Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Milestones: #5 Opportunities

So be careful how you live.  Don't live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. - Ephesians 5:15-16

The fifth milestone in this challenge is an opportunity from Christ that was life-changing.

Several years ago, Jesus began a new awakening within me. I began to see that healthy churches don't simply grow, they multiply.  I've learned that this involves intentionality and strategy, but it only truly happens as God adds members to His church.  I began to dream of what it would look like for the church I was serving in to follow God's leading into planting churches that plant churches who plant churches.  I began to dream of teamwork and a network, not for the sake of systems and programs, but to reach people with the love of Jesus Christ.

What would it look like to open every avenue possible to reach people who are far from God?  What would it look like to make disciples of Jesus instead of consumers of religion/doctrine/heritage?  What would it look like to develop a leadership pipeline in order to see the Kingdom of Heaven expand on earth?  Would it look like to collaborate and develop/share resources, instead of competing?

For over three years these thoughts started to become dreams.  The dreams became more and more clear as a vision.  I just had no idea how they were supposed to unfold. 

Summer 2015, quite out of the blue came a call from the "Church Plant Team" of the Louisiana Congregational Ministries of the Church of God (LCMCOG).  I say "out of the blue" because my name really wasn't out there as someone looking to make a change in ministry (although several conversations had taken place with congregations in Florida, and God simply wasn't leading us to any of them). Shelly and I were asked to meet with this Church Plant Team at the North American Convention of the Church of God in Oklahoma City. 

Opportunity.  They were seeking a church planter to begin a new mission in one of several communities they had been praying over.  My name had come up (I'm still unsure how, as no one related to me ever mentioned me to them).  Their plan was presented.  I shared my heart and this vision.  We were on the same page, and God was doing the writing.

Opportunity.  Within a couple of weeks, they contacted me and asked me to pray about accepting the call, and their invitation, to come to Louisiana and begin a brand new church mission.  For almost three months, we prayed, fasted, sought wise counsel, and prayed some more.  And then we prayed again.  It was after an especially moving prayer time one morning with a pastor friend of mine, that Shelly and I straight-talked everything... and prayed once again... this time, we both knew this was the move we would be taking.

Jesus provided a new opportunity.  And it has certainly been life-changing!  Moving to Natchitoches, LA, where we knew no one, to plant a new church... new school for the kids... no friends... challenges of having a child with autism... having to raise funds like a missionary, when the majority of established churches don't see you as a missionary... transitioning from preparing for Sunday to preparing to give birth to a healthy church... and, oh so much more!

Right now, we are just over three months to this adventure, and we're definitely seeing God do things that we could not possibly do.  A friend, and mentor, of mine once told me, "Planting a church will be the most difficult, and at the same time, most rewarding thing you ever do."  So far, so true!

There's a lot of opportunities if you know when to take them, you know?  Awaken Church.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Milestones: #4 Awake, O Sleeper!

Today, I continue to gather 7 specific life/ministry milestones, and stack them as an altar of worship and gratitude to God.

Milestone #4 is a scripture that has come alive in your heart to guide/shape your life.

Over the years, Jesus has brought many words of Scripture alive in my heart to guide and shape my life.  Just a few that come to mind... Psalm 30:11-12... Isaiah 43:19... 1 Peter 1:6-7... Matthew 7:12...

Just over a year ago, God very clearly called me, and my family, to relocate and plant a new church.  It's been a year of praying, pastoring, and preparing.  Earlier this year we began to pray specifically about what this new mission would be called.  As we prayed and brainstormed, I continued seeking God though His Word.  In studying the letter of Ephesians, in the New Testament, this passage jumped right out of the writer's charge to this ancient church to live as "Children of Light" in a dark world, relying upon God's Holy Spirit guidance into relationships:

...for the light makes everything visible.  This is why it is said, "Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light." -Ephesians 5:14

God's calling in my life was a wake-up call.  The call to plant a new church was a wake-up call.  The call to move out of my own comfort zone was a wake-up call.

As a recent pop song puts it, "All this time I've been finding myself, and I didn't know I was lost."

But this wasn't a call just for me.  This is the call of Christ to everyone.  To be awakened, to rise up from the death-like existence that we grow all too comfortable in.  To live wide awake - not to a religion or a tradition - but to a relationship with the One who is Light!

My private interaction with these Words began to grow in a public way of life. With new passion awakened within me, Jesus began to weave these Words into every aspect of my life.  Conversations, what I was reading, sermons I was preaching, and especially the songs I would hear.  To date, I have compiled 2 "Awaken" mix CDs of songs that have been keeping this Scripture alive in my heart, guiding and shaping my life (holla if you want the playlists).

Also, this is how we came to settle on the name for this new mission: Awaken Church.  But more on that  in the next blog entry.

What is a scripture that has come alive in your heart to guide/shape your life?

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Milestones: #3 SoFL Living

Let all that I am praise the LORD; may I never forget the good things He does for me.  - Psalm 103:2

In this challenge to set up personal milestones as an altar of worship & thankfulness, I come to the 3rd of 7: a blessing from Christ that was life changing.

Years ago, Shelly & I would visit my parents over the holidays.  My dad was given to watch the Weather Channel, especially in those winter months.  I would look at that map of the U.S., showing the blizzard threats, the freeze warnings, the some-what milder yet cold temps of the south... and then there was South Florida.  Most of the country ranged from 0-45 degrees, but South Florida registered temperatures in the 80s!  And sunshine!

I remember clearly thinking (and praying), "God, why can't I live there???"

To be completely honest, I detest Winter.  I don't even really like Fall.  Every year I attempt to keep these feelings to myself as long as possible, as I have come to realize that its pretty frustrating for people who keep asking, "Aren't you glad we're having cooler weather?"  Usually, I'm not glad at all about it.  I prefer year-round Summer, with maybe a dose of "Summer Lite" and some Spring.  The color changing of the leaves does absolutely nothing for me. Oh, it's pretty, but you know what is even prettier? GREEN!  Green grass.  Green trees. Year-round green is perfect for me!

To that point, I had been blessed to live in some great places: Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky, Oklahoma.  As beautiful as they were, and as much as I have truly enjoyed each place I have lived, they all interrupted my year with cold weather,and in several cases - snow (yuck!).

So, I would sit with my Dad, watching the Weather Channel over Christmas vacation, dreaming and praying, "God, why can't I live there?"

As life unfolded, I found myself at the beginning of 2005 sending out my resume to churches seeking a full-time youth pastor.  One of those was in Coral Springs, FL, a part of the Ft. Lauderdale metro area. It turned out to be my great joy to serve as the Associate Pastor of Coral Springs Community Church for nearly 3 years!

During that time, Jesus did so much in my life.  He helped me discover things about myself that I didn't know... or that I was in denial about.  Jesus met me in the middle of the mess going on in my heart & in my head, and brought healing to me spiritually and emotionally.  In the time we lived in South Florida, Jesus absolutely changed my life! I learned to rest (Sabbath) in Him, not in the opinions (or my perceived opinions) of others, nor in my own ability to produce results.  I learned to serve in a church full-time, while preparing for what was next (a Lead Pastor role).  I learned to find my fulfillment in my connection to Jesus, instead in my attachment to people and things.  I learned to forgive without being asked.  I learned to put God and my family before the ministry.

Also, I learned quite a bit of conversational Spanish (which I have pretty much lost since then) and to love Colombian food and Cuban Coffee (both of which I still partake in as much as I can)!

And, I learned to love the Ocean.  So very, very much.

I am tremendously thankful for the years Jesus guided my family to live, work, and play in South Florida.  While I am falling more and more in love with our new home in Natchitoches, LA, I may still have moments... on very cold days... if I happen to see the Weather Channel... and think...

Friday, September 30, 2016

Milestones: #2 Daddy

I'm writing a bit about milestones - those events, experiences, and people that are being stacked up as the altar of my life, bringing gratitude and honor to God, who makes the journey happen. Milestone #2 is a person whom the Lord specially involved in shaping/guiding your life.

Sometimes it can be difficult to just pick one.  This is one of those times.

There are numerous people that God has used in shaping and guiding my life.  I am in no way one of those "self-made" people. It's taken a bunch of folks, with different levels of influence, to make me who I am today... and who I am still becoming.  Teachers, friends, coaches, relatives, grandparents, and my parents, all contributing to my shape.

But since I had to choose one, I had to go with my Dad.

No one has a greater influence on our lives than our parents (or whomever the main parental figure(s) turn out to be).  Currently, our culture seems to be going through an epidemic of fatherlessness.  That was never my story.  My Dad was, and still is, fully present.  I didn't realize how difficult that was for a church pastor... until I became one myself.

In so many ways, I am nothing like my Dad.  There are some similarities though: I'm male, a husband, a father, and a pastor.  I cheer for the LSU Tigers and the New Orleans Saints.  I like donuts.  But none of those things are really how God used him in shaping and guiding my life.

My Dad showed me love.  He showed me how to love.

Jesus was, and is, Dad's top priority.  Then the family.

He showed me that I can be a pastor, completely all-in sold-out to the way of Jesus, and still have a great time.  Because he let God use him, my Dad, helped me become the husband, daddy, and pastor I am today.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Milestones: #1 The Call

Recently, I have had the blessing of becoming a part of a small group of pastors, who are beginning to meet together monthly for mutual encouragement and accountability.  We began with a challenge to reflect, celebrate, and share 7 specific milestones in our life/ministry.  Pick up a stone, and on it place words or drawings that represent these milestones.  Each one is determined by a set of "moments".  The first...

An encounter with Christ that was life changing.

To be honest, every one of the seven will be a representation of life-changing encounters with Jesus.  But here's my specific milestone moment...

An encounter with Christ that was life changing was what I simply refer to as "The Call." 

In 1994, my wife & I were driving down I-30, just west of Little Rock, AR.  I was working retail full time in Shreveport, LA.  I had kicked around several career options, and attended college in three different "spurts."  I had worked a while as a DJ in a night club.  I was 4 years happily married.

As we drove along, Shelly asleep in the passenger seat, I heard a voice.  Now, I'm not one who hears, nor claims to hear, an audible voice of God on even a remotely regular basis, but this was one time that I did.

"Stephen.  What are you doing?"

Now, I immediately understood that I was hearing from God, but my answer was, "Well, I'm driving home." Pretty lame, right?

The rest of the brief conversation was more like thoughts in my head & heart, instead of an audible voice. 

"Haven't you done everything you wanted to do?  Haven't you tried all the career paths you wanted to try?"


"Are you happy?"

"No.  I mean I am happy, but I'm also... empty."

"Isn't it time you let me do what I want to do in your life?"

"Yes."  I didn't need to hear anymore; I knew what was happening.  In the church world, we call it, "being called into the ministry."

"Preach my Word and work with young people."

That was it.  The Call.  The Call to something different.  The Call to be different, to make a difference.  The Call to come and die. 

I woke up Shelly and told her about the conversation.  I was even more nervous than when I had asked her to marry me.  She didn't marry a pastor.  She married a wild-child.  But I swallowed hard and told her, "I'm pretty sure God is calling me to become a pastor."

Her response? "Oh yeah, I know."


We proceeded to pray and seek wise counsel.  Within 6 months, we were relocating to Oklahoma City, OK, where I would attend Mid-America Christian University, while still working retail full time. 

The years since have been full of ups & downs, college degrees, continuing education, kids, leadership roles in churches and larger organizations, and today... planting a new church, which is absolutely rocking my world!

The Call was, and is, absolutely life-changing.  And I'm so happy that answered!

Friday, September 16, 2016

What is a "Healthy Church"?

For months I've been dreaming, listening, talking, processing, and preparing to "give birth" to a healthy church.  In preparation to share with our church plant team for Awaken Church this week, I began pondering if others know what I mean when I use the term "healthy church." In a moment of clarity, I opened the Bible to the book called Acts, and meditated on Acts 2:42-47.  Then, last night, our team discussed this as I mostly listened.  Here's where we landed:

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship and to sharing meals (including the Lord's Supper), and to prayer. - Acts 2:42

The apostles' teaching
The Word of God is the go-to resource for a healthy church.  Taking the eternal truths found in this ancient story is essential in knowing, and living out, the way of Jesus.  The Bible isn't simply to gain head knowledge, but it also impacts the heart and influences the hands.

The Fellowship
We like food.  Often we equate the term "fellowship" with food.  Many churches have an area they call "the Fellowship Hall."  What happens there? You eat.  But the Fellowship is about more than eating together (although that is a part of it).  The Fellowship is about people - about the whole church.  Fellowship is about being together with others, who may or may not be just like you, on a journey with a purpose - a mission.  Where there is a true Fellowship there is mutual trust and encouragement, as we worship Jesus together, and go together to carry out the mission of Jesus.  True unity is based solely on the mission of Jesus.

The Lord's Supper
One of my young friends gave us this great quote: "Breaking bread" shows love and brotherhood.  And this is specific bread... and specific wine.  The Lord's Supper is an everlasting reminder of Who Jesus is and what He has done (and is doing).  In the healthy church, Jesus is central and everything else revolves around Him.  Jesus is the Subject, which means nothing else is the subject.

The healthy church is "where 2 or more are gathered," and offer praise and thanks to the Creator.  The healthy church is where the Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged, and where the Holy Spirit reminds us of Who Jesus is.  The healthy church joins hands and drops to their knees, and in so doing, no one can be pushed or kicked out.  The healthy church is people who realize that we're all in some way unhealthy, and we can bring that to Jesus.  The healthy church is where everything we do is birthed out of prayer, and is bathed in prayer!

We have a culture that is so results-driven, that we can't help but ask, "So, what are the results when we do this?"  More than likely, when we first hear the question, "What is a healthy church?" we think in terms of growing numbers of people and finances.  And here is where the passage in Acts 2 takes us:

...and each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved." -Acts 2:47b

First of all, in the healthy church, it is understood that it is Jesus Himself who makes us a part of the church.  Followers of Jesus go to the Bible continually as we journey together on the mission of Jesus, because Jesus IS the subject... and prayer becomes an utmost priority.  And then, the Lord adds to the church!  He is the only One who can save, after all.  For 2,000 years this has been happening.  Jesus gives those who follow Him this charge (Matthew 28):  be disciples who make disciples who make disciples.  Be a church that sends people out, and doesn't simply gather people together to fill seats each week.  Be a church that plants churches that plant churches that plant churches.  A healthy church takes what God adds, and sees it multiply!

A while back I wrote from my experience 5 Things Thriving Churches Have in Common.  Those thoughts may help put this into a better perspective. 

What thoughts do you have about "what is a healthy church"?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Disappointment vs. Discouragement (how we keep going)

I have a good friend named Ashley.  In high school she was very athletic, enjoying full participation in several sports - basketball, cheer, softball... and a great player on the church volleyball team!  Then she blew her knee out.  It was bad.  I remember having conversations with Ashley, and while she had a lot of pain and disappointment, she seemed to never become totally discouraged.  Eventually, her knee healed up and she was able to be involved in athletics once more.

It's been several years since then, but the memory of Ashley's persistence in pushing through disappointment, and not falling prey to discouragement still awakens hope within me. 

Because, I'm a lot like you, I'd guess.  Disappointment happens.  Things don't go the way I expected.  People let me down.  I let people down.  Failure and frustration are a part of the journey.

Disappointment is to fail to fulfill one's expectations or wishes.  It happens.

I've known many people though, who, unlike my friend Ashley, become discouraged.  Literally, they lose the courage to continue with whatever path, relationship, event, whatever, that led to the disappointment.  Their knee blows out, and they quit.

Discouragement is akin to depression, despair and hopelessness.  It is being deprived of courage, of hope, or confidence. 

The reality is there will be disappointments in life.  The challenge is to not let disappointment become discouragement.  With failure, there is still hope!  With failed expectations, there is still courage and confidence to continue!

Where do you find this hope? ...this confidence?  Ultimately, I've had to find it outside of myself.  I have found that no matter what life throws at me and mine, there is One who is constant in hope.  A passage from the Bible writings of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:7) keep this hope in front of me: Blessed are those who trust in God, and have made God their hope and confidence.

For me, the key to facing disappointment, and not slipping into discouragement, is to trust in God.  No matter how good I think I am, or how amazing the team is that I have around me, disappointments will come.  Keeping my identity in Jesus, not in my abilities - no in the performance of others - keeps me filled with courage and hope!

How do you handle disappointment and keep from being discouraged?
Ashley encouraging others to keep going.