Seize the Day!
March 29, 1992 | Ray Pritchard
The scene is a prep school somewhere in New England. On a beautiful fall morning the bright young men have gathered in English Literature class, fearing the worst—long, boring hours arguing about Beowulf and the intricacies of iambic pentameter. But lo, it is not to be. Their teacher is brand-new, a graduate years ago of that same school. To him, English Literature is not about names and rhymes; it’s about life—living, dying, loving, caring, feeling. He aims somehow to impart the vision to his young charges.
Suddenly he says, “Follow me,” and leads the class out into the hallway, down to the glass cases that contain the pictures of former students, now long gone, grown up, many of them gone forever from the face of the earth. “Look,” he says, “Look closely, do you see them?” The pictures are old, cracked, faded, but you can still see them, the youthful faces of long-ago. “Look at them carefully. They were once young like you are. They had hopes and dreams just like you do. They had grand ideas too.” Then the teacher lowers his voice and says, “Listen, can you hear what they are saying?” The young men press closer to the glass as if to hear the voices of the past come floating up from the cracked and faded pictures. “They’re calling out to you. If you listen, you can hear them. They’re calling out “Carpe diem.” These young men don’t know Latin, so the phrase is a mystery to them. “Carpe diem,” they mumble to each other. “Yes!” he cries out. “That’s it. Carpe diem. They’re saying, ’Carpe diem.’ Can you hear them?” Then he turns to the class egghead, the one with the glasses. “Mr. Stevenson, do you know what Carpe diem means?” The young man looks quizzical for a moment. Then the meaning comes to him. “Seize the day! Carpe diem means Seize the day!” “That’s right!” cries the teacher triumphantly. “Seize the day! They are calling out to you from the past—Seize the day!”
If you have seen the movie Dead Poet’s Society, that scene is forever etched in your mind. The past calls to the present—Carpe diem—”Seize the day!” The future looks to the past and says, “Carpe diem”—”Seize the day!” No message is more timely for the people of God in 1992. Either we rise up and seize the day for the glory of God or we let the moment pass and live to look back with bitter regret over what might have been.
Grasping the Tide
William Shakespeare said it this way, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries.”
What a critical moment this is in history. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that the Chinese word for “crisis” is actually made up of two other words joined together. One means “danger”; the other means “opportunity.” Every crisis is both danger and opportunity. The wise seize the moment, grasp the tide and move on to victory.
That, I think, is the message of God to Calvary Memorial Church. Carpe diem—”Seize the day!” The tide of opportunity is rolling in. Seize it at the flood. It leads on to fortune.
Seize the day! I know of no other motto that more forcefully sums up the Christian philosophy of life. It was said of King David that “when he had served his own generation according to the will of God, he fell asleep.” (Acts 13:36). Is there a better word that could be said about a man or a woman? “He served his own generation according to the will of God,” “She served God’s purpose in her generation.” How paltry are the plaudits of man by comparison. Years ago we learned this truth in a little couplet, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Reflections of a Dying Man
It is a measure of my advancing years that I find myself becoming a philosopher about life. Although I feel very young, the calendar tells me that on my next birthday I will be 40 years old. When I was 20, 40 seemed old. Now it seems very young indeed. Interestingly, I find myself thinking about my life in decades now. The decade of my 20s is long past, the decade of my 30s is almost over. What will the next decade hold?
Then my mind floated back ten years and I asked myself what I was thinking about when I turned 30. It’s all hazy in my mind, except for this one thing. For the first time in my life I was gripped with the fear of death. That is clear in my mind. Night after night the fact of my own mortality met me for the very first time. Until then, I knew I would live forever. Death was something that happened to other people. Turning 30 bothered me because it meant that I was getting old. Could death be far away? Years later I read in a book that men approaching the age of 30 often experience the fear of death for the first time.
It’s strange how the passage of a decade has changed my perspective. I no longer fear death, not like I did. Death is now a reality. It’s a fact of life. I’m going to die someday. The subtle signs of decay are already in my body. Death is even in my beard, in those fugitive gray hairs sprouting from my chin. Where did they come from? They came from God, who sent them to remind me that I will not live forever.
Therefore, the message is a very personal one. The voices call out from the faded pictures to me. “Pastor Ray, Carpe diem. Where we are you one day will be.” Yesterday I watched my middle son as he tried out for a summer baseball team. He represents the onrushing future. “Carpe diem, Dad, Seize the day.”
The Whys and Wherefores of Life
I am now in my third year as your pastor. How quickly the time has flown by. It’s hard to remember what I was doing before I came here. Calvary seems like home to me and the people of this congregation are truly part of my family.
In the past few months I’ve been meditating on why God sent me here. When I came in 1989, I didn’t have a clue. As is so often the case, God didn’t inform me in advance about why he wanted me in Oak Park. It wasn’t part of my plan at all. It seemed so unlikely, so contrary to anything I had ever done before. From time to time people here at Calvary tell me that when they heard me preach the very first time they knew I was God’s man for this church. That’s always gratifying, and a little scary, because it’s clear that God told quite a few people before he got around to telling me. Or possibly he told me but I wasn’t listening very good at first. But a lot of people seemed to just know that I should come here. To her credit, Marlene knew before I did that God was calling us here. She’s always been a lot quicker than me about things like that. I write pros and cons down on a piece of paper and still can’t make up my mind. She just knows.
But when I came as your pastor, I knew nothing about why God chose me to be your pastor. After a few months, some things became clear to me. Over time I began to see a pattern in the way things were working out. Now that nearly three years have passed, I think I have a good idea why I was sent here. Tonight I’d like to share what I believe to be the three reasons God led me to Calvary Memorial Church.
I. To Raise Up a New Generation of Leadership.
This was the first thing I realized. After I had been here for a few months, I was plunged into an intensive study of the history of this church in connection with our 75th Anniversary. In retrospect, that’s one of the best things that could ever have happened to me because it gave me a generational perspective on my ministry. Often I come down to the Dining Room and stand in front of the Timeline and think about what it represents. So much history and human drama is represented there. This church spans the 20th century. To put things in perspective, Louis Talbot became the first pastor two years before the Russian Revolution in 1917. I became the 12th pastor two years before the collapse of communism in 1991. This church has lived through the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. At the far left of the chart it says that Fred Stettler went out to be a foreign missionary in 1926. Sixty-six years have passed and he is still on the field—and we are still supporting him! In just a few months he celebrates his 90th birthday.
But the past, as glorious as it is, is not the whole story. Future chapters in our history remain to be written. Who will write them? Who will lead us into the 21st century? Where will the men and women come from who will rise up to shoulder the burden of leadership?
As I began to study the history of our church, I soon came to an amazing conclusion. Many of the current top leaders of our church came into our congregation during the ministry of Pastor Bob Gray. Mostly they are over 50 now, most of them are over 55, but they represent the senior leadership of this church. Many of them were young—like I am young now!—when they came to the church on the corner of Madison and Wisconsin. Through the years they have risen through the ranks to become the senior leaders of this church.
But that’s not the whole story. There is another stream of senior leadership in our church that came up through the ranks of Judson Baptist Church. They were saved there, baptized there, trained there, and now they are at Calvary sharing in the work of God here.
If you take those two streams and add them together, you discover two things: 1. These two streams account for over 90% of the senior leadership of our church. 2. Nearly everyone in these two groups is over 50 and most are over 55.
What are the characteristics of these leaders? 1. They tend to be intensely loyal to their church. 2. They give generously both of their time and their money. 3. They strongly support the traditional programs of the church, such as Sunday School and world missions. 4. They want their church to prosper financially and numerically.
These senior leaders are the salt of the earth. They are the financial and leadership backbone of this church. My ministry succeeds in large part because they want me to succeed. I say that as a small way of acknowledging my debt to them.
The Shape of the Future
There is another side to all of this. It is the chronological or generational side. By definition, the senior leaders of this church will not be with us forever. In fact, most of them will have passed off the scene of active service in the church by the year 2000. Many will have retired, some will move to Florida or Phoenix, others will continue to be active but at a lower level.
Who will lead the church after the leaders of today are gone? Who will rise up and take the yoke now carried by Paul Lavenau, Dick Jahns, Carolyn Klingbeil, Bob Bruce, Bill Bell, Marian Tetzlaff, Stan Utigard, Mabel Scheck, Marilyn Peterson, Shirley Banta, Byron and Bette Powell, Wayne and Catherine Watkins, Harold May, Bob Allen, Cliff Raad, Gloria Ahlenius, Milt Seifert, Shirley Jager, Irma Csakai, Vern Henrikson, Paul Shackley and literally dozens of other godly men and women who have laid down their lives to bring this church to where it is today? They have served their own generation according to the will of God. In the days to come, they will hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
Who will take their place in the years ahead? Where will we find the Board members of tomorrow? Who will arise and say, “I may be only 35 years old but you can count on me?” Who will say, “Don’t worry. I’m going to make sure that if Sharon Dix stays on the field for 40 years, we’ll still be standing beside her.”
These are not idle questions. They involve the very future of this church. I have come to see that God sent me here at a generational break. That means he sent me in some sense to do what Bob Gray did 30 years ago. Pastor Gray raised up the young men and women who now lead our church. The fruit of his ministry remains, even though 18 years have passed since he left this church. I feel one of the reasons God sent me to Calvary was to raise up many of the key men and women who will lead this church during the years 2000-2020. Some of them will come in under my ministry; many others were here before I got here, many of them coming to Calvary during the great growth period of 1980-1985.
Young and Getting Younger
Is this important? I answer that it is absolutely crucial. Recently Pastor Brian Bill shared with me some astounding statistics taken from our Worship Survey last October. The following numbers refer only to adults.
59% of our adult attenders are 40 or under.
33% of our adult attenders are in their 30s.
75% of our adult attenders are 50 or under.
The average age of our adult congregation is 38.5.
If you add the 240 children who aren’t counted in that figure, it means that on any given Sunday 72% of our total congregation is under the age of 40. That’s good news because the church growth experts tell us that in this decade American churches will either grow younger and bigger or older and smaller. Youth is always a sign of life. It bodes well for the future that God is sending us so many singles and young couples under the age of 40. It’s a good sign that our infant nursery is bursting at the seams.
Calvary is a young church and it’s getting younger all the time.
But who will lead the church of the future? Who will step forward to take the burden of leadership after the men and women who have brought us this far are no longer on the scene? The time to address these crucial questions is now, this year and over the next few years, and not ten years from now. That’s what I mean by the term “generational break.” One generation has led us out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the banks of the Jordan River. Another generation must begin to rise up to lead us into the Promised Land. We need strong men and women who are not frightened by the walled city of Jericho. And we desperately need the older generation to remind us of the miracle of passing through the Red Sea.
This perspective is so important because the Christian life is not a marathon. No one runs the whole race. Each generation takes the torch and circles the track, handing it off to the next generation. Where are we in 1992 in terms of that metaphor? One generation is in the backstretch heading now for the final turn. They are running with all their might. The question is, Will there be anyone to meet them at the finish line? Who will take the torch and continue the race?
Early on I came to the conviction that God sent me to Calvary to help answer those questions. To the best of my ability, I have attempted to locate key younger leaders and encouraged them to step forward. I expect to be doing much more of that in the days ahead.
Implications for the Future
What are the implications of recognizing the “generational break” of our congregation?
1. In the future we will see younger men and women leading our congregation.
2. The structures and programs of the church will begin to change as we retool during this decade. Programs that used to work in some other church—or even programs that used to work here 20 years ago—won’t necessarily work in the 90s.
3. The younger leaders will have to learn the hard way that “new” doesn’t always equal better.
4. The pace of change will increase, and the older generation will face the unsettling reality that the church of the 1960s and 70s is gone forever.
5. In line with that, it’s important that we stress the intergenerational unity of the body of Christ. The older and the younger need each other. After all, the senior leaders were once younger themselves; someone had to give them the chance to lead. The “young bucks” of today will be tomorrow’s stick-in-the-mud fuddy-duddies. And that day is not really so far away.
During these years of change it’s important we spend time together as the family of God. We need more events like the ABC Delicious, the Shepherd’s Open Houses, the Day in Our Village, the Church Picnic and Family Snow Camp. Getting together on a churchwide basis helps us remember that God’s family is much bigger than our own agendas.
There are many other implications to the “generational break” analysis, but these are a few that come to mind. I hadn’t been here very long before I realized that a new generation would soon be leading this church and it was my job to help get that generation ready to lead us into the future.
My final word on this point is that those of us under the age of 45 owe a great debt to the generation above us. They have set the pace and shown us the way. They have modeled what Christlike leadership is all about. We will have to go a long way to match what they have done for our church. As we build for the future, let us remember that we build on a solid foundation of dedication and sacrifice laid over 77 years by men and women who stopped here on their way to heaven.
There’s a second reason I believe God sent me to Calvary.
2. To Impart the Vision of Becoming a Regional Church.
Oftentimes I hear it said that our church has a fabulous potential. The people who say that usually mean that there is so much we could be doing for the kingdom of God. I agree. One of the best arguments in favor of a regional church is our location. As long as we were on Madison and Wisconsin we could never have a regional influence. The buildings were too small and the location wasn’t right. But things are different at 931 Lake Street. When W. G. Williamson designed this massive structure at the turn of the century, he intended it to make a major statement to the community. The message was, “An important church worships here.” A sub-message was, “You can’t take us for granted.” And that’s what happened for many decades at the First Presbyterian Church. History tells us that this church was a proving ground for men who would go on to national influence in the Presbyterian Church.
There’s another side to that. Oak Park itself has had a reputation as a cutting-edge community for over 100 years. Ever since Joseph Kettlestrings settled this area and the Kenilworth family built their estate, Oak Park has been considered a unique place. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but Oak Park is different. For decades we’ve been turning out leaders who have affected the entire world—people like Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray Kroc, Percy Julian—not to mention others such as Marjorie Judith Vincent, the 1990 Miss America, Bruce Morton, the CBS News correspondent and Bob Newhart (no, I’m not kidding!).
Oak Park is not like Cicero or Maywood or Elmhurst or Elmwood Park. I felt the difference as soon as we moved here. At the turn of the century Oak Park was considered the most fashionable suburb of Chicago. While many of the ultra-rich have moved out west, the feeling remains that Oak Park is a place apart, not to be compared with other villages or communities.
Any church in Oak Park will consequently look and feel differently from churches located only a few miles away. This church reflects its community as certainly as the Temple of the Gospel reflects the city of St. Petersburg. We are an Oak Park church in every sense of the word.
As such, I believe God has given us a unique opportunity to influence a wide area for Jesus Christ. In years past I have defined that area as stretching from Park Ridge on the north to Austin on the east, Cicero to the south, Elmhurst to the west and even out to the edges of Oak Brook. Our location makes us both urban and suburban. While we are definitely not inner-city, we are also far from being a typical suburban church. I believe God has put us where we are in order that we might make a regional impact for Jesus Christ.
What is a regional church? A regional church is one that, by virtue of its unique location or its unique ministry or its unique size, is widely recognized as a leading church by both the churched and the unchurched. A regional church has an influence all out of proportion to its size. A regional church becomes a lighthouse for the gospel. It becomes a staging ground for the army of the Lord. It becomes a bellweather for other evangelical churches that look to it for hope and encouragement. And if I could add one more, it also becomes a lightening rod for controversy by leading the fight for truth.
Seven Vital Signs
I see many signs that we are well on the way to becoming a regional church. Let me list seven of them.
1. The Influx of Internationals. In the last year I’ve been struck with how many different nationalities are represented in our midst on Sunday morning. There are Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Africans, and more are coming all the time. Take a look around next Sunday. Our services often look like a mini-United Nations. We’re not the exclusively white, middle-class American congregation we used to be.
That trend tracks exactly with what is happening both nationally and locally. As a nation, America is becoming progressively browner. In fact, a recent article in American Demographics was titled “We’re All Minorities Now.” The white population of Chicago is already a minority; that trend will escalate as families continue fleeing to the suburbs. Meanwhile, Oak Park navigates through a sea of ethnic and racial change. Consider the following numbers:
In 1970 Oak Park was 2% black.
In 1980 Oak Park was 10% black.
In 1990 Oak Park was 19% black.
By 1994 the statisticians suggest that Oak Park will be 24% black.
Some of the elementary schools are nearly 35% black and the high school is over 25% black. At the same time our Hispanic and Asian populations continue to grow.
These trends point up a major fact: Our world is changing all around us. It’s changing whether we like it or not. Our only choice is how we respond.
While I am not prepared to offer final answers, I am encouraged by the slowly-growing racial and ethnic diversity of our congregation. One mark of a regional church is that it attracts a wide variety of different people.
2. The Diverse Makeup of Our Awana Program and Our Youth Ministry. Week after week parents from many different churches send their children to our youth programs. Some come to Awana; some to Allied Force; some to Power Connection. They come, they use our facilities, they enjoy our programs, then they go to their own churches on Sunday.
You know what I think about that? I love it. It’s a sign of a truly strong church. What a blessing to be able to supplement the programs of other, smaller churches in the area. I could easily name 10 churches that are represented each week in our various youth ministries. Is it expensive? Yes. Do we proselytize? No, although some families do end up coming to Calvary. We aren’t in the business of trying to grow at the expense of other churches. To me, it’s a sign of enormous strength that other churches look to us to provide programs of such high quality that they want to send their children to enjoy them. It’s also a tremendous compliment to the men and women who lead those programs.
3. The Growing Outreach of Our Music Ministry. Two years ago when we did “In the Gardens” we filled up the sanctuary twice. Last Christmas hundreds of people crowded in for our choir concert. Every time our children present a musical, we fill up the sanctuary. Music is a language everyone can understand. I commend Terry and David and all those who lead our children’s choirs for their tireless efforts. Because of you, multitudes are being reached by the ministry of music.
4. The Major Conferences We Host. Two years ago we hosted the Midwest Conference on AIDS Ministry. Last September and October, we hosted two area-wide financial conferences in connection with the Larry Burkett organization. In November, several hundred people came from all over America for the Spiritual Warfare Conference. Other conferences include Son-Life Training Seminars and the conference on Creation and Evolution.
5. The Near West Crisis Pregnancy Center. In case you didn’t know, a brand-new crisis pregnancy center opens its doors in Oak Park on May 18. This involves a cooperative effort of many evangelical churches in our area. I am grateful for the fact that our church has played a leading role in seeing this new center come into being. Some of our people have donated hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars over the last six months. At long last there will be a viable option for the young women considering abortion. This represents a major victory for the kingdom of God.
6. The Startling Success of Our Crossroads Ministry. Some of you can remember when this ministry was only a dream—an impossible dream—in the minds of a few visionaries. At first it seemed impossible that a church as conservative as ours would do something as radical as offer rock music and live drama in the sanctuary. What would those old Presbyterians think? For that matter, what would the people who founded this church think? No doubt they would be shocked. Many people thought Crossroads would never work. They said, “It’s too much work,” “No one will ever come,” or “It will divide the congregation.” Well, it is a lot of work, hundreds of people have come and Crossroads has made us a better, stronger church. And do you know what? We now regularly get calls from around the country from people who’ve heard about Crossroads and ask us to send them information so they can start a similar ministry in their own churches. One such call came in a few months ago from Chuck Swindoll’s church in Fullerton, California.
7. Our High Profile on Crucial Moral Issues. How many of you read the Wednesday Journal this week (March 25, 1992)? Did you see the article on page 17 by Harold May? If you didn’t see it, you need to get a copy and read it. After I preached my sermon on Magic Johnson last November, Harold came to me and said, “Pastor, we need to get this in the newspaper.” I just laughed and said, “Harold, they’ll never print that.” But he persisted, so I said, “Go ahead and see what you can do.” So he went down to see Dan Haley, the editor. In fact, he gave him the whole sermon to read. Mr. Haley said he should excerpt it in a letter. So Harold came back to see me, and frankly, I didn’t take him seriously. I knew the Wednesday Journal was never going to print anything from one of my sermons. But I underestimated Harold. He went to see Dan Haley, not once, not twice, but again and again. He went back so often they finally told him that he couldn’t see him any more. So he began to talk to one of the secretaries, not once but over and over again, so many times that they eventually told him not to talk to her any more. Harold never gave up, but kept on pestering the newspaper until finally they published his article. I was shocked when I saw it. It was so long they had to run it as a column. It says everything I wanted to say—and much more. I can’t wait to read the “Letters” column next week to hear from the other side. Meanwhile, Harold gets all the credit. I should add that on Friday Harold went down to the newspaper to thank the man who had done the editing on my sermon. When Harold thanked him, he said, “This is very unusual. I rarely get thanked for what I do.” Who knows what doors for ministry will open because of one man’s persistence.
This is but one small example of the growing impact of Calvary Memorial Church as a leading spokesman for evangelical Christianity. In an era when so many churches have left the faith, God has opened a tremendous door for us to represent him before the world.
Which Way From Here
As I look into the future, I see us increasing our community impact in every area. What will that mean for us as a congregation?
1. Increasingly, we will become a church with only one main “all together” event. As we move through the next few years, the old paradigm of coming to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday will begin to disappear. Already we draw people from an area much broader than Oak Park. For people who drive 30-35 minutes one way to church on Sunday morning, it is nearly impossible (given the other pressures of life) to expect them to return on Sunday evenings. My own opinion is that Sunday nights will become a very specialized time and that the traditional Sunday night service at Calvary may eventually become a thing of the past. At some point in the future we may meet on Sunday nights 10-15 times a year for various big events, but the rest of the Sunday nights would then be open for small group ministries, training sessions, youth outreach events, and so on. (Special Note to all the dyed-in-the-wool Sunday night fans: Don’t fret about this. I’m only pointing out what might happen in the years ahead. Then again, it might not. We need to be open to many possibilities for making our church 100% effective. Are you smiling? I’m smiling as I write this, because I know who the dyed-in-the-wool Sunday night fans are, and I always enjoy being with you during the Sunday night services.)
2. In the future our Shepherding Ministry will become critical for the future of the church. According to our latest count, we now have 1703 people in 990 family units. Not all of those people attend here regularly, but all are related to the church in one way or another. How will we reach out in love to our far-flung congregation? One pastor, or even one group of pastors, cannot do it. As we continue to grow, we will depend more and more on our shepherds to care for our people.
3. Becoming a regional church has enormous implications for how we spend our money. If we are serious about this, we must put our money into those areas that especially impact great numbers of people. I am thinking now of four key areas:
A. Building Maintenance and Renovation. Fully 24% of our recent visitors first noticed our church when they walked by or drove by. That’s a huge percentage when you compare it with other churches nationwide. Our building is one of our best assets and we must invest in it.
B. Children’s Ministry
C. Youth Ministry
D. Music Ministry
Money spent in these four areas will pay off in big ways in the future. Regarding children and youth, the more we do in these areas, the more people we reach. This is a “hot button” issue in Oak Park. Hundreds of families are so concerned about their children that they will gladly attend any church that provides an excellent program.
Time For A New Church?
Every year I like to bring forth at least one new idea in the State of the Church message, and this is my new idea for 1992. In line with our desire to reach people with God’s love, and in recognition of the diverse nature of our congregation, I’ve been thinking and praying for some time that we as a congregation should plant a new church somewhere in the near western suburbs. Such a church would be well-focused as a church geared to reach the unchurched in a fresh and relevant way. The music would be contemporary, the gospel would be contemporary, and the church would be built around a small group ministry model. In doctrine it would be identical to Calvary; in practice it would be much different.
What would be the benefit? Primarily this. It would enable us to reach more people for Jesus Christ than we are able to reach now. On this point, the research from around the country is unanimous: New churches reach new people much faster than old churches do. The reason is not hard to find: Old churches tend to be stuck in their ways. They also tend to cater to insiders. New churches have to cater to the unchurched in order to survive.
Are there any drawbacks? None that are insurmountable. The usual objection is that starting a new church weakens the mother church by taking away key leaders and key givers. But Brian Larson’s research at Talbot School of Theology shows conclusively that that is usually not the case. Healthy mother churches generally replace the people and the money within six months. Starting a new church is generally as good for the morale of a healthy church as having a baby is for a young couple.
The one main drawback is that some people would have to leave the womb and go out into the world. You wouldn’t have the safety of this massive organization to fall back on. Nor would you have a million dollar budget behind you. Nor would you start with a well-developed youth ministry or music ministry. The line between success and failure would be very thin indeed. Are there any pioneers out there who feel up to the challenge? Any young couples who don’t mind giving up all the creatures comforts you now enjoy? Any older folks who wouldn’t mind one more big challenge? In order to make this new church a reality, we would need 75 very committed people, men and women who would step out in faith without looking back. Any takers?
As usual, our history helps us in this regard. Did you know that this church began supporting its first branch work in 1916, when we were only one year old? In 1919 we appointed a committee to help the Wenonah Bible School (later to become the Berwyn Gospel Center) erect its first building. Still later a man named Gathercoal left our congregation to help start the South Maywood Gospel Tabernacle. What an example from our history! We were planting daughter churches while we were still in diapers.
There is yet one more major reason I believe God sent me to Calvary.
3. To Reaffirm Our Historic Biblical Position.
First things first. This church has always had a conservative doctrinal position. We were started in reaction to prevailing liberalism in the churches of Oak Park 77 years ago. From that moment until this, our basic faith in the Bible has remained intact.
But times do change, and the church has changed with the times. As I have pondered our recent history, it’s easy to see that the fire in 1977 was the most important event in the history of the church. Everything can be dated either B.F. or A.F.—Before the Fire or After the Fire. Before the fire, we were a typical evangelical church with a strong neighborhood base. After the fire, we became a cosmopolitan church with a widely diverse congregation. In my opinion this congregation went through a major sociological shift when we moved from Madison Street to Lake Street. Although the move only covered a few blocks, in terms of the culture and “feel” of the church, it was like moving hundreds of miles. Moving to Lake Street put us “on the map,” so to speak, and guaranteed that our congregation would change.
These things were all in the mind and plan of God when he allowed the fire to happen. What seemed like a terrible tragedy at the time turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Without the fire, we would probably still be in our old location, with only a fraction of the influence we have today.
One of the side effects of our move to Lake Street is that as the church has grown it has become more and more inter-denominational. Although our history shows that our founders used the word themselves, they meant it in the sense of “welcoming people from many different church backgrounds.” Today many people use it in a secondary sense of “playing down our doctrinal distinctives.” That is, to many people Calvary is a church where we don’t emphasize our doctrine, except the few basic Christian beliefs that all Christians everywhere hold in common.
Let me say frankly that the people who founded this church would be shocked by such an attitude. If you study the history of the church, it is clear that it was founded upon a very distinctive doctrinal base. While it is true that we believe the Apostles’ Creed, for instance, it’s also true that we believe more than the Apostles’ Creed. And we haven’t been shy about spelling it out. Our Articles of Faith, for instance, are very particular about some very controversial areas, such as eternal security, the premillennial return of Christ, the inerrancy of the Bible, unlimited atonement, the church beginning at Pentecost, the total depravity of man, the absolute necessity of the new birth, and the reality of eternal punishment in hell.
In the last few years as the church has become cosmopolitan, it’s become fashionable not to mention doctrine, especially doctrine that might be considered divisive or controversial. We’ve also allowed some controversies to go on and on because we can’t seem to make up our mind about what we really believe.
There is no virtue in unending discussion of doctrinal or moral issues. Nor is it noble to refuse to take a stand for fear that someone will disagree. There comes a time when you need to stop discussing and start deciding. In these days of rampant theological confusion the great need is for churches that will take a stand on the truth of God’s Word regardless of the consequences.
Surprised by Romans
Although most of you don’t know this, I was very reluctant to preach through Romans 1-4. I really didn’t think the congregation would sit still for such strong preaching. The staff knows that I approached this series with a considerable feeling of doubt and diffidence. But I now confess that I was wrong. I have been overwhelmed by your response. Almost every day someone writes or calls or stops me in the hallway to thank me for this series. In my mind, whatever good has happened has come from the hand of the Lord.
I have even discovered that the stronger I preach, and the bolder my statements, the more this congregation responds. Whenever I take a strong stand on an issue, I am overwhelmed by people saying, “Thank you. It’s about time someone said that.”
That tells me that this congregation has been waiting for strong leadership, that you want strong, bold, plain, direct preaching that pulls no punches. It also tells me that you are willing to suffer the misunderstanding that comes from taking a strong stand.
Two Critical Issues
Let me now apply this insight to two contemporary issues—revising our constitution and the role of women in the church. First, concerning the constitutional revision, its primary change is to take us back to a system of elders and deacons. I say “back to” because the system proposed in the new constitution is similar to the one we followed for 61 years, from 1915-1976.
I am in favor of revising the constitution for the following reasons:
1. It brings us closer to the biblical pattern of local church leadership.
2. It allows us to focus on the spiritual qualifications of I Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
3. It frees up the elders to concentrate on issues of leadership, vision and the overall direction of the church.
4. It provides the pastor with a group of godly laymen who can help him make wise
5. It empowers younger leaders—both men and women—by allowing them to display their leadership ability while serving as deacons and deaconesses.
6. It enables us to clarify our position on the respective roles of men and women in the
7. It promotes congregational government by giving the congregation a greater say in the
elder selection process.
The first reason is the most important one because it refers to the “biblical pattern of local church leadership.” What does that phrase mean? Does the New Testament reveal a clear pattern of leadership for the people of God? How will the New Testament principles work out in a 20th-century church?
Since we are now on the verge on holding public hearings on the new constitution, I have decided to break into my Sunday night series on the Articles of Faith for a special four-part series on these crucial issues. The series, titled In Search of the Early Church, begins next Sunday night:
April 5 — First Century Patterns for 20th Century Churches
April 12 — What Elders Do
May 10 — What Deacons Do
May 31 — Is Congregational Government Biblical?
I hope you will come with your comments and questions. If we’re going to make such a major change, it’s only right that you understand what the Bible really says about these issues.
I obviously do not have time to address the “women’s issue” in any depth. For those who are interested, I refer you to my paper from last summer—”Equal But Not Identical.” In it I go to some length to consider the key biblical passages and how they apply to our situation. I continue to believe the things I wrote in that paper. If you want my view in one sentence, it is that men and women are equal in value, worth and dignity, and within that equality there is a God-ordained differentiation of role and function. My only other comment is that this issue must finally be resolved by what the Bible says, not by the opinions of modern society.
Years ago we used to teach our children a little chorus that went this way: “The B-I-B-L-E, Yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God. The B-I-B-L-E.” Although the tune might be dated, the message is entirely up-to-date. As long as we stand alone on the Word of God, we’ll be all right. We’re standing where our ancestors stood 77 years ago when they brought this church into being. We’re standing on the same tradition that made this church great. We’re standing on the one thing that will outlast the changing winds of public opinion.
Let us therefore reaffirm our commitment to the Bible as the foundation of everything we do and say. Let us recommit ourselves to becoming people of the Book. Let us read it, and love it, and memorize it, and follow it. Let us learn it so we can teach it to others. Let us believe it so we can obey it. Let us follow the Bible in all that we do and in the end we’ll never regret that we did.
What Does the Future Hold?
What will the future hold for Calvary? Along with many others I believe the future is bright. God has laid before us an unparalleled opportunity. When you consider our prime location, when you consider our strong commitment to the Bible, when you consider how many talented and gifted people make up this congregation, when you consider the unique nature of Oak Park, when all those things are factored together, it’s hard to believe that it is all coincidence. Does not God have a wonderful future in mind for us? With all my heart, I believe the answer is yes.
The only question is whether or not we will rise to the challenge before us. God’s word to us is Carpe diem, “Seize the day.”
For my own part, as I think about those who have filled my position in years past, I am amazed that God has allowed me to follow such good and honorable men. In years past, God sent each man to Calvary with unique gifts to do a particular job. That knowledge makes me feel secure in what I am doing. If God called those men to this church at just the right time, then surely he called me here at just the right time too. When he has finished his work through me, another pastor will come to take my place. That thought gives me much hope and encouragement, because it reminds me that this church doesn’t depend on me for its survival. It depends solely upon the Lord. God who called me to this church is fully able to give me whatever I need to do the job he wants me to do.
Grease With Some Hamburger on the Side
Sometimes it helps to be reminded of your own mortality. Last week I had a phone call from my old friend Paul Lynch. Paul has been a soloist on Jerry Falwell’s television program for about six years. That’s about how long it had been since I had talked with him.
I first knew Paul in Russellville, Alabama, when I was a junior in high school and he must have been in the seventh grade. Back then he wasn’t a singer. As I remember it, he couldn’t sing a lick, so when we had a big youth revival, we made him be an usher instead of singing in the choir. Over the years his voice developed wonderfully and he has sung on Dr. Falwell’s national broadcast many times.
Paul’s father Dudley Lynch pastored a tiny Cumberland Presbyterian Church built near a strip mine on state highway 24 between Russellville and Belgreen. It was a typical tiny country brick church. I remember attending services there a few times. I suppose if they had 60 people it was considered a high attendance day. Dudley worked a variety of second jobs to support his family. At one point he opened up a sandwich shop next door to Hayes Oldsmobile where they sold the greasiest hamburger in America—the Lynchburger.
I remember sitting at the counter talking over the Bible while Dudley was cooking Lynchburgers. That was the beginning of my knowledge of Bible doctrine. Dudley was also the first one who told me about a place called Dallas Theological Seminary. I never saw him without a smile on his face.
His influence on my life in those formative years is beyond calculation.
I last talked to Dudley Lynch in 1975, 17 years ago. He was pastoring another small church in Fulton, Kentucky. So when I asked Paul about how his parents were doing, I was very sad to hear that his father was very sick and that they were staying with his sister Joanna.
Seventeen Years Ago Yesterday
When I called to talk to Dudley, Joanna answered the phone. She said, “How are you, Ray?” as if she had last talked to me yesterday. Seventeen years seemed to miraculously disappear. Then her mother Jo came to the phone. It was the same. As if 17 years had just vanished from my life. As if I were newly married and starting seminary all over again. So much has happened in the intervening years—seminary graduation, a church in California, a church in Texas, a church in Illinois, three boys. Some great victories, some bitter defeats, so many highs and lows I can’t remember them all. But they all faded away with one phone call.
True friends are like that. You can be out of touch for 30 years and when you talk to them, it’s like you just saw them yesterday.
Jo told me that Dudley is dying from complications related to diabetes. The doctors sent him home to die a month ago. He’s incoherent now, talking to imaginary people, not knowing where he is. As I thought about my old friend, I realized that he has finished his race with high honors. For him the work is done. All that remains is to enter into heaven. Jo and I prayed together on the phone and asked God to release Dudley from his suffering.
My friend Dudley Lynch, unknown on the earth, is well-known in heaven. About him it could be truly said that he “served his own generation by the will of God.” Now he hangs between life and death.
I wonder what it all means. So much that seems so important now will seem so trivial later. So much that we worry about will amount to so little in the end. As I hung up the phone, I thought I heard Dudley’s voice calling out to me, “Carpe diem, Ray. Seize the day. Someday you will be where I am.”
To serve Jesus Christ is all that matters. To love and be loved. To have a few friends. To invest your life in people. These are the things that last for eternity.
Carpe diem, O people of God. Rise up and seize the day.