On September 21 Santa Barbara Community Church will begin her thirtieth year of ministry in our community. To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, What a long, great trip it’s been. We began in a living room (three weeks), moved to a bar (twelve months), settled on the mesa (nine years), moved to St. Mark (nine years), found Living Faith (ten years), and now find ourselves worshipping on a hill. We began with fewer than twenty people, and today, well, we have a few more than that. We began alone, and then we “got hitched.” In 2008 God blessed us with a marriage, a union with the wonderful people of Trinity Baptist Church. And the union is indeed sweet. We are blessed with the gift of one another.
Santa Barbara Community Church began in 1979, and, yes, life was different back then…and somehow very much the same:
• Jimmy Carter was president, and in 1979 he shocked the world by resuming relations with China!
• Our country was in a recession that makes the current angst over the economy seem downright silly. Then, we were enduring double-digit interest rates and inflation hovered at about 14 percent! Today interest rates are under 6 percent, and inflation is about 3 percent.
• OPEC raised oil prices 50 percent! Sound familiar?
• Gold sold for over $800 an ounce, about the same price it is today.
• In 1979 we were nervous about what was going on in Russia and how our president was handling the situation. Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty 2 (SALT 2). Hmm… And how is George Bush going to deal with Vladimir Putin and the situation in Georgia?
• Viet Nam invaded Cambodia. And what is happening today in Darfur?
• In 1979 gasoline cost about $1.00 per gallon, and houses in Santa Barbara could be found for about $90,000.
• A VCR cost about $2000.00, and a computer cost about as much as a house.
• Westmont College cost something on the south side of $4,500 a year.
So what is there to say as our church nears the completion of her third decade of ministry? What is there to say on a twenty-ninth anniversary? And how do you say it without being either self-aggrandizing (Ain’t we great?) or self-effacing (What a sinful mess we are.)?
I’ve thought about this anniversary for some time. I’ve looked forward to it, because 2008 has been a year of watching God do far more than we could have asked or imagined (Ephesians 3:20). It has been a year of surprises and change. The merge, as we call it, has occupied much of our time and energy in the last twelve months. During this past year, both congregations asked questions, expressed fears and hopes, and eventually embraced the notion that God was leading us to come together as one body. (As a side note, in my twenty-nine years as a pastor of Santa Barbara Community Church, I have never been more confident that God was leading us in a particular direction than I was during this process. And now, six months into our merge, my confidence has only been strengthened.)
I’ve spent most of my adult life enjoying and serving this body of believers. Almost three decades of church life have passed, and the journey has been sweet. Yes, SBCC has been the passion of my life. If something is wrong, I find it hard to sleep at night. If a marriage is failing, if a home group is in trouble, if one in the fold is wandering from the Lord, I find myself weighed down, burdened. If all is well, if things are right, my normally optimistic outlook on life is buoyed even higher.
I know my countenance shouldn’t depend on the vibrancy of our church. Yet sometimes it does. Over the past twenty-nine years I’ve known ecstatic exuberance (usually on Sunday nights when I drive home, thinking, God was really among us! 1 Corinthians 14:25) and deep desperation (usually when someone I thought “got it” didn’t “get it” after all). I’ve learned over the years what it is to feel tears of joy come to my eyes as I take a peek at those celebrating the Lord’s Supper “God, look what you are doing! You are so good to us…” And I know what it is like to break down and cry over a failed marriage, an untimely death, or a disciple who has wandered from the faith.
Anniversaries are a time to take stock, to be introspective, to evaluate. They are also moments for celebration. Typically, Lisa and I eat out on our wedding anniversary. (We celebrated twenty-seven years of marriage in June). Inevitably our conversation will drift to the wedding, the honeymoon, our first apartment, our first child, our first home. At some point during our protracted meal, we take inventory. We evaluate the present with one eye fixed on the past and the other looking toward the future. We ask important questions: “How are we doing right now in our marriage?”; “What adjustments should we make?”; “What are we looking forward to in the future?”
As I look back over the past years of our church life, I notice that my eyes are damp with tears of joy. God indeed has blessed us—and blessed me in the context of SBCC.
I find myself thankful for his leading, for our progress in holiness, and for those who have met Christ in the context of our fellowship. I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of worshipping with a group of people for a long time–people from whom I have learned much and people for whom I care deeply.
My eyes, though, are also fixed on the future. They squint with expectation. What is God going to do in and through us in the years to come? What are his plans for this congregation? How will God’s Spirit surprise us by working in ways we never expected?
How we answer these and other questions will largely determine our future as a church. Will we continue to embrace God and delight in him? Will we remain faithful to the Scriptures? Will we grow in the knowledge of God? Will we further develop the qualities of discipleship Peter mentions in his second letter: the qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly kindness, affection, and love? Or will our faith in Christ grow cold and our fervor for his kingdom grow dim? Will we reach out to one another in loving community? Or, will we go the way of Ephesus and abandon that which first brought us together (Revelation 2:2ff.)? Will we reach out to our community with loving service and evangelism? Or will we keep our faith to ourselves?
Brothers and sisters, the future is just around the corner. What kind of church will we be in 2018? Will the Son of Man find faith at SBCC in 2029? The answer to these questions, of course, depends on how freely we allow God to shape our lives. If our lives are more conformed to the image of Christ twenty or thirty years hence, SBCC will radiate the glory of God, and the angels in heaven will sing. If, though, we are conformed to our culture and increasingly comfortable in the world, Santa Barbara Community Church will look like the church of Sardis: You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead! (Revelation 3:1).
Santa Barbara Community Church, we have a great legacy and a far greater God. Let us be people who are careful to remember what God has done, what he is doing and what he intends to do in us and through us. Moses’ words to a nation on the brink of entering the Promised Land are words for us… and for our children.
Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children…(Deuteronomy 4:9)
May it be so. May it be so.