A Few Thoughts on Teaching and Preaching

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I recently was given a questionnaire to fill out about preaching by a student attending Bible school. After I wrote out my answers, I thought it might serve well as blog post for readers interested in learning more about teaching and preaching the Bible. 

 

1.   What characteristic/quality do you believe is most important for a Christian teacher to possess? Why?

Genuine, passionate, and personal worship of God is the by far the most important quality of a teacher of God’s Word. A teacher/preacher is simply a worship leader without music. I believe the Holy Spirit must first work in you so that he may more powerfully work through you. When I speak, I always pray to be the most convicted, worshipful person in the room (I think Pastor Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Dallas is one of the best models for this concept). As a leader, I know it is difficult to lead someone to a place I have not been personally. No one is perfect, but hypocrisy can and will undercut a teacher’s authority. No amount of clarity and cleverness can cover up a lack of authentic worship of Jesus. 

Likewise, this means that the preacher/teacher actually needs to clearly, explicitly, and worshipfully talk about Jesus, not just tell entertaining stories or attempt to give good tips on life. There is a place for practical application in preaching, but the end-all of a sermon should be to stir the listeners to worship Jesus through teaching Scripture.

 

2.   What do you enjoy most about teaching?

There are moments when I strongly sense the presence of God as I talk about the person and the work of Jesus. Those are my most joyful moments in preaching. It is as if the people in the congregation are hearing a better sermon than the one I prepared, because the Holy Spirit is doing a work in the hearts of hearers that goes beyond the words of man. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when I think my delivery was well-executed, or when listeners are responsive, but nothing compares to a move of the Holy Spirit. It is one of the greatest joys on this side of eternity. 

 

3.   What frustration, problem, or situation makes teaching difficult for you?

At times the hardest part of teaching is the constant cycle of weekly preparation. In ministry you can make a good plan to manage your time, but almost every week that plan is interrupted by the unexpected. Sometimes (but not all the time) those interruptions are very good and godly. Sometimes those those interruptions are…”sanctifying.” I admit there are weeks when it feels like everything in the universe is coming against my sermon preparation and me. However, real one-on-one ministry situations also help contextualize biblical teaching into real life situations within the church.

I have also learned that I am a better preacher if I take a break every now and then, so as to relieve the cycle of constant preparation and prevent burnout. I try to take a week or two out of the pulpit every six to seven weeks to catch my breath, as well as give someone else an opportunity to preach. 

 

4.   Do you have a website or book (or other resource) that helps you be a better teacher other than the Bible?

Dr. Timothy Keller and the late Dr. Edmund P. Clowney taught a class on preaching entitled “Preaching Christ in the Post-modern World” at Reformed Theological Seminary, and the audio is available for free on iTunes U. It is probably the single most impactful resource on preaching that I have ever used.

Keller is a pastor in New York City, and is one of the best preachers alive today. Clowney was a professor for many years at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. This particular class focuses on preaching and applying the gospel of Jesus from every text in the Bible.

The audio is poor, but the content is golden. It has profoundly shaped the way that I teach Scripture.

Click here to listen to “Preaching Christ in the Post-modern World.”

 

5.   What age groups have you had the opportunity to teach? What age group do you prefer?

For four years, I taught 18-to-25-years-old’s at a college and young adult ministry. For the last two years, I have been the primary preacher at a growing, multi-generational church. I have also had experience with teaching high school students.

Age-range-ministry is easier, because you are dealing with a fairly monolithic demographic. As a college minister I knew that the congregation watched the same movies, listened to the same music, and had the same sense of humor. Illustrations were much easier.

Multigenerational ministry is definitely more challenging. I have to work hard to get to know the congregation, and learn the questions they are asking as well as the challenges they are facing. I have to think outside my own generational paradigm and preferences. However, while it is more challenging, I would also say it is more fulfilling. I think the body of Christ loses something when we split the generations up in ministry all the time, and it has been one of the greatest joys of my life to teach Scripture to a church of multiple generations. 

Evidences of Grace: 2 Years Later

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It all begins with grace. It continues with grace. The only response we can conjure is worship and gratitude.

Every Monday morning we meet as a staff. On the white board in my office I draft the agenda for the upcoming week. As a team we go through every area of the church and talk about updates and new initiatives. But no matter the agenda every week our meeting begins the same way—with evidences of God’s grace and a prayer of thanksgiving.

We go around as a staff and tells stories of areas where God is moving. The unbeliever who showed up with her daughter to worship. The new couple who are now connecting deeply despite recent personal tragedy. The community garden constructed by a Community Group. The man who asked to become a new Christian. The multiple members being stirred to adoption. The good problem that our nursery is beginning to be too full. The growing sense of God’s power and presence in our worship services.

We recount what God has done, and we thank Him.

For us, this is a spiritual discipline, as well as and act of worship. Before we dive into analysis, evaluation, and critical problem solving, we are brought to a place of humility and gratitude. It reminds us that we are a part of something that God is doing. It reminds us that it really is and has been all about Jesus. It reminds us that we somehow managed to fall sidelong into a miracle. And Redeemer is nothing less than a miracle. Its very existence is an evidence of God’s grace.

Two years ago on Sunday, November 13, 2011, I was a would-be church planter suddenly turned replanter who somehow stepped into the role of Lead Pastor of what was then known as West Amarillo Christian Church. At that time, we were a struggling church that needed a dramatic move of God in order to even survive. We were an underdog and we knew it. But there was this palpable sense that God was on the move.

And since that time there have been many evidences of God’s grace.

Through Acts 29 (our church planting network), we have participated in supporting and partnering with other church replants from West Texas all the way to Carlisle, England. And Redeemer Christian Church of Elduret, Kenya—our first church plant—has grown to the point of needing a new building (which we were able to help them purchase).

In the last two-years, Redeemer Christian Church’s growth rate has been just shy of 1000%, many of which are people who have not been to church in a very long time or at all. Earlier this year, we had to add a second service to accommodate our expanding congregation (we now meet at 9:15am and 11:00am on Sunday mornings). We are continuing to grow as a multi-generational church, and this has even overflowed into our twenty-two active Community Groups.

Then, there have even been the little interior victories. The things that don’t make the press, but matter nonetheless. The reorganized constitution and chart of accounts. Six elders and nine deacons rising to the occasion, leading in humility and unity. The beginning of construction to remodel our attic into expanded facilities for our growing children’s ministry. New marriages. New births. New friends, and reconnections with old friends.

More importantly, I am grateful for the gift of date nights, a healthy marriage, and Sabbath days with my growing family (our next son is due later this year!). I am thankful that I love Jesus more today than I did two years ago. He has loved us faithfully and fiercely. He is my victory and vindication.

Not that long ago we left the comfortable for a vision. And the vision is happening. Christ is being preached. Community is being created. Churches are being planted.

I have always believed God is able to do extraordinary things, but it is still so moving when you get see it happen before our own eyes. As the Psalmist once sang, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:3).

Jesus continues to do great things at Redeemer Christian Church; we are grateful and we are glad.

One Year Later.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012


“I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love”(Isaiah 63:7).

Today it has been exactly one year since my very first Sunday as pastor of Redeemer Christian Church in Amarillo, Texas.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect on that day or in the year that would follow. I simply knew that the Lord had led me to this place. He had given me a vision for a church. He had called me out of a place that I loved. And he had sovereignly opened a door to replant a church that was on the verge of death.

At the time I was hired, I was paid no salary because the church was in the red. We needed a miracle, and many people thought we would fail catastrophically. The elders and I knew it was a time to swing for the fences, and trust Jesus to move in a big way.

And Jesus did move in a big way.

I was reminded of this recently when Gary Wilcox, our children’s minister, told me we currently have more children attending Redeemer than we had people at this point last year! When I think of what has happened over the last 365 days, I am quite honestly overwhelmed with gratitude for what the Lord has done. The words of Scripture often relate how it is a good thing, a godly thing to remember and celebrate what the Lord has done. It is healthy for our souls to recount God’s deeds in our lives, lest we forget and become ungrateful. So I wanted to write a simple update and talk about the many wonderful things that Jesus has done for our little church. There are too many blessings to write of in detail, but I did want to list them out one by one.

This year:

• We grew from less than sixty people to more than three hundred (a 500% increase of mostly people without a preexisting church home)

• We retained more than 70% of the original church members who were members prior to replanting (a rare miracle in the replanting world)

• All of our elders have stayed, and we are more healthy and unified than ever (upon their request we study theology together every Tuesday)

• We have a team of six developing preachers who are being trained weekly, and have all had opportunities to preach

• Our finances quadrupled (and in January I was able to be paid a salary)

• We are now completely debt free

• We have been able to add three amazing new staff members (including one of my very best friends Bryce Langford)

• We celebrated the birth of thirteen new babies (including my son Solomon)

• We began sixteen Community Groups that have reached more than 120 people

• We have almost sixty people going through leadership training

• We enlisted the best servant-hearted volunteers in the world who run our sound, take care of our children, clean our facility, and lead us in worship without pay

• Our grass in green, the roof is fixed, and the parking lot is recovered (this is big deal if you saw our facility this 2011)

• We are continuing to grow as a multigenerational church (our new members classes have as many empty nesters as they do twenty-somethings)

• Several people have become new Christians and been baptized (and more are soon to come)

• We hear stories everyday of our members reaching out to their friends, family, and neighbors and loving their city in extraordinary ways

• We have become full members of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network

• And in partnership with Christian Relief Fund we were able celebrate our first church plant (Redeemer Christian Church in Elduret, Kenya)

We have so much more to do, but this in this last year God has given us more than I could have ever imagined.

In short, our vision is becoming reality: Christ in being preached, community is being created, and culture is being changed. And I will be the first to say that all of this is due to the sheer grace of God. It wasn’t our talent or plans that allowed this to happen.

Jesus gets all the glory for our story, and he always will.

To the people of Redeemer Christian Church I want to say thank you. I love you all, and I am honored to be on this journey with you.

I can’t wait for year two, and the many more to come.

Part 7: Our New Name

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This last Sunday was a historic day for my church family. It was a day that we took a new name. It was the day we became Redeemer Christian Church.

After our unity and membership classes, our church family has blossomed with new members. We are laying new grass outside our building. And everywhere we look there are signs of life and the sovereign grace of God.

But why the new name you might ask? It’s a fair question.

In the Bible names are pretty important. Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. Throughout biblical history God chooses specific people to do great things, and often times a significant name change occurs as he does this. Abram becomes Abraham. Jacob becomes Israel. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul.

I believe with all of my heart that God is doing a great work in the midst of Redeemer. I believe that he has a great assignment for this church family to accomplish. As we are in this season of “replanting” and revitalization, one of the final—yet crucial—steps we have made is to take our new name. And we are taking on this name for three major reasons: for the unity of our church family, for the mission of our city, and for the glory of God.

1.) For the unity of our church family.

Redeemer is a collection of people that only God could have assembled. We have a wide range of diversity in our spiritual backgrounds, and already we are a very multi-generational church. As we come together to be a united family of people centered around the gospel and focus on mission, the elders and I felt like we needed to view ourselves not as a crowd composed of this group and that group, but rather as one body, with one vision, and one identity.

2.) For the mission of our city.

Another key reason we felt the rename was necessary was that we wanted to announce to our city that God was doing something brand new at our church. We desire to be church that reaches out to those that are not connected to God or a church family. Part of being able to reach new people is to show that God is doing something big among us. The new name and even the new grass show that new life is growing at our church.

3.) For the glory of God.

But why did we choose the name Redeemer? It is true that there are many other great churches in this nation that bear the name Redeemer, but we chose the name because Jesus is the Great Redeemer who has accomplished this work in our church. What is Redeemer Christian Church? It is West Amarillo Christian Church redeemed and restored by God unto the glory of his name. We are proud to take this new name, because we believe if God can redeem a broken church, he can certainly redeem broken people. Great things have already happened at this church. There has been dramatic growth, financial health, and great excitement. And I believe that the best days are yet to come. But in all of this, we want to give all the glory to God because he is the hero of our story.

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17).

 

Check out this sermon that I gave our church family on the day we became Redeemer Christian Church.

Also, check out our brand new website: redeemerchristianchurch.com

Part 6: Our Foundations

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Going through a church-wide weekly membership class and sharing meals together.


We’re three months into our “replant,” and the grace of God is all around us. We’ve grown. We’ve stabilized financially. We are reaching people who have been totally unconnected to a church family. And, even more, there is a sense of expectation and excitement that charges our atmosphere. It really is an amazing time!

But we’ve had challenges as well. As you might expect, we’ve had our fair share of opposition both externally and internally that we have had to wisely wade through. Moreover, we have people from a tremendous diversity of age and backgrounds that are awkwardly learning how to have real community with one another.

Things are moving fast for us. And when things are moving fast, frankly, it is really easy to get distracted and do something dumb.

As I’ve prayed through all of this, I’ve really felt that this year is a year of foundations. It is a year that will feel slow and unimpressive, but in reality, will influence our church for years to come.

For the last several years of my life, I have gone to build houses in Juarez, Mexico with a ministry named Casas Por Cristo. These trips are some of my most favorite experiences of life, but it never fails that the most frustrating part of build was the foundation. Building the foundation is slow. It requires patience. It’s messy. And when you’re finished, you never feel impressed with your work.

My wife working on a foundation of a house in Juarez, Mexico.

But if you mess up the foundation, you mess up the entire house. Unfortunately, one of our trips, we forgot to “square” the foundation. Why? We were in a hurry. We wanted to compete with the other houses. What ended up happening is that build took twice as long than the other builds because all the measurements were wrong.

Laying the foundation for church is the same in many ways. It’s tempting to get distracted and move faster than you should. It’s tempting to want to compete with the other “houses” down the road. But you have to lay the foundation rightly, or else you will be in trouble for years to come.

Practically, for me this means I am going to be obsessed with the health of our church. I want to focus my efforts and the efforts of our leaders on laying a healthy foundation. As odd as this sounds, I could care less about growth this year. If we are a healthy church, we will naturally grow, make healthy disciples, and reproduce healthy churches. But you can’t be a healthy church with our healthy foundations.

This year, for us, those foundations are: membership, leadership, community, and most importantly, the gospel.

1.) Membership. A healthy church views itself as a committed family. So for the last several weeks, I have asked all of our church (new and old) to go through a membership class together. Why? Because I felt it was necessary for us to all share the same vision and expectations about our church. When we share the same vision, we can be unified in mission together. In these classes, we share a meal, listen to a teaching, and then have table discussions about the course content. The teaching material includes doctrine, vision, how our church is led, and practically what it looks like to be a member. At the end of this course, we will be signing membership covenants with one another and adopting a new identity as a unified church family (this new identity will be the subject of my next entry).

2.) Leadership.
A healthy church has healthy leaders. Thus one of our key areas of focus this year is leadership development. Later this spring we will be instituting an intensive leadership-training program called Porterbrook. Porterbrook will focus on training current and future leaders in character, theology, church leadership, and missional ministry. We are committed to having biblically qualified elders, deacons, community leaders, and apprentices lead our church.

3.) Community. A healthy church has healthy community life. In our hyper-individualistic society, Christian community is one of the most important commodities that the church offers our hurting world. Throughout the spring and summer we will be training leaders and casting vision for our Community Groups, which will begin meeting in fall. Our Community Groups will not be just another program of our church. They will be the primary way that we create Christian fellowship, accountability, discipleship, evangelism, and even missions and church planting. If your interested in getting a good idea of what we will be building, check out Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community, by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

4.) The Gospel.
Finally, there is no other true foundation for the church to rest upon other than Jesus. Too many churches (even with good motives) will build their foundation on the personality of the senior leader, the hype of their advertising, or by catering to the consumerist preferences of people. By the grace of God, we want to see this church founded on the simple yet profound reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Lord willing, my hope s that this church, the disciples it creates, the people it saves, and the churches it sends will endure because they are built on strong foundations. And there is no other stronger foundation than Jesus.

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.” – 1 Cor. 3:10-14

For a sermon I recently preach to our church on foundations, click here to listen.

Part 5: Our Son

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written another chapter about the eventful happenings of our life. I wanted to write another short series of blogs, if for no other reason, to have a written record for our family of the adventure that is our life. And there is no other place to begin again than with the joyous change to eclipse all other changes—the arrival of our first-born child, Solomon Isaac Ritchie.

The due date was Thursday, December 15. And it came and went with no fanfare. In fact, when we went in for the doctor’s check up we were discouraged to hear that Kate had not progressed at all for five weeks. We were all but certain that we would have to induce.

We scheduled the induction for the upcoming Monday, so that our doctor who would be out of town over the weekend would be able to deliver the baby. But Friday consistent contractions began, and Saturday night the contractions began to get close. We went to the hospital and found out that Kate had begun to labor.

It was a hard labor. We were both sleep deprived and anxious to meet our son. Every few minutes Kate would stop and squeeze my hand. I would pray and lead her through Psalm 23, which we would try to say together so that she could keep her focus and make it through the pain. As dusk came on Sunday, we got good news. Kate was ready to push, and Dr. J. Anderson had just landed back in Amarillo, heard that Kate was in labor, and was coming to deliver the baby even though he wasn’t on call.

We said one final prayer before the action began, and after only a half hour of pushing, Solomon was born at 7:49 p.m., weighing seven pounds and eight ounces and measuring twenty inches long.

It’s strange to meet someone for the first time that you’ve thought about for so long. To see his face, and to instantly fall in love. And that’s what happened for both of us. I had been up for nearly forty-eight hours, my adrenaline was surging. It all felt so surreal. I don’t remember all the details exactly, but I remember moments—like moving photographs. I remember holding my son and walking him out of the room and into the hallway to show the waiting family. I remember feeling so proud of my beautiful bride. I remember telling Solomon how much I loved him, and sharing a few moments with my precious family in the hospital bed.

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He is now nearly two-months old, and I am still reveling at the newness of our reality. I am a father. Kate is a mother. And Solomon is our son. I know these statements are true, but like most important truths, they are hard for my mind to hold onto.

On a daily basis, I can’t help but see the gospel played out on the canvas of this experience. Through all the dirty diapers and sleepless nights, I see my son’s vulnerability, his utter dependence. I think about how much I love this little boy, and how I would do anything to protect him, provide for him, and be there for him—no matter the cost. I know his mother feels the same way. Yet, Solomon has done nothing to deserve this in anyway.

Some how, some way, this new love is a signpost that points to an infinitely greater love that God has for his adopted children. That this God would send his own Son to live and to die to redeem a rebellious people and turn them into his family is a knowledge that is beautiful, but it is too great for me to fully know. 

Now we see only in part. But the hope of the gospel is that one day we will fully know. One day this God that we have thought about, prayed to, and sensed in our hearts will no longer will be beheld with our own eyes. We will meet him face to face, and forever be changed.

Part 4: Our Church

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When Kate and I decided that we were going to step out in faith and pioneer the church the Lord had placed in our hearts, we had no guarantees. We could have never imagined that we would have been: 1.) Released favorably by our former church, 2.) Sent and supported by Redeemer Lubbock, and 3.) Given a team of leaders that would follow us into this adventure. Even more we could have never dreamed that we would be given a multimillion-dollar, debt-free facility in the best area in our city, along with several precious families who needed a pastor with a vision.

But that is exactly what happened.

This long and miraculous chapter of our story goes back a few years ago, when I decided I wanted to read Greek. After I began teaching on a regular basis, I felt like delving into the biblical languages to further develop my competency as a preacher. Amarillo College was offering classes for New Testament Greek, and I gathered a few other guys and convinced them to take this class with me as a group. During this the course of this study, I became good friends with Jon Kohler, the professor. Even after I finished my studies with Jon, we kept up our friendship by going to lunch on a semi-regular basis. He has been a constant source of encouragement and counsel in my ministry, and he is man I admire greatly.

After his spring semester was concluded, I met with Jon for lunch and gave him the update about our upcoming transition. I told him the vision that I felt the Lord had given me, and I told him about feeling that I was called to Amarillo. Really, all I wanted him to do was be in prayer for my family and me. But through this conversation, God initiated a radical change in my well-laid plans.

Jon immediately asked if I would be interested in a replanting a church, as opposed to planting a church. He happened to know of a church that had suffered years of decline, and needed a new pastor.

A replant is essentially a church revitalization effort. It happens when a church is in decline and is headed toward death, but then boldly decides to commit to new leadership and vision. Replanting is taking an entrepreneurial vision, and implementing it into an existing church. When a replant happens well, it is miraculous sign of redemption. When a replant happens poorly, it is a train wreck. It takes profound humility and trust on the part of the church’s existing leadership to submit to a radically new vision, and it takes profound wisdom and patience on the part of the pastor make necessary change, while caring for the people of the church.

I told Jon, “No.

I wasn’t leaving my former job just to acquire the title “Senior Pastor.” I had a very specific vision in my heart, and I doubted that any church would seriously commit to following a vision that would require such fundamental change.

But, my friend Jon then asked me if I would at least allow him to give my number to an elder of a local church that needed a new pastor with a new vision. I told him I would trust him with my number, but I seriously I doubted anything would ever come from it.

But then months passed, and fall arrived. As I was preparing to transition from my college ministry, meet with my core team, and plant a church. The elder Jon had told me about gave me a call. The elder’s name was Kevin Mitchell, and his church’s name was West Amarillo Christian Church.

Kevin and I hit it off right from our first conversation. I was very candid with him from the very beginning about what I felt God was asking me to do, and he was very understanding. He asked if I would be willing to at least meet and share my vision with him, the elders, and the pastoral search committee of West Amarillo. I thought about telling him no, because it just wasn’t my plan. But I felt like this was an odd door that God might be opening, and I needed to see where it would lead. So I said yes.

That next week, I spent several long hours praying for this meeting. To my surprise, my heart filled with vision and strategy of how this church might be replanted. I opened up Microsoft Word and began to type. 10,000 words later, I had a visionary proposal ready to submit to this group of people that I had never met and who were part of a church I had never attended. Essentially, I applied the same vision God had given me earlier in the year—for the gospel, community, and church planting—and put it into the context of a replant. Included were detailed statements on doctrine, membership, church government, and a list of major changes that I would intend on making. I felt like I needed to be brutally honest about everything. And honestly, I made it very easy for these nice folks to never want to talk to me again.

But when I met with them and presented my vision, something unique happened in the room. Several of those present began to well up with tears, until one woman interrupted the meeting asked the entire room get on our knees and pray together for the future of this church (which we did). It was then that I sensed that this church really might have the courage and humility to it would take replant.

Several weeks past, and to my astonishment, I was asked to preach a Sunday at West Amarillo and to meet with the elders. After I preached, the elders met with me to clarify some of the issues I raised in the proposal I gave them. We thoroughly talked about strategy and vision, as well as a lot of doctrinal issues (everything from “predestination” to “spiritual gifts”).

After many more meetings, and the eldership of West Amarillo interviewing many more candidates, they finally chose me as the man they felt that should pastor their church. But there were still two catches: I hadn’t said “yes” to the job, and according to West Amarillo’s by-laws, I needed to be confirmed by 75% or more vote of the whole congregation.

So I preached two more times for West Amarillo, and even held a congregational open question and answer time. Also, as a fleece of confirmation, I again met with the elders to present an eighteen-month strategic plan that I needed them to commit to prior to me committing to take the job. They backed me unanimously, and consequently, I truly felt God was calling me to this church. As the time for the vote came near, I was already meeting with my core team, and I began to coach them on how to come into a new church with a posture of service, graciousness, and humility. Among us all was a sense that God was about to do something big.

Then on November 6, 2011, the existing congregation of West Amarillo Christian Church voted by a margin of 96% to call me as their pastor. This is a margin unheard of in the church world.

That next week, I was handed keys to the church and went immediately to work. It was an overwhelming task, but the team who came, as well as the leaders of West Amarillo, with me rose to the occasion. We mowed the lawn, removed dead trees, re-routed the sound system, reorganized the weekend service, implemented new musicians, and cleaned the facility to prepare for our first weekend. It’s kind of a blur now, but somewhere along the way, I managed to write a sermon as well. Then we prayed and waited for Sunday to come.

On my first Sunday, the people of West Amarillo came to worship Jesus. Our core team came to worship Jesus. And then a lot more people came to worship Jesus. In one week, the church tripled in attendance. As I took the pulpit for the first time as pastor, I asked for all the members of West Amarillo to stand and look around. They stood, with tears in their eyes, and the room erupted in applause. It was inspiring to see their courage and sacrifice so overwhelmingly rewarded. The atmosphere of the room was electric. And every week since, God has continued to bless us.

There is still a long way to go. We now have the daunting task of laying the foundation of a new church family that is united under one identity. We have to build systems and budgets that will one day allow us to grow and reproduce through church planting. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. God has brought us this far. I have no doubt he will continue to be our provider, protector, and promoter.

I tell this crazy story with no shame, because I really can’t take a shred of credit for any of it. Either I am the luckiest church-planter alive, or God sovereignly brought this new church into existence. I tend to be persuaded by the latter option, and believe Jesus has big plans for Amarillo, Texas.

And, because of this, Jesus gets all the glory.

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For two great books on replanting, check out Church Planting is For Wimps: How God Uses Messed-up People to Plant Ordinary Churches That Do Extraordinary Things, by Mike McKinney, as well as Jesus + Nothing = Everything,
By Tullian Tchividjian.

Part 3: Our Team

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Jesus and Lawn-chairs. Our second "Core Team" meeting at Scot and Nessa Brinkley's Jazzercize studio.

As I began the process of transition from my former church, Kate and I knew that we had passed the point of no return. We had lit the fuse, and no matter what our lives were headed toward major change. We felt a very sincere and firm sense that God was initiating this change. However, there was still a very real fear we had to face: what if it was just the two of us, and no one else?

Prior to talking to our oversight, we had not raised any funding or gathered a team around us. There was a real possibility that we would raise the flag, and no one would come. And if they did come, would our new church be solely comprised of twenty-somethings? I didn’t want to become the pastor of Lord of the Flies church.

In retrospect, I think God put us in this place because we needed to be sure of our call before we had the foundation of a team around us. We needed to make this decision even if no one would come, and it took several years of gutting it out to build a core team before we ever came close to becoming a church. I can honestly say that we had that level of determination. We were willing to make that sacrifice, and in some ways we were expecting to make that sacrifice.

But by the mercy of God, we were given a team of servants who were ready to chase a God-sized vision for Amarillo.

After I announced my departure from the college ministry that I was leading, I began receiving phone calls, texts, and emails. People wanted to be a part of this new church. Many people in this “core” team that God began to gather were former leaders who served alongside me in the college ministry. But to my surprise, many people were not. People who I had never met before began to contact me. One family came to us because they had emailed Acts 29 and requested that a new church be planted in Amarillo. There were people from Lubbock and Fort Worth who had just moved and couldn’t connect to the existing churches in Amarillo. Even crazier, people in their forties and fifties started saying they wanted to know about this new work. God had assembled a team, and we never had to recruit a single person.

And then on Sunday evening October 16, 2011, I called our first meeting. We met at Seth and Katie Wieck’s house, and shared a meal, worship, prayer for our city, and I for the first time I casted the vision God had placed on my heart. We had over fifty people at that first meeting. We had teenagers and grandparents and every stage of life in between. There was even a massive variety of denomination background in the room. But the one thing that we all shared in common was that we felt an urgency to see the gospel preached to the lost, people live out authentic Christian community, and churches planted.

The space was cramped. We had to bring in lawn chairs so people could sit down. Several folks had to stand in hallways surrounding the Wieck’s living room. But the most profound sense among us all was that God was among us and he was about to do something big in our city.

The next week we met in Scot and Nessa Brinkley’s Jazzercize studio, because we had already outgrown the Wieck’s household. More people began to come, more excitement began to be stirred, and it was clear to us all that God had gone out in front of us with multiple miracles (not least of which was a church in Amarillo that was considering to call me as their pastor to replant their church with new vision).

As I have seen the commitment of this team of people that God has assembled, it has moved me to tears several times. I knew God had called me and Kate to make sacrifices for this vision, but I could have never imagined that he would call others to do the same. Two couples that lived out of town decided to move to Amarillo to be a part of this new church. Two other members of our core had to quit their jobs in order to join. People have sacrificed their time, talents, and finances for this new work. And many of them have even had to face the same challenges and misunderstood motives that have plagued me in this process.

I am humbled and honored that I get to walk next to men and women of such conviction and faithfulness. And I can’t wait to see what great works that God will do in our city and beyond with this great group of people.

***

In the next blog, I will tell the unlikely story how we were connected with the wonderful people of West Amarillo Christian Church.

Part 2: Our Brothers.

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Back in the spring, I wasn’t quite sure to do with this growing sense of calling to leave my comfortable job and go plant a church.

Honestly, Kate and I were in a season of life during which we just wanted to enjoy ministry, get paid a solid salary, have babies on great insurance, and then maybe in a decade or so think about change. If God was really calling me to make this big change, I prayed that he would make it very obvious. One of the ways he help make this calling obvious was through giving me new relationships with a handful of like-minded pastors in our area who happen to be a part of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network.

During those early months, I didn’t dare to talk to many people about what was stirring in my heart. But I have a dear friend in Dallas (Christopher Myers) who was distant enough from our situation that I felt free to share my convictions. During that time, he happened to attend an event in Dallas hosted by the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, and at this conference he heard a few A29 pastors mention the glaring need for a new type of church in the city of Amarillo.

Acts 29 is a pastoral network of churches committed to the values of gospel-centered ministry, church planting, and church leadership consisting of a plurality of biblically qualified elders. Acts 29 is not a denomination, but it is an international network of pastors committed to the gospel and committed to mission. For years, I have closely followed the resources that this network has provided for free online. As a young minister, I had been dropped into the deep end of the pool of ministry, and for my first few years as a pastor I learned to preach, lead, and cast vision largely through training this network provided. It is a tribe of Christians that are unique in that they are committed to engaging culture effectively while remaining rooted in biblical doctrine. And in the last decade Acts 29 has become the fastest growing church planting network in the nation.

My friend in Dallas told me that he happened to hear of an event that Acts 29 was holding in Lubbock. It was a small gathering that was to focus on church planting, gospel ministry, and networking with like-minded pastors in the West Texas and New Mexico region. He procured the email of the pastor who was hosting the event, and told me I needed to contact him. So, without having met the guy, I emailed Pastor Dusty Thompson of Redeemer Lubbock.

As it turned out, Dusty and I had a remarkably similar story. For several years, he had served at one of the larger churches in Lubbock as a College Pastor (Lord knows Tech needs Jesus). As he grew in ministry, he began to discern a call to plant a church. Initially, he was looking to move away from the Bible belt to do this, but then sensed a burden to plant in Lubbock. Miraculously, he was favorably sent and supported by his former church. And in 2008, Redeemer Lubbock was planted. Today it is a healthy, growing, Christ-exalting church that is swarming with servant-hearted leaders and newly converted Christians.

Kate and ended up going down to Lubbock to attend this event and see if it would help give us clarity in discerning our call. From the moment we arrived, it felt like we had reconnected with family. I instantly felt connected to the vision and values of this group of people. In addition to Dusty, I began to connect to guys like Jeremy Buck (Pampa), Josh Reeves (Round Rock), Caleb Southerland (Irving), Los Griego (Rio Rancho), and Josh Green (Odessa). These were pastors with healthy marriages and healthy churches. And I have honestly never seen such camaraderie, mutual support, and selflessness and between churches.

That night when we were driving back to Amarillo, I knew that my hometown needed a church like this. In North, I had seen the values of gospel, community, and mission connect with people that had been previously considered unreachable in my city. Moreover, I began to sense a burden for building a church that not only grew, but also reproduced through church planting. I knew that the Lord had prepared me for this work, and that the inescapable tug on my heart was him calling me. Eventually, the call became so strong that I felt like I would be committing a sin of omission if I were to not act.

As we prepared to initiate conversations with the elders of my former church, Dusty was like a big brother and coach. He helped me, prayed for me, gave me counsel, and was partially responsible for me staying sane through the unsure waters of this last summer.

In the fall, as my journey was about to begin, I asked Dusty if his church would consider being our sending and supporting church. He graciously agreed, and on Sunday, November 6 (the exact Sunday West Amarillo Christian Church confirmed me as their Pastor), I was commissioned by Redeemer Lubbock. I couldn’t be more proud of our sending church, and I hope to one-day do for many pastors what Dusty and Redeemer has done for me.

***

To learn more about the values of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, read Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission by Darrin Patrick (Pastor of The Journey, an Acts 29 church in St. Louis). It is perhaps the most distilled form of what the movement represents.

At the time of writing this blog, I am currently not an Acts 29 member. However, I am an Acts 29 applicant, and will likely be assessed for candidacy in early spring of 2012, after Kate and I have our baby and we get a few months into our current revitalization effort.

In the blogs to come, I will address how the Lord gave us team of people with which to lead this new vision, and how we were connected with the wonderful people of West Amarillo Christian Church

(Pastor Dusty Thompson commissioning me on 11/6/2011.)

Part 1: Our Call

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My last night preaching at the ministry of North.


Every story has a beginning. For this blog, I will talk about the last several years of my life that led up to the adventure of this year.

After being radically saved in college, I felt like the Lord was leading me to lay down my education for a season and to go work at my then church, Trinity Fellowship of Amarillo. For years, I had placed my identity in who I was in the realm of Academia. I felt like God was asking me to draw close to him for a season let my identity be rooted in him. So I left behind full-ride scholarships and was hired on staff for the only position that was available at the time—an administrative assistant whose primary job was to write the weekly bulletin. It was a very humbling experience, but working at a church brought out gifts in me that I never knew I had: administration, leadership, and communication.

Within ten months of working at Trinity, I was promoted to our church’s senior staff, and I began to oversee roughly a third of the staff of this several thousand-member mega church. I oversaw our media department, the administration of our weekend services, membership assimilation, missions, discipleship, and pastoral care. This was quite a burden for a twenty-one-year-old who had been a Christian less than two years. But nevertheless God provided for me in my weakness, and my areas of ministry flourished. For whatever reason, I simply understood how church worked, and I was able to do my job well.

Then, in late 2006, God began to speak to the leadership of Trinity Fellowship and directed them to build a ministry to reach college students and young adults. I was reassigned to help build this new ministry, which would be named North. Technically this was a demotion in the organization, but it put me into the ministry side of the church, rather than managerial, support side. I accepted the new assignment.

Originally, I served as the “number two” role of this ministry. But even in the early days of the ministry, I began to emerge as a visionary leader. I began to preach a little, and after my pastor at the time (Marty Rowley) heard me preach, he promoted me to be the leader and main preacher of this ministry to help me develop into my calling. When he had promoted me, I had only spoken in public five times in my entire life, North had only existed five months, and I had absolutely no training in theology or in practical ministry other than my own personal study. Now I was supposed to lead and pastor roughly a little more than one hundred of my peers. It was the biggest challenge I had ever faced, and thankfully, God that saw it was necessary to give me a helpmate at this time.

During this season, I had also begun a relationship with a woman from Ohio named Kate. She was working as a children’s and youth minister for a church plant. We honestly shared our hearts with one another over the period of several months. Our dating relationship consisted almost completely of talking on over the phone, so we developed great communication early on. We couldn’t hide from each other in miniature golf games or movies or any other activity. All we had was to honest conversation, in which we wanted to discern whether or not we called to marry one another. Quickly, Kate and I came to believe that we were made for each other, and with the full agreement of our families, close Christian friends, and spiritual leadership, we decided to spend the rest of our lives with each other. We were married on July 3, 2008, and she is still the love of my life, my best friend, and helpmate in ministry.

In this manner, I was released into pastoral ministry, and it was the first time in my life that I felt like I was doing what God had created me to do. I loved preaching. I loved leading. I loved seeking the Lord for vision and him faithfully give it to me. I loved raising up, training, and empowering new leaders and then releasing them to minister. I had to learn a lot of hard lessons by experience, and honestly, there were many things I was terrible at doing (and I’m not out of the woods yet!). In North, God gave me a team of amazing leaders who were willing to sacrifice their time, money, and talents to reach their generation with the gospel. Over the course four years, my team and I refined our worship experience, created community groups, organized local outreach events, led international mission trips, and best of all saw people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. The same Gospel that saved me in my college dorm room was now saving others through the ministry of North. It was a dream come true, and I still consider the ministry of North to be one of the greatest blessings of my life.

As I continued to grow in ministry, I had come to firmly believe that one day God would call me to lead a congregation of people. More specifically, I had a strong sense that this call would culminate in either planting a church (beginning a new church from scratch) or replanting a church (revitalizing an existing church that needed radical new leadership).

For years, I assumed that this call would eventually lead me to a new city. I felt this way in part because Amarillo already had many churches. However, in the beginning of 2011 God began to burden my heart for my city. While Amarillo has many great churches, I began to realize that Amarillo did not have a church like the one that was in my heart: a church that would preach the gospel, focus on Christian community, plant churches, and seek to missionally engage and transform the culture of the city. I began to be confronted with the reality of hurting people who I knew I would never be able to reach with my college ministry and that would likely never brave the threshold of existing churches within the city. I began to sense that God had raised me up and given me unique experiences and training in ministry for a reason. I began to sense that God was calling me to pioneer a church in Amarillo.

In the late Spring of 2011, after diligently praying and having this calling confirmed in wise counsel, I decided it was time to approach my leadership at Trinity Fellowship with the hopes that they would release me in good will. This was perhaps the scariest step of faith I had ever taken, since I was putting my family’s provision on the line. Not to mention, Kate and I had just recently discovered that we were pregnant with our first child. But we had counted the cost. And, after receiving wise counsel from trusted friends, family, and fellow pastors, both Kate and I agreed that we were willing to sacrifice the comfort of our current ministry, salary, and lifestyle to passionately, obediently, and faithfully pursue the call that God had placed on our lives.

After a series of meetings with several elders, my vision was presented to the full eldership in early August. Their response was breathtaking. They had agreed that I had served Trinity faithfully and with a pure heart. They had come to trust my motives, and believe that I would never do anything to be divisive, rebellious, or reactionary. They believed that I had truly heard the call of God, and agreed that I was appropriately gifted to lead a church. And they agreed to release me in good will, as well as allow Kate and I could to have our child on Trinity’s medical insurance. Trinity is not my sending or supporting church, nor will our new church have any official connection to TFAC. However, Trinity’s eldership was able to release me on good terms—and in the Bible belt, this is rare miracle.

I am profoundly grateful for my experiences and relationships at Trinity Fellowship. I feel like God used the last seven years of my life to form into the man and the minster I am today.

***

In the blogs to come, I will address how we connected in relationship to our supporting church, how the Lord gave us team of people with which to lead this new vision, and how we were connected with the wonderful people of West Amarillo Christian Church.

(The following video was filmed at the ministry of North as I explained my call and transition.)

David Ritchie’s Transition from Joseph Elliott Schlabs on Vimeo.