Thursday, January 8, 2009

God Opens a Door and Breaks the Race Barrier

The second real movement of God that I was a part of occurred at Fisher Street. Again there was nothing contrived about it. Instead it was a spontaneous and sovereign work of God.

Fisher Street was located close to the campus of Arkansas State University. We had a few students who attended, and no church in town was reaching a large number. It was the early 70s and university campuses and students across the country were experiencing the consequences of liberalized policies on alcohol, the rise of the drug culture and the sexual revolution.

Two students and I determined to start a Bible study on campus during the spring semester. They invited other students, but when we met in one of their dorm rooms there were just the three of us. We would knock on dorm doors and witness weekly, but there was no response. And the entire semester each week there would be the three of us studying together. After the summer break in the fall we tried again, only to find the same response. Toward the end of that semester we were discouraged and decided we wouldn't try it again in the spring. Then just before the Christmas break something happened that would change not only our Bible study, but our church and our lives.

We had knocked on a dorm door (we just going floor to floor knocking on every door) and the guy in the room wasn't that interested but he said there are two guys on the tenth floor we need to go see. We got on the elevator and went up to the tenth floor and knocked on the door number we had been given. An African-American student, Ralph Monday answered and invited us in. Once in the room we met Mansell Twilley. Ralph had led Mansell to the Lord the week before and they were studying the Bible together. We talked for a couple of hours and they asked me if I would meet with them and teach them the Scriptures. I readily agreed. But the next week was finals followed by the Christmas break.

After the break Ralph called and we set up the first meeting on a Thursday night. When I walked into him room it was filled with 20 African-American students. The room was so crammed that we had to do the Bible study standing up. That week we got permission to meet in one of the dorm lounges. When we met again there were about fifty present. We met that way a couple of week and one of the guys said there were some girls that wanted to study with us. So, I went to the BSU and arranged to use their facility. Within a couple of weeks I was meeting with 125 African-Americans students for four hours of Bible study a week, two hours on Tuesday afternoons and two hours on Thursday afternoon. We worked through the book of Romans verse by verse. As we dug into the Gospel, students started to realize they had never come to true faith and weekly there were professions of faith. We went on a retreat at a nearby camp and more than 300 students turned out. It was a weekend of many, many salivations.

As we studied and fellowshiped together and witnessed the moving of God among so many African-American students, they asked me about church and if they could come to my church. This was in the early 70s in the South and 11:00 on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week. I told them that they should be in church and they were more than welcome to come to Fisher Street. I said it with some fear. The first couple of Sundays only a handful came. They had to wonder how they would be received by the church. After that we had fifty to seventy-five who started to attend regularly. Sometimes the number would rise to a hundred. I baptized 70 of them that semester. We didn't make a big deal about it. There was no fanfare. We didn't publicize it in any way. We were just trying to be the church.

Of course it wasn't all smooth sailing. One night I was awakened by a threatening call from the Klan. I went to the FBI early the next morning because of fear for my family. Some pastors and other people in town were very critical. Everything came to a head within the church one night during a deacons meeting. One of the men said, "I'm not comfortable with all of this. If these students keep coming, I don't think my family can stay in the church." Others started to voice similar sentiments. These were some of my dearest friends in the world. No one had tell me how critical the moment was. I responded, "Men, we are about to decide whether or not we are going to be a New Testament church." We spent three hours studying the Scriptures together and at the end decided that we were going to be a New Testament church and that everyone was going to welcome. Not everyone in the room was enthusiastic about that decision, but everyone agreed. None of them left the church. Gradually a few other churches in the area opened their doors, notably the largest Baptist church in town.

The intensive teaching times with the students continued with more and more students coming to the Lord. The fellowship was extraordinaryly close and wonderful. Some who graduated took menial jobs so they could stay in Jonesboro and remain a part of the group. It had to be addressed and so I told them that all of us have times when we are receivers, when things are being poured into our lives. But the time comes when we must become givers to others, when we must become missionaries. So it was time for them to go out, find jobs, get into churches and make a difference where ever they were.

We had a reunion fifteen later with about 125 attending. It was one of the greatest joys of my life to see that the majority of the students who had come to the Lord during those days were still walking with the Lord, serving in churches all over, and truly making a kingdom difference.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

First Mission Trip

Jerry and Barbara Schlieff were missionaries to Zimbabwe and a part of Fisher Street. While stateside Jerry invited me to come to Zimbabwe on my first trip overseas. If I had known what we were going to do, I probably would not have gone. So I am glad that I didn't know because the trip radically changed my life and my understanding of missions and the church. It was one of the most important times in my life.

When I arrived the war that changed Rhodesia to Zimbabwe had been over for about a year and the country was in the throes of a great transition. The day after I arrived we loaded up Jerry's van and along with a journeyman and a young African student who would be my translator we headed out on a two day drive. We drove along the plateau, which until the implosion of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabbe, had been the breadbasket of Africa. We turned off the plateau and headed down into the bush. The first day we drove to the end of the paved road and spent the night at Sinyate, the missionary hospital where one of our missionaries had been murdered by rebels during the war. The next morning we headed out on the sand road and drove for about three hours and then took a right and started driving overland. Jerry and Barbara had worked in this area until they were forced to evacuate because of the war, because it was a center of rebel activity. We drove overland until Jerry saw two young men and we stopped and he told them we were there to help restart their church.

As background, when the rebels took control of the area they razed the home Jerry and Barbara had lived in along with the little church building and the medical clinic. They would enter the villages, confiscate Bibles and hymnals and burn them in front of the people. They forbade the people to be involved in any type of Christian worship. In one village they gathered the people and called out the Christian elder. They covered his head, hands and feet with oil soaked burlap bags and then sat him on fire. As he died an agonizing death, the rebels told the people that this was the way they would treat Christians. When we arrived the people had lived five years in fear and intimidation with no church, no worship, no teaching, no Gospel.

As Jerry talked to the two young men they said they wanted three training session each day and an evangelistic service at night and to travel from village to village in between. With that we sat up camp in a dry river bed, which I would discover was a strategic location. When we put the tent up we discovered that the last person who had used the tent has torn the zipper at the bottom of the entrance and it left a gaping open space. This would be a point of deep consternation. We had no weapons (Jerry said that if we had guns it would invite danger) and no way to communicate with the outside. All we had were two flash lights. Every night when we would come back to the tent we had take long sticks and move everything to make sure a snake hadn't crawled in and then when we bedded down for the night we would line our shoes across the opening to try to keep snakes out. That first night, we sat around the campfire with the sounds of drums in the distance, total darkness around us and I kept thinking, "What in the world am I doing here." I asked Jerry what he expected to happen that week. He responded with by questioning if I was talking about us being in danger or if we would see much happen spiritually. I replied that I guess that I was asking about both. He said that he didn't think we were in danger from the rebels left in the area, but he didn't know for sure, and that he thought we would see real responsiveness from the people. We turned in for the night, the four of us lying side by side with little room between and nothing but a think blanket and the canvass tent bottom between us and the hard ground. As the other went to sleep I began what was a nightly vigil for me of staring at the opening at the bottom of the entrance to make sure that a mamba or cobra didn't slither in and listening the sounds of animals outside the tent. I was sacred to death and I don't think I slept more than two or three hour a night the entire time we were there.

The next morning we stared the training sessions. The only one's there were the two young men and their families. We sat in high weeds and started with basic discipleship. It was the dry season and hot, dusty and dirty. The weeds provide a little shade as the people sat and listened. It was such a small group and I wondered why were we doing all of this for so few. Little did I know what the next days would hold.

We gathered other people in two ways. First, about 100 feet from the tent a hole had been dug in the dry river bed where the women from the surrounding villages would come and laying prostrate on the ground would dip water with gourds to fill their large buckets with water which they would carry on their heads back to the village. This gave us a point of contact to bring people in. Then between the teaching sessions we would travel to from village to village. One of the men would go in and ask permission from the village elder for us to enter. The the woman would sing and dance to draw the people of the village. When they were assembled Jerry or I would preach. It was a unique experience for me to use topless dancers to draw a crowd to preach to.

The number of people coming grew daily. Because the elephants were moving they were afraid to travel at night and camped out just above us. We would teach during the day, eat lunch with the people. Their staple diet was shasa which was a pile of a solidified type of grits. Everyone would reach out with dirty hands to get a handful and dip it into a common bowl of sauce. I learned the important lesson of eating whatever was set before you so as not to offend the people you are trying to reach.

At night we had the evangelistic services under the trees. The people sat on logs around a fire. I used one of the flashlights to read the Scriptures and Reggaz, the student translator, used the other. God moved mightily. Some repented with tears and broken hearts for denying the faith during the time of great persecution. Others were converted. One hundred came to faith. While we rejoiced over the immediate results, little did we known that from that little spark some 10,000 people would be converted in that region of the bush over the next two years.

On the humorous side, one evening a young man tripped in the dark and broke his collarbone. The next day Jerry and the others drove him to the hospital at Sinyate, leaving me alone at the camp. That day a large group of women came to draw water. Before I knew it, I was surrounded. They were all talking and laughing and would reach out and rub my white skin and then look at their fingers and laugh harder. All I could do was stand there for hours and grin foolishly.

There were so many hardships during those ten days. We didn't have water to drink and lived off but hot Cokes. Eating with the people left my stomach swollen and I felt like a million amoeba were swimming around inside of me. There was the constant fear of snakes and wild animals. One day we came across a weapons stash that had recently been dug up and knew there were armed rebels in the area. But, the moving of God was remarkable and the preciousness of the people and their plight captured my heart. After those days in the bush, I would never be the same.

Upon returning from the bush I had a very different experience of African. First, I went to the seminary in Gwelo. To my dismay they were teaching the African students Criswell's "Guidebook for Pastors." I couldn't think of anything more irrelevant to their context. This was confirmed by the fact that none of the students were interested in going to the bush to work. Instead they all wanted to come to America.

The folly of westernization through education was evident as I went to work in one of the townships outside of Gwelo. The pastor was a graduate of the seminary. He was a kind and gentle man, but was isolated from the people by his westernized way of doing church. Walking into the his church was like walking into any church in America. There was a piano and organ, and a Sunday School and Training Union attendance board on the front walls. Only a hand full of people gathered. Jerry would drive me out in the mornings and drop me off and picked me up late in the evenings. The townships were wicked places characterized by drunkenness and immorality. The pastor and I walked all day to witness to people. But instead of being receptive they spoke harshly to the pastor, with women saying the most vulgar things. He was separated from the people because the church was totally out of thier context. We were not able to reach anyone that week.

I was not sophificated in my understanding of missions. I didn't know anything about contextualization and indigenization. All I knew was that this model was all wrong.

While in Gwelo the most frightening experience of my life occurred. I had walked downtown and went into an African shopping area. It was an area surrounded by a wall about five feet high with only one entrance/exit. I was at a stall at the back of the shopping area when suddenly I found myself surrounded by a group of angry men. They were former rebels who had spend the past five years killing any white person they could. I could not understand what they were saying, but I could understand the anger and hate of their words as they yelled at me and poked me in the chest. The situation grew more tense. There was a bucket of machetes behind me and a reached back and had each hand on one. Then suddenly I released my grip and walked and pushed my way through the shouting mob. When I got outside the shopping compound I thought my knees would buckle from the fear. When they didn't, I ran as fast as I could.

The experiences in Africa were many and varied. When I returned home, it took some time to pray and think through all that had happened. As I reflect back, there were four major changes in my life as a result of this first trip.
1. A passions for missions and the nations was lit in my heart.
2. I became a serious student of missions.
3. I made the commitment to be involved in traveling to the nations.
4. I came to understand that a true New Testament church is a missionary church. God did not create missions for the church. He created His church for missions. From that time on this would be an essential and focal part of my pastoral vision for the church, my preaching, my leadership and my understanding of the purpose of the church in giving, praying, sending and going.

It would not be long until those lessons would be critical in the local context of Fisher Street.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The move to Fisher Street brought a deeper seriousness and discipline to preaching and sermon preparation. Not only did the church have the reputation of having the strong biblical pulpit in Jonesboro, it also had a good number of people who were good Bible students and Bible teachers. Up to this point, out of necessity I had divided my time between church and school. It was at Fisher Street that the discipline of spending twenty to twenty-five hours a week of study in sermon preparation was developed. As I reflect on those days, several life-patterns were emerged:
1. Preaching carefully through books of the Bible;
2. Building the commentary section of my library significantly;
3. Publishing sermon notes for the people which disciplined me to be finished with preparation for Sunday morning and Sunday evening by Thursday afternoon;
4. Making sermon preparation more than just time in the study, but saturating my mind with the passages of Scriptures for each week and meditating on them and thinking through them continually, which transformed preaching from just dispensing knowledge from the head but to the overflow of the heart; and
5. Preaching without notes (again a discipline that required a mind saturated with and concentrated on the exposition of the Word). Preaching not just one of the things that I did, it was the center of my life and of my understanding of the primary calling of the pastor to feed the flock of God.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fisher Street Baptist Church

Upon graduation from seminary I was called as pastor of Fisher Street Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas. It was an exciting and humbling experience. Over the past fifteen years Fisher Street had been the strong biblical pulpit in my hometown. The time there was significant in so many ways in shaping my philosophy and practice of ministry. It will take several blogs to cover.

The first area is family. My parents and my sister and her family lived in Jonesboro. They all became a part of the church and it was a unique experience to be my family's pastor. Our daughter Micah was born while we were there and I will be ever be grateful that Matt and Micah grew in their formative years in the context of a close extended family. We all ate lunch together at Mom and Dad every Sunday and spent Sunday afternoons together. We interacted daily and it was the happiest of times. My sister and her husband, Ronnie and Linda, were our best friends. Of all the family joys the greatest was witnessing God working in the life of my father.

In additon the move to a full-time pastorate was a time of financial security for Janet and me. The first seven years of our marriage I had been in school and pastoring rural churches. We had simply been poor all our married life. That isn't to complain. We had been happy and thankful to be in be in ministry. But with a growing family it was a great blessing to move from living hand-to-mouth and to have the means to live securely and to provide for our children.

Family at Fisher Street was more than just our immediate family, but also described the church. They were our family in the truest sense of the word. Fisher Street was a close fellowship of people who shared life together. Some of our closest friendships were forged at Fisher Street. After going to teach at the seminary, I returned to Fisher Street (Highland Drive Baptist Church after its relocation) as interim pastor twice, and it was always like going home.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


The days at seminary were among the most enjoyable and profitable in my life. I was in the second class of Mid-America and when I started there were eighty-six students. This afforded a unique learning experience and a close relationship with professors. What was presented in the classroom was pursued in the hallways and around the table at lunch. Those days were very much more like a Socratic model of learning. The seminary grew markedly over the three years I was there, but the closeness of relationships remained.

I am deeply appreciative of all the professors. Three standout as to their life impact on me.

Dr.Gray Allison was the President of Mid-America. He taught Evangelism and several other courses in those days. It was from Dr. Allison that evangelism changed for me from a duty to a delight, from something we do to the heart of all we do. As Dr. Gray presided over chapel and missionary days he kept the world before us and the fire of passion for missions was lit in my heart. I learned from watching a man of extraordinary faith who regularly trusted God for big things.

Dr. Reginald Barnard was a slight build Englishman with a soft voice. He influenced my life in so many ways (a seriousness about theology combined with with a humble spirit), but the greatest impact was in an intensive course on the book of 1 Corinthians. During the quarter we never got past the first half of chapter two. We spent the entire time on "the word of the Cross." The impact of that course on my life was profound and was integral in shaping a developing understanding that a God-centered life is a Cross-centered life. Oh, the glory of the Gospel!

Dr. Beaman's influence was multifaceted. He was just a teacher and wisdom dripped from his lips. Being around him anywhere was a time of learning. Years later, in the last days of his life, I visited him often and he continued to teach me. I saw him the day before he died and found him lying in bed lecturing.

All three of these men were used greatly in my life in the classroom, but even more by allowing me to observe their lives. In my eyes these are great men of God, but when I think about them, I think of Colossians 3:12, "So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." Could there be a more important lesson to learn?

Cultural Christianity

The most dramatic change for me by far was the move from Lunsford to serve as pastor of New Providence Baptist Church. New Providence was located in the extreme northeast corner of Arkansas. Like most rural churches it was one of the primary identity centers in the community. Even the people who were not a part of the church would turn to the church to be married, buried or in any time of need.

What I encountered at New Providence was a cultural Christianity. Many were involved in the church because it was the cultural norm, the expected thing to do. Thus the people were faithful in coming to church and supporting the church. But, they did not possess a vital Christianity. There was a marked disjunction and contradiction between their Sunday involvement in church and their daily lives. I need to be clear, they were good people, held their pastor in high esteem and would do anything for you. The problem was that they compartmentalized their lives. They had their "church life" in which they knew all the right words and went through all the right motions. Then they had their "daily lives" in which they lived like everyone else. Their "faith" was not translated into their day-to-day lifestyles or decision making. They were very much like those that Paul describes as having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.

I went to New Providence during the summer and in the fall I started seminary at Mid-America. I would leave on Monday evenings to drive the three and a half hours to Little Rock and stay there until classes were over on Friday and then drive back. It meant being separated from Janet and Matthew most of the week and then coming in and working hard for three and a half days. The stress of separation from family became too much and so mid-way through the second year of seminary I moved to become pastor of First Baptist Church, Cotton Plant, Arkansas. The drive from there to Little Rock was only an hour and a half so I could drive every day and be home by mid-afternoon.

The cultural Christianity I encountered at New Providence was amplified at Cotton Plant. On top of that it was an unpleasant place to live. It was the "old south" and like going back a hundred years in history.

Although I could not really identify them at the time, there were some important things taking place inside of me and my thinking that would become important parts of my journey and story.

The first had to do with preaching. Preaching became a lot more than just preaching sermons. It became a passionate pursuit of communicating vital Christianity, the basics of the Christian life and a Christ-centered life. There were a few that caught on, but on the whole it was like beating one's head against a wall. This led to the second.

I was deeply disturbed and disillusioned with "church as usual." Those days started both a dissatisfaction with things the way there were in the church and a serious search of the Scriptures for what it means to be the church. This would work its way out in several stages both my thinking about church and in actual ministry.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


As the awakening at Lunsford waned, I graduated from college. There were significant changes that followed in my life. They were changes that played critical roles in shaping my understanding of life, ministry and the church. The first related to the choice of a seminary; the second was the move to New Providence Baptist Church, and the third was my seminary days.

After college my plans had always been to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Those plans changed on the sidewalk of my hometown, Jonesboro, Arkansas. I had been shopping and was walking back to my car when an older man from my home church pulled up and honked at me. I walked over as he rolled down his window and asked what my plans were. I told him about Southwestern. His next three sentences would alter the direction of my life. "Have you heard about the new seminary in Little Rock? Every professor believes the Bible. You should check it out." With that he drove off. I knew nothing of this new seminary but did some checking around and learned that Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary had just started.

The next week I drove to Little Rock to check it out. Mid-America was in its first year. It had only twenty-six students in the first class and met in the lower floor of Olivet Baptist Church. Everything about the school was humble and there was nothing outwardly attractive. The receptionist gave me a schedule of classes to visit. The first was a systematic theology class taught by Dr. Roy Beaman. Little did I know how walking into his classroom would alter my life.

Dr. Beaman was lecturing on the grace of God that day. But it was much more than a lecture, it was the testimony of a life enraptured by God's grace. I sat spellbound as this scholar spoke of the grace of God with such a sense of awe and astonishment. There was such humility in his voice as he spoke of the greatness of God and the grandeur of His grace. I had never heard anyone so overwhelmed by the grace of God to sinful men. After the class was over I forgot the schedule that had been given to me and followed Dr. Beaman to his next class, Biblical Archeology. He didn't lecture on archeology that day, but continued in his exaltation of the grace of God. After class we went to chapel and Dr. Beaman preached on the grace of God. I then followed him to the next class, Greek, and he continued speaking of God's grace. I went to another class but cannot remember it. My mind was overwhelmed by what I had heard about the God's amazing grace. After the last class I went to lunch with a couple of students and Dr. Beaman. Sitting around the table in a Mexican restaurant, Dr. Beaman continued to talk about God's grace with such passion and reverence.

Two things happened that day. First, my decision about where to attend seminary was settled. I had to learn from men like Dr. Beaman. Two, my whole concept of God was transformed. I wanted to know the sense of awe that Dr. Beaman had expressed through out that day. Reflecting back on that day, it was the beginning of understanding for me of what a God-centered life is all about. I look at that day as one of the most important in my life.