A Cup of Change

May 13, 2021

I have a lot of books of theology on my shelves. And, as a pastor, I am blessed to receive a lot of cards throughout the year. So, rather than throwing those cards out, I usually pick up a commentary and place the card inside it. I use the card as a bookmark when I happen to need that resource again and it’s a nice trip down memory lane to re-read the card. 

Recently I grabbed a commentary from the shelf and opened it up to find a card from Barbara Popp. She was my Fourth Grade Sunday School Teacher at First Baptist Church in Jackson, Missouri. She and her husband John had taught that class since the sixth day of creation, I think. They were mainstays at our church.

Barbara is also one of the most encouraging people I have ever known. Her chosen weapon for encouragement is: cards. When I graduated high school, she sent me a card. When I got married, she sent me a card. When I was ordained, she sent me a card. And when I returned to southeast Missouri to pastor First Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, she not only sent me a card, but hand delivered it to me one Sunday. Her words of affirmation and kindness remain with me to this day. Barbara exemplifies the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, where he says, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Perhaps you are a Barbara Popp in someone’s life. Perhaps you are the voice of love and encouragement that they need.

Our 2021 high school graduates from Ardmore Baptist Church have certainly had a strange last two years of high school, haven’t they? As they look towards the future and find their identity in the world, I hope that they take the voices of encouragement from our church with them.

In the lobby there are currently pictures of each of our graduates and some cards on a table. We are asking the church to take a moment to write a note of encouragement to each of our graduates (all cards are due by May 23). You never do know, they may come across your card years and years from now, stuck in a book that they would never have otherwise owned had it not been for your encouragement.

 

May 6, 2021

During my first semester of seminary, I had my first graduate course on the Bible. It was Hebrew Bible I, and I thought I would coast through this class. After all, I grew up going to church and reading the Bible. I felt that I knew the Old Testament, but I was surprised. It turns out that my Sunday School knowledge of the Old Testament had not prepared me for the rich treasures I found. I had been raised to read the Old Testament as simply a precursor to Jesus, but I found that on its own it is a beautiful, gracious, and compelling story that can shape our lives.

This is exactly the kind of experience Dr. Brent Strawn is hoping to instill in his readers with his new book, Lies My Preacher Told Me: An Honest Look at the Old Testament. Now, hopefully, y’all at Ardmore do not feel like your preacher lies to you! But Dr. Strawn’s tongue-in-cheek title refers to the ways that we can often misrepresent the Hebrew Bible in our churches. In the book, Dr. Strawn (who teaches at Duke Divinity School) moves through ten mistruths about the Old Testament such as:

  • The Old Testament is a Boring History Book
  • The Old Testament is Hyper-Violent
  • The Old Testament Isn’t Practically Relevant

In order for us to fully appreciate the overarching narrative of scripture, we need to let the Old Testament speak to us as it truly is instead of us proof-texting it to verify our already held beliefs. The Hebrew Bible has so much to say about issues such as proper worship, economic justice, and being honest before God with all that we are.

Brent Strawn, Divinity School Professor of Old Testament, at Duke Chapel. Strawn’s research focuses on ancient Near Eastern iconography, Israelite religion, biblical law, the Psalms, poetry, and Old Testament theology.

I hope you will join Dr. Strawn and me for our next Conversations that Matter on Monday, May 24, at 7:00 PM. I will be interviewing Dr. Strawn on his book and will ask him about how churches can treat the Old Testament in ways that are spiritually enriching so that we may have a fuller picture of both who we are called to be and who God truly is.

 

April 29, 2021

I am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Concluding Thoughts: From Challenges to Opportunities (p. 101-111)

In these final reflections on The Post-Quarantine Church, we will be looking at nine key changes Thom Rainer says will be essential for churches in the future. I’ll be offering my own thoughts and how I see these being lived out at Ardmore Baptist Church. Last week, we explored the first four of these changes and this week we will look at the final five.

5. Staff and Leadership Realignment Will Focus More on Digital Proficiency
When social media and streaming burst onto the world scene for churches, they were seen as tools to enhance ministry. Now we have realized they are ministry. So, as we look towards the future, how will we provide ministry leadership for our digital mission field? Ardmore Baptist Church has already invested in new streaming technology and other vital innovations. How can we build on that good work?

6. “Stragglers” Will Become a Subject of Outreach and Focus
Rainer defines “stragglers” as those people who are on the margins of a church’s life. Rather than “stragglers,” I much prefer the term that DeNeal Fowler uses in our Staff Meetings: Future Disciples. These are the people who have begun attending or watching our services. They have expressed some interest in becoming part of our church. We seem to know how to do outreach to those who show up face-to-face, but what about our digital “Future Disciples?” Related to the point above, we need to consider a concentrated effort of outreach to them.

7. Digital Worship Services Will Be Newly Purposed
Most of you know Mary Stevens. She and her husband John have lived across the street from the church for decades. In fact, they bought their home from the church (it was the former parsonage)! Before John’s passing a few months ago, Mary and John had not been in worship at church for years. John’s health made it too difficult. Each week, Gina Brock or I would take a CD of the sermon audio over to Mary and John. One time John said to me, “Your sermons are fine, but I sure miss that music!” When we began to offer online worship, Mary and John had a friend help them set up YouTube on their TV. A few months into the pandemic, I called Mary and she said to me, “This is so wonderful. This is the most I have worshipped with my church family in a long, long time.” Our streaming worship is here to stay, folks. All glory be to God.

8. Ministry Training Will Change Dramatically
Some of you may know that I serve on the Board of Regents for my alma mater, Central Baptist Theological Seminary. As board members, we were already deep in conversation about the rapidly changing nature of theological education. The pandemic has now forced even further exponential change. Seminaries used to focus on the content of ministry (Old Testament, theology, etc.) but now, in addition to those topics, we also need to focus on the delivery (digital marketing, entrepreneurship, etc.). This will mean that future churches will need to consider hires that are not just the sharpest theological minds, but also those who display creativity and innovation.

9. Pastors Will Leave Their Lead Positions for Second-Chair Roles
I will admit that my eyebrows were slightly raised when I read about this change. However, Rainer seems to be talking specifically about seasoned leaders (a politically correct way of saying “older” perhaps) who find themselves ministering in a world for which they were not trained. I am choosing to see this as a cautionary tale in my own life. As much as I am able to, I want to always have a spirit of teachability as a pastor and never, ever presume that I have all the answers. The job of a pastor is to be an ethnographer of the culture and then to learn from what he/she witnesses. The Gospel never changes, but our way of communicating that Gospel is rapidly shifting. Our job (not just mine, but yours as well) is to keep up with that change to continually fulfil the Great Commission.

For eight weeks, we have explored the book The Post-Quarantine Church. Now, I truly want to hear from you. As you have read this book and contemplated how the world is rapidly changing, what do you see lying in front of us? How is Ardmore Baptist Church called to meet the changes before us? What is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be? Please write to me at ttankersley@ardmorebaptist.org.

 

April 22, 2021

I am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Concluding Thoughts: From Challenges to Opportunities (p. 101-111)

In these final reflections on The Post-Quarantine Church, we will be looking at nine key changes Thom Rainer says will be essential for churches in the future. I’ll be offering my own thoughts and how I see these being lived out at Ardmore Baptist Church. Originally, I had planned on covering all nine in one blog post, but it became too long (I never seem to have a problem making myself heard!). This week we will look at the first four and next week (April 29) we will look at the final five.

1. Simplicity Will Be Vitally Important
Ardmore Baptist Church is an active congregation. We are so blessed to have so many opportunities for fellowship, mission, and worship. However, pre-pandemic, were we doing too much? Rainer says that some churches members may have been experiencing “ministry burnout.” We used to measure a church’s success by its myriad of activities; that is not sustainable. During the pandemic, we have been forced to slow down, to do less, and possibly to focus on not just doing for God, but being with God. As we look towards the end of the pandemic, let us not return to a hurried pace, but let us be more intentional both in what we do and in what we choose not to do. In our Dawnings conversations, our team has identified that “Embracing Simplicity” needs to be an emphasis at our church as we move forward.

2. Only Outwardly Focused Churches Will Survive
Ardmore Baptist Church does wonderful work in our community. We must continue to build on that work as we look towards our neighborhood, our city, our state, and our world as a mission field. This will mean taking hard look at where we are spending our time and resources. I am grateful for our Missions MALT leaders for giving us so many opportunities for outward-focused missions even during the pandemic. Let’s build on that Gospel-centric energy as we move forward!

3. Worship Service Gatherings Will Be Smaller
In my conversations with church members, some have sheepishly expressed to me how much they have loved worshipping at home. One person recently said to me, “I will come back to the Sanctuary when I can wear my bathrobe and drink my cup of coffee!” This saint is not alone. Many people are finding spiritual fulfillment by participating in virtual worship and online studies. We should celebrate this. But it will mean that our worship services will likely never be quite the same. Gone are the days when our goal should be to have big, in-person crowds on a Sunday morning. We need to measure success differently. What if we looked at spiritual maturity and deepening discipleship as our goals rather than the amount of people present for worship?

4. “Multi” Will Multiply
We are already a church that holds two services. However, as Rainer points out, this season is an opportunity to do some rethinking. Should the 8:15 and 10:45 services simply be duplicates of one another? If we are going to offering multiple services, why not offer multiple forms of worship? Furthermore, a third of the population works on Sunday mornings. Should we consider offering worship at times other than Sunday morning?

Next week we will explore the final five changes Thom Rainer says is coming to the post-quarantine church:

5. Staff and Leadership Responsibilities Will Focus More in Digital Proficiency
6. “Stragglers” Will Become a Subject of Outreach and Focus
7. Digital Worship Services Will be Newly Purposed
8. Ministry Training Will Change Dramatically
9. Pastors Will Leave Their Lead Positions for Second-Chair Roles

 

April 15, 2021

I am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Challenge 6: Make Lasting Changes That Will Make a Difference (p. 85-100)

As we have journeyed through Thom Rainer’s six challenges, we’ve explored ways that the Church is going to have to change in order to survive in a post-quarantine world. Some of the challenges are ancient (Challenge 4: Take Prayer to a New and Powerful Level) and others are brand new (Challenge 2: Seize Your Opportunity to Reach the Digital World). In this sixth and final challenge, Rainer implores us to make changes that will have lasting impact:

1. Remind People of Their Biblical Hope
The Bible is full of stories of people embarking on seemingly impossible journeys. What compelled them to put one foot in front of the other? Hope. They knew that their destination was worth the journey. Likewise, at Ardmore Baptist Church, we have seen God move and work through our congregation in the past and I truly believe that we are headed towards a deeper sense of mission and vision. I have hope, sisters and brothers, that God will guide us in this next season of our church’s life.

2. Remember, Cultural Change Comes Last
Rome was not built in a day and cultures do not change overnight. It takes intentionality, patience, and bucketfuls of grace to see a culture shift. I am learning in my own life that change begins with me. I cannot wish a healthier decision-making culture; I must begin by allowing God to form and shape me. And that’s true for all of us. The culture of Ardmore Baptist Church will only change if the individuals that make up that culture are willing to embrace change in their own lives.

3. Visible Action Steps are Essential
Thom Rainer says, “Churches must demonstrate short-term wins and ongoing movement in the community and for the community” (95). In other words, we must be willing to show that we are moving and engaging with the world around us. I have been proud of our Missions MALT leaders during this time as they have kept us engaged with the community even during the pandemic. The other day I was walking through the Lobby and there were two members of the FaithQuest class who were preparing goodie bags to be given to the teachers at Moore Elementary. That is a visible action step of our faith being lived out, friends. Let’s keep moving in that direction!

4. Allies Are Still Imperative
Rainer defines “allies” as people who are not on Staff, but who are influential leaders in the congregation who are advocates for lasting change. Ardmore Baptist Church is a congregation that is connected to such an extent that I guarantee you, friend, you are that kind of ally to somebody else in the congregation. How are you using your voice? Are you using your voice to tear down or to build up? Are you using your voice to lead us toward stagnation or to advocate for lasting change?

5. Communication Must Increase Exponentially
In our world today, communication is no longer a tool for ministry; communication is a ministry. All churches must be willing to invest more time, money, and resources into improving their communication. I mentioned this in an earlier blog, but a church here in North Carolina is currently searching for an Associate Pastor for Digital Discipleship. That is exactly the kind of innovative thinking we need to embrace. The digital world is a mission field. How will we respond?

6. Leaders Must Be Willing to Accept Membership Losses
“You can’t please everybody.” No doubt we’ve all heard that line before. As a chronic people-pleaser, my soul often screams out in defiance: “Yes, I can!” But leadership is teaching me more and more how true that line really is. And one of the difficulties we will face as a congregation is that, as we move in a clear direction on certain areas, some people are just going to leave. However, how are we called to measure success as a church? Are we called to measure success by the number of names on the membership list or are we called to measure success by faithfulness to God’s mission for our church?

7. Leaders Must Align with the Future
Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” During the past year, we have had a lot of changes to our church calendar, our ways of gathering with one another, and the ways we interact with our community. There is much we miss, but these forced changes also provide us with an opportunity to reconsider whether what we were previously doing was having truly long-term impact or whether we were doing them simply because that’s what we’ve always done before. Aligning with the future means allowing ourselves to dream of what new ways God might be leading us towards the unknown in the days ahead.

Next week’s blog will be my final reflection on The Post-Quarantine Church. We’ll explore the Conclusion (p. 101-111) and I will offer some of my own thoughts on how God might be forming us and shaping us through this time.

 

April 8, 2021

Ardmore Baptist ChurchI am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Challenge 5: Rethink Your Facilities for Emerging Opportunities (p. 69-83) 

“Pastor,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “please help us. We are desperate.” I was speaking to a leader of a local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous in Cape Girardeau, Missouri where I served as pastor of First Baptist Church. He had called me to see if they could start holding groups at our church. Unfortunately, our local NA chapters were having a hard time keeping up with the demand for groups. After all, Missouri continues to be ranked the number one state in the country for meth manufacturing and the rapidly worsening opioid epidemic was not helping matters. I assured the gentleman on the phone that I would do everything I could.

Like most churches, our building was largely empty 90% of the week. We used it on Sunday mornings, on Wednesday evenings, and then a handful of other times for random studies, youth group, and a sewing ministry. It seemed like this was a slam-dunk way to minister to the community.

At our next Church Council meeting I brought it up. I spoke about the need for groups like Narcotics Anonymous to have safe places to meet and how this seemed like an easy way for us to care for people. Everyone on the Church Council agreed except Mark (not his real name).

“I don’t know,” Mark said, “we don’t know these people. I am only comfortable with us doing this if one of us is here at church when they are meeting.” I explained to him that would defeat the whole purpose of anonymity such a group required.

Finally, Mark agreed to let the NA chapter meeting in our building. However, after three weeks I received a call from the chapter leader. “Thank you, Pastor, for your kindness, but we will need to find somewhere else to meet.” I was taken aback and asked if there had been a problem. “Yes,” he said, “every week when we meet, there is a man named Mark who sits in the parking lot in his truck until we leave. It has made some in our group uncomfortable.”

I do not tell you this story to pick on Mark, because Mark is also a passionate, caring, and servant-hearted leader in many ways. However, Mark is not alone. Some people have a very hard time with the idea of their church building being used by the community.

In The Post-Quarantine Church, Thom Rainer says that the pandemic has given churches the opportunity to rethink the way they see their facilities. Rather than thinking just about the ways that their buildings serve their congregations, churches should also be discerning the ways that the surrounding community could use their building.

Ardmore already does this very well, by the way. We host a number of support groups, post-recovery exercise classes, provided space for the Winston Salem Chinese Church, and, of course, we have partnered with the school district to offer a Remote Learning Center.

It may be that God is calling us to consider even more ways for us to use our buildings. I think when churches are generous with their property, it glorifies God, even if the organization using it is not overtly Christian. God is still glorified.

As Thom Rainer says: “When the church opens it doors to the community by making its building available for other uses, the community ‘comes to church.’ Such partnerships have gospel opportunities written all over them.”

 

April 1, 2021

I am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Challenge 4: Take Prayer to a New and Powerful Level (p. 55-67)

Since the fall of 2020, Adam Horton and I have been co-leading a Guys’ Bible Study that meets every other Wednesday night. We began meeting outdoors in the church courtyard. When Covid cases decreased in October, we started meeting indoors. When Covid cases surged in the winter, we moved to meeting via Zoom. It has been wonderful to grow closer to these men during this time and my soul has been fed by our time together.

We’ve been journeying through the Old Testament prophetic book of Daniel recently. Last week, Adam taught on Daniel 6, which is probably the most popular passage in the book: Daniel in the Lion’s Den. If you don’t know the story (which means you did not grow up in church or never watched Veggie Tales), Daniel works for King Darius, one of a line of feckless monarchs who pass around the nation of Israel like a hot potato. Darius has advisors who conspire against Daniel by passing a law that prohibits anyone from praying to anything other than Darius himself. Anyone who violates this law will be thrown into a pit full of hungry lions. Even though it could cost him his life, Daniel continues his regular rhythms of daily prayer. He is thrown into the lion’s den, yet God protects him.

During our Bible Study, Adam led us into thinking about our own prayer lives. It occurred to me that oftentimes I treat prayer as a way to respond to crisis or stress. However, Daniel has the regular rhythm of prayer built into his life and that is what sustains him through a time of crisis and stress.

Thom Rainer encourages churches to think about prayer in the same way. Many churches turned to prayer practices in the midst of the Covid pandemic; but that is simply an indication that prayer was playing too small a part to begin with.

Rainer challenges congregations in three ways:

  • First, church leadership must be intentional about keeping prayer at the forefront of the congregation’s priorities.
  • Second, church leaders should promote periodic prayer emphases to re-stoke the fire.
  • Third, members should be encouraged to pray and wait.

We at Ardmore Baptist have some momentous decisions before us. What will we do with Brown Chapel? When can we resume some of our beloved regular activities? What does a focused missional emphasis look like? How do we minister to a digital world?

Let’s follow the example of Daniel. Let us not wait until we are stressed about these questions before we turn to prayer. Let us make prayer a regular rhythm in our individual lives and in our collective life together.

If you need some resources for practicing daily prayer, I would suggest two wonderful resources:

 

 

March 25, 2021

I am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Challenge 3: Reconnect with the Community Near Your Church (p. 39-53)

There are some days at the church office when my brain is overwhelmed and I need to take a break from emails, phone calls, or sermon writing. I grab my keys and pop a piece of spearmint gum in my mouth. Then I close my office door and walk to the church courtyard. Then, starting on Miller Street, I simply walk the Ardmore neighborhood. I wish I could tell you that I do this to do some sort of pious prayer-walking exercise and that I am thinking deep thoughts concerning our church’s future ministry to the community. However, honestly, most of the time I am thinking about what might be for dinner, my weekend plans, or how I need to get the yard mowed this evening.

However, Thom Rainer’s third challenge in The Post-Quarantine Church is convicting me to reconsider the purpose of my walks around the neighborhood. Yesterday, I decided to intentionally do just that and was so blessed by what I saw. I witnessed parents from around our neighborhood coming to the church to pick up their kids from Ardmore Baptist Preschool (which is one of the best ministries we offer to our neighbors!). I saw countless people walking their dogs and greeting one another. I saw the free food pantry at Ardmore United Methodist Church and said a grateful prayer for fellow travelers on the journey of faith.

Rainer speaks of how churches have experienced a slow erosion of the Great Commission’s call to reach those in their immediate vicinity. We’ve instead become so inward-focused with our ministries and energies. Many people are also hesitant to embrace “reaching the neighborhood” because they think that means door-to-door evangelism without being in established relationships with people. While there is certainly a place for such ministry in God’s kingdom, I question the efficacy of such endeavors in today’s world.

As we continue to pray and consider how we can reach the community near our church, here are some questions I wonder:

  • Our immediate neighborhood has many younger families who often are looking for a church that is both
    doctrinally sound and is also involved in social justice issues facing our world. Would they find such a place in us?
  • Does our church have open and accessible places with comfortable furniture where we may have casual, informal conversations with people from the neighborhood?
  • Does our church seek to support many of the local businesses in our immediate neighborhood who may have struggled during the pandemic?
  • Is our church in active and partnering relationship with the other communities of faith (Ardmore Methodist, Redeemer Presbyterian, Temple Emanuel Synagogue, etc.)?

As we wrestle with these questions, let us not forget that, as Thom Rainer’s son Sam says: “Your church address is no accident”.

 

March 18, 2021

I am currently using my blog to reflect on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Challenge 2: Seize Your Opportunity to Reach the Digital World (p. 25-38)

I could tell you about Sandra. She was a member of my church in Missouri who had moved into an assisted living facility shortly before the pandemic started. When her beloved church was not able to offer any online worship opportunities, she started virtually attending the services of Ardmore Baptist Church.

I could tell you about Barry and Nancy. They have deep and abiding connections to our church. Barry and Nancy were active members of the church for 27 years and Barry served as the primary architect of our Sanctuary. When work obligations took them to Houston, TX, their hearts missed the worship services at Ardmore Baptist Church. Now, because of our livestreaming, they are able to stay part of our church family.

I could tell you about Ainsley. She’s a college student across the state who began to watch our worship services with one of her suitemates. As she watched, she felt drawn to Ardmore’s approach to faith and the Gospel. Now, I will be baptizing Ainsley on Easter morning and all because God spoke to her through our online services.

These are just a few of the many stories I could tell you. Throughout this pandemic, as Ardmore Baptist Church has gone online with worship for the majority of the previous twelve months, we’ve seen God move and work in some mighty ways.

The new technological innovations we’ve invested in and the online opportunities we have made available are toothpaste that is out of the tube; we cannot put it back in and there is no going back. In addition to being a group of believers who gather in person, we are now a scattered and nimble community of faith.

And this means that we need to re-think some things:

  • The metric of success as a congregation can no longer be a large number of people present in the Sanctuary at a certain time period on a Sunday morning; we must see worship, community, and fellowship as beyond just that one moment in time.
  • We must recognize that the digital world is not an enhancement of already-established ministries; it is a mission field!
  • We must rethink how we lead our outreach to the digital world. One sister Baptist congregation is currently hiring a position called “Minister for Digital Discipleship.”However, we must also avoid the temptation to simply add to our own plates. Thom Rainer says, “Whatever you do, don’t confuse busyness with effectiveness in the digital world. It is usually just the opposite” (36). His warning to us is that, if we are not careful, we can overwhelm others with the amount of online or digital content our church produces. We should instead strive for, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “[to] do few things but do them well.”

What are ways that the Holy Spirit might be calling Ardmore Baptist Church to reach a digital world with the Good News of Jesus Christ?

 

March 11, 2021

For the next six weeks on my blog, I am going to be reflecting on the six challenges that are offered by the church consultant Thom Rainer in his little book The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges and Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation. I urge you to get a copy and read along with me.

Challenge 1: Gather Differently and Better (p. 11-24)

Each quarter, the Pastoral Staff gathers together for an all-day planning meeting. In the pre-pandemic days, it went like this: We taped a large piece of paper on the wall for each month and then wrote down every single event happening in that month. Most of the time, we stood back and looked at everything we’d written down only to begin to break into a cold sweat. There was so much happening that it was completely overwhelming.

The pandemic, of course, has changed that. Instead, we have been forced to do less and to approach each event, each class, each service, and each missional opportunity with a great deal of intentionality and wisdom. All that we were doing before was good stuff, but was our full schedule what God was calling us to do?

In his book, Thom Rainer reflects on how, before the pandemic, many churches were so chock full of activities that they prided themselves on being “busy churches.” He writes, “Church facilities became the focus of the busy church. We often gauged the health of a congregation by the number of times people came to the facility for worship services, groups, ministries, programs, and events. A busy building, we surmised, was a sign of vibrancy and health” (p. 13-14).

However, Rainer writes, that obsession with busy-ness had some unintended consequences. For one, many people were so busy “going to church” that they were failing to be on mission in their communities and neighborhoods. Rainer also points out that many families were feeling burnt out by the church. The very institution that often preached about “family values” was taking up much of the time and energy that families needed to thrive and grow closer together.

As we look towards a post-quarantine way of being, how can we learn from this imposed, yearlong sabbatical? How will we be transformed by this experience? Will we be obsessed about continuing to have a calendar full of activities or will be perhaps dream about new ways to use our facilities?

Thom Rainer offers a few suggestions for us to consider:

1. Churches should consider being more open-handed with the community’s use of their facilities. What if we saw our church as a community center that could minister to our neighbors?
2. Churches should consider offering worship at times other than just Sunday morning. Did you know that 34% of the American workforce works on Sundays? What if we were more flexible with our worship schedule and recognized that perhaps we need to vary our communal gatherings for worship?
3. Churches should consider sharing facilities with other communities of faith. What would it look like for us to open our building to be used by other churches? We already have a wonderful partnership with Winstom-Salem Chinese Christian Church. Are there other partners we could consider?

We have never stopped being the church in the midst of these days. We have just gathered differently. Now is our opportunity to consider how God is calling us to gather better.

 

March 4, 2021

My major in college was cultural anthropology. My favorite anthro professor was a man named Dr. Warren Anderson. He was a kind, approachable guy who was a master storyteller. Most of his stories came from his ethnographic research amongst Mexican migrant workers who had traveled from the state of Michoacan (in Mexico) to work in the orchards found in southern Illinois. His stories were filled with examples of people crossing the border (both legally and illegally), leaving their homeland, and trying to build a life in a new country. While many of us had heard of “illegal immigrants” as simply another item on the nightly news, Dr. Anderson knew their names, their families, and their stories.

Dr. Anderson was also my academic advisor. During one of our meetings, I told him that I was feeling a call to ministry and was considering attending seminary. He sat back in his rocking chair and smiled. Then he said, “Tyler, do you know why I spend so much time with immigrants? Because it’s what I am called to do.” Dr. Anderson reached into his briefcase and pulled out a small, worn Bible. He flipped to the book of Leviticus and read: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34). Dr. Anderson went on to share with me that his Christian faith is what compelled his work with Mexican immigrants.

The topic of immigration can become easily divisive. Decent people of goodwill can have legitimate disagreements about the best policy to handle the illegal immigrants already living in our country, how best to secure our borders, and the efficacy of our current immigration system. However, as people of faith, we cannot separate our faith from our treatment of immigrants and refugees.

What role should scripture play in how we deal with the issues surrounding immigration? What role can a church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina play in how God is calling us to treat the refugees in our own community? These are especially important questions as we wrestle with our church’s mission, vision, and identity.

These are the kinds of questions we will be wrestling with in our next Conversations that Matter. It will be held on Monday, March 22 at 7:00 PM. I will interview Dr. Daniel Carroll Rodas on his book The Bible and Borders: Hearing God’s Word on Immigration. Dr. Carroll Rodas is half-Guatemalan (his mother was Guatemalan). He spent time there growing up and later taught for thirteen years at a seminary in Guatemala City. This background has affected his teaching and writing in profound ways, one of which is his involvement in immigration matters. He now teaches at Wheaton College. Danny and his wife, Joan, have two adult sons and four grandchildren.

I encourage you to purchase a copy of Dr. Carroll Rodas’ book and join us on Monday, March 22 for this conversation that truly matters.

 

February 25, 2021

It did my heart good to see so many of you at last week’s Ash Wednesday Drive Thru event. The entire day was full of holy moments that I hope stay with me for a long time.

When I impose ashes on people, I use the words that were spoken to me by a pastor on my first Ash Wednesday service: “During this season of Lent, do not forget who you are and whose you are. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Ash Wednesday is meant to remind us that God forms us by breathing into the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return one day.

As I made the sign of the cross on various people, I watched as their eyes filled with tears. Perhaps it was that we were all missing the simple love found in human touch (though I was using a Q-tip) or maybe it was the fact that in a year in which we know that half a million people in our country have died from a pandemic, we have no need to be reminded of our mortality.

When my own family came through the line, it was a strange and holy moment. Making the sign of the cross on my wife and children was equal parts beautiful and terrible. When my four-year-old daughter Charlotte moved her hair back from her forehead and I told my daughter that she is beloved and mortal, my throat tightened and I fought back my own tears.

But the moment that most stays with me was when I heard Amy Gallaher called down to me and asked me to bring some ashes up to where she was collecting the diapers and hot chocolate for our mission partners. I walked up to a sedan with three women inside. Amy explained to me, “Tyler, these are nurses who are on their way to administer the Covid vaccine for Forsyth County and they need to go now. They would really like to receive ashes.” I paused and the holiness of what was about to take place took my breath away. And then I went to these three women and I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads as a sign of life from death as they departed to give life to others.

Sisters and brothers of Ardmore Baptist Church, during this season of Lent: Do not forget who you are and whose you are. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Photography by Walt Unks, Winston-Salem Journal; February 17, 2021

 

February 18, 2021

I did not grow up practicing the season of Lent. The Southern Baptist Church of my childhood did not participate in the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. The only way I knew it was Lent was when I noticed long car lines at the local Catholic church for their Friday night Fish Fry. At my church, we did not prepare for Easter; it just seemed to spring out of nowhere each March or April.

In college I became involved in a campus ministry that offered a more contemplative approach to Christian faith. They offered worship opportunities during the weeks leading up to Easter and we were told that these would help prepare us for Easter. They also offered services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (terms I had to learn!).

That first year, Lent felt foreign and strange. I kept hearing messages about suffering and pain. But as I leaned more and more into the rhythms of the season, I began to resonate more and more with all that I was experiencing. As strange as it may seem, focusing on the darkness of the road to the cross made the light of that Easter morning all the brighter.

The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister puts it well: “Lent, the liturgical year shows us, is about the holiness that suffering can bring. It is about bringing good where evil has been, about bringing love where hate has been. It is about the transformation of the base to the beautiful. It is about being willing to suffer for something worth suffering for, as Jesus did, without allowing ourselves to be destroyed by it.”1

My hope and prayer for all of us, sisters and brothers, is that we will experience this Lenten season with a newfound commitment to walk the road to the cross with Jesus. On Sunday mornings this season we are going to be focusing on the seven final statements made by Jesus Christ on the cross. We are also providing opportunities for daily devotion, as well as worship opportunities for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

May you prepare your heart to walk alongside Jesus to a hill called Calvary.

1 Joan Chittister. The Liturgical Year, The Ancient Practices Series. (Tyndale, 2009), 125.

February 11, 2021

When Valentine’s Day approaches, Jess and I usually try to find some night to go on a date. Sometimes we’ve gone to a fancier restaurant and other times, we’ve eaten Taco Bell in a parking lot before going to a bookstore together (one of our favorite activities!). We exchange cards with one another, I usually buy her some flowers, and she usually gives me some sort of unique chocolate. It doesn’t matter much to us what we are doing, so long as we are able to carve out some time to simply be together.

The most romantic book in the Bible is the Song of Songs (sometimes also referred to as the “Song of Solomon”). It’s a series of poetic exchanges between a man and woman who are lovers. They go into blushing detail about the depth of their love for one another (it is recommended reading from a pew Bible during especially boring sermons). Interestingly, Song of Songs is one of only two books in the Bible (the other being Esther) where God is never mentioned. That may lead some of us to wonder, “What exactly is this doing in my Bible, then?”

The verbs in the Song of Songs are written in active-subject tense (as opposed to the passive-subject tense). In other words, these two lovers are the ones making the choice to love one another. At one point the woman says: My beloved is mine and I am his (Song of Songs 2:16). They are each making the conscious choice to intentionally enter into caring for and loving one another. Maybe that is where God can be found in this book. In their choosing to love each other each and every day.

In her commentary on the Song of Songs, the biblical theologian Ellen Davis puts it this way: “Genuine love does not just happen to us. The woman’s repeated phrase – ‘the one whom my soul loves’ – alerts us to the truth: love is soul-work, of the most demanding kind. Cultivating a true love relationship, with a person or with God, calls forth sustained effort from the core of our being. Therefore, the soul must be prepared, even trained, to love well, just as the body must be trained for rigorous physical action. Romantic love, like the love of God, requires that we learn habits of self-examination and repentance, that we acquire a capacity for self-sacrifice and forgiveness.”1

This Valentine’s Day, whether we are focused on the romantic love of a spouse, the platonic love of a friend, the life-giving love within our families, the affirming love of self, or the divine love of God, may we all be willing to do the work necessary to actively choose to love well.

In other words, let us remember that love is not just a noun; it is a verb.

1 Ellen F. Davis. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion. (WJK Press, 2000), 259.

 

February 4, 2021

Many of my friends who were born, raised, and continue to live in Kansas City have had their hearts broken year after year. The Kansas City Chiefs had not won a Super Bowl for fifty years. All of that changed last year. And now, the Chiefs are headed for their second consecutive year in the Super Bowl.

Much of the team’s success is attributed to a partnership between Coach Andy Reid (nicknamed “Big Red”) and the quarterback, 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes. Raised in Tyler, Texas, Mahomes took to sports early (his father, Pat Mahomes, was a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins). Surely growing up in such an athletic household helped to hone his later skills and abilities.

But Mahomes carries more than just natural talent with him onto the field; he also brings with him something even more fundamental: faith. In a recent interview, Mahomes said, “Obviously I want to win every game, but I’m glorifying God every single time I’m out there.” For Mahomes, playing football is an opportunity to use his God-given talents and abilities to bring glory to God. He further said, “As long as I’m doing everything the right way and the way that He would want me to do it, then I can walk off the field with my head held high and be able to be the man that I am.”

Brother Lawrence was a French, Carmelite friar who lived in the 17th century. When he arrived at his abbey, he was at first offended that he was asked to perform such menial tasks as cleaning chamber pots, scrubbing floors, and peeling potatoes. However, eventually, he began to see everything that he does as an opportunity to glorify God. He later said that he wanted to do his very best peeling potatoes as an act of worship. His teachings were later translated into a book called The Practice of the Presence of God.

Whether we are a monk, a pastor, a doctor, a custodian, a real estate agent, retired, a dentist, a teacher, a Super-Bowl-winning quarterback, or anything else we might imagine, we all have the opportunity to glorify God in all that we do. We all are called to practice the presence of God.

 

January 26, 2021

One of Jess’s and my favorite songs is “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles. It’s actually the song that was playing when I proposed to her. The song speaks of a new day dawning as a sign of hope and reassurance.

For me, news of the Covid vaccine becoming more and more available and administered to people I know causes me to feel the warm light of a hopeful new day dawning in my soul. It gives me a sense that perhaps we are beginning the long exit out of this lonely winter and entering into something brand new.

The Bible speaks of God’s love and mercy like the warmth of a sunrise, bathing us in new possibilities:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
(Lamentations 3:22-23)

Many of you know that a group of us have been journeying through a time of visioning for our congregation called Dawnings. Our Dawnings team is comprised of our Pastoral Staff and our Vision-Navigation Team at Ardmore Baptist Church. We began our time together with a retreat in late February 2020, led by Harry Rowland from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. We had every intention of beginning to meet together weekly after that retreat to discern what God may be calling our church to do and who God may be calling our church to be.

However, less than three weeks after that retreat, the coronavirus pandemic swept across our land and put an end to in-person gatherings. After taking a few months waiting to see if the threat would wane, we made the decision to begin meeting via Zoom in the Fall. We asked Rick Jordan to serve as our Dawnings facilitator. Rick has led us every-other Thursday as we journeyed through the rhythms of visioning, forming, and engaging.

You’ll be hearing more from the Dawnings team in the following weeks, but I just wanted to express a word of gratitude for them. They are thoughtful, kind, and wise people who are truly seeking God’s will for our beloved community.

Spending time with them fills me with something that my soul desperately needs: hope.

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear

Here comes the sun do, do, do
Here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

 

January 21, 2021

He was the strongest man I knew, yet now, I was hiding his car keys from him. For my entire life, my Grandpa Simmons had been a person of great strength, good humor, endless skills, and wise counsel. However, his mind had begun to deteriorate to the point where we could no longer tell whether he was fully cognizant of his surroundings or not.

My Grandma Simmons’ body was riddled with painful skin cancer. She was sleeping more and more of the day. Their wish was to spend their last days in their beautiful ranch style home (that Grandpa had built), yet it was becoming more and more clear that was not going to be able to happen.

I was spending the evening at my grandparents’ home on the night before my grandmother would be moving to a nursing home where she would spend her final days. My grandparents and I were sitting on their screened in back porch, my grandmother in her life chair recliner and my Grandpa and I were next to her on their porch swing (that Grandpa had built).

My Grandpa suddenly turned to my Grandma and began frantically speaking to her. He held her hand and said, “Mother, I just want you to know that you did such a good job. I am sorry that I could not have been a better son. You loved us kids so much and you overcame so much in your life. Thank you for being my mother.”

My first reaction was to turn to my Grandpa and correct him. I wanted to say, “Grandpa, this is not your mother. This is your wife.” As I started to speak to him, my Grandma whispered to me, “It’s okay. He needs to say this. He never got to say goodbye to his mother.” I sat back and watched as my Grandma pastorally and patiently received the words my Grandpa desperately needed to say.

It is hard to know how to care for those we love who suffer from dementia. In her book On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear, Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper has helped me to understand how to have more compassion, solidarity, and empathy for persons who have dementia and for the often-overlooked loved ones at their sides. She uses her own family’s story, scriptural narratives, and her experience as a retirement center chaplain as she weaves a book that is both haunting and beautiful.

On Monday, January 25 at 7:00 PM, I will be speaking to Lynn about her book for our first Conversations that Matter. I hope you will be able to join us by registering on Realm here for the Zoom Webinar link or by watching on our church’s YouTube channel.

 

January 14, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I went hiking at Pilot Mountain State Park with Ryan Packett and Lorian Landreth. We drove up to the parking lot and set off on the Jomeokee Trail that encircles the pinnacle of Pilot Mountain.

The Saura tribe that originally dwelt in the Piedmont region named the mountain “Jomeokee” which in their language means “Great Guide.” The mountain summit served as a locating guidepost for early European Settlers, which is why they gave it the name “Pilot” as in the definition: “to act as a guide.”

In my own life, there have been seasons in which I have felt directionless and lost. And there are other seasons where it seems like the state of the world is so chaotic and choppy. We are surely living in such days. The pandemic continues to ravage people in our communities. And as we all watched harrowing footage of thugs and rioters ransacking the House and Senate chambers, I heard many on the news and online express a sense of confusion and lostness.

But for people of faith we know our jomeokee. We know our guide through uncharted waters. As the people of Israel were living in the midst of their own uncertain days, the prophet Isaiah reminded them: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21).

In my own spiritual life, worship has always served at an opportunity for me to look up and be reminded to always make Jesus Christ my guide. There are temptations to constantly make worldly prestige, social accolades, or political ideologies be what direct my path in life. Worship is the time when I am able to quiet the other voices whispering to my soul and to be reminded to walk the trail of the Gospel.

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