I am about to begin a new phase of following God's call on my life. I will become the co-pastor of a brand new church here in Fort Worth.
No, I am not leaving my law practice. This pastorate will be a true "tentmaking" venture, meaning that I am maintaining my full-time job (as is Jim Pannell, my co-pastor) and serving as a volunteer pastor of this new congregation. This call came to me a year ago, and after a year of prayer and introspection, I am ready - yea, excited and anxious - to move forward. I covet your prayers.
A little background...
When I was 15 years old, on a youth mission trip in an out-of-the-way place called Skidway Lake, Michigan, I surrendered my life to “full-time Christian service.” Oh, I had been a Christian as long as I remember. I was baptized at the tender age of 8. I was raised by two seminarians, was active in the church, and could say the books of the Bible backwards. I knew I was going to heaven. But it was not until the age of 15 that I began to comprehend what it means to call Jesus “Lord” as well as “Savior.”
At that time, living on the buckle of the Bible belt in Nashville, Tennessee, I thought that “full-time Christian service” meant that I had to become pastor of a church. God had other ideas. I began an internal struggle with myself and with God. I thought I HAD to become a professional minister because I did not really understand what else “full time Christian service” could mean. I prayed regularly. I got good advice from a lot of people, including most notably from my seminary-graduate father, who told me, “If you can be happy doing anything other than pastoring, do that.”
And then, one morning on a family vacation in Pensacola, Florida in the summer of 1985, I knew. I know that sounds either hyper-mystical or just nuts to some of you, but I simply woke up that morning and was certain that I was not called by God to be a full-time pastor, not directed to seminary, not summoned to the so-called “professional ministry.”
I never second-guessed that understanding of God’s will for my life… that call… and I never understood it to be anything other than the word that the full-time pastorate was not for me. I had by that point in my life come to understand that I was not gifted in ways that full-time pastors require – I do not have what is commonly known as “pastoral vision.” I am not equipped for the day-to-day administrative and ministry requirements of that job. I knew then, however, that I do have gifts that made deciphering my call complex. Those gifts are in the areas of speaking, teaching, wisdom, and leadership. I resolved that very summer day on the beach that my understanding of God’s call did not mean that I should not use my spiritual gifts and talents to my fullest ability to the glory of God. The trick for me was finding out how to use what God had given me in ways other than as a full-time pastor.
I have tried my best to live up to that commitment. I have taught Sunday School for thirty years. I was ordained as a deacon at the age of 27. I have written two books and numerous articles and even a couple of choir anthems. This blog has been a place for me to share what God has laid on my heart. I have served my churches on committees and through music and in fellowship. I have had opportunities to preach and lead retreats and speak to various groups, even while polishing my skills as a lawyer and a community presence. I hope my co-workers will tell you I have been an ambassador for Christ at the office - although I confess to falling short on that front all too often. My family, who know me best, are most aware of my multiple failings and probably (they are too polite, usually, to say it to my face) shake their heads at the idea of me as a pastor. I have sought out my pastors and ministers and striven to be a sounding board for them and to lend them a word of direction when it was appropriate. I am sure that has made me a pest at times, for I am not perfect, but my motivation has always been to use my gifts and talents for the Father.
I have also learned. I have paid attention. I have studied and listened. I believe that God has been preparing me for what He has prepared for me – this call to this church at this time.
I am very churchy. I have been accused of being “too churchy,” but I have never shied away. I have never wavered in my belief that we Christians simply must be an active part of the local church. I believe that the church is the Body of Christ, so Christ reaches the world with our arms, and Christ speaks to the world through our voices, and Christ changes the course of the world through our minds. I know that Christians can and do act independently, but there is no substitute for the corporate body of the church, moving together – with Jesus as our head – to fulfill His mission.
But the importance of the church is more than serving the world. The church is crucial for each one of us as we grow and obey. Charles Wesley was onto something when he wrote the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Our Christian life falters when we try to do it alone. We must join together to hear the Word of God preached. We need to witness baptism and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is essential that we come together to share our stories and bear our burdens and lift up our prayers together. We are obligated to hear and teach and discuss holy scripture together.
Over the last couple of years, I have been drawn to a friendship with a man who has become a part of my Sunday School class, a man named Jim Pannell. One day last summer, as he and I sat down to eat our sushi lunch, Jim dropped this bombshell: “Lyn, God is calling me back into the ministry, and I believe that God wants you to join me in starting a new church.” I sat there with what I am sure was an idiotic expression on my face as he laid out what God has placed on his heart, and I found myself nodding and asking questions as my excitement grew. It was not until that evening, however, when I began to discuss the possibility with my wife Gena, that I was sure. I was not two sentences into what Jim had said when she interrupted me and said, “Yes, of course you should do this. This is meant for you.”
And so, we – Jim and I, Gena and I, Jim and Amy and Gena and I - have spent nearly a year talking and planning and praying, and I have never felt anything but affirmation from the Father that this is His plan. You see, I still do not have all the gifts that a full-time pastor needs, but this team approach is perfect, for Jim has vision in spades. What Gena was saying, I believe, and what I heard God saying over a dragon roll and what I have continued to hear God say, is that this is where I have been heading. This is how I can now best use those gifts from God.
So, what do I want this church to be? How do I envision it? Let me hasten to say that my wants or Jim’s wants are not what this church will be about, for God is sovereign and Jesus is our Leader. But I believe that God works through His children, and I believe that He is working right now through all of us.
You are aware of – and weary of – what has happened in our politics and our dialog and our public interaction. If I could put a word on it, it is extremism. I am not lumping every office-holder, every candidate, or every policy into that boat … but as a rule, we have become a society where everyone has circled up with his or her own allies to defend what is, for the moment, precious; as a result, too many have demonized, and even more have mistrusted, all those who have taken a different route. What unites us dwarfs what divides us, but you would never know that from social media or television news.
The same thing has happened in our churches. In my Baptist world, a perceived liberal slant of some seminaries led to a hard-right push that resulted in a new fundamentalism punctuated by political hardball tactics, with dismayed public reactions from those who suddenly perceived themselves on the outside of power. Unsurprisingly, labeling and splits and new fellowships and organizations were quick to follow. Now, those groups are subdividing, as issues as old as Calvinism and as new as transgender recognition force adherents of cells that were like-minded yesterday into opposite corners today. (If your background is not Baptist, don’t sit there smugly. The exact issues may not be the same, but Presbyterians and Episcopals and Methodists are going through a similar metamorphosis.) It has also happened with worship. Some claim that a contemporary style is required for evangelism because it is said to be the only possible way to reach seekers, while others hold to a formal liturgy as the only true means of honoring God. Still others have tried to please everyone, leading to what my former pastor Frank Lewis called: “The Blended Service, guaranteed to offend everybody.”
Not every churchgoer holds to these extremes, of course. There are plenty of worshipers who go with the flow and can worship with pipe organ or electric guitar. But these folks are too often caught in the crossfire between the true-believing extremists, and the results often leave many dissatisfied.
One more point before I say what I want this church to be. I am disappointed and exasperated by what I see and hear from many of our churches. I agree with Professor Roger Olson, who says:
"[M]any American evangelical churches are almost totally devoid of theology. I have been a theology professor of thousands of students in three Christian universities over almost thirty years. During that time, I have noticed a downward trend in terms of Christian students’ biblical and theological awareness. I have also noticed that trend in the churches I have attended. Whereas thirty years ago … most evangelical churches taught Bible stories …, most have moved to the most vapid “study” of ethical and moral issues … [instead of] biblical teaching and the study of doctrines. Many churches and Christian youth organizations have simply abdicated their responsibility to teach basic Christian beliefs so that Christianity seems to many … a shallow religion of self-fulfillment with God’s help. This … 'Christless Christianity' … is simply pervasive in American church life."
I share Dr. Olson’s frustration. I am not interested in a church that focuses on self-help and discussions of ethical issues that could happen just as successfully on a park bench or around a table at Chili’s. If church is not at the same time a cathedral and a hospital and a home and a place of confession and honesty and accord and a place where the truths of scripture – all the truths of scripture – are proclaimed, it is not – to me - a church.
So, what do I want, what is it that I hope to lead, what is it that I believe that God is forming?
First, it is a church that honors God in everything we do - in worship and preaching and ordinance and prayer, in ministry and mission locally and nationally and internationally, in fellowship and hospitality - focused on Jesus Christ and holy scripture and His teachings, whether or not they are popular, politically correct, or guaranteed to draw a crowd.
Second, I want this to be a church where everyone not only is welcome but feels welcome, no matter what extreme they may have espoused. For the non-Christians, this church must be a place they can enter and meet Jesus or, if they have met Jesus but are not yet a follower, this must be a place where they can learn Christ and see Him modeled in all we do. For the believers, we should be a congregation where the fundamentalist, the liturgist, the Calvinist, the emergent churcher, the liberal, the traditional Southern Baptist, the intellectual, the non-denominational megachurch-goer, and everyone in between can all sit down and worship together. To be sure, Jim and I are traditional Baptists; we will teach and hold to doctrine and behaviors and practices that will not suit all those folks, at least initially, but we will not shut the door, literally or figuratively, on any of them.
Third, it will be a place where worship is done with excellence, with purpose, and based on a classic tradition. I have nothing against rock-n-roll church, nor do I find fault with high church ceremony; but there are many other places in Fort Worth where worshipers can find either. We can only be who we are and what God has planted.
If Jesus is our Lord, it cannot be just on Sundays. I have nothing against full-time professional ministers; many of my closest friends are just that, and I am certain they are fulfilling God’s call for them. But there are other models, and this new opportunity presents the challenge to Jim and me of leading this church on the Lord’s Day and following Christ’s call in our 9-to-5 jobs throughout the week. Paul was a tentmaker even while he preached, and there is a great tradition of those walking in that path. I feel the call – the great privilege and honor – to model what it can be to serve our Lord both in this church and in the courtroom, where my so-called “regular job” requires me. If I can help someone else expand his or her ministry into following Christ in all parts of life, then this entire venture will have been worthwhile.
I look forward with anticipation and humility and great joy to what God lays out before us. I suspect that those of you who read this blog may see some of my sermons showing up here, because I will be using what God says to me in that way, and this seems a natural place to share.
It will be an adventure...