problem I faced in 2003. I had come to accept Jesus' invitation to serve others, not as a sign of humble submission, but as a sign of power. If I was the one holding the towel, then I was the one in charge. To be on the receiving end was a sign of weakness and need. Like Peter, my unwillingness to be served was evidence of pride. And pride, even if it is found in helping others, will separate you from God. "If I do not wash your feet," Jesus told Peter, "you can have no part of me." Peter replied, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head" (John 13:8-9).
Wanting nothing more than to be with Jesus, Peter relented and allowed Jesus to wash his feet. I am glad to tell you that I made the same painful choice and it has made all the difference, not only in how I receive help but in how I offer it to others.
Do you have trouble accepting help from other people? Have you ever thought that perhaps, like Peter, that could be evidence of a pride that is separating you from God? Are you quicker to pick up the towel than you are to roll up your pants? Perhaps it’s time to set the water basin down and allow Jesus to teach you a lesson in humility.
Humble Jesus,

Forgive me for allowing my service to others to become a source of pride.
Wash away the filth of my pride and teach me to receive from
You the mercy that will keep me Your humble servant.


Amen

Monday, April 10, 2017

Day 85 – The Mind of Jesus

Read: John 13:1-3

The beginning of chapter 13 offers important insights into the mind of Jesus. Insights that help us understand why He was willing to wash the disciples' feet and, more importantly, to lay down His life. Insights that may also reveal why the rest of us often struggle to serve the needs of others selflessly.
John tells us that Jesus knew:

  • That His hour had come (13:1)
  • That the Father had given all things into His hands (13:3)
  • That He had come from God (13:3)
  • That He was going back to God (13:3)
It all comes down to personal security. Jesus was the only completely secure human being ever to live.  He was secure in His Father’s provision and timing. He was secure in His own position. And He was secure in His ultimate destiny. 
With security comes the freedom to be humble. An entirely secure person has nothing to prove and no one to impress, but it's difficult for an insecure person to be humble.  Insecure people are so concerned with their own standing and position that they cannot risk humility and the acts of service it might require.
Jesus could kneel and wash the disciples' feet and endure the shame and humiliation of the cross because He knew who He was, Who had sent Him, and where He was going. Humility is the faith to believe that God has not forgotten you.  It is the faith to say, "I know I am God's and He is mine."  Without faith in God's love, it is not just difficult; it is impossible to be humble.  Without humility, we can never stoop to the level of service Jesus modeled and called us to practice. That is why the writer of Hebrews tells us that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6).
Do you know who you are? More importantly, do you know Whose you are? Are you living with the confidence that God has given you everything you need to live in complete obedience to Him? Do you struggle with personal insecurities? Maybe you are compensating by working hard to convince others that you are strong enough, smart enough, resourceful enough, but in your effort to prove yourself, you’ve failed to take up the towel and basin.
Father,

Give me the faith to be completely secure in You.
 Forgive my insecurities and fears and the doubt they reveal.
Give me the humility of Christ
 and the confidence of knowing You even as He knows You.


Amen

Friday, April 7, 2017

Day 82 – Divine Oversight

JOHN CHAPTER 13

Read: John 13:1-5

The disciples had planned for what they didn't know would be their last meal with Jesus. The room was secured, the food was prepared, the disciples had gathered, everything was perfect -- well, almost everything. As they entered the room and began the meal, the disciples would have immediately recognized one small yet significant oversight. No one had secured the household servant to wash the feet of those entering the room. The streets of Jerusalem were dusty and sandal-clad feet were dirty. This was going to be a problem.
The menial task of washing feet was customarily the responsibility of the lowest, non-Jewish servant in the house.  Having borrowed the room for their Passover celebration, the disciples might have overlooked this minor, but important, detail. Finding no servant available had likely cast a cloud over the gathering.  Who had forgotten to secure the servant? Which one of them would perform this lowly task?  The evening progressed, the meal was served, and still no one volunteered to do what was certainly beneath even the least among them. The disciples were all too willing to jockey for positions of power (see Mark 10:37 and Matthew 20:21), but were reluctant to stoop to such an ignoble position as “chief foot washer.” 
After supper, Jesus seized the awkward moment and began to do what everyone knew should have been done, but no one was willing to do themselves.  By doing so, Jesus offered a convincing demonstration of one of the defining distinctions of His Kingdom. The image of Jesus washing the disciples' feet is the picture of what it means to be a servant leader. And all this because someone dropped the ball!
Our “oversights” often serve as opportunities for God to teach us better ways to live. I wonder if in our rush to fix, cover, recover, blame, and dodge, we are missing the point?  God uses our faux pas and failures to demonstrate and teach us about His grace and sufficiency. For it is in our weakness that His strength is made perfect. It is in our foolishness that His wisdom is made known. It is through our failures that we discover the sufficiency of His grace (1 Corinthians 1:25 and 3:19; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Sure, someone should have scheduled a foot-washer for the Passover celebration, but think about what we would have missed if they had. Maybe God is doing the same kind of work in your own mistakes and mishaps.
Jesus,

Thank You for redeeming my mistakes, oversights, and missteps.
Thank You that Your strength is made perfect in my weakness.
Help me to lay aside the pride that tempts me to cover up, blame and dodge my failures, and in so doing, miss the redemption You have already planned for me.


Amen