10 years of ministry (and lots of coffee)
This July I celebrated ten years of ministry at Northstar Church. Time has flown. It is my longest tenure of any ministry/job I've ever had. It's been rewarding, challenging, growing, encouraging, and has required a lot of coffee. I'm grateful for continued reports that drinking coffee is good for you. I'm more grateful though that following Jesus wherever He calls is the best thing you can do with your life. That has proven true for moving to Blacksburg.
In July 2009, we moved our family here from Monticello, Arkansas. Sam was 14 and Adelyn was 10. Back then it was middle school and elementary school. Today Sam has graduated from college and started serving on Young Life staff in Salisbury, NC, and Adelyn is a junior at Christopher Newport University. Barak Obama had been President for six months.
Though we had lived for 14 years in Monticello, eight of those years were spent as the BCM Director at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and six of those were spent as the founding/lead pastor of Journey Church. When I was called to serve as pastor of Northstar Church in Blacksburg, I had no idea that it would be my longest ministry investment.
A lot has happened in ten years!
I look back over the growth and challenges that I've been presented with at Northstar, and it is surreal. I've loved serving as pastor in a collegiate community where I've continued to be able to minister alongside of college students. I still deeply believe that they are not just "college students" - a demographic to be marginalized. They are young adults, and the church is blessed and advanced through their enthusiasm, vision and zeal.
Early on at Northstar, we experienced significant growth, and we had a season of internal rumbling about whether we were going to be a "college church" or not. At the time, I drew a line in the proverbial sand and declared with passion that we were going to reach college students. I didn't see it as an "either-or" but as a "both-and." We lost a few families as our college population within the church swelled. We grew from about 125 to over 800 one Easter Sunday, and we only had two full-time staff members at the time. Our ministry to every demographic grew from that point on. Families, singles, older adults, and internationals all call Northstar their church.
We simply focused on "being the church." We stole the phrase "Don't go to church. Be the church." from an ad we saw in Outreach Magazine, and over the past 10 years, we've made that phrase into our ministry strategy.
Ministering in this community has been challenging and exciting. With five four Starbucks in such a small area - along with several wonderful, local coffee shops, it's an easy place to enjoy slowing down and building relationships with people in spite of a fast-paced environment. I love that we have four distinct (and beautiful) seasons here.
I have grown in leadership especially in the past 10 years. I've grown in patience. I've grown in my love for the church. I've grown in humility (if I proclaim that, can I say that I've grown in it?!). Mostly, I am more grateful than ever to simply be a follower of Jesus Christ. I may have served 10 years as a pastor of Northstar Church, but it is His people, His church, not mine. I'm supremely grateful for this temporal assignment.
Six observations after 10 years
Regular attendance. Things have "settled down" at Northstar since our early explosive days. Our high attendance during the school year now is about 500, but we never see the same 500 people all at one time. It's like herding cats. In the past ten years, there's been a significant shift from what the average church member (whether college student or family) calls "regular" attendance and what most church leaders consider regular. These days, regular attendance seems to be defined as at least twice a month. I don't consider that regular. It's more sporadic to me. If you only show up 1/2 the time in a month, that means you've skipped church for six months in the course of a year.
Expository preaching. I never experienced anything else but expository preaching. It's what was modeled for me. It's the method I embrace by conviction. 10 years of ministry in a liberal university community has solidified my commitment to preaching God's Word line by line, chapter by chapter. We live in a biblically illiterate culture. I am humbled and amazed by how simply preaching the text without adornment or eloquence butwith joyful confidence has tremendous impact on both young and old, Christians and non-Christians. The best thing I can do as a preacher is to study the text, let it speak deeply to me, prepare a message with humility and preach the text.
The name of Jesus. I've become bolder and more thankful for the name of Jesus. Over the past ten years, one of the things I've noticed is how Christians default to talking about "God" but are hesitant to mention the name of Jesus. It has been an intentional strategy in my sermons and personal discipleship to encourage believers to talk about Jesus. People in our culture are apathetic when we talk about "God." He's an amorphous concept. But try talking about Jesus. You'll see quickly that the name of Jesus is powerful by the reaction of others.
"This Jesus... There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11, 12)
Leadership. This is probably the primary area I've grown in over the past 10 years. I'm growing as a leader. And I see that the church, more than ever, needs joyful, visionary, humble, Christ-centered leadership. The church needs good management and good organization and administration too - desperately. Yet leadership - both personal and corporate - is irreplaceable. I must not be shy about leading. I find that I get discouraged (and so do the other leaders around me) if I am only responding to needs and crises. People drift when they are not led. I must stay fresh, stay near to Jesus in intimacy and lead well.
Give ministry away. This is the main leadership philosophy of our church. Call it delegation. Call it equipping. Call it leadership development. Whatever you call it, it's imperative in ministry. I have embraced this principle since my days as a young adult and singles minister in Garland, Texas. The last 10 years in pastoral leadership has only reaffirmed this as indispensable biblical priority. If I do not give ministry away, if I do not invite others into and empower them for ministry, then I am hoarding power and influence (and I'll eventually burn out trying to do it all). Giving ministry away may take more time and even be disappointing occasionally, but experiencing others leading well because you've guided, trained and released them into ministry exponentially impacts the church.
Discipleship is non-negotiable. In this tenth year of leading our church, I've been tenacious about leading every single member through a foundational discipleship initiative. It's designed to encourage each of members to walk in humble intimacy with Jesus. We begin by looking at John 15 and proceed to two spiritual disciplines: Bible study and prayer. It's not intended to be an exhaustive discipleship course (it's only six weeks), but it is intentional and strategic. More than ever, I believe that the key to raising up mature followers of Jesus must take place outside the Sunday morning worship gatherings as Christians gather in small groups or in one-on-one discipling relationships.
Rainbows are real evidences of God's promises. I don't think I've ever lived in a place that I've seen so many rainbows. It seems like just the moment I need some encouragement or a reminder of God's faithfulness, He provides a spectacular rainbow. Especially the last three years, I've noticed them all the time. Our church even experienced a rainbow moment related to our building campaign!
To my Northstar family
I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to be your pastor these past ten years. You gave me authority and trust almost immediately upon my arrival, not even knowing me, and I am forever grateful. You've tolerated dad jokes, Arkansas Razorback Hog calls, Mac addiction and permitted me to be me. You've loved my family well. You've walked with us through cancer. My kids remain committed and involved in the local church where they are. There is so much there to rejoice in.Thank you. Here are ten more things I'm thankful for:
I am grateful for your hunger for God's Word.
I am thankful for your willingness to let me innovate and experiment. When I canceled our worship services that first December and moved them to evenings for a tradition called December Nights, you were intrigued and patient.
You allowed me to bring in a comedian one summer... and allowed us to rent out a theater for a screening of Star Wars for an outreach event. Both events were.. meh, but we laughed (not at the comedian), learned and continue to try new things.
I am amazed at how you made planting a new campus look almost effortless, and under the leadership of Dave Farris, Northstar Pulaski is growing and thriving. (Pray with us as we lean into launching new campuses!)
We've watched in awe as God has grown our church family deep and wide.
After 16 years of meeting in a middle school, you've walked forward in faith to build your first ministry center, and we've celebrated together as we've seen God bring in over $3 million so far!
You've studied Luke (two years), Kings and Chronicles (2 years), Acts (2 years) and Genesis (2 years) with me, as well as four summers of "Think to Change."
We've made a commitment to training leaders for the future and have seen over 25 interns in the past 10 years grow and move on to be dynamic leaders in churches, business and ministries.
I'm grateful and amazed each year as college students continue to flock to our church and how well they integrate with all our families and other demographics. You open your hearts, homes and even wallets to love on these young adults.
You make much of Jesus. You have truly become our mission statement "Be the church." Your invitational and incarnational lives reveal daily your love for our Savior in ways that provoke curiosity, intrigue and genuine interest by those who don't know Jesus (yet) as their Savior.
I never dreamed I'd call Virginia home. I still miss Arkansas. There are some things that a move can't replace. I miss being close to my parents, family and friends. I miss the network of pastors, churches and campus ministers I had there. And yet, Blacksburg is home. I recognize that I'm on assignment here. God led us here, and God could lead us away. I am on assignment here, but in these ten years, it's been a joyful privilege to call this place home.
The video below was shown last month in church.It's been ten years of ministry.. and lots of coffee.