A step back in time - recalling and anticipating - Word&Way

A step back in time — recalling and anticipating

A few evenings ago, I found myself sitting in the Overland Park (Kan.) Conference Center next to Joel Sturtevant, an old friend from my college days, as Joel’s son Matthew brought a message during the closing session of American Baptist Churches USA’s biennial meeting, Mission Summit 2013.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had perused the program of the ABC event in anticipation of attending, especially since it was being held in Word&Way’s backyard, the Kansas City area, and because our trustees and staff have made a commitment to reach out beyond the borders of Missouri to focus on the Midwest and add coverage of Baptists who are of a mind to work together in ministry and evangelistic efforts in this area of the United States.

I spotted a photo of Matt, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kan., on promotional materials. The young pastor shares the wide smile of his father, prompting me to contact him and ask him flat-out if his parents were my old college friends, Joel and Carolyn Sturtevant. It turns out they were. In fact, as it turned out, the grandparents had planned to drive up from their home in Frankfort, Ky., that week to stay with Matt and his wife Kimberley’s two children during the ABC event.

Joel and I managed to spend some Sunday afternoon catching-up time together, share a light dinner with Matt and Kim and listen to Matt’s challenging message to 1,500 or so delegates from across the country. Kim was a member of the 100-voice regional choir for the Sunday evening service.

I felt like I was in something of a time warp. Joel and I hadn’t seen each other for 20 years — at least. Several years before that, I had observed the Sturtevant youngsters when they were just little children. When his dad introduced me to Matt, now in his mid-30s, we essentially were meeting for the first time, certainly as adults.

I know Joel was proud that his son had been chosen to bring this important message, and he must have swelled with pride to see the maturity, skill, confidence and clarity with which Matt preached. Joel has been a pastor and still does interim work even as he has ministered for most of 20 years as a chaplain in a multi-hospital setting in the Louisville, Ky., metropolitan area.

Matt preached from the biblical passage about Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus by night in John 3. Matt reminded us that Nicodemus was an expert in the law and was confident about his theological convictions. He must have been thrown for a loop when Jesus began talking about the necessity of being born again and of the blowing of the Spirit.

Matt reminded listeners that it is easy for experienced believers to have their faith all figured out like Nicodemus did only to sometimes realize that God through his Spirit still has much to teach them and ways to change them to strengthen their faith and make them better suited to serve in the world.

I heard Matt suggest leaders should model his old jazz instructor in school. Pastors need not control the message or the members, Matt said, as much as they need to set the beat for the congregation and then step back and “let the congregation go to town,” not unlike the jazz conductor when he gave the band the freedom to improvise and produce their own musical interpretations.

It would be a better model for pastoral authority, Matt said. Such an approach would lessen pressure on pastors to feel they have to do most of a congregation’s ministry rather than encourage, inspire and set the tone for the entire congregation in its Holy Spirit-inspired mission and ministry.

Time warp? Yes. Matt’s father and I were active in Baptist Student Union and on BSU revival teams 40 years ago. We tried to challenge congregations of believers older than ourselves to follow God’s spirit to reach out to upcoming generations in life-changing ways.

On this recent Sunday evening, Matt bravely and eloquently challenged a whole denomination to be moved by the winds of the same unchanging Holy Spirit in our current age. He offered a prophetic and well-received word to these American Baptists gathered from across the country.