Looking back to look forward

It’s hard to believe, but I have now been in Boulder for a full three years, serving on staff with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado. Having celebrated a recent birthday, I’ve been in a bit of a reflective mood, and so I wanted to take an opportunity to look back just for a few minutes at the past years of ministry here in Colorado. I was reminded recently how such reflection can be beneficial not only for understanding the past, but for looking ahead to the future too when I read an interesting quote from the 19th century English writer and Christian, Margaret Fairless Barber. “To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” In this spirit, I want to reflect based on several different categories that will enable me to ponder over these past three years and also help in looking forward towards what God has in store for the future. I’ll reflect on God’s faithfulness during my time in Boulder, some of the personal highlights I’ve experienced while on staff with the ministry, a few of the particular challenges I’ve faced, and lastly some future hopes and goals I have for myself in conjunction with the ministry. I hope that reading this post perhaps motivates you to take periodic stock of how God has been at work in your life. Regardless of what has happened, I believe being open  about your spiritual experiences, and willing to share them with others can provide a great encouragement for someone else who may be in need, or has experienced something similar.

 

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God has been faithful!! This is the first point I want to reflect on, and honestly these four words could be a succinct summary of my entire time in Boulder so far. From the spring of 2014, when with some trepidation and anxiety I began support raising in preparation to move to Boulder, the Lord has provided. I realize that it can sometimes sound cliché when so many people in ministry talk about Divine provision. And I never want to be dismissive or flippant towards those who are still actively waiting for the Lord to act, or are struggling to continue trusting Him and His goodness during seasons of trial or doubt. Having said that, I do believe that raising your own support gives a special insight into God’s generosity, plan, and provision as expressed through His churches and His people. When I first considered the possibility of going on staff with Christian Challenge at CU-Boulder, I was excited about the ministry and the chance to work with students in a challenging mission field. Yet I wasn’t sure exactly how the experience of support raising, and developing ministry partners would go. I had grown up assuming that all missionaries were fully-funded by churches or missions agencies, and perhaps too in my mind there were some lingering doubts and pride that God had to slowly help me deal with. Doubts–in the sense of a skepticism that I’d actually be able to raise enough money to move to Boulder before the start of the fall 2014 semester. Even though I had heard many amazing “God-stories” from others on staff with Christian Challenge, or friends who served with groups like Cru, I still wasn’t sure if the same things could actually happen to me! In addition, there was some pride involved, because after so many years spent completing my education, including nearly four years to earn a Master’s of Divinity, a selfish part of me felt more or less entitled to a traditional, full-time, paid ministry position.

 

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But both of these barriers were gradually eroded over several months in which I had the opportunity to see God at work through the support-raising process. I’ve posted about this before, and I could honestly write pages and pages more about all of the unique blessings that come through raising support, but I’ll enumerate just a few here. First, through support raising, I have been powerfully and continuously reminded of the Lord’s generosity through His followers. I know that the majority of those who support me also tithe faithfully to their local churches, and in many cases also give to support other missionaries and ministries. But their willingness to equally invest in me is illustrative of a principle once shared with me by Jay Wolf, pastor of my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. Jay told me that from his own experience, one hallmark of a faithful Christ follower in financial terms is how their giving capacity expands. Now simple math might dictate that the more a person is already giving to support different ministries as well as tithe to their church, the less likely they would be to embrace the opportunity to support a new ministry that might come along, such as mine. And yet as I have often found the opposite to be true in my own experience. Thus it’s the very people who are already giving most generously elsewhere who are likely to also add me to their support list. In relation to the generosity I’ve witnessed, I’m certainly mindful of Paul’s observation from 2 Corinthians 9:7—“So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Again and again, my ministry partners and supporters have expressed to me how glad and joyful they are for the opportunity to support me and this serves as a constant reminder for me to cultivate a similar attitude when I tithe to my church or support other ministries. But I would be very remiss if in talking about support I only discussed the financial dimensions. Because I’ve also been the fortunate recipient of amazing prayer support and so many words of encouragement and affirmation. I have ministry partners that pray for me daily, which is such a humbling thing to consider when I know that many of them have plenty of other family members, friends, and concerns to remember. And on so many occasions, my day has been brightened by a supporter who took the time to send an encouraging email, card, or text message. I can very much identify with the way Timothy must have felt having someone like Paul in his life, a person who as is recorded in 2 Timothy 1:3-6, builds up his protégé through continual prayer, and timely encouragement that calls the younger Timothy to remain faithful to his spiritual heritage. In general, raising support has allowed me to both make many new friends, and also stay in touch with a great number of old acquaintances, with the common thread being that these are people whom God has placed in my life to make a difference with their giving, their prayers, and their encouragement. Thinking about these dear brothers and sisters in Christ certainly serves as a powerful motivation for me to go out each day and strive to make a difference in the lives of our Christian Challenge students at CU. Support raising is also very literally one of the main factors that prompted me to start this blog, Mile High Hallelujah, as a means of staying in touch with my ministry partners. Writing my monthly blog entries and prayer newsletter updates is my means of keeping these partners involved and current with the ministry they support. But it is also a very helpful and fulfilling way for me to reflect at regular intervals on how God is working in my life, almost like a spiritual diary. Overall, and as perhaps a cumulative effect of experiencing God moving in these different ways, I’ve come to view support raising not as preparation for ministry, but as another facet of ministry itself, and one that has brought many unique blessings into my life.

 

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            Having mentioned Paul and Timothy earlier now brings me to another way in which God’s faithfulness has been powerfully manifested over these last three years in Boulder—through the co-workers He has richly blessed me with. I’ve been lucky enough to serve alongside an outstanding staff with Christian Challenge. In fact it was a strong and immediate connection with Christian Challenge director Bobby Pruett that first led me to consider moving to Boulder after we initially met back in the fall of 2013. Bobby’s love for the Lord, and his enthusiasm for disciple-making in the university community was contagious, and it has been a privilege to serve alongside him, his daughter Bethany, and Derek Gregory as well as many other students who’ve fulfilled roles as part-time staff interns. Being part of a good team is so important, and in addition to the Christian Challenge staff, I’ve had other important Christian mentors in my life, including my parents, my pastor back in Alabama, Jay Wolf—and too many others to list here. But the heart of my day-to-day work with Christian Challenge is about building relationships with students. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many outstanding young men and women here over the last several years—vibrant champions for Christ who are going to go on and make a tangible impact for the Kingdom in a variety of different fields as they are called. And I’m indebted too not just to the Christian students I’ve worked with, but to those who’ve been skeptical, questioning, and uncertain. As I’ve heard these students talking about their doubts and objections towards Christianity, I’ve been forced to constantly reflect upon how I can do a better job of making the Gospel relevant to people on the “outside”. I’ve also gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the challenge that some people face when considering surrendering their life to the Lord. As Christian author Frederick Buechner once wrote “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Certainly working amongst such bright and clear-thinking students as can be found at CU has helped my own faith to stay vibrant and not stagnate. On the bottom of the prayer cards that I’ve given out to supporters is inscribed Matthew 9:37-38—“The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” God has lavishly demonstrated His faithfulness by providing me with an outstanding group of ministry partners, staff, and students who have all been co-laborers with me in this harvest!!

 

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First Baptist Montgomery

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East Boulder Baptist

And while I often think of my ministry in terms of the individuals who’ve been involved, I have to be equally thankful for the powerful fellowship and support I have received from the Body of Christ as represented by the Church. Two congregations in particular have been fundamental to my ability to raise support and serve here in Boulder. First is my sending church, First Baptist Montgomery, and then my current home church, East Boulder Baptist. These two bodies of believers have provided me with numerous opportunities to preach, teach Sunday school classes, and share with members about the ministry of Christian Challenge. And so even though these last three years have seen me immersed in the world of campus ministry, I feel more connected than ever to the work and purpose of the local church. I certainly strive to remind our students on a regular basis about the importance of finding a connection with a local church in Boulder, because our campus ministry is never seeking to take the place of a church within Christian life. Related to the blessing that God has provided me through these two churches, I can also reflect on the importance for me of staying connected to the Baptist denomination. Now certainly I’ve always considered myself ecumenical, and my time in Boulder has reinforced for me the importance of being Kingdom-minded, and focusing on how different Christian groups, whether campus ministries or churches, can find common ground as they seek to serve the Lord. I have some good friends involved in campus ministry who serve with groups such as Cru, Intervarsity, and Navigators, and these are all outstanding ministries that have impacted many lives for Jesus over the years. But I do feel very fortunate to be part of the larger Baptist family. Since I raise support as a Baptist campus minister, all of my administrative costs and fees are absorbed by the convention, meaning that I get to keep 100% of the money I raise, which is a rarity in the world of self-supporting ministry. Although Christian Challenge’s affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t necessarily the first or even primary thing that draws students to our group, they too have all benefitted from being part of a larger network not just of campus ministries, but crucially too of churches and missions partnerships. Whenever Christian Challenge takes part in spring break or summer missions projects, we avail ourselves of this incredibly wide-ranging and fruitful network of SBC church plants, missionaries, and ministries that we can connect and partner with. It makes it so much easier than having to go it alone and seek out groups to work with independently. So we do our best as Christian Challenge staff to educate our students about the importance of being part of a denominational team, and we share with them some of the fundamental theological values of what it means to be Baptist, and heirs to a spiritual tradition rooted in the Protestant Reformation. We realize that all of them of course won’t continue to be involved in Baptist-affiliated churches or ministries later in life, but hopefully during their time in the group, they’ve been instilled with some spiritual values that represent the best of the Baptist tradition, and will serve them well in whatever branches of Christian life their future calling leads them to.

 

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Reflecting back on these three years in Boulder, God has indeed been faithful, and there are many personal highlights I could talk about, special moments and memories that help underscore why I feel so blessed to have served here. I have thoroughly enjoyed every opportunity I’ve had to speak at Christian Challenge weekly meetings, whether at CU-Boulder, or at other schools around Colorado. College students are such an attentive and keen audience, and their intelligence and willingness to be challenged has been a great source of encouragement for me as I’ve thought about how best to both convict and encourage them, all the while staying faithful to the mandates of Scripture that should bind any sound Biblical teaching. One-on-one discipleship is something that is at the heart of our ministry, as reflected in the Christian Challenge motto—“changing the world through God-honoring relationships.” Certainly for me, as I’ve shared in earlier blog posts, the opportunity to mentor students has been among the most rewarding aspects of serving in campus ministry. I’ve been able to forge some amazing friendships with these young men, and in some cases even see them begin to pass on their knowledge and experience to younger students. In addition, I’ve been fortunate enough to have so many great mentors of my own, as I’ve already mentioned, which has helped keep me inspired, and excited about the chance to invest in someone else’s life. The high degree of individual attention that we can offer students to facilitate their spiritual growth is definitely one of the unique facets of campus ministry that can sometimes be hard to replicate in other ministry settings such as churches. However, my hope is that our students have learned the importance of spiritually investing into another, and that this is a practice that they will be able in some manner to continue later in life. Working with international students has also been an undoubted highlight for me. I’ve built relationships with students from Brazil, Japan, China, Panama, India, Ireland, Sweden, Taiwan, Singapore, Denmark, and Pakistan, just to name some of the countries that have been represented in our ministry. The rich cultural exchanges, learning about another country’s food, history, language, and customs have been fascinating in and of themselves. But an even greater thrill for has been the chance to share Jesus with these representatives of the nations, and see some of them come to faith in our ministry. And even for those who did not make a profession of faith, the knowledge that because of Christian Challenge, their time in America was brightened with warm spiritual fellowship and the chance to hear the Gospel message gives me a great deal of fulfillment. Working with internationals reminds me constantly about lessons of hospitality and cultural sensitivity that I believe have strong Biblical roots. At the same time, I’ve been continually reminded of the international nature of the Gospel, which can transcend all cultural barriers. I truly feel that one of the greatest blessings in being an American Christian in 2017 is the way in which the Lord has graced us with the priceless opportunity to reach out to His children from around the world who’ve literally come to our doorstep. I never want to take that opportunity for granted, or squander it, for many of these students will only be in our country for a short time, then perhaps never to return.

 

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Working with internationals has also provided a natural springboard to missions work. For me, going back to my childhood and adolescence, missions has always started locally. Some of my first ministry experiences back in Montgomery involved volunteering through our church’s community ministries outreach, known as the Caring Center. Taking some of this experience, I’ve been so proud of the way our students have embraced opportunities to serve those beyond just the university community. Compassion in the 303, our outreach to Boulder’s homeless, was actually started as an initiative of some Christian Challenge students. It’s been an honor to serve alongside many of our group who’ve selflessly donated their time and money to interact with some of Boulder’s most marginalized inhabitants, offering food, prayer and intentional conversation. From Boulder, our outreach has extended into Denver. On two different spring break mission trips, Christian Challenge has served in Colorado’s largest city, working first to help SBC church planters, and then on another occasion, to assist with a Baptist ministry based in apartment complexes, which are among those parts of the city that have been least reached from an evangelistic standpoint. Our students’ Christ-like dedication in all of these service projects around their community has been exemplary. And then there have been mission trips further afield, to Los Angeles a few years back on spring break, and then of course this summer for me to Germany. We’ve also begun to host missions teams, drawing on some of my ministry connections back to my home state. In March, a group came from the Baptist campus ministry at the University of Alabama, and in just a few weeks, another team will come from First Baptist Montgomery to help us with our big evangelistic push prior to the start of the fall semester. Having come out of a church background that always valued missions, and prioritized the work of the Great Commission, I’ve been thrilled to see these values replicated in our campus ministry at CU-Boulder.

For all of the ways in which I’ve noted God’s faithfulness, and enjoyed some amazing highlights, there have also naturally been some challenges over these past three years. But I see them more as faith-building opportunities rather than actual obstacles, and I sense that there are some particular spiritual lessons that God wishes to impart to me in each instance. When I first arrived in Boulder, noting the spiritual demographics, I expected to encounter a high degree of spiritual hostility, such as militant atheism, or strongly anti-Christian prejudices amongst those student body and in the community. For the most part this expectation has been unfounded, but what has indeed proven to be a challenge is what could be termed a widespread spiritual indifference, or apathy. As Paul astutely observes in 1 Corinthians 1:18—“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”. I’m still learning in each individual situation how best to react when people just don’t seem to care one way or another about spiritual matters, and when the thing that is keeping them from pursuing Jesus is not so much any great theological objection, but simply an inability to see any spiritual inquiry and pursuit as being worth their time. Another challenge is achieving consistency within our ministry. While I’ve been lucky enough to be around some students who are truly “pace-setters” in their 1 Corinthians 15:58 faithfulness and dedication, there are other students who have frustratingly fallen away. And there doesn’t always seem to be a detectable pattern or reason as to why some students remain inconsistent and non-committal even after years of being connected with our group. I worry about such instances, in particular wondering what will happen once such students graduate, and being out in the working world will likely have much less of a spiritual “support network”  around them than is available to them now in college. I struggle at times with being patient—waiting for God’s plan and purpose to unfold in His own perfect timing. This is especially true when it comes to evangelism, and awaiting the fruits from that. There have been several instances where a student seemed so close to making a profession of faith, and yet still they held back. However there’s been other times equally where I’ve been totally surprised to see the Spirit at work in sudden and unexpected ways. I’m reminded then of the truth of Jesus’ words in John 4:37-38—“For in this the saying is true: One sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” Never knowing where we may be in this chain of evangelism—whether preparing good soil, planting seeds, watering them, or harvesting, is a great humbling factor, and teacher of spiritual patience. There have been times when it has been tempting of course also to make comparisons with other ministries. You can always find a group that seems to be growing faster, has more of a presence in certain areas of campus life, and seems in some way to better embody whatever aspects of your ministry you wish to change or improve. I do value learning from other Christian groups, and have really enjoyed the cooperative spirit of a shared sense of values and purpose amongst many of the campus ministries. But I also need to remind myself that God has called our group to be faithful to those students we are able to reach, and not spend too much time focusing on fruitless comparisons. I think that whenever we want to take the focus too much off of ourselves and our own field of ministry to fixate on what others are doing, Jesus reminds us to return to our task at hand. I love how this is illustrated at the end of John’s Gospel in a conversation exchange between the Lord and Peter. John 21:21-22—“Peter seeing him, said to Jesus, ‘But Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”

 

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I entitled this post “looking back to look forward” because even as I’ve reflected upon how these last three years of ministry in Boulder have impacted me spiritually, what I’m most excited about is what lies ahead. I think it’s always good in life to have goals, and project ahead in order to keep oneself focused on a future we can change as opposed to a past that we cannot. Paul certainly considered as much, in Philippians 3:13—“One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” For this next year in Boulder, I have several ministry goals. I want to be more faithful and effective in discipling students. As I shared in my last blog post, this summer’s missions experience in Germany reminded me once more just how critical effective discipleship is to the long-term health of any ministry. We always want the things we teach students in Christian Challenge to be replicable, so that when they graduate, they are equipped spiritually to be successful in whatever ministry or life setting they might find themselves. I’m looking forward also to continuing to expand my role as a facilitator for missions. I’m so excited about the opportunity later this month to host a missions team from my home church, First Baptist Montgomery. I want to continue to cultivate a missions “pipeline” from Alabama to Colorado, giving both churches and campus ministries from my home state the opportunity to come serve alongside us here in Boulder, as well as also possibly connect with the work that many SBC church planters are doing in Denver. From an overseas standpoint, I’m excited about continuing the partnership we have with Connexxion, and their three, soon to be four campus ministries in Germany. I am praying that everything will come together for me to able to lead a full team back to Germany next summer, comprised of CU students and possibly students from some other Colorado schools as well. Ultimately, when I think of ministry goals however, there is inevitably a lot of overlap with my personal spiritual walk and goals. After all, I could never hope to instill in students, or in our ministry, something that I’m not cultivating in myself. So I must remain faithful in essential spiritual disciplines like prayer, Scripture reading, and Scripture memory.

I close this latest post with a sense of profound gratitude for all of the ways that God has blessed me, and enabled me to come to this place in life and ministry. I can only pledge that with His help I will continue to strive to give the best of what I am capable of to the ministry He has called me to here in Boulder. Every one of you who has prayed for me, offered financial support, and even taken the time to read this blog are part of my team, my wonderful family of ministry partners, without whom this would not be possible. So thank you again, and may each of you be able to trace God’s hand as you look back in your own lives, in preparation to then again look forward to the future He has planned for you. God bless!!!

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