Excelling in Building Up
Good morning! Happy Thanksgiving and happy anniversary to us. We are 29. We’re growing up. Yes, praise God. If you’ve never been a part of one of our anniversary services, this is a time where we just rejoice and thank God. We look back over all the ways that God has blessed us and sustained us. And wow, how many reasons do we have to give thanks to God for bringing us through this year and not only keeping us alive, but actually giving us this vision to come out stronger. We’re so glad you’re here. You are so loved. And we so appreciate every single one of you, whether you have been here for 29 years or this is your first time. We’re just happy you’re with us.
Today we’re going to look back in a very specific and significant way, because after 25 years of faithful service — kind of been here from the toddler stage to (I hope) the adult stage, that’s where we are — Ross Robinson is leaving our staff to concentrate on his work/ministry called Bold Move, which is developing leaders locally and globally. We’re going to look back and celebrate that. And here is a video that will reflect on some of the ways that Ross has contributed to us at North Hills.
It is super challenging to adequately honor someone who is so woven into my life, my ministry, and the life of this entire church. Ross Robinson is a man of integrity, compassion, and so many abilities. I have known and worked with Ross for most of my adult life. He and his wife Janiece have been constant friends, counselors, coworkers. They have been there with us and for us every step of the way.
I met Ross and Janiece while I was still in college, and in grad school his friendship became one of my most valued earthly possessions. His love, humility, wisdom, and kindness is a tangible overflow of the life of Jesus within him. Ross can process complex problems and develop comprehensive strategies without breaking a sweat. He is a humble listener and a thoughtful communicator. Although we have at times differed while making ministry decisions, I cannot think of one time when an unkind word was spoken, or an angry response was exchanged. One long-time coworker describes Ross as “dependable, reliable, patient, truthful, an insightful friend. A man who is unafraid to speak the truth in love. Ross embodies great leadership. Yet he always has time for a child or for someone who might be unnoticed.”
In the early days of North Hills, Ross provided strategic vision. He is an exceptional administrator. Everywhere you look at North Hills you will see Ross’s fingerprints. He was instrumental in expanding our staff. He has a gift for identifying capable people and then empowering them to flourish. One longtime staff member wrote, “Ross impacted my life as a boss and a mentor, and he is in a significant way responsible for the leader I am today. He taught me managing and shepherding strategies as he exemplified servant leadership for those he managed. His imprint on my life, both professionally and personally, has forever changed me for the best. To say I am thankful for him is a vast understatement.”
Ross has also been instrumental in shaping a culture of honor among our elder team. One of our first elders related how Ross modeled pastoral life. This elder summed up Ross’s impact in his life by saying: “His life has shown me what a life of faith really looks like.” Ross is a high capacity leader, yet he always brings a spirit of fun. He makes hard work seem like an adventure as he builds a spirit of teamwork.
One of Ross’s most powerful tools is his creativity. That creativity was never more fully seen than when he reimagined children’s ministry at North Hills. The Word of God is the foundation and bedrock of our children’s ministry. Ross helped us all see how many ways the Word can be communicated through play and games, indoor and outdoor, here on campus and far away on a campground. Ross found godly people with something to give and then put them in a role that brought out a whole new dimension of leadership and discipleship. As a result, hundreds and hundreds of our children have been eternally impacted by the gospel. In a way, in the best way, Ross never lost his child-likeness.
His positivity and love for life have endured across the years. Ross is the truest friend anyone could ever have. He consistently asks great questions and brings hope and clarity. He is unafraid to speak the truth in love. One person said, “Ross became both a mentor and a great friend. He is an incredible example of a husband, a father, and a friend.” Someone else said, “Ross has been a great listener, a person who can bring great clarity through reframing a challenge, and the biggest cheerleader and encourager.” Someone who worked for Ross calls him “a mentor, cheerleader, friend, and boss. Someone who has changed my world in the best way possible. Gracious and generous. He is one of the few people I know who is the same behind closed doors as he is in his public teaching.”
Ross’s ministry has deeply impacted countless marriages. One person shared, “Ross’s insight and ability gave my wife and me the language to understand one another that we will use for the rest of our lives. What used to be moments of tension have turned into moments of gratefulness.” Another shared, “Ross provided me with the mechanism to know how God crafted me to effectively serve my family and God’s people. Self-awareness is a priceless gift. Ross gives this gift to anyone who will listen.” And a co-leader shares: “Ross’s consistent, authentic affirmation enables me to see myself and the world around me in an entirely new way. God used Ross to unlock gifting and effectiveness I never even knew I had. I thank God continually for every day, for every year, for every decade he has been and will be my friend.”
Ross, your whole church family says, “Thank you.” Thank you for 25 years of faithful service. We love you.
That’s a lot. Thank you. I look forward to listening to that carefully, and I know God will encourage me through many of those words that different people have shared. I’m a person who definitely tends to look forward more than looking back. And these last few weeks have been very rich for me in looking back. Just a few days ago, I was packing up the final things in my office, and as I started to walk out, I felt this strong tug to just pause and linger. And so, I obeyed that tug and sat down on the floor in my office and enjoyed a special time of remembering and giving thanks to God.
My mind went all the way back to 1995 when I arrived on staff. My 20s had felt like such a time of struggle and searching as I really wanted to find that thing that God had made for me to do. And then I got to North Hills, and everything inside of me felt at home like never before. I can look back now and see what I think are a lot of reasons why this was the perfect place for me at that time. But when I was 31, all I knew is that this was comfortable and settled in a way that I had never experienced before. And I also woke up every day with just boundless energy to pour into the wide variety of ministry opportunities that were here. And when you’re one of only two pastors in a growing church plant, the work of the ministry includes all kinds of crazy stuff. And I have been remembering a lot of those things the last few days.
But at the end of 25 years, I would say that for me, ministry at North Hills has been all about the collision of faith and real life — the promises of God being tested in the lives of his people over and over and over again. And as I’ve witnessed God’s goodness and God’s power in you, my own faith has been cemented. I’m the believer that I am today because we have followed him together. So, I want to thank you for allowing me to walk with you over many years. And that thank you is for all of you who are a part of North Hills family right now. And it also includes some who are no longer with us because they’re worshiping in other places now or some who are worshiping in heaven. Thank you. That thank you is also for Peter and all of the elders who have modeled humility and integrity. I have been in the middle of it all, and that’s the truth. And that’s a really rare gift. So, thank you. And then that thank you is especially for the staff, both past and present staff members. You’re a passionate, gifted, sacrificial team who has my heart. So, thank you for the privilege of serving with you.
Just before I stood up to walk out of my office, I found that the words of Psalm 100 just came pouring out of my mouth.
“For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
His faithfulness is to all generations. I looked it up, and a generation is considered to be right around 25 years. So, I have seen the faithfulness of God as a leader at North Hills during my era, and I am genuinely excited about how God’s going to let us see that promise continue to be fulfilled in the next generation of leadership here. North Hills is in the same good hands it has always been. His faithfulness is to all generations.
And today I’m excited to do what I’ve done every anniversary Sunday for the last 25 years, and that is to worship with all of you as we celebrate the goodness of God individually and collectively as a church family. Let’s enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Let’s bless his name because the Lord is good, his faithfulness is to all generations.
For some of you who are new, let me just give you one other little glimpse into the heart of Ross. Last night at prayer meeting, while we were crying out to the Lord for today, I had walked everyone through what was going to happen. And before we started to pray, one of our prayer team just paused and just said, “I have to share that my very first time visiting North Hills, I met with Ross. I told him my background, which was really rough and bad and had ongoing implications (obviously deep within wondering if this was going to be a place where he could come).” And he said, “Ross hugged me, prayed with me, and then said, ‘We are glad you’re here.’” He said, “I’ll never forget that.” And that that’s Ross’s heart.
I want us to look at a sentence in Scripture today. One sentence that I believe both summarizes Ross’s 25 years of ministry as I’ve had the privilege of having a front row seat, but also is a call to all of us — a very specific command, exhortation, invitation to all of us. It is in 1 Corinthians 14. And if you want to turn there, we’re going look at a little more of the chapter in a moment. But for right now, I want us to look at a statement in verse 12, one part of verse 12. 1 Corinthians 14:12, “Strive to excel [this is the second half of the verse], strive to excel in building up the church.” Strive to excel in building up the church. Can you say that with me? Strive to excel in building up the church. One more time. Strive to excel in building up the church.
Three ideas there. One is, intentionality. That word “strive” is not a word of passivity. It’s a word that communicates … It’s actually in the present tense, which means habitually, continually strive. Its closest usage is in the chapter before (13:5), when Paul was talking about love. He says, “Love does not [there it is again] insist on its own way.” Same Greek word. Love does not strive for its own way. Love does not pursue what benefits itself, primarily. Love insists on, strives for something very different. Notice it’s not passive. Love is not passive, but love is not insisting, striving for its own way. It’s seeking to excel in community advancement, building up the body.
Number 2, second idea in this one statement. Strive to what? Strive to excel. That word means to increase or abound. In Matthew 14, Jesus took five loaves, two fish and fed five thousand men and thousands of women and children. And when everyone ate and everyone was satisfied, verse 20 says this, the disciples “took up 12 baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” That word left over is the same Greek word as excel. So, you get a vivid picture of this bread, a few loaves of bread, and a couple of fish being multiplied not only to feed thousands of people, but actually to go above and beyond what was needed. So much so, that there were leftovers, an overflow. Strive, Paul is saying, strive to excel, to increase to such an extent that you’re not living on meager rations.
Ross is a maximizer, an optimizer. He loves to find things that are doing okay, people who are bearing a little bit of fruit, ministries that are moving forward, and then through intentional investment of love — of listening well, asking really good questions, and then offering insight — see those people or those ministries go to the next level so that they are not simply surviving, but they are bearing more fruit relationally, spiritually. Ross loves to do this, and that’s why this verse reminds me of him. But it is a call to all of us. Strive to excel in what? Here’s the third idea, and this is where it’s all heading. Strive to excel in community advancement. That is, in building up the church. This is the purpose of the striving to excel. It’s to benefit the church, the community of believers. And we’re not going to understand the significance of this unless we understand the context in which this is spoken. The noun and the verb “to build up” are used seven times in this chapter. 1 Corinthians 14 is all about building up. Let me show you a few examples. 1 Corinthians 14:1,
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. [And prophecy in this chapter, by the way, is every kind of understandable, edifying speech gift.] For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their [there’s the word] upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be what built up.”
So, the debate that Paul is expressing here (envisioning) is between intelligible and unintelligible. He is saying that the kind of tongues he is referring to is an unintelligible language that may minister to you and may give thanks to God, but it will not be understood by the community as a whole. This was evident Wednesday night. I was at a prayer meeting in Greer City Park. We were praying for racial reconciliation on Wednesday night, a group of us in a big circle crying out to the Lord. People from different races, different churches, praying for unity and justice and peace in our country. And as we were praying, one woman was really captivated by the Spirit at one moment to pray for another woman who was bearing a heavy burden. And as she was praying, she was so overcome with speaking these promises to this other woman in the power of God, she switched into a language I did not understand, which I assumed was tongues. And then a few moments later, back into English. Now, what would Paul make of that? He would say, “That’s beautiful.” It was very obvious to anyone who was there, she was overwhelmed trying to express what God had put on her heart for this sister, and there were times it was beyond words.
But what Paul is saying is, if that characterizes your meetings at church, it may bless you and it may give thanks to God, but it’s not going to help your brothers and sisters. That woman receiving the blessing, and she did, received it because she understood what was being said. And that’s his point. In verse 17, he goes on to say, “You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.” Look at verse 18.
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. [So, he’s saying, I’m not minimizing that at all.] Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than 10,000 words in a tongue.” Why? Because we are to strive to excel in building up the church. Do you see the contrast? Look at verse 12.
“So with yourselves, since you are eager [and that’s literally the word zealot. It’s a noun.] Since you guys are zealots for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” What Paul is saying, he’s not condemning them at all. He’s commending them for their spiritual zeal. You’re zealots for the manifestations of the Spirit. Isn’t that a beautiful thing to be a zealot for? You’re not a zealot to make money or zealot to have your way. You’re a zealot for manifestations of the Spirit. But then Paul says, now bridle that, harness that, funnel that so that you’re striving to excel in building up your brothers and sisters. We can chew on that for a long time, can’t we? What does that look like for you with your gifts? You say, “Well, I don’t have anything to offer.” No, this command is to you, to us, to each of us, in whatever way God calls us to participate in the body of Christ. We are (you could summarize it this way) to habitually strive to increase in building up your brothers and sisters — the church. The purpose of our striving to excel is not self-advancement. It’s not show-window excellence. We’ve got to put on a great performance. It’s not even to have our own spiritual experience. We are to strive to excel in building up our brothers and sisters. In other words, being a part of God’s Spirit’s work in their lives toward maturity.
So, let me give you three what I would consider rather mundane examples. Last week, we saw huge examples of what God is doing through our church over the past year. It was super encouraging. Let me give you a few mundane examples and tie them into our church’s purpose. What’s our church’s purpose? What are we doing here? Believe God’s Word. Connect with God’s family. Share God’s story. Let me give you just one quick example out of each of these that illustrates, I believe, a part of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 14:12.
So, this past week, I walked in my house and caught my wife off guard. You know how when you don’t expect somebody to come in. My wife is the one on the left. And so, Karen had a piece of paper and I opened the door quickly to come running in. She looked startled. And I was like, “What are you doing?” And she had Isaiah 55 printed out. She’s wandering, walking around the house, re-memorizing Isaiah 55. A few days before I saw her doing the same thing with Philippians 1 and Psalm 103.
Some of you, many of you who have been here for a while, you know her story. Way back she experienced horrible panic attacks, deep depression. She was told by the doctor, you’re going to be on these meds the rest of your life. Nothing wrong with being on meds. But the Lord has so healed her, freed her, transformed her. But what I so appreciate is she is not coasting. Because in years like this, she knows how all the chaos and all the things to be anxious about can creep their way in and suck you back into a very dark place. So, what is she doing? She’s striving to excel in building up the church. You cannot build up the church if you don’t have the Word of God inside of you. You can’t! You may be able to offer some platitudes, but if we are not having our minds renewed in the Scriptures continually as we gather … That’s why we plunge into the Scriptures throughout the week. That’s why we’re meditating on and memorizing the Word of God. By the power of the Spirit, he is reprograming our thinking so that we’re not heading down these unhealthful tracks.
Second example, connecting with God’s people. A week and a half ago, I was meeting with Ruthie, our children’s ministry director, and who else was there? Susan, my assistant, several moms with children with special needs. And it was so encouraging sitting in this big circle just to watch Ruthie asking really good questions of these moms. Some moms with children with special needs want to mainstream their kids. Others need some unique care. And Ruthie’s asking good questions and listening and then linking together the gifts and the people who have burdens and training and ability and linking those needs with the resources here in our church. Kidstuff is amazing, but I loved watching her take it to the next level. Let’s see how we can serve our people more effectively with specific needs. Striving to excel in building up the church.
Third example, Tim Wadsworth. Some of you have met him before. Tim, every Monday, takes his youngest son, Levi (and Judah when he’s not in school) to Waffle House. Now you can question his dietary decisions. But he goes to the same place and sits in the same booth (if it’s available), gets the same server, and then shares the love of Jesus. So, two weeks ago, Kayla, their server, sat down with them during breakfast and received Christ as they had been … little Levi was a part of that. You can imagine for kids to be a part of sharing Christ with their dad. And if you’ve been around Judah, you know he’s ready to go sharing the gospel with the evangelism cube thing, always ready. So, as long as I’ve known Tim, he is constantly praying for and seeking new ways to love people and to share the love of Jesus with them.
You can’t build up the body of faith if someone’s not a part of it, right? That’s why as a part of our purpose, it’s not just believe God’s Word and connect with his people, but it’s to share his story. Others need to be invited into a relationship with Jesus so they can be built up. Striving to excel in building up the church.
Today we celebrate 29 years as a church. It seems to me like a blink of an eye. But I believe God’s Word for us today is right there in verse 12. He is calling us to continually, habitually strive to excel in building up his people. This year has challenged that on every level. I could never have imagined greater challenges to do this than this past year. And even — many of you I’m sure have heard this — but even two weeks ago, I was driving to church, wind’s blowing. It’s Thursday morning, the little hurricane that came through. And I was having to take a circuitous route just down the road here, Edwards Mill, because a tree had fallen on the road. And as I was pulling up to a stop sign, suddenly the front of my car was taken out by an oak tree. And that’s a weird feeling when you’re driving along and all of a sudden you aren’t. And my first response was, “Thank you, Lord!” Seriously, if I had been five feet forward, I would have been crushed. My second response, and I’m normally not like this, but I just had a weird sense of, “I guess you have more for me to do.” And my third sense was, “How do I get this tree off my car?”
Jesus is a maximizer. He said, “The branch in me that bears fruit, I’m going to prune it so that it will what? Bear more fruit.” And I fear that many of you, especially this year, who are experiencing difficulty, are interpreting that as somehow God is mad at you, when the very opposite may be the case. You were bearing fruit. You had some fruit popping out of your life, but Jesus loves you too much to leave you comfortably bearing a little fruit. He’s going to bring his scissors or (we call them the honkers) these clippers, and he is going to prune you so that you might, what? Bear more fruit! And I believe he’s doing that in our church. I believe the greatest years of fruitfulness are still ahead as we strive by his Spirit to excel above and beyond in building up his people. Let’s pray.
Lord, thank you for so patiently fertilizing and pruning us so that we might bear more fruit. What a miracle of your grace that you don’t just cast us aside, that you lovingly, patiently, sometimes painfully prune us so that we can grow, bear more fruit, strive by your Spirit to excel above and beyond in building up our brothers and sisters and strengthening and helping them take that next step of faith.
We pray, Lord, that you would be raising up even today, that you would do a work in young men and women’s hearts and be raising up a new generation of Ross Robinsons. Young men and women who may be teenagers today, but they say, “As I look at a life that will go by so quickly, there is nothing else I want to do with my life.” However they do it — through business, missions, ministry, however it is — that they would strive to excel in building up your people.
We pray that, Lord, you would continue to do that here. We have experienced that. We’ve seen it, and it brings great joy to our hearts, great glory to your name. We pray for our brothers and sisters around the world, especially persecuted brothers and sisters today, that you would give them grace to strive to excel in building up others.
We pray now as we respond with praise that you would just fill our hearts with gratefulness. Take this offering, Lord, the sacrificial offering of money and prayers and praise, and Lord, use it for your glory. May it bring great joy to your heart. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.