A Forest of Firmly Planted Trees
“Walking through God’s open doors, though it’s not always easy, does allow us to experience Him. Can you imagine if Paul and Silas would not have done what God had told them to do? The gospel has now spread to Europe. Lydia has placed her faith in Christ, and others have as well. This Philippian jailer has had an opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus. Paul not only says, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ that you shall be saved,” but he also actually goes to the man’s house and he is able to open up the Scripture and help them to see who God is and what he has done. And now this whole family has placed their faith in Jesus Christ because God was working through these believers who were willing to live pitching their tents and building altars.
You see, when you give your life to Jesus, you become a follower of His. And a follower of His means that you’re willing to do whatever He leads you to do regardless of what you think or what you want. It means that you spend your life building altars, not tents. You pitch your tent knowing that the things of this world are temporary, but the things of God are eternal. And you place those things as more important than anything else to you.”
This was the final point of Chip Stevens’ message the morning he announced that he would be going to FBC Jackson, in view of a call the following Sunday. I was sitting on the front row of the left-hand side of the sanctuary that morning when he announced it to the church. I heard the audible gasp from the congregation, and I felt the air get sucked out of the room as if a silent tornado had just passed over the building. I watched as hundreds of shocked faces left the sanctuary in utter disbelief. To the casual observer, I can see why one would question the dramatic reaction from the congregation. As a member of FBC Starkville, I clearly understood the depth of impact the announcement carried. For you see, the power behind the statement was that it meant we were about to lose our leader. We were about to lose the shepherd that had helped pull us out of the miry pit and lead us into a state of health.
Let’s back up 12 1/2 years. On July 6, 2006, Chip and his family came to FBC Starkville in view of a call. He preached on Psalm 1 and talked about how we, as members of FBC Starkville, needed to be firmly planted trees so that we could then teach others how to be firmly planted trees. Michael Ball was a member of the pastor search committee at that time, and this is what he had to say regarding Chip: “God made it clear to us that Chip was the man to lead FBC. It was through the prayers of our committee, prayers of the congregation, and God’s timing. There were many qualities about Chip that stood out to me as a member of the pastor search committee, but I especially appreciated his expository style of preaching. He helped open our eyes and hearts to the needs around us. It was also evident that his only agenda was to lead FBC in a way that honors the Lord.”
When asked what his first impression of FBC Starkville was, Chip stated, “The people were incredibly excited, and there was a good spirit among the congregation. It was evident that they were just ready to be led.” He went on to say, "Kermit McGregor’s impact here was obvious. You could see it.” (Dr. McGregor served at FBC as Transitional Pastor before Chip’s arrival.)
As Chip began ministering at FBC Starkville, the Lord began to move. Wounds began to heal. Lives began to change. New buildings were constructed. Old buildings were renovated. Ministries began to grow. The staff began to expand. The Lord began moving and working in and through the lives of the congregation. While there was a myriad of meaningful things that occurred during his time here, one of the most meaningful things that happened in ministry for Chip was watching the church (FBC) grow into a really good picture of the New Testament church. “That is just incredibly meaningful for me. Seeing people minister to each other, seeing people grow in their faith, seeing people get saved, seeing students who have come through here who are now serving in ministry. I love getting a phone call or an email from a former student who is now serving somewhere and asking questions about stuff. I love knowing that we have been able to play a little role in (their journey). Watching people that God has taken from here and sent to other places do great things is extremely meaningful. After 12 1/2 years, it never got old standing in that pulpit and looking out and seeing all of those students in the congregation.”
When asked what he wanted his legacy to be, Chip responded, “I always want to be loved and respected by my family. There’s a difference between being loved and respected. I want to be loved and respected by my family. I want to be faithful in preaching the Word. I want to help people see God’s incredible gift of the church, and I want to invest in and help shape future generations.”
I asked multiple members of the congregation what they thought Chip’s legacy at FBC would be, and while each of the responses was worded slightly different, they basically could all be summed up with the idea that he is a great man of God, who is obedient to the Word of God, and who preaches the Truth of God’s Word. Debi Wade explained, "When I think about how much Chip and his ministry have done for FBC, the thing I think I will remember the most is how he made every chapter of the Bible come alive and demonstrated how it was so practical for everyday living.”
It is no secret that Chip’s favorite book of the bible is Joshua. In one biblical commentary, Joshua is described in the following manner: “Joshua was a brilliant military leader and a strong spiritual influence. But the key to his success was his submission to God. When God spoke, Joshua listened and obeyed.” In his first sermon series as Senior Pastor of FBC Starkville, Chip preached the book of Joshua. Almost every week he would repeat the words, “God reveals himself; the people respond.” To further emphasize the point, he would demonstrate with his arm by making a half circle while repeating, “God reveals himself” and then complete the circle while repeating, “The people respond.” The irony is not lost on me that he began his tenure proclaiming, "God reveals himself, and the people respond,” and he closed out his tenure with the message of “Walking through God’s open doors,” yet another message of living in obedience and a practical application of responding to God’s revelation.
Chip has spent a lot of time investing in the lives of the members of our congregation over the last decade. He has taught us not only how to hear God speak, but also how to respond in obedience. He has taught us not only how to be a disciple of Christ, but also how to disciple others. He has taught us not only the importance of being firmly planted trees but also how to help others be firmly planted trees. So, it is no shock that his departing message to FBC Starkville is grounded in Scripture. The first thing out of his mouth when asked what he would say in response to FBC moving forward was, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6) He went on to say, “Never stop growing. By God’s grace, we made a lot of strides in the last 12 1/2 years — but there is so much more to do and there are so many more ways to grow. You just have to keep moving forward.” Furthermore, “Always remember that Jesus is the head of the church. All I’ve done is read to you what is in the book. Every time I stand up and preach, my goal is to be used of the Lord to clearly communicate the gospel and help you apply it—but, it’s also to help you fall in love with it for yourself and want to study and learn who God is for yourself. So, continue on that path and know that we have everything that we need (in the Word of God).”
I asked Chip what he was looking forward to with the opportunity to go to FBC Jackson, as my final question. His response, “Every decision you make for God is another opportunity to experience Him anew.” Though he did not intend these words to be a charge to us, I believe there is wisdom behind them and it would behoove us to remember them as we continue on our journey not only as a congregation but as individuals.
Personal Note Of Thanks
On a personal note, I want to thank you, Chips Stevens. I do not think it is too far-fetched to say that, like Joshua, the key to your success has been your submission to God. Thank you for setting such a wonderful example of submission. While no words seem to be adequate to thank you for all that you have done for our church and our community, please know that your 12 1/2 years at FBC Starkville were not in vain. As a result of your ministry, we give glory to God. For your generosity to us and to all believers prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ. May we pray for you with deep affection because of the overflowing grace God has given to you. We thank God for this gift too wonderful for words. (2 Corinthians 9:13-15) In addition, know that you will be missed. We will miss your laugh that cannot be replicated. We will miss you saying, “I love to hear those pages turning” after you have requested that we turn to a certain passage of Scripture. We will miss watching you throw the handkerchief out of the baptistry after each baptism. We will miss your opening joke at Lunch Break. And last but not least, we will miss your plethora of Henry Blackaby quotes. Yet, as we move forward in this transition, we will take our cue from you and stand as firmly planted trees so that when the next Senior Pastor of FBC Starkville arrives, he will say with confidence, “Chip Stevens’ impact here is obvious. I can see it.”