Everything in Houston is big. Everything. The town is built entirely on entrepreneurial spirit and a belief that if a little of something is good, then a lot of that thing would be better. Same thing goes for churches. Get this.... we've visited two different UM churches, and talked with 7 more UM-pastors who have all planted churches in this area in the last ten years or less. Of the nine churches represented, 6 would be large enough to be in the Top Ten in size in UM-churches in Ohio. The smallest averaged about 900 a Sunday, and the biggest over 2400. All churches that are brand spanking new, where the pastors don't think they've hit their stride yet, and they dwarf in size and scope just about every church in my conference. Wow.
We met Ed Young today. He's the pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Houston, a church with five sites in the area that average about 31,000 people in worship each Sunday. He's a fascinating guy, and a real piece of work. He's amazing in about a thousand different ways, and despite the image of Southern Baptist preachers that some of us uppity Methodist pastors have, he's is no fool. He knows his stuff, and I suspect the 700 trained Bible teachers (you don't teach the Bible at Ed's church unless you've been formally trained) receive a more rigorous education than most seminary grads do (at least in Bible and theology). But of the many things I learned about him in an hour, the thing I'll remember the most is how competitive he is... which is a perfect fit for entrepreneurial Houston. How competitive could a preacher be? Here are a couple of examples....
First, he insinuated in our time with us that were churches in this community that, by definition of the Bible, weren't really churches. He didn't really say much more than that, but a member of our body who's in the know claims that Ed last year mentioned a particular church here in the city by name, and largely because they've grown larger than Second Baptist. Let's just say Ed doesn't mind serving a church named "second", but doesn't want to be second in the two areas he believes all churches need to count: nickles and noses (his words... not mine).
Second, Ed spent some time talking about why the church went multi-site, and his reasoning was that there were just areas of Houston that were under-evangelized. Guess where one of these areas are? The part of the city where Ed found it necessary to plant a site that is directly across the street from the First Baptist Church. And I mean, directly across the street.
The thing I learned? If you're really good with a paddle, don't play Ed Young in a game of ping pong. You will be there until you finally let him win a game. And then, he will devote every waking hour to practicing ping pong, fly to wherever you are, and beat you repeatedly while calling your mama names. I really believe he'd do this. And don't get me wrong... I dig Ed Young. I wish all of us knew the Bible, doctrine, theology, and administration like he does. If we did, the church would be growing... quickly. He just hates to lose... he REALLY hates to lose.
We hung out with Kirby John Caldwell today. He's the pastor of Windsor Village UMC, the biggest church in the United Methodist Church which is located in one of the most economically deprived parts of Houston. Another amazing guy. Feels like each of us were put on this earth to add value to our community. Kirby John has done this in a multitude of ways. Now, his church is developing a huge parcel of property, and when I say "developing", I mean that they are building over 200 houses, a couple of stripmalls, a few schools, a functioning community development center that provides health care of all kinds and a plethora of other services too numerous to mention, and a new church building where 190,000 square feet are being built in the first of three phases. George Bush himself came to speak to the church because the housing development is the largest ever to be developed by a non-profit.
Did I happen to mention that everything in Houston is big?
I also went to UM church in Clearlake, which is one of the hundreds villages and or subdivisions in Houston, where we heard a pastor talk about what it was like to follow another pastor who had been de-frocked for a moral failure. As time passes by, I'm listening to this guy, and I'm thinking, "I've seen him before", which is crazy cause I've only been to Texas twice in my life, but I can't shake this nagging feeling that I've met him before. So I'm looking, and thinking, and looking, and thinking, and BAM... it hits me. About 12 or 13 years ago, I drove to Tyler, Texas with my wife to co-conduct a wedding for my friend Steve Skeels. I ended up doing it with a young guy who was the singles pastor at Marvin Memorial UMC of Tyler, and I remember him asking about the robe I was wearing, because I was like 24, and it had doctoral stripes on the sleeves (I had borrowed it from Joseph cause the bride asked me to wear a white robe.). All this to say the guy making the presentation, was that pastor. It only took me 2 hours to figure out.
Yes sir... I am swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool.
And finally, of all the stuff I heard today, and I heard some amazing stuff, the story I heard that touched me the most, was that of Becca Wilson, a wife of one of our Beeson Pastors. Becca earned a degree from Florida State University in Child Life Medical Specialist (this is my best guess at the title, which I can't quite remember). What is that? She counsels children who are in the hospital and facing either some form of surgery (major or minor) or treatment of a terminal disease. For 4 1/2 years at hospital in Pittsburgh, she worked with kids who were receiveing cancer treatment. She worked with them, and their parents... sometimes until the cancer was beaten into remission, and sometimes until the child died.
I asked her, how in the world a person gets into this kind of work. Why they would even want to get into this line of work? She explained that as a teenager, she had been invited to pray for a child with cancer, who after all the prayers had been prayed, still passed away. She said that initially it made her angry at God, effecting her in ways she could never imagine. But that as she thought about this, more and more, over more than a year, she began to wonder what God thought about all of this, and she reached the startling conclusion that in broken world where we are given the freedom to experience all that life has to offer, that God was every much as bit as grieved as the parents and loved ones who lost their baby. And further, she began to realize that in these situations the presence of God was exceptionally real, and that she could see the face of Jesus on every child she counseled. And even further, now as a UM-pastor's wife, how excited she was that she could use what she had learned, and her experience, in the context of ministry in the local church.
Have you ever felt like you were in the presence of someone that just really knew God? I've met lots of people, and they know God.... no questions asked. But Becca Wilson is right there with them... a woman who dreams of doing ministry with parents who have sick kids. If that ain't the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then I don't know what is.
All in all, a fabulous experience and every bit as much because of my colleagues and their amazing families, as to the "successful pastors" we meet. If to much is given, much is expected, then I have no idea the scope of what God is expecting of me at the end of this year for I am being given the greatest riches of the universe.
And now one quick personal note....
Without getting too specific, please pray for Aimee's mom, Carol Allen, her dad, Bryant, and the whole family who loves her. We are not receiving encouraging news from home... so much so that Aimee decided to return to Lima to be with her parents tomorrow. We need your prayers.