Two Wholesome Ways to Handle Multiple Stresses
There are at least two wholesome ways to handle multiple stresses in your life, or in the life of a church. One is to reduce the number of stresses. But sometimes that's not possible. And sometimes it's not desirable—for example in wartime or in some crisis, we simply have to learn to live with more than usual stress. The way we do this is by seeing a good design in the multiple stresses of our lives—that's the second way of handling multiple stresses. If the pressured pieces of our lives seem chaotic and meaningless, we will probably cave in or just run away. But if we begin to see that all the pieces are fitting together into some good design, and that each piece has meaning as part of some significant, larger purpose, then the pressures become endurable—and for many, not just endurable but challenging and energy-producing.
How Paul Managed His Multiple Stresses
I think this is the way Paul managed the multiple stresses of his own life. For example, he said in 2 Corinthians 11:25–28,
Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.
How do you cope with that kind of relentless pressure that is more than any of us is dealing with? Paul's answer was to search for God's design in the stresses and draw strength and hope from that. For example, once in Asia the pressure rose to the breaking point and Paul described how he handled it this way:
We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but [here he looks for the design of God that gives meaning and hope to the experience] that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead . . . on him we have set our hope. (2 Corinthians 1:8–10)
The crushing experience was not meaningless. His life was not in disarray. There was a divine design. God had a purpose in all his pressures. And that purpose and that design gave him strength, and sustained him. (The same thing is seen in 4:8–11 and 12:8–10.)
Seeking a Why in Order to Endure the How
Many of us remember the powerful words of Victor Frankl who studied the survivors of the holocaust in Germany. Why could some endure the years of incredible stress and others not? Frankl concluded with the words: "He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW." In other words there is power and strength in seeing significance and purpose in your hardships. If you see the good design of God in the manifold stresses of your life, you gain strength to endure, and the stresses themselves are often transformed into energy-giving challenges.
What I've been trying to do in recent days is to understand God's design in the stresses of Bethlehem. Is the fact that there are a half dozen controversial stress points a sign of human disarray or are they part of God's design. Are issues just popping up willy-nilly with no meaning or unifying purpose or plan? Or is God adjusting things and positioning things here at the beginning of the decade for the sake of some great purpose? What in the world is God doing at Bethlehem? Is it disarray or God's design?
Let me take six of the issues that are more or less front burner concerns for us in recent days and try to show you what I think God is doing. The more I think about these things and pray over them and search the Scriptures about them, the more convinced I become that none of these issues is a mistake. They are part of a design. They are God's way of putting in place a power, a structure, a community life that can launch and sustain a ten-year mission vision—something greater than we have ever attempted before, called "2000 by 2000."
Church Activity at the Close of Centuries
There is something about the end of a century that has always stirred up the church of Christ.
- In the 1690's the German pietist movement flourished at the University in Halle and the first Protestant interest in organized foreign missions was born.
- A hundred years later at the end of the 1700s William Carey formed the Baptist Society for Foreign Missions and sailed for India, the father of the modern missionary movement.
- A hundred years later at the end of the 1800s D.L. Moody and A.J. Gordon and A.T. Pierson and John R. Mott were all active stirring up students and churches for mission movements like the Student Volunteer Movement that had the motto, "The evangelization of the world in this generation," and that eventually sent 8,000 students overseas.
- And today, 100 years later, at the end of the 1900s, churches and agencies all over the world are praying and seeking God's design for world evangelization at the end of the second millennium AD.
God Is Seeing What We Really Want from Him
If you ask me, "What in the world is God doing at Bethlehem?" my answer is that he is graciously drawing us into the center of his purposes for the final thrust of world evangelization. He is opening our eyes to see that these are awesome days to be alive—that the spiritual warfare is so intense, and the stakes so high, and the enemy so strong, and the body of Christ so drugged with the tranquilizers of comfort and ease and prosperity and materialism and a peace-time mentality, that the only hope is to be shaken to the depths by the extraordinary power of God and the newness of his work in our day.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all the nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. (Haggai 2:6–7)
God is shaking the nations today (witness eastern Europe!) and he is shaking his church—to see if she will waken out of the slumbers of earthly-mindedness and throw herself into the cause of eternity with unprecedented abandon and sacrifice. He is shaking us to test us, to see what we really want from him. Do we want another decade like the last one? I fear that there are many of us who say, yes. We say it was a great decade. We tripled our attendance. We multiplied our ministries to the city. We sextupled or missions budget. What more could we want?
- We could want to be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19).
- We could want to be clothed with power from on high
- We could want the inflaming of all lukewarm passions
- We could want full and fervent times of prayer.
could want ten-fold times the courage and boldness and love in
witness that we now have.
- We could want people to be added to the
church daily, as many as are being saved (Acts 2:47).
- We could want
God to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think
- We could want him to harvest for us, and send out from us, 2,000 people by the year 2000.
God is shaking us to see what we really want.
Six Controversial Issues Before Us Today
Now let me very briefly say a word about the six matters of controversy in these recent days and put them into a design that I see God framing at Bethlehem for the sake of a great new missions thrust for this final decade of the second millennium. I have tried to show the design schematically in the following way. Each of the six blocks corresponds to an issue that has caused tension. But these are not mere boxes of controversy. They are structural elements in the foundation and life of Bethlehem designed by God to launch and sustain the vision "2000 by 2000."
1. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts
Starting at the bottom of the structure there is the controversy over the baptism of Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts. We've been talking about it all year. We've talked about it many times before. What this represents, I believe, is not some minor quirk or concern of the staff, but the fundamental reality that without the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit we will not be able to do what God is calling us to do in completing the Great Commission. I put this truth at the foundation: we need to be clothed with power from on high. Without this we may have another good decade, but not a great one. The salvation and the healing and wholeness of many people hang on this hope.
2. The Proposed Governance Structure
Second, there is the controversy over the proposed governance structure that we will vote on in December. The timing of this is no accident in God's design. Many of us have believed for years that God is calling us to a more biblical form of church governance. And the deacons have labored for years to present you with such a form.
It coincides with the emergence of "2000 by 2000" because it is a ministry-mobilizing governance structure. It does not equate ministry with office-holding. It equates office-holding with equipping for ministry. We believe it was born out of missionary vision. On his missionary journeys Paul appointed elders in all the churches (Acts 14:23). And as a missionary Paul wrote to Timothy in Ephesus and Titus on Crete to instruct them about the qualifications of elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9). We believe that the ministry-mobilizing, mission-mobilizing simplicity of the new governance structure is part of God's design for realizing the vision of "2000 by 2000."
3. Funding a Larger Missions and Ministry Base
The third block in the foundation is not a point of controversy, but still a point of tension, namely, the pressure to fund the ministry and the mission of this church and a larger base of operations. Paul knew these very pressures. He was a fundraiser along with all his other burdens. Read 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 to see how he did it. Essentially he believed and he taught that God would provide, through his people, for every good work. "God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work" (2 Corinthians 9:8). Enough for us, abundance for the mission: that's Paul's divine motto for giving.
We believe that the local ministry of worship and nurture and outreach is a good work. We believe the building of a bigger base of operations for this ministry is a good work. And we believe that the missions vision of "2000 by 2000" is a good work. We have sought God's leading every step of the way. If that is true, then the financial demands are part of God's design for this decade. This is not a time for panic. It's a time for prayer. God is able to provide for every good work.
4. Adding a Pastoral Associate
In the fourth block of the foundation of what God is doing there is the controversy over whether to add a pastoral associate in adult education, small groups, and young adult ministry. Basically the question seems to be: Is the timing right with all the financial pressures of the coming months and years? It is a legitimate question. We will go on debating that.
But in the debate I make want to sure that everyone sees how the proposal fits in to the design of what we think God is doing at Bethlehem. Young adults have been and will probably continue to be the explosive edge of growth at Bethlehem. But more than that—they are also the ones from whom God is calling most of his vocational ministers and missionaries.
Thousands of these so-called baby-boomers (and now busters) have sold their souls to games and goodies and gold. But soon the moth and the rust take their toll and the boomers start to look for spiritual reality. We need to be there. If we lose this generation, our part in the final thrust of world evangelization will be very small. We think that an associate for adult education, small groups, and young adults is timely and strategic. It is part of the design, not a sign of disarray.
5. Schedule Changes at the Church
The fifth block of the foundation relates to the controversy over schedule changes at the church—namely, having Sunday evening services every other Sunday with small groups on the alternate evenings, and having the Bethlehem Institute on Wednesday evening. The design of this pattern is simply to remind us that ministry is mainly outside this building and to help us all find the pace to finish the race.
Most of us lead incredibly pressured and hectic lives. If "2000 by 2000" becomes our united vision, the next ten years will be a race indeed! We need the long view. With all our zeal and all our passion and all our longing for harvest, we are not God; we are finite; and we are fragile. If we start the marathon with a passionate sprint, we will not finish the race. We believe the pattern of S.P.A.N. II is God's design for the first leg of the race.
6. Worship Style
Finally there has been the controversy concerning worship style. Should we shout to the Lord or not? Should we sing contemporary worship songs or hymns? Should we lift our hands to the Lord or not? Should we be extemporaneous or planned? Should we have fine culture or folk culture? Are the services for outsiders or insiders?
If you have been to the BITC on worship you know my answer to all those questions: YES! The balance we strive for in all these ways moves around as we try to understand the needs of our people and our visitors. But one thing stays the same, and this is the essential thing—worship should be God-centered, Bible-saturated, and blood-earnest. Not stiff, not somber, not glum, not boring, not dreary, not joyless; but also not cavalier, or frivolous, or petty, or careless, or silly, or trivial. In worship we go hard after God. We long for God. We feast on the glory and grace of God.
And this is the blue-hot tip of the flame that fuels the missionary vision of this church. We have said it for years and years: missions is not the ultimate goal of the church, worship is. Missions exists because true worship doesn't. Worship is the igniting fuel and the ultimate goal of world evangelization.
It is no accident that we are concerned with worship in these days. It is part of the design of what God is doing to put things in place for "2000 by 2000." It is all coming together. And it is coming together (as the arrow signifies) "to the praise of the glory of God's grace" among all the peoples of the earth.
What Do You See at Bethlehem?
Do you see disarray or God's design at Bethlehem in these amazing days? The more I look and the more I pray, the more design I see. And I am excited to be here, and to give the next ten years of my life to the vision of "2000 by 2000."
May God unite us in one vision of what he is doing at Bethlehem so that we might not only endure but delight in the design of these days.