Sunday, November 2, 2014


“Together We Can:  Grow”
Matthew 6: 5-14; Ephesians 1: 11-23

Today I am going to ask you to do something rather difficult and dangerous: listen out of both ears.  Seriously, today’s service is a bit bifurcated — we have two distinct themes: All Saints Sunday and our Annual Stewardship Emphasis: Together We Can.  Are these themes congruent or competitive?  It all depends on how we listen…
All Saints — the Sunday when we remember those who have died and preceded us into the Kingdom of God.  
Stewardship — the season when we speak of how giving of our time, talents, and resources can lead our church to not only sustain her ministries, but to new and even better ministries, i.e., to growth.  Can we imagine doing even more to touch others with the love of Jesus Christ?
Let’s see how these interact.
All Saints Sunday 
Have you ever wanted to be a Saint?  No…not on your radar?  Never has been on mine either.  What does the New Testament mean when it says that we are “saints?”  What is All Saints Sunday about, anyway?
For us, All Saints Sunday is that day when we remember with a sense of gratitude and appreciation those who have participated in the life of the church here on earth and have preceded us into the Kingdom.  We must be careful to neither deify nor sanctify them unduly.  The New Testament deemed persons to be saints by the grace of Jesus Christ, not by their behavior or temperament.  These persons all possessed positive and negative traits such as do we — they were a mixture of “mud and manure” as one has said.  If you look at the history of All Saints Sunday you will discover that it was a day set aside to remember the martyrs of the church, those who gave of their lives that the gospel might go forward.  Being a “saint” is not about being holy or pure, but about being faithful to Christ, especially in difficult circumstances.  Quite honestly, not all were faithful all of the time.  Some had good moments, but otherwise non distinguishable lives.
So it is with our own Emerywood “pantheon of saints:
  • Some were faithful to their Lord and their church — others varied in their participation.
  • Some were generous with their resources — others were downright stingy.
  • Some gave of their time and energy to build this community of faith — while others rarely missed an occasion to tear down those who were building.
  • Some left a legacy of giving more than they took — while others took more than they gave.

What we can say about those who have gone before us is that they were here — they were of this family of God, for better or for worse, in their time and life.  With all of their warts and blemishes, they were part of us, they were our spiritual “kin.”  With all of their goodness and graciousness, they were our church family.  They were “of us” and so, like us, found Christ in this community and served Christ through this community.  
We are inheritors of their legacy; in some ways they are still around in the corridors and classrooms of our past.  We do not work from a clean slate in church — we have a DNA that not only informs but also determines a lot of who we are and what we do as a church family.  Those who began this church had certain theological beliefs and philosophical practices about church which are still present to this day.  We walk to the beat of the drum of our past as much as our present.  A sign on London’s Winchester cathedral puts it well: “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born and will continue long after you’re dead.”
Do we realize that our worship and faith is mostly a matter of history?  We talk about what has been in order that the Spirit of Christ might work in us in the present — all of which determines the future.  To a great extent the future is being determined now…not 10-20 years from now. How we live and practice our faith was determined by others, centuries ago.   How we live and practice our faith will determine how those of the future EBC will live and practice their faith. 
All teaching is a matter of history.  Whether it is science, theology, or computer programming — all teachers pass on what has been — for that is what determines what is.  It is the past which determines the future, not the future.  G.K. Chesterton, Catholic thinker, theologian and author, once noted how people who so often say that they are not traditionalists or have broken free from tradition are in reality slaves themselves:  “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
We are a community of faith which values tradition and seeks to let it inform us in our faith and practice.  We are thankful for the community of saints who has preceded us into the Kingdom of God.  All Saints allows us to do just that.
Stewardship: Together We Can — Grow
Like each of these generations before us we stand at a crossroads in the life of our church.  We have significant needs before us and we must rise to meet them if we are to continue and expand our significant ministries.  For a congregation of our size we touch people from all walks of life in more ways than any other I know.  Over the years we have challenged our church to make Missions and Worship her priorities: and so you have.  In Worship our hearts are warmed and souls strengthened by the presence of the Spirit and through Missions we share that love we have received.
The legacy of Emerywood (here’s that history stuff again) is that in days of difficulty and challenge her people stepped up to the plate and delivered.  Contrary to a prevailing myth our church was not populated by landed gentry of unlimited wealth.  Rather, most were business and professional people who plied their trade for a living and had to balance their own books.  Yes, many were successful — but none so much that they could carry the church.  
These were lawyers, bankers, real estate people, stock brokers, accountants, school teachers, dentists and doctors, professors, car dealers, sales people, contractors and yes, furniture and textile people. (This list is not exclusive.  I am sure to have left some people out.)  We were not the church of privilege and wealth, but of those who were educated and worked for our living.  As I have buried so many of these over the years I have been privileged to hear their stories.  You would be amazed at how many of our families that we think had “inherited wealth” were 1 or 2 generations at most removed from an outhouse.  These worked hard, “earned their keep” and in so doing faithfully pledged and supported Emerywood so that her work and ministry might go forward.  Building a church, physically and spiritually, where all might be welcome to hear the good news of Jesus Christ was of primary importance to them.  This was not just a place where they occasionally came, but a community which was a significant part of their lives.  
So, it is today that we find ourselves faced with a momentous challenge and opportunity.  Will we step forward and be faithful to God’s calling or will we wilt and step backwards, more concerned with self than with our community?  Will we use our resources to move the ministries of Emerywood forward — or will we hoard for ourselves the blessings God has bestowed upon us?
There are two elements which are key if we are to be successful in moving forward and growing:
 Participatory: we need for every family and member to pledge and support the financial needs of EBC.  We have far too many who treat giving as an option rather than an obligation of our faith commitment.  Whether you are young or old, of limited means or of unlimited wealth, we need for you to be a part.  
Sacrificial:  We need for all of us to take seriously how much we give.  Some use the “tithe” from the Old Testament as a guide.  The beauty of the tithe is that it is proportional: the less you make the less you give…the more you make the more you give.  Now, I am not a legalist, but I do think we ought to look more seriously at how tithing can work to develop our faith and walk with God.  I have been thrilled at how God has blessed through the years when God’s people have been faithful and used the tithe as a guide.  To be honest, some of us who are older do not have the needs of those who are younger and we can give a tithe and more.  For others just meeting a tithe is a challenge.  I would urge you to begin now at a percentage of 4-5% and then increase by 1% per year until you get to 10% or more. Let me share with you that if you will try, you will be amazed at how God will work in your life to allow you to meet your needs (but not all your wants.)
The reality is that it all of us are needed as faithful stewards for God’s work to go forward.  Over the last few years we have buried a number of persons who were faithful contributors to God’s Kingdom through EBC.  We are in need of our median and younger adults to step forward and pick up the slack that we might continue to grow and minister as we have.  For us to be successful “all” must be involved.  
In The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, the protagonist is a seedy, alcoholic Catholic priest who after months as a fugitive is finally caught by the revolutionary Mexican government and condemned to be shot. On the evening before his execution, he sits in his cell with a flask of brandy to keep his courage up and thinks back over what seems to him the dingy failure of his life. Greene writes:
“Tears poured down his face… he was not at the moment afraid of damnation…He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint…He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint.”
All Saints — Stewardship…past and present…maybe they do go together after all.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262

November 2, 2014

Sunday, September 28, 2014



I Corinthians 13
by Robert U. Ferguson, Jr.

Recently I learned a new word from a colleague from the past — ecotone. This is the place where two ecospheres meet and come together, merging as one from that point forward. Where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico is a massive ecotone. Let me quote my friend to get this definition exact: “An ecotone is always a place that is fragile, unstable, shifting, fluid, risky, filled with danger and yet, at the same time, it is a place that is incredibly fertile, where new life is spawned and new hopes are born.”1

Today we find ourselves, according to my friend, in the 3rd great “historical ecotone.” The first was in A.D. 410 with the fall of Rome. The second was in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople. When the third began is anyone’s guess, but it is symbolized by the fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. This event, he suggests, portends the “transition from modernity to postmodernity” — a transition which both preceded this event and continues to this day.

This “ecotone” is a wonderful image to describe the situation in which Christianity and the church find themselves today. We are in as unstable and fluid a situation as I have known the church since its earliest days. As Christ-followers, we are resident aliens,2 living in a world that is not our own. The cultural marriage of church and state, always tenuous, has, like Humpty Dumpty, fallen off the wall and will never be put back together again. As Christians we are no longer the dominant cultural force...our beliefs and values are no longer commonplace.

The biggest challenge for us lies in the emphases of contemporary, postmodern culture: individualism, personal narrative, relative truth — and therefore relative ethics. (What I believe is right for me is right, as long as it does not harm you directly.) These all fly in the face of an institution built on community, meta- narrative, i.e., the big, all encompassing story, and objective truth/ethics. For two centuries and more, right and wrong were easily distinguished in our Christian culture: just go read the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount or the epistles of Paul. Whatever they said, that’s what you did. End of discussion.

This is all gone...whether that is good or not, history will tell. The reality is that being inseparably connected to governmental and society powers had its perks, but the downside was much greater. It is very difficult to be prophetic to a government or society when you are perceived as one of the powers of that establishment.
The result is that churches must now, more than ever, establish their own raison d’etre. We must demonstrate to the world that we are not only necessary, but a vital component of a vibrant and living culture. We must show our communities that without churches the foundation upon which moral and spiritual life depend will be eroded and never replaced.

At Emerywood we are facing a crossroads in our existence. Do we batten down the hatches, keep doing the same old, same old, and hope and pray for different results? Do we recruit young people so we can teach them how we did it so they can do it the same way? Do we jettison all the structures and programs of the past just to replace them with the latest fad in church life? Obviously my answer to all of these is no.

I see a better way, one that is more encompassing but is also quite challenging, for it is one is which nothing is secure, nothing is nailed down except our commitment to God through Jesus Christ. Let me share it with you.

It is my belief that we find ourselves in a situation analogous to the early church. They were a small cadre of believers in a pagan, polytheistic world. They had to learn to work from beneath rather than from above. They could not depend upon the social structures to assist them in any shape, form or fashion. There really was no road map for them — it simply did not exist. They awoke every morning, wondering if Jesus was coming back that day or if the Roman Empire would squash them like so many insects. Their life was tenuous, uneasy, and uncertain. All they knew was that through Christ they knew the love of God; therefore, they were called to live out this love in a world that was completely at odds with their beliefs.

If Emerywood is to succeed in the coming years, it will be because we follow their secret: we learn to love others and in so doing, out-love the world. The key to the early church was not just the truth/gospel they proclaimed, but the love which they shared — with one another but also with the larger world in which they lived. This church had neither army, nor arms ,and no power — but it overcame one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, solely through its love. The early church loved Christ and each other — and it looked for ways in which it could share that love with a world.

What people want to know, more than anything else, is that they are loved. Victor Hugo said it best: “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.” In my experience, when people know that they are loved, they will respond to that love. Every time. The gospel of Jesus Christ spread because it was and is a gospel of love.

Now, to be sure, the early church often got it wrong — they were sinners saved by grace. A quick perusal of I Corinthians will convince us that Corinth struggled with significant theological, ethical and spiritual issues. Partisan bickering over who was the best preacher, which clique was the most spiritual and who possessed the greatest talents and gifts — these were destroying the Corinthian church. Immorality, a given in their pagan world where temple prostitutes were common, had spread throughout the church as well. Their observance of the Lord’s Supper and the Agape Love feast had evidently descended into an event just this side of a drunken orgy.

Paul’s initial answer to this is an emphasis on ethics and morality; but he then moves to stress the necessity of Christ-like love. Paul knew that no matter now many rules and principles he laid down, someone would always find a way around them or ignore them. Paul also knew that if love was the motivating principle of the Christian life (and it was and is), then the ultimate answer to challenges both inside and outside the church is to understand and practice agape love. Paul believed that if he could get the thread of love woven into the fabric of their church as the essential, sine qua non of their existence, then all else would fall into line. If you loved the other then you would not be willing to divide into competing factions and/or to undercut or ridicule or cut down the other in an effort to lift yourself. In fact, Paul knew that if you loved Christ and the other as Christ taught, then you would place the other ahead of your own desires.

I believe that the church which flourishes in the 21st century will be one which is founded upon and lives out this imperative of love. With all the information available, with all the claims upon our time and energies, the world does not need another organization. What the world needs is a community in which it will be loved and be given the opportunity to love others.

Love is irresistible. When we love others, they respond to our love. It is through our loving others that they discover the love of Jesus Christ. We do not just wake up one day and discover that God is love. Think about how we came to God in Christ: direct experience of God is minimal; we experience God through other human beings. We are loved into the kingdom — and then we turn around and love others into that same kingdom.

What does it mean to love others with the love of Christ? Listen again to those verses of our text:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.3

Too often we think that to love someone we have to like or approve of them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Love means acceptance of the other. Approval of or even “liking” another have little or nothing to do with love. Why? Each of us has our personal cultural blinders on which pre-determine how we see the other. Love enables us to set those aside and accept the other even when they come from situations and cultures radically different than ours.
Love looks to the inside, to the person created in the image of God. Loving them does not mean that we give them carte blanche to run all over us — sometimes the loving act is the tough act. However, when one leads with love/acceptance, then our differences fade away in importance.

The church which thrives will be, in my opinion, the church which best loves not only inside, but even more so outside the walls of their community. It is one thing to love people who are already inside, but quite another to love that person who is outside, whom we do not know or understand. Love, if we really love, works to bring that person from the outside to the inside, to give them the acceptance and understanding they need and seek.
Now, many of you are sitting there wondering, what’s so revolutionary about this? Nothing, and everything, concurrently. Yes, this is the old commandment of Jesus — and yet it remains the most difficult. For love always asks these questions:
  • Not, what can you do for us? Rather, what can we do to help you know God’s love?
  • Not, what have we done in the past? Rather, what is the loving act in the present? (Love is what we do, not what we say.)
  • Not, what about me and my feelings, desires and wishes? Rather, what about the other’s needs and how can we show love to them?
If we can get the “love” right, then all else falls into place. On any issue of significant change of operation or direction, the question is not “What have we done or what do we think we ought to do?” The question becomes, “What communicates and shows love to others? How ought we to conduct ourselves so that the world knows that they are loved?”

For instance, in a recent sermon I raised a peripheral question which we have been kicking around for over 10 years: Ought we to change our name? Are the words “Emerywood” and “Baptist” so restrictive as to keep people from visiting us? The answer usually given depends on our personal perspective. Nothing wrong with that — that’s the way all of us work. However, what if we asked a different question: “Would changing our name open us up to touching more people with the love of Jesus Christ? Is it possible that something as mundane as a name is keeping people from experiencing God through our community of faith?”

Or, consider the question of either enlarging this sanctuary or building another. The question usually revolves around cost and whether we can afford it (not a bad consideration in and of itself.) There is no doubt that we are greatly limited by this space, especially in our pulpit and choir areas. What if we framed the question: “Would building/remodeling allow us to share the love of Christ with more people? If so, then how do we accomplish that goal?”

Or consider the question of how we organize ourselves in SS classes, small groups, Ministry Teams, Women’s Ministry, Men’s Ministry, the Diaconate, etc. The question has usually been, “How have we done this in the past?” What if we changed that question to: “What would allow us to most effectively and efficiently show love and acceptance to persons who do not know Jesus Christ?” 

Or, even take it to a personal level when considering where we will be involved in the life of our church: “How could I be of service in helping someone to know and love Jesus Christ?”

Personally, I love the openness of our congregation to new ideas and new ways of thinking and perceiving. There is nothing wrong with that. However, openness will fade as a primary purpose, for it is at best a methodology, not a purpose. We need each and every facet of our church to ask one question: “How are we enabling people to come to know the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus?”

Consider our Music and Worship Ministry. Rather than ask, “What style of music and worship do I like,” what if we asked: “What style of music and worship touches people with the love of Christ? What do others need in order to come to Christ?”

At present we have some exciting ministries transpiring in our church. I will not name any for fear of the sin of omission. However, we have much work to do. There are several priorities which I believe we must have at this point in our church’s life if we are to see our church become more effective at sharing Christ’s love. These include:
1.  An immediate emphasis on two significant ministries which need re-organization and retooling:
1.1. Andrew Ministry — wherein we reach out and enable visitors to become a part of our community.
1.2. Stephen’s Ministry — whereby we minister to those in times of physical, emotional and/or spiritual need. (These all intertwine, so that if you have one you usually have all three.)

Evaluation of our physical facilities:
2.1. A 3 year plan for bringing our physical plant up to date so that we are not embarrassed by it.
2.2. The appointment of a team which evaluates our worship needs and recommends to our congregation a plan for addressing these needs.

The reality is this: despite our best intentions our vision for EBC is far too small. Most of us ask, “What’s the church doing for me? How are my needs being met? Here’s what I like/want...” We have all heard that hymn sung time and again. I know more verses than I wish to admit.

The problem is that these are the wrong questions and they will never get us to the right answers. Right/ good answers only come with asking right/good questions. The best questions move in the area of purpose, meaning, and calling.

Why do we exist? What is our purpose as the body of Christ?
What does our faith mean to us? How does Emerywood help us to live out that meaning in our world?

What is our calling under Christ in our specific arena? What does God need for us to be in High Point, North Carolina.

We need a broader vision for our church...a vision beyond that of a small, nice, neighborhood congregation known for quality worship and being nice people. We need a compelling vision which says that we will be the place where the hungry, the hurting, the hopeless and the helpless go when they can go nowhere else. We need a vision which says that we will go against the trends which say focus on your target audience solely. We need a vision that compels us to build a church on the love of Jesus Christ. We need a vision of a church which dares to reach across ethnic, economic and social barriers to welcome all persons in the name of Christ. We need a vision which is inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic and accepting of all — for that was the vision of the early church and that is the only vision that is worthy of the name of Christ Jesus.

Are we up to it? You will determine that answer...I cannot. I have tried, on more than one occasion, to stimulate such a vision. For the most part, it has not worked well. Or, let me put it this way: you have congratulated me on a good sermon, but we have seen nothing but minimal effort expended by the majority of our congregation. We have gone back to our old ways, our comfort zone, and cheered from the bleachers while the staff rallied forth. We cannot do this any longer. For one, we go through staff and dedicated members too quickly doing this. Secondly, we are dying faster than we are replacing. Either we will all step up to the plate and work together in sharing the love and grace of Jesus Christ with others, or we will give God no reason to bless us and watch our slow demise all the while singing “Kum Ba Ya.”

Frederich Nietzsche told a wonderful parable, “The Madman in the Marketplace.”4 The madman runs through the marketplace with a lamp crying out, “God is dead...God is dead...” The people, who themselves live as functional atheists, mock him in his belief. They have killed God, Nietzsche believed, yet they were unaware of their deed. At the end the madman finds himself looking at huge temples and church buildings. He asks, “What are these now, if not the tombs and monuments of God?”

If we refuse to be those people whose primary focus is sharing the love of Jesus Christ, then we are living as if God is dead. If we do that, then we can write “Ichabod” above the door — for the glory will have departed. To paraphrase a question from our Lord: “What shall it profit a church, if it gain the whole world and lose its soul? Or, what will a church give in exchange for its soul?”

We are living in an exciting time — a historical ecotone fertile with the right questions. The world is asking, in one form or another, all the right questions of the meaning and purpose of life. The question is whether we will recognize the opportunities and venture out in faith, or will we pull inward, seeking survival as our modus operandi? May God guide us in our decisions and overwhelm us with his love. For in the end, it is only God’s love in Jesus Christ which possesses the power to transform our vision, our understanding, and yes, even us.

1 Timothy George, Between Sweetness and Nausea, First Things, 8.25.14. 
2 William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, 1989.

3 I Corinthians 13: 4-7.
4 Frederick Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


The Emerywood Pulpit
“What Does It Mean to be Church?”
Acts 4: 32-37; I John 2: 3-11

There has probably never been as tumultuous a time for the church as the present since the Protestant Reformation. Every week I get communiques from minister friends and congregants in other churches asking one vital question: Will the church as we know it survive? This is not, by the way, a liberal-conservative question. There are just as many, if not more, conservative churches who are struggling as there are moderate or liberal. Many, like Emerywood, have added a worship service of a different style to attract new members. This works...for a while. The reality is that the future for church as we have known it looks ominous. What we are all seeing is a future coming where membership and attendance drop precipitously if the present path continues.

What we are seeing, I believe, is more than a conversation about a particular theological bent or worship style. It goes far deeper, even to the core of what it means to be church. In recent years primarily our young and educated adults (millennials) are saying that, on the whole, they see no real need for the institutional church in their lives, regardless of theology or worship style. They believe that they can worship God, do good works, and provide spiritual and moral education for their children, i.e., live good moral and productive lives, apart from the framework of church. Rather than see the church as the primary place (or even a partner) for their spiritual development and expression they see the church as unnecessary to spiritual and ethical development.

We could spend the next month asking and answering the question of Why? And, to be quite honest, we will. Over the next month we will be discussing in our sermon time exactly this question. Or, more to the point, we will be engendering conversations around these questions. Here are the sermon topics:
What Does It Mean to be Church?
What Does it Mean to be a Baptist Church?
What Does It Mean to be a Baptist Church in the 21st Century? (Meg Lacy preaching!) 

What Does It Mean to be Emerywood Baptist Church in the 21st Century?

The question of what it means to be church goes to the heart of this issue of millennials and church involvement. I believe that the rejection of the church by a significant number of millennials is a sign that we, as the church, have gone “off-track.” Rather than blame the millennials, let’s take a hard look at ourselves and see what we see. Are we as missional in our faith practice as a church as we claim to be? Have we lost the New Testament sense of what it means to be church? Have we become more concerned with institutional survival than purpose?

The Centrality of Jesus Christ
In the our Acts text we find the church growing by leaps and bounds. They have come together as those who have pledged themselves to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Though they begin as a Jewish sect, this does not last long and the church undergoes vigilant persecution from both Jewish and later Roman foes. Rather than divide or destroy the church, the persecution has served to pull the church together in an incredible show of commonality and fellowship:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.1

These early followers of Christ were united around one primary belief: that the Risen Jesus Christ was the Messiah, their Lord and Savior, and that through Jesus they received forgiveness from sin and the gift of eternal life. Theologically they were focused on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that meant in terms of God’s presence and activity in the world. They believed that through this resurrection came God’s statement of approval of Jesus: that in Jesus Christ was the fulness of God and in his teaching was the truth of God. Salvation and eternal life, the way to God, was to be found in Jesus Christ.

Did these earlier Christians always agree on what this proposition meant? Not in the least. The church in Jerusalem wanted to impose the ethical and ritual codes of Judaism upon all believers. Paul thought this to be incompatible with a gospel which proclaimed that salvation was by grace through faith and not based on works. Did they always understand exactly who Jesus was and how he was both divine and human? No. They argued for over 300 years about argument which continues to the present.

The centrality of Jesus Christ as Risen Lord and Savior is unmistakable to any reader of the New Testament. Whether in Jerusalem, Corinth, or Thessalonica, the church was comprised of those who claimed belief in and adherence to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Whether of a pagan or Jewish background mattered little; they focused on Jesus as the center of their faith and practice. They committed their lives to worship, trust and obey Jesus. They were centered in and focused upon Jesus the Christ.
If we are to be the church today in any valid sense, then we must focus upon Christ as the center of our faith and practice as well. Our community is not to be found in political agenda or theological certainty, but in our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. When as a little boy I gave my life to Christ, the minister did not ask me my theology or if I affirmed a particular creed. What he asked me was quite simple: “Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” This is central to a church which claims the name of Christ.

A People Who
The next aspect that we notice of the early church is that it is a “people who,” and not a “place where.” If we had visited any of the early cities in Asia Minor after Paul’s visits and asked where the church was located, they would have looked at us with amazement. These early Christians met in their personal homes, on river banks, and even in the synagogues and temple porch for a while. For these church was a community, a people who were united around Christ Jesus. Christianity is a faith of holy people — those who have been cleansed and transformed by the atonement of Christ — and not a faith of holy places. Places are holy only when worship is taking place and God is there, among God’s people.

In her better moments the church has always seen herself as a people who. Whether building hospitals, feeding the poor, educating people or providing clothing, the church has always been at its best when it is a people who. When the church saw herself as a people with a purpose, she lifted herself above and beyond her sights. The great German theologian Emil Brunner said it well when he stated: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Another has coined an alliterative phrase to signify the task of the church: “To Worship, Work and Witness.” We gather to do these and we scatter in doing them...but we are still the church, wherever we are.

Relationship with Jesus Christ
As a people who believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we claim to have experienced the new birth in Jesus Christ. Being church is about the centrality of Jesus Christ. The church is a group of people who not only affirm Jesus as Savior and Lord, but who have experienced his forgiveness and the transformation of the new birth in the depth of their souls. This experience is crucial to who we are as church — and always has been.

Too often we think that we are Christians because we grew up in a Christian home or even in what many call a “Christian nation.” In the 17th century Denmark considered herself to be a “Christian nation.” Her great theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, lamented this fact. He noted that if you asked a Dane if they were a Christian, they would reply, “Of course...I am a Dane.” His lament revolved around the fact that they assumed the faith of others was sufficient for their own faith. The result of this was a lot of “admirers” of Jesus, but not a lot of “followers.” Kierkegaard wrote:
If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, you know that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Christ, however, never asked for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. He consistently spoke of "followers" and “disciples." It's one thing to admire Christ; quite another to follow him.2

The challenge for us today is that often we find ourselves in this same boat. Yes, the church has been filled with more admirers than followers of Christ — always has been. Too often we find people who, in the life of the church, display arrogance rather than humility, somehow believing that they know best and that their way is the only way. These may deeply admire Christ, but they are missing that key relationship with Christ that transforms all that we do and are. What I hear from younger adults, millennials, is that they are tired of being in churches more filled with admirers than followers. They are tired of seeing the arrogance of small-minded people who demand their way. These younger adults are stressed by a world seemingly coming apart at the seams and they have no time or energy to be a part of such trivialization. When the cause of Christ is secondary to the institutional church and the demands of “admirers,” the church will die. Every time.

Relationship with One Another
As a “people who” we are bound together by our commonality in Christ — our experience of Christ as Lord and Savior. All racial, ethnic, socio-economic, political and other “tribal” identities
are removed in Christ. When we become one with Christ we become one with all of those who claim Jesus Christ, whether we personally like them or not. It is a great tragedy when Christianity becomes identified with a particular political party or entity in some people’s minds. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are Republicans who are Christian and Democrats who are Christian — I’m sure of it for I have friends of each. There are Libertarians who are Christian and Independents who are Christian. I am even sure that there are Tea Party Christians and Socialist Christians.

Who is it that can reach across all these boundaries and bring unity? Nothing less than our experience of transformation and new birth in Jesus Christ. Paul put it well: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”3  When Jesus Christ comes alive in our hearts and life, then all of our relational identities change. No longer do we identify on the basis of our worldly tribal likenesses. Rather now we see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We live in a time of increasing polarization and tribalization. Rather than technology uniting it is serving to divide us as through technology we live ever more closely and the differences/dangers are magnified. The evils of the world, once thought to be “over there” are now approaching our doorstep in all manner of ways. Particularly they come through the web, the internet, and mass media as we see the violence and fury of anger and hatred unleashed before our very eyes. The answer to these lies not in bombs, soldiers or drones — as helpful as we may think those elements to be. The answer lies in Jesus Christ and in a transformation of the human heart that leads us to see the other as our brother or sister and not as the enemy. If I love the other in Christ, then how can I possibly see them as one to be killed? 

  • Could it be that the rejection of Christianity by these newfound Islamic terrorists, some of whom are from Western countries, is due to the tired, worn out, institutionalized Christian facade which dominates our landscape? 

  • Could it be that the gap between our faith and practice, i.e., the reality that our actions do not match our words, has caused many to walk away from Christianity as a viable faith?

If there is any hope for the world, it lies in the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Why do I say that? Simply put, only Christianity proclaims a message of transformation, of new birth, and of a faith centered on a relationship with God in Christ Jesus. As good as Judaism and Islam are, they fall short in my opinion for they do not offer forgiveness and transformation that we have in Christ. Do they offer paths to God? Yes, but from where I stand they are paths which fall short in achieving the goal.

If we would be church, the people who call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” then we must be a community focused on Jesus Christ as the center of our faith. Christian community, i.e., the church, is a people who focus on loving Christ and serving Christ — and in so doing loving and serving the other. Recall our text from I John?
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

In his commentary on Galatians 6:10, the church father Jerome describes how John the evangelist, author of the gospel and book of Revelation, preached at Ephesus into his nineties...At that age, John was so feeble that he had to be carried into the church at Ephesus on a stretcher...when he could no longer preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow. The only thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would then carry him back out of the church.

This continued for weeks, says Jerome. And every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love one another.” Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"

"Because," John replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”4

Another has said it well:
The reality is that it is only authentic, Christ-love which produces the genuine community of the church. Community means caring: caring for people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: "He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren builds community.”5 It is in loving and caring for one another, in the flesh, in our likes and dislikes, our good points and our bad, that community is developed. Community comes out of Christ and Christ alone.

Thanks be to God for the church.  May the church live up to her high calling in Christ Jesus. 


1 Acts 4: 33-34
2 S. Kierkegaard, "Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter"
3 II Corinthians 5: 17
4 Dan. B. Clendenin, Journey with Jesus.

5 -Jean Vanier, From Brokeness to Community as posted on the Edge of Enclosure: proper18a.html 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


I Peter 2: 4-5, 9-10.

“What kind of baptist church is this, anyway?” If I have heard this question once, I have heard it a thousand times. Usually it has an accompanying corollary: “Are you sure you are a baptist minister? You sure don’t sound/look like one to me!”

Unfortunately, there is a stereotypical image that accompanies being a baptist church or minister — and we’re/I’m not it. The image usually has something to do with theological ignorance, shouting and waving the Bible while preaching, re-baptizing persons who have been baptized in another form, scaring people into decisions for Christ so that they do not go to hell and/or condemning people who don’t agree with us to hell. It also includes that famous triad: no dancing, smoking or drinking — at least in front of other baptists. It does include matters such as no divorce, no women ministers or deacons, and women being subservient to their husbands. In other words, what passes for the traditional baptist image is a closed- minded, anti-intellectualism that is long on passion and short on faith.

Sometimes people paint baptists as backwater yahoos who wouldn’t know what to do in the city. There’s the old joke about the baptists going to New Orleans for the Southern Baptist Convention. A restaurant owner was asked how they were as customers and he said: “They came with a twenty dollar bill in one hand and the Ten Commandments in the other — and left town without breaking either one.”

We can understand how much of a shock it is for visitors to look at us and make an association with that image. We have to move outsiders, especially young adults, beyond those images before they will even visit us, much less consider joining. There are many, many days when I have personally lamented: Why don’t we give up our identification as baptists? Why don’t we take baptist out of our church name and see if we are more accepting to others? What good is there in retaining a name if it has been so perjured in the minds of those whom we wish to reach that we cannot be whom God has called us to be? Oddly enough, many of those churches which have perjured the name have now removed it, seeing it as an obstacle to their growth.

To be sure there are good arguments on both sides of that issue — and I am not going to take it on this morning. What I do wish to state is quite simple: here are the reasons I believe that it is important to be a baptist. Some of you may expect me to say things like the Bible as God’s Word or Baptism by immersion only. However, those beliefs are not what motivate me to be baptist — and never have been. As a fourth generation baptist minister I have a long baptist heritage of faith. However, that heritage is not what holds me in the baptist house. Here are the core beliefs as to why, despite all the embarrassment and difficulty such a label can bring, I have remained a baptist minister.

Priesthood of the Believers
Central to our identity as baptists is the belief that while we have ministers, we have no priests. A priest is a holy man or woman, someone who intercedes with God for others and has special privileges with God in this way. We believe that each and every person has the right, indeed the obligation, not only to go to God for themselves, but also to voluntarily go to God for others. We believe that each and every individual has equal access to God through Jesus Christ.

Writing to the early church Simon Peter tells them that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people...” Judaism thought of herself as the priests unto the nations, but here we have Simon Peter indicating that all who call Jesus “Lord” participate in this divine calling. Earlier, in verse 5,
Simon Peter has indicated that they are being built “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ....”

Paganism and Judaism had priests — men who were designated to be their “holy men” whose responsibility was to go to God for their adherents. Often well-meaning Christians want their pastor to be their priest, i.e., their “holy man.” However, in Christianity we have the understanding that Jesus is our priest (Hebrews) who intercedes with God for us — and that all believers are called to be priests for each other. Carlyle Marney almost called his great work on this axiom from Martin Luther — “God at My Elbow.1He really believed that through Christ we represent God to each other.
The priesthood of the believers rises from a deep-rooted, rugged individualism, born of the frontier and a belief that faith is very personal, i.e., an expression of our experience and knowledge of God. We say our own prayers and we go to God for ourselves — no one else can do these for us. As priests each of us are to be persons in whom the Spirit of God lives and who experience God for ourselves. We have no professional “holy men/women” in baptist life. We go to God directly.

Soul Competency
Soul Competency is the belief that every person has the right to stand before God and make their own decisions as to their belief and practice of their faith. It is the direct corollary to the above axiom. If we individually approach God, read our own scriptures and make up our own minds, then we are competent to stand before God as responsible human beings for our beliefs and our actions.
If you know anything about baptist beginnings you know that we were born as a protest movement against a hierarchical, institutional church which exercised total authority over all congregants, telling them what to believe and how to live. No questions or differences allowed. In fact, private reading of the Holy Scriptures was banned as dangerous — the church did not trust individual believers to interpret the Bible and come to their own faith.

Baptists, on the other hand, have affirmed that we have the right and even the responsibility to build our own house of faith and practice. I, nor any other clergy or lay person in baptist life, has the right to tell another that they cannot believe something and be a baptist.

To be sure this practice can result in swimming with the sharks in perilous waters. While baptist ministers are encouraged to attend seminary and be educated, there is no formal denominational requirement as such. Baptist churches ordain whom they will — and no one can tell them not to do so. While lay persons are encouraged to study scripture and to use commentaries in helping them to understand and interpret scripture, there is no requirement as such. While we as baptist have confessions of faith which guide us in our understanding, we have no creeds to which one must attach one’s name. The only central affirmation we possess is of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

This lack of an educational requirement has resulted in some crazy, maniacal and lunatic statements made by baptist preachers and lay people through the years. More often than not, ignorance results in passion, but it also results in the distortion of scriptures, i.e., twisting them out of context in interpretation so as to justify one’s personal desires.

As messy as this doctrine may be in practice, the beauty of Soul Competency it that healthy persons develop a deeper piety and connection to God. In baptist life we soon become aware that we must build our own house of faith in which we live. We cannot fall back on the church or a priest to do our praying and believing for us.

Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State
Central to who we are as baptists is this core belief that the best faith is one that is freely expressed and untouched by any branch or avenue of government. Baptists were born out of a rebellion against the state church in England, a rebellion which continued even to the colonies. Here baptists found that congregationalists, puritans, presbyterians and even episcopalians (anglicans) were not in favor of universal religious liberty. They wanted liberty for themselves, but not for others. We baptists fought in every colony, court and constitutional convention for the rights of free assembly, free belief and freedom from governmental support or intrusion — for all persons of faith and no faith. Our baptist fore-bearers were arrested, persecuted, imprisoned and even physically lashed as a combination of state and religious authorities tried to whip us into theological conformity and submission. However, we baptists were just too stubborn — we would not relent.

The Bill of Rights, which has as its first article prohibiting government involvement in religion, came about because a group of Virginia baptist ministers demanded such of Thomas Jefferson. He needed their support to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America, so they demanded in return for their support this article as the first amendment. They had not supported and fought the Revolutionary War to go back under governmental control or to have a state church. A free church in a free state became the battle cry of baptists and has echoed down the hallways of history across our continent and beyond. The only true religion is an un-coerced, purely free decision of one’s own heart and soul. This is why we as baptists do not baptize infants. We reserve that rite for when the person makes his/her own commitment to follow Christ.

The reality is that this baptist understanding has flowed as a volcanic eruption across the religious landscape of our country and our world. Whereas in centuries past religion was identified with tradition and institutionalism, in baptist life faith became much more person and vital. From the frontiers of 17th century America to the barrios of Latin America, the baptist model of faith has flourished under many, many names. Even the charismatic movements of recent years which are exploding on the religious scene around the world have in their roots this baptist emphasis of a free individual in a free church in a free state. Even in states where there is no freedom, the baptist way prospers. In China, where for decades it was thought that Christianity had died out, this principle has resulted in house churches flourishing from one border to another.

Autonomy of the Local Church
Core to who we are as a baptist church is the fact that we make our own decisions about our life and belief. Emerywood, for example, is free to ordain women and accept persons as members who have not been immersed for this very reason. No other baptist church, association, or convention can tell another baptist church what to think or do. Now, to be sure such groups can evict those with whom they do not agree from membership, but they cannot force us to change or remove the name of baptist. We decide, in our context, what we wish to believe and do.

Several decades ago another church sought to have Emerywood evicted from our local association over our policy of ordaining women and accepting persons who have not been immersed. Fortunately, baptist policy prevailed and we were maintained as members.

This autonomy has been at the bottom of great strife in our baptist life, but also of even greater growth of the Kingdom. There are always those would-be religious/denominational tyrants who wish to dictate to others how they ought to live their faith. In baptist life, you just cannot do that. The result of this autonomy is a grass roots responsiveness to one’s local context and congregation. Whether the issue revolves around worship style, ministry emphases or even social/ethical issues — baptist churches are free under Christ to determine their own particular expression of faith. We do not wait on permission from a hierarchical institution to give us the go-ahead.

Ironically, we find this baptist principle of local autonomy rearing its head in other denominations. Many of our Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian friends find themselves envious of our position. Even the Roman Catholic Church, as magisterial and hierarchical as one can get, finds itself dealing with parishes and groups of Catholics who desire autonomy and freedom to express their faith.

There is, however, a messy side to this autonomy. One can find baptist churches which run the theological, sociological and even educational gamut. Unfortunately, no convention or group of churches has a copyright on the name “baptist.” There are “baptist” ignoramuses of all types, including those who picket the funerals of soldiers killed in battle as their way of protesting against abortion and other issues. Or, one can find educated congregations such as Emerywood, Myers Park in Charlotte, First Winston- Salem, First Greensboro and many, many others in between. All of us carry the name of baptist.

Why ought we to stay in the baptist fold? Any church, no matter their particular background or beliefs, is best served if it associates with churches of like mind and practice. None of us is large enough to provide theological education, social ministries, missionaries and the like on our own. We all accomplish much more when we work together. In the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship we have found a community of like- minded baptists who believe in and affirm these historic principles. As messy as our baptist life may be — and it is — the baptist house in God’s family is still where I choose to live out my faith. The baptist house provides a freedom and an openness which is often missing in other denominations. In the baptist house we find a passion for Christ — for we each have experienced Christ in our lives. In the baptist house we find an acceptance to new ideas and thinking, for we all know that experience of God is key to our faith and practice.

So, in response to the negative image of others I have but one answer: let’s actively counter it. Let’s each of us, on a weekly basis, carry on a conversation with someone wherein we show them the deeper values of what it means to be baptist. My experience has been that when we show people this side of our family, they often say: Wow...I had no idea. I think I would like that kind of church.
And isn't that the goal after all? Are we not to be about building a community of believers, each of whom has experienced the new birth, to come together for worship, work and witness? For me, Christ, my experience of Christ and my obedience to Christ is the key issue — all else pales in respect to that calling. At bottom I am a Christian with a big “C” but a baptist will a “little b.” But, I am a borrow a line from North Carolina lore: “I am baptist born and baptist bred...and I die I will be baptist dead!” And hopefully, I will be alive in Christ — whom I have come to know in and through my baptist family.

Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d. 
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262 September 14, 2014

1 Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other. Judson Press. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Proverbs 6: 6-11; II Thessalonians 3: 6-13

By now the Ice Bucket Challenge is old hat to most of us. How many of us have participated in this challenge? I love it — for many, many reasons, not the least of which is it shows how we can cajole one another into doing some really “stupid” things, video them, and put them on social media for all the world to see. To be quite honest, I also love this phenomenon for the money it is raising — over 88 million and counting for ALS. My cousin, the Honorable Timothy Harley, a retired judge in Florida has battled this disease for 10 plus years. (He retired early because of it.) I have watched as both friends and members lost their lives to this disease, including our own Betty Keaton in 2013.

So, what I am about to say should not be taken as a direct critique of this specific emphasis. Rather, I am using it as a model of how too often we approach social problems/issues in our culture: throw money at it, make a splash — and go on to something else. Our attention span for causes reminds me of a reply my oldest son gave me when I asked him why my 20 month old granddaughter’s Mother’s Morning Out class did not have chairs. “Dad, remember at this age children have about a 30 second attention span. They would never stay in the chairs. The teachers would spend all their time trying to get them into the chairs.” Right! I knew that. We spend so much time trying to get people’s attention for worthy causes and events...just sit still and listen!

The Ice Bucket Challenge is flashy, dramatic and easy. However, there is a tremendous difference between dumping a bucket of ice water over one’s head and finding a cure for ALS. There is an ocean-sized chasm between this act and caring for or even visiting someone dying with ALS. I will never forget my visits with Betty Keaton and how her aide would point to words or letters on a iPad, whereupon Betty would blink her eyes — the only part of her body she could move — to spell out words or phrases in order to carry on a conversation. Tedious is the word which comes to mind as I remember her last few months and weeks. Yet I also remember that she was always smiling and always laughing at something. Behind the curtain of paralysis was a mind and personality ever active.

Unfortunately many people approach their faith and church life in a similar manner to the Ice Bucket Challenge: run me through the water (baptism) and let’s get on with life. What they soon discover is that the water part is easy; the hard part is getting down and dirty in the trenches of life and living as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Doing church work has always been a struggle, even from the beginning of Christianity. Among the earliest of Paul’s letters — and therefore among the earliest of our written documents of Christianity (52-54 CE) — are those to the Thessalonians. Thessaloniki was a city in Greece which Paul visited early on his missionary journeys and where he established a thriving church. However, after his visit it seems that many of the Christians wondered whether or not they would go to heaven if they died before Christ returned. Also, it seems than many more decided that since Christ was coming — and the church was providing a free daily meal for them — that they would just stop working and enjoy life. These Christians are living off the largesse of the other members of the church who are working and providing the resources for these meals. Paul uses an interesting word here to describe them: we translate it as idling, but other translations include “disorderly” or “out of rank.” In other words, when one is not contributing in some form or fashion to the health and work of the church, one is in a disorderly status.

It is but a short interpretive jump to also conclude that these, while not working outside the church, were also not contributing to doing the work of the church. It has been my experience in life that someone who would not work (not who could not find a job) in the outside world, was not much help at church, either.

By and large, church work is not glamorous. It can be tedious and fraught with tension — after all, you are working with people. Persons pursuing vocational ministry sometimes erroneously believe that ministers sit around all day either praying, reading a few books, drinking coffee, eating lunch with people, and having a jolly good time. When they discover the hours of study required, visitation in nursing homes and hospitals at all hours of the day and night, they are shocked into an awareness of reality. Sadly, many good persons walk away, not wanting to put in those kind of hours.

Likewise, I have had more than one successful business person say to me: “You just don’t know now to organize your work, your staff or people...let me do it for you.” Three months later they are back and saying: “How do you accomplish anything in ministry, anyway? This is the most frustrating experience I have ever had. How do you motivate people when you don’t have a paycheck over them?” I just smile and give a little’s not what you thought, is it?

Several years ago I had a friend share with me a sermon he wrote: it was quite good and I enjoyed it. Knowing him I could see that his thought pattern was that sermon writing wasn’t that hard and by inference being a minister wasn’t that hard...Any educated person could do this. After he kept fishing for more compliments I finally said to him: “John, this is a good sermon. Now, do this 46 times in the next year...with each one showing some modicum of creativity and depth...all the while visiting hospitals, shut-ins, and prospects and then do it for 35 to 40 years. Let me know how that works out for you.” He has yet to answer me.

Later I happen to run into him after visiting a close relative of his who was in a nursing home and rarely spoke. I said, “I saw ‘Fred’ the other day...he replied, “I bet he didn’t say much.” The reality is that he did not say much...but he knew I came...he knew I was there and that I represented our church...and we prayed together. As my friend walked away I thought to myself, you just don’t get it, do you. Ministry is not about doing the easy or popular or even fun thing. It is about serving Christ and representing Christ to people in whatever fashion they need.

The reality is that church work is very difficult. Committees, ministry teams — keeping up buildings, providing weekly meals, visitation teams, is all quite cumbersome and arduous. I have watched more than one minister or lay-person burn out trying to carry a church on their back.

I found it quite intriguing that Paul, in this instance, issues a command by the authority of Christ Jesus. Obviously this “idling” or “out of rank” was a significant issue for the Thessalonican church. Paul exerts all the authority he can muster: “If you don’t work, you will not eat.” End of story. In other words, if you are not contributing in some way to the overall health of the church, then you will not be able to participate in the life of the church. For when they ate, this was not only a meal, but was the Agape love feast and was front and central to their worship and life as the ecclesia, the called-out ones. Paul’s command is not just about missing a is literally about ex-communication from the life of the church until one changes one’s behavior.

What a change from how churches operate today! We beg and plead with people to serve. Paul was not about begging and pleading...he was about stating the stark reality that the people of God were a fellowship based in Christ. When people refused to work, they were refusing to take the body of Christ seriously and therefore, their faith and relationship to Christ seriously. He was not afraid to say to these that if they were not willing to work and contribute to the life of the church, they were not welcome in the church.

I have watched churches over the years and have come to one conclusion: we need to help people turn “church work” into “the work of the church.” This is more than a word game...allow me to explain. Church work is seen as tedious and a drag...not what I want to do. Stuffing envelopes, cleaning bathrooms, cooking meals, etc. — who wants to do that? The work of the church — that is about ministry i.e., feeding the poor, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sharing the gospel, worship, teaching and touching people with the love of Jesus. It is often easier to get people motivated about doing the work of the church as opposed to church work.

What is necessary is for us to change our vision — and to see that church work is necessary and vital to carrying out the work of the church. We need to see that when we do “church work” we are fulfilling the mission of the church and the call of Christ Jesus.
  • When we work in the Nursery we are not baby sitting, but providing a service for young parents to come to worship and Bible study .
  • When we work in the kitchen and wash pots and pans we are not doing kitchen work, but enabling fellowship and koinonia to be shared among our community.
  • When we welcome and greet people we are not just be cordial, we are inviting them into a place where they can see their relationship with Jesus come alive.
    Consider the following projects which have been ongoing:
  • Through our garden we are feeding hungry people fresh vegetables in the name of Jesus Christ. Sounds fun, until you get in there and pick the vegetables, having to scour for them as they hide among the vines.
  • Through our Mission Possible Day we constructed bunk beds which have been used by campers so that they might grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. On that day we also carried out many, many mission projects which shared the love of God with others. The result is that simple acts, sharing flowers or a visit, spoke volumes to those who received them.
  • When our House and Grounds Team — or persons such as Jack Reece and Ron Young — beautify our grounds they are not just growing flowers or grass and trees, they are saying to the world “We love our Lord and His church.” When people see our facilities they either know that we take our faith and church seriously, or not.

When we are about the work of the church, we gain a meaning and purpose far beyond our immediate task. Here is where our motivation lies and from which we will draw our staying power. Through church work properly understood we will grow spiritually in our faith, relationally as we work together and numerically as God blesses us. The early church grew because people saw them working together in love and harmony and wanted to be a part of that effort.

The reality is that God needs and works through us — through our agency — to perform God’s work. As a novelist has noted: God takes a hand whenever he can find it, and just does what he likes with it. Sometimes he takes a bishop's hand and lays it on a child's head in benediction. And then he takes the hand of a doctor to relieve the pain, the hand of a mother to guide a child. And sometimes he takes the hand of a poor old creature like me to give comfort to a neighbor. But they're all hands touched by his spirit, and his spirit's everywhere lookin' for hands to use.1

In a recent newsletter from the Wharton School of Business they examined the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” They noted that it succeeded for the usual reasons, but also because of a unifying factor: no one wants to be left out of a good thing. Everyone wants to be involved in something successful and stimulating.2

People ask me from time to time: “How can I help my church to grow? I enjoy it so much and want others to enjoy it as well.” My answer is simple: be involved as a positive influence in what is transpiring in us and through us. Join hands with us in enabling church work to become the work of the church — and you will be amazed at what God will do. Are the tools we work with perfect? No. Are we always wonderful craftsmen who use them properly and efficiently? No. But — the truth is that when we use what God has put at our disposal in a positive and loving manner, it is amazing how our church prospers. Anne Lamott said it best:
It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said “do the best you can with these, they will have to do”. And mostly, against all odds, they do.3

Yes, they do...and in the grace of God our church work becomes the work of the church — and we are blessed beyond all imagination.

Thanks be to God.

Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d. Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262 August 31, 2014

1 Alexander Irvine, My Lady of the Chimney Corner, 1913.
2 3 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.