Where We've Been | Pastor Mike Fortune | February 6, 2010


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Where We’ve Been
by Pastor Mike Fortune
February 6, 2010

BlueFishVideo: The Means & The Message 

  1.  Christ is our main thing [Galatians 1:1-6]
  2. Christ is our way of life [Galatians 1:15-16]
  3. Grace is the means [Galatians 1:23-24; 2:9]

The Coliseum in Rome, at 157 feet tall and 620 feet long and with the capacity to seat more than 50,000 people, took 10 years to complete. The Great Pyramid of Giza, which was the largest man-made structure in the world prior to the construction of the Eiffel Tower toward the end of the nineteenth century, is estimated to have been completed over a 20-year period. The famous Notre Dame Cathedral took almost 200 years to finish, which seems almost trivial compared to the theorized 1,600 years necessary to construct Stonehenge, or the 2,000-year endeavor that was the Great Wall of China.

But without the dedication and hard work of thousands, or even millions, these seemingly impossible undertakings never would have been built. These magnificent structures had to remain a priority for many years—and in some case, many generations—in order for the vision to be realized.

Today we are starting a short series I hope will help us realize prioritize a vision for our church. It’s gonna have three parts. Part one is about where we as the Toledo First Church have been. Part two is about where we are now. And part three is about where by God’s grace I believe God is calling us to go and why. Periodically, I think it’s a good idea to reflect on these things so it’s easier for all of us to see the forest and the trees. During my sabbatical, that’s some of what I’ve been doing. For those of you who want to know what else I’ve been up to the last 4 weeks, please go to my blog and check it out. If you’re snowed in here in Toledo or a New Hoper from Maryland watching our service live on the internet, you could also open another window on your screen and check out the new pics of the family and of our trip to Israel I’ve added to my Facebook page while I’m talking. But whether you’re snowed in or not, re-calibrating ourselves and aligning our hearts with God’s is a necessary and worthwhile practice for any organization or group.

We know this is true because even Jesus needed to do this with his disciples. The Bible says in Acts 1:3 that after Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected, “He showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk to you about any one thing for forty days! But for the next few weeks, I would like to speak to you about our corner of the kingdom here at Toledo First Church. And since I’m not God, we’re just going to have to trust the Holy Spirit to teach and lead us as well. That’s how Noomanautics works right? Today, we’re going to do so by highlighting a few verses in the letter Paul wrote to another church in Asia Minor called Galatia. I believe the lessons they learned about the kingdom of God and mission of their church are as important for us to remember today. So turn with me in your Bible to the New Testament book of Galatians.

This letter was addressed to the churches of Galatia [which back then comprised most of the western part of modern day Turkey]. Paul begins by introducing himself. “1Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the brothers with me, to the churches in Galatia: 3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

He could greet churches plural in his letter because Acts 13 and 14 describes how he and Barnabas planted more than one of them! Specifically, they founded churches in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. During his 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys through northern Asia Minor, Paul would also plant churches in [FREEGA] Phrygia and Galatia. The latter of which had been a Roman province since 25 BC and a pre-historic Celtic French settlement since the 270s BC. They named that area in Turkey Gaul-atia because they were from the Gaul region of what later became France.

Paul begins his letter kindly; the same way Jesus first began with the apostles huddled in the upper room after his crucifixion when in John 20:19 he proclaimed, “Peace be with you!” The word for peace in Greek is eirene. In Hebrew, it’s a more familiar word you may have heard before: “Shalom.” We just sang a song about that peace. Our tour guide in Israel told us that Shalom is a word Jews still use today to say “hello” and “goodbye” as well as “peace.”

Paul used this routine greeting in Romans 1:7 and 1 Corinthians 1:3 as well. This is significant to note because some people think Paul wrote this epistle to the Galatians when he was angry. And maybe he had a right to be. Because he had already warned these churches, according to Acts 20:29-31, that “After I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”

But even if he was angry, his kind greeting immediately must have reassured them and reminded them that he still loved them like crazy. Just because he doesn’t agree with the direction they’re going doesn’t mean he doesn’t love them! So their spiritual godfather Paul begins his letter the same way saying “Grace and peace to you.” But he doesn’t use much ink before he begins reprimanding them for falling away from the Gospel. Look at verse 6. You can hear the exasperation in his voice: “6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Which according to verse 7, is really no Gospel at all.

A clue to what they fell away from can be found in verse 4 where Paul reminds them that the Gospel is always a free gift. But apparently, a number of them started putting conditions on it and subsequently the Gospel was no longer free. In doing so, they neglected to keep Christ the main thing. Which is point number one. That’s why followers of Jesus re-calibrating ourselves and aligning our hearts with God’s must remember to keep the main the main thing and our main thing is Christ! Does anybody here know who coined that phrase first? I wasted 15 minutes trying to figure it out yesterday. I Googled it down to either Lee Iaoccoa or Stephen Covey and I’m going with Covey. But regardless of who specifically coined the phrase, this is it in a nutshell: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!”

And this I believe is really Paul’s passionate plea throughout his letter to the church in Galatia. And that’s why I’ve adopted it as point number one here today as one of my pleas for us here in Toledo. Three years in, we have got to keep the main thing the main thing and our main thing is Christ! It’s important for us to periodically check with the community and our friends and our children, to see if they hear us saying our main thing is Christ. Because in so many other congregations, not just Adventist congregations, this isn’t the case. Monumental landmark studies like ValueGenesis 1 and 2 inside the Adventist church and continuing research outside the Adventist church most recently by George Barna and National Geographic and coming this Easter the new 60 minute documentary premiering on PBS entitled The Adventists all say otherwise. [You can buy that DVD by the way at www.theadventiststhefilm.com]

So what I’m going to say next, please understand, I too say kindly; not from hostility or anger or even exasperation [okay, maybe a little exasperation] but mostly from my 36 years of experience of being born and raised in this church. In my humble opinion, we as a church, not just this one here in Toledo, but many Adventist churches around the world, are far too easily tempted to as Paul says in Galatians 1:7 “Pervert the Gospel of Christ.” We don’t always do this on purpose. But we have done it. And we still do.

How do we pervert the Gospel? By elevating the law, adornment, Sabbath keeping, diet, prophecy or musical preferences for example above Christ. Ask anyone you want about Adventists, wherever you want, even in Israel, and you get the same answer. Adventists worship on a different day and don’t eat certain kinds of food. Which by themselves are God honoring good choices pleasing to God.

But what I told the search committee just over three years ago today is that I believe God has called me to model and lead a new normal Adventist church—one known in the community primarily for making the cross and Lord of the Sabbath who died on it central in our teaching and in our lives. I said that because this is what I want the readers of National Geographic and the watchers of future documentaries about our church need to know first about us Adventists. And when Jackie and I were prayerfully considering moving here, I was delighted to discover in the history of this church that these could have been some of the motivations of the pioneers who planted this church in Toledo in 1888.

I say this because 1888 was a pivotal year for us as denomination. In the early 1860s, our fledgling denomination had only 3,500 members scattered in 125 local churches represented by 6 local conferences across only a few of the eastern United States. But 25 years after organizing in the year 1888, about 90 delegates representing 27k members heard some of the leaders of our church publicly fight for the supremacy of Christ and the Gospel during the General Conference meetings taking place October 17-November 4, 1888 at that time in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The co-founder of our church Ellen White, along with some other guys [AT Jones and EJ Waggoner], were adamant in 1888 that our church should no longer pervert the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ [Uriah Smith and George Butler were on the other side of the argument]. There have been reams of paper devoted to chronicling this. But two pictures are worth a thousand words and I’d like to share them with you today to illustrate point number two. Before we see the pics, let’s see it in the Bible first.

Galatians 1:15-16 says it this way: “15But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man.” So what’s the point ? That point is Paul is saying he was called by God’s grace to reveal the Son. And ever since 1888 at least, that’s been our job as Adventists too. We know this is true because I scanned both of the pics deacons are passing out now from posters I purchased inside the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The first one, commissioned in 1876 by James White [also one of the founders of the Adventist Church] emphasized the law and was entitled “The Way of Life, From Paradise Lost To Paradise Restored.” It is a picture of the plan of salvation and mission of the church from Eden to Eden. You see Adam and Eve exiting the Garden of Eden. There is Cain and Able, the sacrificial service. Over on the right of the picture is the baptism of Jesus, the Lord’s Supper, and the New Jerusalem. But in the middle is a huge tree with ten branches, one for each of the Ten Commandments. Jesus is on the cross. But it is the law that is the dominant motif in this picture.

Four years later James White saw the revised version of this picture and apparently was in favor of it in 1880, but he died in 1881 before it was realized. So after he did, his wife commissioned this new picture to illustrate the plan of salvation and mission of the Adventist Church. This new picture was completed in 1883 and was entitled “Christ—The Way of Life.” The same elements are there but note the big change: The law has been moved to the foothills of Mt. Sinai behind the cross pointing people forward toward it.

So our larger church history tells us that some leaders in it longed for a new normal Adventist church known in the community primarily for making the cross and Lord of the Sabbath who died on it central in our teaching and in our lives. And from what I’ve read, this is also what some of the very founders of this congregation also wanted as well. While they planted the Toledo First Church in January of 1888, months before the general conference meetings, undoubtedly as the date of the second pictures proves, making Christ the main thing was an idea maturing and growing in the minds of many Adventists for at least five years before that.

They lived during the time we as a church were learning that Christ must be our main thing because Christ is the main thing. So let’s not forget that or fall away from that. Point number one. He is our way of life. It’s his picture that we should take with us. This is point number two. That’s how it started for our church here in Toledo 122 years ago. [What I’m about to say next can all be found in a document available on our church website entitled the Toledo First Assimilation Manual. Big thank you to Dee for combing the archives and putting our history together for us.]

On January 29, 1888, our church was formed with five members who had been working in Toledo giving Bible studies and distributing literature. By 1894 their efforts had increased the membership to 35 and Elder Van Horn became the first full-time pastor. Only 10 years later, we organized our first church school. Then, get this, in 1899 we started a downtown storefront called The Light House Medical Mission at 120 St. Clair Street which is not far from 639 South St. Clair Street—the site on the same street we’ve been praying God will re-open to us in 2010! I Google mapped it and discovered the old location is on the east side of 75 and our new desired location is on the same street a couple blocks west of 75! Isn’t that amazing?! Who but God?

Back then in our storefront, we provided food, shelter, and medical treatments for those in need. When God opens the door, we’ll do some of that and worship galore sharing the space with a homeless church, providing a place for neighborhood gatherings and conversation while modeling the incarnational love of Jesus by uniting volunteers from the affluent suburbs of Sylvania with the poorest of the poor in downtown Toledo. Please pray that God will miraculously intervene in 2010 so we can re-open our downtown storefront. By the way, there’s a place like this in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that is already open and doing great. If you have May 2-8 off work or are willing to take some vacation days, we’ll send you there for free to experience what ministry is like there so we can hopefully do something similar here. We’re calling it the Adventist Fresh Expressions field trip. Please see me or Dee if you’re willing to go to Pittsburgh May 2-8.

With the downtown mission, a Bible worker, and repeated evangelistic meetings, our church grew to 91 members by the year 1900. During these early years, the congregation moved many times, always renting, but in 1908 they purchased [for $1,000] the Church of Christ building at 885 Orchard Street. It was a 20-year dream come true! 

Then in 1919 another church school was organized and by 1921 the church membership had swollen to 192! Recognizing the space limitations of the Orchard Street church, a building program was begun. Fifteen years later, in 1936 the property was finally purchased at the corner of Auburn Avenue and North Cove Boulevard. But the first buildings to go up on that property wasn’t a beautiful sanctuary, they were portable buildings used to house our church school. [If we intend to grow our church school again, we may need to buy some more portable buildings first.] Those buildings back then were named Goff Memorial School and you could attend classes there for only 50 cents to $1.40 a week depending on the grade attended. The school eventually moved in 1958 to Independence Road where it stayed for nearly 40 years.

In 1938 the Ohio Conference proposed that if Toledo First could raise $800 to be added to the $1200 in hand, a large wooden tabernacle could be built on the Auburn Avenue property and an evangelistic series would be held. The Bible Tabernacle was worshiped in for the first time on August 6, 1938 and by December 1938, 165 new members united with the congregation! Then in 1946 the cornerstone was laid for the permanent church at the same location and the first services were held in October 1947. Four years later the church mortgage was paid.

The 1950 – 1970’s were occupied with the building of the new school, later adding to it, the fruit program which raised money for the school, baptisms, outreach radio programs and 5-Day Plans to Stop Smoking, Ingathering, the beginning of the Pathfinder Club, and Dorcas work.

In February 1980, the congregation voted to sell the church and in 1982 the property at 4909 Sylvania Avenue was purchased. Church services moved to the school gymnasium on Independence Road and remained there until the first service in this building in November 1984. A Concert Series begun in 1985 attracted the community to our church. Thousands of people who entered our doors during the next 13 years came for the music, hospitality and the wonderful Afterglows. To this day, I meet people in the community who still fondly remember the concert series and keep asking me when we’re going to do it again.

In 1989 we purchased the adjacent property to our west, renting the small house and using the large one as a parsonage. After selling our school, classes moved to our Sabbath School rooms in 1997 and in November 1999 we voted to construct a new school attached to our church and by 2001 we had enough money to begin construction of the school. In 2000 we hired a full-time youth pastor and in 2002 our second worship service known as Connections began on Saturday afternoons.

In 2003, fulfilling the dream of James Meade, we opened the Learning Center in our building for young children. And in 2007 we started experimenting with “Ordinary Outreach” to show love to the community with Kindness 2 Go bags, evangelistic picnics in the park, Mission Trips to Toledo, Car Shows, Community Book Discussions, and Valentines Banquets for the less fortunate. I believe our intent all along has been to make Christ the main thing because He is the main thing! And maybe I’m naive or hopelessly optimistic, but I believe if we keep doing this, over the long haul, a new normal Adventist church will emerge known in the community for making the cross and Lord of the Sabbath who died on it central in our teaching and in our lives.

This, from what I can tell, is what happened to Paul as he describes his mission in Galatians 1:23-24. “23They only heard the report: "The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." 24And they praised God because of me.” Galatians 2:9 adds, “9James, Peter, and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.”

Magnificent structures like pyramids and towers and cathedrals had to remain a priority for many years—and in some case, many generations—in order for the vision to be realized. But they were realized. The kingdom of God is God’s most magnificent structure and by God’s grace, our corner of it will continue to clearly reveal Jesus as the main thing and way of life in it. Is that your desire? If it is, would you say Amen? So let it be.