The following is the text of my 2020 annual report to my congregation.
Were we able to rewind the tape to our 2020 annual meeting one year ago, who among us would have guessed what 2020 would look like? I certainly couldn’t have guessed…and if you say you could, we all know you’re lying! To use an already overused word, 2020 was definitely unprecedented. It was unprecedented for many reasons, but its impact on church and ministry was significant for us.
If you remember, at last year’s annual meeting I announced our plan for March 2020: a series of services designed to focus specifically on the person of Jesus Christ and His mission for His church in sharing His Gospel with the world. I was hoping to facilitate more dialogue than a typical Sunday morning service, with a specific focus on Jesus’ heart for the lost around us. We (your elders) were praying for creativity and unity within our body, and to better discern your heart and understanding of God’s purpose for us here and now. Once those meetings were concluded, we (your elders) would synthesize your feedback and begin prayerfully putting together a corporate vision for ABC. Well, we got two weeks into the month and the bottom fell out of the planet. As the well-known saying goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. In fact, March would prove to be the last time we would physically see much of our church family for the rest of the year.
After that, everything was triage for a while. We needed video and audio capabilities that week to continue to “be together” and seek God together in some form. I scrambled to set up a make-shift studio in the Grace House. The help of the elders during this process was invaluable. God provided in so many ways, but the unique blessing of our relationship with Templo Emmanuel cannot be overstated. They loaned us (and are still loaning us) their expertise and equipment to broadcast our worship services every week without interruption. For this I am especially grateful. Before our first virtual service, I joked with the elders that I was nervous our broadcast would look like an Al-Qaeda hostage video! Thanks to Templo Emmanuel and their generosity, everything was first class. As your elders continued to serve week after week in their virtual capacity putting together worship services, we were also meeting each week to pray for you and seek God’s direction about how to minister in this new paradigm.
These prayers produced much fruit. As we talked to you, our church family, we were hearing and discerning some of your questions and concerns. With no way to discuss these issues together in person, we initiated our “Ask the Elders” segments. We also initiated a short corporate series called “Committed Christians, Current Events”. In the midst of all the political turmoil, domestic division, and divisive opinions, we wanted our church family to continue to hear from God – and each other – about what God would want us to gather from Him. During this time, we also began a weekly prayer meeting and a mid-week encouragement from me, your pastor. Both these ministries have continued since their inception. In May, we also held our first outdoor worship service. By the end of the year, we would host another outdoor service and an outdoor Christmas Eve service.
Over the summer, we began praying about resuming our physical gatherings on Sunday mornings. We had both buildings (the Grace House and the gym) cleaned thoroughly: floors, chairs, curtains, furniture, base boards, everything. We then resumed our corporate worship services in July while still livestreaming from our ABCBaytown youtube page. While 2020 presented many challenges for us – and what we faced was nothing like what we planned or were prepared for – I believe it was an incredibly fruitful year of ministry for us. There are a few important reasons why I can say can this honestly and without reservation. They were important enough that I wanted to highlight them for you in my annual report.
Four Reasons I’m Thankful for 2020
Firstly, it brought about a greater reliance on God’s spirit and a needed reminder us of His sovereignty and sufficiency. I have preached many-a-sermon (and you have heard as many) about God being in control. I have preached as many sermons (and you have heard as many) about God being all that we need in and for this life. While preaching and listening are good and needed disciplines, personal experience – especially that which is forced upon you and for which you could not be prepared – provides an indelible reminder of two marvelous biblical truths: our Father is most certainly in control and He is most certainly all we need. If 2020 brought nothing else of worth (which, I believe, is very far from the truth), this would be enough.
Both the Scriptural record and our own human experience teach us that we value control, or, at minimum, the sensation of it, more than almost anything else. Ironically, however, it is this desire to control which often sidelines the matchless Christian experience of complete surrender to the Holy Spirit. Our surrender to His sovereignty reminds us of His sufficiency; it is in those moments of feeling “tossed to and ‘fro” that we are reminded again that Christ is truly all we need. I thank Jesus Christ our Lord that the events of 2020 allowed us this invaluable Christian experience.
Secondly, 2020 brought about a level of intentional pastoral awareness and care from your elders that, I don’t think, would have existed otherwise. Over the past sixteen years, I have been blessed to serve in four different churches, in three different states, and in two different denominations. In all my experience, I can say truthfully that our elders at ABC are the healthiest and purest group of men I have served with. Each of us truly love shepherding the flock He has given us and feel the weight of that spiritual burden acutely. If ever there was a group of “under-shepherds” who genuinely cared for their folks and sought to lead them well, it is surely your elders.
However, the demands of ministry and the “tyranny of the urgent” can easily (and often do) push pastoral awareness and care to the fringes. Sermon preparation, meetings, e-mail correspondence, broken water heaters, job and family demands, workdays, denominational obligations, and praying and planning for the future regularly force themselves to the top of the priority list. What better to properly rearrange priorities than a yearlong global pandemic? I pray that each of you have personally witnessed and experienced the value and care of your elders this year. We spent much time in prayer, and each one of us personally reached out to the church to check on their needs. This fall, for example, Viandra and I completed “Operation Flower Power” and personally delivered flowers to each church family in our directory. I thank our Father for the opportunity to more intentionally and acutely minister to our church family in 2020.
Thirdly, routine-disrupting and life-altering events tend to increase individual and corporate focus on what really matters. As Thomas Paine famously stated in his pamphlet The American Crisis: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” One of the earliest prayers from your elders this year was that a corporate absence from one another would make our individual hearts grow fonder toward each other and more clearly recognize the “dearness” that is being part of God’s family. I know that prayer has been answered for me, and I hope it has been for you, too.
We can easily take for granted that which has been so accessible, predictably consistent, and ever-present, even (and sometimes especially) when it is the dearest of treasures. Those life-altering and routine-disrupting “wake up calls” often seem to be God’s method of getting us back to what really matters. In our case, that is treasuring, chiefly, Christ and His timeless Gospel. Secondly, it is treasuring His bride, the Church, and loving and serving those (and with those) who make up this Gospel family. Thirdly, it is treasuring His mission for us: reaching an ever-so-obvious searching, lost, hopeless, dying world with His Good News for them.
Lastly, it forced upon us a “clean slate” for ministry. Just as church leadership faces the “tyranny of the urgent” challenge, so churches face the “tyranny of the routine” challenge. When I accepted the call to come to Baytown 18 months ago, I certainly had no plans to bring big changes to ABC. In fact, my only plan was to spend a year loving you, living and serving with you, and earning your trust. I am grateful that God allowed me 8 months to do that before our personal interaction was significantly altered.
However, oftentimes changes to church ministries, formats, methods, and even paradigms are where the Holy Spirit leads His people in order to bring about greater Gospel-empowered effectiveness. But…you know as well as I that we are all too often creatures of deeply engrained habits, and change – even on the smallest of scales – is the last thing we want and the first thing we resist. For that reason, I am so grateful for 2020 because it forced us to rest from everything for a season and spend more time in prayer and consideration before the Father about what He desires for us now and how He wants us to accomplish His purposes.
Now, with all that being said about this past year, let me turn your attention to the year before us: 2021. I first want to address what I can foresee as our immediate challenges and then conclude my report with some exciting opportunities to draw close to our Savior, glorify Him together, and build His Kingdom here this year.
Challenges in 2021
Our foremost challenge this year, as I see it now, is simply resuming engagement and regaining momentum. As a kid, I was fascinated by the Strongman competitions. One of the events featured each man pulling an 18-wheeler. Once they got it moving, everything was smooth sailing; getting the truck moving from a standstill took all their energy. I think this is an appropriate analogy for us in 2021. Presently, many fears and anxieties persist about COVID, and worry surrounding the national and political climate has not subsided. For many of us, our own habits of adjusting to virtual worship services on Sunday with no physical gatherings during the week will be difficult to change. Once we can resume physical, corporate ministry (in whatever form that looks like), re-engaging in the mission together may be quite a substantial challenge. With that in mind, I would just ask you, as your pastor, to remember why we are here: to glorify God and build His Kingdom here on Earth.
It was in a world of much greater personal risk, uncertainty, turmoil, and fear than today that Jesus spoke His Great Commission to His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is why we are here! This is what God has placed us at this point in history to accomplish and the One with all authority is with us.
Consider that in addition to our mission is the urgency with which Scripture speaks of it. “The end of all things is near” Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:7. “Therefore, be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” Jesus’ brother, James, soberly reminds us of the painful brevity of life (James 4:13-17). “You don’t know what your life will be like tomorrow. For you are just a vapor that appears for a little while, and then vanishes away.” He even goes so far as to proclaim what you will do tomorrow as boasting in arrogance and evil. To assume that tomorrow is a given for us is to assume that we ourselves are sovereign and omniscient, a slight and affront from those who are not to Him who is.
Christ’s mission is the single most important purpose our lives serve each day, and we just don’t know when our time – or the time of those we are praying to reach – will reach its end. Moreover, Christ talks about the need for workers to bring in the harvest. In Matthew 9:37 He says that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Though re-engaging in the mission of the Church and the mission of Christ will be a challenge for us, it is one that we cannot afford to shrink from. We simply cannot let other things, either internally or externally, keep us from actively praying and striving to reach our hopelessly lost and dying neighbors with the best, most important News they could ever hear.
Opportunities & Goals for 2021
With His mission and urgency before you, let me with great joy and anticipation share with you some opportunities and goals for ABC that I am praying and working toward in 2021. These are goals I am setting for our family to help fulfill Christ’s mission and opportunities that you have to love and serve one another and reach the world.
Firstly, we are in the process of renovating the common areas of Grace House to become a “mobilization station” for our church. The Administrative Committee has approved using $6,000 from our Advance Vision Fund to remodel the living room and dining room areas of Grace House. Budget permitting, this remodel includes new furniture, new paint and flooring, and a more open-concept design to better utilize the space. Once completed, the space will be used to host comfortable, informal church groups where we will sharpen one another in evangelism. The goal is for our ABC family to become better equipped and comfortable with sharing our faith. This means considering together the truths of the Gospel, how we share His Good News with others, and how we can organize ourselves as a church to reach out.
Once completed, I would love to have two sessions each year: one in the Spring and one in the Fall using a combination of video-based curriculum and facilitated group discussion. If the project can be completed by summer 2021, my goal is to host our first group from roughly September – November 2021. Of course, this space could also be used for a number of other functions, but its principle purpose would be to train ourselves to better reach our neighbors with the Gospel.
Secondly, I would love for the new-and-improved Grace House to serve as an incubator for small groups specifically designed for outreach. If Grace House serves as our grounds for training, we still need a field in which we deploy ourselves. The mission of Christ is inseparable from action. 1 Corinthians 4:20 tells us plainly that “the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” Likewise, the need for laborers mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 9 implies there is work, not talk, to be done. Consequently, our end goal cannot simply be gathering to talk about God, but to go and make disciples and actively demonstrate the power of God in saving and redeeming lost souls.
If Grace House serves as our “mobilization station”, then small groups would be our deployment. When people think of small groups, they often think of groups that meet to eat, talk, read, and pray together. However, the effort behind these small groups would be to reach out, and reach out specifically to non-Christians. What does this look like? It could be organizing a series of movie “Screen on the Green” nights on the church lawn. It could be a group getting involved in community events. It could be organizing a “mom’s morning out” or after school tutoring. It could be targeting a nearby nursing home. The possibilities are as limitless as the Spirit’s creativity at work within us, but the point is that we want to actually reach people, not simply talk about reaching people. Your elders will be praying (and I would ask that you pray with us) about how we can best reach the lost around us. As the time gets closer to launching this ministry, I look forward to having more details to share with you.
Thirdly, we are planning to more strategically use our front lawn to have a more visible presence in our community. This past year we hosted three outdoor services. Your feedback was positive, and we are planning to utilize this valuable space more often this year. My vision for this space goes far beyond simply moving a worship service outdoors from time-to-time. I would love to see our services accompanied by a shared meal afterwards, inflatables and games for children, and the foundation of the mini-gym used for sports and activities for youth. These could serve both for the enjoyment and edification of our own family as well as an outreach to others. One of our small groups could lead that outreach effort, inviting people and organizing events both in conjunction with church activities and stand-alone events held on the church grounds.
I plan to have banners made up which would invitingly advertise our outdoor worship services as well as any events held on the front lawn. With such a beautiful and strategically valuable space, I would love to see it used more effectively.
In His grace, our Father was good to ABCBaytown in 2020. We cannot ignore His gifts, nor can we be ungrateful. Both seeing and experiencing all that God has done for us, I pray to serve Him together with you more fully in 2021. Like every year, I lay out before you these goals and opportunities for 2021 understanding that everything happens according to God’s will and in His time. Thus, these plans may easily “go awry” this year. Even so, we rest assured that God will glorify Himself through His people. May we seek to glorify God and build His Kingdom here together in 2021.
yours in Christ,
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.