Friday, May 20, 2011

Sweet Spot

On a baseball bat there’s a place that hitters call the “sweet spot.” When the ball hits the bat in the sweet spot, the hitter knows it—he feels it. The ball jumps off the bat in an incredible way. Every hitter wants to find that spot on his bat on every swing.

Five o’clock in the morning comes to me like a brick in the head every Tuesday morning. It has for over 10 years. But, every Tuesday morning as I roll out of bed, I remind myself that one of my sweet spots in ministry begins at 6 a.m. A couple dozen guys will be starting their day at a men’s Bible study. There, I get to share the good news of God’s Word with eager men who want to learn. The pain of awaking from a sound sleep quickly dissipates as my mind focuses on the opportunity at hand.

I’ve come to realize that serving in my sweet spot is filled with joy and fulfillment. It’s a wonderful thing to know how God has uniquely designed me to serve his Kingdom. I’ve come to learn that God created me to disciple and encourage others to grow in their relationship with God. I take incredible joy in seeing someone with their Bible open discussing what they are learning about the God of the universe, and how their live is changing because of what they understand. I’m a small group leader and I love it! I’m a “discipler” and I love it! But, I have not always known it. It took time to figure it out.

When my wife and I began attending Ada Bible Church in the late 80s, we quickly jumped in wanting to be involved. Both Janice and I had grown up in solid churches and we understood that churches like ABC need willing and active young couples to be involved and to serve. So, we did. And, we tried a bunch of things. Some of the things I tried actually make me laugh as I think about them today. I led a mid-week kids’ program that grew to ten kids (nine after Jenny broke her arm playing red rover). I awkwardly led singing during a Sunday night service for a time. I ran sound and lights in the sound booth. I served as a deacon doing grounds maintenance, budgets, and benevolence care. All of those things were good… for a time. None were a disaster or a poor experience; they just weren’t my sweet spot.

But in the early 90s, ABC began small groups. They wanted people in the congregation to be able to meet with others during the week for prayer, Bible study, care, and friendship. As soon as I heard that idea, I knew I needed to give small group leadership a try. It didn’t take long for me to realize that God had uniquely wired me to shepherd people in the context of loving community. I learned that one of the best ways for me to use my time, personality, and giftedness was through long-term relational investment centered on Christ and God’s Word. Next year, will be my 20th year of leading a small group at ABC. It’s become my life to help others find their place of meaningful community at ABC. I’m in my sweet spot.

When Paul wrote his final letter, he had his young friend, Timothy, in mind. Before Paul died, he wanted his protégé to be encouraged to pursue the very best. He wanted Timothy in his sweet spot.

In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use. If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work. 2 Timothy 2.20-21

What’s your sweet spot in ministry? How has God uniquely designed you to serve his Kingdom? Are you ready for the Master to use you for every good work? Jump in. Find your place and serve with passion.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Defining Moments in a Parking Lot

For the next two weeks, Pastor Manion will be looking back at some defining moments at Ada Bible Church. This got me thinking about some of the stories that have impacted me since my wife and I began attending as newlyweds in 1987. Our first Sunday was in a building that is now a house on what was then a gravel road. There were probably half a dozen families that attended with a smattering of college students. This last Easter, 9,600 people attended ABC over three campuses and six venues. Much has certainly changed in the last 24 years. It’s been fun to watch and it’s been fulfilling to be a participant in God’s work over the years.

Since early in our history, ABC has had a philosophy to strive to always have open seats and parking spots for anyone who wanted to attend. In the days of meeting in the house, this wasn’t much of a challenge, but in the early 90’s, we began to grow very rapidly. In 1990, we moved to our Ada Drive building. It was, for us, a real church building. Within a couple years, we outgrew our 200 seat auditorium and needed to start a second service. In those days, we began to experience some real issues with our parking lot. It was simply too small and we had no room to expand. In summer, we had to park people on the grass and in the winter we needed to shuttle people from a middle school parking lot a quarter mile from our building. This created a new parking ministry that I and friend, Jon, started to relieve the tension of traffic jams in the lot and on the street. We had fun greeting people as they came, waving them in to some creative places to park. We had walkie-talkies and mini-van shuttle drivers. When the service started and everyone was parked and seated, we felt fulfilled.

But not every week went smoothly. I recall one Sunday morning when the traffic got out of hand. It was a snowy Sunday and we had many guests because of a baby dedication. Virtually everyone was late because of slippery roads. The parking lot packed out fast. As we directed people to the middle school lot, we inadvertently created a traffic jam on Ada Drive. Cars were backed up in both directions. Jon and I were beside ourselves not knowing what to do. So, we simply decided to send everyone up to the middle school and apologize to them that they’d be a little late for the service. That was when my defining moment happened. A lady drove up the driveway, rolled down her window, handed me her offering check and said she’d try again next week. She had a very gracious way of doing this but this was when I realized that we were turning people away. Who knows what this lady needed to hear that morning? How many others “gave up” because they couldn’t find a seat or a parking spot? What did they miss out on in terms of spiritual encouragement because our facility was challenged?

In the weeks that followed, I was asked to share this story with our board of elders. Now, this moment in the parking was not the single reason we decided to sell our building and pursue something larger; but it was a story that I’ve heard told over and over to illustrate to that we hate to turn away people because our facility is too limited. I guess you could call it a bit of Ada Bible Church folklore.

Over the years, I’ve heard people ask, “So, how big will Ada Bible Church get?” The answer is always, “As large as God desires.” It’s seems evident that God wants us to provide a seat and parking spot for anyone who desires to attend. As we continue to grow, as we add new venues and campuses to accommodate that growth, I need to remind myself that each seat and each parking spot represents a soul; a soul that needs to be introduced to Jesus, a soul that needs to be encouraged by God’s love and God’s people, a soul that needs to find genuine purpose in life. It’s amazing what you can learn in a snowy parking lot.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pray and Love

I have a couple of people in my life who have this uncanny knack for having meaningful conversations with perfect strangers about God. Some people would call them evangelists. And, that is truly what they are. It’s, what I believe, a spiritual gift that God has commissioned them to use. They are uniquely designed to share their faith with others. Kurt’s a guy who prays before he enters into any room, restaurant or store. He asks God to show him if there’s anyone there who is ready to hear the good news of Jesus. Then he simply starts friendly, tactful conversations with people, asking questions that eventfully lead to sharing words about hope, God’s love, and saving grace. Kurt is a charming guy and is very easy to talk with. It’s remarkable to watch people respond to his kind, but truth-filled, words about God and life.

Dave is another guy I’d call a gifted evangelist, but his approach is dynamically different from Kurt’s. Dave lives in a Forest Hill neighborhood filled with young families. His house is in the back of the neighborhood on a street that ends in a cul-de-sac. He and his wife prayerfully purchased their home with the hopes of having a spiritual impact on their neighbors. I stopped in to see Dave and his wife one summer evening. It seemed as if the entire neighborhood was out and about in their yards or walking the sidewalks. Dave’s yard was crawling with kids and his kitchen was filled with adults just hanging out and chatting. I apologized for interrupting their gathering as I assumed it was something planned. Dave assured me that I was more than welcome to be there and these types of neighborhood gatherings were unplanned and common. He said, “We have an open door policy on nights like tonight. People will just walk in the door, pour a cold beverage and chat for while. We invite it and love it.” Dave then took me outside and began pointing to houses in eye shot of his yard. He told me a small piece of each family’s story and what he and his wife were praying on behalf on them. “That’s Jim and Barb’s house. Barb just found out she has cancer. Over here, is Jack and Jenny’s house. They just moved in from Tennessee and don’t know anyone in Grand Rapids. We’re cooking burgers with them tomorrow. Larry and Sue live across the street. Their son plays hockey with our son. Oh… Larry gave his life to Christ last year. He’s really growing in the neighborhood men’s Bible study we do every Friday morning.” Dave later explained how he and Nancy, his wife, walk the neighborhood several nights a week, praying for each family by name and the specific needs or issues in their lives.

Though Dave and Kurt have dynamically different ways of reaching out to unbelieving people, there are a couple of common threads that have encouraged me in my personal pursuits of sharing my faith with others. First, both pray diligently for people. They both agree that evangelism is getting on board with God’s work in other people’s lives. Evangelism is not a sales tactic but rather it’s joining with God in his pursuit of lost people. Second, both Dave and Kurt love people and they seem to have more concern with the well-being of others, than their agenda or comfort. Kurt would rather chat with a stranger than enjoy a quiet lunch. Dave would rather have his house full of people than veg on the couch alone with the TV remote and a hockey game.

I believe God loves it when we pray for the lost and we open our homes and time to them. I’m convinced that these are things we all can do. Pray and love… then see what God will do.