Good morning Freshwater! It’s a new year. Welcome to 2016. Who here is ready for it? You ever have a year that you are glad to close the books on? Some of you are thinking, “Just a year? How about a decade?” Over the past few months as 2015 wound down I had a number of conversations with people that have been here these past 13 years and we all agreed that 2015 was the second hardest year we’ve. The other one was seven years ago and it was filled with conflict and pain. I can’t imagine a more difficult year than that one. 2015 was a difficult year and yet nearly every reason why was for good things.
We were building a new facility, we were raising money for that building, we were raising money for our general budget, our ministry staff and support staff went through a massive overhaul – we lost our adult pastor and children’s pastor and hired three new ministry staff, and additional support staff, and are close to hiring another ministry staff position. We’ve seen some incredible change in the past year internally. 2015 was like God came in and destroyed our nice little lego creation but then rebuilt it into something I could never have imagined. And with a couple of months left to complete our building it looks like He is close to launching us into the challenge we’ve all been praying for these past years. So what is that challenge in the coming year? Let me read you a passage. READ Ezekiel 47.
In The Coming Year:
A. Prayer: There are several challenges we are going to face in this coming year as a church and One of them is self-sufficiency. If we grow like we think we’re going to grow we’re going to become a larger church. We’re could risk thinking we’re big enough to do it on our own. We’re going to look around and possibly think “we’ve got things under control.” Or we’re going to look at the budget and the square feet and the attendance and possibly think “we can do this.” This vision of Freshwater is a supernatural vision. Read the previous 7-8 chapters you’ll find God calling them to the worshipping life and the surrendered life. And in this breathtaking vision, He tells his people, if you truly give your life to worshipping me this is what I will do. There is nothing about this vision that people do. Keep in mind we’re just a little group of 500 people or so in our average attendance, and this vision in Ezekiel was to a nation of several million. At no point will we ever outgrow this vision. At no point in our future will we EVER be able to accomplish this. The desert and the Dead Sea are metaphors for the lives of people and the nation. It’s a metaphor of God’s presence cutting through all of it like a river bringing life, healing, food – literally transforming everything His presence touched.
A couple of years ago I was asked to lead worship at Denver Seminary. You want to know why? The president of the seminary had heard about the stories of transformation coming from our church. He flew me out to lead worship with the Seminary Board of Trustees and tell some of the stories of transformation. I heard not only from the president but from multiple people on the board not only how amazing the stories were but how sad they were that in their own churches they had no stories of transformation for years.
Folks, what got us here was not great plans. It wasn’t great people. It wasn’t great changes. It wasn’t even a name. It was our great God. He got us here. The best thing we have done these past 13 years is simply to come before our God and tell Him, “Oh, Jesus, You’re the greatest. Jesus, you’re the strongest. You’re the one with all power and authority. You’re the one who simply speaks and the earth is formed. Jesus, we need you to speak. We need you to speak some life into this church. We need to speak healing into us. Just say the word and bring transformation. Oh Jesus, we need you. We need you. We need you. We need you. We need you even more.” What got us here? We pray. We’re a church that prays. There’s a group of women that have been praying since the 90’s for God’s fresh water to flow through this church. There is a group of men who pray on Friday mornings, “God, bring your presence – let your freshwater flow.” There’s a group of moms that faithfully pray during the school year for God’s presence to flow over our children and schools and teachers. Folks, I’ve been praying at the River with you all for the past 13 years. I’ve had so many of you come up to me or write me notes to say that you are praying.
This past year I have been distracted. The experts said it would happen. But I didn’t think it would. But it has. I’ve been distracted from the one thing that brought us here. Some of you may say, “No you haven’t” and give me grace which is what I love about this church. But my spirit – in here – my spirit knows it. I’ve been distracted. The Holy Spirit has been telling me I’m distracted. I’m tired of being distracted. Folks, prayer – us calling out to God to move and pour out His fresh water in a supernatural way – that’s the only explanation for where we are right now and what God is doing among us. Are you distracted from prayer? Have you been distracted like me? Does anyone hear the Spirit of God calling you back to prayer. How many of us if we looked at the sum total of our lives in 2015 are feeling the conviction of how little we went to God for anything, or how few God-stories we have.
Folks, prayer is the first work of the church. Prayer – which is both talking to God and listening to God – is where we get His strength, life, presence. It’s also where we get His plans for us and others. Prayer is where we see God flood into our lives and through our lives into others. I can’t explain it folks but there is this burn deep in me to pray and to see Freshwater pray without distraction and then step back and watch the supernatural fresh water of God bring life to people, bring healing to people, bring food to people – to bring the transformation that this world is dying for.
There are two other challenges I think bear mentioning this morning. This second one is the assumption that because there are more people the church doesn’t need me. It’s one of the most common misconceptions out there. I get it though. It’s a natural assumption that when a church or organization has momentum it’s all just falls together and ministries are fully staffed and everything is hunky-dory. Or some of you tragically assume that because there are so many people you aren’t needed because you think you aren’t that great at anything. I firmly believe that everyone is a 10 at something. The Bible teaches that each of us are gifted to build up this body. Each of you are here because God brought you here to build up this body. You have gifting and passions that fit needs this church has. This water that’s flowing in Ezekiel is flowing through people.
Are you serving? Are you giving yourself away to others in the name of Christ? Serving Him is a way that His fresh water flows through us. And please don’t mistake me on this. I am calling you to give up some of your best time, your best energy, and effort for others. Also, full disclosure? Serving is never this clean thrill ride. It can be hard, difficult, and discouraging. God does not promise us that serving Him will be easy but He does promise us it will be fulfilling when we do it for Him and out of love of others. What I love in this church is that across all of the generations there are people who never give a second thought to serving in a Sunday school class week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. Or some who have served out there building that facility. Somewhere in their DNA they got this whole idea of serving and not just for a season but for their whole lives. I’ve seen people doing it in this church. Young and old. Hear me on this, this church needs you serving. We need you. If you are newer to our church we have all kinds of avenues to serve, obviously the more we know you and the more you know us the more influence you might be given but there are always places to serve. If you aren’t serving let me ask you something, why? If you know you have never served consistently and for a long stretch and even begun to understand this idea of sacrifice, my question is why?
Why is it that ISIS, which is pure evil, can recruit people to such costly sacrifice and self-abandonment but Christ can’t recruit you to serve once a week? Seriously? And I’m not talking to those of you are in a season of grief or brokenness or whatever that can sometimes take us out of the serving for a season of time. I get that. I’m talking to those of you who are part of this body but you don’t act like it and never allow God’s presence, His fresh water to flow through you.
The final challenge I think we face this coming year is thinking that the new location and new facility and changes we’ve made and money we’ve invested is just for us. We may benefit from it and that’s a good thing. But we didn’t do all of this for ourselves. We did this so that we might reach more for Christ. We did this because we are called to a mission – our mission is to tell our community, our region, and this world the good news about Jesus. Let me show you a graphic.
This is the graphic of our church’s giving to missions since I’ve arrived. Folks I’m embarrassed to show this. I could give all kinds of explanations but essentially our giving to missions has declined by 5% from above 15% to below 10% above our annual budget. Now I could give a lot of reasons for this but at the end of the day it’s on my watch. Folks, Missions is in our name. We are the Christian and Missionary Alliance. This movement started back in the 1800’s by a Christians who formed an alliance to send missionaries around the world. Now clearly I have not done a good job leading on this but let me just say that if you call this church home and especially if you are member you are have this same passage to join this alliance of Christians and commit to praying, and encouraging, and financially supporting this movement that is still on mission. We are unabashedly an evangelistic and missional movement. If you’re not into this, you might want to find a different church because you’re going to get annoyed at our persistence in calling you to join us. Our president has challenged every church to give at least 10% beyond their annual budget to the Fund that supports our missionaries – we call them International workers. If you aren’t support CM&A missions jump on board. Get in. Living for this mission is our passion and in our very name.
Also, our mission is about reaching our region and community for Christ. You may have heard of Akron Pregnancy Services, or The Garage, or Envision up in Cleveland. We have strategic partnerships with these ministries because they share our passion for the mission to tell people about Jesus. You’re going to hear more about them in the coming weeks and maybe God will have you partner with them.
Finally, each of us has a number of people God has placed in our lives who don’t have a relationship with him. In our community there is a high percentage of people who used to go to church but walked away for whatever reason and whatever age. There is a high level of receptivity and they may be just waiting for invitation to come back to church – but a church not like what they walked away from. A church where you can encounter God and He can really make a difference. And there is a fast growing population in our area that is completely de-churched. They are post-Christian. They’ve never heard of Jesus or been to church. Ever. We built this building so that God could reach more. There are around 35,000 people within 5 miles that fall into one of these two categories. Folks, a new building doesn’t mean we’ve arrived it means we’ve just started and we’re serious about God using us to reach more.
Prayer & Fasting:
At the end of January the leadership is calling everyone to a 3-day prayer and fast. Take up the Challenge: We are going to fast and pray specifically that in 2016. We would be refocused on prayer, engage in serving, and make Christ’s mission personal.