This sermon is an introduction to a series we are calling “Fill These Cities: 25 x 25.” This will be an introductory sermon and not an expository sermon. In other words, I am not going to make the main point of the passage the main point of the message (i.e., an expository sermon, which is our main approach to preaching here at Bethlehem). Instead, this sermon will be more like what Moses did in Deuteronomy 1–4 where he rehearses for God’s people where they have been and where they are going and lessons learned along the way.
In fact, think of this nine-part sermon series as one sermon with nine parts.
Introduction: The 25 by 25 Story (sermon #1)
I. The Greatness of God the Father (Isaiah 40:9–31) (sermon #2)
II. The Greatness of God the Son (Colossians 1:15–20) (sermon #3)
III. The Greatness of God the Spirit (Ezekiel 37:1–15) (sermon #4)
Call for a Response:
- Prayer Call—Pray in the Holy Spirit (humbly acknowledge our inability; worshipfully ask in accord with his ability) (sermon #5)
- People Call—The Need of the Reached Nations (Theological Education) (sermon #6)
- People Call—The Need of the Unreached Nations (Gospel Engagement) (sermon #7)
- Financial Call—The Need of the Hour (South Campus building) (sermon #8)
- Campus Call—The Need of These Cities and This Campus (campus-specific sermon #9)
That is where we are going in the next nine weeks. The first sermon is the anomaly; the other 8 will take time to excavate the text in an expository way. This first sermon sets the stage for the other eight. This isn’t the way I like to preach, but the more that I worked with this sermon I grew to see that the needs of love would best be served by setting out some context, especially for people that are new here at Bethlehem.
Therefore, let me give you a foretaste of the conclusion of this sermon. I believe God has brought us as a church to a collective moment, which constitutes what we could call a “trial of faith.” Our faith will be on trial as Jesus calls us to follow him—especially in the next 25 months. This moment feels electric to me. I believe that I was put on the planet for this moment. It feels really big.
I believe that the trial of faith we are about to face is similar to the situation Peter faced in Matthew 14. So here is what I am going to do in this sermon. First, I will try to tell the 25 by 25 story (it is a little bit like the behind the scenes view of the last five years). In particular, I will break the last five years into five chapters that came together to bring us to where we are now, about to turn the page to a new chapter, a new season of spreading. The story will take us to the present day and our current trial of faith. At that point, we will return to the text we read (Matthew 14) at the beginning. That text will provide the key introductory insight for the rest of the 9-week “25 x 25” sermon series. It should in fact be what defines us for the next ten years.
Outline of the Story
- Antioch Moment—Succession (2011–2013)
- The Refiner’s Fire—South Campus, Staff Tensions, Structure (2012–2014)
- Church Planting (January 2015)
- Unengaged Peoples (Global Focus 2015)
- A Building for the South Campus (the next 25 months)
1. The Antioch Moment—especially succession (2011–2013)
On April 10, 2011, Pastor John preached a sermon entitled, “Bethlehem’s Antioch Moment.” He talked about the need for clarity about three things: (1) succession, (2) structure, and (3) funding.
Here is the way Piper posed the question: “How long can and should John Piper be the lead pastor for peaching and vision, and how should that succession come about?”
I was at the North Campus, sitting in my pew (we are creatures of habit, aren’t we?—we might as well have assigned seating) and minding my own business during that sermon. To say it changed my life would be a total understatement. When Pastor John got to the point about succession, I can remember having three separate thoughts: sadness (I am SO going to miss Pastor John as Pastor), curiosity (I wonder who will replace him), and then a wave of sympathetic sorrow (maybe even pity) for whoever would replace him (who on earth would want to do that—I feel sorry for whoever that will be). God’s voice startled me at that very point and seemed to come out of no where—it all seemed very surreal, time seemed to stand still—and God seemed to say with unusual clarity: “That is what you are going to do.”
Now, sadly, I didn’t respond with faith at first. Not even close. What I actually said was “no way.” “I did NOT just hear that, I do NOT want that. There must be some mistake.” The panic button had been pressed. Over the next six months, I tried to talk myself out of it more and more, but more and more people at Bethlehem started asking me if pastoring Bethlehem was something I would be interested in doing. I would always reply by saying, “I do not aspire to that.” At times, I felt like I was walking in denial, not walking in step with the Spirit.
In November of 2011, John Piper came to my little office on the second floor of the Downtown campus and asked me if I was willing to be considered as a candidate to replace him. I said, “Nothing scares me more.” He said, “Well, that is not a ‘no.’” I then had to confess what had happened and my sense that God was calling me to it and how I had unsuccessfully been trying to fight it and talk myself out of it.
Now my personal trial of faith became more intense than ever. I felt like I was on the verge of tears most of the time. I asked a few people to pray for me. My friends were concerned. “Jason, do you know how many of these pastoral transitions from a long-term pastor end up being train wrecks?” It was a hard season of crying out to the Lord and walking at times in fear more than in faith.
So one day the dam broke. All that I had stuffed inside just came gushing out. I was in the kitchen in my home in Coon Rapids at the time, washing dishes in front of the sink. I broke down with uncontrollable weeping. I said, “Lord, you know that I do not want this, but you seem to be leading this way like this is what you want. Father, please help me understand.”
Again, what happened next is so hard to put into words. I once again got the unusually clear sense that the Lord said, “But what if you would have more of me in all of this?” It was the watershed moment and the watershed answer. More of God?! Checkmate! That is what I want—it is what I have always wanted. In that moment, I was finally able to say, “If pastoring Bethlehem is the path to having more of You, then I guess it really is what I want after all.” It had seemed preferable to play it safe and be on the comfortable path as a professor, but now it seemed scarier in that moment to stay on the safe path if God was not there.
After a barrage of interviews, Q and A sessions, and congregational votes, I started as Associate Pastor for Preaching and Vision in August of 2012. Pastor John and I had an eight month transition (for four months he was Pastor for Preaching and Vision and I was Associate, and then for four months I was Pastor for Preaching and Vision and he was Associate). I am here to testify that God has been true to his word. He has definitely given me more of Himself in these last four years than ever before. It has not been an easy road. The path has been even harder than I thought it would be, but I have been even happier than I thought I would be. In particular, 2012 to 2014 was a season that I call “The Refiner’s Fire.” Three huge leadership challenges came together in what felt like a perfect storm.
2. The Refiner’s Fire (the South Campus, Staff Tensions, and Structure)
Two of the leadership challenges were the other two things mentioned in the Antioch moment sermon: structure and funding. Let’s take the last one first: funding.
The South Campus posed a huge funding question, combined with the previous debt accumulated in the purchase and building of the North Campus.
The First Challenge: Funding
Here is how Piper posed the question in that sermon: “How shall we proceed with the fundraising—paying off our debt of about $7 million and building a South Campus?”
He answered the question this way: “We fully intend to move forward with the South Campus having its own land and building, and in paying off the indebtedness we have as a church.”
On July 23, 2012, we closed on a purchase agreement we made for land in Lakeville along I-35. The Lord gave us that land for pennies on the dollar. That was definitely a faith booster. I remember the day when Pastor John said that one of the first things I would probably have to do in 2013 was a fundraising campaign for a South Campus building (it will probably be the largest numerical campaign we have done). In my heart, I thought, “O great, it is not enough to replace you, I have to do probably the largest fundraising campaign we have ever done?”
The Second Challenge: Staff Tensions
We started a campaign committee. We were going to call it “Aflame.” The plan was for Pastor John to preach 10 messages on the 30-year theological trademarks of Bethlehem. One of the goals of that series was to “awaken and strengthen a strong conviction in all of you that the last 30 years has not been primarily consummation, but is preparation. I hope to help you see and feel that the transition between Jason Meyer and me is not mainly about landing, but about launching. The focus in this transition should not mainly be on the great things that God has done, but the greater things He is yet to do” (John Piper, “I Am Who I Am”
). He would preach those 10 messages in 2012 and then we were going to plan to launch the campaign in January of 2013.
The campaign felt like it was simply spinning its wheels and never went anywhere. God had other plans. Amidst years of God-given harmony among the staff, some conflicts emerged that became very draining and very complex. These had to be addressed and healed if we were ever going to move forward together. One pastor that has been here for more than thirty years said that season of addressing the relational conflicts on the staff was the second hardest thing we have gone through as a church.
It wasn’t enough to replace John Piper and have a fundraising campaign, my leadership started with going through the second hardest thing we have faced in the last thirty years. I will say more about what the Lord has done on that score in a moment, but we might as well introduce the third leadership challenge: structure.
The Third Challenge: Structure
Here is what Piper said in the Antioch Moment sermon: “On the multi-campus structural question, there is strong but not unanimous commitment to moving forward as one church on multiple campuses, while making every effort to adjust things and change things that will help us be more biblical and more fruitful in ministering to each other and to the world.”
In 2013, the elders began to work to gain unity and clarity on Bethlehem’s DNA. We had theological unity, but we needed unity in terms of philosophy of ministry. We identified Biblical Essentials (what makes a church biblical) and Bethlehem Priorities (what makes Bethlehem Bethlehem). We also worked through ministry “IPODs.” Every ministry needed to clarify what was an (I) irreducible essential, what was a (P) priority, what was (O) optional, and what was a (D) do not. We could not have three separate youth ministries or three separate children’s ministries or three separate worship ministries. We had to be both standardized and contextualized.
In February of 2014, we began a series of sermons on core Bethlehem DNA priorities. Moving in the direction of focusing more on campus specific realities also led to a greater focus on shepherding—being able to give an account for our people—working through the membership rolls, uncovering and addressing abuse (especially since April 25, 2015 and the formation of a domestic abuse response team).
We believe that God has led us to be a more biblical and fruitful multi-campus church by transitioning from an approach to ministry where each ministry has a centralized department to an approach to ministry where we have a campus-specific “seal” team on every campus (campus pastor, worship pastor, children, youth, small groups, biblical counseling, outreach).
The relational graces that God has poured out upon our staff have been astounding. In fact, I will use the word “miracle.” God has worked a miracle. The Best Christian Workplace Institute award simply gave objective verification to what we all subjectively felt and saw—God has given grace to have high trust teams with high camaraderie. The Lord gave us unity. Now the question was, what are we united for? What have we come together to do?
3. Church Planting (January 2015)
In January of 2015, I told the elders that I felt like I was finally able to peek above the clouds a little bit and start thinking about the next ten years instead of the next ten minutes. One of the first things I saw was that the next ten years could be the decade of church planting. Previously, a small, all-church elder subcommittee worked with our pastor overseeing church planting to vet residents and recommend planters to the elders with a prayer goal of approving one planter per year.
In the first phase, Church Planting 1.0, God gave us grace to plant a church planting network of 14 churches, half of which are in the Twin Cities; the other half are in strategic places throughout the United States.
Church Planting 2.0 could be even more fruitful by using each of the three campuses to be like church planting spreading centers—like missile silos along the I-35 corridor to fill these cities with gospel-preaching churches.
Here is what I mean. We are a church with three campuses and a seminary. The seminary now has a church-planting track. If we had 3 Bethlehem Seminary graduates, past or present, accepted as church planting residents on each campus each year, by God’s grace we would be positioned for 3 church plants every year, one from each campus. What that means is that each campus would be able to help train, mentor, assess and send one church planting resident per year when running at full capacity.
In the next phase, Church Planting 2.0, we take the strategic value of church planting and make it a church-wide shared value, with implications on each campus. We intend that the congregational elders on each campus would be engaged in the church planting vision, engage in mentoring, assessing and endorsing pastoral residents for church planting and the revitalization of declining churches. That way, each campus would be a church planting spreading center.
We want the elders engaged in church planting at the grass roots level and ground floor planning and praying and dreaming and strategizing. They will look for potential planting and revitalization opportunities and strategize about where the Lord might be pleased to start a church plant. We intend for small groups and small group leaders to play a strategic role, joining together to form core groups for new churches in specific target areas. We aim to deploy leaders from among the elders, Bethlehem College & Seminary graduates, and even at times pastors in this vision. We also are proposing that Kenny Stokes would be the church planting pastor to lead the decade of church planting.
4. Unengaged Peoples (Global Focus 2015)
One of the surprising things that happened to me while I was preparing my global focus sermon was this dreadful sense of darkness that came over me like I haven’t experienced elsewhere except in places where the lostness is so great that it feels like a tangible weight of darkness. But this sense did not land on me while visiting any unreached people groups. It came over me in my study while I was pondering the problem of the unreached and unengaged. I was touched to the core—so broken for them.
These peoples are the neediest of the needy—the most severe level of lostness imaginable—those that should lay claim to our greatest depth of compassion. They are the most hidden, out of sight and out of mind. Here is what is heart-breaking to me: Christ is unknown, untranslated, unheralded, unadored! And there are no discernable plans on the part of God’s people to do anything about it.
Bethlehem is a place where God has often laid God-sized burdens upon us for the sake of the nations. Often these burdens are given a numerical target like 90 by 90 or 2000 by 2000. We believe that the Lord of the harvest is at it again. The Lord has birthed in us a new passion and energy and drive to say: “What about 25 by 25?” What if this big-time burden brings about the big-time blessing of serving as God’s eraser! What about by the time 2025 rolls around there are 25 less peoples in the world who are unengaged because we have sent someone from Bethlehem to engage them with the gospel, to advance the gospel? We are asking the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest field so that 25 unengaged peoples will be engaged for the glory of King Jesus.
Our global outreach department has worked hard to obtain a more accurate, fuller understanding of the number of the unengaged peoples. The best estimate we can ascertain is that there are 1221 unengaged peoples. We will be sharing lots more information about them so that they will be less out of sight and out of mind among us.
5. The Next 25 Months and the Next Decade of Spreading
So that is where we got the 25 by 25. It is potentially confusing. It is a phrase that summarizes our gospel ambition to plant 25 new churches and engage 25 unengaged peoples by 2025. But 25 by 25 sounds better than 25 plus 25 by 2025.
Now the real struggle came. I was gripped with a passion for unengaged peoples. I felt like I was put on the planet for that purpose. Here was my problem. I even said it out loud in an elder meeting. “Brothers, I am struggling. I feel like if I had 12 million, I would not spend it on a building. I would spend it on engaging the unengaged.” That was a bit of a bombshell. It was an interesting meeting.
But the Lord moved and there was a full circle turnaround. One of the things that happened is that I realized I was thinking much too narrowly about the longevity of investments and how buildings function at Bethlehem. There was a video that put it all into perspective for me: How fiber optic cables are made. All the individual strands go through a process called stranding, a place in the process where all the individual strands are bound together.
The same thing is true of a building at Bethlehem. Those 14 priorities that we identified in the DNA process need a place to be stranded together. At Bethlehem that place is a facility that gives 24/7 accessibility for ministry expression and flourishing. The turnaround was so complete that I started another meeting by saying that if I had 13 million, I would build a building for the South Campus. It is that key in our strategy for spreading as we ask the Lord to accelerate the next decade of spreading.
We believe that one of the biggest things hindering us from filling these cities faster and fuller is the lack of a 24/7 facility for the South Campus. It is like running on two cylinders instead of three. We have a gospel ambition of acceleration—to fill these cities faster and fuller with the building of a third spreading center that is accessible seven days a week—a full time presence rather than a part time presence. We have seen how a 24/7 facility has a galvanizing impact through the fruitful example of the North Campus building and the Downtown Campus building and the growth God has given in both places. Furthermore, church life at Bethlehem is a multitude of endeavors that requires a welcoming and accessible facility for ministry and outreach throughout the week. South Campus members have been without such a facility for a decade.
That is why we believe it is time to finish the regional I-35 corridor with a third launch site, a regional launch site in the South suburbs from which to plant churches like the one you just heard about last week in Northfield, the first church plant from the South Campus.
Intentional Integration and Extraordinary Alignment—One Fund
We are asking the Lord of the church to give all of our ministries more extraordinary integration and alignment of our ministries. We want our unified mission to be expressed in a unified budget. We don’t want to say to people: If you want to have a South Campus building, then give to this fund, if you want to plant churches, give to this fund, if you want to engage the unengaged, then give to this fund. The one fund approach is a tangible expression of our one mission to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
The place where people have expressed their commitment to the church budget has been at our all-church quarterly strategy meetings. That poses a huge problem because only about 10 percent of our membership is present at those meetings. We wanted to lead in a way that allowed everyone that calls Bethlehem their home church to make a commitment to our one mission expressed in a one fund budget. Our goal is nothing short of 100% participation. The next nine weeks is an attempt to serve you toward that end.
One Problem with One Fund
There is a problem with a one fund budget—it creates one big number. It is easier at one level to conceive of these things in smaller, separate compartments: 11 million for 2017 budget, 12 million for 2018 budget, 13 million for South Campus building. Because of the problem we have had in the past with redirected giving, we want to finish 2016 strong so we are calling attention to December 2016 (a range of 1.5 to 1.8 million dollars is given in the month of December). So 2 years (2017–2018) is 24 months plus the last month of 2016 = 25 months. We only realized later that this invites another version of 25 to the 25 by 25 party. It is potentially confusing. 25 church plants plus 25 unengaged peoples over 10 years—plus trying to build the South Campus building in the next 25 months.
Therefore, the next 25 months at Bethlehem will be one of the most unique seasons we have ever had as a church. The next 25 months is an attempt to jumpstart the next decade of spreading. 2 years worth of budget and a call to build the South Campus = 38 million.
38 million represents the total two-year financial commitment required to accelerate this next decade of spreading and fulfill our Great Commission ambition.
|'Fill These Cities' Funding
2017 & 2018
|Church & Missions Budget
|South Campus Construction
In other words, the problem with a one fund is that it can create a sticker shock because of the one big number. The sticker shock poses a big danger: We can take our eyes off our Lord because we become fixated with the big number. This danger actually expresses itself in two ditches to avoid.
Two Ditches and the Straight and Narrow Path: Keep our Eyes on Jesus
When thinking about a giving initiative at Bethlehem, the biggest danger is that we would take our eyes off of Jesus and look elsewhere due to false fear or false faith. The greatest warning could be illustrated for us in the story narrated in Matthew 14.
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”— Matthew 14:28–33
We want to guard against producing or cultivating our own doubts by looking in the wrong direction. Peter had the right approach, but lost it. When he took his eyes off of Jesus because of the strong wind and the big waves, he was gripped by fear and mastered by doubt.
In the same way, we could make two opposite errors here: false fear and false faith. We could take our eyes off of Jesus by focusing on a big numerical number that we need to build a South Campus building. Instead of looking at a big wave, we would be looking at a big number. It is false fear because now we are fearing the wrong thing: A number looks bigger than Jesus.
The opposite error would be trusting the wrong thing. We could look at a big number and put our trust in people with big bank accounts. That would make wealthy people become bigger in our eyes than Jesus. That is a false trust because we have taken our eyes off of Jesus and started trusting in horses or chariots or pocket books instead of trusting in the name of the Lord our God. 38 million is pocket change for him. If I can say this reverently, God has more than that in between the cushions of his couch. He is never broke; he doesn’t bounce checks, he never needs a loan from us. He is unlimited in power and provision—my God will supply your every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
This campaign is a commitment to keep our eyes on God. We don’t want this to be a campaign about giving, but about God. Therefore, the next three sermons to me are the most important in the entire series. We will take three consecutive weeks to focus on the greatness of our Triune God: God the Father (next week), God the Son (in two weeks), and God the Holy Spirit (in three weeks). Feel the desperation here with me: If we take our eyes off of Him we will sink. If we keep our eyes on him, we can follow Him wherever he calls us to go.
Main Point: Keep Our Eyes on Him
Closing Song: A Mighty Fortress is Our God (We Will Keep Our Eyes on You)