It was somewhat surreal, and a little surprising. Not that I had expected something really different, but it was still a reason to raise the eyebrows a bit.
That was my reaction to an email from Pastor Chris, one that contained a letter and some initial “napkin notes” I wrote back in 2003. The letter was to the elders at Grace West Church, and the napkin notes? Broad vision strokes for First Family Church. It seemed like just yesterday that I was jotting down those thoughts, yet here it was 13 years later, and much of what I was reading now had concrete names and places.
I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that the overall themes of small groups, church planting/multiplication, a strong staff, and missions are woven all throughout the letter and penciled scratchings. You can see why my facial expression was one indicating pleasant surprise—God was growing this type of fruit right here within this local faith family! Frankly, a few chuckles accompanied the raised eyebrows as I remembered the times I wondered if what lay ahead was actually possible. For instance,
But little by little, through the ups and downs and the good and bad, God was—and still is—actually accomplishing His will right in the middle of our messy lives and young church. Those initial thoughts are becoming a humble and delightful reality by God’s grace and goodness.
By no means am I saying we have arrived. Not at all! There are many miles left to travel, much yet to learn. There are corrections to make and adjustments to aim for. But the call to keep on keepin’ on is always heard with a bit more clarity when you look back and see the Lord’s faithfulness. He has not been detoured by our mistakes, nor derailed by our missteps. Not our sin nor our success has thwarted His sure will. Seeing that truth in the rearview mirror always provides a more beautiful windshield vista.
I’m probably not alone. Raised eyebrows and under-the breath chuckles are things you’ve experienced as well, right? That’s often our reaction when we spot God’s sure but admittedly slow hand of divine providence. You see, God’s work crawls along at a pace few of us actually notice sometimes; we too many times fail to see His sovereign will being fleshed out in the midst of all our life’s intersections and connections. After all, God’s sovereignty moves ever so subtly. But moving it is. Confidently. Completely. Convincingly.
That’s why it’s always too early to quit. Though you may not see it, though you may be unaware of it, and though you can rarely pin down the specifics, rest assured God is working. He’s faithful to his Word, committed to seeing us—you—all the way through to the end. Galatians 6:9 is precisely spot-on: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
In a peculiar way, reading that email reminded me of what occurs when you see a wall tapestry. Ah, yes, the front is always beautiful, and makes visual sense! But turn it around, and what do you see? A scrambled mess of threads that appears to have no order or purpose. But it actually does—to the designer!
So it is with our lives. Our church. Even this world. God is weaving His purposes and accomplishing His plan, even in the times when you don’t think it looks right or makes sense. The Grand Designer is working. He’s active. He’s in control. And sometimes all it takes is a 13-year old email to help us see it.
“Be here now!” was the banner that often decorated our walls at my workplace.
It attempted to encourage an attitude of excitement about being somewhere you were required to come in order to make a living. It was a great job and atmosphere, but work is still work. It was hard to be very excited about it.
However, as I moved on to different stages of life, I’ve realized how wise and right that statement is.
Isn’t it easy to wish for the next thing? If Christmas would just come... If winter would be over (or never come)... If Johnny was potty trained... If Sally would only get married... If I could just graduate... If I only had enough money to retire... If we could just get our house fixed up. The list goes on and on.
There's always something to be looking forward to, but only at the risk of losing the moment.
I can’t tell you how many moms have told me not to wish away the late nights with my babies or the “one more story” moments. Each stage can seem to drag on at times, but all stages will pass without returning.
Be in the moment. Be here now.
There is so much to enjoy in the moment that will never be the same in the next one.
Take notice of your spouses changing interests and strong qualities.
Enjoy the living room despite the unfinished basement.
Squeeze every ounce of enjoyment out of your job.
Highlight the best aspects of your friends instead of imagining a perfect one.
Be thankful for whatever salary you have.
I have an accountant friend who just told me how he witnesses regularly the fact that no matter how much money someone is making, it doesn’t mean they don’t have problems. If some problems are solved by the money, they come up with new ones. The people who are happy with a small salary are still thankful with a big one, but those who aren’t content with a small one, aren’t content with a big one either.
Putting our focus on people as they are now and not on stuff as it should be later can go a long way in keeping our hearts aligned with Christ’s.
He knew what was to come in His life on earth, but He still took time for people.
Be here now with the people God has put around you by being grateful for whatever is filling your moment and stage of life. You'll be glad you did.
One year ago, the elders announced our simple, but all-encompassing objective for First Family–to mobilize 800 people for the gospel. This is an audacious goal that cannot be accomplished in two years or 10 years. It is a lifetime goal that is in complete synchronization with the Great Commission.
A year ago we outlined for you the purpose for 2016-17, which is to lay the foundation for the future, both strategically and financially.
Strategically, the elders and GO Team have worked extensively this year with Matthew Ellison of 1615 Ministries to develop a strategic plan for our church. Through this process, we identified four spheres of influence that encompass local, state, national, and global fields of opportunity. To give each of these areas focus and energy, each sphere will be led by a team that is passionate about reaching this sphere of influence with the gospel. We are excited to begin outlining the details of our mobilization plan during our Remember 2017 service on January 4.
Financially, we need to create a solid financial base from which to operate. Our goal is to increase the funds available for mobilization to $200,000 a year starting in 2018. This is a 100 percent increase from the funds available in 2015. These funds will be used to support a portfolio of mobilization projects within the spheres of influence.
What is most exciting about our future as a church is that, Lord willing, we will see each and every one of you mobilized for the gospel. Many of us will experience missions first hand by going on a short-term mission trip. Many of us will get involved in local ministries that minister to the poor and vulnerable within our community. Many of you will become a link in the chain of support with our global partners as we seek to provide personal, real-time prayer and emotional support to these families who serve overseas. And some of you will commit to go, either as a part of a church-planting team, a support ministry here within the states or overseas, or to a closed country where the message of the gospel shines the brightest.
This is the start of a new era for our church. For the last 10 years the focus of our planning and giving was to build the necessary tools in order for First Family to have a base of operations here in Ankeny. Through the Lord’s blessing and your giving, this has been accomplished. Now, it is time to shift the focus of our planning and our giving to what the Lord has called us to as Christians–to go and make disciples in all the world.
On November 20, our church will give to our annual Harvest Offering. For this year and next year, the purpose of our special offerings is to build our savings as a church family. Granted, that is not an exciting objective, but it is necessary as we build the financial foundation for 2018. Our goal for this special offering is $75,000.
Concurrently, we are striving to grow our regular, weekly giving to $24,400 by the end of 2017. At the conclusion of the third quarter this year, we are averaging right at $21,000 a week in our weekly giving. During this year and next year, we are committed to holding our expenses to our 2015 budget levels. It is our prayer and hope that one year from now we can report to you that we are closing in on a weekly offering of $24,400 and can increase our budget for mobilization in 2018 to $200,000.
The purpose of all of this is to give intensity and focus to our mobilization efforts. For the last 10 years, the focus of our planning and giving was to build the necessary tools in order for First Family to have a base of operations here in Ankeny. Through the Lord’s blessing and your giving, this has been accomplished. Now, we need the focus of our planning and our giving on accomplishing the task the Lord has called us to as Christians–to go and make disciples in all the world.
The Lord has blessed our church with many children and students. These kids are growing up in godly homes with parents who are serious about the Great Commission. This is the next generation of Christians who will serve the body of Christ in locations here in Iowa and around the world. This is our prayer and our goal. Join with us in praying this prayer.
- The Elders of First Family
When the gospel goes out, we should expect new churches to form. The end game is not one believer, or even a few believers with a vague idea that they somehow share Christ. No, the goal of worshiping Jesus is accomplished by local churches—gathered bodies of believers, under the authority of elders, who are discipling others, holding fast to sound doctrine, practicing the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and seeking to obey God...
Evangelism is the first step in making disciples of Jesus. According to the Bible, everyone in the world who is apart from Christ is spiritually dead in their rebellion against God (Ephesians 2:1-10). They stand under condemnation from God for their offenses against Him, and that condemnation is completely just (John 3:16-18). God owes us nothing, but in His free mercy and grace He has provided one and only one solution to our eternally deadly problem of sin. That solution is the gospel...
The financial advisor chuckled and said to my friend, “That’s it? You must have more than that!”
“No. That’s all I have.”
My friend had chosen the path of generosity. He tithes, gives sacrificially, and pours out his life and income for gospel advance. He chose not to be rich. Despite his education, capabilities, and family wealth, he chose generosity that looks radical by comparison.
But in that moment, across the table from his advisor, he felt a flash of shame...
Travis Walker is Pastor of Student Ministries here at First Family Church. He and his wife Kaci have two daughters and a son, and reside in Ankeny, Iowa. Travis is a casual Michigan Wolverines fan, and a hardcore Chip and Joanna Gaines fan. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter.
Change – unsettling, disquieting, and ominous. It’s a small, six-letter word that can knock the wind right out of you. As a missionary in Haiti, my home is in a place where the sands of time and shadows of change shift slowly. But there are people I love in the States where time is a raging river that carries change at immeasurable speed. Change is impossible to escape.
Being a missionary in a country that is forever fixed in the sweltering sway of summer has its advantages. Vitamin D deficiency is virtually non-existent. This fair-skinned bookworm has started to take on a skin tone that no longer matches the color of the pages she reads. Precious storage space isn’t necessary for bulky sweaters, coats, and scarves. Your wardrobe is virtually the same for the whole year. The palm trees are always green, the ocean is always blue, and one never has to worry about the treacherous nature of snow, ice, and slush.
Being a missionary in a culture where the pace of life equals the slow, steady rhythm of a gentle stream eroding a rock bed also has its advantages. The flower of change is slow to take root and even slower to bloom here. You learn to take life day-by-day, moment-by-moment. You learn flexibility and to make the best of the situations you are in. You learn to value quality over quantity, depth of relationship over surface acquaintanceship, and intentionality over casualness.
Perhaps it is these virtues that weave together to create a web of false stasis around my life, an imagined sense of constancy and permanence. But it doesn’t take long before that facade of predictability is shattered.
Sometimes it is simple changes that make me smile at the blanket of constancy I cling to. For example, I fly to Haiti in January, leaving the bitterly cold, snow-blanketed plains of Iowa behind. When I return to Iowa in May, my eyes still expect to be blinded by the glare of sun on ice, my skin expects to recoil at sub-zero temperatures, and my ears expect to ring with the silence of gentle snowfall. Instead, the shroud of white has been replaced with a patchwork of recently plowed farms and green sprays of spring, the cold replaced with hints of warmth, and the stillness replaced with the chirps of crickets and hum of cicadas. The Christmas trees have all been tucked away and the rich colors of the season have been replaced with the bright palette of new life.
Other times it is weightier changes that make my heart ache with their heaviness and import – The church I called home for fifteen years of my life is no longer being pastored by my father. My sister’s family grows by nine pounds, one ounce and 19 ¾ inches. The soul of a bright, joyful young man in my home church is no longer for this world but is finding rest and repose in the arms of his Savior. He is shortly joined in Glory by a fellow missionary from my home church who labored hard for the Kingdom and made lasting impact. My kindred spirit, my partner in interpreting and all things adventuring meets a man, dates, gets engaged, and is married. My little brother – my greatest childhood antagonizer, partner in crime, confidant, and friend – meets a woman, dates, proposes, and is married.
In the midst of change my heart is unsettled, trying to grasp at straws, clinging to what I think I know, and trying to find purchase in a world that is always shifting. And my heart is so quick to jump to the realm of “what-if’s.”
Fear. What if the changes in the lives of those I love causes them to love me less?
Worry. What if my relationships with the people I love are never the same?
Regret. What if I had been able to be present for the entirety of all those changes?
But it is in the middle of these thoughts, this churning of emotions and agitation of spirit, that my heart in all of its flailing finally finds purchase. The Spirit whispers and imprints the words of the Father on my heart –
I am the Lord, I change not… Malachi 3:6
I am the same yesterday, today, and forever… Hebrews 13:8
In Me there is no variation or shadow due to change… James 1:17
How do I combat the dark hands of change clawing at my throat, threatening to steal peace and stillness of heart? I turn my heart to the One who never changes. Just as David remonstrates his heart to hope in God in the midst of his depression and turmoil in Psalm 42, I must preach to my heart the truth of who God is and what His promises are. God is constant. In a world where the best laid plans often go awry, I can rest in my Heavenly Father who is immutable and unaffected by change. I don’t have to fear the loss of love because I have a profound love that is richer, deeper, wider, and stronger than anything in this present earth (Ephesians 3:18-19). The Redeemer will never love me more or less than He does in this moment. I don’t have to worry about losing relationship because I have identity and purpose in my relationship with a Father who adores His children. The Restorer who pursued me in the wreck of my life will never leave or abandon me (Deuteronomy 31:6). I don’t have to regret not being present. The Creator who sees, knows, and hears is present for me (Psalm 139).
In the wise and discerning words of A.W. Tozer, “All that God is He has always been, and all that He has been and is He will ever be.” His promises will never be rescinded or overturned. His unchanging nature shines brilliantly against the backdrop of change that is inherent in the world of mankind. And it is in this nature that my heart must rest.
Just as change is an arrow that points to the immutability of God, it is also an indicator of hope. As hard as it is to swallow, the reality is that fundamentally, change is a good and gracious gift from God. Redemption’s ongoing story is one of change, transforming from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). And without God’s sanctifying hand of change in my life, where would I be? The changes God has wrought in my heart and life all happen for the greater purpose of conforming me more into the image of His Son. The changes that God gently, or perhaps not so gently, introduces into your life all fall under His sovereign, omniscient hand that works for your ultimate good and sanctification. It is because He loves us that He changes us, our loved ones, and our circumstances. What hope is found in this truth!
That small, six-letter word has taken on new connotation in recent days; the disquiet is replaced with rest, the unsettledness with peace, the ominous fear with hope. Let change point your heart to the one who is changeless. And be thankful with me that He continues to change us in order to bring to completion His good work in our hearts.
Courtney Johnson lives and ministers to the people of Haiti.
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