KOH2RVA: Day 258

btsr graduationToday is graduation day for the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Students who have been working for the last three or four years to acquire the tools of ministry will walk across the stage, shake hands with the president, receive their diplomas, smile for the camera, and then step onto the mission field.

It’s a different world than when I graduated 26 years ago.

Back then most of the graduates were white men, who would be called as pastors by churches that could afford to pay them a decent salary plus benefits. They might start at a church in a county seat town, but within a few years, if they did well, they could expect to receive a call from a larger church, in a bigger town, with an even better salary. Ministry in those days seemed almost like a reasonable career choice.

But today the graduates will include as many women as men, from a number of different ethnicities. Most of them will not have a job offer in hand when they walk across the stage. There aren’t a lot of churches out there that are hiring. And yet you can’t seem to discourage these graduates. I know; I’ve tried. I’m a trustee at the seminary and I’m around the students on a regular basis. I tell them it’s not going to be easy out there, but that only seems to make them more determined. They talk about all the creative ways they are going to engage the world with the gospel, many of which have nothing to do with traditional church ministry.

For example: Jay McNeal, who has worked as my intern this year, is planning to keep his job at the seminary library to pay the bills, but work in an unpaid staff position here at First Baptist (donations gladly accepted) to help us develop our Microchurch initiative. We have a dream of starting some 500 small satellite churches in the greater Richmond metropolitan area that would work together with us to bring the KOH2RVA. Jay may be out there week after week helping people organize their microchurches, access the technology, and join the network. It’s something that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I graduated.

So, pray for these graduates. It’s not going to be easy for them. But then, Jesus never said it would be easy, not for any of us. “If you want to come after me,” he said, “then deny yourself, take up your cross, and fall in line.” The surprising thing is that these seminary graduates are doing it with smiles on their faces, as if all they ever really wanted out of life was a chance to give it away for Jesus.

KOH2RVA: Day 221

This was the blog post I had scheduled to go up on Tuesday, Day 219, but I was on staff retreat at Graves Mountain Lodge with a spotty Internet connection and it didn’t work.  So, I’m posting it today, instead, with gratitude for those people who understand technology, who make the most of media, and who find creative ways to get the Gospel to the people.  Thanks, TV crew!

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I’m on staff retreat today, and it seems only fitting that I share with you some of the good work our staff and volunteers do every week to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond and and the surrounding region.

I can’t tell you how many times people approach me in public to tell me what a gift our television ministry is to those who can’t make it to church. In hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and even some retirement communities, the weekly broadcast at 11:00 Sunday morning on Channel 8 is a window into a world some people miss terribly.  They love it that the broadcast is a full hour, and that it includes the hymns and prayers.

Of course, for those of you who can make it to church, and who live in the area, I hope you will turn off the television and come!

There’s nothing quite like being there.

KOH2RVA: Day 199

hospital visitMuch of our focus for this year-long, every-member mission trip has been outside the walls of the church, but I don’t mind admitting that much of the time, perhaps even most of the time, the members of First Baptist Church bring heaven to earth for those who are inside the walls.

For example: at last month’s deacons’ meeting I led a training session on how to make a hospital visit, thinking especially about those times our own members are in the hospital. I emphasized that the word deacon literally means “minister,” and then I led them through these ten steps:

Making a hospital visit: suggestions for deacons

1. Park in the visitor’s parking lot. Go in the front entrance. Ask about the person at the information desk. Get a room number and follow directions to the floor.

2. Ask at the nurse’s station about visiting Mr. Jones in Room 555. If they ask about your relationship to the patient say, “I’m his minister” (the literal meaning of the word deacon).

3. Sanitize your hands before going in. If the doctor or nurse is in the room, wait in the hallway while they do their work.

4. When you enter the room, say, “Hello, Mr. Jones. I’m a deacon at First Baptist Church. I’ve come by for a visit.”

5. Be considerate. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t come in with the smell of gas on your hands or strong perfume that may be unsettling. Don’t say to the person, “My uncle died of what you have” (that suggestion from Bob Higgins).

6. Limit your visit to 5-10 minutes. The person is not there to entertain visitors, but to try to get well. A five minute visit will feel longer if you take off your topcoat, pull up a chair and sit down.

7. Try not to ask, “So, how are you?” Instead let them lead the conversation. If they need to talk about something, they will. If they don’t, they’ll talk about the food in the hospital.

8. Say, “I’d like to pray with you before I go. Is there anything in particular I could pray for?” Hold a hand if you can and then gather up the things they have mentioned and offer them up to God in a short, simple prayer. Leave a moment of silence after the “Amen.” Let them be the first to speak.

9. When you have finished the visit stand up and say something like, “I’ve enjoyed the visit. I hope to see you in church soon.” If that’s not appropriate, simply say a sincere goodbye and leave.

10. Sanitize your hands on your way out of the hospital.

The training session was well received, in fact, Lynn Turner and I got this email message from Clark Norton, one of our newest deacons, the next day.

Jim and Lynn,

Sign me up and give me some tough cookies! I live just down the street from St Francis in Midlothian but I’ll go anywhere.

Thanks again for inviting us to serve more.

Clark

Now, that’s the spirit, isn’t it? There’s a deacon who knows what the word means and who can’t wait to do some ministry. After all, if deacons aren’t going to do ministry, why ordain them?

May your tribe increase, Clark, and maybe on one of those hospital visits you will not only visit our members, but ask at the nurse’s station if there is anybody else on the floor who could use some cheering up.

Then you really will be bringing the KOH2RVA!

KOH2RVA: Day 190

BTSRIt’s Monday, March 18, 2013. I’m up having coffee and getting ready for an all-day trustee meeting at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. I’m wondering if there is any way I can bring heaven to earth today.

I think there is. I think BTSR is, in itself, a way of bringing heaven to earth. For more than twenty years this school has been training men and women for ministry in the local church, and some of those men and women—Sterling Severns, Mandy England Cole, Justin Joplin, and Erin Spengeman, just to name a few—are out there blessing our city right now.

In the beginning, the idea of training women for ministry seemed radical and new, especially for Baptists. These days I think we understand that if the church is going to have a future it’s going to take all of us, women and men alike, and the women at BTSR are proving themselves extremely capable. Jim Flamming (my predecessor at FBC Richmond, who now teaches preaching at the seminary) says that the women in his classes are consistently the best preachers.

That shouldn’t surprise us.

As I’ve heard someone else say, women were “last at the cross, first at the tomb.” They were with Jesus when the disciples had fled. And Mary Magdalene, if you go by John’s version of the story, preached the first Easter sermon on record: “I have seen the Lord!” she said. Short, simple, to the point:

Hard to improve on that.

So, I’m going to spend the day doing what I can to ensure the future of the seminary. Things are looking much better than they did just a few months ago. The seminary has sold some property that had become a huge financial burden and gotten itself free to fulfill its mission in a leaner, more sustainable way. Ron Crawford, the seminary’s president, seems practically giddy when he talks about the future of the school these days and the students—characteristically—seem eager to go forward even if they have to do it in another building.

So I hope you will say a prayer for me today, a prayer for the trustees of BTSR, and a prayer for the future of a school that is determined to go on training men and women for ministry in the local church.

Lord knows we need them.

KOH2RVA: Day 188

Colourful preschool numbersThe tiny little robot who keeps track of statistics on WordPress tells me that yesterday I surpassed 500,000 total views. That means that since I started it back in September, 2008, more than a half a million people have visited my blog.

Well, let’s be realistic.

It means that since September, 2008, my blog has been viewed more than half a million times. And WordPress itself recognizes that I’ve had more views than visitors—you know, the kind of people who come back for a second look just because they can’t believe what they read the first time (many of those people wanted to know, “Will the World End on December, 21, 2012?” the title of one of my posts. In fact, the most views I got on any single day was 1,407 on that post on December 20, 2012).

Still, I’ve written 501 total posts, for an average of almost 1,000 views per post. And people have commented on what they’ve read. WordPress tells me I’ve had 1,817 total comments from people who like the conversation to go both ways, which I appreciate.

I’m hoping that conversation will continue.

But lately I’ve thought about starting a new blog in September called “KOH2RVA,” and asking church members, friends, and partner organizations to contribute, freeing me up to get back to my own blog and my own occasional postings on other topics. I was looking back through some of those old posts yesterday and found this one, the one that started it all. As I re-read it I began to believe that Jesus has been inviting us to help him bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, all along.

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The Central Task of Ministry
September 30, 2008 by Jim Somerville

On page 99 of a book called The Hopeful Imagination, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann claims: “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.”

I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act–to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

When his disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” he taught them something that sounds very much like the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, or maybe it’s what a disciple prays before going onto the mission field: “Thy kingdom come!” it says. “Thy will be done!” it says. But then (don’t miss this part) it says, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

To put it simply, I think Jesus wanted his disciples to bring heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. I think he still wants his disciples to bring heaven to earth, and the question is, “How do we do it?”

It’s not so hard. You look at the world through his eyes. You look for anything that doesn’t look like heaven…yet. And then you roll up your sleeves, and go to work.

KOH2RVA: Day 163

TV MinistryOne of the things that I’m learning on this year-long, every-member mission trip is that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, is not a new thing for First Baptist Church.

Last night, for example, I went to Covenant Woods, a gorgeous retirement community in Mechanicsville, to have dinner with some of our members and to speak afterward. Dinner was delightful, and I truly enjoyed the company of the nine other people at my table, but when it was time to speak I walked into a large room that was packed with people.

Do you want to know why it was packed?

Because the worship services at First Baptist Church are broadcast on Channel 8 at 11:00 each Sunday morning, and for thousands of people in Central Virginia who are not physically able to get to their own churches on Sunday morning, the televised services from First Baptist have become the next best thing. Some of those people have come to think of First Baptist as “their” church, and a few of those have come to think of me as “their” pastor. So, when I walk into the room at Covenant Woods they begin to whisper—“There he is!”—even though we have never met in person.

When I came to First Baptist nearly five years ago I wasn’t sure about the television ministry. I mean, I’ve spent most of my life trying not to look like a television evangelist. But since then I’ve learned what a true ministry it is, and how people who are lying in hospital beds have been able to sing along with the hymns on Sunday mornings, bow their heads for the prayers, and hear the sermons. A lot of them tell me how much they loved hearing Jim Flamming, my predecessor, preach, but they are usually kind enough to say they enjoy my preaching, too.

What they’re trying to say, really, is that they’ve found a place to worship God when they can’t get to worship, that somehow—through the miracle of technology—they are able to enter into worship almost as if they were there in the sanctuary.

When that happens, heaven comes to earth.

First Baptist has been broadcasting its weekly worship services since 1987. It costs a lot of money to do it. A third of the cost comes out of the church budget; two-thirds is underwritten by the church’s endowment. And although it is an iron-clad rule that we never ask for money, we still receive a number of generous contributions every year from people who are grateful for a church they can get to when they can’t get to church.

So, here’s to the TV ministry of First Baptist Church, and the way it’s been bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, for more than 25 years.

KOH2RVA: Day 156

On MissionOn Sunday I spent three hours with the Ministry Planning Team at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. We were trying to draft a mission, vision, and values statement for the church, something we’ve been working on for a while.

We were stuck on the “mission” piece.

What is it that we, as a church, are trying to do? Are we trying to bring heaven to earth? Are we trying to make disciples of every nation? Are we trying to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? Are we trying to save people from eternal damnation?

We looked at mission statements from Coca-Cola (“To refresh the world, to inspire moments of happiness and optimism, to create value and make a difference”) and Starbucks Coffee (“To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”). We talked about “aspiration” and wondered if our mission statement could be about something people really want, rather than just about something they ought to do. We thought we were getting close at one point, and then our conversation ricocheted off in another direction.

We’ve still got work to do.

But I woke up Monday morning thinking about our mission, and ended up writing the litany that’s printed below. It’s not our mission statement. It’s just Jim’s thoughts on a Monday morning. But I hope you will read it and let me know your thoughts. Does any part of it refresh you, or inspire you…or make you want a Coke? (smile).

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Leader: Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s Kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

People: Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to that prayer.

Leader: Jesus knew what a big job that would be. He told his followers to go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded.

People: Let us never be content with making converts alone.

Leader: Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

People: We are sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.

Leader: Let us go in the grace of God, the love of the Lord Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.