The Kingdom Just Keeps Coming!

partnershipRecently I challenged the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church to help me take our mission to the next level.  For a year the whole church was working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia (KOH2RVA).  By the end of the year it was obvious that the job was too big for any one church to do alone, so we began a year of mission called KOHx2 (Kingdom of Heaven Times Two), with an emphasis on partnership.  In the same way that Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to do the work of the Kingdom, it made sense to us to work with other individuals, churches, agencies, and organizations to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond and beyond.

I call this new mission “KOHx2: Bringing It Together.”

I challenged the staff to collect pictures and stories that would illustrate this mission, and to share them with me so I could post them on my blog.  A few days ago I got this email from Senior Associate Pastor Lynn Turner:


I don’t know if you can use this or not in your blog, but felt compelled to write it just as a reflection from my heart this past week.  It has caused me to think about this partnership thing in a totally different light.


What Lynn wrote came out of her regular work at church, which reminded me that church work at its best IS the work of the Kingdom, and sometimes church people step up and help out in ways that truly bring heaven to earth.

Take a look at what Lynn wrote:

Reflections on KOHx2: Partnership and Generosity

It began with phone calls this past week of various needs within our church family: One family, out of full time work, medical needs, and needing some help catching up on bills; Another family, having faced extraordinary medical circumstances, still in the hospital, and their heating system out in their home with no funds at this time to get it fixed: Another family moving into an apartment with need of furniture and the basics to get them on their feet; all members of our congregation and all legitimate needs.
And thus the partnership and generosity wheels began turning…

An anonymous gift to help with current bills, a heating company stepping in to donate a used system and time to install, and an envelope of money given to me by a church member this past week with the words, “Sometimes ministers just need some discretionary funds to help folks out, use this as the needs arise.”

I have been overwhelmed this week with the way God has revealed to me that bringing the kingdom comes with partners….all kinds of partners…with a spirit of generosity that just points to Jesus.

KOHx2 has been hard at work this week. Blessings abound!

KOH2RVA: Day 250

reconciliationI had lunch with Rodney Waller this week.

Rodney is the pastor of First African Baptist Church, a church that, at one time, was part of First Baptist. It’s an interesting story, and much depends on who gets to tell it.

I brought a copy of the church history with me—First Baptist Church, that is—where it says that back in 1838 pastor Jeremiah Bell Jeter was having trouble figuring out how to minister to his large, bi-racial congregation. He was convinced that “neither group in the church would achieve its maximum effectiveness under existing conditions.” Eventually he suggested that the white members build a new building just up the street, and leave the existing building to the “colored” members. And in 1841, that’s what happened. According to the church history it was a very amicable parting of the ways.

I asked Rodney if that’s the way they remembered it at First African.

He said the way he heard the story was that First Baptist had grown to nearly 3,000 members at that time—the first “megachurch”—but most of those were the slaves of white members. As Rodney talked I could almost picture them in a balcony that creaked and groaned under the strain of their enthusiastic worship as a much smaller number of white congregants sat on the main level, below, glancing upward nervously. When the 387 white members moved into their beautiful new building two blocks up the street there may have been an audible sigh of relief–on both sides.

I tend to romanticize that time when “we all worshiped together,” as if what Paul said in Galatians 3:28 was true even then, that in Christ Jesus there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” But Rodney helped me understand it may not have felt that way at all. 

We ended up talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and how our two churches might work together on some big project. It was a very hopeful conversation, and Rodney has been in touch with me since, asking if some of our church leaders can meet to discuss it further. At some point the word reconciliation was used and I told Rodney that my favorite definition of that word was “to make friendly again.” And then there was an awkward silence as we realized that for our churches it might not be a matter of becoming friendly again, but becoming friendly for the first time ever, recognizing at last that in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free, but instead:

“You are all one.”

A Christmas Letter

This year's staff Christmas party had a "Scottish Highlands" theme

To the Members and Friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

When I had completed my first year at one of my former churches, the chair of the deacons invited the congregation to come forward at the end of the Sunday morning service and express their appreciation to me and my family.  It was a little embarrassing.  I didn’t feel that I had done all that much and was afraid that most people would just slip quietly out the back door.  But they didn’t.  They came forward.  They patted my girls on the head and hugged my wife and shook my hand, and one of them said to me, “I don’t have the words right now to say what I want to say.  I’ll have to go home and think about it.”

That’s how I’ve felt in these last few weeks at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Christmas cards have come pouring into my office along with cookies, candy, and gifts, with bone-breaking hugs and heartfelt words of encouragement.  The members of this church seem to be in a competition to let me know how much I’m loved and appreciated.  I’ve been overwhelmed by it, and when I try to think of how I might respond I feel like that poor tongue-tied parishioner at my former church:

“I don’t have the words.”

The words that do come to mind again and again are these: “Life is good.”  Along with all the rich blessings I have received since coming to Richmond there is a deep sense of satisfaction that I am in the right place at the right time.  But how do I say to you, in a way that you can understand it, “Life is good”?  And how do I say to you, in a way that you can appreciate it, “You are the reason”?  

Maybe the best I can do in this season is to say it, and to hope with all my heart that you will understand and appreciate the warm, strong feelings behind those few feeble words:  Life is good.  You are the reason.  And may the Joy of the Christ whose birth we celebrate and whose love binds us together be yours at Christmas and always.  



The Motion Carries

On Sunday, September 19, the members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church voted to change their membership policy to allow committed Christians from other denominations to become full members of the church without having to be re-baptized.  The meeting took place during the Sunday school hour.  One amendment (requiring believer’s baptism but not immersion) was considered but not approved.  691 people voted on the main motion by secret ballot.  464 of those (67.15%) were in favor of the change,  221 (31.98%) were opposed, and 6 ballots could not be determined either way.

Senior Pastor Jim Somerville commented:

For Baptists, membership is a matter of local church autonomy.  No pope, or bishop, or even the pastor gets to decide who can be a member of a local Baptist church.  And although the deacons can make a recommendation, in the end it is the congregation that gets to decide.

Today the congregation of Richmond’s First Baptist Church did just that.  The answer to the question of whether committed Christians from other denominations could become full members without having to be re-baptized was yes.

At the beginning of this process I expressed my hope that, no matter what the outcome, we would spend some time thinking deeply about what it means to be baptized and what it means to be a member.  We have certainly done that.  Now it is my hope that we will be the kind of members who can accept the outcome of this vote and go forward together.  While a two-thirds majority is decisive, it is not a landslide.  We were closer to the same mind on this matter than we knew.  Now it is my hope that we can share the same heart, and get on with the crucial work of putting God’s love into action. 

I am grateful for the spirit in which this decision was made, and for the remarkable body of believers that is Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I learned today that there are Baptists in the world who can disagree without being disagreeable—who can speak their mind, vote their conscience, and move on to more important things.

God bless them, every one.

—September 19, 2010

“I Know My Own and My Own Know Me”

Sometimes, when I am explaining the church to people, I will draw a large circle and inside it write the words, “Jesus is Lord.”  I tell them that the circle represents the church.  I tell them it is a large, flexible circle that can include a lot of people, that it can include anyone who can say—and mean—“Jesus is Lord.” 

I’m not talking about Richmond’s First Baptist Church, necessarily, but the Church of Jesus Christ in the world—what some call “the invisible church”—which is so much bigger than any local, visible representation of it.   It recognizes the fact that there are people around the world who have made Jesus their Lord, some we would probably recognize as fellow Christians and some we would not.  And yet, if Jesus is their Lord, they are part of his Church.  

It is the sort of thing he seems to have in mind when he talks about being the Good Shepherd and says, “I know my own [sheep] and my own know me” (John 10:14), or when he says later in the same passage, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (vs. 16).  It makes me think that Jesus could look out over any congregation in the world and say, “That one is mine, and that one, and that one…” and also that he could look out over any crowd in the world and say, “That one is mine, and that one, and that one….” 

He knows his own and his own know him. 

So when we talk about membership in a local church we are talking about those people who have decided to let Jesus be Lord and chosen to follow him in a particular, local “flock.”  As a pastor I often have to take their word for it.  I ask the nine-year-old girl with the big grin and dimples, “Are you ready to let Jesus be Lord of your life?”  “Yes,” she says, giggling.  “And are you ready to follow him wherever he goes?”  “Yes,” she says, and giggles again.  I look at her for a long time, trying to weigh the seriousness of this decision for her.  The giggles make it difficult, but they are probably just signs of her nervousness.  Chances are good that she’s had a long, heart-to-heart talk with Jesus, and that he already knows her as “one of his own.”  And so, finally, I shrug my shoulders and move on with preparations for her baptism. 

The Lord only knows.

It might serve us well to remember that: that only the Lord knows who is his and who is not.  It might keep us from judging others so quickly, or from deciding who is and who isn’t ready to make a profession of faith, or from turning up our noses at Christians who haven’t had the same experiences we have.  The Good Shepherd knows his own and his own know him, and some of them are not members of this flock.

But they are part of his Church.