On March 6, 2016, we gathered for our weekly worship service at First West’s Fairbanks campus. With 274 other people, we sang, prayed, and started a new sermon series. I was excited about the prospect of this series and the momentum we would see heading into Easter. We were feeling like our campus was starting to “hit its stride.”
Little did I know that March 6 would be the last time we gathered in the Fairbanks Campus for quite a while. I’ve seen floods in my day. In 1985 in Virginia I watched the Jackson River rise and then flood my hometown of Covington. Hurricane Hugo brought some flooding in 1989, but the damage was not nearly as bad. In the mid-90s I saw flooding throughout the Harrisonburg, Virginia, area. But every one of those floods was a result of gradually rising river levels. What I saw the week of March 6 through March 12 was something I wasn’t ready for. An actual FLASH flood! In less than 40 hours, reality shifted drastically for thousands of homes in our area. In a matter of 2-3 hours on Wednesday, March 9, my thoughts moved from strategy to creating a safe shelter within the Fairbanks Campus to getting home while I still could.
In the days that followed, my role looked more like flood relief dispatcher than campus pastor. I was proud of our church and proud of our community as I watched people serve one another. But once the waters began to recede and people began to return to work and school, I found myself wrestling with the loss of “normal.” I didn’t have an office. I didn’t know where my study resources were for sermon prep. I didn’t even know where or how we could hold church services.
I admit, those questions rocked me a bit at first. I worried that we had lost our momentum in a growing campus of First West. I quickly was reminded of my words, “The church is not flooded, the building is…” This thought energized me as I began to pull together a plan to move forward and have the conversations needed to know what was next. The building was just a tool. Our church was flourishing! Serving our community. Gathering in home groups to learn and apply God’s Word. Churches were cooperating across denominational lines and worshiping and serving TOGETHER! God wasn’t caught off guard as I was by the flood. In fact, he was working in me, through me, with people and through people.
As the plan has come together over the last weeks, the leadership of our campus and the Senior Leadership of First West have grown excited! Weird, right? Attendance has tanked from 275 a week to about 100 or sometimes less, but we are excited! Because God is redeeming the flood and using it for His good.
Here are five things that have me fired up for this new season or transition:
1) True partnership among the local churches.
On March 13, four different churches gathered at the FBC Sterlington building for a unified community worship gathering. Two very traditional churches (one Methodist, one Baptist) and 2 very contemporary churches (one Methodist, one Baptist), representing the full range of worship style preferences and “dress codes,” gathered to hit pause on a crazy week and only look to Jesus. What a special day! We are now officing at one of those churches and sharing space with them as we have been meeting on Saturday evenings.
2) New Opportunities to Reach our city!
On May 1, we will move into our temporary home, Sterlington Middle School (SMS). We have prayed since the first days of the Fairbanks Campus that God would open up ways for us to minister to ALL parts of our community. Through our time in Sterlington High School, we reached one part of our community. The move to the Fairbanks Campus in 2014 opened up our reach into a new part of town. And now in SMS we will have the opportunity to meet and minister to yet another section of town! We believe God has us here to reach our city, to build into other churches, and to be embedded in the culture here. The flood has unexpectedly opened yet another area and many new partnerships. We want to impact lostness here in Sterlington and see a movement take hold in our community of people following Jesus!
3) Community is becoming foundational to more and more people here.
I don’t mean community as in neighborhood and who we live near, but rather the THREAD of Community that is part of our DNA as disciples of Jesus. The value of living a life connected to Biblical Community has been on display in these last weeks. Through the uncertainty of flood waters and where to gather for worship, those who are attached to a LIFE Group and are living in community with other believers are seeing that their opportunity to grow in service to others and in living a life of worship to Jesus are rooted in the community they do life with!
4) Leaders are emerging!
We want to be a church that is known for multiplying discipleship. We want to be making disciples of Jesus that then go and make disciples of Jesus. Something about transitions and disasters puts things in focus as to what is crucial, and the result is that the leaders of the next LIFE Group, the next mission team, the next volunteer ministry, are emerging. People are seeing themselves as leaders and their lives as opportunities to minister to and serve others.
The Fairbanks campus will be restored, improved even! We think we will be back at the campus by September. Homes that were flooded are being restored. Families are being restored. Eternity is being restored as people meet Jesus. All the renovations are a picture of restoration but, beyond that, Jesus has shown again and again that He still restores lives. On May 1 at our “relaunch” service in Sterlington Middle School, we will baptize two men who have experienced this restoration, even amidst of all the chaos of the last seven weeks.
Revelation 21:5 (ESV)
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”