The following is a portion of the Sunday Worship Service - January 27, 2008. This message contains a brief look at what a Family-Integrated church is, as well as our Pastor's testimony of God leading him to see the pitfalls of "successful", contemporary youth ministry.
“Families Seeking Christ”
I want to share today and next week about where we are going as a church. I’m not referring to the universal church; I’m referring to us…the local church, the families here of Heritage Bible Fellowship. I want us to step back and look at the big picture…why we do what we do. This is important for us to hear because I see it as renewing our perspective. If you haven’t noticed, we are somewhat different from today’s church. Maybe not so much in our doctrine; you can find other churches like ours with similar foundational beliefs. However, what probably most distinguishes us from other churches is not our doctrine, but our methodology.
We are very unique…we are the exception to the typical, bible-believing conservative church of today. We are by practice, what is usually called a family-integrated church. So what is a family-integrated church? A family-integrated church is a few things:
1) It’s not a new concept but how we believe the early church initially practiced. If you were to know nothing about how a church functioned and all you had to go by was the NT, you would not from that derive a youth ministry, a children’s ministry, a church softball league, or even multi-million dollar buildings.
2) Family-integrated means that the family attends and participates in weekly worship together. This means that we sit together, sing together, pray together and come under the hearing of God's Word - all together! We are not segregated for our time of worship...we're integrated!
3) Family-integrated means that we believe the family unit is central to evangelism and discipleship…mainly through the home. This means that evangelism is not a program, it is an outflow of the home…just like the early church. This means that discipleship is not necessarily a six week course purchased at the Christian bookstore, but a lifelong walk between the old and young in Christ. This also means that singles, grandparents, and even single parents can all use their home as a resource for evangelism and discipleship.
4) Family-integrated means we are a church family that is all inclusive. Our church family sees that grandparents and grandchildren, married and unmarried, sons and daughters, young and old worshipping together is biblical, honoring to God, and a foreshadowing of worship in heaven. Therefore, we see the common practice of age segregated Sunday school, children’s ministry and youth ministry as contrary to biblical practice.
In fact, we have two examples in scripture where young people were gathered. Turned to Mark 10:13-16. READ Here we have the disciples trying to age-segregate. They are trying to keep the children out of what they assume is “adult only business.” But Jesus rebuked them.
Now also turn to 2 Kings 2:23-25. READ Here we have children, and in the Hebrew that means anywhere from infants, which I doubt in this case, to what we call adolescence. Now personally, this sounds a little more likely to be the work of teenagers than infants…but I could be wrong. But here’s what we can derive from this passage…this was a group of children…apparently left to themselves and running on the fuel of peer pressure. And they paid for it. This aligns more with a youth ministry concept than a family-integrated concept. This sounds more like a youth group than a family-integrated group of people. Therefore, we believe that it is vital for children to learn from their older and wiser elders and parents, than to learn from each other. It’s called discipleship and wisdom. It’s wisdom driven, not peer driven, like the children in 2 Kings.
5) Family integrated means that we are facilitating an environment that adheres to a multi-generational vision. We are not a family centered church but a church that is Christ-centered. Christ is King and we are His children. Knowing that, we want to see fathers pass on their faith to their children and for children to learn from their fathers. We want to see the old teaching the young and for the next generation to not miss a step in their spiritual walk. We want young husbands and fathers, young wives and mothers to know how to pass on their faith, before they ever become husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. We want to help facilitate this, not by young people being with young people, but by the older generation teaching and passing on the baton of faith to the next generation. However, please understand this: A family-integrated church does not MAKE this happen, but it does aid fathers in helping make it happen. Being in a "family-integrated" church does not mean that your children will follow Christ and someday lead their families. There's more to it than just showing up. But the fact that families are not segregated does help the father who desires to lead or already is leading his family.
And please, hear this truth, let me preface everything we’re going to cover….we, Heritage Bible Fellowship, are by no means the perfect church…we realize we do fall short in various areas at various times. If you came to this church recently or years ago thinking that this is the perfect church…it didn’t take you long to find out we’re not. Now you may claim it is the perfect church for you and your family, but we are not the perfect church. We all, individuals, families, church leadership, are on a spiritual path towards maturity. That means that sometimes we do fall short. However, with that said, we do believe strongly in what we see as the approach to biblical worship and the function of the local body. But before I dive into the details of how we function and why, let me first give you a little history about me and how I got here….
OUR HISTORY (Pastor & Church)
“How God directed…”
I was one of the exceptions in high school when it came to knowing what I was going to do and where I was going to college. I knew from 10th grade that I was going to attend Liberty University and study to get a degree in Youth Ministries. It actually was quite easy…I never doubted that God had called me to be in a ministry that impacted young people. I believed that getting a degree in youth ministry was the most practical and most effective path towards seeing young people come to Christ and carry the gospel on to the next generation. Little did I know that the Lord was setting me up for something bigger than I ever imagined.
After graduation we moved to Sanford, NC, in 1991. Two weeks after we moved in, we had our first child Thomas. Looking back now I realize that I moved my wife when she was 8 ½ months pregnant. I didn’t realize that then and didn’t really realize it until I was writing this sermon… so to my wife, I officially offer my sincere apologies for doing that to you. We'll never move again when you're so "great with child."
When we moved to Sanford, I started a landscaping and lawn maintenance business to provide for our needs. In the meantime we looked for an opportunity to minister in a local church with our focus on the youth. We found a church just down the street from where we lived. It was a SBC, they were a sister church that was recently formed…actually a mission church to that area. We visited and love the pastor and his family. The pastor visited with me for a while, found out about my degree in youth ministries, and to make a long story just a bit shorter, they ended up hiring me as a part-time youth pastor.
After a year or so, I realized that I could not continue at the pace I was at…running a business, working part-time as a youth and children’s pastor, and still raising a young family. The demands and requirements of youth and children ministry were greater and much more involved than I ever anticipated. And for me, the time it took away from my family, the mental and physical drain, were not even close to what they were doing to my family.
And God in His grace allowed my pastor to also see this. In fact, he sat down with me and said that he could see the toll that working with the youth and children were doing to me while I was trying to run a business… a physically exhausting business at that. He confirmed his love and support towards me and what we were doing there at the church, but he also wanted to know that if I needed to step away for my family, he would support me in that as well…so I did. I stepped back and tried to get back to some sense of normalcy for my family.
Looking back, it was my first taste of the reality of a program driven ministry…it was killing me and wearing down my family. And I only had one child, and I was a young 22 year old. I had youth and energy and zeal…but it still was taking its toll. But it would take me a few more times before God really pulled back the scales of what programs, specifically the concept of modern-day, professional youth ministry, were doing to the church family and the youth pastor's family. This was my first encounter with the fact that being a minister, in the modern day church sense, was not very family friendly.
After a couple of years of building my business, the Lord opened up an opportunity to become a full-time youth pastor. Finally, my dreams were going to be fulfilled at a church about 5 miles from our home - a relatively large church that we had coincidently been attending for a couple of months. So about 6 months later, I sold the business to two brothers in that church and the church ended up hiring me full time. That was 1995.
Things went well for me as a youth pastor. Our numbers were rising, we saw some teenagers accept Christ. Some appeared to be growing in the Lord. We were from all appearances leading a successful, growing youth ministry. And for the most part it appeared that people liked me, deacons, parents and teenagers. And my own family was expanding and growing… the only thing missing was a white picket fence. This was how it was supposed to be!
However, some things started to become unsettling…but I still didn’t think too much of them at that time. But I started to wonder about some things, particularly from the standpoint of the parent-child relationship. It just didn’t settle in my spirit as God’s intent for normal family Christian living for parents to let me be personally responsible for their child’s spiritual walk. But that’s what I was being told, usually indirectly, but even at times very directly! When a teen got in trouble, I was the one to be there for them. When a young person wanted to grow spiritually, I was the one responsible for seeing that it was done. When one of our youth had "nothing to do on the weekend," I was to provide an activity for them. When a teenager needed anything to do with Christian living, growing in Christ…it was up to me to fulfill that.
I guess it hit home when a strong leader within the youth group came to be with questions about his spiritual walk. Now that wasn’t essentially bad, but his dad was a leader in our church. I walked away not so much disheartened by the fact this young man had spiritual issues he wanted worked out…but the fact that his dad was not the one he went to…or the fact that his dad did not at least come with him…and his dad was fully capable. But this was the job of the youth pastor…at least from the church and family’s perspective.
But my question was: “Why could his dad not do this? Where was the Christian father, the deacon father, the church leader father in this picture.” We’re not talking about a teen with no dad, or even an unsaved dad…but a dad who loved the Lord, a leader in the church, a man responsible for leading other people. Where was he? Had I taken that dad's God-given responsibilty from him? That question was very unsettling to me. It was from then on that God began to lead me down a path that would change my understanding of not just professional youth ministry…but the role of fathers in their families and in their churches. God was whetting my appetite for a biblical view of raising up young people for the glory of God. A perspective that was contrary to what I had experienced and what I was taught. Things were about to drastically change.
The Lord refreshed my memory about a passage in Malachi 4:5-6. As I read this passage the Lord began to show me how professional youth ministry was actually contrary to the heart relationship between fathers and their children. The ministry or service I was providing was not helping this blessing of the father-child relationship…it was hindering it, it was usurping it, it was dividing it. But surely this was not true…after all, I had a college degree that said youth ministry was a good thing; I grew up in a youth ministry and I turned out okay. In my heart I was saying, "God please don’t tell me that the path I’ve been heading down since 10th grade was the wrong path". But the more he began to reveal to me, the more I began to see the pitfalls of “successful” youth ministry.
So I set out to create a better youth ministry. I was determined to make youth ministry enhance the parent-child relationship. So I scheduled a parent-teen day of fellowship and activities. It was a day planned to give parents and teenagers the day together. However, there was a problem…I was hearing complaints from some of the "core kids" in the youth group about having to spend the day with their parents. WHAT! This wasn’t suppose to happen…you were suppose to want to be with your mom and dad. But the reality was that most young people would have rather been with their friends that day and not their parents. I saw first hand that youth ministry, even me personally, had facilitated an environment that made children, not only desire to be with their friends more than their families, but an environment where many teenagers dreaded being with their parents. I began to realize that my methodology of youth ministry, did not match up with my theology of turning the hearts of fathers to their children. It was sadly, breeding just the opposite. My ministry was NOT turning the hearts of fathers to their children...it could NOT do that. The methodology of youth ministry was terribly flawed. And my desire to create a better youth ministry was like arranging the patio furniture on the Titanic! No matter how hard I tried, no matter how creative I became, no matter how much I desired to see the hearts of fathers turn to their children and children's hearts turn to their fathers, if I didn't include fathers and teach them...how was that going to happen??? I was seeing first hand that youth ministry, by it's flawed nature, was not bringing in the "hundredfold, lasting fruit" by leaving teenagers with just each other... I needed to go for the dads!
Through a series of events, circumstances and relationships, the Lord graciously led me away from my position as youth pastor. And with the blessing of my senior pastor at that time, I remained in the Sanford area to be a part of a local church there. I sent out resumes and look everywhere for a church with a “family ministry” but it just wasn’t happening. When I visited a family-integrated church in New York, and shared with that pastor about how no church was even interested in a family-ministry, family-integrated concept, he told me I’d have to start one. I asked, "Why?", because I had no desire whatsoever to do that. He just told me that it was easier to give birth than to raise the dead. He knew that for most existing churches, this was a very foreign concept and it would not likely be well received.
With those words of wisdom and some additional confirmation from godly men I sought out, we started a family integrated church in the north part of the county in December of 1999. This was a time of personal growth and learning for me personally. The Lord taught me so much during my years of pastoring there in Sanford. I am forever grateful for what God did there during those years and the families he surrounded me with as their pastor. God was definitely letting me see the fruit of families worshipping together...but there was still more to come.
About four years later, we began the process of starting a sister church here in Fayetteville. We had about four or five families from the Fayetteville area that were making the hour long drive, and it appeared that God was working here, so we continue to follow him as He led. In January 2004, we had our first service at the Kiwanis Rec center in the Haymount area of Fayetteville. For the next 10 months, I pastored both churches. Then, in November of 2004, I officially started full-time in Fayetteville and in 2005 moved our family here.
For the next three years we continued to meet in the Kiwanis Rec center that we rented from the city. Then, out of the blue (or so it seemed), the city, who owned the Rec center, was no longer allowing long term rentals on Sunday…which only affected churches…obviously. But that was just the Lord using the city to direct us to where we are now; because we weren’t actively looking for another building – we were content where we were. And God in His grace and provision, gave us this wonderful building and its 5 acres debt-free. As Allen Smith stated when we first looked at the building, “You know, if we were to design our own building, it would probably be very similar to this.” It was definitely a work of God, in His timing, for His glory to meet our needs this way. And that, to some degree, is how we are here today – January 27, 2008.
Heritage Bible Fellowship now has about two dozen youth pastors (fathers), and even three super-experienced youth pastors (grandfathers). They come here realizing that they are to be the leaders of their homes and they are responsible for the spiritual direction and nuture of their children. And they also come here realizing that we want to help them do that, not take take that responsibility away from them and facilitate just the opposite (i.e. youth ministry). But it's still a learning process for all of us because for most fathers here at Heritage, they weren't spiritually led by their fathers. We are a first generation church in many ways... and it's exciting! It's also exciting to see how the Lord has individually led these families to this local fellowship, considering that once again (and as always), our advertising budget is $0.00. The Lord really does what He says and He builds His church!
But we are still on a path of growth…spiritual growth as a church, as families, as individuals. We all, including leadership, are still learning about how to meet needs, minister, equip the saints and build healthy families. Unfortunately, we often learn from our mistakes or our shortcomings. But we still want the Lord to direct us as we take a biblical approach of ministering to this local body. We love God, His people, and we desire to see families, led by fathers as God commanded, to expand the Kingdom of God!
(See the "Why We Do, What We Do" button for a continuation of this message.")