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Wisdom for Tough Times

April 26, 2009
Sermon:  April 26, 2009
Text:  Proverbs 16:1-9

Today, I want to speak directly to this congregation and give words of encouragement to Morningside during these tough times.

Our Scripture today comes from the book of Proverbs, Chapter 16.  I invite your attention as I read the first nine verses as our text for this message.  Hear now the Word of God:


To man belong the plans of the heart,
     but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue. 
All of man’s ways seem innocent to him,
     but motives are weighed by the Lord. 
Commit to the Lord whatever you do,
     and your plans will succeed. 
The Lord works out everything for his own ends –
     even the wicked for a day of disaster. 
The Lord detests all the proud of heart. 
     Be sure of this:  They will not go unpunished. 
Through love and faithfulness, sin is atoned for;
     through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil. 
When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord,
     he makes even his enemies live at peace with him. 
Better a little with righteousness
     than much gain with injustice. 
In his heart a man plans his course,
     but the Lord determines his steps.

This is the Word of God for the people of God. 

During a time in the history of the Jewish people, every twelve-year-old boy was required to memorize the entire book of Proverbs, a collection of wise old sayings.  That requirement illustrates the importance of this teaching among the people of Israel.  They wanted these words inscribed on the hearts of their young men.  The proverbs are important not only for young men, but for young women as well. 

You will notice that the book of Proverbs has thirty-one chapters.  Any month of the year you can read one chapter a day, a chapter that corresponds to the day of the month.  For example, for today, the twenty-sixth of April, you might read Chapter 26.  During some months, you will only have thirty chapters to read.  Other months will include thirty-one chapters.  The month of February will give you twenty-eight or twenty-nine.  Clare and I made the practice of reading a chapter of Proverbs every day together with our children when they were small.  I recommend that you consider doing the same with your family.

The book of Proverbs, attributed to Solomon, really represents a collection of wisdom from a number of different sources.  Probably when Solomon was king, he ordered that this collection be compiled.  For most of the book, the organization seems to be rather random, and you will notice that teachings are repeated with some variations.  The teachings voice the same concept repeatedly but with different words.  Good teaching uses repetition, thus providing alternative ways of learning.  This book promotes doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong.  Most often, it talks about choosing the wise way rather than the foolish way.  You can see clearly that this collection of wisdom was intended to be a book of instruction.  In the Hebrew language, these verses have a kind of rhythm and rhyme.  Two words, kol and gol, as we would spell them in English, are repeated.  Verses beginning with those words remind us to listen to the voice of God, to pay attention to the commandments of God.  Those words became to Hebrew ears a way of saying, “You must remember this teaching, this instruction.” 

The first fifteen chapters of Proverbs address people in general, but Chapter 16 is a turning point.  The proverbs, beginning with Chapter 16, are specifically intended for those who are in leadership positions, such as a king.  Verses 1-9 form a kind of prelude to those teachings about how a king should act, about how a king should make decisions.  We know that at one time in the development in this text, these nine verses were scattered like other verses in the book of Proverbs.  By the time the Nazaritic text came into being, these verses had been collected into this holistic unit that are to be read together, to be understood together.  They represent a tight theological construct. 

What do these verses teach us?  They teach us that our plan will never work unless it is aligned with God’s plan.  If we go off on our own and try to do things our way without consulting God and considering His plan, we are going to fall into error and experience failure.  Other places in Proverbs present the same concept.  The verses I quoted at the beginning of the service today are probably the most familiar to you:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.  Lean not to your own understanding; in all of your ways, acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).  All of us need to hear these words.  This is wisdom for all time and for all people in every circumstance.  This is the way we are to make decisions in our family.  This is the way we are to make personal decisions in our own business.  We must consult God.  We must consult His wisdom and His way.  If we follow His leadership, we will make wise decisions. 

Does that mean that everything will turn out just right?  No.  It does not mean that we are going to avoid difficulty.  It does mean that if we ignore what God teaches, we are bound to fail.  This wisdom certainly applies for tough times.  It applies to people who are now faced with making difficult decisions.  People are not good at doing that because we live in a kind of helter-skelter world.  When times are tough, people tend to panic, reacting according to the motto of the French Foreign Legion:  When in doubt, charge!  We want to do something, even if it is wrong.  So often, people pop off and make rash decisions because they are in too big of a hurry to consider all options available.

Maybe you have heard about lemmings, furry rodents that live on islands in the North Sea.  Nobody knows exactly why they periodically seem to go crazy.  They start running and running and running to the edge of the cliff and hurl themselves into the sea.  Their behavior gives us the expression “like lemmings rushing to the sea.”  Whatever happens in their minds is hard to determine, but they follow the crowd to their own destruction.  People are so prone to respond in the same way. 

As a church family, we live in a time when we must make some difficult decisions.  Before telling you about those areas that require our attention, I would like to propose five suggestions to keep in mind when making decisions.

First, we cannot make any sudden moves.  Think of yourself as being in a canoe when you come to rapids in a river.  Those of you who have done some whitewater rafting, kayaking, or canoeing know that you must hold the canoe as steady as possible.  You cannot not just sit back and relax.  You must paddle hard so that you can exceed the speed of the river.  Unless you are moving faster than the water, you have no control over the canoe.  Even as you paddle, you do not want to rock the boat.  You want to hold it as steady as possible. 

As a congregation, we need to be very active in making some decisions and then moving forward.  At the same time, however, we must be very careful not to react and make sudden moves that would cause us to be unstable. We do not need to feel as though the events happening all around us are hurling us along like the lemmings, without the possibility of thinking through the situation for ourselves. 

Second, everything, everything, must be done in prayer.  I often say that a church advances on its knees.  Morningside is a praying church.  Consider some of the groups and procedures we have in place.  The Prayer Warriors, every Friday morning, pray for all facets of the church, including those who have special needs.  I know they have often prayed for me.  A group called The One Hundred prays for Morningside members every week in the privacy of their homes.  Members of this church pray for others every week.  The Prayer Line, the Prayer Room, and Prayer Meeting on Wednesday nights offer even more opportunities for prayer.  You are invited to participate in any of these times of prayer.  We have set up this system because we believe in the power of prayer.  We believe that we must make decisions only through prayer. 

Third, we must keep our eye on our mission, on our goal.  I want you to look at the information labeled Purpose Statement and Ten Characteristics of an Effective Church.  You may not even know these two documents exist and that they have been incorporated into the Morningside Baptist Church Constitution and Bylaws.  First, you see our Purpose Statement, our identity statement:  Morningside Baptist Church is a family of faith, living in hope, serving in joy, and bonded in love, which I use as a benediction almost every Sunday morning following worship services.  “The purpose of Morningside is to welcome people into God’s family upon repentance of their sin and profession of faith in Jesus Christ and to enable them to grow to Christian maturity.”  Five sentences about how we intend to fulfill that purpose follow.  Please take the time to read through those carefully.  Underneath that section are ten characteristics of an effective church.  Allow those characteristics to be the focus as you pray for this church and its ministries.

We have a responsibility to remember our purpose, based on the Great Commission Jesus gave his disciples.  He told them, “Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19).  We are called to do the same.  All activities of this church should center on that single purpose.  In the decision-making process before us, we must never lose sight of the reason the church exists.  The church does not exist just to enjoy each other’s company, just to meet and eat.  It does not exist just because we enjoy great music or outstanding preaching.  That is not why I come here, and you do not come here for those reasons, either.  The church exists to offer renewal and restoration.  We come to be reminded of why God has called us into being a church.  This mission statement reminds us of our purpose to fulfill God’s mission in the world. 

Fourth, we need to be biblically based.  We are people of the Book, people of God’s Word.  If we are seeking God’s leadership, our decisions must be rooted and grounded in the Word of God, which was inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The same Holy Spirit that inspired the writing of God’s Word inspires the reading and the understanding of God’s Word.  The combination of a life of prayer with Scripture creates a powerful dynamic.  That combination helps us understand how God intends to lead us.  That combination allows us to experience a spiritual front-end alignment that brings our will, our intention, our plan into line with God’s will and direction.

The fifth important point is that we must listen to what God has to say to us and listen to what others have to say.  Proverbs repeatedly states that a wise man makes decisions with many counselors.  People in this church guide me every single day.  I try my best to listen to what they have to say because they are especially gifted in certain areas of church life.  If I do not listen to them, I will make a serious mistake.  One person I listen to intently is my wife, Clare.  God brought her into my life to be a person with whom I can consult.  She is my best friend, and I need to pay attention to her.  All of us have people we trust.  If we are going to make good decisions, we have to listen to the good counsel of those individuals.

Today, just two weeks after Easter, I want to remind you of the seven last words of the church:  “We never did it that way before.”  Nothing will kill a church quicker than believing in that statement.  Sometimes the way we have done things in the past was the right way.  If we are going to make good decisions for the future, however, we must consider some new approaches.  We must be receptive to considering alternative ways.

I want to give you a little information about three areas in particular that require some decisions.  You need to be aware of what is on the horizon.  Capable committees and a wonderful diaconate will bring the big decisions before the congregation.  Please know that you will be a part of this decision-making process. 

Some years ago when we were considering constructing what is now our new fellowship hall and educational building, I received a book written by two church architects,  When Not to Build.  The writers state that churches are too quick to build new buildings and that churches very often have space they are not using in the most efficient way.  Before ever considering adding a new building, churches must look at how they are using the facilities they already have.  Think about it.  You would do the same in your own home if your family were growing, increasing in number.

Is our church family increasing?  Yes.  We have added thirty new members since January 1.  We are growing and increasing in the number of young families, some with children, which is one of the quickest ways a church grows.  We have engaged Neil Prince and Associates, a firm in Greenville, South Carolina, that specializes in church architecture.  The representatives we have met with are leaders in their own Baptist churches, so they understand life within a Baptist church.  These representatives have come to evaluate our use of current facilities and to offer suggestions to make better use of the space we have.

  1. That problem needs to be addressed, but the work will be somewhat expensive.

A few people wondered this morning if somebody turned the thermostat up in the Sanctuary this morning so that we would realize just what a problem we had.  I can assure you that no one did that.  If you are warm today, it is the Lord’s doing.  The installation of a new system is necessary, but you will not see this work being completed. 

The second area of concern that many in our congregation do not see involves the fastest growing groups in this church: preschoolers and children.  If you come in the Sanctuary to the early worship service on Sunday morning, walk down this hallway to the Welcome Center, and then on to your Sunday School class, you do not realize the bottleneck created in that area.  We must address that issue.  We are just about maxed out in the space we have for those two groups.  What a glorious problem!  Many churches would give their eye teeth to have such a problem.  Please pray about how Morningside Baptist Church can provide the needed facilities for children and preschoolers in our current building. 

You might say, “Kirk, you are talking about two major renovations.  How in the world is the church going to pay for that?”  We are trying to find a feasible solution.  We have money in the building fund, though the church cannot use that money for renovation without a congregational vote.  My guess is that if we brought these needs before the congregation and if we had a good economical plan, members might be willing to vote for to use that money for renovating the building.  Doing so would make more room for our preschoolers and children. 

A third area of concern is how to better use the human resources of the church.  The staff will have a retreat, an economical retreat, to determine how we can better align our assignments.  We want to keep our mission in mind as well as do our work better and more efficiently. 

Since January, we have added thirty new members.  We believe that people need to be brought into the kingdom; but you also see, according to our Purpose Statement, they should be nurtured in the Christian life.  Having new members means that we need additional training in discipleship. We know that some new leaders will be among those new members.  We can make better use of the laity within the church, especially lay leadership, if they are well trained. 

This afternoon, the Long Range Planning Committee will meet to discuss natural church growth.  I have recommended to the chair of that committee, Tony Shaw, a book about this topic.  I have attended church growth seminars, and I have looked at the life of Morningside.  The plan in that book is the better one for this church.  The author simply says that churches grow in pretty much the same way that tomatoes do.  If you want to raise tomatoes, you must have enough water, sunshine, nourishment, and support.  Natural church growth means that if you provide the right ingredients, a church cannot help but grow.  You do not have to get behind it and push it to make it grow, though you must rev up programs and provide the essential nourishing ingredients.  Evaluating our strengths and our weaknesses before making decisions is so vital.  Doing so will help us know what we need to keep doing, what we need to stop doing, and what we need to alter. 

Another area of concern involves finances.  Let me give you two items of good news.  As a church congregation, we are in much better shape than many of our neighbors, many of our fellow churches.  A real blessing is that we are not in debt.  Thank the Lord that we are out of debt.  Every major area of our budget needs to be reexamined, however.  It is no secret that our giving is running behind our budget.  It usually is this time of year.  These are tough times, and tough times call for different measures.  We are not spending as much as we are bringing in, but the gap that does exist needs to be closed. 

How are we going to do that?  I know that times are hard, but we are going to call on you to give as much as you can give.  We must also cut our expenses by finding a way to spend less.  Every staff member is committed to saving as much money within the context of their budget as possible without hurting programs and without losing sight of our mission as a church family.  Another way to cut expenses involves mission trips.  This year, the youth will not travel to Europe.  Instead, they plan to do mission work on this continent.  The adult choir’s mission trip this year will be in Asheville, an area much closer and a tour that will be less expensive.  My own intention is to attend only one conference this year so that less of the allowance is spent.  I have encouraged other staff members to consider doing the same. If you are the chair of a committee with budgetary responsibilities, I urge you to consider ways to trim your budget.  The church is a family, just like your family.  If our income diminishes because the times are tough, it only stands to reason that we need to reduce our expenses. 

Can this be done?  Yes.  We can reduce expenses as a church family because God has a plan.  We will follow His leadership.  I can promise you that He will lead us through these tough times.  Morningside Baptist Church will be fine, and we will continue to fulfill God’s mission for us. 

If you read Matthew 16, the confession of Simon Peter at Caesurae Philippi, he said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  Jesus replied, “And you are a rock,” changing this disciple’s name from Simon to Peter.  I have always thought that Jesus pointed back to himself as he said, “And upon this rock I will build my church.”  The only time in the Bible that a first-person pronoun is used with the word church is when Jesus called the church “my church.” 

People ask me, “Kirk, how is your church doing?”  My response is that Morningside is not my church.  These buildings are not our buildings.  The resources that we have are not our resources.  The tithes and offerings that come in is not our money.  This is the church of Jesus Christ.  These are his buildings.  This is his money.  As God’s people, we have been entrusted with the stewardship of His buildings, His money, and His people.  If we keep in mind that the only way through these tough times is to follow His plan, I can promise you that the plan will succeed.

Kirk H. Neely

© April 2009


Morningside Baptist Church
Purpose Statement

Morningside Baptist Church is a family of faith, living in hope, serving in joy, and bonded in love.

 Our purpose is to welcome people into God’s family upon repentance of their sins and profession of faith in Jesus Christ and to enable them to grow to Christian maturity.

 To fulfill its purpose:

We ENCOURAGE growth in faith and knowledge through the teaching of God’s Word and Christian discipleship.
We INVITE every person to meaningful and reverent worship of God that renews, refreshes, and restores.
We PROMOTE Christian fellowship through unconditional acceptance and an attitude of Christian unity.
We SERVE God through ministry according to our spiritual gifts and the leadership of His Spirit in individual lives and in our community.
We SHARE our personal faith in Jesus Christ through personal testimony and a Christian lifestyle in the context of our relationships.

Ten Characteristics of an Effective Church

An effective church:

is a praying church striving always to be the people of God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ and encounters the living God in reverent worship.

welcomes all people and engages in an active outreach and inreach program.

provides warm acceptance as a caring church family, based on the unconditional love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

equips and empowers every member for ministry, in keeping with each person’s spiritual gifts, through Bible teaching and discipleship.

uses leadership, both lay and professional, that is deeply committed to Christ and His church demonstrated through giving, attendance, and the modeling of Christian integrity.

captures the heart of the community with broad-based involvement and an attitude of Christlike humility and service.

serves a broken and lost world through strong mission emphasis locally, nationally, and globally.

presents a vision that anticipates a great future and is God-centered and person-oriented.

is a family of faith, living in hope, serving in joy, and bonded in love.

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