Worship with a Meal

Some of the most profound encounters with Jesus happened around meals.  He ate with a crowd, with friends, with sinners, with enemies trying to trap him, and with the disciples.  Jesus clearly loved to eat with people.  He liked it so much he was accused of being a glutton.  Much of his teaching revolved around food.   Some of his miracles were related to food.  His life, ministry, and death was symbolized by the central item of a feast – the passover lamb.

In that spirit, we’re going to celebrate a feast together at our next worship gathering.  We’ll break bread together, reflect on the life of Jesus, and consider his promises to be with those he sends out.

Come and be equipped and encouraged for life on mission.  We’ll be gathering at the Wehmeier’s house on Saturday, July 7 at 6:00 pm.  Send me a text (904)599-2889 or an email (pastorjessealexander@gmail.com) to let me know your coming.  We want to be sure there’s enough for everyone and we’ll let you know how you can contribute to the feast!

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A Church Serving Those Who Are Sent

(Our next worship gathering is July 7 @ 6:00 at the home of Kent and Kris Wehmeier.  Come and be equipped and encouraged for life on mission.)

Agree or disagree:  “In the prevailing framework of the church today, leaders are constrained to serve only those who come into their ministry sphere – their church building or programs.  The ministry, then, is limited to only their capacity and the capacity of that sphere.  This also means we are often chasing our tails trying to serve people who are disinterested in the kingdom.  Many people will claim to be Christian, but their true desire is to be served, to be fed, and to consume.  Serving these people is hard, expensive work with very little kingdom fruit.” (Brian Sanders, Underground Church, p59)

At just about every point in my ministry I would have agreed with the statement above and I would have pushed back, too, because what other choice is there?   Church was what it was.  In order to reach some, we had to put up with the demands of the consumers of ministry, who, as they would sometimes point out, were footing the bill.   Every ministry leader had a list of things they didn’t want to do and that were a waste of time and energy, but were expected to do.   That was the church.

The churches I served as a youth leader, elder, and pastor were “prevailing framework” churches.  Some of those churches were considered pretty healthy.  A couple others, no so much.   But even in the healthier ones, the work in the church included a lot of interruptions, empty rituals, maintenance, and putting out fires.   Sometimes, God would work in the interruptions.  (There’s a cliche about that, so certainly it must be true.)  Sometimes, the empty rituals included sparks of life.  Sometimes, the maintenance of ministry, the finances, facilities, and endless writing of things that next to no one would read provided an avenue for connection with others involved in helping with the maintenance.  And sometimes, the grace of God would be manifest in the putting out of fires.  God did things in the church still.  The demands and distractions are just part of church. That was ministry in the church.  As a volunteer in ministry, it seemed like I spent all my free time at church.  As a pastor, I worked about sixty hours each week (as my father had before me.)  I think the actual engagement of ministry with people – the preaching, teaching, visitation, praying with others, and helping those in need began after hour forty-five.  And that was on weeks when the fires to put out were small ones.

And it would have been worth it if I had seen more kingdom fruit.   But outside the church, people seemed to be growing ambivalent about Christianity and disappointed in (sometimes hostile toward) churches.  Inside the church, transformation seemed rare and accidental.  It did happen.  I’d seen it – surrendering to Jesus, conversion to faith, and spiritual (re)awakening.  But most people were spiritually stagnated.  Too many people thought that was okay.  Attending worship, being in a small group Bible study, and serving in the church, and going on a retreat or mission trip – that was the best formula I knew of for steady spiritual growth.  But most people I invited into it didn’t want to or didn’t have time for such things.  Even among those who did, spiritual growth sometimes just didn’t happen.  I learned of an Alban Institute study that revealed that spiritual growth essentially stopped for most people after age 20.  Virtually stopped!  Trying to address it was frustrating.  There was little freedom to try new and different things to bring about better results.  And mission – blessing the world – was hard work!  We did it.  But the effort was huge and often costly.

I had heard that the body of Christ, the church, is supposed to be beautiful.  But the beauty was getting pretty hard to see.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

When I started LoveFirst Coast, a good friend told me, kindly, that he thought I was going in the wrong direction.  Even though we’d read a couple of books together and he appreciated the theory of missional community and respected me for trying, he said that there was no proof of concept.  There were rumors and stories, beautiful stories.  But he was right.  I could not prove that this thing, this new thing, would work.  But I couldn’t keep at it the old way.   If nothing else, I needed a break.

So we pushed ahead anyway.  And I’m so glad we did.

Allow me to draw a few comparisons with my ministry today with my ministry then.

Today, I still work forty-five hours or so before I get into ministry.  But those forty-five hours are at an engineering firm.  It’s how I provide for my family and it feels like good stewardship of my engineering skills.  (I work at Murray Engineering in St. Augustine, FL).  I enjoy being with the people I work with.  Over time, I have been able to encourage and pray with most everyone there.  I love the glimpses of God at work in the lives and in their families.  The time I spend in ministry (ten to fifteen hours) is focused in a better way.  I don’t spend much time in maintenance, putting out fires, or managing demanding or critical consumers of ministry.  Rather, I spend it with people who have become dear friends who are joining God in what God is doing around the First Coast.  Our discipleship groups are missional incubators.  The job of the leader of a discipleship group is to encourage and equip others to represent Jesus as well as they can wherever they go.  I can say pretty confidently that those involved are growing spiritually, steadily.  They see themselves as sent, just like me.  The touch others with the grace of Jesus across the First Coast.  They pray, teach, lead, care and serve.  Some are beginning to develop discipling relationships with others   When we get together, it is to spur one another on to love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:25).  We focus on learning from Jesus how to live like Jesus (to borrow from Dallas Willard).   I still preach a good bit, not only for LoveFirst Coast, but also for the Sawgrass Chapel – a group that gathers to worship on Sundays at 7:30 am out at the beach.  Preaching is easier than it used to be.  Mostly, I pass on what I’ve been learning as a disciple of Jesus.  We still have challenges.  We’re human.  We sin.  We struggle to love, forgive, and get along.  We experience strain in our families and other relationships.  We get distracted, tired, and off track. But not as much and not as long.  We keep coming back to Up-In-Out, to encouraging one another to learn from Jesus how to live like Jesus, to listening, loving, and praying, to pursuing Shallom.  It’s beautiful.

Here’s the big shift.  We believe followers of Jesus are sent.  We are trying to bring people in.  We are trying to encourage and equip those who are sent to join God in what God is doing around the First Coast.  That’s where we invest and spend our energy.

This different way of doing church, this thing that started as a missional community experiment, is proving to be worth it.  But as for proof of concept, well, a lot has happened around the world with missional community in the last five years.

Recently, a documentary was made about a network of missional communities called the Tampa Underground.  If you have time, (35 minutes) it’s worth the watch.  You’ll get a pretty clear sense of what church done differently could look like.  It’s beautiful.  I mean, wow, is it beautiful.  And that’s shouldn’t be surprising, really.  Because, the body of Christ, the church, is supposed to beautiful.  Vimeo on Underground Network

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Worship Gathering Sunday

Anyone who has committed to living on mission or serving in ministry has experienced it.  Disappointment.  Yet joy is offered for every season on the journey.  How do we “consider it pure joy” whenever we “encounter trials of various kinds.”  (James 1:2)  It’s a mystery worth solving.  Learning to cultivate and choose genuine joy regardless of circumstance is a helpful skill.  It’s essential for sustaining strength for responding to God’s call.  That’s our focus for this week.
Come to be equipped and encouraged for life on mission.  We gather this Sunday night 6:45pm in the St. John’s room at Faith Community Church (3450 CR210, 32259).
And invite a person of peace to join you at the Jumbo Shrimp game this Saturday.
Hope to see you both days. But regardless may the joy of the Lord your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10).
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Dealing with Disappointment

I will forever be grateful for Nicky Gumble’s line in Alpha Leader Training:

“Alpha is probably the most disappointing thing you’ll ever do.”

It was strangely encouraging and helped me and others persevere through leading the Alpha Course.  When few showed up the first day, and fewer after that – rather than dwelling on the question, “what are we doing wrong”, we were able to say, “we knew this was coming.  Is there anything we need to do?”  When the conversations didn’t go great, when arguments went wrong, when know-it-alls kind of took over, we thought to ourselves, “Oh, this is what he was talking about.”  And when prayer-ministry seemed to lack power, when prayers for people went unanswered, and when nothing overtly exciting happened on the weekend away- well, we were disappointed, but we were warned.  Alpha was one of the most disappointing things we’d ever done.

But it was also one of the best.  I remember Alpha quite fondly – mainly because we didn’t give up.  If we’d given up, I would never have heard Bruce confess: “I love this church, and I’m grateful to be able to talk about all this.”  And directly as a result of Alpha, we met a woman named Amy, and I had the privilege of hearing her say, “I’ve decided to follow Jesus. I have become a Christian.”  And because we persevered through disappointment in Alpha, a number of people just grew personally and spiritually.  An elderly man said that his faith made sense for the first time in his life.  A woman discovered new ways to pray.  The Holy Spirit was no longer the “forgotten member of the trinity” in our fellowship.  And people started reading their bibles.  The people we served were grateful.

I’ve thought about Nicky Gumble’s words this week in terms of missional living and my own efforts at discipleship.  I have felt some disappointment in the last couple of weeks.  I won’t go into specifically, because discipleship as we do is following Jesus while encouraging others to do the same, so it is life-on-life and very personal.  But a couple experiences have made me wonder, “Am I doing this wrong?”  But this morning, I am stealing Nicky’s words:  This approach to discipleship is one of the most disappointing things you could ever do.

But there’s nothing better.  I love the hearts of my people – for they are loving their families, neighborhoods, and our city like Jesus and are beginning to see some traction in their own work of encouraging others do the same.  And, I think, God is using our, and specifically my own, familiarity with disappointment in ministry as a way to encourage one another.

Hebrews 10:25 calls us to gather regularly to spur one another on to love and good deeds.   Do it!  Get with the people who can put some steel in your spine!  The work is too important and the need is too urgent to allow disappointment to bring it down.

May you be encouraged today!  Live like Jesus would if he were in your place!  Don’t give up!

 

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Worship Gathering May 20

Anyone who’s been a part of a ministry has probably had the experience of working hard and getting limited results.  I’ve long since lost count of being a part of strategy meetings, planning sessions, and lets-just-pray-harder-and-try-harder-next-time-and-see-what-happens conversations.  I wonder how many times I and others thought – there must be a better way.
There is.  Jesus gave his disciples a pattern for ministry.  It certainly involves prayer, work, and creativity, but no pressure.  For that matter, even if you fail to get results you want, you’ll be grateful for the results you get.
Come and be equipped and encouraged for life on mission!  We’ll meet in the St. Johns Room of Faith Community Church at 6:45pm.  Hope to see you there.
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Worship Gathering May 6

Maybe you are called to fly.
Or maybe it’s something a little more… “down to earth”.
Or maybe you just wish you knew what your calling was and you just aren’t sure.  It seems very important.  You don’t want to get this one wrong.  But trying to discern your calling can seem so mystical, illusive, and mysterious.
But here’s a plain fact: if Jesus is your Lord, you have been called.  And it’s less complicated than you think.
So, what is your calling and how do you answer it?  Not surprisingly, the Bible offers wonderful insight.  So we’ll be looking at scripture this Sunday night to learn a bit about discerning how God is calling us regardless of our season in life – and we’ll look at ways to respond faithfully.   And I expect we’ll remove a bit of the mystery.
We’ll meet at 6:45 in the St. Johns Room at Faith Community Church for a time to be encouraged and equipped to live life on mission.
Hope to see you there.
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God’s Call and Our Difficulties

Last week, I heard a preacher say,  “We’ll start with the basics.  Everyone who comes to Christ has to come to the conclusion that there is a God, and it is not me.”  That is an essential starting point for leading a redeemed life.  But contrary to what some may say, it is not the starting point for an easy life.  God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.

If Jesus is Lord, and if he invites me to follow him, then I can safely assume he will lead me to places of his choosing, places I would not otherwise elect to go.  And Jesus was very clear.  Luke 9 he tells his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to be handed over, where he would suffer, be condemned and crucified and on the third day he would rise from the dead.   And then he says, “If you would come after me,  you must take up your cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23-24)  The cross we are invited to bear is not a mild affliction.  That annoying kid in your class, the coworker who leaves a mess, or the family member who embarrasses you whenever they come to dinner is not your cross to bear.  “Take up your cross…” came along as Jesus was talking about taking his own journey toward rejection, suffering, death, AND resurrection.  He invites us to take up our cross as he was going to his own cross.  We can be confident, then, that for his disciples, following Jesus would lead to dark places where they would each know what he meant by “lose your life to find it.”  Why should we ever assume it would be different for us?  In John’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear: “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart.  I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)  Jesus suggests that taking up a cross is worth it.

Consider the words and life of Paul the Apostle who wrote in several places to the early church about the imitation of Christ.  (i.e I Corninthians 11:1)  He invited people to imitate him as he imitated Christ, and his imitation of Jesus led to  the experience of rejection, suffering, and eventually death – but also great confidence in the resurrection.

We need to come to terms with this. I don’t want anyone to be uniformed or misinformed.  Following Jesus doesn’t automatically mean you will suffer.  But just know, you probably will.  Nearly everyone does whether they follow Jesus or not.  Just read the paper, watch the news, or visit your local nursing home and ask yourself – is anyone suffering?

I know that some people are told that following Jesus leads to a easy life of health and prosperity.  That’s a lie.  Following Jesus generally involves a level of suffering.  Anyone who says otherwise, who suggests suffering is not a normal part of following Jesus, is selling false gospel.  Don’t buy it.

What’s your story?  Does it include difficult times?  Have you spent seasons dealing with, for example…

…failure, frustrations, debt, rejection, loss, depression, oppression, persecution, divorce, job loss, scarcity, ill-health, disappointment, delayed hope, or dysfunctional families?

Ever wondered why?  I know some of these experiences come along because of foolish choices motivated by selfishness or pride.  But most people I know find themselves in difficult seasons while simply trying to do the best they could.  Suffering of some sort simply comes along.  And it begs the question, “Why would a good God allow people he loves to suffer?  Why?”

No tight, easy answers here.  I don’t know why God didn’t make things easier.  But we get clues.  Jesus suffered and it wasn’t random or purposeless.  The early church suffered, too and it wasn’t meaningless.  Followers of Jesus have faced difficulties throughout history, and yet those hard times were often the seed of God’s work.  Our difficulties are not necessarily random (though they may be) and are not necessarily meaningless (though they may seem so) but they are never beyond redemption.  Difficulties are not permanent.  Through them, even in them, we can begin to experience the power of God’s redeeming work and the power of the Christ’s resurrection.

Let me unpack some of this from scripture.  Have you ever noticed the connection between Acts 1:8 and Acts 8:1.  Jesus tells the disciples they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth in Acts 1:8.  From Acts 1:8 through Acts 8:1 they are Jesus witnesses in Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, and, well, Jerusalem.  It was a great time.  Signs.  Wonders.  Great fellowship.  No unmet needs. Daily Worship.  There were some difficulties.  Some arrests, threats, and opposition from officials.  But most of the problems were internal. Annanias and Sapharia lied about their donations in order to look more generous.  There were some tensions about a problem with some widows feeling like there were being treated unfairly.  But things had been getting harder all along.  The apostles had been flogged because they kept teaching about Jesus.   But they kept teaching about Jesus.  Maybe it was their example, the way they had handled suffering, that gave a guy named Stephen, one of the first deacons, the courage he needed for his own difficult assignment from Jesus.  He dared to speak about Jesus to people who didn’t want to hear it, and did it so effectively that they arrested him and killed him for it.

That’s when Acts 8:1 happened.   A persecution broke out against the church and they were scattered from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.

Shattered and scattered.  A guy named Saul (who would become an Apostle called Paul) led the persecution.  People were arrested and dragged out of homes.  Families were divided.  Wealth was confiscated.  People were thrown in prison.  The Jerusalem church was shattered.   Side note: we don’t hear much about grumbling widows or false generosity after that.  People had more important things on their minds.

And they were scattered. The Greek word there is an agricultural word for scattering seeds.  They were dispersed like seeds being sowed into the world – to Judea – where they wanted to go and where they preached the word.  And they were scattered to Samaria where they didn’t’ want to go – because Jews typically didn’t like Samaritans – and yet, they preached the word there, too.  The motivation to be Jesus’ witnesses, not just in Jerusalem but also in Judea and Samaria seemed to require the difficulties of a shattering experience. And finally in Acts 11:19, they began speaking the word of God “to the Greeks, also” as a result of “the persecution associated with Stephen.”   Acts 1:8 begins to be fulfilled as a result of the difficulties that begin in Acts 8:1

God’s mission in the world seems to be connected to, even rooted in, difficulty.  It makes you wonder if there could have been an easier way.  In Acts 13, for example, Saul and Barnabas start a missionary journey without much difficulty.  They simply respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  That seems easier.  But even in that story, difficulties arose.  God would use those to further his mission, especially to form and shape the New Testament.

I have been in church leadership, in ministry, for over thirty years, and as a pastor for eighteen.  (Wow, where did the time go?)  I have noticed that those who seem to imitate and represent Jesus best have usually walked with him through hard times.

Have you had hard times?  May the Lord redeem them and put them to good use.  Are you in the middle of a difficult season?  Hold on to God through it.    And one more thing:  Think about the nature of your particular difficulties.  It’s very likely that God is using them to prepare you to bless others who’ve endured similar things.  The people to whom God is calling you are probably the people who can relate your places of pain, frustration, and failure.  And they need you!  They need you to remind them that the God who was with you and never left you will be with them and never leave them, too.

You are uniquely equipped to bear witness, to give courage, to bring hope, and to pray with authority because of the difficult seasons you have endured.  Don’t waste your pain!  In God’s Kingdom, whatever you have suffered has given you greater authority to represent Jesus well.  Put it to use for the glory of God.

You go no where by accident!

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