The first house Rachael and I bought was a 105 year-old beauty in inner-city Minneapolis. Even though it was old, with a foundation built by hand, it had been recently renovated, so we could move in and begin our lives in the existing structure. When we left that house 8.5 years ago to come here, we viewed Whitton Avenue Bible Church in much the same light as we did our house. This church family is–by Phoenix standards–an old structure whose foundation was laid by hand in the late 40’s and early 50’s by the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of many sitting in this room. By the time we arrived in August 2005, the church had undergone a few rounds of renovation which, though they were fraught with pain and tears at the time, made Whitton Avenue a place where we believed we could settle in. This was not a fixer-upper, but there was still work going on under God’s direction.
Our foundation as a church is captured in our 5-word statement of purpose: “We exist to glorify God.” In our worship (reaching up), in our nurture (reaching in), and in our mission (reaching out), our reason for being is to glorify God–to highlight the majesty of his power, the scope of his wisdom, and the faithfulness of his love. This purpose of glorifying God serves not only as our foundation, but as the reason for renovation projects, the changes that need to happen for us to be the building God planned.
To appreciate both our foundation and the work yet to be done, I want to take a few minutes to walk through reaching up, reaching in, and reaching out to acknowledge where we have been and where we are going.
First, reaching up, or glorifying God through worship. Worship is not synonymous with music. At the same time, our experience of gathering as a church family and singing songs that spotlight the beauty of God and retell his saving works is a significant, central aspect of our communal worship, so much so that we believe it should be a paid position. So, for the first time in our church’s 66 year history, we hired a worship leader from outside our congregation at the beginning of 2013. We discovered early on how difficult this acclimation can be and had a rocky season in the first quarter of the year. But in his providence God then brought us Jason Stinson, who has faithfully and capably shepherded our worship team, planned sets with God-centered lyrics, and led us into the presence of our King. As we look to the future, I am grateful for the way Jason desires to incorporate anyone from the body who wants to serve in this ministry and how he is planning ahead to expand our vocabulary and experience of worship.
Second, reaching in, or glorifying God through nurture. If I may draw on some of our more sobering experiences of the last year, we lost two of our long-time members in Dorothy Maurer and Charlene Somerhalder. Ervin and John can attest to the fact that these women were very different from each other, yet they shared one common trait, something that was highlighted in both of their funerals: they prayed for their families. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; every day, by name.
I bring that up because, as we consider what reaching in will involve in the years to come, much of it concerns the young families God is bringing into our fellowship. Our call to make disciples begins in our homes for us young parents and it begins with our children as a church. And if there is one legacy that Dort and Charlene leave us, it is one of faithfully serving our children through prayer and gospel instruction. Leading children to Jesus is a whole-church calling, and these sisters who were part of the foundation–members of this church for over 40 years–have left a gap that many of us need to fill as we teach our young ones God’s redemption story in Sunday School and Beginner Church and set an example of vibrant faith and radical obedience.
One more note about nurturing one another’s faith. We have a number of opportunities for fellowship around God’s word from Bible studies to small groups to the training hour. One newer opportunity I would like to see multiply are the Dwell Groups. Philip Timson, Rachael, and I have all led small groups of 3-5 brothers or sisters through the Dwell devotional, and the opportunity to connect in that smaller setting has been rich and encouraging. I believe this type of fellowship could be a key part of how God brings us into deeper connectivity with one another in the years to come, and encourage you to consider joining a group in the near future.
Third, regarding reaching out, I am deeply encouraged by the work God is doing through our congregation. There are brothers living intentionally in our church’s neighborhood to challenge one another in the faith and bring Jesus to our neighbors in word and deed. The weekly outreach to the neighborhood kids continues every Thursday night. The Lord has opened up new doors for me to serve and be a presence at Larry C. Kennedy. We have families who have entered or are considering the world of foster care. Individuals have changed career paths to follow God’s call to serve the vulnerable in specific professions. And friends in Christ have joined together to strategically address the holistic needs of the suffering.
My greatest hope for the year ahead is more of the same: more laying down of our comforts to serve the needs of others. More sensitivity to how God would call us to radical sacrifice for those he puts along our path. More faithfulness to love neighbors who are not always lovable. More moving toward those in need to bring the hope of God’s new creation in Christ to them. If we stay in this mode, I believe we will be celebrating new expressions of outreach next year that we could not even imagine today.
We exist to glorify God by reaching up, reaching in, and reaching out. This has been our foundation as a church and it drives our ongoing renovation process.
Let me share one final word about what this could mean for us in the years to come. One of the rare blessings we have in the Valley is the possibility to fellowship with other churches who share our convictions about glorifying God in all that we do. A group of pastors I have been a part of for more than 3 years has started an Arizona chapter of a national group called The Gospel Coalition, and they have invited Whitton Avenue Bible Church to be part of this network. It is not a denomination but a fellowship of like-minded churches concerned about preserving the purity of the gospel in the life of the church. The national network was started by some of my living heroes: John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Dever, and our dear friend Tim Savage of Camelback Bible Church.
I bring this up as something for us to pray about over the next year and vote on at the next annual meeting. Toward that end I have provided a handout that gives the Gospel Coalition’s reason for existence. You can look up the website [http://thegospelcoalition.org/] to see the confession of faith and vision for ministry. Again, this is not a denomination but an affiliation. Yet it would give us further clarity as a church to identify who we are and connect us with people in the Valley who share these values.
May God be glorified in all that we do,