The month name “January” is from the Latin word janua, which means a door or window from which a person may look both ways—in and out, backward and forward. As we stand at the doorway into 2015, I find myself looking back with appreciation and forward with anticipation.
Looking back, I can’t say I appreciate all that happened in 2014—we lost several dear friends, including Arnold Clauson, John Halford and Bernie Schnippert. Though I continue to mourn their passing, I thank God for the impact they had on GCI and on me personally. I appreciate their love, their relationships and their labor, which all will bear fruit for many years into the future. Though we will miss them, we’re glad their suffering is over and they are now “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). I know you join me in praising God for the victory over death that is ours in Christ.
I also want to express my deep appreciation for Dan Rogers who retired this past week. Dan has been our U.S. Church Administration and Development (CAD) director for 19 years. His legacy will live on for many years to come. I appreciate all he has given to GCI, and I appreciate our personal friendship.
I also appreciate our new CAD director, Greg Williams, who with his wife Susan recently moved to Glendora. I’m looking forward to working with Greg on a regular basis.
Yes, looking back at 2014, there is much to appreciate. We have new pastors, new churches (including congregations that have joined us), new elders and ministry leaders. I also appreciate our U.S. Church Multiplication Ministries (CMM) team, which Randy Bloom has led for several years, building a foundation upon which we will build. Randy, who now serves as a U.S. regional pastor, has passed the baton of CMM leadership to Heber Ticas. I know we all appreciate what Randy has built and anticipate where Heber and his team will lead us in the future.
This brings me to looking forward into 2015 with great anticipation.
In the U.S., Greg Williams and his team will be implementing a new CAD structure that has six geographic regions. Each region is led by one of our regional pastors: Lorenzo Arroyo, Randy Bloom, Ted Johnston, Paul David (P.D.) Kurts, Mike Rasmussen and Rick Shallenberger. In serving the pastors within their respective regions, each RP will be assisted by a team of senior pastors.
Internationally, the new year will bring several new developments. I’ll be sharing the good news in the next few months.
As we enter 2015, I extend personal thanks to all our pastors, elders and others serving our church membership. As the apostle Paul tells us, this is a noble work. Your faithfulness to our Lord and Savior is a delight to behold. I believe you all join me in looking forward with anticipation to what the Holy Spirit will be doing within our fellowship in the year ahead. I think it’s going to be an exciting year! I pray God’s blessings upon you all in the new year.
Appreciating and anticipating,
PS: Thanks to all who sent me birthday cards (my birthday is in December)—I enjoyed every one of them!
Here are excerpts of interest from the December 2014 issue of ChurchPulse:
Millennials Hold High View of Scripture. 96% believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life. 96% also claim the Bible is the actual or inspired word of God. 46% say “the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word,” and an additional 39% agree it is divinely inspired and has no errors, though “some verses are meant to be symbolic rather than literal.” 11% say the Bible is the inspired word of God “but has some factual or historical errors.” 71% of practicing Christian Millennials believe in absolute moral truth, and 39% cite the Bible as the main source from which they have learned or discovered absolute moral truths and standards. They rank Bible-reading as more important than church attendance (55% say Bible-reading is more important), silence/solitude (50%), prayer (49%), worship (51%), acts of service (48%), communion (44%) and evangelism (42%). (Barna Millennials 10/23/14)
Traits of Long-Term Pastorates. The median tenure of a pastor at a church is around 4 years. This means more than half of pastors leave a church before their 4th anniversary. LifeWay Research shows that the time of greatest fruit in a pastor’s ministry does not begin until somewhere around years 5 to 7. Here are traits of longer term pastors: 1) They pray daily for their church members and staff. 2) They view their family as their first line of ministry. 3) They connect with and love people in their community. 4) They choose their battles carefully and wisely. 5) They welcome structures that make them accountable. 6) They spend time developing staff. 7) They expect conflict and criticism. 8) They connect with other pastors and ministries in the community. 9) They affirm both theology and practical ministry. 10) They ask long-term questions. (Tom Rainer, ChurchLeaders 10/22/14)
Theological Uncertainty. A new LifeWay Research study for Ligonier Ministries reveals a significant level of theological confusion. Many evangelicals do not have orthodox views about either God or humans, especially on questions of salvation and the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals scored high on several points: 95% believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and 92% hold that salvation is found through Jesus alone. 89% say God is sovereign over all people and 88% that the Bible is the Word of God. Only 6% of evangelicals think the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God, but 18% aren’t sure. 96% of all evangelicals believe in the Trinity and 88% that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. 51% said the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being; 7% weren’t sure, while 42% affirmed the Spirit is a person. (CT Online 10/28/14)
Sharing the Faith 1 on 1. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 20% of U.S. adults reported sharing their religious faith on social networking websites or apps in the past week, while 40% shared their faith in a real-life setting. 59% of white evangelicals report sharing their religious beliefs offline vs. 1% of people who are “unaffiliated” and 34% of white mainline Protestants. (Huffington Post 11/14/14)
Declining Belief in God. Tom W. Smith has combined various surveys to show that, in the 1950s, 99% of Americans said they believed in God, and that number has dropped, slowly but steadily, to 92% in ‛08. This is a small decline that is stretched out over 5 decades, and after 5 decades of change nearly everyone still says they believe in God or a higher power. Still, change has occurred. It has occurred so slowly that it is difficult to see over even a 2 decade span, but combining multiple surveys over a longer period of time shows real decline. (The Decline of American Religion? Mark Chaves, 2011, ARDA Guiding Paper Series)
Post-Christian Americans. Nearly 40% of America’s adult population could be considered post-church with young adults being the most disinterested in faith, finds a recent Barna Group study. 48% of Millennials (ages 18 to 28) qualify as post-Christian, meaning they do not participate in activities such as believing in God, attending church or reading the Bible; 40% of Gen-Xers between ages 30–40 qualify as post-Christian. Additionally, nearly 25% of all unchurched adults have never experienced regular church attendance. (Christian Post 10/21/14)
Unchurched Americans. A new Barna Group study reveals unchurched Americans are the most resistant to outreach efforts by the church and friends than they’ve been in 20 years. Today, 47% of U.S. adults who do not attend church said they were open to being invited to church by a friend vs. 65% in 1993. Yet, personal invitations from friends are still the most effective way to draw church visitors compared to other outreaches. 27% of unchurched adults would be open to visiting a church if invited through a pastoral visit vs. 34% 20 years ago. 24% would consider visiting if they received a phone call from a church. (Christian Post 10/21/14)
Thanks for praying for Bob Persky concerning his open-heart surgery. On December 17, Bob underwent quadruple bypass surgery along with heart valve replacement. He did well and remains in the hospital recovering. Please pray for his rapid and complete recovery and also for his wife Kay who had heart surgery of her own several months ago.
Cards may be sent to:
Bob and Kay Persky
129 Star Point LaneWeatherford, TX 76088-6409
Congratulations to Sonny and Jane Parsons on their 50th wedding anniversary! They were married on December 20, 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi. Sonny is retiring this month as senior pastor of the Big Sandy, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas congregations. The Parsons plan to remain in Big Sandy.
Here is the happy couple on their wedding day and today:
This year the town of Big Sandy, Texas did not have anyone to set out their traditional Christmas decorations. In response to this need, New Beginnings Church, GCI’s congregation in Big Sandy pastored by Sonny Parsons, volunteered to join with the fire department to prepare the community decorations. Children and adults from the congregation joined in serving the community in this way.
As the new year begins, many church leadership teams will meet to prayerfully clarify their vision concerning the road ahead. For assistance in preparing (or updating) your vision statement, click here. To learn about a creative vision clarification process used by one church, watch this:
As the traditional day for celebrating the birth of Jesus, Christmas provides the church its focal point for gratefully acknowledging the Incarnation of the Son of God. In response to this historic event, the angels joyfully praised God (Luke 2:13) as they watched God’s master plan unfold. I believe this is significant to notice. The angels rejoiced because they knew it was God’s desire to be reconciled to his children, and that in Jesus, the children would be reconciled to their Father.
The Incarnation is not only for humanity and our reconciliation to God; it is also for the Father whose purpose has always been to be reconciled to his children. As fully God, Jesus acts in the role of the reconciler, and as fully human, he acts in the role of the one reconciled. Because he worked for both God and humanity, I fondly refer to Jesus as a “double agent.” But unlike other double agents, Jesus was loyal to both parties. One of my favorite secret agents, James Bond, temporarily saved the UK and the world from terror and ruin as he awaited his next assignment. But Jesus, through his one assignment, redeems and saves the whole world for eternity.
Whether or not the birth of Jesus occurred on December 25 is not important; what is important is that it did occur and is a real event to be celebrated. In Christmas celebrations, Christians honor the reality of the one plan of redemption throughout history—a plan brought about by Jesus Christ, who fulfills the promise to Abraham: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:27-29 ESV). As the one true son of Israel, Jesus is the answer to and fulfillment of all of God’s promises. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20 ESV).
As you know, God made a covenant with Israel: “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Unfortunately, Israel as a nation was not faithful to the covenant as the prophets repeatedly warned: “They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words. They have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers” (Jeremiah 11:10 ESV).
It is only in Jesus’ total obedience as a human son of Israel that the covenant is fulfilled. He is the true Israel of God. He inherits the Abrahamic promises on behalf of of all Israel. And that’s good news for all people because the eternal Son of God, through his Incarnation, became the second Adam—the representative for all humanity. Therefore we rest on his perfect obedience. As our great High Priest Jesus acts in our place and on our behalf. In this way, all who “belong to him” are included in God’s “Yes.” “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:7-8 ESV).
In his book, Incarnation, T. F. Torrance makes the point that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies:
If it is the historical factuality of Jesus that is of controlling importance, then that Jesus must be presented as really embedded in history, embedded therefore in the hard stubborn history of Israel. That is precisely the case with Jesus (p. 16).
Jesus is God in the flesh. He is Israel in his humanity so that in him God and humanity are brought together in flesh and blood, in time and space, in person.
As I said before, Jesus is a true double agent—always for us, always on our side, the only one who has redeemed and saved all. And also like a double agent, not everything is transparent. Jesus’ mortal humanity concealed his divine identity. In commenting on Paul’s thoughts to the Philippians, Karl Barth says the following:
[Jesus] puts himself in a position where only he himself knows himself in the way that the Father knows him. In the unknowability into which he enters, it is now certainly the Father’s part to reveal him. But the step that brings him into that unrecognizable condition, into the incognito, is grounded entirely in himself alone… He exists in such a way that to any direct, immediate way of regarding him—e.g. to the historical and psychological approach—he does not present the picture of his proper, original, divine Being, but solely the picture of a human being (The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 63).
What becomes revealed in Jesus is that the Triune God cannot be known in a true and saving way by mere mortals. So God the Father in the person of Jesus, reveals the divinity of his Son by the Spirit. And that revelation can only come about by grace which, at the same time, reconciles and redeems us. Knowing God in Jesus the incarnate Son transforms us in every way. That is why Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). The early church put it this way: “Only God knows God and only God reveals God.”
Here’s a related quote I much enjoy from N. K. Gupta:
Christ by becoming a mortal, accepted slavery to those cosmological forces that lord over humanity. But, like a true “double agent” of popular espionage, he never forsook his true allegiance to God or his status as Son of God… Christ is ingeniously able to nullify their own power through the ultimate act of eschatological reversal: his own death and resurrection that is capable of being shared by others” (Horizons in Biblical Theology, 32.1, pp. 1-16).
At Christmas we rejoice along with the angels in this great reversal. We celebrate Jesus’ perfect obedience, which fulfilled the covenant on our behalf. We celebrate that Jesus is the one true son of Israel, and because we are in him, by faith we share with him in the covenant promises. We celebrate that Jesus never forsook his allegiance to God nor his allegiance to humanity. We celebrate the redemption we have in Christ our Savior. We celebrate the Incarnation.
PS: For a parody of the rock anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” that powerfully recounts the Nativity story, watch the video at http://youtu.be/pW1pbuyGlQ0.
Pictured below is the worship service on the first Sunday of Advent at New Hope Christian Fellowship, a GCI congregation in Eagle Rock, California. Pictured on the bottom row, center, is Sharon Morris from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), presenting to New Hope pastor Glen Weber a certificate of appreciation for “commitment and service to youth.” Several New Hope members received special training so they can bring foster children to church. Several have attended, with two doing so regularly.
Looking for assistance in preparing Advent/Christmas sermons (or sermons any other time of the year)? GCI-USA regional pastor and CAD communications coordinator Ted Johnston reports that one of his favorite resources is Working Preacher—a website from the faculty at Luther Seminary that provides commentary and sample sermons related to the Revised Common Lectionary readings. As with all of such resources, what is found at Working Preacher will need some adaptation. However, it is a generally reliable resource that typically is Trinitarian in its theological perspective.
GCI in South Africa recently announced that two elders were recently ordained to serve in the Port Elizabeth congregation. Those ordained were Albert Abrahams and Zach Hlalu. At the same time, Martin du Preez was commissioned to serve on the congregation’s pastoral team.