I resigned in December from my church, First Baptist Columbia, to return to my home state of Florida. God has burdened me with the vast lostness of South Florida, and impressed upon me a duty to be closer to my aging parents. I’m moving down to join a church planting movement in South Florida, and to shine my little Gospel light in that darkness.
This move brings to a close 17 years of ministry in Illinois – six-and-a-half years in Chicagoland, and eleven years in the Metro East. I leave behind a host of people at my church and throughout the state that I love and respect. As I leave Illinois, I see both a lingering challenge and a great hope.
The primary challenge I see is the same one the church faces everywhere: selfishness. On a personal level, a church level, and a denominational level, we must fight constantly the Satanic gravity of our own selfishness that wants to make our lives all about us, our churches all about us, and our denomination all about us. Jesus our Savior came not to be served, but to serve, and He calls us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow Him.
God formed a church to be a light to the world, for His glory. He has graciously allowed us to cooperate as a denomination to pool our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission, for His glory. So to the leaders in Illinois: Do not stop calling us outward, to the lost. Remember Luke 15, and the priority of God our Father: “…there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.”
This fight to keep our eyes outward is not in vain, because there are signs of hope everywhere. Here are three I see:
Planting churches. I learned during my time at Columbia that one key to a healthy church is a steady stream of new converts. Like families, which continue to exist only if new babies are regularly born into them, churches begin to die without new spiritual life, and denominations begin to die without new churches.
I’m encouraged that God is calling men and women to devote their lives to starting new churches, and that IBSA is giving great priority to new church starts all across the state. Even more, I’m encouraged that increasingly, established IBSA churches are beginning to discover the joy and adventure of partnering with, supporting and working alongside church plants for the advancement of the Gospel.
Thinking students. I began teaching high school students at IBSA’s Super Summer in the late 90s. Many of the students I had in the early years are now pastoring or leading in churches across our state. I have been consistently impressed with the quality of the students in Illinois. They are passionate about the Gospel, hungry to be taught, and eager to love God with their minds. If our churches fail to equip our students with a clear understanding of the Gospel and the intellectual tools to be apologists in a hostile culture, we are in deep, deep trouble. The good news is that when presented with the challenge, our students – our future leaders – consistently rise to it.
A saving God. The real reason I have hope for the Gospel in Illinois and in South Florida? God keeps saving people. In my Monday night men’s group in Columbia, God kept saving some of the most unlikely men. In my first Sunday at my new church in West Palm Beach, I met a woman who came to church without an invitation, just stirred by the Spirit, and not knowing why she was there. She came to faith that week.
Consider Jesus’ answer to the scribes in Mark 2:17 who asked why He was eating with unlikely dinner guests – sinners and tax collectors. “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do need one. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
No one is as passionate as our God to save sinners like us.
So to my colleagues in the Gospel across Illinois: Thank you for 17 years of friendship and love. Don’t lose heart. Let your light shine in the darkness. Keep speaking of Jesus. Keep fighting the good fight. Keep holding out the Gospel, because our God is willing and mighty to save.
Mark Warnock formerly served as associate pastor of First Baptist, Columbia.