WHO ARE WE?
As I mentioned in a recent sermon, I have been listening to a recording of a series of lectures given by one of my former seminary professors, Dr. Gordon Fee, who has written a great number of wonderfully helpful and insightful books and articles, especially on the New Testament. In one of those lectures, Dr. Fee asks the audience what they consider to be the defining characteristic of the people of God. What is the distinguishing mark that identifies the people of God as being the people of God?
Now, certainly, there are a number of very important traits that they ought to have, but the characteristic that Dr. Fee proposes as the defining mark of the people of God is one that I want to commend for Venice Church’s sense of identity as we pause here at the turning of the ministry year. Dr. Fee asserts that what marks God’s people as God’s people is that they have the presence of God amongst them. We are the people of the presence of God – really and quite literally, not merely as a pleasant and cozy idea but as a genuine and tangible reality.
A church’s annual report is meant to reflect on the year that has just ended, and you will certainly find lots of information in this report about the life and work of Venice Church in 2013. I only spent about one third of the year with you. But even in those four months, I saw and experienced a lot that left me with no doubt that God is very much present among us here at Venice Church.
The Two Big Projects of 2013
That truth was nowhere more evident than in the two great projects of 2013: the calling of a new pastor and the decision to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Those are two notoriously challenging projects of churches.
There are no other decisions that have so much impact on the future course of the life and ministry of a congregation than the calling of a new pastor. I might add that there are few decisions that a pastor can make that will change his life as much as the decision to accept a new call.
The crucial decisions involved in bringing a pastor and congregation together must be bathed in very much prayer constantly throughout the process, because they are so decisively important for both pastor and people and for the outworking of God’s purposes through them. I can affirm that 2013 was a season of fervent and continual prayer like few others in my life. Likewise, I saw much evidence that Venice Church and particularly its Pastor Nominating Committee were engaged in some very serious prayer in the months leading up to the meeting on July 7, 2013 when you called me to be your pastor.
The other gigantic project that Venice Church took on was that of our denominational affiliation. This project too had to be bathed in on-going, fervent prayer, because this project can easily capsize a congregation, knock a hole in it, or break it into pieces. It is only a brave congregation that will attempt this sort of project, and it is only a prayerful congregation that will survive it. Venice Church both attempted and survived the challenge of achieving dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and admission to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. By the time you read this report, our dismissal from the PC(USA) and admission to the EPC will be in the hands of the United States Postal Service, as letters of dismissal and admission are being exchanged.
The year 2014 will then be a year of denominational transition. Through the late winter and spring, members of session and other church leaders will be engaged in an intensive training process. A key emphasis in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is the nurture and development of leaders in the congregation.
The New Testament church understood that leaders in the church were God’s gift to the church. Leaders, called by God, are one of the principal ways in which God makes himself present in the church. Over and over again in the book of Acts, we see that God goes out of his way to use called, empowered, and trained leaders to bless his church and to make himself present to his people. In Ephesians 4:12-13, the apostle Paul says that God gives the church leaders “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” [NIV]
Our connection with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church will help us to renew our commitment to recognizing, raising up, and equipping leaders to do just that. I am convinced that the more Venice Church applies itself to this work, the more we will experience God’s presence among us, and the more we will see God work his renewal in our house of faith.
An Inviting Church?
In the coming year, God is giving Venice Church and all his churches in the Pittsburgh area a gift to help them become more inviting and welcoming. Many North American churches, especially those of the Presbyterian persuasion, have adopted a very passive approach to outreach. We put a smile on our faces; we tell ourselves how important it is for us to be friendly when visitors come into our churches. Then, we sit in our pews and wait, hoping that someone new might happen to wander in. And mostly, they don’t. And why would they?
We delude ourselves if we believe that there are hundreds and hundreds of people out in our communities who are sitting in their homes, thinking to themselves, “What I most need to make my life feel complete is to find a good, friendly church to join.” Here’s the word: almost no one is out there in our neighborhoods thinking that. They will not come looking for us. We will have to go looking for them.
We must make a transition. Instead of passively waiting for them to come to us, we must become a people who actively go out seeking and inviting them to come and meet Jesus. Look at the apostle Andrew in John 1:41-42. After Andrew met Jesus, John tells us, “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.” [NIV] A few verses later, we see that the apostle Philip does the same thing with his friend Nathanael. That’s the biblical pattern. We have to learn to follow it.
Now, here’s the gift from God that I mentioned just above. In August, Franklin Graham will be coming to Pittsburgh to do a Festival of Hope evangelistic event. Leading up to that, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the sponsor of the Festival of Hope, will be providing a huge array of training, equipping, and preparatory events to teach us to actively invite others to meet Jesus and to help us grow in confidence so that we can move from being passive to being active inviters. So, in the weeks and months ahead, don’t ask yourself, “Should I get involved in the Franklin Graham Festival of Hope?” That’s the wrong question. The right question is, “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t get involved?” And, honestly, I can’t imagine what that reason could possibly be.
By bringing people into the presence of Jesus, as Andrew and Philip did, we will become even more the people of the presence of Jesus for our world – and for ourselves.
Prayer & Healing
The presence of God is sought and found in a diligent and unremitting pursuit of God through prayer. Prayer is not the work of a few. It has to be the committed work of the entire community of the church. It is something that we do as individual members of the Venice Church family and when we gather together in groups for the purpose of prayer.
Churches can sometimes take prayer for granted. They do that by simply assuming that prayer in the life of the church will just happen and that it needs no special attention or planning. But the prayer ministry of a church, like any other ministry, requires intentional planning and purposeful organizational effort. Otherwise, the church’s prayer life will become routine, mechanical, and lifeless.
In the year ahead, I will be working with session and others to make the ministry of prayer an intentional part of our organizational life. A church cannot experience the vibrant presence of God without a conscious, purposeful, organized commitment to prayer. Nor can it recognize God’s leading or tap into God’s power unless engaged in an intentional and systematic ministry of prayer. We will have that more and more in the days ahead here at Venice Church.
One expression of that ministry of prayer must be in the form of a dedicated ministry of healing. Always when God is sought out in prayer and when God draws near to his people through their prayers, our God makes his presence visible through healing. That’s exactly what God promised Solomon: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” [2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV].
Our Father wants us to turn to him and seek healing from him. When we seek healing from God through prayer, he heals. He does that because it is a most powerful expression of his redeeming plan for the world. When God heals in response to the prayers of his people, the world sees the truth that Jesus is Lord and that he has come to redeem our fallen world. Our God wants us to call on him for healing so that he can show himself powerful and kind. The church of Acts shows us the way. They prayed, “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And Luke tells us that “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” [Acts 4:30-31 NIV]
Is there any reason why we shouldn’t expect God to do that among us here at Venice Church? Our community is full of brokenness in the form of illnesses, addiction, damaged marriages and families, depression, suicide, spiritual oppression. Why shouldn’t Venice Church be known as the place where people come to find God’s healing and restoration? That is my vision for our church.
We have an enormously exciting year ahead of us. God is about to do amazing things among us.
© 2014 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.