I am in love with our mission. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. This mission statement continues to channel energy to my life and to the ministry of our church. I hear it echoed in the prayers of our people. I see it in the curricula of our classes. I feel it in the spirit of our worship. God has been pleased to make it the heartbeat of our church.
Many will mark 1997 as the year of preaching to the end of Hebrews. It was a powerful experience for many of us and climaxed with several services of significant public commitment when the front of the sanctuary filled with people coming to say yes to significant things God had been doing in their lives during the series.
Sickness and death
Hebrews had a flavor of suffering and pain and death about it because of the end of chapter 11 and the loving discipline of chapter 12 and the call to go outside the camp in chapter 13. This was lived out at Bethlehem with yearlong crises with cancer, sudden deaths of young and older, long battles in sickness for the very young, and a general sense of living close to eternity for the congregation as a whole.
Never before had we spent four weeks preaching on baptism followed by weekly baptismal services all summer long. That was our joy in the summer of 1997 as we went from lake to lake and pool to pool each week for a public worship and testimony and baptismal time. After the summer we have continued the pattern once a month, baptizing on the second Wednesday during the Bethlehem Connection.
Tom Steller's leave and the birth of TBI
After 17 years of faithful and fruitful ministry Tom Steller was granted a ten-month study leave and commissioned to begin work on his Ph.D. as well as design what will be known as THE BETHLEHEM INSTITUTE (TBI), an educational and training endeavor to equip lay leaders and aspiring vocational elders and missionaries for God-centered, Bible-saturated, joyful ministry while being immersed in the life and ethos of Bethlehem. Tom will be away from September 1997 through June 1998 studying in Wheaton, IL.
Two new pastoral staff
Chuck Steddom joined the staff as Associate Pastor for Worship and Music in June. This brought to an end the three-and-a-half year interim period without a full-time lead worshipper. Sam Crabtree joined us in August as the first Executive Pastor in the history of the church. Both of these strategic additions are the fruit of thinking and praying and planning set in motion by the efforts of the Master Planning Team in 1995 and 1996. They bring a strength and stability to the work from which we can already feel the impulses of strength and growth.
Two new books
A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer and A Godward Life: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life were published in the summer and fall (respectively) of 1997. The Elders gave me a one-month writing leave in February which enabled me to finish these two works based on material that I had prepared for the church in years gone by. I am deeply thankful for the commitment of the elders and church to the ministry of writing.
Celebration of Thanksgiving at Bethel
For the first time in four years we were able once again to muster the troops and the energy to put together a great off-site, outreach service at the Great Hall at Bethel College with a view to inviting our friends who don't ordinarily go to church or who are unbelieving. There were 1,560 people in the packed hall and nine registered on their cards that they were professing faith in Christ that morning. It was a huge effort on the part of many and the worship time brought tears of joy.
Morning Worship Attendance
Picture the last four years as a valley we are leaving behind. It began with the pain and controversy of early 1993. We entered that valley with an all-time high average attendance for the year of 1,064. But the price of those days was high and in 1994 we fell to 943, and in 1995 to 906. That was the lowest point of the valley. Then, by God's mercy, we began the steady walk up and out of the valley. In 1996 the average attendance was 941, and last year we surpassed the former all-time high (of 1993) with an average attendance of 1,102. This is a great and undeserved blessing from our kind and merciful God. The growth last year was 17% over the previous year. The average fall attendance (September-December) was 1,218. These numbers do not include the children who do not attend the worship service.
With three days to go in the year, and no Sundays left, we still needed about $20,000 for our budget commitments to be met. In those days, $97,000 came in by mail and personal deliveries. We are still thanking the Lord for such stunning kindness to us. We do not deserve it. God is good. The elders were looking for a sign of God's favor to move ahead with an aggressive budget in 1998.
Benjamin rang the doorbell and startled his mother by arriving from Georgia for her 50th birthday. Karsten and Shelly were home from Bellingham, Washington. Rick Bush came and took a great family photo with all of us together surrounding the matriarch of this happy clan. Praise to you, my merciful God, for giving life to Noël and giving her to me and our whole family!
Half way into my 18th year at Bethlehem I marvel at the grace of God in my life to bring me to this place of ministry. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Not always easy, but I am the better for that. For my 52nd birthday this week Barnabas gave me a letter with ten reasons he was thankful for me. In third place (after marrying his mother and giving him brothers and a sister) he said he was thankful that I became the pastor of Bethlehem. Stand and wonder. A fourteen-year-old boy ranks third that his dad is a pastor of Bethlehem! This is worth ten million dollars to me. And is a tribute to you.
Happy to be here for the supremacy of God,