Beyond 2020: Vision Sunday, 20, September 2020

Beyond 2020: Vision Sunday

Big Idea: God is leading us to multiply and do life together.

On September 15, 2019, I presented a message entitled, Back to our Roots: 2020 Vision. Like many pastors across the country, I shared my excited about the year ahead, our new mission statement, and our commitment to The Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ. With our experimental Dinner Church taking off, new people were joining our church family, lives were being transformed, ministries were growing, unity was rising, …and then COVID.

Like many of you, I was concerned about the physical impact of the pandemic. To date, about 200,000 USAmericans have died because of this invisible virus and millions more sick. The lockdown created a devastating financial impact to many, though some actually benefitted through $1200 checks and extra unemployment payments. Our entertainment options were virtually eliminated unless it involved a screen.

My prayer during the initial days of COVID-19 was, “LORD, may this pandemic bring revival in our nation and world. May people fall to their knees, crying out for help, and seeking life in Jesus-centered churches. We are ready to share faith, hope, and love and this is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be salt and light, to live out your mission to seek and save the lost.”

Instead of seizing the opportunity to BE the church, “politics and social unrest have divided congregations and social media has intensified the hostilities,” to quote Lifeway Research. Here are three responses to their survey of pastors:

“People’s attitudes have split very much on partisan lines. Half the church is opposed to any reopening. Half the church is frustrated that we haven’t long since reopened.”

“I am aware that people are growing weary of the entire pandemic. Some are scared to death, while others are convinced it is a hoax. Trying to minister to both ends of the spectrum is exhausting.”

“Many of our congregants are still scared and unwilling to come out of their houses. No matter what we choose to do for safety, or choose not do, we are told by some group that it is too much/not enough.”

I’d like to think First Alliance Church would be the exception, but we’ve had our fair share of division, mumbling and complaining, rebellion, and some even leaving the church. It’s as if the very opportunity to love well and fulfil our mission has been a season of negativity, abandonment, controversy, and division.

We can’t let the enemy win! There are lives at stake! There are eternities at stake! Our city and state and nation are at stake! I’m not talking about the election. I’m talking about you and me, fixing our eyes on Jesus, lifting our arms in surrender, listening to the still, small voice of the LORD, using our hands to heal, our wallets to bless, our hearts to care, and our lives to love.

Through all of this, I’ve never been more excited about the future of First Alliance. The opportunities have been growing. God has been moving. And I can’t wait to share what’s ahead!

I love First Alliance Church. God has been moving in and through this congregation for generations. We have a rich heritage, a storied history, and an exciting future. When I was interviewed for the lead pastor position in the summer of 2015, I was told, “We want change,” which I knew was not entirely true! Change can be difficult, yet it’s often necessary.

I remember being asked repeatedly during my first days here, “What’s your vision for First Alliance, pastor?” At the time, I had no vision. I didn’t even know where I was! It took a solid year just to realize I wasn’t in Ann Arbor anymore! Throughout these nearly five years, I’ve rejoiced as we’ve welcomed new members and new believers. I’ve celebrated countless wins with our staff, elders, and all of you. I’ve been deeply saddened when people have left…some due to death, others to relocation, and still others due to a different vision.

Throughout this half-decade, we’ve sought direction, protection, passion, and unity as we look to Jesus, our Senior Pastor, to guide us. This is His Church! We’re all going to leave it someday, but he will be here for future generations, LORD-willing. He promised to build his Church and said the gates of hell would not overcome it (Matthew 16:18).

During my time in Toledo, it has been my desire to develop a mission, vision, and strategy for First Alliance that would bring clarity, focus, and alignment for us. Setting aside personal preferences,
where is Jesus leading us?

By definition, Jesus doesn’t lead us to stay the same. Personal growth is hard. It is incremental, over time, with people, and for people. There are growing pains. We find ourselves challenged, pushed beyond what we believe to be our limits, and even feel alone, at times.

The same is true for First Alliance.
Jesus is leading us to new places with an unchanging message. Change can be hard, especially when it disrupts our comfort. He is raising up an army of love, not a tribe of beach bums (I love the beach, but the only thing that grows at the beach is your waistline!)! I know many of us long for the good old days—which, by the way, were never as good as we remember them. But God is doing a new thing. He is expanding our vision. He is clarifying our mission. He is building His Church…and you’re invited!

One of the most exciting moments this year came on February 13 when Dr. Bruce Terpstra, director of Church Advance for the Great Lakes District of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, a member of Rev. Thomas George’s team, offered to be my mentor and coach. He suggested a book called
Church Unique as a tool in discerning our unique calling as a church. Toledo is filled with great churches. It has several Alliance churches. But where is God leading First Alliance Church?

Coincidentally—or not—I started using the book a few years ago and even introduced many of our leaders to its questions in a quest to better understand our community—our “Jerusalem”—(Acts 1:8) as well as our church history and present resources and opportunities. Many of you contributed to the process and I’m grateful for all of your input.

One of the first milestones of the process was developing a mission statement which was introduced last year:

We are a Jesus-centered family who?
restoring God’s masterpieces
in Toledo and beyond
for His glory. (Ephesians 2:10) why?

The bottom line is God’s glory. Period. End of story. It’s not about being a big church or a famous church or having the coolest website in the world, it’s about Christ. It’s not about my preferences or your convenience, but it’s all about Jesus. The unique phrase of our mission is taken from Ephesians 2:10…

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 2:10, NLT)

You are a masterpiece. You were made by God, for God, and for God’s glory. Like me, the brilliance that reflects God’s image is covered with sin…which we cover with masks. When we get vulnerable and allow God to chisel away the false self, the masterpiece inside is exposed, the diamond in the rough is able to shine.

That’s what we’re about as a church—helping people take off the masks, repent of their sins, and live into the unique masterpiece God created them to become. That includes me. That includes you. It’s a long, slow, messy process called sanctification, but the end result is stunning.

Everything we do must be with this in mind. Our budget, our facilities, our staff, and our calendar are designed with this in mind.

Although the pandemic has been tragic in many ways—including my arms which are aching from not being able to squeeze my granddaughter as she prepares to be a big sister next month—it has also been a gift for our future. During the lockdown, our physical campus closed and as we moved everything online, it provided a perfect opportunity to assess everything we put on the calendar and its connection to our mission. It has been a time to start new things, restart other things, and leave some things behind, not because they’re bad, but because they don’t optimally serve our mission.

Life Together

About twenty-five years ago, I was at a conference where the speaker asked, “If your church couldn’t gather together for six months, how would you survive?” He had no idea COVID-19 would make that hypothetical question real!

Scholars believe the early church did life together in groups of 30-40 people with no buildings, no professional Christians, persecution…and they exploded in numbers! Much like the Church in China and other parts of the world today, there was no organized religion. It was just life together, 24/7/365. Discipleship wasn’t a class or a program, but a life-on-life experience.

Many churches will close permanently because of the pandemic. The ones that have been most effective were structured no around buildings and large gatherings, but small groups doing life together. That has included doing church online together.

I love our beautiful campus. I’m grateful for this fantastic building and our other two facilities. I am thankful for the freedom we have to assemble here for weekly family reunions…but the building is not the church. This event is not the church. We are the church…wherever and whenever we gather.

I’ve been so encouraged by people who have said they feel more connected to First Alliance now than before COVID-19. As we’ve gathered online, sent letters of encouragement, prayed for one another, served one another, eaten in homes with one another, and called one another, we’ve discovered the joy of life together.

I wish the pandemic was over and we could be guarantee safe gatherings for everyone, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. It’s possible things will get worse before they get better. But the church has never been a building. The building is nothing more than a tool used to accomplish God’s mission for His church.

Out of respect for our senior saints who have been together for decades at 9 AM, we have restarted their Sunday School class at 9 AM in the Youth Center. But I want to suggest a slightly different next-step for the rest of you…
Life Groups.

I really want to call them Life Together Groups, but that’s awkward! Rather than a class where you take notes for an hour, a Life Group is a 168 hour/week family. Many of you have been a part of small groups in the past, and this isn’t necessarily different, but the focus is not just a weekly meeting, but life together. They can meet on Sundays at 9 AM on our campus, in homes in the evening, at coffee shops or schools or wherever and whenever the group wants to study the Bible together, pray for one another, and serve together. If the focus of First Alliance is on an hour a week, we will be spiritually malnourished. If we can conceive of doing life together, discipleship will become a way of life.

We’ve often talked about the triangle: connecting with God (up), one another (in), and our world (out). Life Groups do all three. They are committed to worship, prayer, and scripture. They engage in life-on-life discipleship. They also serve together, whether it’s once a month at Cherry Street Mission as Jerry Olah’s group has done or helping a neighbor in need, hosting a Dinner Church gathering when we resume them, or any number of selfless activities to bless others.

There’s one other component of Life Groups which is vital and that leads to our other word for the day…


The first command of the Bible is “be fruitful and multiply.” Healthy things grow and reproduce. In recent history, much church activity has centered around addition…getting people to come to classes, services, concerts, conferences, and events. That’s great, but what’s even more powerful than addition is multiplication.

The Great Commission is one of our guiding scriptures.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Jesus said to go and make disciples. Discipleship is making disciples. It is a follower. Disciples of Jesus—by definition—make disciples. It’s easy to see how he did it. He called a dozen men to live with him for three years. Most of us don’t have that luxury—though parents, you have about eighteen years to disciple your children.

My favorite verse on discipleship is in 2 Timothy 2:2 where Paul says to his apprentice, Timothy…

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:2)

There are four generations in this one verse! Paul to Timothy to reliable people to others. We are all called to make disciples who make disciples. This isn’t a pastor or clergy thing. It’s all of our calling, and it’s what restoring God’s masterpieces is all about…reproducing the life of Jesus in others.

Each Life Group has a leader and an apprentice leader for the purpose of multiplying the group. We want Life Groups to welcome new members, grow, and reproduce. An apprentice leader will receive training, experience, and be equipped to either start a new Life Group or take over the group as the leader launches a new Life Group. We will provide training for Life Group leaders and apprentices.

Groups often fear multiplication because they like to be together. However, without reproducing new groups, we can never grow. We need to develop new leaders who can launch new groups to disciple more people. The best way to develop new leaders is to have them serve as apprentice leaders with the intention of someday leading their own group. When Life Groups multiply, there’s no rule that says they can’t get together to serve…or just have a party!

We want to start—and restart—Life Groups this fall. To do so, we need Life Group leaders and apprentices. No experience necessary! A love for Jesus and a love for people is required. We’ll provide the resources. Being a leader or apprentice does not necessarily obligate you to be a host, either. We’d love to see some of you open your homes or offices to host Life Groups. You can have them here on our church campus, too.

A simple next step is to
click here to say you’re interested in hosting, leading, apprenticing, or participating in a Life Group. You can also notify the church office. If you’re already in a Life Group, please let us know that, too. We’d love to see everyone in our First Alliance family connected not only on Sunday morning but throughout the week, too.

This idea of multiply is critical for our future. If we fail to multiply Life Groups…and leaders, ministries, and even churches, we will eventually cease to exist.

I’ve been praying for a future filled with the launch of new groups, churches, ministries, and international workers. To accomplish this, we need interns, residents, and apprentice leaders who can not only assist, but prepare to lead.

The Road Ahead

John Maxwell says everything rises and falls on leadership. I want to devote the rest of my life to developing leaders. I may not be the most skilled, but after thirty years of vocational ministry—and plenty of gray hair—I at least have some experience. I want to equip the next generation of pastors, church planters, and missionaries, both local and global. We’ve had interns in the past who have gone on to do great things, and we want more.

I’m really grateful for our staff. Karen Thompson is more than a secretary. She’s our office manager. Sue Trumbull’s dedication to children and families and Hayden Bewley’s work with our youth and artists is inspiring. Josh Hens continues to take care of our physical campus along with our Trustees, and our newest team member, Abby Kolinski, has been our digital storyteller online and on video. Most of their work has been done behind-the-scenes, yet they are all committed to serving you, equipping you and your family, and restoring God’s masterpieces.

I’m excited to announce the Great Lakes District has connected us to someone the elders interviewed last week to be a church planter in residence. He has a compelling vision for fresh expressions of faith and plans to move here this fall from the east coast to join our team part-time, with funds provided by church planting, the District, a possible grant, and a generous donor. His passion is to multiply disciples of Jesus Christ, restoring God’s masterpieces.

Last week you heard about Abby Segura, the new director of the After School Klub. I’m thrilled about her hiring by Toledo Urban Impact to invest in the next generation.

As we read many of your responses to the
Church Unique questions, it was obvious that ministering to students in this neighborhood is near and dear to your hearts. Rosa Parks, the After School Klub, and Sports & Arts Camp were frequently mentioned as significant ministries…and we’ve been invited into an opportunity which may involve them all!

We’ve been invited to host Toledo Public School students, assisting them with their school work, serving them lunch, and providing a loving atmosphere for learning. The schools are coming to church! Details are being finalized, but we need volunteers to invest in the next generation…through the After School Club, these new Community Learning Centers, and Kids Worship which we want to launch during the Sunday sermon.

So What?

Please prayerfully consider joining, leading, hosting, or apprenticing a Life Group.

Please prayerfully consider volunteering with our students, whether it’s Sunday mornings during the sermon, with the After School Klub next month, supporting Rosa Parks Elementary, or through the upcoming Community Learning Center.

Next Sunday at 10 AM, we will have a brief membership meeting to elect two members to the Nominating Committee. If you are an official church member, we urge you to notify the office of any names you would like submitted for the election to the Nominating Committee. The elders have already appointed Rich Bradish and Greg Papp to join me in preparing the ballot for 2021 officers.

Family, these are crazy times, but they’re not unprecedented. We just haven’t seen them in our lifetime. As the world around is gets more chaotic, I pray they will seek truth…the Way, the Truth, and the Life…Jesus Christ! We are a family centered on Jesus, all about His glory, doing life together, reproducing disciples and groups to let the world know Jesus is LORD.

Please pray for First Alliance Church. Pray that we faithfully follow Jesus. Pray for passion, unity, direction, and protection. Pray for our staff and elders as we navigate through these foggy, messy days and remain focused on our mission to restore God’s masterpieces. They’re all around us. They are increasingly fearful, desperate, and needy. They live without faith, hope, and love. They are the reason we are here. He is the reason we are here!

You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.

You can watch this video and others at the First Alliance Church Video Library