I was recently at the DHF (Disciple Heritage Fellowship) national conference. Pastors, Elders, Missionaries, and at least one principal, had gathered to learn from and being encouraged by quality speakers, and of course, spend time with one another. As I spent time with Christian leaders from all over the country, we shared about the towns and settings we lived in. Speakers and attendees shared about challenges they were facing post COVID, in this “post-Christian” American culture, and challenges that arrive from working with fellow fallen individuals in any era. While I was comforted by what we had in common, I was also excited about what makes Visalia and The Fountain unique.
At the close of the conference, Wayne Kent had some words for us. He is pictured on the front of our newsletter, receiving a sailboat in honor of his last year serving DHF. Currently he is Lead Pastor at First Christian Church Decatur, where the conference was held, Executive Director of DHF, and more importantly to me, a more experienced brother in the Lord with whom I Zoom with every Thursday, shared some important reflections with all in attendance. These reflections were taken from another Pastor, but he found power in them and passed them on to us. He began by recognizing the difficulty in serving God at this time in history. As he listed very relatable examples, I’ll confess to leaning forward into the pew in front of me and shedding a few tears. The focus then moved from the difficulty of our mission to the importance of that mission. The writing reminded me of one of the Psalms that features brutal honesty about the psalmist’s feelings, then shifts in focus towards God and a surrender and trust in Him, despite those feelings.
Wayne read a challenge to us, that whatever our hardships were, our mission was worth it. What is it that made each of us at the conference do what we do? What makes each of you who serve in our church — be it in the children’s ministry, music ministry, sound booth, preparing food, greeting guests, calling, or visiting one another and more — do what you do?
The primary reason is to serve God Himself, for His glory. John 14:15 records Jesus saying, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” John would later record in his first epistle why we love God when he wrote, “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Seeing the love of God reflected in Jesus in His willingness to take on our punishment and forgive us, should cause a natural response of love in return. If we serve merely out of love for other people, or out of the knowledge that it’s good for us, we can get tired. It can be difficult to serve a misbehaving child, or to work with different equipment than we are used to, or to work alongside other people who, like us, are imperfect. If we are serving God first, then each act, no matter how big, or small, no matter if the results seem to be “successful” according to the world’s standards, becomes an act of loving obedience. If we are focused on God, we don’t have to impress others or compete with them; instead, each act is a gift of love to our Heavenly Father, whether it be a chair stacked, a Bible lesson taught, or offering someone a ride to church.
Many at the conference had not just chosen to serve God but had also made a decision about where to do so. It’s true that many people in the body could choose where they go to church, but for pastors specifically, some move around the country, and with a staggering amount of empty pulpits, which are only growing more numerous, many of us had or have options. In light of Wayne’s words, I found myself reflecting on Visalia. Why here? Why The Fountain? What makes any challenges here worth it?
I love how unique our body of believers really is. Originally First Christian Church of Visalia, our congregation began as part of a movement to get away from things that divide so many Christians. Back at our founding, in 1865, it was common for brothers and sisters to be more strictly divided along denominational lines. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and more wouldn’t fellowship together. Formal membership was more important, so one could find themself in a situation where even a minor difference of an opinion on a minor doctrine could prevent them from sharing in the Lord’s Supper with the church nearest them. Baptized in a church with a different name? Some churches might have told you that you didn’t count. While this type of division has lessened in recent decades, it has still not been eliminated.
I have been in other churches that claimed to focus on essentials and to follow Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:3, “But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels,” but too often I have seen a minor, unclear point be raised to an essential, and rather than brothers and sisters sharpening each other for our shared mission, I’ve seen it lead to heat and distraction from our purpose. Now more than ever, with fewer and fewer Christians in comparison to the wider population, it’s important than we work together, and that we are known “By our love for one another” (John 13:35) and rather than focus our energy on internal divisions like being “of Paul or of Apollos” (1 Corinthians 3:4), that we Praise God together and fulfill our command to reach the lost and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20).
I’ve never served in a church that does this better than The Fountain. We have people serving here as volunteers, as elders, and on staff, with different denominational backgrounds, different views on the end times, different ideas about the proper interpretation of some scriptural prophecies, differing views on early parts of Genesis, different leanings regarding classic debates between church leaders and more. No one is holding to any kind of heresy; all focus on the essentials, but are continuing the same conversations that the church has been having since the beginning, yet without breaking fellowship and maintaining love for one another. The American church doesn’t have time for the old petty squabbling anymore; we have work to which we are called, and we are to do it together!
That focus on unity in essentials characterizes the other churches at DHF. I closed the conference with a hug from a brother who has different views on apologetics methods than me, different views on the classic Calvinism vs. Arminianism Debate, and even different views on who can fill various roles in the church, and yet, we are brothers, serving God as best we can, continuing to learn.
Other churches in DHF, as well as churches around the nation have had to attempt to navigate the differences between the preferences of younger, and less traditionally churched individuals, and older individuals, often who have attended church most of their lives. I continue to be thankful to be part of a church that is striking a healthy balance. Our goal is to be multigenerational, something that is increasingly difficult for churches as technology has only increased the differences in culture and style between generations in general, and between those who attend and don’t attend church.
We are honoring our legacy. Matthew 28’s command to making disciples involves discipling those who already know Jesus and who attend with us. We are listening to them, valuing them, meeting their needs, connecting them with worship styles to which they can relate and helping to connect them with areas in which they can serve. I am reminded of our heritage every time I’m in the pulpit and can see the old stained-glass window above the sound booth. It came from our previous building over 20 years ago, but Ii reflects a heritage that stretches back much farther.
One of the best ways to honor a legacy, is to keep it going! We are also embracing change. When we launched our second service just before COVID hit, it had a dozen or less people. Today, it’s usually above 40 individuals. We have new singers on stage, new volunteers in the sound booth, new people attending our church, new Baptisms, and new opportunities. Thanks to technology, we know that we are regularly joined by people all over the country.
We are connecting to our community through allowing them the use of our wonderful yard and playground, having events like Tulare-Kings Right to Life annual movie nights, and providing space for The Good News Jail ministry to grade tests, and more.
We are continuing to move forward. I envision a time when even more individuals will want to use our yard and feel comfortable coming inside; when on Wednesday nights, children can be checked in and see other children praising God in a musical style to which they can relate, on a centralized, easy- to-see screen in our sanctuary; when we can more effectively speak the same language as young adults on Sunday mornings with technology and a different atmosphere, but with a flick of a few switches still have a classic feel to continue to serve others with different preferences.
I look forward to finding additional ways to be involved in our community beyond our building’s walls. Churches in the past have had a “come and see” model, where we focus on inviting, and hope individuals connect with what they find. Increasingly, healthy churches focus on a “Go and be” model. Both are important, and I think that we are continuing to be more welcoming; we have an amazing visitor rate for our size, and we want to hold on to more of those visitors and help them better connect with us. Beyond that, though, I do see a deepening heart for those around us, thanks to Organic Outreach. The conference left me also dreaming about how we could connect with local schools or other nearby needs.
One of the most exciting things about serving in Visalia is how many people need to know Jesus and admit it! I love equipping missionaries to go, and I am so thankful to be a part of congregation who loves to do so, but we have a mission field right here at home! As I spoke with other pastors and learned from what was working and not working, nationwide, the opportunity we had here, only became more and more clear. Many other pastors with whom I talked serve in smaller or shrinking towns or serve in the Bible Belt where so many claim that they know Jesus, but their actions and beliefs reveal otherwise. We have over 71,000 admitted non-Christians in this town. We aren’t in any competition with the churches around us. I don’t think the churches in town would have near enough room for half of these people if they starting following Christ.
Matthew 9:35-38 records: “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness.
Seeing the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”
I’m thankful to serve alongside each of you. The DHF conference gave me the recharge and refocusing I needed so that I can remember, even in a state with high taxes, and extra rules; even in a time where we face post-COVID-19 and post-quarantine challenges; even in a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christian ideas and even truth itself, God is worth serving, and we are privledged to serve in an area with so much potential and so much need. We get to do so as part of a unique congregation with a rich history and a desire to pursue depth together.
If you are a volunteering in some way, thank you! I can’t list all of you, because there are so many of you! If you haven’t found a spot yet or are looking to go a little deeper or to change things up, I invite you to reach out to Carrie, Chuck, Romy or me and find a way to be a part of this great mission opportunity here in Visalia. I’m excited for what God is doing and will do through The Fountain. I’m also convinced that you’re called to be part of that!