Growing the Next Generation
Over the next four weeks I want to focus on the theme Legacy. This series follows on the heels of our Building a Church for Life series and leads us up to one of the most special Sunday’s of the year, All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith and helped to pave the way for our lives and the ministry of our church. And in order to do that I will be focusing on the two letters that the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy who was his protégé. These letters were written to Timothy when he was in his 20s but Paul began to mentor him when Timothy was nine years old. We are going to learn a little bit more today about the relationship that Paul had with Timothy and we are going to ask a question. What does this mean for our lives today?
Next week we will turn our attention to the meat of the message of the first letter to Timothy. The following week we will turn to the content of second Timothy. And then we will conclude with the commemoration of All Saints Sunday.
Now I want to mention that we talk about these as books of the Bible but Paul didn't think he was writing a book. He was writing a personal letter like you would write a personal letter to someone you care about and that you know. In this case Paul was writing to someone who is probably 40 years younger than he was and he was trying to encourage and mentor and guide through these letters. And I imagine that Paul had no idea that these letters would be read by churches 2000 years later. And yet we read them because we sense the Holy Spirit inspiration in those letters and that there is something for us in them today.
I want to acknowledge that when we write letters and its even true with email, that sometimes we write things maybe in a way that you didn’t mean or intend. When Paul writes he is using Greek and if you read the original Greek translations you will find that he will stop sometimes in midsentence and change thoughts and then he never comes back and finishes the sentence. Sometimes if you were to read the original Greek you might smile a bit because he says something and you realize, “You know I wonder if he really meant to say it like that?” And yet the Holy Spirit uses all of this imperfection to teach us more about God and the relationship that he longs for in each of our lives.
And sometimes you know in our letters we say things that maybe later on we go, “You know I probably shouldn’t have said it like that. Or I wish I had thought more carefully before I mailed that letter or hit send on that email.”
This week I was reading about letters that people had sent and things that they had said that maybe if they’d thought more carefully they would have said a different way. This was from an insurance company whose claims adjusters had lifted out sentences that are funny. These were letters that had gone back and forth about claims and here was one. Clearly they had asked for additional information and this person wrote back:
“I’m forwarding my marriage certificate and two children one of which is a mistake as you will see.” I think they were talking about birth certificates. But in any case another wrote:
“You have changed my little girl into a little boy. Will this make any difference?”
One doctor wrote back and said, “The patient has been depressed since she began seeing me in 1997.”
One cardiologist wrote and said, “By the time the patient was admitted his rapid heart had stopped and he was feeling much better.”
And finally describing his accident one guy said, "I had been driving for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel." I guess so!
Well when we look at the letters of Paul to Timothy there are several things which are helpful for us to know. Any time you read somebody’s letter from the past it is always helpful to understand what was the context in which that letter was written. And what was the recipient going through that dictated the letter be sent? And what was the person who sent it thinking about. And so I want to give you a little bit of that background today and I will explore it in a little more detail in the next several weeks.
As I said earlier, Paul first got to know Timothy when he was around nine or 10 years old. Timothy and his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois lived in a little town called Lystra which today would be in east central Turkey. Paul was on his first missionary journey around A.D. 45 and he went to this town along with Barnabas. And they were preaching the gospel and God had done an amazing miracle in a particular man's life as a result of their prayers. So there were many people had come out to hear them, including Lois, Eunice and little Timothy heard Paul preach. And they came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
And Paul and Barnabas were run out of town in Lystra shortly after that. But he did come back through five years later on his second missionary journey. And when he came back he was amazed and astounded to meet young Timothy again who at this point was around 14 or 15 years old. At this point he was a devout follower of Jesus Christ. He knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards and he was a child. And he was a leader in the church even at the age of 14.
Now when you were 14 or 15 as a young man you would begin to apprentice, which is like going to college today. And Paul turned to Timothy and said to him, "I think you have gifts to be a missionary and a pastor and a leader in the church. Would you come with me and Silas as we travel and start new churches for the next three years?"
And Timothy said, "Yes." Timothy became Paul's apprentice. And so he traveled on the second missionary journey with Paul and they started new churches.
Then Paul starts writing his letters. And as he’s writing his letters, six of those letters of the New Testament Paul notes are co-written by Timothy. We don't often recognize this but Paul tells us that on six different occasions Timothy was writing with him the letters. Now I want you to imagine that. Here’s this great apostle of the faith who is in his 50s or 60s and starting churches all over the world. He is writing letters to the churches to give them advice and encouragement, all the while giving co-authorship to a teenager named Timothy.
When we come to 1st Timothy it has been almost 20 years since Paul took Timothy as an apprentice. And Paul is still mentoring him and encouraging him. And what Paul has done is he’s assigned Timothy to go to Ephesus to give direction to a church that Paul started on his first missionary journey.
What we find in our scripture passage today is that Paul is affirming two things. First Paul is affirming his love of Timothy and confidence in him. So Paul says this in the beginning of our scripture. He says, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, appointed by the command of God our Savior and Christ Jesus, who gives us hope. I am writing to Timothy, my true son in the faith.”
And then he says these words toward the end of the letter in chapter 4.
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. But set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love and in faith and purity.”
My guess is that Timothy's confidence was probably shaken as he arrived in Ephesus as people said, "Why did Paul send a boy to do a man's job? You're just a kid! You're just 25 years old! Who are you to come here and tell us how to do church?"
Paul says, “Don’t let them look down on you because you’re young. But instead, you lead them and you show them by your example and by your faith what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Take authority Timothy to be the leader in your church.
I remember when the bishop laid his hands on me; Bishop Tom Stockton. And I knelt before this wonderful man on the stage at annual conference and he laid his hands on my head - and I can still feel it to this day, I can still feel him pressing down hard upon my head. And he said, “Take thou authority to preach the Word and to order the church.” And then he sent me to serve the church in Winchester.
I was 29 years old. And I remember one of the first things I did was buy a robe and I started wearing it right from the start because I looked like I was 16 years old. That was also when I started to try to grow the goatee, to make me look a little older. And as I stood at the back door greeting people they thought I was the youth director. And along with my goatee I would wear my robe and that would at least make them think that I must be a pastor. And yet you know the people who were there back in the beginning, they let me be their pastor. I think maybe they felt a little sorry for me to begin with. There was something to having older people who came alongside you and encouraged you. And what I found as I started ministering there is I was most fortunate that I found my Paul there at First UMC.
I had a number of them up to that point; pastors and professors. But you have heard me speak of my Paul many times before. His name was Rev. John Dyksen. And in the years I served with him at First Church he was there to come alongside me and he would say, “You know what? I believe in you and I’m going to stand with you and we know that God can use you to lead his people in the church. And he gave me confidence and helped me to believe in myself. And he challenged me to not let anyone look down on me because I was young. And that came to mean a lot in that situation as he was diagnosed with cancer and for a year and a half while he battled the disease and after ultimately he died I was pressed into basically moving from associate pastor to the role of lead pastor of that church.
And that’s what I see when I look at this passage about Timothy.
Now I want us to notice a couple of things out of this story about Paul and Timothy. First I want us to recognize that there is a scriptural pattern here in the relationship that Paul has with Timothy that every one of us as believers is meant to be investing in the next generation. And I think this is part of God’s word for you today.
In fact the question I’m going to end this sermon with today will be, "Who is your Timothy?" This is the way that God invests, one generation to the next is we encourage, we bless, we stand by those who are young and then we turn over leadership to. Paul could've tried to go back to Ephesus and led the church but he turned leadership over to Timothy and allowed him to spread his wings and try things. That is precisely what we are called to be doing as a church and as individual believers, to be in that kind of relationship with our young people.
And we see that all the way throughout the Bible. So Moses had Joshua. Moses invested in Joshua and Joshua at the same time strengthened Moses and helped him to remain young. Together they were a powerful team. And then Joshua took over for Moses and led the people into the Promised Land when Moses’ days were finished.
We see this kind of relationship in Elijah and Elisha. Elijah was the great prophet of the Old Testament and Elisha was his young understudy. Elijah turned over leadership to Elisha over a period of years and he encouraged him. He placed his mantle upon Elisha and when he Elijah was taken up into heaven a double portion of God's prophetic spirit was poured onto Elisha and he continued the work of God after Elijah was gone.
Then in the New Testament we find this kind of relationship between Mary the mother of Jesus and her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was 13 years old when she found out that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit. She doesn't tell her parents and she immediately makes her way to Ein Karam which is a nine-day journey from Nazareth. She goes there to find Elizabeth her older cousin and it is with her that she finally finds someone that she can share what is happened in her life. And Elizabeth believes in her and encourages her and blesses Mary which enables her to find joy in the middle of that experience.
And then of course we find Paul and Timothy.
Who are the young people that you are mentoring? Who are you investing in that’s younger than you are?
And there are a lot of ways we do that. Some of you teach children's Sunday school or help with VBS. You have been faithful in that and have helped raise up children and this is your chance to mentor them and help them to know about God. Some of you have been sponsors for our confirmation class or for youth group. How grateful I am for those of you in this congregation who have understood the sacred call of raising up our young people. You are not just filling spots or being a warm body. This is a calling for you. You are in a place where you can speak into the lives of young people at some of the most critical parts of their growing up years. This is a calling for you to invest in young people and raise them up and pass on wisdom and care for them.
For whom are you a Paul? And who is your Timothy?
This is true not just in the church but its true in life as a whole. Each of us is called to be raising up our replacements, the next generation and investing in them, no matter what our profession. And I don’t know when you started feeling this but I turned 50 last year and I it has really started to hit me that I am not going to go on forever. I'm not going to be pastor here forever. I’m not going to be able to serve as a pastor forever. So how am I going to invest in people who are going to take my place someday? Over the past few years I have become more aware of that and I’ve tried to be more intentional about being available for those who may have a calling to serve in ministry.
One thing I have done is I have started looking with more intentionality at our own children and youth and adults and asking myself who are the ones among them are those that may have the gifts and graces to enter the ministry. And not everybody is called to be a pastor, but some among us may be and we need to be encouraging them. And the question I want to ask our youth is “Which one of them is going to be reaching today's kindergartners or children in our nursery?” It’s not going to be me. And pastor’s and church leaders don’t just fall out of the sky. It’s going to be some of our young people and so we need to be asking them to pray about it and ask if God is calling them.
If God is calling you then I’ve got to tell you its the most awesome and coolest job you could possibly have if you’re called to it – even on a week like this. You get to stand next to the groom when the bride walks in. You get the hold the newborn baby in the hospital and to pray with the family and give thanks to God for this miraculous gift. You have people come in your office and say, "Pastor, I have never told anyone this before, but I have to tell somebody this." And to be the instrument of Christ’s healing in people’s lives. You get together with family and offer comfort when they lost a loved one and you get to celebrate their life and help the community and the family remember that this life is not all there is. To have the chance to lead people to Jesus or to cast a vision for the church and say, “Hey let’s go do this and everybody comes in and with the power of God we’re able to do things that no one of us could do by ourselves. And just the joy of preaching the gospel every week.
Part of our role as the church must be to help young people begin to hear that call. So far we have a number of young people in this congregation who are thinking that God may be calling them to be pastors in the future. We need great doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers and nurses and engineers and every other kind of profession, but somewhere along the way there has to be some really great leaders for the church in the future or the church will have no future. So this must be part of our role.
Now part of what I want to remind you of when we think about mentoring is this is not only for the benefit of the young person, it’s for your benefit.
Over the last 10 years I have had the privilege as serving as a candidacy mentor for two groups of probationary elders here in the Virginia Conference. These groups were assigned to me by the DS. And I have to say when he called and asked me to do this at first I was like, “Oh no. I do not have time for this. How can I add something else to my plate?” But when the DS calls what can you say? But I have to tell you the times that I have spent with those guys in my groups have been some of the richest and most rewarding times I have spent. We would meet to discuss issues related to ministry, to discuss their joys and frustrations. And I can tell you that I believe I probably learned more from them then they from me. And you know what else? Those guys have become some of my best friends in the ministry.
Here is a truth that I have noticed over and over again. As you age, if you are willing to invest in younger generations, you will find that it makes you younger and brings you energy and life. What are you doing to raise up your replacements? We know that in doing this it can bless us and make us younger.
Who is your Timothy? Who is your Paul?
Those of you who are younger, I want to remind you that I have never met anyone who is a successful executive or leader in their field who didn't say that they stood on the shoulders of older people who had mentored them. The wisest people I know are all people who are willing to say, "I need to find somebody who is older than I am who can help me to see, to learn and to understand how to be the best I can be." These relationships work for the benefit of both Paul and Timothy.
This idea is important not just for individuals but for churches. And I want to share something with you that we learned last week at the 5 Talent Academy. You will see a diagram on the GPS insert in your bulletin. And this is something I believe I’ve shared with you before. But at the session last Saturday our presenter shared it with the group again.
The curve illustrated is the typical lifecycle of an organization. Most organizations start there at the bottom and they have a period of rapid growth and then a period of stability and then finally they have a period of decline. That is the lifecycle of most organizations. You recognize that in businesses and in life. This is true in churches as well.
Our presenter reminded us that it is possible for an organization not to die as long as they recognize the peak of their lifecycle and instead of getting comfortable and complacent they decide at this point to do something to launch another curve. When you do this and you develop another facet of your business or you reinvent yourself, you find that you are reinvigorated.
So there are 32,000 United Methodist churches in the United States and if you look at those churches as a whole, the reality is that we are on the decline. We were rocking in the 1930s and 40s and 50s. We finally reached that place of stability in the 1960s and we just convinced ourselves that it was okay because we were stabilizing. We didn’t recognize that the next phase was decline. We have been declining for 49 straight years as a denomination. Part of what we have failed to do is to reinvent ourselves. We have failed to ask the questions about what it means to reach new generations.
A critical part of any organization including the church is to figure out how to connect with each new generation, recognizing that change is not optional but it is inevitable.
The question for us as a church is this. Are we listening and learning from young people? Are we willing to reinvent ourselves? Do we recognize that the gospel doesn't change but the package has to for each generation?
I know that change can be disconcerting and challenging for many of us and the truth is that we only like change if it was our idea, but I want to remind you that the reason that we think about these things is because we have reinvented ourselves over the past 10 years but we are coming up on another curve.
This church is nearly 140 years old and it has reinvented itself several times. We moved from the little old white frame building in old Sterling on the other end of Church Rd. to our current location in 1983. Then again in 1992 as the church continue to grow we added the sanctuary and education wing in the back. And now we are in the midst of doing that again. We are undertaking this renovation and expansion project because we recognize that we are going to need more space provide the space for new ministries to reach more people and touch more lives. No one knows exactly what the future holds but we do know that we can't stand still or we end up on a plateau and then we die.
Right now we are doing pretty well as a church and there are lots of great things happening. We have lots of great programs and we are connecting with lots of people and the parking lot is often full and we could simply sit around and say, "Why do we have to change anything? Let's just keep on doing what we've been doing."
The problem is that decline sneaks up on you. You don't really notice it at first and then you make excuses when it starts to be noticeable that you are in decline. One day you can't make excuses anymore and you look back and go, "Oh no! What happened and how did we get here?" It becomes even harder to change once you've begun the process of decline.
We must always be asking the question, "How are we connecting with the next generation?" It's not that we are disregarding what we do for my generation or older because the reality is that most of what we do is for us. We do need to be more intentional about how we connect with that next-generation or it won't happen.
I have served at this church for 10 years and the question I have this morning is where will we be in another 10 years if we are not successful in connecting with and mentoring a new generation? And I have to tell you I don’t want to preside over our congregation’s slow but steady decline. But instead I’d like to invite us to be bold and courageous Christians who look around and ask constantly, “How can we be a church where children and youth and young adults say, “You know those people really care about be. And I found my Paul at Sterling UMC. And you know that the kind of church that’s doing the kinds of things that speak to my heart and my head; that make me want to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I can’t wait to invite my friends.”
If we want a church that is vibrant and alive 10, 20 or 50 years from now we have to be intentional to see ourselves as Paul who are willing to invest in the lives of Timothy.
Some of you are getting a bit nervous I can tell and wondering if I'm going to announce some big change in the next few minutes. No, I'm not going to do that and I'm not announcing today that I'm quitting or moving because I'm too old to be your pastor! All I’m saying is we do need to think strategically together about what it means to be Paul and what it means to be Timothy in today's world.
Paul knew that he was going to be put to death someday after he was imprisoned by the Romans. And if there wasn't a Timothy then there was going to be no more church.
Who's your Paul? Who's your Timothy?
The last thing I want to share with you is just the importance of helping young people who will become the leaders of our church in the years ahead.
In the Virginia Advocate that just came out this week there was a very interesting article from Lovett Weems from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC.
The study showed that the median age of active elders reached an all-time high of 56. Active elders between ages 55 and 72 constitute a recrd high 55% while the share of active middle-aged elders 35 – 54 continues to drop. The only good news I see in that is that at least I am still considere middle-aged – if only barely! What this tells us is that if we don't raise up young leaders and young pastors then we don't have a future. It tells us that we are doing a terrible job of reaching Timothys.
That's why we have got to be more intentional about raising up outstanding young people. God has to call them but we have to help them think about it and pray about leading a church. Most churches never even think about asking children or young people to think about ordained ministry. And praise God we have several of them right now. And it’s not just about being pastors. We need to encourage our young people to get involved and begin to assume places of leadership and influence in the church as lay persons as well.
I want to end by reminding you of something I’ve shared with you before about how I heard my call to serve as a pastor. I was 22 years old in my second year at ODU studying electrical engineering. I was involved in the church where Robin was serving as the choir director. We had a singing ministry where we traveled all over the Tidewater area singing in churches, revivals, and gospel sings. I was beginning to feel a call to something more than just the singing ministry. The pastor of that church came to me one day and asked me if I had ever given any thought and consideration to being a pastor. “A little bit.” I told him. But I was headed into engineering because that’s where the good jobs and the big salaries were.
He said well I think God has a calling on your life. I see the gifts and graces. I think you should be a pastor. How about you preach for me one Sunday soon?” And reluctantly I said, “Sure, I’ll preach for you one Sunday.” I thought you know I stand up in front of people and sing all the time. I thought it couldn’t be too tough to preach a sermon. How hard can that be? Anybody can do that.
And I got up to preach and I preached probably the worst sermon that was ever delivered in that church. I have it on audio cassette but no one will ever hear that sermon. Robin said if she was going to be a preacher’s wife and she had to listen to that every week she would find a different church. But when I was finished I knew that was what God made me for.
That pastor who helped me explore that call to ministry, he was my first Paul. He's retired now and I have made sure to let him know the difference he has made in my life and I think in many of the lives of the people that I have had the privilege to serve. It was my Paul tapping me on the shoulder and saying, "Randy, I think God has a calling on your life."
Our job today is to tap the young people in this church on the shoulder and encourage them and help them hear God's call.
I want to ask you one last time. Who is your Paul? And who is your Timothy?