Today we begin a summer series called Summer Nights. No, the song from Grease is not going to be our theme. And no, we’re not going to be talking baseball or lightning bugs or boating or swatting mosquitoes. We’ve got bigger fish to fry (no summer metaphor intended). On the Wednesday nights and Sundays in which I preach we’ll be exploring Bible texts that happen at night.
I invite you to open your Bible this morning to Acts 16:6-10.
Do you ever wonder just what exactly God wants you to do with your life? If your answer is yes, you’re in some pretty spiritual company. As we come to our text, Paul has just launched his second missionary journey. After visiting churches he and Barnabas had planted in their first journey, Paul was trying to figure out where God wanted him to go next. He was thinking Asia (you know it as Turkey). God said, “Not Asia.” Ok, how about Bithynia. God said, “Nope, not Bithynia either.” Even the great St. Paul was befuddled by just what exactly God wanted him to do. So what did he do? Luke tells us in word of the Lord … (read the text).
Don’t you just love the kind of relationship Paul enjoyed with God? Talk about open lines of communication. “Go here?” “No.” “How about there?” “No.” “Then where?” And God gave Paul a vision to let him know. Paul was already following God in what he knew God wanted him to do. And, to use Ken Wheatley’s phrase, Paul’s yes was already on the altar. When God gave him specific direction Paul wasn’t going to critique it, object to it, or try to get God to change it. He was going to do it. Why should God give anybody clear, specific leadership when his yes is in his pocket instead of on the altar? You want to discern God’s particular direction for your life? Then put your yes on the altar. That kind of relationship with God keeps the communication lines open and God’s leadership easier to discern.
If you’re seeking God’s leadership in your life about things that aren’t already covered in the Scripture, don’t look for magic bullet points or principles; develop your relationship with God. Ask yourself these questions: Do I trust God? Am I talking with God about this? Do I believe God can make it clear to me? Am I ready to do what He calls me to do whether I like it or not?
It’s obvious in our text that Paul and Silas had that kind of relationship with God. They had a conversation going with God about next steps in this journey. God had said, “No,” to a couple of their ideas already. And when God sent the vision of the Macedonian man saying, “Come on over and help us,” they were in such relationship with God that they intuitively knew that was God’s way of showing them where to go. A living, vital, up-to-date relationship with God is the key to discerning God’s leadership in particular things. When the relationship is solid, you’re covered even when you don’t get the specifics of God’s call exactly right. God will patiently get us where He wants us to be. A vital relationship with God is key.
But even for a devoted follower like Paul, discerning God’s lead didn’t always come quickly or easily. That’s why I can’t help but smile every time I read this text. I feel Paul’s angst. I wish I could say that I always had God’s specific direction for my life nailed down, but I can’t. Those of you who were here 22 years ago know that.
My calling to ministry was clear. I was sitting in a worship service at Baptist Hill church camp near Mt. Vernon, Missouri, in June 1974. I had just graduated from high school. I was heading to Fayetteville in August though I wasn’t clear on what kind of career I would pursue. When the preacher gave the invitation in that worship service, he paused, and added, “I think God is telling me that He is calling someone here to ministry.” Those words were no sooner out of his mouth than I sensed God’s hand on my shoulder and his whisper in my heart, “He’s talking about you. I am calling you.” God has never seemed closer to me before or since than He was in that brief moment. And here’s the deal: I had never even considered the ministry. I wasn’t opposed to it, just hadn’t thought about it. Preaching and pastoring had never crossed my mind. But after that call moment at Baptist Hill, I had zero doubts then and zero doubts in the 43 years since that God wanted me in ministry.
I had no idea where that road would lead. All I knew was that my first stop was the University of Arkansas, and then God would show me where to go and what to do from there. And God has. But the specifics of just where God wanted me to serve were never as clear as my general call to ministry. Since 1982 I’ve been a lead pastor in just two churches, neither of which I really wanted to pastor when they invited me to do so. I had trouble getting clarity. Unlike Paul in our text, I sensed neither God’s clear, “No,” nor God’s clear, “Yes.”
Some of you will remember back in February of 1995 when my family came to Hot Springs in view of a call to be your pastor. I told the Search Committee that I wasn’t clear about whether God wanted me to be pastor here or not. I told them that the call weekend would be important for me in figuring that out. So I came. You called me 400 and something to 1—strong call for a Baptist church. But I just couldn’t pull the trigger. “Let me go home and pray about it,” I said. Dayna thought we should come. I wasn’t sure. So on Tuesday I called John Wayne Smith and said, “I’m going to have to say no.” He might have wanted to reach through the phone and strangle me, but he was gracious. The next month or so was a struggle for me. Though she was supportive, Dayna was sure I messed this up. But my kids were ecstatic. Our closest friends in the church we served knew about this, and they were happy too. But I couldn’t get peace. And that discontent was stirred up all the more when a Macedonian man named H. C. Croslin, a retired pastor in this church, called me on the phone and said, “I probably shouldn’t be calling you. Malinda doesn’t think it wise. But I just had to. Would you please reconsider? You are just what we need. This church is a sleeping giant, and I believe God could use you to wake us up. Come on down and help us.” Darn Macedonian man! As if I wasn’t feeling confused enough …
Well, I kind of pulled a Gideon and asked God to do a couple of things if He wanted me to go to Hot Springs. I told Him that I would go if He’d just help me be sure. God did those things. You voted one more time. The opposition doubled. And I can understand why. At least two people had the good sense to think, “Why do we want to call a pastor who can’t hear God and can’t make a decision?” Anyway, we came, and 22 years later you’re probably thinking, “And now we can’t get rid of him.” Oh well.
This whole call thing is playing out again today as the Personnel Committee presents Kyle Stevens to serve as our Missionary Pastor. You’ve heard Kyle and Jennifer’s story. You’ve heard their call to lostness—a call that took them as IMB missionaries to Serbia for several years. And now they’ve heard a call that may bring them to impact lostness in Hot Springs as the Missionary Pastor of First Baptist Church.
What we are doing today has its roots in our recent past. When we prayed through and set forth a master plan for the church in 1996 it included three large phases:
- Build a Family Life Center to create new opportunities to open a door to Christ and the church for our community.
- Build a new sanctuary to accommodate present and future growth and allow us to get with the technical revolution going on in our culture.
- Plant house churches in Hot Springs.
We completed the building portions of the plan in December of 2008. But we never did a thing about planting house churches. In fact, I pretty much gave up on that, thinking I must have heard God wrong when we put the plan together.
But something else happened across those years that is critical to what we are doing today. Back in 2005, I was with a team from our church working the GO initiative in Nicaragua. God put a great burden on my heart for the nations. “Lord,” I prayed, “our church needs to make a greater impact on the world, but I don’t think I can add developing and implementing a comprehensive global mission strategy to my already full of list of duties. Help, Lord. Please send us some help.” I never said a word about this to anyone.
And would you believe that the week after I returned, John Wayne Smith made an appointment to visit with me? He told me, “The Lord has really burdened my heart for missions, and I’d like to help the church put a mission plan together.” Talk about an answer to prayer! JW, this great visionary and organizer, said he could give us two years as our Volunteer Missions Coordinator. And in those two years he laid a strong foundation that we still build on all these years later.
When he stepped aside, I asked Ken Wheatley to step into that role. And for the last 9 years, Ken has helped us develop numerous strategic partnerships from Hot Springs to the ends of the earth. Hundreds of people have gotten engaged in mission work. And God has done incredible things. Some people have been saved, some churches have been planted, some disciples are being made, some sick have been healed. But last summer, Ken told me he believed God wanted him to step aside at the end of the year and make room for someone else.
Many of us began to pray for direction. We knew it was time to make this a paid position, so we budgeted about half a year’s salary in the 2017 Budget. And the search was on.
And God has used this time to evolve my thinking about what the position should look like. At first, I assumed we’d get someone to do what Ken was doing with the addition of evangelism training and development to the job description.
But during the Christmas season God began to speak to my heart about planting a church. We have an early history of doing that. We’ve helped plant some overseas churches in recent years. It just seemed right and time to plant a church in Hot Springs. Late last fall, we were talking in staff about adding a Sunday night service back into our schedule so that our own people who miss Sunday mornings for whatever reason could still have a worship opportunity on Sunday. But over Christmas, God made me discontent with that idea. God put the burden on me to reach lost people, not cater to saved people. So let’s plant a brand new church in our building on Sunday evenings. We could use the youth area. So my view of this mission pastor job evolved to find someone who could plant a church and serve as its pastor. I was thinking like an American pastor. Get a planter. Get a core group of people. Get some space. And plant a church that will look like us. So we talked that through in staff and with the deacons for a couple of months.
Then I went to Africa on a mission trip. While there the Barnetts and I had lunch with some of the sharpest church planters in the world. That conversation tossed a hand grenade into my thinking. It blew it up. And when the dust and debris settled, this is how God led me. Instead of calling someone to be a missions pastor who will do things the typical American way, let’s call a missionary pastor. Let’s get a real missionary with real church planting experience in that position and tell him, “Imagine that we just dropped you into Belgrade or Buenos Aries or Johannesburg and figure out a church planting strategy that will help us reach lost people in Hot Springs that no one is reaching.” And God led us to Kyle and Jennifer Stevens and their children. And God led them to us.
Kyle will continue to help us find and serve strategic mission partnerships around the world, but he will also be a missionary to Hot Springs and help us strategize and implement a multiplying church planting movement in our city. Everything is on the table: house churches, coffee shop churches, even more traditional looking church plants if God leads. But it’s a new day in our mission and evangelism approach to Hot Springs. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we’re going to them in new ways.
So while Kyle and Jennifer were in our own mission house on a brief medical leave from Serbia, we began to have conversations—the first: a conversation at night over an evening meal. And we became for the Stevens, the Macedonian man saying, “Come on over and help us.” They heard God’s voice in our plea, prayed it through, and believe God is calling them to impact lostness in Hot Springs. They believe God is calling them to come to Hot Springs and help us reach lost people who aren’t going to anyone’s church and likely never will without a new approach (that’s really the oldest approach in the history of the church).
And here’s some good news: Kyle and Jennifer are much more clear about God’s leadership to join us than I was when you called me. They have discerned God’s call to come over and help us. They have the character, the training and experience to do what we’re asking them to do. And the chemistry with church and staff is fantastic.
And today I want to challenge you to pray about God’s leadership in your life in regard to this church planting vision. It’s going to take a while for this to unfold. Kyle and Jennifer will do what missionaries do when they are dropped into unfamiliar territory. They will map our city, find out who the people are and where the people are, what the needs are, what needs are unaddressed, and develop strategies to make disciples who make disciples and plant non-traditional churches in our city that in time will plant other churches in our city. Some who become part of this may feel God’s call to go to other cities in America or the world to plant churches. Who knows what God will do? God can do anything.
But God partners with people to do so much of His work. Will you pray about what God may have for you in this evangelizing, discipling, church planting adventure? The Stevens may become your Macedonian man, inviting you to come help them in the process. And I want you to know from the get-go, that you have my permission to follow Jesus into this adventure.
Some may worry about our home base if several decide to answer this call. Don’t worry. God always takes care of the mama church. I heard a Las Vegas pastor speak at a conference in January. He pastors a church that has planted numerous churches around Las Vegas, yet the mama church still grows. God honors churches that follow Him in making disciples who make disciples. Like he said, “The best measure of church health is not how many they seat but how many they send.” God won’t call all of us into this work, but He will call some. Some of you will be prayer support. Some of you will be boots on the ground. Will you pray to see if God is calling you? Will you be open to God using a Macedonian man of some sort to get your attention and invite you to come over and help?
Great things happen when we hear God’s voice and follow God’s lead. Paul and his crew immediately went to Macedonia. They planted churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. God did great things. Many were saved. Several churches were planted. Disciples made disciples and the gospel spread throughout the region.
It wasn’t easy. Paul and Silas spent time in jail and took some beatings and some slander and were run out of town, but they were faithful to follow God’s lead as they understood it, and did God ever bless their obedience!
What God is leading us to do is no easy thing. There will be numerous challenges. There will be some steps forward. There will be some steps backward. We’ll taste some victory and we’ll taste some defeat. This is engaging spiritual war. This is taking ground for the kingdom of God from an enemy who will not give it up without a fight. The enemy will seek to throw obstacles in our path. He will seek to dishearten and discourage. But greater is He who is in us than He who is in the world. Jesus has prevailed. Jesus will prevail. Do you think there was even one moment in their hard times when Paul and Silas said to each other, “I wish we’d have never listened to that Macedonian man”? Of course not. They were in it for keeps. They were in it for obedience. They were in it for the gospel. They were in it for disciples. They were in it for the kingdom. They were in it for the church. They were in it for the Great Commission. They were in it for the praise of God’s glory! Great things happen when we hear God’s voice and follow God’s lead.
Will you listen and follow? Will you engage what we already do in local, national, and international missions? Will you pray about whether God is calling you into this church planting strategy? If your yes is on the altar, God will lead you the way He wants you to go. And oh the joy and the purpose in it!
Robert Smith writes of receiving an email from Rebecca Pounds George. The email was entitled “Dancing with God.” Here’s an excerpt:
When I meditated on the word GUIDANCE, I kept seeing “dance” at the end of the word. I remember reading that doing God’s will is a lot like dancing. When two people try to lead, nothing feels right. The movement doesn’t flow with the music, and everything is quite uncomfortable and jerky. When one person realizes that, and lets the other lead, both bodies begin to flow with the music. One gives gentle cues, perhaps with a nudge to the back or by pressing lightly in one direction or another. It’s as if two become one body, moving beautifully. The dance takes surrender, willingness, and attentiveness from one person and gentle guidance and skill from the other. My eyes drew back to the word GUIDANCE. When I saw “G,” I thought of God, followed by “u” and “i”—God, u, and I dance. As I lowered my head, I became willing to trust that I would get guidance about my life. Once again, I became willing to let God lead.
As we move into a new era for the life of the church, I encourage you to pray through this ministry, seek to discern if God is calling you to this, see if God puts some Macedonian man in your ear to invite you to “Come on over and help us.” And if God does, I hope you dance with Him till lost people are saved, disciples are made, churches are planted, God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
And you can be a vital part of that, if you’ll put your hand in God’s, follow His lead, and dance with Him to His great glory!
Preached: June 4, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II